Friday, June 11, 2010

op Life a not-so-shocking gamble

The Child's Dream by artist Damien Hirst, part of the National Gallery's latest exhibition, Pop Life: Art in a Material World.  It opens to the public on Friday.
The Child's Dream by artist Damien Hirst, part of the National Gallery's latest exhibition, Pop Life: Art in a Material World. It opens to the public on Friday.
The Pop Life exhibit at the National Gallery includes several adults-only rooms for material such as photographs of American artist Jeff Koons and his porn-star wife making love.

Ah, sex. It's so yesterday.
Once upon a time, the act of artists photographing themselves in the nude, or having public sex, was just so daring and scandalous. The artists had all kinds of high falutin' excuses for baring their flesh even though, one suspects, the real reason was to shock the public and to make themselves infamous and maybe even rich.
But in 2010, bare bums, boobs and other bits, even when clearly aroused, just don't shock us any more, not when we can purchase such fare, along with a litre of milk and a loaf of bread, at the neighbourhood convenience store or simply sit at home and browse the Internet.
And so there is not much to be shocked at when viewing the 250 works in Pop Life: Art in a Material World, the much anticipated summer blockbuster opening today at the National Gallery of Canada.
The biggest shock is that a 60-minute video called Untitled made by New York artist Andrea Fraser was pulled from the travelling Pop Life exhibition at the artist's request, according to Jonathan Shaughnessy, a National Gallery curator.
Back in 2003, Fraser advertised for a male "art collector" willing to pay $20,000 for the experience of having sex with her. The result was an explicit video of the coupling supposedly demonstrating how artists are required to sell more than their soul.
The video was shown at earlier stops of Pop Life in London and Hamburg, but Fraser apparently had had enough of sharing her intimate hour with the world. Maybe she realized Untitled was just too yesterday.
As the absent Fraser video clearly reveals, Pop Life is about artists, mainly in the 1980s and '90s, who managed to blur the lines between art, the artist and the marketing of the art. Artists thrust themselves literally into their own art and into the promotion of their art.
Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring and others of this type became the rock stars of the art world. They were so successful as promoters of their own art that sometimes they appeared to be famous simply for being famous, with the art only a secondary consideration.
This artist self-promotion was an intriguing fad at the time. Today, it looks rather tawdry and more than a little quaint, akin to looking at the paintings of Cornelius Krieghoff, the 19th century Canadian artist who painted merry scenes of supposedly poor, but happy, Québécois. These are images that were popular way back among the Anglo rich, make most of us wince today but still command high prices as important historical paintings.
Thus, when you see photographs and sculptures of American artist Jeff Koons and his then-wife, Ilona Staller (a.k.a. La Cicciolina -- the cuddly little one) making love, think of them as pieces of historical art that, like Krieghoff's work, are intriguing relics more embarrassing than shocking.
Three rooms in Pop Life are theoretically off-limits to unaccompanied children. A sign at the doorway to all three states: "The following room contains artwork with sexually explicit content. Adult accompaniment required."
Guards will be posted at the three doorways to monitor traffic. Gallery officials say they will not be checking identification of youthful visitors but they will make an effort to point out the signs.
These adult-only rooms include one for the love-making of Koons and Cicciolina, another with two
humorously lewd life-sized sculptures by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, and a third room containing stills from the Fraser video and some trashy photos of British artist Cosey Fanni Tutti, whose 1970s art project included posing in pornographic magazines.
Prudish visitors can miss all three rooms and still have a worthwhile experience savouring a roomful of Andy Warhol celebrity portraits, a replica of New York graffiti artist Keith Haring's famous Pop Shop and samples of British artist Damien Hirst's genius, including an installation involving a live set of twins who are supposed to sit as still as statues but can speak when spoken to.
Yes, a pair of twins will sit in one gallery throughout the show's run until Sept. 19. More than 70 pairs of identical twins applied for the four-hour shifts. The gallery has not yet decided how many will be chosen.
The twins at a media preview this week were Marcel and Paul Bard of Ottawa. The brothers said they are art lovers and they seemed to be having a ball "being" art.
Pop Life was created by the Tate Modern in London. It showed there last year, moved to Hamburg and now to Ottawa, the sole North American venue. The show in each city has been slightly different. In Ottawa, some Canadian content -- self-promoting photographs from the Toronto collective General Idea -- has been added.
Some other tweaks also occurred, in part because some collectors agreed to loan works only for a limited period of time. Missing, for example, is a Warhol portrait of Marilyn Monroe, but Shaughnessy managed to secure another even more impressive Warhol of Monroe.
Marc Mayer, National Gallery director, snagged this show only last year, shortly after arriving in Ottawa to replace Pierre Theberge. "Other North American places wanted it but we got it," he says.
This is a big change for the Gallery, whose summer shows during the busy tourist season have tended to be European masters or Group of Seven-style exhibitions. Mayer is trying to make the National Gallery a bigger player in the contemporary art world even though historical shows are generally far more popular. Thus, Pop Life is a big gamble.
With gallery finances increasingly under pressure, the federal institution needs a winner of a show. Well, sex sells usually, even if, in the art world, it is so yesterday.
Pop Life: Art in a Material World
When and where: Open daily from June 11 to Sept. 19 at the National Gallery of Canada on Sussex Drive

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