By now, you’ve probably heard about the Loris Greaud show at the Dallas Contemporary. The art exhibition, which opened last Saturday to a members-only crowd of a few hundred, managed to get massive play on social media, buzzy chatter at the rest of the weekend’s art events, and even reports on local television news and the New York Post’s Page Six. Why? Well, during the opening, Greaud hired a team of actors to destroy his exhibition. At around 8:30 or so, the lights went out in the space, a siren started blaring, and security personnel replete with little Secret Service-style ear pieces began ushering guests out the door. A handful of local media types and Contemporary employees were phone-ready and caught the sight of the actors picking up Greaud’s plaster, mutated deer sculptures and hurling them to the ground, toppling his massive black bulbous sculptures, and pulling paintings off the wall and onto the floor.
It was quite the spectacle, as was promised with Greaud’s appearance in Dallas. The French artist is noted for his artistic showmanship. At the Palais de Tokyo, he had stuntmen jump off a cork screw tower continuously throughout the duration of the exhibit. At the Lourve, an aluminum sculpture covered in black tarp looked like it was slipping off its pedestal, threatening to topple over on the crowd at any moment. In Greaud’s performances the suggestion of physical peril plays an important role, a bit like it did in some of the performances of Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Chris Burden, and others, only here, it all feels a bit more like David Blaine. It’s not really that dangerous and the performances all feel somewhat facsimile—you know everything is orchestrated, sanctioned, and managed, but the fun lies in the complicity of the audience and artist alike in believing something real might actually be at stake.
What is at stake in Greaud’s work? On the surface, it appears like more retreading of the same old Duchamp-ian sleight of hand: sonar readings of the invisible power institutions exert over art—art that is a product of a self-reflexive awareness of the context that establishes its value as art object. Greaud’s show is titled The Unplayed Notes Museum, and the idea of the museum as both a physical and conceptual space is central to the conceit of the exhibition.
There’s a lot of work in Greaud’s “museum,” filling up even the Contemporary’s gargantuan and notoriously hard-to-fill halls. There are dozens of plaster, mutated deer; 30 topological wall hanging relief-paintings; dozens and dozens of marble plinths with plaster zombie hands that reach out towards more paintings; seemingly still-wet, glossy black resin paintings – all lit by a thin band of florescent light with the sound of filmmaker Abel Ferrara reading William Burroughs blaring from a loudspeaker. There are also hulking casts of statues from Versailles paired with more black paintings, and a ring of plaster angels, half-shattered, their bits scattered with 6,000 dead butterflies – an affected, moribund touch that felt part teenage The Cure fan, part Jim Hodges. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a video from 2012 entitled “The Unplayed Notes.” Projected on a large wall, the video depicts two people having sex, filmed with a thermal camera, and set to a spare, ominous soundtrack by Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo.
Each set of works is accompanied by a stainless steel wall card that mimics the display strategy you might find in a natural history museum, only these are covered with illegible text – a kind of phonetic French rendered in reverse to ensure incomprehensibility. The gesture recalls a number of antecedents, like Marcel Broodthaers’ fictional museum or Daan Van Golden’s sidewalk chalk museum, or even curator Juan A. Gaitán’s decision to install part of the 8th Berlin Biennial in Berlin’s Ethnological Museum last year. With each of these projects, the institutional power or logic of the museum is co-opted into an effort to upset or dislodge the nature of artistic value – the museum turning “non-art” into sellable art, as in Broodthaers’ case, or the substitution of institutional brick and mortar for a semiotic appropriation of value-making, as with Van Golden. Greaud’s play is more straightforward. The trappings of the museum are employed to create a kind of musicological stage set. It wasn’t enough to trash a museum exhibit, Greaud made an exhibit that is itself a kind of museum model, and then he trashed that.
Below each card are sets of black plaster books bearing the title, the “Encyclopedia of Irresolution.” Irresolution is very much the point here. Before you get too settled into wondering what any of the individual works are up to in their own right, it is important to consider how Saturday night’s performance, which saw much of this work destroyed, affects our reading of them. The artist told the press before Saturday’s opening that the exhibition could be read as a complete exhibition without being reliant on the performance-destruction to bring it into being. What interests him is the idea that The Museum of the Unplayed Notes exists in three states: the complete install, the action of the performance, and the aftermath, which will remain on display through March 21. Thus, we are only able to access at any given time one aspect of the exhibit, but not its totality, the other stages of the exhibition existing as a memory or an asserted fiction.
If you say so. But I had trouble buying into this conceit if only because the performance – both the intent and the actualization of it – does affect our reading of the individual works both before and after they were destroyed. Themes of appropriation and destruction run beneath a surface aesthetic that is both suggestive and blank, sexed and resistant. Many of the pieces suggest decomposition, demolition, and destruction as integral to the formal process of their construction or tied to their underlying concept. The strongest piece in the show is Greaud’s video. The two throbbing bodies in the sex film look like computer-generated graphics, captured on technology utilized by military drones to search through buildings for living targets. Violence and pleasure are bedmates in a work that is equally erotic and alien.
But don’t spend too much time worrying about Greaud’s individual work. Part of the game is that Greaud throws us off his scent, obstructing our experience of any potential meaning in any of these individual pieces. Just as his placards are deliberately unreadable, the performance-destruction functions as a kind of cancellation, superseding the static meaning of his work and incorporating it into the larger framework of the exhibit-as-performance. After all, what is the work here? To what extent does the performance render the art objects as mere props? Is this really an art show in three parts, or just a massive installation whose process is left out in the open. Perhaps it has less to do with Marcel Broodthaers than with Process Art, Arte Povera, or Mono ha, making with physics, violence, and time, only in this case, the “making” was carried out by hired actors posing as thugs during the opening.
More intriguing is the question of value. In theory, Greaud could have sold any of the pieces he destroyed for a fair chunk of change. Does his performance cancel that value, or amplify it? Does the shattering merely increase the amount of commodifiable material, or is it a kind of self-sabotage, a nihilistic ritualization of the destruction of the market value of his own art works?
These appear to be questions that excite the artist, but the inherent irresolution written into the conceit of the exhibition and performance allow other questions to slip in too. One thing I couldn’t help but think about was all of the instances of art vandalism we have seen in recent years, like the defacing of the Picasso in Houston, the raiding of Prada Marfa, and the smashing of an Ai Weiwei pot, to name a few. In each of these cases, the vandalism was carried out by an overlooked, MFA-armed self-proclaimed artist swiping for media attention with a kind of “recontextualizing,” vandalism-as-appropriation shtick. How is Greaud, ultimately, not doing the same thing, only with his own work? After all, the amount of social media play his antics received only underscore the fact that creating a stir – a viral jolt – was certainly a preconceived aspect of his performance spectacle.
Perhaps this is what I found bothersome about Saturday night’s performance. As the lights went down and the fire alarm blared, there was no doubt that the destruction of the work was entirely orchestrated. The staged-ness of the subsequent smashing wasn’t jarring, threatening, or thrilling. Instead, it seemed to underline something cheap and facsimile about the entire ordeal: plaster sculptures manufactured in Vietnam, artificial monument mimicking Versailles or mass produced casts paired with monumental marble, all being smashed amidst a trumped-up flurry that resolved with champagne in a parking lot.
What the performance actually seemed to do was underscore the artificiality of the work and its subservience to a piece of theater. The demolition felt less like a subtraction or cancellation of artistic meaning, than a revelation of both the before and after installation as part of a theatrical illusion. It was like watching a magician withdraw the curtain from his box, revealing the sawed-in-half lady still intact. There was nothing ever really at risk, nothing ever really at stake. What we experienced was the orchestration of the idea of transgression, the idea of demonstrable demolition. The result was what it was always meant to be: an artificial battlefield dressed up in the spectacle of supposed newness. Greaud’s performance may have been less interesting than an act of real art vandalism because there is never any need to come to grips with real loss. And rather than challenging the idea of the museum, all it really revealed was the agency of his own artistic status—that the value-endowing art world gives certain people license to make or break as they please.
In Walter Robinson’s controversial essay on so-called Zombie Formalism, which reflects on contemporary abstract painting, he speaks about what he calls the “simulacrum of originality.” A lot of artists today like to claim that they have done something that has never been done before, like paint with electroplating process (Jacob Kassay) or applying paint with a fire extinguisher (Lucian Smith). Here too there has been some buzz about the fact that Greaud has done something no one has ever done before. Has anyone installed a show and then trashed his own installation? Artists have used violence in performance, they have used force and destruction as part of process. Artists have carved apart houses or filled them with concrete. They have created fake museums and imaginary museums, they have invaded museums, taken over museums, and vandalized museums. But no, I suppose no one has quite done what Greaud has done, create a museum in a museum and then smash it up. Bravo to him. Nonetheless, it all feels like something of an artificial milestone.