How the wealthy spend their leisure time and what it signifies
Chairs make music. At least, they do when their legs are pushed backwards across a floor. At least, the cheap ones commonly rented for parties do, the ones with spindly gilt legs and fragile, creaking ladder-backs, the ones with thin, comfortless pads and white canvas covers that bleach easily. Theirs is a grating sound, pitched high to the point of keening but with low, rumbling reverberations. Hearing it is the first signal that the party is coming to an end and that guests who have better things to look forward to, or better uses for their time, are leaving. When the rumble becomes a roar, the glamorous collective evening is over and solitary nights begin.
As autumn starts, this sound is in my ears. It is a memory more than a murmur, of course, or else a variety of tinnitus afflicting those with heavy social schedules or, at any rate, a long history of formal art-world dinners. As the season hasn’t really got going, I am in no position to judge whether this piercing phantom chord yet echoes through the table-crammed function rooms of museums or in well-appointed galleries and restaurants. Still, instinct and experience tell me that there will soon be fewer tables and fewer in attendance sitting around them, although smart event planners prefer to shrink the number of tables than the number of guests per table, since nothing betrays failure more than visibly empty seats.
For readers seldom or never invited to such occasions, please excuse this extended description. The purpose is not to bond with the snobs among us or to make life harder for the wallflowers and the left-behinds. As for those who scorn society from a position of ethical or political principle – ‘the lowly but virtuous’ looking down on ‘the high and mighty’ from still higher – don’t forget that no less a radical than György Lukács, the Hungarian commissar turned Marxist philosopher and literary theorist, deemed Honoré de Balzac’s extravagant and pitiless sagas of social climbing and moral bankruptcy of greater value than the edifyingly naturalist tales of Émile Zola. And then there was Marcel Proust, whom Lukács deplored but any serious student of manners reads with horrified wonderment; only the worst of Masterpiece Theater sentimentalists read him for the comforts of vicarious luxury.
The point is that how people at the top spend their leisure time and surplus capital may be an early warning of altered realities for everybody from the middle on down. So as the marvels of financial wizardry evaporate in the boiling-over of the sub-prime loan market – big bubbles are inflated by the incremental expansion of heated gas, which in this situation has resulted from millions of average credit junkies blowing across the flames of speculation – we should be on the look-out for shifting behaviour that might indicate who in the upper echelons has actually lost money and what awaits the rest of us. Naturally other bubbles are forming in other countries as this happens – the formerly dominant dollar is weak, but the euro and the pound are strong by comparison – and there are other parties as well, notably in China and Russia: a well-known art monthly’s social columnist has just reported on a Moscow oligarch’s kermis, observing that it ‘made everything in New York seem meagre and poor’. In short, the Third Law of Thermo-economics is still in force: once amassed, wealth is never destroyed. It just changes forms, hands and locations.
Yet while modern and contemporary art’s attraction as a status symbol is seemingly undimmed, and the art market remains a convenient parking lot for vast riches, contractions in essential areas of the economy are bound to spell contractions where paintings, sculptures, photographs and aesthetic notions are sold (and where celebrations of, and benefits for, culture are held). In the boom-to-bust cycle of 1987–93 it was several years before the stock market crash deflated the art world. It may take that long again. But this summer word spread that some hedge-fund hearties were tightening their equatorial belts, and previously habitual buyers were cancelling deals even as fortunate friends splurged. We’ll know for sure that there’s trouble in River City when over-extended galleries shut up shop and over-extended museums visibly cut corners in their programmes.
But well before that, the musical chairs will ring out. Not the game where more people circle a table than there are seats for and all scramble for a place when the music stops. Instead, it’s the game where the music is made by those pulling away from the table, leaving others behind to swallow the dregs and wash the dishes.
Robert Storr is a critic, curator and Dean of the Yale School of Art.
The main character in Martin Kersels’ cacophonous, stop-and-go drama of a recent solo show is a baby grand piano that noisily trundles from one side of the gallery to the other, digging irregular ruts in the cheaply resurfaced concrete floor as it is dragged back and forth by a cable attached to an electric winch. A few feet before crashing into one of two walls, the lurching piano grinds to a halt, having pulled its own plug like a household vacuum cleaner that’s been pushed beyond the reach of its cord. Silence ensues as the enormous loudspeakers Kersels has stuffed under the piano’s raised top finally stop blasting the amplified sounds of its tiny wooden wheels that had creaked, screeched and skidded under the massive musical instrument’s ponderous weight.
If John Cage’s altered piano presented random plinks, plangs and plunks as delightfully unpredictable music, Kersels’ more aggressively adapted and electronically enhanced baby grand raises the stakes of what we might listen to. His adapted instrument eliminates the human performer altogether, allowing it to adopt a prosthetic, Frankenstein-like life all its own. The one-act performance by Kersels’ piano is repeated (ad infinitum) when his dealer, Dan Bernier, stops whatever dealing he’s doing, unwinds the cable, re-attaches the winch and plugs the unwieldy, white elephant of a contraption into the socket again, bringing it all back to life - only so that it can promptly pull its own plug again, committing symbolic suicide.
Entitled Piano Drag (all works 1995), this goofy, lugubrious drama recalls the endless struggles of Sisyphus, as well as Kersels’ own career as a member of the performance group, The Shrimps, who from 1984-93, enacted off-balance collaborations at the boundary between theatre and everyday life. Listening to the unharmonious sounds of the piano’s graceless movements - and watching the dealer repeatedly set things up - leads you to believe that the baby grand’s 30-second performance isn’t worth the trouble, nor Bernier’s time-consuming efforts. But then you realise that the piano isn’t the only actor in the artist’s perverse drama - and that the time between the instrument’s trips across the gallery is as important as are its noisy, tortuous travels from one wall to the other. It becomes clear that Kersels has cleverly turned the tables, profoundly reconfiguring the standard relationship between art and dealers, and implicating viewers in the process.
Standing in as a surrogate for the 6’ 6”, 26 stone Kersels, the gerrymandered piano recasts the superficially glamourous job of art dealer as dutiful assistant: low-level employee who performs the same uninteresting tasks over and over again, all for art’s sake. In this case, art is no high-minded abstraction or idealised fantasy, but a needy, barely functional, and self-destructive instrument that is used by the stubborn artist for purposes other than those for which it was built. Piano Drag is a surreptitious power struggle that literally incorporates a dealer’s dedication to art into its form, ultimately giving power back to viewers. You don’t simply consume the artist’s efforts; with this piece, you also get a piece of the salesman. The dealer’s usual, behind-the-scenes anonymity (and control) is blown as he becomes an ordinary, unglamorous labourer in the service industry, ensuring that art keeps working - for as long as you’re interested in watching, no matter how senseless its endeavours may seem.
The other character in Kersels’ extravaganza is the chorus, whose mellifluous, overlapping voices chime in indeterminately to provide background music that unpredictably alters the tenor of the ongoing drama. Objects of the Dealer (with soundtracks) consists of 26 tiny loudspeakers and 13 micro-cassette players wired to 11 objects on, around and within Bernier’s desk, which itself has been moved from a side office to the main exhibition space. With hundreds of feet of wire connecting the audio equipment to a wide variety of ingenious triggering switches, as well as to Bernier’s computer, fax, phone, Rolodex, Filofax and tape dispenser (among other ordinary office devices), the cluttered desk looks as if it has been boobytrapped by a mad - and ineffective - bomber. The rigged work station also recalls Charles Ray’s Tabletop (1989), an ordinary-looking table on top of which rotated, at an excruciatingly slow pace, a plate, glass, bowl, canister, salt shaker and potted plant. A peek beneath Ray’s table revealed a bomb-like tangle of wires and electronics, suggesting the potential deadliness of slight misperceptions, and registering the rage often lurking beneath the surface of middle-class domesticity. In sharp contrast to the incipient viciousness Ray’s sculpture locates, Kersels’ adapted office accoutrements interrupt workaday drudgery with a bit of merriment.
Whenever Bernier used any of the wired appliances, jaunty music poured out of its speakers for as long as that tool was in use. Each micro-cassette player housed a looped tape of an animated, synthesiser-based arrangement composed by Mark Wheaton. Based on the bodily movements, rhythms and paces required by the objects to which they are attached, the soundtracks amplified the usually overlooked drama of the most mundane daily tasks. With Wheaton’s playful, sometimes nutty music in the background, thumbing through your Rolodex, dashing off a fax or making a call became intense mini-dramas. Suspense and intrigue built - as did the pleasure of the otherwise unremarkable duties. The spiffy, stop-and-start melodies functioned like soundtracks for imaginary movies, transforming the boring office tasks they accompanied into starring roles. Kersels’ generous piece redeemed uneventful, everyday work, a few seconds at a time. It turned forgettable activities into amusing, sometimes enchanted experiences.
Moreover, the more business Bernier did the more art he was able to enjoy - at that very moment. When he was really busy, doing a few things at once, he became something of an unwitting orchestra conductor, increasing the music’s volume and complexity as he worked more swiftly. Watching and listening to Bernier’s unintentionally doubled performance was like watching a frantic stockbroker make fast-paced trades as you listened to a symphony orchestra mysteriously attuned to his every activity. Art and business coalesced as Kersels filtered instantaneous gratification through the Protestant work ethic. This peculiar fusion of hard work and amusement contrasts radically with the anti-commodity, anti-business impulse of 70s Conceptualism, as well as with the fame and arrogance of the business-oriented 80s, when mega-dealers were superstars and overblown salesmanship ruled the art world.
Kersels’ self-effacing works offer a new model of art’s place in the commerce of life, stealthily sneaking into the picture when you least expect it, and humourously affecting actual, pedestrian experience. His fun-loving art reconciles the avant-garde with happiness - no mean feat in our mean-spirited century of hyper-self-consciousness.
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