The Guggenheim's 'Storylines' Creates New Narratives for Famed Visual Art

The New York museum's new exhibition is a group show, film festival, and literary guidebook—all in one.

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Jun 24 2015, 3:40pm

Installation view: ' Storylines: Contemporary Art at the Guggenheim,' Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 5–September 9, 2015. Photo: David Heald. All photos courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

"How will the residues of human culture be read," asks the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas, "when everything has died out?" Vila-Matas poses this question while reflecting on sculptor Adrián Villar Rojas's Motherland. His essay is one of many commissioned rejoinders by writer to artist included in Storylines, the Guggenheim's new manifold exhibition that seeks to present "an expansive view of how recent artistic practice has become the site of new paradigms for storytelling." Though Vila-Matas's consideration could be repositioned to speculate on the absence of an artist to tell the story of a work, here the story is the highlight.

To weave narration into an art show, the curators have selected works by more than 40 visual artists from various disciplines—sculpture, installation, video, photography—and have gone a step further, enlisting 31 big-name writers and poets to engage with these works through unrestricted forms of literature. The result is a wildly varying anthology displaying the human capacity to thread stories in unconventional ways out of seemingly disparate material, to scrub the opaque into something translucent, or to simply conjure something from nothing. Villar Rojas's Motherland, for example, is seemingly nowhere to be found in the main gallery. "An absent work," Vila-Matas notes, "situated in another part of the museum, maybe on the roof, up there where Conan the Barbarian found a way to get home." And this is one of the more mild examples of Storylines's ever-present bewilderment.

"For the show," assistant curator Carmen Hermo explained to me at the museum, "we dug into some of our more recent acquisitions to try and get different perspectives on the idea of 'narrative,' including some conceptual works that might not necessarily tell a story."

There are two shows, really. Along with the work being shown in the main rotunda, the Guggenheim is screening, in its two theaters, films by contemporary video artists, including Matthew Barney, Mark Leckey, John Bock, Ryan Trecartin, and Camille Henrot, which are some of the most coherent works in the entire Storylines exhibition. It was with the films of the latter five artists that I began my tour of the show.

Matthew Barney. 'Cremaster 4' (1994–95)

Mark Leckey's Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, the iconic video collage of late 20th-century found footage of British club culture, begins with a sunset and a woman's looped words: " You wanna, you wanna, you wanna... " The sky then segues to a man raising his arms and bounding from toe to toe within a room full of ecstatic dancers. For a quarter of an hour, I sat observing the rapture of others—generations differentiated by dance moves and attire—to a soundtrack that builds and builds without ever launching. An animated bird flew from a dancer's hand that suddenly appeared as a tattoo on another dancer, one of the film's several sweetly surreal moments.

Mark Leckey. 'Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore' (1999)

I wandered back up to the rotunda, where an enlarged Pinocchio puppet floated facedown in the museum's fountain: A Maurizio Cattelan piece that first appeared in the Guggenheim show anyspacewhatever in 2008. Near the wall was a small aqua-colored book. Here were all of the writers' responses included in the show: a literary guidebook for the art. The table of contents resembled a cloud where names floated haphazardly on the white space, connected only by various dotted lines. I looked up Cattelan and followed his tether to Annie Proulx. Her story "Behind Every Kiss There Is a Set of Teeth" reminded me of Borges's gaucho tales. The two main characters are guitarists. One is called Red Pantaloons, just like those worn by the fabled puppet who wanted to be a real boy; the other, Poverino Carlito, meets a fate more gruesome.

"The writers were allowed to choose what work they wanted to respond to without any sort of guidelines," Hermo told me. "In some cases, the artists suggested writers to reach out to (for example, Villar Rojas/Vila-Matas), and other times, the artists were serendipitously chosen by writers they admired. R. H. Quaytman, for instance, was pleased that John Ashbury had penned a poem for her work." With the booklet in hand, I decided to read my way up the rotunda.

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In a room just above the ground floor was an enigmatic sculpture of an industrial plant, a dog resting its head near the large chimney pipe beside which were two seemingly flattened chairs. The piece was Mark Manders's The Camouflaged Factory. Looking the piece up in my book, I connected Manders to the writer Francisco Goldman. Here the writer proffered a memoiristic essay about growing up near the factory of the Tillotson Rubber Company and the improbable fate of its owner.

Maurizio Cattelan. 'Daddy, Daddy' (2008)

Past the factory hung portraits shot from Matthew Barney's iconic video work Cremaster Cycle. In one of the portraits, the artist himself wears a hot-pink bearskin hat, his bloody mouth stuffed with a silk cloth. Barney appears frighteningly regal, the king of the exhibition.

I continued up, passing on each revolution the shimmering golden beads of Félix González-Torres. Forming a curtain in front of the staircase entrances, these beads became my bookmarks, a point of rest to viewing the work.

I headed back down to the theater for the German artist John Bock's film Dandy. First shown in 2006, Dandy is an absurd take the pseudoscientists of the Enlightenment. Bock plays a particularly mad inventor who, together with his obliging maid, performs various experiments on increasingly facetious contraptions and costumes that help bring him to orgasmic states. Interestingly, the work prompted poet Christian Hawkey to write about a Sun Ra interview he had watched.

Charles Bock. 'Dandy' (2006)

Dandy was immediately followed by I-Be Area, Ryan Trecartin's second major work, and arguably the one where his particular style of cockamamie storytelling—fantastically sassy dialogue, brightly colored and face-painted characters, feverishly speedy cuts, and nightmarish segues—had fully bloomed. Though deep in Trecartin-land, I wondered about the cultural differences of absurdist humor, how much of Bock's work appeals to American viewers, and whether Trecartin's work would, or even could, resonate as deeply with German audiences as it does here.


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Compared with the narrative pull of the films, the visual work, when I returned to it, at times appeared foreign and static. I was grateful for the anthology in my hands, content to let other people observe for me and report back. On Danh Vo's Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs , novelist Michael Cunningham notes that we are looking at the actual chairs that once occupied the office Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense for Kennedy and Johnson. The works were bidded off at Sotheby's, to which Vo was the winning bidder. I was looking at history as art.

Cunningham writes about this paradox:

They were perfectly good chairs, but not in any way extraordinary; they were deemed to be worth $146,500 because of the powerful posteriors that once occupied them, and the events they'd mutely witnessed.

One notable literary installation by an artist was Agnieszka Kurant's Phantom Library, a shelf assembled by the artist containing unwritten literature, books such those mentioned in alterior texts by Richard Brautigan, The Culinary Dostoevsky, and by Roberto Bolaño, Lottery Man . "Though the texts are currently blank inside," notes curator Katherine Brinson in a video, "Agnieska has commissioned a number of working authors to write full-length texts that will fill the books." I pondered whether Kurant had revived the Oulipian genre of potential literature, and if so, how finite the works included might be.

Danh Vo. 'Lot 20. Two Kennedy Administration Cabinet Room Chairs' (2013)

I left for the evening, only to return the next morning for a screening of Matthew Barney's entire Cremaster Cycle. Named after the male muscle that raises and lowers the testes, this pentalogy of feature-length films alludes to the states of pre-fetal sexual differentiation. Barney created the works out of sequential order, with Cremaster 4 (1994) being the first in the cycle of five. There was great anticipation for the artist to complete it—Nancy Spector, deputy director and chief curator of the Guggenheim, told me that after she saw the film, she invited Barney to show the finished cycle, regardless of when that might be accomplished. The overall project ended up taking eight years.

Agnieszka Kurant. 'The Phantom Library' (2013)

Spector has been pivotal in maintaining Barney's relationship with the Guggenheim. Not only did Barney debut Cremaster 3, the final film in the cycle, at the museum in 2002, he used the famous building to stage a scene. Spector also helped Barney to assemble the work in the Guggenheim publication of the Cremaster Cycle book. Though the Guggenheim owns the Cremaster Cycle, this is the first time they've been screened in their entirety at the museum since Cremaster 3's debut. "It's interesting to show them in production order," says Spector, "as opposed to the conceptual order Matthew originally envisioned. It allows for a different take on the entire narrative."

The story that emerges in this sequence is one that moves biblically (genesis to apocalypse) rather than a perpendicular Dantean descent (from highest to lowest), which comes from viewing Cremasters in their conceptual order. It makes for the most powerful narrative in the exhibition, allowing for Barney's cosmology to build from the ground up. The films increase in production quality and ambitious scope. Imagery is carried over, references to previous films reappear, and roles are protean and multiple. Threaded together, these become one of the farthest-reaching gesamtkuntswerks in contemporary art—only Bolaño's cosmological ouevre, culminating in 2666, struck me as recently analogous.

Matthew Barney. 'Cremaster 3' (2002)

Of the five, it's Cremaster 3 (2002), the final film in the cycle, that brings everything together. A densely visual achievement invoking the Freemasons, the Chrysler Building, and masculine rites of passage, here Barney has fully come into his own as a storyteller, taking all the elements from his previous films, as though they were instruments, and performing a full-on compositional work that is sui generis and richly complex. This is Barney's own rite of passage from initiate to master, one that demonstrates Barney's ability to control his own creation and make it dance for him, puppet-like.

I emerged dazed from the eight-hour marathon and climbed back to the museum's populated ground floor. With only a few minutes before the museum closed for the evening, I ventured back to the Cremaster portraits and costume work on display. How familiar they now looked, and vulnerable. I recalled a piece I had seen earlier, at the top of the rotunda: The artist Ellie Ga had assembled a triptych honoring, among other things, Dhwty, the Egyptian god of documentation. Even if many of the pieces were unable to weave a story as gloriously confounding as the Cremaster Cycle, or left it to others to tell it for them, or withheld any story entirely, it seemed appropriate to have a deity of narrative hovering above the show. There was no way to leave here without something to talk about.

Storylines is up through September 9, 2015, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

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