BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 06 MAR 95
Featured in
Issue 21

Mapping: A Response to MoMA

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 06 MAR 95

Billed as a remake of the David and Goliath story, this exhibition produced only the cruel indignity of those clumsy duels in which both parties are merely wounded. These are the anticlimactic duels that leave witnesses recourse to a single emotion: aching embarrassment. Playing David to Robert Storr's Goliath, the map-making artist Peter Fend set out with the premise that Storr's recent 'Mapping' exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art was little more than a curatorial indiscretion: a fart stinking of naiveté wafting through its venerable halls. Rushing to defend the honour of the mapping theme Storr had offended, Fend's first act was to welcome into his revisionist version what Storr had chosen to overlook: namely Fend's own work.

The heroic David vs. bully-boy Goliath scenario is Fend's modus operandi: in a curious essay included in the last issue of ACME Journal he fearlessly ranted: 'By what cultural authority does an assistant at a Paris gallery (whom I later learned from a person meeting me by appointment on a train platform is in fact retained by the Government) gain the capacity to administer my affairs, my timetable, my ability to communicate, my ability even to write promotional text and mount shows - confining me to the production of maps and flags, so that 'Peter Fend' will be placed safely in a small box?'. Gee Peter, I just couldn't say. 'Aggrandisement' is insufficient as a description of Fend's brand of self-esteem. His ridiculous efforts to spank Storr are clouded by his pitiful me-against-the-world fuming.

There is no real reason to drag Storr into all this except to acknowledge Fend's insistent comparison in sub-titling his exhibition 'A Response to MoMA'. Storr's exhibition had its problems: in her New York Times review, Roberta Smith called it either a 'no-brainer' or a 'one-liner' - I forget which - and suggested that it was the kind of exhibition one would expect to find at a gallery rather than a museum. She could well stand accused of hatching Fend's curatorial ambitions. Not surprisingly, Storr's interest in the ways artists use maps was overridden by his ambition to introduce artists to the museum who had previously been strangers to its exhibition programme. While one might naturally expect this to be a curatorial path that would open things up, it has, on the whole, proven to be a sputtering and awkward trip for Storr. Well meaning inclusion, as a form of cultural 'affirmative action', is ultimately a 'means to an end' debate far more intriguing than the mapping leitmotif itself. Storr's MoMA exhibition was plain and oddly narrow. In other words, not an overview and not very startling either. It revealed decidedly more about Storr's curatorial brinkmanship than about style, art, and maps. Assuming that the assignment to truncate Fend's creativity by marshalling his personal affairs, timetable, and promotional materials is still in the hands of the Parisian gallery assistant, Storr's only fault would be a lack of courtesy in acknowledging Fend's career as one stunted, ironically, by the very maps that Goliath institutions - MoMA included - have consigned him to produce.

Straining to teach the MoMA curator a lesson, Fend did not curate his show so much as try to storm Storr's, pulling together something loosely historical and pointedly Revisionist; Revisionist in the sense that he included his own work in his own exhibition. It is at this point that Fend's credibility begins to haemorrhage - badly. If Storr's exhibition was anaemic, historically speaking, Fend's is a behemoth with its own droll taint. To make the understatement, Fend stakes out a more liberal and less exclusive view of what mapping means: more than 60 artists and institutions appeared on the invitation card - Fend's own name twice. Agnes Denes, Lucretia Moroni, Carl Andre, Ericson & Ziegler, Christo, the kitchen sink, Helen & Newton Harrison, Beach Party, Renée Green and on and on... Scrolling through the exhibition is like having to endure an overly anxious sophomore, yet to grasp the distinction between knowledge and memory, attempt to impress you with the sheer volume of how much she has memorised.

Fend attempts to understand curation as something encyclopaedic, and while comprehensiveness is often called for, beneath his fingertips it is a tactic that forfeits the chance to respond to the MoMA exhibition with any degree of ideological or intellectual precision. With such a blurring gale of artists, any response, beyond indelicately re-positioning his art against Storr's selection, would have sunk below the surface without a trace. On the other hand, to listen to Fend, one could believe that the institution conspires against him; shoving him into the duel with both hands tied behind his back. Fend claims to possess the inside scoop on kulture-kontrol, passed along during clandestine meetings with his menagerie of Deep Throats. Such a vulnerable position makes a man discreet, granting him the wisdom that he can never risk spilling the real story. So, Fend must survive by claiming our attention with his maps, flags and haranguing group shows.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.