On Second Thought by Kerr Houston

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$Art$: Artists Unite, A Call for Sanity by Cara Ober

Sometimes you stroll through a show, walk out the door – and never look back. Even enjoyable shows occasionally leave no lasting trace; they make no claim on you. In other cases, though, the art can linger, drawing you into a sustained conversation, forcing you to revisit your initial reactions. And, in the process, those reactions may be confirmed, or refined – or even flatly overturned.

None of this is news, of course. In 1757, David Hume remarked on the way in which our immediate reactions to works of art often give way to more deliberate and substantive judgment. “There is a flutter or hurry of thought,” wrote Hume, “which attends the first perusal of any piece.” In order to form a mature response, though, he argued that we have to consider the piece over time, in different lights. After all, Hume contended, “there is a species of beauty, which, as it is florid and superficial, pleases at first” – but soon enough palls, and ultimately strikes us as inferior to the value of artworks that reward sustained consideration. Most art, that is, offers something. But rare are those works that manage to give in a sustained and layered manner.


Over long periods of time, to be sure, our reactions to a work of art are virtually bound to evolve. Indeed, Hume shrewdly observed that our favorite authors often change as we age: a man of twenty may appreciate the amorous passion of Ovid, while a man of forty might prefer the weightier morality of Horace. But perhaps more interesting than these glacial shifts in taste are those cases in which an initial confusion or perplexedness rather quickly gives way to something more concrete. The L.A.-based artist Ed Ruscha once said that “Good art should elicit a response of ‘Huh? Wow!’ as opposed to ‘Wow! Huh?’” The phrasing isn’t as elegant as Hume’s, but the point is a fair one: art that initially stumps us and only later amazes us can feel more rewarding in the long term than art whose appeal derives primarily from shock or surface. Damien Hirst’s infamous For the Love of God may impress, initially, in its pure profligacy: no doubt about it, the more than 8,600 diamonds can take one’s breath away. But even Hirst has argued that true greatness depends on something deeper or more irreducible. In speaking of Michael Craig-Martin’s iconic An Oak Tree, a visually understated installation that dates to 1973, Hirst once contended that “That piece is, I think, the greatest piece of conceptual sculpture. I still can’t get it out of my mind.”

I still can’t get it out of my mind: it’s not a bad criterion in discussing art, if you think about it. Think of Leo Steinberg, for whom the seeming persistence of Jasper Johns’ enigmatic work was a sign of its value. Initially, Steinberg disliked Johns’ work (as he recalled in his seminal 1962 essay “Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public”), and wanted badly to simply dismiss it as boring. Nevertheless, “the pictures remained with me – working on me and depressing me… The pictures, then, kept me pondering, and I kept going back to them. And gradually something came through to me: a solitude more intense than anything I had seen in pictures of mere desolation.” Thoughts gave way to thoughts, and soon he found himself defending Johns’ paintings, precisely because they had kept him pondering. We can remember, then, both missteps and sublime gestures. But revelations that follow a good deal of head-scratching can be especially memorable.


These are the sorts of thoughts that have been occupying me since returning from the 2013 Carnegie International three weeks ago. The show, as I wrote shortly after seeing it, is a rewarding one: it’s globally savvy, and features an appealing tendency towards self-criticism. Since returning to Baltimore, though, I’ve found that the things that interest me most about the show have already begun to shift. While in Pittsburgh, for instance, I was intrigued by He An’s pilfered, repurposed neon signs – but I can’t say that I’ve thought very frequently about them since returning home. On the other hand, Taryn Simon’s Birds of the West Indies, a sleek archive of photographs of the women, weapons and cars featured in the James Bond franchise, continues to open up in various intriguing directions; a compressed taxonomy of male desire and surrogate agency, it is also a revealing history of a filmic world that seems to fetishize both stasis and modernity. I wish, in retrospect, that I had granted it a space in my previous review.

Two other pieces that I saw in Pittsburgh, though, have proven even more intractable – or, in Steinberg’s terms, have remained with me even more fully. Importantly, too, they’ve done so for different reasons. The first, Florentijn Hofman’s Rubber Duck, is a seemingly simple object – an oversized inflated yellow rubber duck that floats, for now, in the waters of the Allegheny. Its form is so recognizable, and its central premise – extreme magnification – so obvious that it seems, at first, to have little to offer. Huh?, we think, like Ruscha – and we take a photo, and walk on. But as we walk, we find ourselves looking back, and still thinking about it. And, slowly, an apparently obvious object begins to feel richly deeper.

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Hofman has spoken of the duck primarily in terms of transcendence and healing. The piece has been shown, now, in more than ten cities (including Baku and Sydney; Pittsburgh marked its first North American stop), and Hofman’s website brightly announces that the duck knows no frontiers, and even claims that it “can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them.” Well, maybe. It is true that the duck has the galvanizing effect of altering one’s very sense of the scale of the world: used, as we are, to seeing such toys in bathtubs, it was hard to avoid thinking, suddenly, of the Allegheny River as a mere oversized vessel. The sheer scale of the duck (16 meters by 14 meters), that is, converts the entire world into an arena tinged with memories of childhood and the possibility of play.

In the days after seeing the piece, though, I found myself thinking less about global unity and more about a range of oblique material, formal, and thematic relationships. Most obviously, perhaps, the duck evokes a line of comparably monumental enlargements of cultural icons: Claes Oldenburg’s gargantuan hamburgers, say, or Charles Ray’s looming mannequins. But where those earlier works used distortion to create the possibility of social critique, Hofman’s piece reads as more earnestly celebratory, or innocent. It feels closer in spirit, in this sense, to a piece like Jeff Koons’ 1992 Puppy. Given the abstraction and clean lines of the standard toy rubber duck, its enlarged cousin is hardly ominous; instead, it bobs gently in the water, as flocks of real ducks peacefully congregate in its shadow. Some of our habits, magnified, appear awful; the rubber duck, magnified, seems merely to spark larger smiles.

Another contrast can help, I think, to throw this into higher relief. Anyone who spent some time in Venice this summer was likely struck by the duck’s basic similarity to Marc Quinn’s inflated monumental image of the pregnant amputee Alison Lapper. In both instances, the pneumatic giants occupied prominent positions; Quinn’s piece, near the water’s edge on San Giorgio Maggiore, stared across the Bacino towards San Marco, while Hofman’s is moored across the water from Pittsburgh’s two downtown stadiums. Again, though, the duck resisted easy analogy. Quinn’s piece was largely discussed in terms of commemoration and a desire to revisit the conventional standards of heroism. The duck, on the other hand, was both monument and functional toy: critically, it floated. It was not merely full of air, in other words; it was necessarily full of air.

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Or we could word that slightly differently. Just over forty years ago, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown published Learning from Las Vegas, an instant classic in the field of architectural theory and an important moment in postmodern theory. At one point in the book, they famously contrasted what they called ducks with what they termed decorated sheds. Decorated sheds, they wrote, are conventional structures that feature applied symbolism. Ducks, on the other hand (and here they were thinking of a roadside poultry stand in Long Island that was built in the shape of a duck) involved the imposition of a symbolic form upon the space and structure of the building. A duck, that is, embodied the very idea that it was attempting to convey, while a decorated shed relied instead upon more superficial ornament. And a few meaningful structures in the history of building managed to have it both ways: the cathedral of Chartres, Venturi and Scott Brown held, was both a duck (for its ground plan described a cross) and a decorated shed (as it was covered in sculptures). Similarly, I would suggest, Hofman’s duck is both duck and decorated shed. Its form articulates its referent, and yet its scale simultaneously acts as a signifier, letting us know that this is something other than a mere toy. Rubber Duck is both a duck and something more, or less.


Books and magazines, like Hofman’s duck, can also cross frontiers – but, sadly, a second piece currently on view in Pittsburgh takes little advantage of such a fact. I’m thinking here of The Bidoun Library, a mobile collection of printed works that refer to, depict, or embody the Middle East in a variety of ways. Assembled by the editors of Bidoun, an important journal, the library has traveled widely in recent years, although its stops tend to be more conventionally art-centered than those of the duck: recent ports of call have included Stockholm, London, New York, and Beirut. And now the library has found a place in the Carnegie International.

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In Pittsburgh, several hundred books, comics, magazines, and T-shirts neatly rest on the ledges of three large transparent bookshelves, which are placed in an open triangular format. Signs invite us to pick up and peruse the objects – which, we are told, “were carefully selected with no regard for taste or quality.” During my visits, though, few museumgoers obliged; a few ambled by, gazing at the objects, but handling them only tentatively, and cursorily. But perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise. After all, the crisp geometric installation, and the curators’ coy insistence that the works had been selected carefully, hardly encouraged hands-on involvement. And neither, for that matter, did the see-through shelves or the very placement of the library, near the center of the Carnegie’s court: in looking at the library, one felt simultaneously looked at. Would we flip through the pages of a graphic novel, or not? The scopic economy of the space made that question feel as pressing as any investigation of the representation of the Middle East.

Or one could think categorically. In a sense, the Bidoun Library belongs to a swelling class of instances that seem to equate reading rooms with contemporary artistic practice. Indeed, fans of contemporary art were asked to do a lot of reading this summer. The Iraqi pavilion at the Venice Biennale, for instance, presented the visitor with a range of relatively conventional artworks – and with dozens of volumes on the history and culture of Iraq. Casually laid on tea tables and aging bookshelves, the books held a certain warm charm, but the idea that anyone would actually open more than one of them seemed highly unlikely. Instead, the value of the library seemed abstract, or conceptual; the scattered volumes acted as an implicit demonstration of the complexity of Iraq. No need, in other words, to read – for the books were mere signs. Rather similarly, the reading room in Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument (which occupied the courtyard of a housing project in the Bronx this summer) offered dozens of volumes by, and about, the Italian Marxist. Some of them even had a touchingly dog-eared aspect to them. But one quickly got the sense that such wear and tear wasn’t the result of recent inspection, for the reading room tended to be deserted, while local kids swarmed into other nearby spaces to engage in the less heady pursuits of online video games and collage. And so Hirschhorn’s reading room, too, felt like a sign, as much as a sincere invitation to read. It was a statement of respect, or allegiance: a monument.

But at least Hirschhorn offered us comfortable sofas, on which we could lounge if we did decide to read. The Bidoun Library is less generous in this sense: we are granted two rigid benches, on which we can perch. If, that is, we’re not stretching – for some of the items are in fact displayed well above eye level. And as we reach, awkwardly, for those elevated objects, we might well recall the words of the wine distributor Kermit Lynch, on unwieldy wine lists: “I can tell you,” Lynch recently volunteered, “what makes me unhappy is when it weighs 40 pounds. I just don’t get that. Make the selection for us.” Again, the designers of the Bidoun library insist that their examples were selected with care. But somehow we seem to end up doing a lot of work, both physical and conceptual. And to what end, exactly? The basic idea embodied by this library – that the Middle East is a concept, manifested in a variety of discursive forms – has been familiar to us since the 1978 publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism. In a sense, then, the items didn’t even need to be selected with care. They are merely new illustrations of a canonical concept.

Perhaps, though, the library should be considered formally, instead of conceptually? Its inclusion in the Carnegie International implies as much: this library, we gather, is an artwork. If there was a meaningful formal significance to the Bidoun Library, though, it was lost on me. We might try, I suppose, to think about the geometric clarity of the piece, or its triangular symbolisms – but in fact the library has been installed in radically different formats in each of its iterations. The specific form, in other words, doesn’t seem to be particularly salient. And the form that it does take, in Pittsburgh, feels almost random. For instance, in its large scale and sharp triangularity, the piece loosely recalls Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, an icon of 1970s feminist art. But to what ends? Chicago’s piece represented an optimistic attempt to write women back into history. The Bidoun Library, on the other hand, feels like the first step in an attempt to critique visual culture. As a result, the visual echo is merely arbitrary, or coincidental; it means little.

Admittedly, crafting variations on Chicago’s work, or Said’s ideas, is hardly sinful. But this library finally left me feeling, a couple of weeks later, rather as Peter Schjeldahl felt about Magritte’s The Treachery of Images: that it’s a brittle sort of work. “Once you get the point,” argued Schjeldahl, “you’re pretty much reduced to whatever joy there is in feeling superior to people who don’t get it.” Exactly: and once you understand that the Middle East (like any concept) is defined by tens of thousands of local iterations, you can casually wave goodbye to this piece as it is shunted off to another city – where it will, I suppose, assume yet another form.


Two works, then, and both of them rooted in mass culture: racks of books and magazines, and an oversized rubber duck. And yet what different after-images they produce. The library, three weeks later, feels both preachy and yet unwilling to articulate a specific message, or idea. It delights in the activities of curating, while also demanding, through its placement, that it be considered an artwork in its own right. It has done the easy work of assemblage, but wants us to do the all of the hard work of analysis. It’s an example of an impoverished branch of work that refers, superficially and tenuously, to traditions associated with installation art and relational aesthetics without evoking their more dynamic or productive aspects. Simply providing a full tea service and calling it art is no longer a radical gesture; neither, by the same token, is the construction of a small, largely arbitrary library.

The duck, on the other hand, evades empty repetition and latent cynicism and embraces, instead, sincerity. It is an open celebration, rather than a murky, unbaked condemnation. It visibly fosters community. Admittedly, it too draws on art historical precedents – but it also declares its independence from them. And, moored far from any museum of art, it largely sheds the discursive layers of the institution. Call it art, sure – but note, too, that it floats. It thus belongs comfortably, in short, to two species – it is both artwork and toy – even as it challenges our understanding of those categories. We want to touch it, even as we accept that we cannot – whereas, with Bidoun’s library, we understand that we can touch it, and yet move on.

In an interview given years ago, Robert Venturi shied away from flatly condemning ducks, or from endorsing decorated sheds. “We are not saying,” he noted, “that one is better than the other. We are saying that ‘decorated shed is probably more appropriate today.’” Appropriate today: the phrase is a beguiling, and relative, one, and opens onto any number of further complexities. What may have been appropriate in 1972, of course, may no longer seem so. And yet, such an mode of thinking still felt relevant as one moved through Pittsburgh in early October. While the Bidoun Library attracted, in all of its arch seriousness, few readers, Hofman’s duck drew a steady stream of walkers, cyclists, and onlookers. One piece, to put it bluntly, felt more appropriate today. Now, once more we might want to heed Hume, who pointed out that our immediate reactions are not always very revealing when it comes to the evaluation of art. “Prejudices,” he observed, “may prevail for a time.” With the passage of time, however, ideas evolve, develop, and coalesce. An initial Huh? sometimes gives way to Wow!, and we keep pondering. And as we think through what we have seen, we begin to sense the distinct difference between that art that is, in Hume’s words, florid and superficial, and that art that continues to give, over time.

*Author Kerr Houston teaches art history and art criticism at MICA; he is also the author of An Introduction to Art Criticism (Pearson, 2013) and recent essays on Wafaa Bilal, Emily Jacir, and Candice Breitz.

** Photos courtesy of Kerr Houston (duck), the Carnegie International Website (library), and Learning from Las Vegas (drawing).

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