At the Hammer Museum, LA, the curator casts a witty, critical eye on the vexed role of institutions contextualizing the art they display
In 1997, artist and scholar Rhonda Roland Shearer published a paper alleging that each and every one of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades was in fact meticulously handmade: in other words, a fake. Though the idea of Duchamp perpetrating such an elaborate (and quintessentially Duchampian) hoax is an appealing one, Shearer’s theory gained little traction within the academic community. (‘If she’s right,’ said Arthur Danto haughtily, ‘I have no interest in Duchamp.’) It came to my mind, again, in ‘Stories of Almost Everyone’, organized by Hammer Museum curator Aram Moshayedi, which elaborates not so much on the subject of craft but of craftiness, and on the integral untrustworthiness of the readymade as an artistic form.
Moshayedi began by considering contemporary conceptual art’s reliance on narrative. Once he started tugging that thread, it kept on coming. It led him to the grand theme of faith versus scepticism in art; then naturally to illusion and deception; then to the vexed role of institutions in interpreting and contextualizing such works (the curator as storyteller), as well as storing and conserving collections of them, when they resemble bric-a-brac without their supporting texts. There is enough here to keep someone busy for an entire career; if there is a weakness in Moshayedi’s thoughtful and often entertaining exhibition it is that, in attempting to bind so much into a single package, it risks losing focus. Is the show primarily about belief, narrative or museology? For me, its egalitarian title – borrowed from Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano – is one extrapolation too many.
The presentation itself is refreshingly un-showy, sardonically allusive of the pragmatic efficiencies of art storage rather than gallery display. Dividing walls removed, the open galleries contain objects, evenly spaced and mostly placed directly on the floor, all accompanied by chunky rectangles of wall text. Given that these texts are as much the subject of the show as the objects themselves, it is interesting that Moshayedi has not been tempted to mess with the neutral, impersonal tone that is ubiquitous in museum didactics. Instead, an audio guide written by Kanishk Tharoor is available, taking the form of a short story about a mother and her son. Stitching into its fabric oblique references to objects in the show, the story is charming but no serious challenge to the powerful official narratives presented by the museum.
Without burning through my word allocation retelling these narratives here, some examples: two piles of notebooks and art magazines (Ryan Gander’s Alchemy Box, 2009), accompanied by lists of the ‘boxes’’ hidden contents; a yellow pillow (The Mayor Is Sleeping, an undated work by Jason Dodge) that has reportedly been slept on by the mayor of Nuremburg; a large globe (Danh Vo’s Lot 34. Replogle Thirty-two-inch Library Globe, 2013) that Lyndon B. Johnson gifted to Robert McNamara. Any of these origin stories, of course, could be lies.
Some of the more pleasing works in the show actively interfere with the systems of conservation and museology on which their existence depends. A padlocked and keyless suitcase (Lara Favaretto’s Lost and Found, 1997) is a time-capsule, buried in an art collection. For Mail (2013/18), Mungo Thomson asks that the museum allow all its post to pile up, unopened, in the gallery. Others may not be artworks at all; Carol Bove has contributed a hunk of petrified rock, an artefact from her studio and an unfinished sculpture, all (as yet) unfixed by either title or date.
Do you want to go to an art gallery and spend half your time reading? I don’t, particularly – although it’s often an inevitable activity these days. ‘Stories of Almost Everyone’ may not change that, but it demonstrates how museological mediation can be witty and self-critical, bemused by its own contradictions, and happy to let us in on the joke.
'Stories of Almost Everyone' runs at the Hammer Museum, LA, until 6 May.
Main image: Kapwani Kiwanga, Flowers for Africa: Nigeria, 2014, written protocol signed by the artist, iconographic documents, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Jérôme Poggi; photograph: © Aurélien Mole