Art review: York Chang at 18th Street Arts Center
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As the Southland readies for Pacific Standard Time, an avalanche of exhibitions on L.A. art since the 1940s, York Chang’s supremely ambivalent exhibition at 18th Street Arts troubles the very project of history and documentation.
Purporting to expose for the first time the activities of a 1970s Southern California group, Artist Actualization Services, Chang and collaborator Fernando Sanchez present photographs, video and a special issue of the defunct magazine High Performance. They claim that AAS never entered the annals of art history because its work consisted wholly of impersonating other artists. These performances, Chang and Sanchez insist, were documented as the real thing in collaboration with members of the High Performance editorial staff. Until now, the true identities of the performers have never been revealed.
The walls of the small project room are lined with sundry photo documentation, a video (which was not working when I visited) and a large diagram of the relationship between artist, history and time. The photos are all digital prints, supposedly reproductions of original material. But the malleability of digital technology — it’s all too easy to make new things look old — throws these claims into doubt. There are no objects that date from the ‘70s, raising questions about Chang’s reliability as a historian. If something is written in a wall text, we generally accept it as true. But how do we really know? The disconnect between the show’s claims and its content reveals how history and truth are really matters of trust.
This in itself is nothing new, but fissures become more obvious and more confusing in the special issue of High Performance, edited by Chang and Sanchez. The magazine, which ceased publication in 1997, supposedly reviewed works by Paul McCarthy, Chris Burden, Richard Prince and others that were actually the work of impostors. The magazine now claims to set the record straight by printing each original review on one page of a spread and the impostor’s confession on the other. However, Chang and Sanchez have also published dueling letters from the editors. In one, they claim that all the new texts are fictional. In the other, they insist the stories are the product of a year’s worth of research and interviews. The accounts themselves are impressively detailed. Which letter should we believe? In a sense, it hardly matters. Either Chang is doing art history and raising the same kind of questions that motivated AAS, or he is trying to make fools of us all while opening up a hall of mirrors on history, institutions and documentation. In either case, the goal is the same: to wreak havoc on certainty. It’s not a bad one, considering what absolute certainty has recently wrought in our nation’s capitol.
AAS purportedly claimed that the whole notion of history should be abolished because it is a tool of an oppressive state. While it’s true that history is written by the victors, what does it mean that Chang is now writing the history of a group that wanted nothing to do with it? A group whose members secretly thwarted accurate documentation of ephemeral artworks and undermined genius auteurs by impersonating them? Forgive the cliché, but if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? Whether AAS was real or not, it is only by inscribing its exploits — or at least the idea of them — in history that they make any difference at all.
-- Sharon Mizota
18th Street Arts Center, 1639 18th St., Santa Monica, (310) 453-3711, through Aug. 28. Closed Saturdays and Sundays. www.18thstreet.org
Top: York Chang, ‘No History!,’ 2011. Image courtesy of artist.
Middle: York Chang with Fernando Sanchez, ‘High Performance’: the Corrections Issue, 2011. Image courtesy of artist.