It’s been nearly a year since I visited Walter De Maria’s Earth Room in New York, and although the experience has remained with me, it has returned with increased intensity over the past few weeks. Perhaps – without wanting to be too British about it – the recent weather back this side of the Atlantic has been having an effect: the pre-emptive autumnal heaviness of the summer air, soupy with moisture; the soggy, waterlogged ground; the pervasive scents of leaf mulch and something reminiscent of wet animal fur. This all combines to take me back, somewhat counter-intuitively, to several square feet of prime Manhattan real estate, basking under a September sun in 2011. It was hot, New York was slightly overwhelming, I couldn’t find the friends I was supposed to be finding De Maria’s Earth Room with – and I couldn’t find the room. After several minutes of fluster in this vein, the friends and the door appeared simultaneously, and we staggered up several sleek and rather corporate flights of apartment stairs. More fluster ensued in the attempt to find the right floor, the right door, and when we did there was an aloof man sitting at the entrance desk, like a doorman guarding the kind of hotel that is very much outside of your price range. But beyond him lay a thick, velvety expanse of earth, filling the building from front to back.
Cindy Sherman, MoMA, 26 February – 11 June 2012.
There was one photograph in MoMA’s Cindy Sherman retrospective that pulled me up short – and not just because Untitled #263 (1992) features the violently truncated body parts of two anatomical dummies, cropped to the essentials of male and female genitalia and recombined into a single entity, their raw-looking slabs of flesh bound together by a gaudy satin ribbon, as two severed mannequin heads (presumably once the owners of said genitalia) look sadly on. The shock, however, was not just the subject matter, undeniably demanding (in both senses) as it is, but the realisation that this was a work by Sherman: I had seen it before, but either hadn’t realised, or had forgotten, it was hers. While doubtless reflecting certain limitations in terms of my critical attentiveness, I also wondered if this unexpected reintroduction spoke to the point made by Roberta Smith in her New York Times review of the show– that Sherman’s oeuvre, while returning obsessively to the ferociously deconstructive self-portraits for which she is best known, also takes some surprising, complex and especially dark detours along the way.
Is there an order in which it’s ‘best’ to encounter a series of artworks? Does such a question matter, or is it irrelevant? (And might the answer well depend on familiarity or expertise?) How do we, as viewers, respond to – and marshal coherently for others – the subjective associations that accumulate during individual paths through objects, images, sounds, events and performances presented as shared experiences? The 2012 Whitney Biennial with its subterranean theme of the labyrinth, the dark twists and turns of which thread through many of the works on display, gently formulates such questions, encouraging its audience to move around the space and pieces as they see fit, to meander, deviate, turn back and digress. Works by the participating artists are mixed across the five floors of the Whitney’s distinctive grey concrete monolith, often unmoored from their didactic wall texts, prompting either a little detective work or joyful release. One piece by Lutz Bacher, Selections from the Celestial Handbook (2011), comprises multiple small black-and-white photographs of nebulae, stars and planets scattered throughout the exhibition in a broken constellation, underlining the inherent risibility of attempts to map and catalogue. There is, of course, more than a hint of anxiety bestowed by such apparently total freedom, a fear of taking the wrong path, of getting lost or trapped.