The September issue of Artforum was unveiled today, and it includes a series of reports and reviews from the 2015 Venice Biennale. Of particular interest is Claire Bishop’s assessment of works by Danh Vo, which she finds to be symptomatic of a modern culture overwhelmed by information. Here’s an excerpt:
To be fair, Vo’s approach to research results in seductive sculptures—and in this respect he is unlike many of his peers, who are content to present vitrines full of texts, and slide shows of appropriated images. But both strategies of research-based art evince a reluctance to synthesize and organize the information in which they are trading; such installations demonstrate that research has taken place but leave it up to the viewer to do the work of drawing the strands together. Again, this operation was once valuable as a counterpoint to dogmatic, elitist histories, but today this open-endedness reads more like a symptom of information overload. Without the work of distillation and synthesis, the past can’t be turned into meaning for today. Nicolas Bourriaud’s term semionaut might be the best designation for this tendency: Surfing from signifier to signifier, the artist invents meandering trajectories between cultural signs. Raw data is gathered and presented, but to aesthetic and ornamental ends.
In Vo’s case, the intensely subjective presentation of biographical or historical detail has a hermetic quality that is at odds with the very idea of intersubjective communication and, by extension, the task of history. Were this tension to be acknowledged, it might be one thing, but it’s much more likely to be suppressed. Yet for Vo’s many fans, the idea of research and the lure of history still lend a certain assurance of critical substance to his art. This is not to criticize his supporters, simply to point up the curious fact that Vo’s totemic, poignant, yet finally disconnected allusions are more akin to diamonds on a necklace—or, better, crystals dangling on a chandelier.
It is worth recalling that the Benjaminian model of history is fundamentally curatorial, revolving around the novel juxtaposition of preexisting objects that jolt the viewer into new awarenesses. The artist-curated exhibitions of the late twentieth century were fundamental to the realization and elaboration of this montage-based curatorial model: not just “Mining the Museum” or Hans Haacke’s shows of the late ’90s but the internalization of institutional critique among a generation of ’90s curators who now run museums in a dynamic and politicized fashion. Their institutions frequently demonstrate that curatorial engagements with history and display are most creative, and most moving, when driven by an engagement with the present, and when they offer—however provisionally—a stab at interpretation. It is all the more painfully ironic, then, that at some point around the millennium, the artist-curated show morphed into a creature that forsakes interpretation (historical or otherwise) for the short-term seductions of captioned sensibility—and who needs artists for this job, when such pleasures exist all over Instagram?
Image: Danh Vo, Lick Me Lick Me, 2015. Via Artforum.