With a teetering pile of unread and half-read books by the bed, and the nearly-completed dissertation lurking hungrily on my desk like a tiger that seemed so cute when I got it as a cub, I needed a break from words this weekend. Time to treat the old optic nerves to something a tad less alphabet-shaped. The universe obliged me, and served up a baby shower in an art-filled apartment with Hudson River views, a magical greenhouse, a museum date, and a fab new TV show.
The greenhouse was one that I've yearned to visit: it sits atop one of the buildings at Barnard College, just up the road. It was open to the public on Saturday as part of the excellent Open House New York, which flung open the doors of all sorts of places all over the city to curious peepers and inveterate apartment pervers like me. I'd love to have raced through the five boroughs checking out the apartments, lighthouses, cemeteries, water towers, and temples both Hindu and Masonic. But visiting the greenhouse was a treat. I could have spent hours ogling the fine subtropical specimens, especially the passionfruit, a much lustier specimen than the seedling on my windowsill, the ginger – who knew you could just plant ginger root? -- and the vanilla, a spectacular twisty vine that I might try to grow from a seed.
Then we snagged babysitting just in time to catch "The American Effect", a show that just finished at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and featured, somewhat paradoxically, only foreign artists. The idea was to see America from the outside and trace the shadow that "America" casts on the world mind. Naturally, all the pieces on show were warmly positive. My favourites: the soft-focus paintings of apple pies, the three-dimensional versions of Norman Rockwell's greatest hits, and the mixed media tributes to the mother of us all, Oprah Winfrey.
Not! Or as my viewing companion noted, "If you thought America was just dandy, why would you bother making art about it?" Besides, the ad biz takes care of all our needs in the glowing depiction department.
So the work on display at the Whitney was biting, sometimes trite, occasionally brilliant, and often hilariously funny – but always critical. Take the first thing that greets you as you walk in: a pinch-me-I'm-dreaming set of waxworks, depicting a room full of comic superheroes: Catwoman, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Mr Fantastic, and Wonder Woman. With a difference: Gilles Barbier's "Nursing Home (2002)" shows them all as they would be now, had they aged in real time. (For the moment, you can see a pic here.)
So a slumbering Catwoman, one slipper off, snoozes in an armchair while next to her the Hulk gazes vacantly at an old John Wayne movie on the TV. Captain America, grey-haired and bulkier around the middle than in his heyday, lies on a stretcher; a saggy Wonder Woman, salt and pepper streaking her once-lovely mane, checks his intravenous drip. Alone at a table, Mr Fantastic looks up from the Jackie Collins novel he's not really reading (Lethal Seduction). His rubbery arms and legs have lost their elasticity and dangle off the edge of his table. The whole tableau is a one-note joke, but a goodie; a neat reversal of the obsession with youth and power. Very funny, until you remember how many of Bush I's old guard are back in the throne room advising the new young king. To view age through pathos-coloured glasses, as Barbier's piece invites us to, might just be to underestimate the staying power of old codgers.
I haven't laughed as much in ages as I did at Bjorn Melhus's video piece "America Sells." A piece of accidental art captured on the fly and re-edited after the event, the seven minute video is a gloriously cruel record of a concert in Berlin Alexanderplatz by a bunch of spotty youths and braless girls in matching T-shirts that read "America Sings." These are really low-flying targets: the teenagers sing and dance their hearts out to inane lyrics ("America hopes, America dreams…") with expressions ranging from merely goofy to demonically possessed. "What the hell are they on?" you think to yourself, ducking instinctively as one of them nearly takes another's eye out with some truly frightening windmill-inspired choreography. The scariest answer of all is "Maybe nothing."
It helps to know that the concert took place on July 1, 1990, the day of German monetary reunification. With evangelical fervour, the leader of the group urges Germans to feel free to buy T-shirts, enunciating carefully "Cheap! They are cheap. Do you understand cheap?" while his words flash up on the screen. Feel Free. Cheap. Buy T-Shirts! Feel Free. The video itself is a cheap shot, of course; these kids no more represent America than, say, Paul Holmes represents New Zealand. Which is to say, enough that it matters. Melhus zooms in on one particularly ecstatic participant who flings herself around and literally screams herself silly singing the praises of America, while nonplussed East Germans look on in horror. Where is that big-haired girl now, and has she found a more supportive bra?
Other pieces that caught my eye: Makoto Aida's scandalously hostile "Picture of an Air Raid on New York City" won't win him a key to the city any time soon, but it is a perversely thrilling piece to look at. It's a re-imagined Muromachi-era screen, showing exactly what the title suggests: Japanese zeros bombing Manhattan, in a sort of visual tit-for-tat for the firebombings that killed more people in Tokyo than were killed in Hiroshima. Instead of the mother of pearl accents you'd find on a traditional screen, the planes are made of holographic paper, and they weave their way across the folded screen in traditionally sinuous waves, like the migrating geese that are on their way through New York this week. It's a formally lovely piece, but nasty. It predates September 11, but has drawn most of the flak directed at the exhibition (see comments on the Whitney website).
"Why it's time for Imperial, again" by Gerard Byrne has a great title, but works better in print than it did in person: Byrne's video dramatizes a dialogue between Frank Sinatra and Lee Iacocca that appeared in National Geographic in 1980, in which they ponderously discuss the merits of a particular car. Shrug. I'd have bought it on a T-shirt, though.
I liked Muhammad Imran Qureshi's miniatures, especially "God of Small Things," in which he had painted a camouflage-patterned sewing machine on top of an old paper pattern for an American-style overcoat, with instructions in Urdu. Also working on a small scale, Miguel Angel Rojas, a Colombian artist, created absolutely gorgeous and delicate collages composed entirely of tiny circles cut out of dollar bills and coca leaves. Given the materials, the colour palette of these little pictures was several shades of khaki – sense a theme yet?
Ousmane Sow, from Senegal, offered a life-size tableau showing the death of Custer. As remarkable as the figures themselves, which were constructed of pretty much everything (wire, wood, burlap), was the artist's biography. A physical therapist turned artist at the age of fifty, Sow works from the skeleton up, endowing his figures with organs and muscles before covering the lot with skin. This would account for the fabulous dynamism of the characters, especially a truly spectacular horse. The museum guide who was busy explaining the exhibits to a herd of sheepish Friday night cultural pilgrims made sure to draw the expected connection between Little Big Horn and Baghdad, but I'd have liked to hear more about the artist. Fascinating guy.
Wandering back downstairs through the museum's standard collection of American works, I found myself questioning the curatorial decision to show only overseas artists. It's a pretty meaningless distinction, given that a number of the artists upstairs had lived, worked, or exhibited in the States at some time. Besides, there are pieces in the permanent collection that would have fit right in, evoking self-consciously American effects of their own. Jasper Johns' thickly painted triple American flag, all creamy icing and overstatement. Marisol's strangely charming ensemble Three Women and a Dog, with the multi-faced women made of wooden blocks and the dog – a taxidermized terrier head on a wooden body -- looking a lot perkier than it had any right to. Lisa Yuskavage's luridly cartoonish T&A paintings, evoking a nation of women indistinguishable from double-dipped ice-cream cones. Whitfield Lowell's piece Shine, a charcoal drawing on boards of shoeshine "boys" in their best clothes, hats on at a rakish angle: fixed to boxes in front of them, iron shoe stands, momentarily unrecognizable. Tools? Instruments? Shackles? And Elsworth Kelly's famous "Red Green Blue" paintings – formal colour fields, yes, but also the primary colours of the cathode ray tube. You know, TV.
Speaking of TV, I have to beg to differ with the Herald reviewer who hated Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I caught my first episode over the weekend and I loved it. (It's been on cable over here till now; lucky old New Zealand is getting these shows free to air). But then I'm a sucker for makeover shows anyway, even the ghastly Stepford-style plastic surgery ones in which people appear to have had their brains suctioned as well as their waistlines (what the heck, while you're unconscious anyway...).
All makeovers are emotionally manipulative fantasies of instant salvation. But this one was genuinely affecting in a new way -- watching a repressed, depressed, hide-bound sad-sack of a straight chap softening and melting under the avalanche of brotherly love was a revelation. Under that muscled, inarticulate exterior was a little boy who just wanted to be loved and fussed over by someone other than his overly invested mother or a demanding lady friend. If you're not yourself a homosexual, or you lack a gay best friend, you'll feel awfully lonely after watching this show, which in a roundabout way can only be a good thing for gay rights in America.
It's like a hidden camera on a slumber party but with all the girls played by boys. The lads tumble into their subject's life like puppies, do their magic, and repair to the sidelines to watch their newly coiffed and freshly dressed Cinderfeller entertain friends in his newly gorgeous pad. Lest you think the fab five have had all of their claws removed, they then go on to deliver a tart but loving commentary on the poor wee lad's fledgling attempts to be fabulous all by himself.
Not since the time I watched an all-day Ground Force marathon on BBCAmerica have I seen someone so humble be so elevated by nothing more than elbow grease, gentle attention to detail, and a smattering of homoerotic banter. The subject of the episode I watched was visibly relaxed and encouraged by his crash course in suaveness; he stood a little straighter and looked people in the eye.
Yep, what the world needs now is love, sweet love, an unlimited budget and a decent haircut. Much better than plastic surgery. And I'm thinking of spin-offs already... say, Rich Democratic Eye for the Poor Oppressed Country? It might work. If it was done properly.