in Opinion | 12 NOV 96
Featured in
Issue 31

Does Not Play Well With Others

'Shopping' in SoHo

in Opinion | 12 NOV 96

It is by now well known that New York's SoHo has become more heavily populated with chain stores, furniture showrooms, and shoppers than the city's art world would perhaps have liked. Many galleries are moving uptown to avoid the ruckus of unhinged consumers, the evaporating ambience of cutting edge culture, and rising rents. Into this context comes 'Shopping', curated by Jérome Sans. One of those exhibitions sprinkled about in various non-gallery spaces, its intention is to help us appraise this moment in which commerce is ascending, and culture dispersing in SoHo.

'Shopping' is really a walking tour where the curious can home in on works of art which have been 'integrated' within SoHo's freshest shops, businesses, restaurants, and boutiques. The project treads the path of the 1936 'Exposition Surrealiste d' Objets' in Paris, and Duchamp and Breton's 'Lazy Hardware'. Later precedents include Warhol's window display at Bonwit Teller, Les Levine and Claus Oldenberg's 'stores', and David Hammons' more recent exhibition at a tribal arts shop where the blur between commerce and art was absolute. 'Shopping' recalls Duchamp's exhibition of Rotoreliefs at the Concours Lepine in a notorious attempt to establish what he called 'direct contact with the people'. Henri-Pierre Roche, Duchamp's close friend, was practically the artist's only visitor at the product fair. As Roche approached the booth of turning Rotoreliefs, Duchamp winked knowingly, with the comment: 'Error, one hundred percent. At least it's clear'. At the end of the day Duchamp's spinning illusions could not compete with the Veg-o-matic in the neighbouring stand. In such settings, art rarely can.

Except 'Shopping' did attract a high level of attention. Perhaps this was because the people who visit design shops, boutiques and galleries are so often the same in New York, but the reason is equally likely to be the topicality of the art/commerce conundrum. These days, south of Houston Street, the first warning sign that a gallery has gone under or uptown is a soaped window sporting the logo of the new tenant. Soon enough, Ralph Lauren will be soaping the windows at 99 Greene Street where Barbara Gladstone has just hosted her final exhibition before moving to Chelsea. This news was only the most recent source of inspiration to AC2K (The artist formerly known as Art Club 2000). In 'SoHo So Long', a parallel exhibition to the 'Shopping' project, the artist collaborative, using skills generally reserved for movie sets, turned the facade of American Fine Arts into a schizoid pastiche so in character it was scary. Soaping the gallery's windows, they placed a logo for Old Navy, the low end chain of the Gap jeans corporation, along with the date 'November 1996'. Running just below the windows was a long flower box identical to the one that decorates the Drawing Center, complete with logo. The confusion was total. Were we previewing the next incarnation of SoHo - corporations sponsoring galleries like racing cars? And if so, why should the Drawing Center settle for Old Navy, and not the more upscale, and frankly more suitable Banana Republic? Was it true that American Fine Arts was being co-sponsored by the Salvation Army and Rolling Rock? The rumour mill shifted into overdrive.

While AC2K made fun of SoHo's conquerors, the artists in 'Shopping' hoped to meet their audience half way, blurring contemporary art with contemporary shopping in some clever and appealing way. The project felt a little like a retooling of site-specific art as some musty Marxist outreach programme; art as the great reformer, heroically prompting new forms of behaviour through unexpected cultural encounters. Jim Anderson, for example, inserted his computer generated animation XXX Dolly (1996) into the peep show video booth at one of SoHo's sex shops. For someone looking to relieve a little sexual tension during the lunch hour, spending 25 cents on a snippet of this video would have produced more frustration than epiphany. Dolly, a cartoon sculpture, robotically rotates in space and exercises what I imagine to be her animated sphincter while going on about the problematics of art and its context. During my brief encounter she complained about her pedestal. To others, she handed down permission from culture on high for a few moments of debauchery, navigating the dark fringes of sexual naughtiness deep inside this forbidden sex shop. 'I am going to give you three more chances to offend me the way the avant-garde is supposed to do', they must have thought, before finally switching over to another video channel to find the real sphincters.

There were some startling exceptions to the haranguing nature of this project, notably the contributions from Vanessa Beecroft and Noritoshi Hirakawa. Beecroft produced a video for Miu Miu, Prada's downtown store, much in the style of her previous, pseudo-voyeuristic videos. Before the camera, two women, dressed in Miu Miu, wait for nothing to happen. They scroll through emotions that range from apathy, to boredom, to deep listlessness. Their absolute and languid indifference to the glamourous context of fashion evolves in a slow, swirling motion. Beecroft does not have to worry about integrating or contending with the context of fashion, since fashion, and the commerce that surround it, are already her subject matter.

Likewise, Hirakawa's live performance at Yohji Yamamoto's boutique managed to overcome its impressive venue. A quaint, stark-faced, barefooted woman wearing a thick black wraparound coat sat on a ledge. Moving in a decidedly self-possessed way, she recited a disturbingly erratic monologue of banal non-sequiturs. None of them of any interest, her phrases dissolved rapidly into an abstract soundscape. She looked past us, talking to herself, winding out her desolate but exquisite delusions; finding beauty in phantasms. The result here was uncanny; not simply the allure of madness, but something at ease with the clothes and setting. Nothing seemed out of place but Yamamoto's patrons.

Hirakawa, and Beecroft's remarkable success was partly due to the fact that they were able to push the non-art context into the background, rather than senselessly ingratiate themselves and their art to commerce. Beecroft's profound use of the effete as style and content, and Hirakawa's theatre of graceful delusions carried them well beyond the simple ambitions of 'Shopping'. In the end, 'Shopping' was deployed with all good will toward the neighbourhood's money-making newcomers. This attitude of acceptance and compliance reflects a nervous desire to preserve a place for artists in what SoHo has become, a straining to create a kind of détente. The problem is, the other side may not have even noticed the ineffectual diplomacy.