I have to confess, I almost missed the exhibition completely. The title was to blame. It sounded to my ears like an apology, like self-defence; in other words, I thought I knew what to expect from such a show, and I wasn’t expecting much. But I reluctantly turned up on the last day, to realize that the title not only made perfect sense for this group show about perception and frustration, organized by Jan Mot in collaboration with Jonathan Monk. It was also performative, pointing to and thwarting expectations of its own.
Conceptual art’s bid to dematerialize the art object haunted the gallery like a friendly ghost (the exhibition’s title was adapted from Robert Barry’s work Don’t Expect Anything, 1999). But pushing beyond a repetition of 1960s gestures, the show’s 14 artists devised new modes of aesthetic evasion. Dave Allen’s For the Dogs. Satie’s ‘Véritables Préludes Flasques (pour un chien)’, 1912 (2002) included a set of speakers, a CD player and LCD display, suggesting that one should hear something, despite the silence. The gallery listener couldn’t guess (though the checklist held some clues) that Allen had taken Erik Satie’s derisively titled prelude ‘for a dog’ literally, and played it at frequencies inaudible to the human ear but perfectly set for canine appreciation. In a different take on the perception of sound and image, Jonathan Monk projected a silent 16mm film of a phonograph playing The Tornado (1976), the recording Jack Goldstein made while standing at that paradoxical site of unbelievable quiet the vortex of a raging windstorm. Monk’s The Silent Tornado (for Jack Goldstein) (2003) took the vinyl LP – a vehicle for nothing if not sound – and rendered it both doubly mute and oddly visual, with its filmed rotations soundlessly echoing a whirling tornado, a fittingly silent obituary for the late Goldstein.
Each of Pierre Bismuth’s three Certificates of Authenticity (2004) bore the signature of another artist, certifying that the printed certificate was not their work. Mirroring any notion of authenticity into infinity, the official-looking letters parodied the legal-ese of the art world, Conceptual art’s use of the document and the still prevalent need for the aura of the artist’s signature. And in the process Ed Ruscha, Robert Barry and Daniel Buren’s signatures made each certificate a bona fide ‘Bismuth’. Next to these, Hans Peter Feldmann’s Object Covered with Fabric (2002) stood on a white pedestal at an appropriate height for contemplation. Carefully covered with a drape, one couldn’t help wonder where to locate the work of art: was one looking at the work itself? Or was it actually the invisible object beneath – hidden by the tangerine swath of cloth? And what if the work of art was not the object you saw or the one you didn’t, but the mixture of exasperation and thought produced by the encounter?
Douglas Gordon’s regular faxes to the gallery owner piled up on a table as the exhibition progressed. Each of them repeated, with only small changes in wording or emphasis, questions about when the exhibition would open since the artist would like to come. Gordon’s name was on the checklist, but no title or work was mentioned. And in that empty space beneath his name, doubt set in. Were the faxes art works? Were they objects for sale? Did Gordon’s incessant requests really go unanswered? And if the faxes were not Gordon’s contribution, where was it? To look was to find, in the checklist, multiple clues and conundrums; one could read the details of Mario Garcia Torres’ Title Working (2003), described as follows: ‘intervention in an exhibition checklist, variable measures, edition of 3.’ The most literally immaterial of the exhibition’s works, the title occupying the checklist was itself working at being a work of art.
In the concurrent issue of the gallery’s regular newsletter Monk printed Edith Welthorpe’s (alias Joe Orton’s) exchange of letters to the Ritz Hotel about a lost handbag containing, among other things, a pair of hairy gloves. The 1967 date of the missives (the same year as Sol LeWitt’s seminal Paragraphs on Conceptual Art) was not fortuitous; nor was the fact that such letters in the newsletter left the reader dumbfounded. This was yet another way in which the exhibition connected a coherent ensemble of wildly diverse works that skirted expectations – and even sometimes refused to be noticed at all. The result was an all too rare exhibition-as-mirror held up to our modes of perceiving and judging art. That is what you were expecting, right?