BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 01 JAN 04
Featured in
Issue 80

Andrea Fraser

Kunstverein, Hamburg, Germany

BY Jan Verwoert in Reviews | 01 JAN 04

There are two ways of looking at the art world. One is to assume that it allows for unparalleled freedom of thought and action, and the other is to see it as shaped by power, corruption and lies - just like society. Both perspectives are true. Andrea Fraser's work is a response to the challenge of this paradox. In her performances, research projects and video works she seeks out those blind spots in the social rituals of art production and consumption where their inherent bigotry becomes manifest. Her works make you experience the full force of the ideologies and power structures that govern the art world, asserting the autonomy of critical art by increasing the disenchantment with the concept of artistic freedom.

This first retrospective of her work covers projects from the mid-1980s to today. Of course, there are reasons to be sceptical when viewing an institutional retrospective of the work of one of the leading protagonists of institutional critique. Are we witnessing the baptism of the Antichrist? The final co-opting of the critic? Surprisingly, the answer to both questions is no. The more of Fraser's works you see in an institutional space, the more rigorously the works impose their logic on that space and the viewer's perception of it. The format of the retrospective only serves to underscore the systematic nature of the artist's inquiries. She frames the art context rather than being framed by it.

As her project develops, Fraser progressively identifies the forces behind the commodification of art. In her début talk performance Damaged Goods Gallery Talk Starts Here (1986) she assumed the role of museum guide 'Jane Castleton' and took visitors on a tour of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. Although Fraser spoke with the voice of a diligent docent, what she actually said told a different story. She mixed factual statements about security and finances with theatrical confessions and theoretical reflections about the fetishistic desire to possess valuable items. Since then Fraser has expanded this mode of subversive mimicry. Video documentation of her performances shows her moving away from appropriating art talk and towards mimicking art people. In her performance Official Welcome (2001) she impersonates a range of art world types, from the jovial patron to the pompous intellectual and the obnoxious artist, with an uncanny perfection. The identity switches in her performance never interrupt the flow of her speech. She doesn't even stop to draw breath when she takes her clothes off.

Parallel to her performances, Fraser has produced research-based works such as Services (1994), an archive covering projects by alternative art groups since the 1970s. This installation - comprising materials displayed on pin boards and lecterns - was conceived with Helmut Draxler and first exhibited in the Kunstraum at Lüneburg University. Dirty Data (1992) is an interview with collector Wilhelm Schürmann, presented as a sound piece with transcriptions. For A Project in Two Phases (1994-5) Fraser catalogued and re-exhibited the art collection of the EA-Generali Foundation, set up by a major Austrian insurance company, to expose how the position of company workers is reflected in the art decorating their office. As she proceeds, Fraser explores the gamut of the art world, from the museum to the private collection, from the alternative space to the commercial gallery. In the end what remains is the artist as institution.

This position is addressed in recent works in which Fraser presents herself as the object of social expectations and sexual projections. Talking naked is one such gesture. In a similar vein Fraser turns her body into a spectacle in the video Exhibition (2002), where she dances in a Brazilian carnival costume, or Untitled (2003), a video of her in bed with a collector.

By commodifying herself in this way, Fraser takes one more, final step and tightens the noose around her own neck. The reward for such sacrifice is transubstantiation. In this exhibition the artist's disembodied voice filters out from the video cabinets, filling the space with an immaculate emulation of art talk. Her voice now incorporates the entire discourse - she has become her master's voice.

Consequently Fraser pushes her work to a point where the only choice is either to accept the premise of her position or to reject it. It is the strength of her work that it makes it impossible to remain undecided. But if, in the end, it comes down to a yes/no answer, in my case it's a no. I agree with her analysis, but I don't accept the conclusion. One thing Fraser's systematic approach makes clear is that criticism is constructive. It construes its subject: just as a priest has to believe in a demon to exorcize it, so the critic of the art world needs to believe in its power to denounce it. Of course power structures exist, but I don't see why we should honour these structures by investing belief in them when the belief in power may only increase its influence over us. I could be wrong but, given the choice, I find it more productive to believe in the potential of art to transcend its limited conditions.

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.