Lyra Kilston- This is Not a Panel Discussion (2009)

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This is Not a Panel Discussion: Pablo Helguera’s Pedagogical Follies
Lyra Kilston
Afterall magazine
11th July 2009 

I recently witnessed the following exchange at a panel discussion on the life and work of the artist Juvenal Merst. The dialogue was between two curators: Sonja Stillman, a discreetly dressed, intellectual woman in her late 40s, and the panel’s moderator, Clifford Barnes, a slick and fashionable man in his early 40s. After a long-winded disagreement about Merst, their dialogue devolved into this:

Barnes: I don’t define what art is, I just show it as it is.

Stillman: I won’t even bring up your current associations with commercial galleries, which I see as a huge conflict of interest as a curator. What good is professional honesty as a curator if your commitment has been to treat art as an unthreatening, uncritical product, as a happy and pleasurable and entertaining thing to the market?

Barnes: Why should I apologize if the artists I work with are successful? That’s ludicrous. You, in contrast, treat artists as game pieces of bogus curatorial hypotheses that try to be a soothing balm to our social problems. Not only does it not work as exhibition premise – it is also bad art.

Stillman: It’s bad art for those, like you, who do not wish to think of the world at large.

Barnes: It’s bad for everyone beyond your tiny circle of friends at Bard.

Stillman: I’m sorry – I can’t do this anymore. [She stands up and starts to walk away from the panel.][1]

While a tad more vicious than the subdued tones of most panel discussions, its contrapositions are timeless. Yet the whole thing is fiction, and in fact farce. The above lines were performed for a rehearsal I attended of The Juvenal Players, a new play by New York-based artist Pablo Helguera that premiered at Grand Arts in Kansas City, Missouri, on June 13, 2009. The play presents a public discussion between a cast of art world archetypes – curators, a collector, a thwarted artist and an arts administrator – as they meet to discuss the life and work of the artist Juvenal Merst, a character that Helguera named after the early second century Roman poet Juvenal, who is credited with developing the nascent genre of satire.

The play’s premise is that Merst’s last artwork before his untimely death was to request that these particular people gather to discuss his life and work seven years later. As Clifford Barnes relays, Merst had specified the following in writing: “I want you to be at that moment where the memory of me has started to vanish, but not too much, with the purpose that you may still retain the most important aspects of those memories and have eliminated by now the incidental and unimportant details. You all will be the players of my own life, the narrators of my story, and to you I trust and I wish I was there to see my life be told.”[2]

What ensues is a Rashomon-style comedy of errors, in which each character is at odds with the others about who Merst really was. This is further complicated by the fact that Helguera wrote Merst as a classic conceptual trickster, and during the discussion doubts are raised as to what Merst actually made and said versus what was secretly a spoof. We are even led to wonder if Merst was simply playing the role of the artist as orchestrated by someone else, calling to mind the hoaxes of Andy Warhol and Maurizio Cattelan, both of whom would occasionally send other people to impersonate them at lectures.[3] In Helguera’s play, it soon becomes clear that Merst’s mischievous projects employed art world players as pieces in a chess game, and their willingness to occupy those positions is underscored by their obedient presence, seven years later, at a public discussion about him.

The Juvenal Players is the second theatrical panel discussion that Helguera has written and produced, but only one of his many projects that mock pedagogical conventions and art world posturing. Over the past two decades of his artistic career, Helguera has made collages, drawings and videos; written books (fiction and nonfiction); created installations; conducted tarot readings (he revealed my past to be very solid, but predicted that my future held some disaster); and performed in a variety of guises, from opera singer to mustachioed art world gadfly. Concurrently, he has worked in the education departments of major museums in the United States and Mexico, and is presently Director of Adult and Academic Programs at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Few artists have spent more time witnessing the performance of art historical expertise than Helguera. He has organized and attended over 1,000 lectures, panels and events, and must daily grapple with the vectors of communication and pedagogy between an authoritative institution and its thirsting public. His day jobs have become the material from which many of his artworks stem. As he notes in the introduction to his collection of published performance texts (Theatricum Anatomicum (and other performance lectures), 2009), “In my role as a programmer, I have frequently been frustrated by the low or nonexistent public-speaking skills of those who lecture and participate in academic discussions…. Wouldn’t it be great if panels were like theater works, where drama has its hand in conveying the message? I thought, why aren’t there dramaturges for art lecturers? And I set out to become one.”[4]

Translating stilted art discourse into theater opens a rich vein of satire that Helguera deftly exploits. There’s a scene in The Juvenal Players where the panel discusses Merst’s first work, a film titled both Work Number 1 and Artmaking. Each participant interprets the piece differently. Due to technical difficulties the film is unable to be screened (a detail of sharp veracity), so the panelists must describe the work, arguing for a range of references from Antonioni to 1960s social uprisings to Minimalism to Robert Irwin. One participant even claims that the piece operates to “foretell the realities of the post-9/11 world.” Yet, after the panel members finish arguing about what the film meant, some resign themselves to admitting that they never really understood or liked it anyway.

The enigma of Merst and his work is the perfect foil for revealing the power struggles at play in constructing the narrative of art, or any, history. With Merst, Helguera is able to set up the follies inherent in panel discussions with particular complexity, since Merst’s antics often ended up complicating or transgressing the hierarchies of the art world and thus the very roles played by the panelists. For example, for one project Merst allegedly hired a detective to shadow a prominent collector, and thereby publicly exposed the collector’s adultery. Great scandal, which the panelists continue to squabble about, ensued.

Several artists come to mind as possible source material for the character of Merst, who appears to be a clever mash-up of some of the more notorious cultural producers of our day. Andrea Fraser’s Untitled (2003), for which she accepted money in exchange for having sex with a collector, is a close analog in its blunt distillation of the artist-collector relationship; her project ultimately investigates the control of power and privilege in the art world. Christoph Büchel’s recent hijinks at Mass MOCA could be seen as the blueprint of an artist’s insistence on biting the hand that feeds him – and receiving critical acclaim for it.[5] Damien Hirst offers more possible fodder for Merst’s genesis, as his career is yet another illustration of the art world’s adoration of bad boy tricksters. Some critics claim that Hirst’s overexposed oeuvre employs the art world’s permissiveness and excessesas material. Hirst has admitted: “I just wanted to find out where the boundaries were. I’ve found out there aren’t any. I wanted to be stopped but no one will stop me.”[6] His well-circulated quote speaks less to the thrilling boundlessness of contemporary art production and far more ominously to the reality that there is simply no one around who dares protest. This condition implicates the brokers of discourse and commerce around Hirst (and similarly, Merst) far more than it implicates the artist himself, and as such offers the perfect catalyst for Helguera’s pointed critiques.

In the book Prospects of Power, literary critic John Snyder writes, “Satire, it would appear, thrives either when there is little credence in public standards of morality and taste … or when morality and taste attenuate to superficial, arbitrarily strict codes of decorum….”[7] The first clause corresponds neatly to Hirst’s lament that “no one will stop me,” and the second to Helguera’s manual of etiquette. An amusing corollary to his pedagogical performances, Helguera wrote and published The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style: The Essential Guide for Artists, Curators, and Critics in 2005, just as the seemingly endless proliferation of global art fairs and biennials had reached its apex. The book sought to offer art world players their own combination of Emily Post etiquette with Machiavellian strategy, replete with chess piece graphics (lest one forget that there are most definitely winners and losers). One memorable section offers a play-by-play guide for a gallery opening, capped by a breakdown of totem pole hierarchies to diagram who you should talk to first, who you should avoid or ignore, and what to say if you are trying to get a studio visit or remind a collector of your existence. Other chapters answer the big questions, including, “Should one sleep with an artist whose work one does not like?” and “What do you say to a good friend who is exhibiting horrid works at his opening?”

As Juvenal wrote circa the late first century/early second century AD, “It’s hardnot to write satire. For who could be so inured to the wicked city, so dead to feeling, as to keep his temper…?”[8] These words ring as true today, and his astute observations of class hierarchies in Rome (one section of his writings focuses on the inferior types of seafood served to members of the lower classes at a formal dinner) resonate keenly with Helguera’s observations of art world conventions. Today’s VIP rooms at art fairs or the sequenced opening nights of biennials (from most exclusive on Tuesday to mere hoi polloi by Friday) are two pertinent examples; the best people are still served the best alcohol. The panelists in The Juvenal Players may be actors, but ultimately Helguera’s latest effort pulls back the curtain with a theatrical flourish to reveal our own collusion – through vocabulary, sartorial choice, gesticulation or egotistical promotion of our hard-earned roles – with the chain of command.

Notes 

1 From the script of The Juvenal Players by Pablo Helguera, 2009.
2 Ibid.
3 See George Pendle’s article “How Unlike You” in Modern Painters, January 2009, p. 69.
4 Pablo Helguera, Theatricum Anatomicum (and other performance lectures) . New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2009: p. xiii.
5 Büchel’s demands for an astronomical budget resulted in the museum halting his installation and opening it unfinished to the public against his will, which led to a legal battle. He later framed and exhibited the furious emails between himself and the director of Mass MOCA at Art Basel Miami in 2007, causing some to speculate that the entire undertaking was planned by the artist as a way to limn the boundaries and limits of exchange between artist and institution.
http://www.artquotes.net/masters/hirst/damien-hirst-quotes.htm (last accessed July 9, 2009).
7 John Snyder, Prospects of Power: Tragedy, Satire, the Essay, and the Theory of Genre. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1991: p. 100.
8 Juvenal, The Satires. Translated by Niall Rudd. Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 4.

Images

1 Pablo Helguera, The Juvenal Players, Grand Arts, 2009. Pictured: Clifford Barnes and Sonja Stillman.
2 Pablo Helguera, The Juvenal Players, Grand Arts, 2009. Pictured: Elmer Schafroth, Rosaura Valparaiso, Clifford Barnes, Sonja Stillman and Miranda Sak.
3 Pablo Helguera, The Juvenal Players, Grand Arts, 2009. Pictured: Sonja Stillman and Miranda Sak.

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