/ January 21, 2008

"Photographic Memory"

“I’m not going to talk about the exhibition in any detail now, as many people would fall asleep.” Okwui Enwezor is usually not one for such rhetorical caginess, as evinced by his thorough dissection of last summer’s European “Grand Tour” in September's Artforum, yet in addressing the crowd at the Thursday-morning press preview of his new group exhibition at New York’s International Center of Photography, he had evidently decided that it would be best to save his theoretical chops for a more opportune moment. Introduced as “our globe-trotting adjunct curator,” the slender, dark-suited Enwezor thus gave only the briefest of introductions to “Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art,” but later led an energetic walk-through that saw the assembled scribes eddying through the ICP’s extensively reconfigured lower galleries in a desperate effort to keep up. Barbara Bloom, whose exhibition “The Collections of Barbara Bloom” (characterized with wearisome frequency by staffers and the artist herself as “a cross between a midcareer retrospective and an estate sale”) occupied the upstairs galleries, was a shade more exploratory in her own thank-you speech but also saved the serious stuff for her guided tour.

The shows’ evening openings may have suffered a little from inclement weather and an early-closing bar (necessitated by insurance concerns), but were busy nonetheless. Bloom and Enwezor were present and correct, as were a smattering of artists from the latter’s show, including Stan Douglas, Lamia Joreige, and Ilán Lieberman. (“Archive Fever”—Derrida devotees will recognize the title—also features work by the likes of Walid Raad, Lorna Simpson, Hans-Peter Feldmann, and Anri Sala, among others.) Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, senior curator at large Francesco Bonami, arriving with entourage, momentarily confused Bloom’s multifaceted arrangement with Enwezor’s, but soon solved the puzzle and headed downstairs. There, ICP chief curator Brian Wallis and director Willis Hartshorn were occupied ushering visitors around the space—made rather bunkerlike by a black and tan color scheme—while Bloom lorded, amiably, over her visually brighter presentation above. Both shows have plenty to offer; Bloom’s arrangement is playful and personal (it doesn’t get much more personal than her signature installation, The Reign of Narcissism), while Enwezor’s, which takes Hal Foster’s formulation of an “archival impulse” as its jumping-off point, is complex, persuasive, and not in the least soporific.

The following evening, an overambitious attempt to haul ass from a party in honor of artist Jen DeNike at MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach’s Chinatown apartment to a musical performance at the smaller of Friedrich Petzel Gallery’s two Chelsea spaces in just ten minutes left me ten minutes late—and hanging around an awkward corner from the action. I ought to have anticipated the mob; raising the ruckus were avant-garde musician and filmmaker Tony Conrad and artists John Miller, Mike Kelley, and Jutta Koether. Critic Martha Schwendener and I exchanged notes and attempted, in vain, to see around the most impenetrable of walls as the sound emanating from behind it swelled.

We weren’t alone in our frustration; an understandably disgruntled-looking Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were at our backs, as was Performa curator RoseLee Goldberg. Writer and editor Domenick Ammirati and I exchanged “Is this good?” shrugs across Petzel’s lobby as we tried to imagine the sources of the various disjointed bellows, scrapes, slaps, thumps, hoots, and rumbles that drifted our way from the room itself. Periodic bursts of applause or laughter (“There’s something really funny happening now,” someone offered, helpfully) further piqued my curiosity, and a couple of sneaked photographs revealed some curious goings-on indeed: Kelley wielding a long, polelike instrument and Conrad dressed, leprechaunlike, entirely in emerald green. Quitting the scene alongside curator Bob Nickas and artist Kathe Burkhart, I resolved to stake my claim a little earlier next time; ten minutes is a long time in the art world.

Image: Artists Jutta Koether, John Miller, and Mike Kelley