Anyone frequenting the gallery circuit over the course of the last year is likely to have been struck, at one time or another, by a peculiar sense of disconnect. Outside the galleries, the financial health of the nation and much of the world was in crisis.
You wouldn't have known it, however, from the majority of the work inside the galleries. There's not an artist, dealer or curator in the city who hasn't felt the effects of the economy personally -- the bottom fell out of this daydream of a market as well -- and yet the work has remained, more often than not, locked in an attitude of boom-time heedlessness, continuing to churn over the same themes and strategies that fed that daydream and flattered the crop of collectors it served.
Olga Koumoundouros' "Demand Management" at REDCAT is a welcome exception: a work that channels all the vitality and confidence of the boom period into a candid confrontation with the elephant in the room. It is a thoughtfully conceived, shrewdly articulated piece that, in addressing this historic state of affairs directly, underscores the necessity for art to maintain its connection to the urgency of real life.
Like many of Koumoundouros' past works, "Demand Management" builds on the tension between language and form.
In past instances, she's literally fused the two. "Monument to a Town Meeting, After Acconci," from 2003, was a massive plywood structure built in the shape of the word "terror," though only legible from above. In "Parity," from 2006, she spelled out that word Claes Oldenburg-style, in armchair-sized pillows of stuffed Kevlar.
Here, she relegates the text to the fold-out gallery brochure, offering collaged quotations and clipped passages of newsprint in place of an essay or statement: " J.C. Penney profit plunges 79%," "More than 100,000 jobs at stake in G.M. and Chrysler cuts," quotes by political theorist Hannah Arendt, writer Elfriede Jelinek, luxury lifestyle magazine the Robb Report and others.
A pie chart
The installation is the embodiment not of a word but an oft-quoted statistic -- namely, the 1% of the U.S. population that controls 34% of its wealth. It takes the form of an architectural pie graph: a room-sized structure, circular in shape, unfinished on the outside but plastered and painted a pristine gallery white on the inside, with an entry at the back and a narrow wedge -- the 1% -- penetrating from the circumference to the center.
The thrill of the piece comes when the viewer rounds the tip of the wedge to find it violently bisected on the other side by a giant cyclone of domestic objects -- chairs, tables, sinks, a lamp, a toilet, a refrigerator, a bathtub, a laptop, a bed -- all papier-mached with newspaper and linked in a single, gravity-defying ring.
The structure is a play on a range of the polarities that govern socioeconomic systems: order and entropy, stability and upheaval, mathematics and psychology, the abstract and the material, the conceptual and the pragmatic.
The slenderness of the 1% is striking in relation to the gaping volume of space that surrounds it. Its architectural stability stands in stark contrast to the tumult of the objects. These aren't the sort of chattels featured in the Robb Report (jewelry, private jets, sports cars, yachts), but humble, functional possessions. That they pierce the wall of the 1% wedge without toppling it is a poignant testament to the vulnerability of those they represent.
The power of the piece lies less in its symbology, however, than in its gripping formal momentum.
As in her splendid 2008 sculpture "Great Expectations" -- which consisted of a crystal chandelier pinned by two long, tar-covered jacks to the ceiling -- Koumoundouros gives the impression of harnessing not merely a concept but a sweeping natural force, not simply arranging referents but channeling the emotional and psychological currents beneath them.
A sense of gravity
Art is not, to be sure, the opinion column -- it needn't be expected to take a stand on every passing issue, or even to take a stand at all. It's not a question of politics, much less "political art," but gravity: the importance of making work that's really about something, that draws from the reservoir of lived existence to offer something relevant and substantive back.
More dismaying than the absence of any particular response to recent events has been what I can't help but feel was a general sense of unpreparedness, as if artists were too long out of the habit of thinking beyond the reach of the market. Let us hope there will be more like Koumoundouros in the months and years to come.
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