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I was looking at Robert Smithson’s show at MOCA and got to thinking about permanence. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so much lately about contemporary art works that are steadily deteriorating in collections, but the weird temporal stasis he intended by his “Nonsite” works--the paradox of his placeless ruins perpetually remade in galleries as new ruins--jumped out at me. I got to wondering about the timelessness we surround art with in galleries and museums. What would happen, I wondered, if art wasn’t expected to present itself in a constant state, forever? Or perhaps more fully, what is it that’s masked by our drive to preserve art, and what meanings are implied by the way time is experienced when we view art in galleries and museums?

Back in the 60’s Smithson talked about museums and galleries as important gaps in reality, what he called “null” sites that “exclude any kind of life-forcing position.” Part of what he was referring to was the usefulness of a gallery in isolating and distancing art from the everyday so that the variety of its objects and images could achieve a certain unity. In those spaces art could clearly be seen as art and nothing else. But imbedded in art’s framing space is an equally important but less visible economic reality that makes maintaining art collections and displays a mandate for any cultural institution. Over time that necessity has kindled other ramifications, as the need for art to remain just as the artist intended it has given rise to other issues. Appearances of immortality or timelessness are not neutral in a world of mere mortals and often violent change.

In the decades since the 1960’s artists have tried to penetrate art’s self-reflective and static temporal isolation with all sorts of real time strategies like happenings, performance, process and installation art. But even when they have tried to resurrect time as an experience for the viewer by making works that actually incorporate change or by creating objects made of ephemeral materials like food, melting snow or rotting meat, their art is still touched by the gallery’s preserving effect. Even as we watch the works wither or participate in their temporal presentation, we still expect they will be recreated or reinstalled elsewhere, and almost exactly as we have seen them. As the most ephemeral experience can now be collected and warehoused like any other art object, our expectation or assurance of repetition is so powerfully pervasive it has effectively robbed installation art of its subversive temporality as well as its anti-commodity edge, as even the most ephemeral experience can now be collected and warehoused like any other art object.

Robert Smithson, "Partially Buried
Woodshed," 1970, one woodshed and
twenty truckloads of earth, 18'6" x 10'2" x 45'.

Rodney Graham, “Photokinetoscope,”
2002, 166-mm film installation with vinyl
disc, projector, looper mechanism,
and modified turntable, size varies.

Some artists working in galleries today, however, have found that by embracing art’s drive for permanence they can play off it in interesting ways. Rodney Graham’s recent exhibition at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary, for example, used film loops to create seamless cycles of occurrence. Many of his works have no beginning and endings could be anywhere, thus meaning is partly derived from the work’s sheer circularity. Pieces like his City Self/Country Self, with their character’s perpetual journey that is always a coming and going, punctuated by a repeated “kick in the pants” moment that achieves no conclusion, exploit and comment on contemporary art’s cinematic state of ongoing repetitiveness. Indeed, the film loop, which so many artists have routinely utilized as a way of having their work perpetually available, is itself a metaphor for art in a state of visual transcendence; a kind of immortality of presentation without change or final conclusion.

Libby Black, “Gucci Golf
Bag,” 2004, paper/hot
glue/acrylic, 44 x 19 x 44”.

Libby Black, “Burberry
Skateboard,” 2004, paper/hot
glue/acrylic, 30 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 9 1/2”.

Libby Black, “Louis Vuiotton
Suitcase,” 2004, paper/hot
glue/acrylic, 26 x 15 x 9”.
Permanence in display presents the timelessness of immortality. It can, in the context of a consumer culture that demands the perpetual availability of goods, be regarded as a sign of art’s transcendent worth, its cultural and even moral goodness. That issue gets a nice dose of investigative parody in the work of Libby Black, a young, emerging artist who appears in OCMA’s current California Biennial. She makes flimsy copies of high end designer goodies like Louis Vitton handbags and custom Burberry skateboards from thin sheets of white paper.

Tellingly, Black’s paper recreations of society’s status objects are hollow but exacting forms lightly held together with dabs of hot glue. It’s surprising what their level of clear instability does to the icons of material desire she recreates. As the paper’s edges barely meet and the forms gently sag, not even the carefully painted addition of their trendy logos can ward off what seems to be their inevitable demise. Oddly, they retain their “wannabe” connections to seductive high style and economic status but, as playfully fragile parodies of privilege, they also suggest that the highly marketed perfection and status surrounding the originals is suspect. That complex love/hate relationship with the original mirrors much of the emotional ambiguity surrounding any discussion of class or entitlement in America.

When Black’s works enter collections, however, it is their status as unstable art object that makes them engage questions imbedded in the issue of art’s permanence. In the artist’s admitted ambivalence about her work’s stability, her objects summon a problem all conservators must face when they deliberate upon the repair and maintenance of their collections: how far can they go to preserve a work? Can a piece be repaired or reconstructed using the artist’s own methods and materials without affecting the work’s authenticity? Does a deteriorating condition of display reflect the artist’s intention and how far can that be allowed to progress before the work’s value (both visual and economic) is destroyed?

Black’s works use their physical instability as a way to critique material desire in a contemporary culture of acquisition that art is fully invested in. However, Los Angeles artist Susan Chorpenning, who showed recently at Dangerous Curve, makes light-based installations and objects that are so ephemeral they confront the timelessness of art’s terrain to make us aware of what its illusions of permanence can withhold from consideration.

Like a contemporary Vermeer, Chorpenning is fascinated with light and how it activates space. In response she has painted repeating faux patches of angular sunlight on walls or floors that capture the exact shape and color of light coming through a particular window into a room at a certain time of day. The light moves on but its radiant image is left behind.

All memorials are objects or sites that seek to make architecturally permanent the memory of something lost. The way Chorpenning inscribes the transitory experience of sunlight calls to mind their limitations. We cannot warm ourselves in her squares of color or cast a shadow into them. As sunlight renews its alignment with the works we have an opportunity to literally watch time pass, but most often the pieces are empty. That awareness makes you anticipate, even long for the sunlight’s return, perhaps even wait for it to realign with the painted shape. Such longing leads you to feel even more potently a sense of loss. It is the relative permanence of the paint, offering visual solace for what is gone, that ironically sets this temporal tension in motion.

In another piece entitled Easy to Remember, the artist uses a chair mounted with a camera’s detached flash unit. When activated by a willing viewer the intensity of the flash temporarily sears a phrase about remembering onto the back of their eye. The after-image text then hovers like a visual commentary, co-opting everything seen until the effect gradually fades away. In its impermanence her imposed text is a metaphor for consciousness and the brevity of human memory.

Yet because the image fades and the art must submit and admit to the same inherent frailty as memory, the sense of loss that accompanies the text’s disappearance is not only poignant but critical. Because ultimately what is denied by art’s state of enforced permanence is not just loss, but the disconcerting doubt and uncertainty for the future that always follows in its wake. A “what’s next” moment of critical reflection. Art desperately needs to offer that reminder of uncertainty, particularly in an age increasingly dominated by fundamentalist beliefs and all the damage that unexamined certainty can dictate or permit.

Susan Chorpenning, “Easy to Remember
(But so Hard to Forget),” 2000, one
chair from installation, wood/plastic/
fabric/tape recorders/flash units.

Susan Chorpenning, “February 30,”
2004, paint on floor and walls installed
at Dangerous Curve, Downtown.

Susan Chorpenning, “49 Geary,"
1998, light, carpet, windows, walls, floor,
at Brian Gross Fine Art, San Francisco.