Last week, when The Talent Show opened at the Henry Art Gallery, three forced disappearances hovered over global news about wars, revolutions, and economies. Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist who refused to be silent about China's more egregious abuses, remained in detention there, unheard from for weeks. In distant waters, the freshly killed body of Osama bin Laden had been buried at sea in a Muslim ritual, sent to sink into the dark, and photographs of his corpse would similarly not see the light of day. Hitting closest to home, Dorothy Parvaz, a former writer for the defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, had entered Syria as a journalist for Al Jazeera English, and promptly been captured and imprisoned. (See story, page 9.)
Each disappearance was a performance for a watching world, and a countermove within a culture of extreme visibility. The Talent Show—an exhibition of artworks by various artists dating back to 1961—is about this culture of extreme visibility, about performance as a way of life, beginning around the advent of coin-operated photo booths and handheld video cameras and continuing right up through the rise of reality TV, Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube.
"I hope this show has a slightly sinister undertone to it," says Peter Eleey, the curator who originally organized it in Minneapolis, at the Walker Art Center.
The Talent Show is a slightly sinister, wise, and welcome reprieve from the trend in museums toward a certain type of relational aesthetics exhibitions, or exhibitions that activate viewers, changing the conventional relationship between artist and spectator. Too often in those shows, museums seem to act as "neutral zones" within which the more political aspects of relationships are subtly neutralized. Here, there are phantoms rather than promises of communality. We see Warhol's screen test not of a star but of an anonymous girl. We see not Chris Burden's moment of glory, when he had himself shot in the arm, but an empty vitrine announcing his temporary disappearance, and another vitrine containing a yellow-and-black ski mask he wore the entire time during a three-day visit to Kansas City in 1971 in a performance called You'll Never See My Face in Kansas City. (Is art a crime against tourism? It's a fun idea.)
The Talent Show is quiet but determined, dense but penetrable. It's less a curatorial concept and more simply an exhibition of some very good, very timely contemporary art.
The most epic work in The Talent Show, situated physically at the center of the show like a gut, is The Intra-Venus Tapes, 16 videos, each two hours long, playing on 16 monitors arranged in a grid on the wall. Each one captures two hours in the private life of the artist Hannah Wilke during the gruesome years when she was dying of lymphoma. We see her in the bath, combing her remaining hairs, floating naked in a backyard pool, crying from agony, crying from sorrow, vomiting, dancing, grinning lasciviously at the viewer, pulling a false smile for a healthy visitor, peeling bandages away from crusted holes where ports enter her body, spitting up gobs of blood. The Intra-Venus Tapes, shot between 1990 and 1993, makes people flinch, turn away, gag.
But more deeply disturbing are the underlying questions. When is Wilke performing for the camera? What is she gaining from revealing these intimacies to strangers? Can a camera ever capture anything more than a glimpse of an inner life? Do these scenes amount to pain pornography? And if they do, what does that say about the late-20th-century American tendency to look away from disease and death?
Long before she had cancer, Wilke had an unruly relationship with the camera—she was gorgeous, she worked it, and the feminist establishment famously rejected her. The Intra-Venus Tapes is a triumph of ugliness and a demonstration of Wilke's persistence past the point when people want to look. Her final work seems gobsmackingly feminist.
Deliberately, it far from settles the issue of where a camera belongs and what is suitable for broadcast. What if a stranger found your address book and began randomly contacting your friends looking for information about you that she then published as a serialized mystery in a newspaper? That's what the French artist Sophie Calle did for a piece called The Address Book in 2009, and the victim/celebrity, a man she referred to only as Pierre D., was outraged by it (as were some of his friends, who refused interviews, while others indulged the artist at length). Pierre D. responded by convincing the newspaper's editors to print a nude picture of the artist as retribution: an exposure for an exposure. The newspaper pages are in The Talent Show, the nude picture is not.
Or how about this: What if you gave a stranger the rights to your rolls of previously shot film in exchange for him paying to have them developed? That's what English artist Phil Collins does in a work he calls free fotolab (2009)—free in what sense? He solicits submissions in personal ads, then shows the pictures he picks as movie-sized projections in a slide-show format. None of the pictures was meant to be seen by an audience. What is the artist's motivation in choosing these particular pictures to be viewed in dark rooms in museums and art galleries? Are his criteria aesthetic or something else? Many of the scenes are private, some embarrassing. Whose interests is Collins serving?
Look in the direction that Collins is pointing, and you're suddenly swimming around inside the psychology of surveillance, of paranoia, of feeling trapped between only two choices: off-the-grid secrecy or round-the-clock TMI. I can't say what I want to because someone is watching. That's what several people wrote in a blank book the artist Adrian Piper set out at the Museum of Modern Art during the 1970 exhibition Information. She included with the book a notice—included here—that promised that what people wrote would never be used for any purpose, but here are the pages, hanging on the wall in a museum.
They portray a society more naive and unpracticed at self-publishing—these days, museums regularly put out sign-in books, and they never contain much of value, but Piper's exercise drew dozens of responses that were emotionally intense, politically engaged, personal, philosophical, as if people had been waiting with something to say. Today even a homeless man at a library kiosk can turn himself into an anonymous commenting avatar on a blog. The vacuousness of contemporary museum sign-in books seems due at least in part to sign-in fatigue, the fact that everyone is invited to sign in everywhere they go.
What are the risks inherent in making yourself visible? In 1978, Tehching Hsieh made his own wanted poster for being an illegal immigrant to the United States. May as well catch yourself. Or if art is a free zone, then what is the rest of society? In an Argentinean art gallery in 1968, Graciela Carnevale reversed the situation and locked an opening-night crowd inside as a performance piece. Photographs documenting what happened show a well-heeled art patron climbing through a jagged broken window.
Three pieces in The Talent Show ask for your direct participation. You're invited to stand atop Piero Manzoni's 1961 pedestal like a living sculpture to be gawked at/admired. David Lamelas's Limit of a Projection I, from 1967, is simply a spotlight in a darkened room. You're drawn into the light like a moth. The same goes for Peter Campus's 1974 Shadow Projection. When you walk toward a brightly lit screen, your image appears on it, but only seen from the back. You can never turn around to see yourself from the front.
If you could say anything, what would it be? Isn't that the daily challenge of Facebook? But what about the times when you want to say something that does not seem to align with anything you've said before—something akin to dressing goth after years of being country, and just for a day? Or what if Facebook is an inadequate medium for the moment, a set of choices unequipped for expression without altering it, directing it? Forces like these are invisible directors, as a tongue-in-cheek video by John Smith points out. It's called The Girl Chewing Gum. The artist spends the whole video narrating a street scene as though he were telling everyone what to do, when in fact he's just saying what he sees. The cause and effect become pretty wonderfully confused.
These same tensions—between chance, choice, and systems of control—arise in Amie Siegel's collaged YouTube videos of men singing Frank Sinatra's "My Way." When the song is the same every time, you have to ask, Whose way again? As a companion piece, Siegel made a collage of YouTube videos of teenage girls singing "Gotta Go My Own Way" from High School Musical. It's instructive to consider how self-expression looks different across genders and generations. The girls sing straight into a computer camera, as if behind a locked bedroom door, while the men compose their scenes and perform as if onstage.
We can't help ourselves—literally—when life becomes a talent show. "I would have like [sic] to have left it blank," one visitor wrote in Adrian Piper's sign-in book, "but then someone else would have written and my contribution lost."