On 18 Nov, I went with my friend Lilly to an “art quiz-night-” in a pub near East London's famous Whitechapel Gallery. This was a really interesting event, and made me think about the kind of social structures Bourriaurd writes about in Relational Aesthetics. Here we were in a kind of low key performative atmosphere, engaged with the esoteric minutiae of the history of art, drinking beer in a pub. It was hilarious. I think it would work well in Sydney's Hollywood Hotel with the Briefcase Gallery. Questions ranged from “what is the title of the Duchamp readymade of a snow shovel?” to a “name that monochrome” test based on a handout of black and white photocopied images, to “what was renaissance artist Donatello’s full name”. It was hilarious and infuriatingly difficult at the same time, since it showed how little “detail” we know to precision about art historical “facts”. I thought of my friends Elaine and Angel’s "slide recognition tests" they had to do at the National Art School in Sydney. Rote learning is really out of style now…
At the pub, I also met Andrea Fraser, who had done a performance at the Whitechapel Gallery earlier that night. I really liked her piece, which was called "Official Welcome", in which she created a fictional opening speech for a museum or gallery. Fraser is a good actor, taking on several different roles during the performance, alternating between gallerist/director and artist on show, navigating the clichés of that (usually incredibly tedious) ritual. Yet her “speech” was not tedious at all, she weaved close enough to the art world figures we know and love/hate, without ever making explicit parody of any one person. I thought I detected Vito Acconci’s stuttering New York drawl in one of her characterisations (in fact, later in the pub she said it had been a combination of Shirin Neshat and Cy Twombly). And I could have sworn it was Tracey Emin she was lampooning in her faux-impersonation of an artist being honoured for her gritty, truth-telling work, having been through rapes, abortions, suicide attempts. And surely in there was a joke about Vanessa Beecroft and her designer-underwear-supermodels performances. But none of it was clear-cut. My guesses about the sources for her succession of “take-offs” could be totally off the mark – it could be that in five years time, the exact same performance would seem to ape a completely different set of artists/gallerists. Perhaps the "types" stay the same, but are occupied by different real people. At the pub I suggested she should come to Sydney with her piece, I would love to see it at the MCA, where Liz Anne MacGregor is routinely drowned out by the loud conversation of alcohol-guzzling guests not at all interested in hearing her say yet again, “the work can be understood on many levels.” I mentioned this MacGregor classic to Fraser, she said it was a good one and maybe she would try work it into her next piece.
Fraser’s previous work has included similar “institutional critique”, including pretending to be a museum guide, and focusing visitors’ attention on “peripheral areas such as the museum’s canteen rather than its collection” and “incorporating references to class, sexual and cultural difference that are generally elided by official histories”. (Quotes from Whitechapel catalogue spiel about Fraser). In another piece, she visited the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, borrowed the official audio tour guide, and proceeded to respond to its “lyrical and sensual” descriptions of the building by rubbing her body up against “the curvaceous walls”, all documented by a hidden camera. In an earlier work, she pretended to be a museum director – (from the Whitechapel catalogue) – “taking the podium unannounced during the opening of the triennial art event in San Diego, inSITE, Fraser surprised the crowd with an oration that went well beyond the limits of accepted protocol, weaving references to the NAFTA trade agreement into the exhibitions rhetoric about supporting cross cultural activity. The real inSITE director was then required to take to the stage and, rather awkwardly, deliver the real speech in a very similar vein.”
When I spoke to Fraser in the pub, I realised that I had misinterpreted the framework of her performance pieces. I had assumed, through reading the text in the Whitechapel Gallery catalogue, that her “interventions” were unauthorised, mischievous (but ultimately harmless) actions. No, she told me, the catalogue was slightly misleading, and the works were presented in collaboration with the venues concerned. My friends Lilly and Will had suspected as much – they said they had seen the hidden video documentation of the Guggenheim piece, and they thought that it was “too high quality” and “the angles were too good” for it to have been a "real" guerrilla action within the museum.
So the “institutional critique” she makes is carried out with the permission of the very venues she lampoons. Why shouldn’t I have expected that? Naturally, museums must be clamouring for her to grace them with a work, hungry, self-centred attention-seekers that they are (the museums, that is). As one of her collector-characters said in her “Official Welcome” speech, “we mainly collect art about sex and excrement. We’ve always loved her work”. Is Fraser any more than the art-world’s stand up comic? Could it be possible that her work has the potential to transform the institutions which smile politely and lap up the attention, as she sends them up? Perhaps that’s not important, or maybe it’s too much to ask anyway. With “Official Welcome” she is telling it like it T-I-S, exposing the spurious prestige-swapping relationship between artists and the gallerists and museum staff who “(re)present” them. I had a hearty laugh, and that’s rare enough in art these days.