'Let's Entertain' was a collection of work that happily contemplated the impetuous and quakey ground which separates art from entertainment. From Andy Warhol and Dara Birnbaun to Jack Pierson and Ugo Rondinone, curator Phillippe Vergne navigated viewers through a funhouse of television monitors, projections, disco ball and beanbags. Ultimately, the exhibition confirmed two important things: firstly, that we are a society of great visual literacy, and secondly, that no matter how many qualities art and entertainment share, they will forever remain profoundly separate cultural phenomena.
Entertainment is a privilege and the product of healthy capitalism. We buy it, celebrate it, despise it and ban it. Art can also be these things but it moves through culture differently. Entertainment values a kind of dynamic mobility, whereas art values things and ideas. Nothing in 'Let's Entertain' disputes this basic fact, but the few projects that bow to fashion and design appear more sympathetic to qualities of style over stylish things. Strangely, Dike Blair's floor constructions and photographs classically examine the trajectory of autonomous sculpture and painting through the lens of an expensive interior designer. His writing and collection of interviews (smartly included in the exhibition catalogue), on the other hand, are stunning queries into the minds of celebrated product designers who acquiesce to the demands and values of both art and entertainment, product and trend, quality and profit. This is obviously a cultural position Blair admires as he researches theme restaurants, and shops Mac Mall for laptops.
The Bernadette Corporation was represented by a video and accompanying large photograph entitled Creation of a False Feeling (2000). The work confounds a sexy fashion shoot with an analysis of Mallarmé by an old French scholar standing in the middle of a frozen lake. It was compelling and beautiful but most importantly it stood clear of any sort of feminist or cultural critique. Like Blair, this collective made art for the art-as-entertainment show. But some of Bernadette Corporation's other projects target that elusive protean site between Conceptual art and fashion. Kyupi Kyupi, another collective with genre-free media ambitions, this time from Japan, filters campy sci-fi, erotic cabaret, wacky costuming, dance music and optical graphics into video skits that deserve their own cable channel.
A ten-year-old association based in Vienna, Museum in Progress, is grossly more political and ambitious than its collective counterparts in the exhibition - it inserts art and its practitioners into the context of popular media-seeking to disrupt the traditional modes of art dissemination. Although it sounds boring and old world, the DO IT (TV version) Museum in Progress (1995-96) is at times very funny. It asks artists including Erwin Wurm, Steven Pippin, Damien Hirst and Yoko Ono, to present recipes for activity. I had forgotten how profoundly earnest Michael Smith's humour can be and how a free meal by Rirkrit Tiravanija can be disingenuous and trite.
David Shea created the Let's Entertain Soundtrack (2000), a mix of movie tracks, pop music, cartoon scores and ambient sound. It perfectly complimented the viewing of objects. For example Paul McCarthy's Documents (1995-99), representations of Disneyland and Hitler, Leigh Bowery's glittery garments and even Piotr Uklanski's illuminated dance floor installed in the Art Centre's coat room was heightened by Shea's composition. However, the headset becomes a nuisance if you choose to wear one of Peter Friedl's animal costumes. You also risk cord entanglement as you move around Dan Graham's Three Linked Cubes/Interior Design for Space Showing Videos (1986) in an attempt to hear and view Kelley and McCarthy's Fresh Acconci (1995), Leigh Bowery's Death in Vegas (1994) or Warhol's Andy Warhol's TV (1981).
Much contemporary art takes its cues from popular culture and ends up more engaging than its source. Two of the best examples in the show are Lily van der Stokker's wall painting for the Art Centre's lobby with scripted text at the bottom reading 'extremely exceptional art by older people', and Rineke Dijkstra's video installation of dancing youth The Buzz Club/Mystery World (1996-97) - both works have no intention of competing with entertainment's public life. And while a few artists may model their collectives on entertainment industry structures, in the end, the 'big' audience will never be theirs. Game over.
Michelle Grabner is an artist, curator and professor in the Department of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is Director of the exhibition spaces The Suburban in Milwaukee, USA and the Poor Farm in Wisconsin, USA.
First published in Issue 54