Let’s be honest—contemporary art, especially anything of the minimalist or conceptual variety, can be elusive and sometimes even downright mystifying to the general public. While those with Art History degrees or a passion for the subject may appreciate these artistic movements due to an understanding of their respective historical contexts and goals, those without may be left feeling perplexed and perturbed. Indeed, these styles can look a bit stark and do feature highly unusual presentations of everyday objects. In response, the casual viewer may begin to claim that they could have made something similar or joke that one of the museum’s fire exit signs was particularly thought-provoking. In the Hammer Museum’s current headline-grabbing exhibition, Stories of Almost Everyone, we see this collegiate institution leaning into the joke while simultaneously addressing critical issues of artistic interpretation.
As an assortment of enigmatic found-object sculptures crafted by over thirty international artists, Stories provokes confusion intentionally. In this witty parody of cryptic contemporary art exhibitions, curators Aram Moshayedi and Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi chose to arrange many of these art objects directly on the gallery floor. These disorienting, haphazard-looking displays all but require visitors to rely on gallery text and audio guides in the quest for meaning and narrative.
However, this dependence on supplementary information can lead to a whole host of interpretation issues as museums and galleries sometimes unintentionally impose their own analysis on artworks, therefore obscuring the artist’s original aim.
Expanding on this notion that one should not entirely trust museum-provided narratives as the be-all-and-end-all, the exhibition’s audio guide is actually a work of fiction. New York-based short story writer and broadcaster Kanishk Tharoor penned and recorded six imaginary vignettes based on his impressions of selected sculptures. The museum presents these lush, richly-detailed stories about family and memory as absolute truths vital to the understanding of these works. Furthermore, here we also see the Hammer challenging the notion that art objects need to justify their existence with story and significance. This exhibition allows these sculptures to shine in their own right and communicate directly with the viewer.
Once one begins to observe the works presented here, one notices that the curators designed Stories as a dialogue between two distinct types of found-object sculptures. While one group comprises of everyday objects removed from their original contexts and now labeled as art, the other features objects the artists have altered in some fundamental way.
Notable examples of this first type of sculpture include Ceal Floyer’s readymade postcard rack, Wish You Were Here (2008) and Carol Bove’s No title, n.d, a fragment of petrified wood taken from her studio.
The cylindrical yet skeletal composition of Floyer’s empty postcard display echoes back to Bottle Rack, one of iconic French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp’s seminal readymades. Duchamp shocked the public when he first exhibited this seemingly ordinary object as high art in 1914. While both Duchamp and Floyer agree that an artist can alter an object’s meaning by changing its context, this renowned Berlin-based multimedia artist does deviate from Duchamp here by giving her readymade a brand-new title and therefore poetic significance. This title, Wish You Were Here, refers to an affectionate yet cliche phrase travelers often write on postcards to loved ones back home. Much like the expression itself, the postcard rack seen here is empty and hollow.
Definitely not hollow is Swiss-born sculptor Carol Bove’s untitled and undated chunk of prehistoric wood proudly displayed in this exhibition. This rare, fossilized artifact is millions of years old and therefore not the contemporary, mass-produced item usually included in a found-object sculpture.
Meanwhile, this second group of objects, the adapted ones, are perhaps best represented by Fayçal Baghriche’s The Clock (2017) and Jill Magid’s The Proposal (2016). In The Clock, we see this celebrated Algerian-born artist delving into the complex issue of time with his vintage mantle clock. For this project, Baghriche used modern computer software to speed up the internal mechanisms of timepiece from the 1950s. He chose to modify a device from this decade as this was when consumers began purchasing newer, more precise quartz and cesium-based clocks. Much like Bove’s petrified wood, this piece blurs the divide between old and new and challenges our temporal preconceptions.
Along these same thematic lines, we find The Proposal, Jill Magid’s 2.02-carat, rough-cut diamond ring crafted from the cremated remains of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Luis Barragán (1902–1988). As a prominent American conceptual artist, Magid hoped that forging this one-of-a-kind object would help raise awareness for the vital issue of artistic copyright.
In 1995, the Chairman of the Swiss furniture company Vitra bought the rights to the architect’s professional archive and then gifted them to his fiancée and Director of the Barragan Foundation, Federica Zanco. This hoarding of Barragan’s artistic legacy prevented younger artists and the public from having direct access to his work. In an act of poetic justice, Magid herself “proposed” to Zanco in May 2016, offering her the ring in exchange for the archive returned to Barragan’s native Mexico. Interestingly, the blue-gray gemstone itself is a symbol of artistic sampling, of honoring past while simultaneously creating something fresh and unique.
Like all of the other objects on display here, The Proposal requires some textual support to understand the work thoroughly. However, Stories asks the viewer to consider where to draw the line. Indeed, the balance between the need for context and observation is a delicate one, one that curators consistently debate.
While Stories provides no definitive answer to that question, it wholeheartedly rejects the myth that all contemporary art is elitist, remote, and built on ephemeral trends. It hopes to inspire more public affection for this movement by reminding viewers of its innovative use of commonplace items and constant reworking of traditional themes. With its title extracted from the progressive writings of late Uruguayan journalist and novelist Eduardo Galeano, Stories of Almost Everyone boldly labels contemporary art as timeless and egalitarian.
Featured Image: Andrea Büttner, HAP Grieshaber / Franz Fühmann: Engel der Geschichte 25: Engel der Behinderten, Claassen Verlag Düsseldorf 1982 (HAP Grieshaber / Franz Fühmann: Angel of History 25: Angel of the Disabled, Claassen Verlag Düsseldorf 1982),
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.