Let's Only Entertain You
In The Medium Is the Message: An Inventory of Effects (1967), Marshall McLuhan envisioned the Global Village, a synchronized world where time and space has vanished and multimedia engulfs everyone. McLuhan thought the media would put us back in touch with ancestral emotions, from which print had divorced us. Charming view, but reality is more insidious. By manipulating, filtering, and distorting the message, the visual media can generate and redirect human behavior. Much of what we see, hear, and read today is processed along with this prime-time TV attitude of cool relaxation -- a moment when labor-exhausted Americans may give up critical faculties in exchange for spoon-fed gratification.
With TV and more recently the Web, we're literally bombarded with far more information than we can possibly assimilate, yet we've grown used to it and still enjoy it: political babbling, endlessly advertised foods, survivor shows, stupid wrestling choreographies, virtual wars.
It may be that we tune in not because we want to learn something new or reconsider our own ways of life but because we need media reassurances about our own beliefs and prejudices. They get our attention by giving us what we want to see and hear and, thus, believe -- a grim picture of a robotic world that's quite possibly true. Miami Art Museum's most recent show, "Let's Entertain: Life's Guilty Pleasures," curated by Philippe Vergne and Olukemi Ilesanmi for the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, embraces this problem. The exhibition catalogue is candid about becoming "more and more ... attracted by the seduction and entertainment of popular culture." For Vergne "the works in this exhibition move from irony to cynicism to hedonism to a certain melancholic quality." It would be interesting to find out how and why.
Video, perhaps the most fluid medium, has a strong presence in the show. I sensed pre- and post-MTV approaches, with the old school dabbling at ridicule, exaggeration, or conceptual symbolism in a confrontational manner, while the younger generation retreats to a postmodern gloom of cynicism (though they may appear amusing) or just plain emptiness. Really pissed off at not being able to break through and, instead of admitting it, deriding it? Some of this generation has become seduced by the burden of contemporary problems instead of trying to solve them.
Compare Dara Birbaum's Kiss the Girls, exploring and ridiculing gender stereotypes, and Dan Graham's provocative exploration of sacred and profane rituals in Rock My Religion. Or Stan Douglas's intelligent and pungent Monodramas vis-à-vis Rineke Dijkstra's The Buzz Club/Mystery World, a room installation of vacant-looking adolescents dancing to layered techno beats. Or take in Chasing 2000, a tedious video of two guys in basketball uniforms bouncing a soccer ball off their heads, trying to reach 1000 without the ball falling, and never succeeding, by Roderick Buchanan. The late Andy Warhol's celebrity-interview babblings are added to the mix, as are Kyupi Kyupi's farcical karaokelike sci-fi antics, which are innocuously fun and, yes, bland. The last work succumbs to either the gloss of the image or the self-absorbed indulgence of the message.
Signaling parallel subversive iconographies, Paul McCarthy's four-by-four panel installation of photos successfully implodes Disney, der Führer's regime, and Arian eugenics. One photo reads, "This Mercedes is displayed not to glorify Hitler's Third Reich or the Nazi Government. Please, take a brochure." There also is Yen Boutique, an installation where confrontation becomes emblematic, with a clever display of TV patterns intersected with symbols to illustrate our habits of media consumption, as well as how the status quo develops this appetite.
Other works in the show don't deal with entertainment per se but with the junction among sculpture, architecture, and interior design. Not quite installations, they take special lighting and materials to suggest moods of private comfort. Check out Speech Bubble, an assemblage of white cloth balloons set against the museum ceiling by Philippe Parreno, and Dike Blair's Spring Snow Melts Easily, a carpeted section of a bed colored in fluorescent lights. And there's the captivating and retro-looking plastic capsule with faintly glowing lotus petals, evoking late-Sixties science-fiction nostalgia by Japanese artist Mariko Mori, titled Enlightenment Capsule.
Avant-pop comes full circle in Japan's incorporation of early-Sixties American culture with a strong animation tradition. Takashi Murakami's two life-size fiberglass sculptures of adolescent anime characters (they look more like blow-up dolls) juxtapose innocence and perversion ingeniously. It's as if Murakami stops the animations at the point when male and female squeeze their milky loads from their huge appendages -- which then engulf them in a baroque delirium.
Finally there's the catalogue. A conversation takes place between curators Vergne and Ilesanmi as they slowly proceed to justify their position by reducing meaningful, everyday life to media bits and entertainment. "We are more involved in fictions that are built beyond us, which may trap us," confesses Vergne. He adds, "One of the ideas of the project is the impossibility of looking at our society of spectacle from the outside." And, "to divert or amuse ... is the best way to describe what's happening in everyday life."
To which part of the world's everyday life is Vergne referring? The Third World? No matter what we do, the forces of media will assimilate our critiques, Vergne counsels, so don't be an outsider. Become instead an insider, professing "aesthetic alliance" with the entertainment industry. He even encourages us to work like Jeff Koons, whom Vergne takes as a paradigm for the show "in almost every way."
Art can be related to entertainment, but it's wrong to assume that it intrinsically entertains. Art can teach us something, make us think, or simply touch us deeply. I don't know whether to think Vergne's purported complicity is the result of impotence, ignorance, or bad faith. But his admission of surrender to an omnipotent media could take him to a very dangerous place, where his own distinctions "outside" and "inside" wouldn't matter anymore.
No wonder "Let's Entertain" barely touches violence. Perhaps violent art is deemed too disagreeable, breaking the show's bubbly ambiance. Symbolic, then, is a piece by Minako Nishimaya, Dressing-up Room, a wood-paneled Barbie-esque environment filled with Rococo ornaments and flowery motifs. The empty space contains distorted mirrors, a perfect metaphor for guilt -- a childish aversion to truth.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Miami and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.