Do It & Do It (Archive)


Do It & Do It (Archive)

By Glen Helfand July 14, 2015

The kicky collage video presented at the beginning of this Hans Ulrich Obrist-curated, Independent Curators International-distributed exhibition is a condensed introduction to relational aesthetics. But it also makes an intriguing boast: Do It is the longest touring art exhibition, ever. For twenty years, in various variable forms, this cleverly packaged survey of instructional art has been appearing in museums and galleries around the globe. It’s hard to resist placing it in the framework of other world-record-holding cultural artifacts such as, say, long-running Broadway musicals (Cats! Phantom! Les Mis!). But the exhibition’s endurance raises built-in questions about its premise: Do once-challenging conceptual, interactive projects grow stale or more democratic the longer they float through culture? 

For those who haven’t encountered the exhibition (its last local appearance was at the Palo Alto Cultural Center back in 1997), the premise and process are self-generating. The presenting institution chooses 25 classic and more recent instructional works from the 250 provided in the exhibition publication—in a sense “branding” these works as Do It pieces—and creates them onsite with locally sourced materials and makers. It’s an economical way for small museums to have major names on their walls, as well as a means to engage audiences in a more direct way through creation of the works on view. 

The Napa Valley Museum presentation fits this profile, with the locally sourced components having a particular Northern California flavor. The venue is amid buildings on a veterans’ campus, which also includes a public swimming pool and a small arena fit for county-fair livestock rodeos—amenities that would be perfect for some kind of public programming (though there are no aquatics related to the show). Placing relational artists in this kind of setting actually has an energizing effect, or at least a sense of heartiness that might be impossible in fussier art venues.  

The tone here seems a bit more community-minded, offering an entertaining and edifying entry to conceptualism for locals and adventurous, well-heeled visitors who have a little time to kill before their dinner reservation at the French Laundry. The inclusion of Do It (Archive), a collection of text panels on key historical works in the “Do It” genre, previous Do It presentations, and printed ephemera offer a bit of context prior to the main gallery, where the works have been created and displayed. 

The exhibition’s visually commanding centerpiece is Alison Knowles’ Homage to Each Red Thing, a 1996 work that calls for red objects to be placed on squares marked on the gallery floor. The carefully arranged objects are vibrant and random, and seem better composed than the 2001 Sol LeWitt work. The lengthily titled instructions for the latter call for a wall drawing that comes off more like a concentric doodle in a high-school textbook, as does Uri Aran’s 2012 call to draw whatever you want directly on the wall. These pieces are more fun to do than to view.

Food-related projects are in the mix, which is fitting for the location. There is an untitled Félix González-Torres pile from 1991 that calls for local, wrapped candy—here expressed in homely sampler packs of jelly beans provided by exhibition sponsor Jelly Belly. Elmgreen & Dragset’s Dinner for Two (2002) calls for a tablecloth to be pulled from under an elegantly set dining table, the shards left as performance evidence of a failed magic trick. 

Sol LeWitt. A black not straight line is drawn at approximately the center of the wall horizontally from side to side. Alternate red, yellow, and blue lines are drawn above and below the black line to the top and the bottom of the wall, 2001. Photo: Glen Helfand.

Another work to be destroyed is Mircea Cantor’s 2004 call to “Burn this book. ASAP.” The tome in question is the Do It catalog, a charred version of which is displayed in a vitrine; a less interactive gesture, but one that aggressively and wittily jabs at the exhibition context.

There’s an engaging playfulness to much of the work on display, suggested by the way that many of the projects bleed into each other. For example, confetti is strewn along the baseboards throughout, including below the already chaotic doodle wall, though I couldn’t link its presence to a source work. This aspect is also the presentation’s undoing, as all the rubble of so much discrete activity begins to look haphazard and messy, a situation not helped by the physically clunky labels and texts that have been printed on clear vinyl and affixed to the wall’s irregular surfaces. The disarray suggests that while the DIY aesthetic doesn’t require much cash outlay, you get what you pay for in regard to finish. The rough edges start to make the works seem stale.

As a kind of reprieve, Yoko Ono gets to spend her time outdoors, in fresher air. Her beloved Wish Piece (1996) is installed by a picnic table and can bask in the Napa Valley summer heat. The tree tagged with viewers’ handwritten wishes serves as a marker of the moment. In the leaves, I spotted a hope to end racism, but also a yearning to be in Hawaii next summer. Or was that covert advertising for the 2016 Do It tour schedule? Despite critical opinions, the show will go on. 

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Do It & Do It (Archive) is on view at Napa Valley Museum, in Yountville, through August 30, 2015.

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