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Dan Graham – Beyond at MOCA – Attended this opening, which had the character of “Disneyland for the overeducated” (I can only take partial credit for that one). The better half of Sonic Youth performed, and made us all feel smart, and I was not infuriated by MOCA’s insistence on having cash bars at their events, for once. Plenty to do at the Graham show, but there was even more to rub your chin about. This is good, because MOCA gets a lot of my time anyways. I have just returned from there, in fact, and begun the process of dialing in to what is presented in the show, and there is a lot.
I was originally only familiar with Graham from his performance work, and its video documentation, which I approved of wholeheartedly. The show at MOCA lets you in on all of his conceptual strategies, which at first seem pretty representative of much of the output of conceptual artists of the 1970’s. A deeper investment reveals Graham using these tactics in unexpectedly satisfying ways. A turn off for many about art like this is the ‘lack’ of visual aesthetic that greets viewers upon seeing it. Christopher Knight waxes eloquently about how the shows lack of color is meant literally, and not as a criticism of its variety. I would argue that there is indeed a visual aesthetic to Graham’s work, albeit one that occurs as a byproduct of what is presented as opposed to a conscious factor ahead of time. Any true fan of more conceptual art (myself included) knows enough to know that nothing visual is not designed; only that some designs are in such service to the ideas they are presenting that they call little attention to themselves formally.
Once past that, Graham’s interest in making the viewer more aware of their own viewing and being viewed hits it’s mark in both literal and figurative ways. His glass and mirror structures heighten one’s awareness of the contradictory and arbitrary nature of some basic architectural ideas, while highlighting the self-consciousness of one’s own presence in the presence of others. For example, to be in the self-enclosed spaces of one of Graham’s structures is to be able to see out knowing others can’t see in, while at the same time seeing one’s own reflection, and often seeing reflections of reflections as well as seeing out. Architecture in general is the arbitrary carving out of a chunk of space (and time) to get shit done; a metaphor for the finite in an infinite space. Yet, in contradiction to that, windows offer framed (painterly?) examples of this space, and in an ever spiraling evolution of contradiction, glass windows create barriers that can’t be seen to this space, and then shades and curtains bring us back to completely enclosed spaces. Graham so simply and eloquently relays to viewers our conflicted views of wanting to be in the world and out of it, to see and not be seen, to stand outside and to be within. He uses these same strategies and motifs in his videos, performance pieces, and films to great effect – forcing viewers to be viewed, and vice-versa. This investigation into phenomenological awkwardness is there in almost all the work, expanding into ruminations about suburbia, magazine layouts, and art writing.
I’ve only really chewed on and digested half of what the show offers; several return trips are in order. I haven’t even started to talk about his use of nude performers in works, or some of his writing (Schema for Poems is awesome). Maybe another blog post. Lucky you.