At what point does a visual art exhibition cross over and become pure theater? Perhaps that distinction doesn’t matter much, but it is a question that popped into my head this past weekend at The Whyte Window / Black Mirror / Black Burka Art Show at Beefhaus. Staged by three anonymous artists, as press materials explained, the show was the culmination of four years of digital theatrics, using and abusing “video blogs, experimental video, live performances, Google Translate, digital collage, poetry, Tumblr, language, volunteers, a massive amount of dating websites, numerous blogs, opera, photography and every aspect of Facebook.” The point of the Beefhaus show was to give these provocations physical form. The result was a kind of gallery show-as-stage set.
There were a lot of things in the space: poster-style art featuring mash-ups of popular and occult iconography, drawings, video, confessional poetic texts translated into multiple languages, diminutive found sculptures (pumps with chains, pill jars with batteries), and a large mess of two-by-fours screwed together in the front room to create a protruding architectural structure that doubled as a base for shot-up TVs and covered with scribbled black graffiti. Much of the work consisted of consumeristic debris—cheaply made toys, smashed up pay phones, battery operated gizmos—all in various stages of dismantling and half-functioning. A window installed into a door in the front room created a kind of peep show-effect behind which some of these eerie toy contraptions did their thing. A woman in a burka wandered about waving an incense burner, and in a back room—the safe room in this storefront and former jewelry store—a white masked man who looked very much like artist Thor Johnson sang karaoke in a quavering baritone surrounded by computers.
At 9:30, we were promised a performance, as is the wont these days with much art in Dallas, and sure enough a man emerged from a back room with a power drill and started pulling screws out of the two-by-fours, collapsing the structure in the front room. It was such an unimpressive, lackadaisical display of orchestrated demolition, I couldn’t help but see it as an ironic spoof of the now infamous Loris Greaud art demolition at the Dallas Contemporary in January. Whether or not the artists intended it as such, it fit with a show that seethed a kind of despondent nihilism, anarchy with the revolutionary fervor medicated right out of it.
The punk aesthetic; the inside-out display of the global supply chain of consumeristic crap; the televisions broadcasting bizarre, incomprehensible videos in various languages from exiled corners of internet land: I supposed you could try to draw connective lines of inspiration between these artists and people like Ryan Trecartin or Isa Genzken or a lot of No Wave-y, 1980s Lower East Side shenanigans. But filmmakers kept coming to mind for me. Johnsson’s howling lent the whole thing the mood of a David Lynch dream sequence. The exhibition’s particular tone, in all of its depressed and vapid provocativeness, reminded me of Crispin Glover’s eccentric films. And as with Greaud, the theatrics of the evening seemed to reduce the individual items in the show to the role of props, carnivalesque oddities, wind-up displays producing a weird feeling not terribly unlike that last scene in Stroszek.
But was it art? Was it theater? Does it matter? It was all very odd and fun and welcomed, antics that felt like necessary salt for art scene, even if they did not exactly comprise the kind of art that will ever quite transcend that scene.