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Issue 27 March-April 1996 RSS

Tom Burr

American Fine Arts , New York, USA

In recent years, several artists, many based in New York, have extended the scope of institutional critique beyond its traditionally reflexive character. Whereas the practices of Hans Haacke, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and others exposed the ideological and commercial functions of the art museum and gallery, those of Mark Dion, Renée Green, Christian Philip Müller, Andrea Fraser and Tom Burr explore an expanded site: natural history collections, historical societies, pseudo-museums, zoos and parks. In their work, the art museum or gallery is no longer a sole or even primary reference: it is perceived within a broader network of social structures and relations, as an institution among institutions. To be sure, early institutional critique, developing in concert with the New Left’s analysis of the ‘System’, also demonstrated the inextricable ties binding capitalist society’s institutions. Broodthaers, in versions of his Musée d’Art Moderne, Departement des Aigles, explored the taxonomical practices of the natural history museum long before Dion appeared. But the final focus of much of this work was the art institution as such. In this respect, early institutional critique, for its radicality, maintained the reflexive orientation of late Modernism. Abandoning the Modernist investigation of the constraints of the medium, it redirected attention to the frame of art.

This transition from a self-reflexive critique is hardly an absolute, and Fraser, Müller and Green continue to work in art galleries and museums. But the frame of reference of this activity is somewhat broader than in the past. Building on Marxist materialism, gay contemporary work is inspired by other modes of analysis and other concerns: psychoanalytic theory and recent feminisms; postcolonial and queer studies; and the writings of Foucault. The attempt is not simply to reveal the ideological and class ties of the museum, but to consider how public institutions produce a broader spectrum of identities and relations not merely accountable to a materialist analysis. The ‘expanded site’ of recent institutional critique thus reflects a post-Marxist understanding of political constituency.

Tom Burr explores the intersection of sexual ­ in particular homosexual ­ identity with public and private sites. He has, for the most part, avoided institutional settings, concentrating instead on in-between sites that have fostered and contained gay male sexual activity while affirming, at a symbolic level, the social marginality of this group. An early project, American Standard (1991), produced in Toronto in 1992, traced the history of a public toilet from its inception at the turn of the century until its later transformation into a ‘tea room’. Another work, An American Garden (1993), created for Sonsbeek in 1993, considered a more famous place of assignation, the Ramble of New York’s Central Park. There, Burr reproduced in miniature a section of the Ramble’s densely planted landscape. (As its name implies, the Ramble is a reconstruction of a ‘natural’ forest). As one moved through the installation, absorbing bits of information from placards stationed along the paths, one became conscious of the history of the park, and the identities and practices of its users. Characteristic of Burr’s method was his integration of queer identity within a longer narrative of the site’s physical and discursive past. As Burr shows, the Ramble only emerges as a cruising ground in accounts of the 60s. His contribution to ‘Platzwechsel’, an exhibition produced for the Zurich Kunsthalle last summer in collaboration with Dion, Müller and Ursula Biemann, explored the post-Stonewall identification of Zurich’s Platzspitz Park with gay men. This relatively brief episode was followed by the park’s territorialisation by drug users during the 80s.

Burr’s latest show explored the porno shop architecture of midtown Manhattan. All the pieces alluded, in their forms and materials, to architectural features of these sites. Among the works was a platform covered in grey carpeting with a side attachment faced in gaudy tiles; two wall partitions with wooden frames and plastic mesh inserts; and a larger installation, in plywood and perspex, that suggested a line of video booths. One of the most effective works was a model representing, in miniature, the plan of an entire shop. Instead of reproducing the architecture of sex, Burr abstracted its shapes and materials. While most artists exploring issues around pornography fixate on its imagery, Burr banished erotic images from his show. The effect of these decisions was to render the conventions and effects of porno space alien, hence newly visible. Peering through the perspex apertures in the booths’ interconnecting walls (which in the real versions are intended to open, at the press of a button, to reveal one’s neighbour in onanistic rapture) I could not feel more removed from the voyeur’s pleasure. The 42nd Street sex shop, stripped of its finery, was revealed to be a factory of calculated desire, a place whose effectiveness is utterly dependent on its physical and social marginality. Located between the sleazy Port Authority bus station and crime-ridden Times Square, it beckons with the promise of delicious danger.

Yet, as Burr suggests, the ‘danger’ of porno space is as much construction as fact, a construction based on centuries of sexual prohibition in US culture. A series of informative texts described the history of so-called ‘Blue Laws’ based on Puritan codes, which banned and contained erotic representation (these codes produced the ‘Blue Movie’ and ‘X-Rated’ Film). Such laws configure this imagery, and the mechanisms of its distribution, as ‘transgressive’, even criminal. Dating from the previous century, many are still in place; their enforcement depends on the economic and political pressures of a particular moment. As Burr shows, the limits of tolerance of pornography and its attendant culture are in constant flux. The creation of sex shops in the Beaux Arts theatres off Times Square followed the decline of Broadway during the 60s and 70s due to exorbitant rents and competition from Hollywood and TV. Likewise, the retreat of porno culture from this district in recent years ­ a transition that motivated Burr’s show ­ reflects the effects of the 90s discourse of ‘Family Values’ and the attempt, on the part of developers and the Mayor’s office, to prop up the value of midtown real estate through a process of social cleansing. The sex shop becomes another casualty in the ongoing tale of Manhattan’s contestation.

James Meyer

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Issue 27, March-April 1996

by James Meyer

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