1.18 / Review

Occupy the Empty

By Elysa Lozano June 30, 2010

What sort of tools does an artist utilize to create a more democratic society? For her solo show at Ping Pong Gallery, Amanda Curreri has created an installation that deposits the audience into the set of a courtroom. Visitors can wander through the depopulated space, trying on the roles of the inferred participants to judge the current system and the social phenomena that contribute to it.

Seating for the public, not coincidentally called “the gallery,” is provided for by a wooden bench in the front. Visitors can choose this spectator perspective of the exhibition, with its inherently limited involvement in the proceedings.

The jury box on the right consists of two life-sized Andy Warhol–like prints of rows of chairs, staggered in height and leaning one against the other. To reach a rational consensus of what happened, visitors, like a jury, are invited to closely evaluate the information presented by these objects. The Warhol reference shorthands his famous quote, “The more you look at the same exact thing the more the meaning goes away and the better and emptier you feel.”1 In some instances, the Warholian repetition of screen prints imitates the media spectacle of image overplay, embodying the desensitization that can result from it, an apparently desirable effect. Under the current system, a jury should objectively measure the veracity of allegations and determine whether they break the law. Could an empty jury be a fair one? 

Last Words, 2010; video production. Courtesy of the Artist and Ping Pong Gallery, San Francisco.  

In place of the bar is a three-dimensional, formalistic sculpture of pearls dripping with pearlescent paint. It partially bisects the space just below eye-level, hanging tautly from a rectilinear steel brace. Using this modernistic structural solution to suspend the enlarged pearl necklace, the piece indicates a type of standardization, both within art practice and within social signifiers. Crossing the threshold created by the bar, I became aware of the dangers of how I might occupy the empty. My reading of this piece reveals my personal judgments and preconceived notions. 

In the back, a TV-as-testifier screens black-and-white static. It sits on a stool hung with a laminated series of famous last words. Examples range from the factual, “Gas is running low” (Amelia Earhart); to the endearing, “Come little one and give me your hand” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe); to the grandstanding, “Last words are for fools who haven't said enough” (Karl Marx). This work will be finished after the artist films members of the audience delivering the last words and then presents the video at a screening party. Here visitors could literally occupy the current empty space to anticipate emptiness, signing up to say good-bye.

This final piece of evidence indicates an outcome stacked against the defendant, coupled with an emotive response to the emptiness. The collage concurs with this reading. One of its main elements is a reproduced letter from the infamous anarchist Nicola Sacco to his son, written on the eve of his execution. Pictures of the artist with her father, a victim of medical malpractice, ring the letter. The result of this piece is a humanized perspective of the anarchist and a subjective parallel drawn between his maltreatment and that of Curreri's father.

Jury Box, 2010; screen print and acrylic on canvas, 50 x 156 x 10 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Ping Pong Gallery, San Francisco.

During the trials of Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchist organization (as personified by the accused) was itself put on trial. Both of the men adamantly asserted the rectitude of their cause and the injustice inherent in their trials. From their perspective, the hegemonic ideology of the current political system discredited it. Once stripped of preconceived notions and personal viewpoints, a jury can only convict or exonerate based on the laws already in place. Perhaps the installation is placing the justice system on trial. The emptiness of the jury, the silence of the gallery, and the last words of the witnesses and defendants could be an indictment of the current system.

According to the press release, Curreri is inspired by an upbeat vision for democracy as articulated by political theorist Chantal Mouffe. Her ideas about the tension between majority voice and individual perspective as a field of potential unlock the suggestion that viewers and citizens occupy each of these roles with their highly personalized analyses. Readjusting my reading of the Warholian jury box, a desensitized perspective is not necessarily unbiased. In fact, the opposite could just as easily be true.

Rather than a systemic shift, which the artist configures as an empty vessel, she is advocating the proliferation of subjective perspectives by building a platform of her own. What originally seemed like replicas―artistic styles, objects, last words, a painting replicating television static―are not replicas at all, but highly particular reinterpretations. Each piece presents a distinct configuration between emptiness, (art) historical quotes, and how it interacts with the audience. As a result, this show performs like a courtroom in the artist’s democracy: as a set to test out a variety of interpretations by occupying multiple perspectives. Perhaps then the only way to measure the success of this work would be to call upon the court reporter, as the desk of the invigilator occupies this position, for a full composite of the disparate views of gallery visitors. 

Occupy the Empty is on view at Romer Young Gallery, in San Francisco, through July 11, 2010.

Notes

  1. Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol Sixties (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), p. 50.

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