At the entrance to ‘The Quick and the Dead’ is a sort of overture – an eclectic cluster of works brought together in a small anteroom. It includes a 1969 text by Robert Barry from his series ‘Leverkusen Pieces’ (‘Something that is taking shape in my mind and will sometime come to consciousness’) and an On Kawara date painting. Another Kawara piece is depicted in a photograph by Louise Lawler, its time-stopping melancholy intensified by its domestic setting. A speaker in a corner plays a composition by Arthur Russell, as it was initially released in 1984: accidentally mastered at half-speed, a foggy, lugubrious drift. At the other end of the gallery space, another niche acts as a mirror-image coda: the corrected version of the Russell piece, another Kawara, another Lawler, and another Barry text from the same series (‘Something I was once conscious of, but have now forgotten’). This book-ending imparts a through-the-looking-glass quality to the entire show, suggesting some kind of hiccup in the space-time continuum, an alternate world somehow spliced into the museum space.
At the most basic level, ‘The Quick and the Dead’, which includes 53 artists, is a show about Conceptual art, but it doesn’t feel much like a Conceptual art show. Willfully eclectic, gorgeously eerie and unabashedly theatrical, its perspective and tone seems more indebted to science fiction than to art history. At the core of the exhibition is an idiosyncratic selection of work by first-generation conceptualists: Barry, Douglas Huebler, and Adrian Piper among them, as well as less celebrated figures like David Lamelas and Stephen Kaltenbach. But curator Peter Eleey is, as he notes in the catalogue, ‘more concerned with affect than representation’. So the show also ranges through an assortment of viscerally and visually engaging work, of various periods and ‘-isms’, including film, video, music, scientific photography and mathematical proofs.
Underlying this expansive curatorial mode is a notion of Conceptual art as a strategy of expansion itself. While the show’s mise-en-scene works primarily to create a mood, there is also an argument being pressed: a compelling push-back against a reductive ‘art-about-art’ reading of the Conceptual turn. In the familiar art historical story, idea-based work is essentially the culmination of a successive 20th-century dematerialization of the object or ‘some endgame of modernism’, as Eleey writes in the catalogue. ‘The Quick and the Dead’ reconceives this retreat from form as, paradoxically, a kind of enlargement of scope, reaching beyond the merely physical world to travel in an expanded realm.
Barry’s Electromagnetic Energy Field (1968), perhaps the show’s emblematic centrepiece, serves as a powerful illustration of this argument. Displayed in a vitrine, a battery-powered transmitter encased in a nondescript metal box sends out waves of energy, filling the gallery space with an invisible, immeasurable, but nonetheless real force. Perched between spiritualism and physics, the device is intended to create a literally charged atmosphere. Something similar is at work in Kris Martin’s Anonymous II (2009). The artist had a human skeleton (originally intended for medical research, then passed from David Wojnarowicz to Kiki Smith to Martin) permanently interred below an unmarked patch of the Walker’s lawn. An official-looking document provides GPS coordinates to the nearby site: it functions as a kind of textual transmitter, transforming the gallery space with an uncanny bit of information.
‘The Quick and the Dead’ is, appropriately enough, a death-haunted show. Taxidermy by Maurizio Cattelan (a small dog curled in a corner) and Jason Dodge (an owl, supposedly containing precious gems inside its chest) offer unsettlingly life-like versions of death, as does Steve McQueen’s Running Thunder (2007), a silent film loop of a horse carcass lying in a field. Death-like versions of life are suggested by a number of premature post-mortem works: sealed time-capsules by Kaltenbach; Martin’s Still Alive (2005), a full-size silver-plated model of his skull; and Piper’s What Will Become of Me (1985–ongoing), a collection of the artist’s hair and nail clippings, which will eventually include her cremated remains.
Filled with canny visual rhymes and recurrences, the show often functions as a lexicon of mysteriously resonant – almost totemic – objects. Clocks, watches and calendars suggest time gone strange, shot through with subjectivity. Mirrors – used in works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Marcel Duchamp – play analogous head games in the realm of the spatial. The automobile is proposed as a surprisingly numinous object. Michael Sailstorfer’s Zeit ist keine Autobahn (Time is not a motorway, 2009) features a tyre grinding itself unceasingly down against a wall; in a sculpture by Roger Hiorns, an engine block crusted over with bright blue copper sulfate crystals conjures up an otherworldly, J.G. Ballard-esque aura. Paul Ramirez Jonas’ lovely video Longer Day (1997) presents the artist driving west towards the sunset, trying futilely to extend his hours of daylight. Like all the work in ‘The Quick and the Dead’, it is a moving and melancholy attempt to journey beyond the here and now.