'IF LOVE COULD HAVE SAVED YOU, YOU WOULD HAVE LIVED FOREVER'
Curated by Becky Smith
, Tammy Rae, Carland,
Joss paper effigies,
Victorian hair wreaths,
Marc Swanson & Joe Mama-Nitzberg,
Tanyth Berkeley & Todd Chandler
134 Tenth Avenue
New York City
212 929 5959
July 10 to August 8, 2008
By COLLEEN ASPER
anonymous photograph from tombstone promotional literature, collection Becky Smith
If love finds its most ready representation in pop songs, memento mori and vanitas still life painting make the argument that art's responsibility is to death. That the populist appeal of a popular song would draw on sentimentality's most frequently invoked sentiment is as par for the course as the fleeting nature of most pop songs. Art bears the weight of greater claims: not only of permanence, but also of purpose. Like the bastard twin of metaphysics, we want art to tell us the meaning of it all. By abandoning such cumbersome notions as universality and monumentality, much contemporary art hopes to shirk this burden; it accounts for failure, acknowledges futility, and welcomes temporality. The opposing impulse to preserve and even immortalize could provide one polarity to this attitude, but the history of memento mori and vanitas - in which representation is always coupled with reminders of loss - shows us that when work makes death its overt subject, preservation is just another way of acknowledging transience.
Bellwether Gallery's If Love Could Have Saved You, You Would Have Lived Forever brings together a collection of objects that address mourning. By pairing the work of contemporary artists with traditional representations of the material culture surrounding death that are not typically contextualized as art, curator Becky Smith demonstrates how the desire to commemorate runs across the impulse to make both art and non-art objects. The best works in the show deal with this impulse directly by revealing the slippery nature between physicality and remembrance.
In the gallery's front room, one wall gives way to a display of Joss paper effigies that are part of a tradition in Chinese Taoist funerals in which paper replicas of objects are burned as a gift for departed loved ones. The effigies on display at Bellwether betray the influence of contemporary Western pop culture and range from Louis Vuitton wallets to beer. Not unlike Kirsten Hassenfeld's ephemeral sculptures of luxury items, the paper effigies of a laptop or microwave are absurd because they are meticulously crafted of flimsy materials completely incongruous with the original object's function. Others, like a life-sized umbrella that opens and closes, are absurd because of how little distinction there is between the representation and the actual object. In both instances this absurdity makes them covetous and we desire these bright and shiny simulations precisely because they are not real. Made to burn, they accelerate the planned obsolescence of the consumer objects they parody.
Patricia Cronin Memorial to a Mariage 2004
bronze, 17 x 26-1/2 x 53 inches, edition of 3
Courtesy Bellwether Gallery
Across the room is a work that references another tradition in funerary sculptures and serves as the Joss paper effigies material opposite: Patricia Cronin's Memorial to a Marriage. A depiction of the artist and her partner Deborah Kass embracing in bed, this bronze serves as a double to the grave marker Cronin created to adorn the plot at Woodlawn Cemetery reserved for the couple. This piece is at once time-based - its meaning is bound to its performative function and the portentous resonance it now possesses differs from the finality it will have when both artists are buried underneath - and eternal, the couple is pictured in an idealized moment that fixes them at a certain time in their lives, forever transgressing and transcending the sexual politics of that time.
Memorials to specific people known and imagined run throughout the exhibition. Marc Swanson and Joe Mama-Nitzberg's sexy photos of floral arrangements designed in memory of the likes of Darby Crash and Anna Nicole Smith give way to Tanyth Berkeley and Todd Chandler's video commemoration of their friend Brad Will (an anarchist and documentary filmmaker who was shot and killed during a teacher’s strike in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2006) and Vanessa Albury’s single-slide projection of a still image taken at her grandmother’s funeral. Visual rituals of grief to unknown subjects are displayed in a grouping of Victorian hair wreaths and Rob Hauschild's disposable-camera snapshots of roadside memorials.
A fitting endnote for a show about demise is Becky Smith's collection of the photographs of blank grave markers used to sell headstones. The graves are pictured in idyllic manicured lawns peppered with flowering trees, many of which are clearly painted backdrops. Unnamed, these newborn gravestones wait hopefully for their prospective owners, eerily like orphaned children. Despite their romantic backdrops, they resemble nothing so much as minimalist monoliths. And yet, like many contemporary re-workings of modernist forms, they account for failure, acknowledge futility, and welcome temporality.