1.13 / Review

The Life of the Object

By Mary Anne Kluth April 21, 2010

Life of the Object, curated by Amanda Simms Hunt from Steven Lieber’s collection, is currently displayed within the bookshop of Baer Ridgway Exhibitions. Hunt uses the exhibition to examine the roles that social and physical context, objecthood, and the passage of time play in ontological works of art. 

Some pieces formally manifest material instability and the progress of change over time. Dieter Roth’s schokalenplatzchenbild (chocolate-cookie picture) (1969) consists of thick, dark squares of chocolate, coated partially with what is now desiccated yogurt, sealed in a smudged sheath of plastic. Contained within a frame, the process of the piece’s decay is physically present, but stalled. The materials oscillate between viable and attractive, spoiled and repulsive, suggesting one’s own precarious vitality.

Kent Baer, one of the gallery’s owners, explained that an undated paper stamped with Yoko Ono’s name had once been an invitation to an event, printed on unfixed photo paper, and blackened by exposure to the light after the original recipient opened it. Displayed with the white side of the paper and the artist’s name visible, the piece depends upon recurrent social interactions and the viewer’s imagination just as much as the irreversible chemical process used to produce it.

Bas Jan Ader. In Search of the Miraculous, 1975; postcard. Courtesy of Baer Ridgway Exhibitions, San Francisco.

Other pieces in the show also function as evidence of past events. Christian Marclay’s Footsteps (undated) is a black vinyl record, lightly scuffed by footprints, presented with an album cover and a black-and-white photo. The photo depicts several people walking over a floor covered entirely by black vinyl records. The set of objects acts as a souvenir of a specific social event. In that piece, a clever comparison was drawn between record collecting and art collecting, highlighting parallels between the popular music and memorabilia industries and the art world.

Similarly, Rikrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (lunch box) (1996)—composed of a cylindrical steel food container, a Bangkok newspaper, and a menu—memorializes the meal that the artist purportedly served to the initial buyer of the piece. Both this piece and Marclay’s use objects to deliberately articulate a social scenario in the mind of the viewer.

Other objects in the show are distinguished by the ways they have physically deviated from their initial contexts, even as they refer back to them. Daniel Buren’s Demultiple (1973) is a long, narrow strip of orange and white vertically striped linen, hung approximately a foot from the ground. This is displayed along with two black-and-white photographs, which can be used to understand Demultiple’s history as well as its contemporary context. One photograph depicts many similar strips of linen joined together in a tapestry and hung upon a brick wall. The second image shows a single strip, similar to the one in the gallery, hung high on a wall in what appears to be an office.

Baer confirmed that the piece in the gallery was one of the pieces in the original site-specific installation on the brick wall, a single strip taken from the larger tapestry. At Baer Ridgway, it is hung at the same height on the wall as it had originally been displayed. It is not the same piece as the one pictured in the office, rather the office photograph documents another of these strips, also hung at its original height. The piece, the photos, and my conversation with the gallerist built a narrative about an ephemeral, site-specific installation. The distribution of a single piece as a source of smaller multiples, and the reverent way Demultiple maintains its original hanging height, recalls the way religious relics are distributed after a significant event, imbuing the fractured objects with the narrative weight of their complete sagas.

Conversely, Colour Bar (1972-4), by Image Bank (Vincent Trasov and Michael Morris), retains less of its original history, perhaps because it is presented without visual documentation of the way it was initially used. According to the gallery’s press release, each of the painted wood bars was placed outdoors in British Columbia as a part of a “Color Research project.” Currently, the bars are presented as a group, and the strong color relationships between the bars themselves distract from other possible readings. In the exhibition context, the piece acts as a souvenir of Image Bank’s work, but the initial “Color Research project” is subverted by its current presentation.

Image Bank (Vincent Trasov and Michael Morris). Colour Bar, 1972; multiple, set of seven hand-painted color bars on wood; 1.7 x 6.9 x 0.7 in. each. Courtesy of Baer Ridgway Exhibitions, San Francisco.

Many of the works, as art historical objects, implicitly involve the public personality of the artist; Yoko Ono’s celebrity precedes her. Bas Jan Ader’s pieces Untitled and In Search of the Miraculous (1975) do more than imply, they document the activity, conceived of as art, during which Ader was horrifically lost at sea as he attempted to cross the Atlantic alone in a one-man boat.1His mysterious disappearance is compounded by his interest in theatrical examination of tragic emotion, notably established by his video I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1971). Without the bare bones of his backstory, the photo and the postcard made from it are inscrutable mementos of the event Ader staged as a send-off to himself, organizing a sea chanty sing-along in a Los Angles gallery. But knowing something of the narrative of Ader’s short life transforms these documents, intensifies the question of his fate, and memorializes his life itself.

Together the show also points to the life and interests of Steven Lieber. As parts of his collection, the pieces suggest events he may have attended and people he may have known. This show, so dependent on documentation from a single collector in a gallery space that ostensibly sustains itself by selling artworks, continues to blur the distinction between non-commercial “institutional” spaces and independent galleries. Displaying a collection of ephemera from site-specific, social practice, and process-oriented works exemplifies how Conceptual practices can sustain themselves commercially, and how enthusiasts with the means to support this kind of work can do so.


"The Life of the Object" is on view at Baer Ridgway Exhibitions in San Francisco through May 1, 2010. 

[1] Bruce Hainley, “Legend of the Fall,” Artforum, March 1999.

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