in Opinion | 04 SEP 92
Featured in
Issue 6

Before and After

Entering the world of Post Human

in Opinion | 04 SEP 92

Thanks in large part to his role as one of the art world's quintessential insiders, Jeffrey Deitch's work is not known to a general audience. Although a critic of considerable insight and lucidity, it is Deitch's position as consultant to a handful of world-class collectors which has made him a key player over the past ten years, especially in the wake of the art world's flagging fortunes. More than any other critics working today, Deitch has an intimate understanding of the complicated love--hate relationship between the post-avant-garde and its patrons, and his rewards appear to have been commensurate with that expertise. Not surprisingly, Deitch is probably most recognised for his extremely close association with Jeff Koons, an artist whose long-range artistic goals mesh well with Deitch's own point of view. Quite in keeping with Koons' view of himself as the only artist who matters. Deitch's critical position on Koons has been remarked on by many colleagues as being a tad too, well, uncritical.
Beginning with the exhibition, Cultural Geome-try, which Deitch organised in 1987 for the Deste Foundation of Contemporary Art in Athens, it has also been clear that there is a third niche in which he plans to leave his mark: the independent curator. Organised under somewhat limited conditions, primarily using new works that the founder of Deste, Dakis Joannou, had purchased under Deitch's tutelage, Cultural Geometry (the only other Deitch exhibition that this writer has wit-nessed first hand) is responsible for pioneering the argument that the neo-conceptual generation of American artists (Koons, Levine, Halley, et al) formed a more logical link to the artists of the European vanguard of the late 80s (Trockel, Vercruysse, Linke) than Americans like Longo, Schnabel or Haring, who were much favoured by the European curatorial mainstream of its day. However, being a firm believer in the popularisation of high art, Deitch did not stop with a merely cogent or effective merging of the newest of the new from the U.S. and Europe. Faced with the possibility of juxtaposing the contemporary work with ancient Greek geometric pottery, Deitch enlisted the energies of Haim Steinbach to create a mirrored environment of display cases and unusual lighting effects, so that everything in the exhibition appeared to be caught in an oblique visual crossfire that was remarkably in keeping with the theme of the project.

Cultural Geometry also marked the beginning of a long-term collaboration between Deitch and downtown designer extraordinaire Dan Friedman. Although he first came to the art world's attention as an artist in the East Village/Gracie Mansion mode, Friedman's bold, albeit clinical-looking, designs for the catalogues to Deitch's projects have become forays into popular techno-culture that completely transcend the traditional notion of what an exhibition catalogue is supposed to be. Science, advertising, celebrity gossip and art history come together in the Deitch/Friedman catalogues in a way that can only be imagined within the context of a single exhibition.

Looked at from the point of view of bringing difficult cultural issues to a broader public than usual, the project Post Human could not have come about at a better time. Feeling raped and abandoned by Jan Hoet's Documenta IX, many of the art world's erstwhile populists are now carrying on about issues like standards and quality - never a good omen even during the best of times. Deitch's central thesis - that the voluntary manipulation of the human body through surgery, cosmetics and exercise, combined with recent technologies allowing us to simulate the experience of reality, have produced a culture in which the body no longer serves as a cohesive, organic reference point - fits well in an age in which pop stars, politicians and even artists themselves seem to delight in changing their physical identities to suit their purposes. No longer the domain of privacy and difference, the body has become a public crossroads where the merging of real and artificial, organic and synthetic, and even good and evil, is taking place right before our very (ahem) eyes.

Because it has been organised to accommo-date the demands of a four-city tour - after Lausanne, it is bound for Athens, Hamburg and Turin - Post Human is neither as freewheeling as Cultural Geometry nor is it a conventional museum show in the sense of setting out to demonstrate a point of view through the deployment of artworks as theoretical props. In fact, the final version of the show (with four more artists and a great deal more work than was seen in Lausanne) will not take place until it reaches its last stop: the cavernous Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. In other ways, however, Post Human is, if not conventional, at least more predictable than one might have preferred. Of the 32 artists in the version I saw, 20 were from the U.S. - a figure that is not so much disproportionate as it is a set-up for the stylistic overlapping that ends up marring this otherwise praiseworthy undertaking.

The FAE Musée d'Art Contemporain's space is divided between two floors of more or less the same size, and the relative success of Deitch's choices and installation seem to differ considerably between them. On first entry, the scrambled vista provided by Felix Gonzalez-Torres' disco platform, Taro Chiezo's wind-up toy cars concealed by doll dresses, and the widely-spaced 'split' legs by Robert Gober introduces a humorous but unsettling view of the high-tech dismemberment/displacement of the human form. Coming into the space, the separate nooks and corners reveal somewhat less impressive pieces by Pia Stadtbaumer, Fischli/Weiss and Stephan Balkenhol, and a turn leading into what can only be referred to as the Jeff Koons shrine. The show definitely picks up with the contributions of several American artists whose works have not yet been seen by a general European audience - Karen Kilimnik, Paul McCarthy, Kiki Smith, Janine Antoni and Daniel Oates - and seems to find its level in the contributions by Wim Delvoye and Martin Honert, two relatively loner European artists whose work has struck an unexpectedly responsive chord. Perhaps the most impressive piece is McCarthy's motorised tableau, The Garden, showing two mechanical men making brutally repetitious sex (albeit not with each other) in the midst of an artificial forest.

Unfortunately, Post Human starts to unravel even before one has arrived at the second floor. The installation of Christian Marclay's stitched record cover pieces within the stairwell, for example, is particularly annoying, no less so because of the fact that the works' spatial adaptability seems to make them perfect candidates for such a treatment. At the top of the stairs, Matthew Barney's video/exercise mat installation fares little better, if only because the physical separation between the two components makes it difficult to relate them to each other. Even more discouraging were the contributions of Ashley Bickerton (warmed-over anthro-deconstruction), Cady Noland (the same Jack Ruby/Patty Hearst construction she has put into group shows for the last three years) and Pruitt & Early (anaemic post-adolescent high-jinks) - artists whose work may have merits, but not without a lot of curatorial bolstering. Meyer Vaisman's ethnically-garbed turkeys also suffered from their placement in front of and too close to a thinly-curtained window, and Erika Rothenberg (a last-minute addition, judging by her exclusion from the catalogue) was practically invisible, having been tucked away in a niche between the stairwell and the wall.

By contrast, the relatively untested European artists - Sylvie Fleury and Damien Hirst - whom Deitch chose for this floor fare much better; in fact, the two works - a shoe-fetishist's tableau by the former, and an oversized medicine chest with accompanying ladder by Hirst - seem like a matched set. Another contrast which could not have been a mistake was that of Clegg & Guttman's group portrait of several ruthless-looking men, peering into the cubicle in which Charles Ray's dress-dummy giantess holds silent court. As one who prefers the gory side of Cindy Sherman's imagination over her somewhat stilted view of history, her shock-shlock photos of sex aids and amputated body parts transformed into new copulating units were hard to stomach, but well worth the effort.

As it gathers steam from one venue to the next, Post Human will no doubt work out some of its wrinkles as well. Certainly, the Hamburg version will benefit greatly from the addition of those artists (Dennis Adams, Annette Lemieux, Yasamasa Morimura, Kodai Nakahara, and Jeff Wall) whose work, for whatever reasons, was excluded from the Lausanne version. Yet it is this very issue of 'versions' of shows which brings up certain questions that should not be brushed aside. For starters, it seems that any show that contains such radical discrepancies between checklists and even artists included should not really be dealt with as a single exhibition at all. Although a minor point in terms of the show's impact as a visual statement, it becomes more relevant in regards to Post Human, the catalogue. An even more visually compelling document than usual, featuring a text by Deitch that is state-of-the-art deadpan nihilism, the book argues that the key to solving issues of representation in today's art can be found in celebrity role models, which run the gamut from the 'meaningful') William Kennedy Smith, Jane Fonda, Madonna, David Duke) to the emblematic (Betty Crocker, Terminator ll) to the absurd (Ivana Trump, Zsa Zsa Gabor). These define our vocabulary of potential role models, argues Deitch/Freidman, in the same way that the countenance of Rene Descartes (as captured by Hals) determined the 'type' for the pre-Enlightenment intellectual.

In short, that is, the publication for this production doesn't just exist on some separate level than the show itself - it's substantially more interesting, period. At the risk of stirring already troubled waters, l would venture to guess that the main problem with Post Human, the exhibition, is that Deitch's multiple role in the art world has started to become his Achilles Heel. More precisely, the fact that Deitch makes a good hung living buying (and sometimes selling) this stuff for his clients appears to have limited his ability to appreciate work that is not blatantly commercial. This is not an uninteresting position in itself, but even Deitch cannot help but be aware that the abilities required to put together a private (or even semi-public) collection are not necessarily the same as those required to transform art into a public spectacle. Judging from the checklist, Deitch has a lot invested (no metaphors here) in keeping the careers of Kelley, Kilimnik, Koons, Morimura and Pruitt-Early afloat. Again, not an unworkable point from which to start, but not one that lends itself for complete objectively, either. With such a sprawling theme, for example, the show might have been better served by asking a few artists to create site-specific work, but that seems innately contrary to Deitch's machine-made aesthetic.

In conclusion, it is clear from the substance of Deitch's text that he has a great deal to offer the casual viewer or semi-afficionado about the changes currently taking place in the world of art, and a great deal to teach the art community about the ways in which the rest of the world impinges on its formerly exclusive terrain. Post Human is a riveting idea, and its implication as a statement cannot be overlooked. As Jeffrey Deitch continues to expand the boundaries of art thinking into previously unheralded territory one can only presume that his curatorial expertise will soon catch up with the rest of his activities.