A mid-career survey of a living artist is one of the hardest things a museum can do. But that’s no excuse for doing it completely wrong, as the Whitney Museum has done with “SCANNING: the aberrant architectures of diller + scofidio.” It’s true, many surveys are awarded to artists who really aren’t ready for them, and may never be ready for them. But Diller and Scofidio aren’t even artists, they’re architects pretending to be artists, and their so-called art is atrocious. This show is inexcusable by any measure—curatorial, artistic, experiential, intellectual, and architectural.
Diller and Scofidio aren’t especially bad architects in a jazzy, pseudo-intellectual, quasi-Rem Koolhaas kind of way. The winners of a MacArthur Award, they’ve built two buildings. One, a so-so housing project, is in Japan. The other, the Blur Building, a media pavilion fabricated for Swiss Expo 2002, is less a building than a fun house. Its main feature is that it sprays mists of water on visitors. Their plans for Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art look OK, and their model for Eyebeam’s new Chelsea site resembles an azure escalator and ought to be quite the tourist attraction (if it’s ever built). Their best project is their Philippe Stark-meets-’60s-airport-lounge re-design of the Brasserie restaurant, which suggests their true calling may be interior decoration.
All this is fine by me. D + S spice things up and toss in brainy bits of theory. Architecture and design critics eat it up, as do wealthy clients. Things could be worse. What couldn’t, and what’s particularly annoying about Elizabeth Diller, who is 48, and the former student of her now husband, Ricardo Scofidio, 67, is their imitation art. Start with the inflated exhibition title. Notice the pretentious absence of capital letters and the chic plus sign between the two lowercase names (diller plus scofidio equals what? Fluff?), the fatuous all-capitalized “SCANNING,” and the presumptuous use of the word “aberrant” to describe work that is remarkably run-of-the-mill.
In his pedantic, fawning catalog essay, co-curator Aaron Betsky gushes, “Diller + Scofidio are hybrid architects/artists who make visible the technologies of desire and reveal the surveillance of objects of desire” (whatever that means). He repeatedly uses the word “display,” as in “the culture of display,” Diller + Scofidio “display display,” or they “frustrate the act of display.” He raves, “Diller + Scofidio have exquisite taste.” Actually, they and he have conventional taste. Except for one seductive piece involving a section of wall that a Duchamp formerly hung on at MOMA and that has been inserted at the Whitney, “SCANNING” is dead as a doornail, lost in some academic haze where the architects and curators think they’re Duchamp, Baudrillard, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Barbara Bloom on the set of Blade Runner.
To describe some of these works is to see how lame-brained and unoriginal they are. There’s Soft Sell (1993), a video featuring a female mouth (an “emblem of seduction” we are told) orating inane phrases like “Hey you, wanna buy a ticket to paradise?” or “Hey you, wanna buy a vowel?” So imitative is this work that you want to say, “Hey you, ever heard of Laurie Anderson?”
Vanity Chair (1988), which rhymes, I guess, with Vanity Fair, is a three-legged aluminum seat with a mirror mounted on it and the words binge and purge embossed on the seat. The wall label says the piece makes us “reexamine the narcissism of our daily rituals,” when all it does is make us think of legions of fourth-rate conceptualists who’ve done this sort of work better. Particularly slick and sterile is Tourisms: suitCase Studies (1991), whose title is an insipid pun on the L.A. Case Study Houses. The piece consists of 50 identical Samsonite suitcases (one for each state) opened and suspended from a wooden ceiling. Each sports a postcard and a quote from someone like Baudrillard, Barthes, or Umberto Eco. Presumably, Eco’s first name is misspelled as “Unberto” on the Utah bag because the piece is so boring no one could bear to read it.
Condescending and empty is The American Lawn: Surface of Everyday Life (1998), a work involving a bunch of stereoscopic viewers, each with a photograph of neighboring lawns. The label sniffs that this represents “a sinister surface of repressed horror.” Really, it represents people who simply have different ideas about lawns.
The swank, superficial, room-filling installation featuring toy robots on conveyor belts supposedly deals with “themes of surveillance and bureaucratic monotony.” “Monotony” is right, but more accurately it’s about unchecked excess and curatorial ignorance. Which brings us to Mural: a roving, robotic drill that intermittently bores holes in the walls throughout the exhibition. In a wonderful bit of poetic justice, its label unwittingly describes the problem with this entire show as well as the current state of the museum under Maxwell Anderson: “Mural,” it clucks, is about “silent signs of curatorial judgment withheld.”
Amen. Despite the museum’s uneven but quite lively project series and several good historical surveys, this fiasco—coupled with last summer’s super-vacuous Michal Rovner exhibition and the middling “BitStreams,”and coming on the heels of two biennials that were bad in ways they needn’t have been—suggests the Whitney is incompetent at mounting both large-scale shows and mid-career surveys of contemporary art. This must change.