Tuesday, July 28, 2015

You Had To Be There?

Full installation view, "Return to Problem," 2015
Image courtesy Reena Spaulings Gallery, New York

Exhibition review

ED LEHAN, “Return to Problem”
May 17 - June 14, 2015
New York

Ed Lehan’s “Return to Problem” exhibition at Reena Spaulings has ended, which makes this writing timely. For most of the show’s run, words were required to access its primary focus: opening night. 

Lehan created an installation: a dropped acoustic-tile ceiling over most of the exhibition space, and his carefully scrawled word “experiencer” on one wall. During the opening, he served mojitos from industrial buckets on the gallery’s already raised wooden floor. After opening night, visitors encountered just the leftover, off-Minimalist stage set. The air was lightly scented by undrunk mojitos, prompting the question: what happened at the reception?

Mostly the usual: talking and drinking. The show’s economic critique – no framed works to buy! – was conventional; the Relational Aesthetics dynamic was familiar. But Lehan’s mojito fest closely resembled Rikrit Tiravanija’s Thai feasts. It also recreated Lehan’s installation of the same show in London,* where he lives, and recalled “The Opening” exhibitions by Merlin Carpenter, Lehan’s colleague and friend from art school, one of them even at Reena Spaulings (see this excellent review of Lehan’s show). Was this really just another (conceptual) art reception?

What was this experience about? What is an experiencer’s role? What kind of fun was this party? Asking these questions must have been part of the evening. Let’s explore some answers through unexpected precedents. 

The low-ceilinged space suggested Floor 7½ in the Spike Jonze / Charlie Kaufman film, Being John Malkovich (1999). A chute from this floor leads into Malkovich’s mind, where many visitors share one character’s refreshed feeling: “I knew who I was...everything made sense.” Soon visitors get ejected alongside the New Jersey Turnpike. The Reena Spaulings stage set similarly proposed an alternative reality. Lehan wanted his word “experiencer” – plus the alcohol of opening night? – to nudge visitors beyond our tired Marxist roles of producers/consumers of culture, toward a “crisis” (“What are we doing here?”) and heightened awareness (the same question, in another key). Then we got ejected alongside Canal Street.

But experience is not always coherent, or uplifting. In Remainder (2007**), the hit novel by Lehan’s compatriot, Tom McCarthy, a rich, amnesiac everyman tries to restage situations where living had felt "fluent and unforced. Not awkward, acquired...I wanted to...feel real.” The plot turns exquisitely, intensely chilling as the man increasingly controls his reenactments and loses control. Lehan’s repetitions could likewise be traps as easily as springboards. The dropped ceiling evoked decades of generic institutional/office spaces (and a Richard Serra installation), but it didn’t necessarily help visitors see Lehan’s resistance to artistic uniqueness. His clue, “experiencer,” supposedly named his new role, but it could have been his command to us. I love multivalence, yet I wanted a more revelatory chute into Lehan’s mind.***

The exhibition deepened when I talked with the gallery’s representative. Visitors at the opening probably gained from their fun conversations, too. Lehan’s scrawled word invited us continually to “Return to [that] Problem”: what’s going on? Such dialogue is an excellent model for viewers engaging with art.

-- Karen Schiff

Buckets of moldering mojitos, and wall with Ed Lehan's handwritten "experiencer," 2015
Image courtesy Reena Spaulings Gallery, New York

* Lehan claims that the London exhibition was markedly different, perhaps owing to the characteristics of the space and the sociopolitics of drinking mojitos in Hackney. The New York gallery features peeling paint, red Chinese writing in the far windows, a windowed door high in a wall. In East London, mojitos are the yuppie drink which signals a decline in that neighborhood’s bohemian art culture. Beyond these distinctions, local cultural assumptions about the genre of the gallery exhibition itself most likely made Lehan’s work read differently in the two locations.

** McCarthy wrote Remainder in 2001. After enduring publishers' rejections, it was first printed by small presses in France (2005) and England (2006). It sold well in museum gift shops, then gained wide popularity and critical acclaim following the Vintage edition in the U.S. (2007).

*** Did “experiencer” indicate Lehan’s optimistic belief in a non-capitalistic reality? Was he cynically infusing the notion of experience with a fiction of escape? (How) is his decision to hold an exhibition, where the lowered partial ceiling imprisons visitors as subtly as any ideology, itself a complex gesture of hope? Do Lehan’s anti-narrative, anti-aesthetic repetitions (merely) fill McCarthy’s (and Simon Critchley’s) prescriptions for art, in section 14 of their “Declaration on Digital Capitalism” (Artforum, 2014)? Perhaps Lehan’s “crisis” is exactly about wrestling with these questions.

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