Flash Art, Vol. XXXIX July - September 2006
EXTRAORDINARY RENDITION: ON THE INSTITUTIONAL KIDNAPPING OF CADY NOLAND AND DAVID HAMMONS
By Aaron Moulton
This spring, the alternative space Triple Candie in Harlem created two exhibitions about the artists David Hammons and Cady Noland, two legendarily reclusive yet highly influential figures from recent art history. None of these shows contained any original work or were done through any dialogue with the artists. "David Hammons: The Unauthorized Retrospective" received numerous reviews, mostly positive, and "Cady Noland Approximately," on the other hand, was met with polarized sentiments. Ken Johnson of the New York Times declared their program, as a result of these shows, to be "confused, confusing, and duplicitous." This interview with Triple Candie directors Peter Nesbitt [sic] and Shelly Bancroft elaborates on their position behind making these shows and, in effect, outlines ideological and ethical codes for institutional license and responsibility while revisiting in a fresh light older subjects of authorship and objecthood.
Aaron Moulton: Why make exhibitions of work by artists who have actively or passively prevented them from happening?
Triple Candie: To give the public access to it. Our stance is educational, first and foremost, and we feel that Hammons' and Noland's work is really important, especially at this moment in time. They have had an enormous influence on artists in their thirties and early forties. At the same time, their work remains frustratingly elusive. Many artists in their twenties don't know their work at all., especially Noland's, but when the see it for the first time, there is a sense of deja vu. Almost immediately the understand it as a precedent for their own work.
Aaron Moulton: There are interesting implications when an institution makes such a gesture, as opposed to an artist, in terms of the way you are side-stepping the institutional protocol, but also as an extension of institutional license. Have you as a nonprofit rationalized this situation?
Triple Candie: Alternative spaces should operate in a way that challenges the status quo. When we started, we didn't consider Triple Candie an alternative space. What made us different was our location in Harlem and the fact that we showed the work of artists from diverse backgrounds. And while this was important, we began to realize that for us this wasn't enough. Nonprofit alternative spaces in New York offer little that is alternative and most function like extensions of the gallery system. White Columns and Artists Space, for instance, have both abandoned their original purposes and their programming is indistinguishable from that of commercial galleries. Where is the alternative movement? We began to care about that, and became increasingly interested in challenging the 'system' through unconventional shows that unsettled basic assumptions about art and its relationship to the market and to the public. We felt that in order to be relevant, we needed to confront the ideology of the institution. And because the mythology of the artist is so central to that system, it made senseto start there.
Aaron Moulton: Both of these shows are realized with approximations of each artist's art, the Noland show being a bit more exact than the Hammons' show, but both include an interpretation of the artists' works and are not the faithful 'exhibition copies' typical of museums. You are obviously not selling it as the original but you are violating some sacred and possibly outdated notion of how original artworks are meant to be experienced. What do you feel this type of homage does to the understanding of the original work?
Triple Candie: We curated these shows precisely because most people don't have the opportunity to see the actual art. The exhibitions are meant to both fuel your desire and crush your hopes simultaneously. Actually, whther or not the Noland show is more exact is an open question. In the Hammons retrospective, the experience of looking at the images in the reproductions was an experiences of looking at the real thing. The images were second-generation photographs of the originals, so although they were degenerated -- many were postage--stamp size or fuzzy -- you always felt that you were looking at Hammons' work and aware of having a mediated experience. The visitor was asked to accept the limitations of the viewing experience in exchange for the rare opportunity to 'see' -- and better understand -- a grand sweep of the artist's work. The Noland survey was quite different; it was almost the reverse experience. The objects themselves were very present, one related to them as sculptures occupying real space. And though at first the show evoked the idea of a survey of Noland's work, anyone with a first-hand knowledge of the subject would quickly realize that these were no replicas. The scale was off and certain pieces were incomplete. Most of the differences between the objects in the show and Noland's original sculptures resulted from practical limitations, which we embraced whole-heartedly. These included an inability to source certain parts or materials; ack of information about scale, color, or materials; and a limited budget. On the checklist, we included information about what substitutions or alterations we made. But we went to great lengths to make the objects feel finished. So, in effect, they were more believable as "artworks" than the Hammons' reproductions. But they misrepresented the originals to a greater degree.
We realize that with these exhibitions we are toying with a conventional notice of the artist that remains deeply ingrained in our culture -- and in the minds of many artists -- who want to hold onto the idea of the artist as 'untouchable' and 'sacred'. These two artists are particularly untouchable because of what they represent. So making them the subjects of these exhibitions applifies the issue.
And because most people haven't seen the work in real life, other types of mythologies around the work itself have also been created and perhaps distorted.
Aaron Moulton: What ethical implications are there in challenging an artist's ownership or right to control his or her own career?
Triple Candie: We feel an ethical responsibility to show the artwork of artists who have been and remain influential but whose work has become hard to come by. Both Hammons and Noland make work with liberal, social content. It is art 'from' or 'of' the people. And when it is inaccessible, how does it serve a purpose, social or otherwise?
Neither exhibition directly challenged the artists' ownership of their work or career because we didn't include actual artwork. But the exhibitions did challenge the way the artists can control how their work is experienced. We feel that artists who make discreet objects for the marketplace abdigate their control over those objects once they leave the studio. Shouldn't collectors, many of whom have owned the work for years, have the right to make their own decisions regarding where and when their objects are exhibited? Hammons doesn't allow museums to lend objects they purchased from him, which means that museums that want to exhibit his work but don't own it have to buy it. In some ways, it is a rather brilliant move on the artist's part. But for those who believe that museums act in the public trust, is deeply problematic.
One question for us is when does an individual artist's rights trump those of the public? Shouldn't there be some consideration of the art-interested public in all this? After all, the making of an artist's career is a collaborative process; artists are part of a larger ecosystem that includes other artists, critics, curators, dealers, collectors, historians, arts administrators, the list goes on and on. The myth of the artist as autonomous, self-defining, and morally superior is a tired and dangerous one. Perhaps it is time to ask not only what is the responsibility of the institution but also the responsibility of artists to the public.
Aaron Moulton: In the Noland exhibition, two of the four artists/producers are listed anonymously. Why do you feel they chose to remain anonymous?
Triple Candie: We don't think of the participanting artists as producers, more as collaborators who define themselves as artists. When we started the project, it was just assumed that all four artists would be listed by name, like any other exhibition. Later, after a series of intense discussions, two of the artists changed their minds and decided to be anonymous, not because they had moral or ethical issues but because they were worried that any adverse reaction from the press or public might negatively affect their careers. We didn't agree with this decision, but we accepted it. It was a reminder to us, however, that despite the outlaw mythology of the 'artist, 'most, like people in general, don't like stepping out of what is acceptable, and are uncomfortable dealing with the unforseen consequences of unusual actions.
Aaron Moulton: What happened to the objects after the show?
Triple Candie: They were all thrown out or destroyed, much as we have destroyed work after other shows. We had an extended discussion about this. We were all in agreement from the start that the objects were collaboratively authorized and couldn't belong to any one person. But artists get very attached the objects they make. So for two of the participants, the idea of trashing the objects was bittersweet.
Aaron Moulton: Your actions have been described by the New York Times as a some kind of conceptual art project. What do you consider these objects to be and what is your feeling about that interpretation?
Triple Candie: We don't consider the objects in either of these shows to be art -- we view them as ephemera. Nor do we think of ourselves as artist, though we are creative people, and art historians. Some people -- mostly artists -- say that we are "curators wanting to be artists." We see it more like: we are people who curate on different terms. Why should we have limits? You would think that artists would understand that. We are interested in an entrepreneurial model in which the roles of the curator, the producer, the editor, the critic, and the artist are conflated. Artists who are critical of this have a very proprietary relationship to creativity. And critics who have a hard time with this are, perhaps unconsciously, protecting that position.
Aaron Moulton: Have you had any response from Hammons or Noland, and what have been the most extreme reactions from the public?
Triple Candie: No, we haven't had any contact with either of the artists. Some have said the shows are unethical, while others think of them as historic, signaling a paradigm shift in curatorial practice. We'll be pleased if either of these shows refocuses the spotlight on either of these artists. The Hammons show stimulated a lot of discussion and got a lot of press, not just for Triple Candie but also for Hammons. One person close to him said that the show probably produced the most and the best press Hammons have ever received. We hope the Noland show does the same, mostly because her legacy seems to be slipping away.
Aaron Moulton: In what way do you see this tactic developing?
Triple Candie: We want to continue with these types of shows, but have yet to develop an overarching strategy for their implementation. With our Anonymous Artists Projects in the summers of 2004 and 2005, we were already heading down this path by removing the identity of the artist. In those two projects, the names, gender, race, age, and experience of those artists wasn't revealed to the public. Nor will they ever be. Yet if the names of the artists were revealed, most people would recognize them. For arts professionals who saw the shows, the experience was disarming. Even though we look at work all the time without necessarily knowing the identity of an artist, the information is always there for us to access if we choose, and it is generally used in the interpretation and judgment of the work. A prominent international curator who saw the second Anonymous Artists Project said the artist was either brilliant or terrible, but without knowing anything about her or his background, he couldn't tell which. What binds the Anonymous Artist Projects to the Hammons and Nolands exhibitions is that they are all, in different ways, exhibitions without artists.