I promised, so I deliver.
I managed to go to the New York State of Mind exhibition in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt this week, and even surrendered five euros to see it. I have to say, having covered similar events for six years for the Wall Street Journal and having been to plenty of others as a civilian, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a show as incoherent and empty as this one. Since it closes on Sunday, I’m saving you the trouble of going.
Now, someone who grew up in New York like I did can be expected to be prejudiced when it comes to a show like this. You can bet that there will be expectations unmet. You might also expect that observations will be put forth with which a native New Yorker will disagree. And, reviewing a show like that, you have to take all of that into consideration yourself and work to block those prejudices. So that’s the attitude I walked in with.
But…what was this show about? I wasn’t offended, didn’t disagree, because I honestly didn’t understand what the hell it had to do with New York City. You see, any museum show should allow any reasonably intelligent member of the public to walk through it and understand what the curators were thinking, what they decided to show, and, perhaps, evaluate the degree to which they succeeded in presenting the material at hand. If there weren’t signs telling you this show was about New York, you’d never catch on.
The first thing you see when you walk into the main room is one of Marcel Duchamp’s multiples, where he packed miniature versions of his Greatest Hits into a box, which he then sold through a gallery. No explanation is given for this object’s presence. It’s true that Duchamp spent time in New York and made his breakthrough at the infamous Armory Show in 1913, but he’s alone in representing his generation and pretty much everything else he stood for here. The other works in the room vary wildly in quality, although for the most part they’re mediocre at best. Exceptions are a wall of photos by Mary Ellen Mark, whose little girls with Batman photo is one of the images being used to sell the show on its posters. There’s also a video by Gordon Matta-Clark which caught my eye, but it’s mounted at floor level with the sound turned way down, so I had no chance to experience it.
Other than that, this main room contains numerous photographs by a German photographer of various lectures and conferences and panel discussions he attended in New York — hardly riveting stuff — and a couple of charts purporting to show the march of art and the march of Carolee Schneemann, who is also represented by a bunch of stills from her performances. You’d think she was the only important New York artist around from the attention she’s given here. There’s also documentation of a couple of performance pieces, like the Chinese artist who lived out of doors in New York for a year, and someone else who apparently distilled and bottled his own sweat. There are some grainy videos, and one by a Berlin artist shot from his bike as he rides the wrong way in traffic in New York, New Orleans, and Berlin. Above the main exhibition area is an installation involving spilled paint and potting-soil bags with Martin Luther King’s face on them.
There’s also another area where there lives a large, loud installation that’s very disorietning, which I guess could be argued is also a simulation of New York City at its most bustling and confusing. Next to that is a room with photographs by German photographer Josephine Meckseper (who, admittedly, lives in New York), including one of two icy blondes in a ridiculously luxurious apartment, one wearing a necklace with the letters CDU and the other wearing one with CSU. Now, that’s New York! As you leave this area, there’s a video installation about Rome.
Like I said, if the signs everywhere didn’t tell you this was about New York, you’d never guess.
What it is, as far as I can tell, is Theory run amok. German intellectuals are big on Theory as the wellspring of all action. It never occurs to them that some creative people just create, nor does it occur to them that sometimes theorizing is a dry and sterile action. Someone got so carried away with the theory behind this exhibition that it escaped the bounds of gravity and soared into the intellectual stratosphere, away from any bonds tying it to the subject matter at hand.
Ah, well, I should complain. It appears that the New York end of this is mostly about classical music. Whether that’s all they could think of, or whether it’s all they were offered, I don’t know. But if New York State of Mind is a preview of what the new, improved Haus der Kulturen der Welt is going to offer, it’s not going to be a place I visit very often.