Mourning in America

Anne Ellegood

We are the institution.
—Andrea Fraser#

Public spaces are political arenas in which power is gained, recognized, underwritten, disputed, attacked, lost and gained.
—Adrian Piper#

All art, from the crassest mass-media production to the most esoteric art world practice, has a political existence, or, more accurately, an ideological existence. It either challenges or supports (tacitly perhaps) the dominant myths a culture calls Truth.
—Martha Rosler#

Stephen Prina's The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You: Mourning Sex (2005–7) has all the markings of a work of institutional critique, that loosely defined genre of contem­porary art that seeks to evaluate and question the position of art in relationship to various cultural and political contexts.# Looking beyond the frame of the artwork itself, works of institutional critique recognize that art exists within a discursive field and grapple with the concentric or overlapping circles of spatial, temporal, cultural, social, economic, and political structures—or "institutions"—that "frame" the work in other ways. Largely an outgrowth of the conceptual art practices of the 1960s and 1970s, works of institutional critique like Prina's often involve installations of (sometimes disparate) elements rather than individual, purportedly autonomous objects.#

Like other "strong" works of institutional critique (and I bor­row the descriptor here from James Meyer), Prina's installation continuously calls attention to context, overtly positioning itself within its "social domain" to deflect an insular solipsism.# It addresses modes of display and reveals aspects of the production and distribution methods that are integral to the day-to-day opera­tions of the art world yet often remain hidden from the public, in this case by converting the crates in which the work travels into padded benches placed in the middle of the gallery so that viewers can find, as Prina puts it, "a modicum of comfort."# One of three related installations, The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You: Mourning Sex shares the basic components of the others in the series: padded benches, colored walls with matching carpeting, painted text on the wall, a tall vertical painting using a window blind as its ground, a light-box image, speakers, and a sound track. Each work in the series, however, addresses different subject matter, indicated in the subtitle, thereby filling these forms with different content. Mourning Sex takes as its subject the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Its walls are painted a pale blue to match the cover of the 2006 monograph devoted to Gonzalez-Torres.# A text painted directly on the wall in large white letters reads, " . . . things Felix forgot to tell us," a simple statement implying how much more this artist would have contributed to our culture had his life not been cut short by AIDS in 1996. Credits for the book's contributors are stenciled onto the outside of the benches, while the sound track features Prina singing a catchy pop song he wrote for Gonzalez-Torres accompanied by chords strummed gently on the guitar. The lyrics of the song are compiled from the testimonials featured in the book, like "To make this place a better place for everyone," "You're probably the first artist to get viewers to put part of a work in their mouths and suck on it . . . oral gratification," "Next to torture, art is the greatest persuader," and completing the phrase on the wall, "As the things Felix forgot to tell us are true." 

Stephen Prina, "The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You: Mourning Sex," 2005–7. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Stephen Prina, The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You: Mourning Sex, 2005–7. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology. February 9–May 18, 2014. Photography by Brian Forrest

This room-size immersive environment takes up questions about how an artist's work is experienced and understood after his or her death, becoming a meditation of sorts on the transposition that art undergoes from private invention to public consumption to the subject of discourse by providing another avenue—another form—to circulate what others have written about it. Prina's work operates from two opposing but deeply enmeshed positions—one intellectual (or conceptual), the other emotional (or affective). Both, it seems, reside in a temporal position of after: after Gonzalez-Torres's death and the textual examination and interpretation that came after he produced the work. The analytic aspects of Prina's work address the activities that occur around and outside the art itself—the support system of art, we might call it, or its discursive residue—as none of Gonzalez-Torres's actual works are featured in the installation (even in the form of photographic reproductions). But in addition to the insights into the discipline of art history and the practices of museums, there is an undeniable emotional tenor to the work that quickly pushes it past a straightforward investigation of the circulation of art, the tropes of installation, and the types of information dissemination and analysis that figure prominently in how contemporary art's meanings are ascribed. Indeed it seems that Prina uses the intellectual to create the emotional, for the deep engagement and enthusiastic interpretations that emanate from the words of those committed to Gonzalez-Torres's practice are palpably present. Prina creates a conceptual framework—with its systems and structures and seemingly "dry" cerebral approach—and impreg­nates it with affect. Not arbitrarily, not in an overly theatrical way: rather it is as if he is simply calling attention to what is already there, using the strategy of appropriation, the naming of names, and the crediting of voices to suggest that these feelings have of course been circulating all along—and that, moreover, they originate in the works of Gonzalez-Torres themselves.#

The benches in the installation seem to be a direct response to one of the defining features of Gonzalez-Torres's working methodol­ogy: generosity. Devising strategies that were simultaneously utterly innocuous (and therefore nonthreatening) and profoundly directed (in other words, inevitably leading to the implication of the viewer in a set of sociopolitical realities), Gonzalez-Torres embraced beauty and comfort as a way to encourage participation. He believed that art's potency and vitality reside in the exchange between the work of art and its viewer and looked for ways to amplify this potential. Yet this strategy was a means to a different end than mere insipid "engagement." Gonzalez-Torres inscribed his forms—candies that visitors are invited to consume, posters offered as takeaways, a billboard featuring an image of a cozy bed with white sheets imprinted with the bodies that recently slept there, or two clocks marking time side by side—with reminders of society's most urgent concerns, like the AIDS crisis, and contested debates, such as equal rights for homosexuals. His work "indicts the audience," as bell hooks put it, adding, "We are witnesses unable to escape the truth of what we have seen."#

Prina allows his installation to show signs of wear—the carpet is never cleaned to ensure that it carries the traces of visitors, and the crates naturally accrue the scars of travel—and a sense of loss infuses Mourning Sex. Indeed, although Gonzalez-Torres is the subject of the work, it is perhaps his absence that is most profoundly felt, transforming the installation into a sort of eulogy or a space of mourning, as the title indicates. Gonzalez-Torres's work is both everywhere and nowhere in the installation. Eschewing the inclusion of the artist's work, Prina tries to capture something more elusive, yet perhaps more lasting, about it: its tone or the feelings that it gener­ates. Mourning Sex encapsulates and then mirrors in its own form and content what is so powerful about Gonzalez-Torres's work and why we continue to want to experience it today. Both are quiet yet impactful, beautiful yet corporeal, comfortable yet unsettling, simul­taneously present and absent. Prina's installation itself is both private and public—its idiosyncrasy a fitting approach to a contemplation of his personal relationship with Gonzalez-Torres and his practice. And yet Mourning Sex is also deeply aware of the public position of Gonzalez-Torres's work and its influence on generations of artists. Despite being a site infused with grief, the installation can also be understood as a celebration, a remembrance of an artist who in a very short career had an enduring impact on the field of contemporary art. 

Excerpted from Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology. Copyright © 2014 by the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, Inc. Published by DelMonico Books, an imprint of Prestel. The full essay can be found in the exhibition catalogue, available here.

Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology.  February 9–May 18, 2014. Photography by Brian Forrest
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (USA Today), 1990; Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (Death by Gun), 1990; Jenny Holzer, MEMORANDUM FOR CONDOLEEZZA RICE GREEN, 2006; Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 2014 (up against the wall motherfucker), 2014, and Glenn Ligon, Condition Report, 2000; Fred Wilson, Love and Loss in the Milky Way, 2005; Robert Gober, September 12, 2005–9.
Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology. February 9–May 18, 2014. Photography by Brian Forrest On floor, center: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (USA Today), 1990; on floor, left: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (Death by Gun), 1990; left wall: Jenny Holzer, MEMORANDUM FOR CONDOLEEZZA RICE GREEN, 2006; back wall, from left to right: Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 2014 (up against the wall motherfucker), 2014, and Glenn Ligon, Condition Report, 2000; dividing wall: Fred Wilson, Love and Loss in the Milky Way, 2005; far right wall: Robert Gober, September 12, 2005–9. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Indeed Gonzalez-Torres's work is pivotal to an impulse at the heart of Take It or Leave It: the desire of artists to insert representa­tion, the body, materiality, and affect into a conceptual art practice committed to evaluating the ideologies inherent to the institutions that make up our society. These artists believe that art has a role to play in transforming these institutions, arguing for a politics in art that is considered by many to be either outside the scope of art's purview or largely ineffectual. And the affective qualities of their art—the emotion, the melancholy, the anger—are in fact entangled within its politics. Bennett Simpson once described the precise juxtapositions that Prina sets in motion in his work as "a specificity that is political even if one recognizes it as affect or slippage."# When asked by fellow artist Gregg Bordowitz what political art is and how it operates, Andrea Fraser wrote, "I would define political art as art that consciously sets out to intervene in (and not just reflect on) relations of power, and this necessarily means on rela­tions of power in which it exists."# Of her generation and what they believed their art could do, Sherrie Levine remarked, "we wanted to make a difference, to show some resistance to the status quo."# In short, artists engaged with institutional critique, in its admittedly many forms, believe that art matters.

The methodology that is central to Prina's Mourning Sex—in which one artist chooses to make a work about another artist or an existing artwork—is shared by a number of works in the exhibition, including those by Tom Burr, Andrea Fraser, Renée Green, Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Glenn Ligon, John Miller, Christopher Williams, and Sue Williams. Moreover, there are projects in Take It or Leave It in which artists collaborated directly, including works coauthored by Mark Dion and Jason Simon, Jimmie Durham and Maria Thereza Alves, Robert Gober and Sherrie Levine, and Kelley and McCarthy. This interest in exploring the work of other artists or working collaboratively goes beyond personal relationships or shared interests. Indeed it surpasses acknowledgment of influence or the critical analysis of another's work, even while those impulses may figure importantly in the work. This inclination—what we might call a position of shared authorship—is, rather, ideological and conceptual. It is evident in the earliest works in the exhibition—those by Mary Kelly, Adrian Piper, and Martha Rosler—and is brought into sharp relief by the artists of the following generation—Judith Barry, Gretchen Bender, Dara Birnbaum, Jimmie Durham, Jenny Holzer, Silvia Kolbowski, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, William Leavitt, Sherrie Levine, Paul McCarthy, Allan McCollum, and Haim Steinbach—who embraced expansive appropriation strategies by boldly incorporat­ing existing images and forms into their works.

In part, collaboration was a way to resist the traditional notions of authorship and autonomy that had so long held sway in our conceptions of the artist's role. Sherrie Levine has said, "I enjoy collaborations with other artists . . . because I like transgres­sional boundaries, leaky distinctions, dualisms, fractured identities, monstrosity, and perversity. I like contamination. I like miscegena­tion."# These artists believe that, as Fraser wrote of Lawler, "artistic endeavor is always a collective endeavor."# This notion of the "collective" is more than a fact of collaboration among artists, although it bears mentioning that the collective activities of artists who formed groups in the 1970s and 1980s were integral to the contemporary art practices of the period.# Fraser's reference to the collective here is a deliberate alignment with perspectives on authorship that were central to the articulation and framing of postmodernist practices. Critical of modernism's continued perpetuation of the idea of the artist as an enlightened "genius" whose self-expressive work is transcendent, timeless, and universally understood, these artists argued that, by contrast, art is pregnant with layers of historical and contemporary references, an inevitable amalgamation of what came before. While its sources may be direct and identifiable or fragmented and distanced, art is derived from a shared, collective field of images, forms, and knowledge.

Andrea Fraser, "From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique," Artforum 44 (September 2005): 283.

Adrian Piper, "Some Thoughts on the Political Character of This Situation" (1983), in Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists' Writings, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 243.

Martha Rosler, "Lookers, Buyers, Dealers, and Makers: Thoughts on Audience," in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975–2001 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; New York: International Center of Photography, 2004), 26.

The now-defunct artists' collective Group Material put it perfectly in a 1983 statement: "We invite everyone to question the entire culture we have taken for granted." Group Material, "Statement," in Alberro and Stimson, Institutional Critique, 238–39.

Nonetheless, works of this genre do not take the form of installation exclusively, and Take It or Leave It makes evident that institutional critique can also reside in an individual object, whether a painting, a sculpture, or a single-channel video.

James Meyer explores the distinction between "strong" and "weak" works of institutional critique in his text "The Strong and the Weak: Andrea Fraser and the Conceptual Legacy," in Exhibition: Andrea Fraser (Vancouver, BC: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 2004), especially 20–22.

Stated in the press release for Prina's exhibition The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You at Petzel Gallery, New York, November 9–December 23, 2006.

Julie Ault, ed., Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Göttingen, Germany: SteidlDangin, 2006). Edited by Gonzalez-Torres's close friend and collaborator in Group Material, Julie Ault, the book deliberately takes an alternative approach to the idea of the mono­graph, including new commissions and reprints of existing texts by a wide variety of people—Amada Cruz, Marguerite Dumas, Russell Ferguson, Miwon Kwon, Tim Rollins, Susan Sontag, and Robert Storr, among others—along with the artist's lecture transcripts, personal correspondence, and interviews.

Several publications over the past dozen years have delved into affect theory and examinations of the body's sensations and emotions within the context of contem­porary life. See Jennifer Doyle, Hold It against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Con­temporary Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013); Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); Eve Meltzer, Systems We Have Loved: Conceptual Art, Affect, and the Antihumanist Turn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005); Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); see also The Affect Theory Reader, ed. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

bell hooks, "Subversive Beauty: New Modes of Contestation," in Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: New Press, 1995), 46.

"How Far We've Come from the River: A Conversation between Bennett Simpson and Stephen Prina," in The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You: Stephen Prina, exh. cat., Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden (Cologne: König, 2008), 142.

Gregg Bordowitz, "Tactics Inside and Out: Gregg Bordowitz on Critical Art Ensemble," Artforum 43 (September 2004): 212–17.

"Sherrie Levine Talks to Howard Singerman," Artforum 41 (April 2003): 190.

Sherrie Levine, "Production Notes," Artforum 46 (October 2007): 331.

Andrea Fraser, "In and Out of Place," in Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser, ed. Alexander Alberro (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 17; first published in Art in America 73 (June 1985): 122–29.

These organizations include ABC No Rio, ACT UP and its offshoot Gran Fury, the women's collective A.I.R., Asco, COLAB (Collaborative Projects), General Idea, Group Material, the Guerrilla Girls, the National Art Workers Community, Watts Towers Arts Center, the Woman's Building, and more.