Monday, March 2, 2009

Vandal scandal at MOMA-Atlantic-Pacific show: Whose art are we talking about?

I thought my recent post about MOMA's Atlantic Ave.-Pacific St. subway show was pretty cheeky. Then I saw Gothamist's story about alleged dead-of-night collusion between the firm that designed the Atlantic-Pacific exhibit & the outlaw mash-up artist they paid (or just encouraged) to deface it. Tim, I thought, you're a child among giants.

"Fred & Wilma, meet Nan," Doug Jaeger. Use it any way you like

"It's Chinatown."

Here's the story. Happy Corp, the cutesy-edgy ad/pr agency with its proclaimed mission of "improving gross national happiness..." designed the installation. They occupied the maze-like Atlantic-Pacific station with 58 large-sized copies of canonical art works from MOMA's permanent collection -- Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol etc.-- the heaviest of the heavies. In addition, they stuck up dozens of dayglo pink Best-Buy-like labels with dollar amounts for MOMA's many membership "deals."

"$5," Photographer unknown

(Actually, the in-your-face stickers are kind of edgy. Their message is unmistakable: sublimity isn't free. Unlike the slapped-on reproductions you're looking at in these dingy stairwells & tunnels, they're saying, the irreplaceable original art works in their Manhattan splendor will blow your socks off!)

It seems that at 1st Happy's work made everybody happy. "We’ve been to the station and couldn’t be more pleased," purred the agency's website a few days after the opening. "This project has transformed the usually less than stimulating subterranean environment into a much happier place where commuters are literally stopping in their hurried tracks to get a little art on."

Then came the bomb. Last Saturday night, it was revealed, Happy Corp had secretly arranged for a new back-door round of publicity. Poster Boy, the mysterious art provocateur(s), had been paid (or just encouraged) to visit the site & either "remix" or "vandalize" (depending on your point of view) the world-famous art.

After the story broke, The Corp's Doug Jaeger made it clear that Poster Boy's additions were part of the MOMA campaign while at the same time slyly denying liability. "I was in the subway that night for sure," he says (no kidding; see the credit on the first photo in this post). "...I met them [Poster Boy's crew -- the name Aakash Nihilani later emerged], but I don't know them," he assured the press. "...Early on we saw Poster Boy's work, and we realized it was inevitable that if we did this project, his crew would likely see it as an opportunity. But if someone who is getting acclaim as an artist does something to your campaign, does it make it less valuable or more valuable?"

"Angry whale in Gursky's pool," Photographer unknown

Was MOMA in on it too? In a statement the museum asserted it was shocked, SHOCKED by the criminal acts of vandalism & was therefore immediately & publicly severing all ties with Happy Corp. So there. Never mind that MOMA recently displayed a number of works by street artist Swoon or that martyred graffiti god Jean-Michel Basquiat is represented in this very show. Or that the "unaltered" art was efficiently replaced in a matter of hours (I visited the installation Sunday afternoon & all was well).


If I was the conspiracy-theory type, I might call this a Win-Win Situation. Let's see: The people at Happy Corp get paid while at the same time retaining their cred as edgy anti-capitalist artworld outsiders. MOMA gets double the publicity while taking the high road against defacing works of art. And Poster Boy adds to his fame as the new anti-establishment zorro, flashing his X-acto blade against injustice in the subway while waiting for the right moment to whip off his mask & move to Tribeca.

"Monet with passerby," Tais Melillo, All rights reserved

There's only one thing I feel sad about. The art. How silly. Poor little cornball in Chinatown. But I love Monet's water lily paintings. I really do. I've stood enchanted for many minutes staring at them on museum walls in several countries. They make me happy.

BTW, I do get where the genre-scrambling remix idea comes from. I get that it's not really an insult to Claude Monet or the others, that they're not the target. And I admit that when a friend told me about Poster Boy's antics & I looked on the web at the results , I laughed (I admire his subway ad poster slashing).

But you must remember where I started on all this. I'm an artist. Some of my best work -- seven lightboxed photos, over 40 horizontal feet -- is hanging in the middle of MOMA-Happy Corp's fabulous "gift to Brooklyn." This work has been totally ignored by MOMA. As for Happy Corp, those brave anti-establishmentarians, they made a happy little online video tour of the installation. You can see it here.

The animation zooms us through a pristine fantasy of the Atlantic-Pacific station to a clip-clopping jazz score, detouring again & again to discover the great art. But when it reaches the place where my work is hung (on the video this comes between Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" and Monet's "Reflections of Clouds on Water Lilies"), there is nothing but blank white tile.

"Here is one of my pictures. Still there," Ranjit Bhatnagar, All rights reserved


Christine (CA) said...

The video is very cool but your pictures should have been in it. They are so not there to my eye.

Chris Bonney said...

It's an interesting bit of PR. At first glance, I share your disappointment at not being able to enjoy familiar favorites. But having just finished reading The Pirates Dilemma, which is all about how youth culture has to disrespect, or corrupt, accepted norm to move things along I'm trying to be a little more open-minded. But just how open-minded would MOMA be if the PR folks had turned the kids loose on the originals?

Walter Dufresne said...

In a purely pictorial sense, these side-by-side exhibits aren't even a contest. An ink reproduction on reflective vinyl removed by several generations from Monet's oil on canvas? Or a rear-illuminated digital transparency created from a camera-original file? This exhibition is genuinely unfair to Monet, or perhaps misleading to those viewers who'll never trouble themselves to see the canvasses.

Tim Connor said...

Walter, I totally agree. Which is what makes the Poster Boy depredations so confusing. To my mind he (they) are right to be pissed off by MOMA's commodification of great soulful art into a cute little brand -- whether used to decorate tote bags or slapped up so the shapes of the bricks show through at Atlantic-Pacific -- i.e. cheap tacky PR masquerading as noblesse oblige for the unschooled masses. But it isn't MOMA that is made fun of. It is Monet & the others (the photos & prints fare better of course). That's doubly unfair because his work has already, as you say, been shamelessly degraded to serve MOMA's bottom line.