Public Works: Artists’ Interventions 1970s–Now

9.1 / Review

Public Works: Artists’ Interventions 1970s–Now

By Natasha Boas December 9, 2015

A wise woman once said, “The art world has been all too willing to get rid of the political in art making.”1 Curators Christian L. Frock and Tanya Zimbardo attempt to correct this deficit in their ambitious show Public Works: Artists' Interventions 1970s–Now at the Mills College Art Museum, which features twenty-two artists whose works “explore the inherent politics and social conditions of creating art in public spaces.”2

At a time when public practice has become common in museum programming, due in part to a necessity for new audiences and extramuros presence, more and more artwork takes the form of social practice, performance, or artistic intervention ascending over permanent collections.3 Enticing not only for the key words in the exhibition title, it is the phenomenal roster of artists that promises content for gauging artistic civic responsiveness in the public sphere through historic works and contemporary methodologies. But really, let’s be honest, more than the title itself, it is the invisible subtitle—the all-women artist lineup—that is the exhibition’s real brand and banner. 

#WomenAtWork has become the de facto social-media title for this exhibition, but this gender specificity is also where the curatorial positioning of the show breaks down. The curators have done great work in selecting compelling projects; many are already well known, and others are to be discovered for the first time. Certainly, historic standouts include Bonnie Ora-Sherk’s performance-activist Sitting Still series (1970), Karen Finley’s 1-900-All-Karen (1998) collection of daily recorded voice messages accessed by the public over six months, and Agnes Denes’ Wheatfield–A Confrontation (1982). Tania Bruguera’s Tatlin’s Whisper #6 (2009) is a strong example of audience participation and political practice, while The Empty Plaza/La Plaza Vacia (2012) by Coco Fusco (who shares the Havana locale and political context) conceives of public space as a repository of memory and revolutionary desire. It is Amy Balkin who may expand the field the furthest with Public Smog (2004–ongoing), an atmospheric park as public space project composed by social, political, and economic forces well beyond conventional earthbound art-practice limitations.

There is also little doubt that the exhibition and the individual works are a great argument for going forward in arts programming with a charge that seems ever more urgent in the contemporary field: not to withdraw but to help do the work of making intervention in the public sphere an art form more present in today’s world. Displaying the projects primarily through documentation, the show also points to the fact that the field of public practice depends on education, publications, cooperative art production, internet performances and technology as a public platform, and peripatetic exhibiting. The show argues that public art audiences are not singular, homogeneous, or geographically entrenched. All of this is very well supported by the exhibition, and yet I was left wondering what the rationale was in choosing all women artists. What are the reasons for this choice, especially when most of the projects are not about gender specificity? What of the inherent politics and social conditions around gender issues in creating art in public spaces? Is this not what the sum of the individual projects in the show is addressing? 

  Guerrilla Girls. Do Women Have to be Naked to Get In the Met. Museum, 1989; billboard design. Courtesy of the Artists and guerrillagirls.com. 

The catalog essays could have helped substantiate what seems to be a desired and intentional feminist impulse behind the show. In Tanya Zimbardo’s discussion of Suzanne Lacy’s Oakland Projects, she quotes Moira Roth, the feminist theorist and an art historian at Mills College, reflecting on Lacy’s Code 33: Emergency! Clear the Air. Seeing these two names together, Lacy and Roth, reinforced my sense of a missed opportunity to create a stronger case for 1970s feminist theory as being the textual and critical godmother of performance, public practice, social practice, and relational practices. The show is, after all, a selection of all-women artists, and early feminist theory is the discourse of the other in the other–outside. “Female identity and public space,” referred to briefly in Frock’s essay, is not the same thing as feminist art history or theory, and it isn’t central to the selection of the projects in this exhibition (only a few of the projects are directly about gender politics). Yet the subtext of feminist thought and philosophy, including Lucy Lippard, Linda Nochlin, Barbara Rose, and countless others, runs through this show as a whole, and a critical analysis seems to be lacking in the exhibition’s otherwise informative catalog. It is only in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s biography and description of The Floating Museum (1974–1978) where we find the hidden key to the exhibition: “Museums have since embraced many of the artists’ forms developed by the feminist art movement, including performance art, installation, and site-specific, sound-based, and ephemeral work.”4  Let’s not forget that feminism opened up the space for certain new genres that necessitated public projects and diverse media, since women were so often excluded from normative art structures and institutions. Simply put: Public space was often the only choice for women artists.

Public Works equivocates between feminist and political impulses when it shouldn’t. What we call the outside—the noncommercial realm of artist-initiated engagement—has been the locus of feminist theory’s potency and agency. But does the selection of work become arbitrary in a way that dilutes the individual projects? Maybe Public Works is trying to break out of a certain gender specificity of shows like Doin' It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman's Building or the recent Alien She by selecting artists from all generations, nationalities, and political perspectives? Although there is a great need for new histories that are neither foregone nor definitive, it seems to me we owe a big debt to feminist art history and theory, and I wish the curators had not chosen to hide the feminist behind the political, because ultimately, and most likely inadvertently, they have created a kind of neutralization of the feminist space of intervention. Just as modernism is still situated firmly in the contemporary, feminism is still of the now, to take a word from the title of the exhibition—and informs and is inscribed in social, political, and artistic activity in one way or another. There should be no shame in using F-word theory language in this day and age.

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Public Works: Artists’ Interventions 1970-Now is on view at Mills College Art Museum, in Oakland, through December 13, 2015.

Notes

  1. Suzanne Lacey interview with Art in America Magazine, June 01, 2012: http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/the-suzanne-lacy-network/ 
  2. Curatorial statement.
  3. Many of these practices were discussed at the Hammer Museum's recent public program, "ENGAGE MORE NOW! A Symposium on Artists, Museum, and Publics," that took place on November 6 & 7, 2015. http://hammer.ucla.edu/engage-more-now/
  4. Christian L. Frock and Tanya Zimbardo, Public Works: Artists' Interventions 1970s-Now (Oakland: Mills College Art Museum, 2015), 98.

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