BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 11 NOV 98
Featured in
Issue 43

Hirsch Farm Project

BY Michelle Grabner in Reviews | 11 NOV 98

The Hirsch Farm Project was an exclusive nine-year exercise in confabulation, design and ego. Funded by Chicago philanthropist Howard Hirsch, and directed by artist Mitchell Kane as an arts-based think tank, it was really a shrewd, privately funded playgroup. It promoted itself as a gathering of young cultural producers in remote, alien settings, but failed as an applicable model of discussion and exchange by its insistence on the private conversation. If we are willing to see it as a single precocious art work by Mitchell Kane, however, the Hirsch Farm Project and its artifacts unveil a wily preoccupation with the ramifications of individual rank and popularity within the structures of the art world.

For Kane, siring the Hirsch Farm Project included selecting a timely cultural issue, curating a small clutch of international artists, scholars and non-art specialists and concluding the annual discussion with an impeccably designed catalogue. This final year also witnessed the production of a Hirsch Farm theme song and a museum installation. Throughout the last nine years Kane has worked hard at refining his hosting skills and redefining new models of art production, but it is his shameless self-promotion that is to be admired, earning him the right to tag his name proudly on every poster, piece of advertising and catalogue jacket he designed for the project.

Over the years, the issues - optimism, nonspectacle, the public, conviviality, uncertainty, the environment and a handful of other themes - have been the least interesting facet of the Hirsch Farm Project. The chosen participants, ranging from Stephen Prina, Jorge Pardo and Diana Thater, to Ben Kinmont, Mariko Mori and Pae White, are predictable representatives of 90s art-world cool. However, taking pride in his people-curating skills, Kane boasts, 'I've been very lucky. I've developed a strong track record (or so I've been told) for picking many artists while they were very young, before their careers took off'. Of course Kane's one-man operation, with access to a seemingly endless chequebook, can act more swiftly than bureaucracy-ridden institutions. Yet Kane was more self-serving, rather like a contemporary Gertrude Stein, graciously rubbing elbows with artist acquaintances.

Attempting to replicate the 'uneasy, anxious interaction' between the MCA and Hirsch Farm Project, Kane contorts the exhibition space by constructing a raised false floor that gradually slopes upward into the bright gallery. The varnished sheets of MDF surfacing the newly warped floor combine with three blue strings that stretch just below the ceiling to protest against the gallery's architectural routine and compress its systematised volume. With his proclivity for pretence, Kane-the-artist constantly struggles with heavy-handed design, invention and self-aggrandisement. Here, between the floor and the ceiling he scantily suspends four of his offset promotional Hirsch Farm posters.

Mounted at the entrance of the exhibition are the printed lyrics to several songs written by Kane to commemorate the conclusion of the Project. Although no recording of these foolish melodies is on sale, the museum bookstore periodically plays the soundtrack over its audio system. The most significant by-products of these yearly colloquiums are of course the catalogues. Comprised of interviews, artists' projects, essays and ruminations, the texts are part souvenir, part academic journal and part artists' book. A standard white pedestal placed squarely in front of the gallery installation bears a sample catalogue from each year the Project has been in production. Kane took this opportunity to make an ironic art object, covering the books and the pedestal with a transparent sheet of cellophane to give the whole presentation a shrink-wrapped look.

Perhaps predictably, the manipulated physical space and sculptural gesture of the gallery project confused the real significance behind Kane's Hirsch Farm Project work: his audacious self-promotion under the altruistic guise of social and cultural advancement in the visual arts. Couched in an annoying strain of critique, modern design and minimalism, his humorous self-indulgence is carefully balanced by his fear of looking grubby. He reminds us that being a yes-man, a roadie, a Presidential advisor or an overly ambitious artist can be a real vocation if you over-intellectualise your position and look good while doing it.

Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator and professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is Director of the exhibition spaces The Suburban in Milwaukee, USA and the Poor Farm in Wisconsin, USA.