New York-based artists Ei Arakawa and Sam Lewitt make ideal bedfellows, despite the fact that this exhibition was cleanly divided in two. Although the individual approaches of the two artists are widely divergent, they were brought together by their shared interest in what might be termed the placeholders of the art world: the circulating objects and documents that represent both commercial value and artistic enterprise.
Lewitt’s chosen object is the coin, and he uses it to explore ideas surrounding representation and value. In early 2009, he created ‘From A to Z and Back’, a set of 50 coins that he circulated among personal and professional contacts. The implied economy through which the coins move is the art world, the referenced language the limited edition. Here, Lewitt swiftly complicated matters even further; for this incarnation (the work is ongoing) the artist showed catalogues that simply reference the original 50 coins. There are two catalogues of 50, each an edition of one, plus an artist’s proof. The total number of coins is vague, and their value obscure: worthless as currency, yet presumably valuable as art works. Nothing is exactly as it seems; the ‘antique silver’ coins are in fact zinc alloy, and the cases holding the coins are faux leather.
However, Lewitt is less concerned with the falsity of representation than with the slippage that every new layer of representation introduces. In various translations, a series of posters bears the oxymoronic slogan ‘Antique Silver, Freshly Minted’. Language emerges as representation par excellence, full of inconsistencies and gaps. The idea is familiar, but the wit and sureness of touch with which Lewitt executes his concept is striking.
Arakawa’s work is altogether more approximate in its execution. Like Lewitt, he plays with the language of the art world; Liaison, A Naïve Pacifist (2009) is best described as a retrospective re-enactment, or a re-enacted retrospective. In a video (which becomes a representation of a representation), Arakawa re-enacts a series of performances from the last several years; these are deliberately uneven, and take place in and around the gallery. In the room next door, the floor was coated with posters bearing images of the performances.
Liaison... is as much about the mechanisms of the art world (the idea of the career retrospective, or the commodity driven need for the materialized art object) as it is about the dilemmas of representation, but its loopy humour is, in many ways, its salient factor. As Arakawa himself points out, the reenactment becomes its own ‘new’ work, a piece of ‘antique silver, freshly minted.’
There are many such connections between Lewitt and Arakawa, both graduates of the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. Ultimately, though, it is the circulation of ideas, as well as objects, that lies at the heart of both their practices; they place the institutions that engender that circulation, whether the museum or the gallery, under equal scrutiny.