Visual Arts

Some Assembly Required

The exhibition catalogue accompanying Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's latest offering, "do it," makes no bones about it. The show's title, notes catalogue essayist Bruce Altshuler, is designed to bring to mind the nostalgic rallying cry of radical Vietnam War protestor and Yippie co-founder Jerry Rubin, as well as the '90s Nike advertising slogan "Just do it."

Scottsdale's rendition of "do it," however, isn't half as entertaining as Rubin's goofy attempt in the late 1960s to exorcise the Pentagon by mentally levitating the bastion of America's military-industrial complex -- or his nominating a pig for president. And, quite frankly, it's not even as engaging as one of those latter-day Nike ads.

Conceived and curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, this traveling exhibition took its original cue from a 1993 exhibition project underwritten by AFAA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. Claimed by Obrist to be "an exhibition in progress," "do it" revolves entirely around written instructions for creating potential art works or art actions submitted to the curator by 50 recognized artists (including Yoko Ono), poets and researchers from Europe, South America and the United States. The completely conceptual exhibition has been making the rounds of museums across the globe since then.

Each museum sponsoring the show, including SMOCA, is required to select at least 15 of these instructions and have them "realized" (read "carried out") by either museum personnel or the community at large in which the exhibition is held. The only real demand made on the museum is that the instructions "be approached with a spirit of 'free interpretation.'" Ground rules also provide that anything created for the show must be destroyed afterward, with all objects used for a piece being returned to their pre-Cinderella state of banality.

"do it" is tantamount to an art exhibition of nonexistent art. Nothing has been created by the submitting participants for the show other than written instructions. No art objects are packed, shipped and put on display at the museum. Basically, "do it" translates as "do it yourself."

Obrist's project was inspired by a discussion the curator had one evening in a Parisian cafe with two well-known artists, Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, about art that takes the form of written instructions and the concept of interpreting such instructions. It's a form of art sanctified long ago by art history, beginning in 1915 with the irrepressible father of the playfully absurdist Dada movement, Marcel Duchamp. It was Duchamp who first espoused the belief that the idea behind an art object or image is more important than the art itself -- that the "retinal" should be dumped for the "conceptual" -- and that just about anything could be considered art.

Revolutionary at the time, Duchamp's ideas caught on like wildfire, giving birth eventually to Happenings and Fluxus events in the late '50s and early '60s. Those ideas became codified under the rubric of serious Conceptual art, which reached a stultifying apogee between the mid- and late 1970s. Unfortunately, the quixotic humor, irreverence and serendipity that characterized early conceptually based work, like that produced by Fluxus, did not survive the maturation process. For good reason, people quickly got bored with art as pure idea -- and the convoluted, virtually incomprehensible explanatory text that often accompanied these painfully obscure exercises.

To its credit, SMOCA has tried valiantly to make the swampy morass of Conceptual art buoying "do it" more navigable for museumgoers. The museum apparently invited staff to work with different community groups in Scottsdale to produce the work on display. It was a good-faith attempt to make this show user-friendly, not to mention community-interactive -- mandatory millennial requirements for most computer-weaned viewers whose attention spans are now measured in nanoseconds.

But the upshot of having John Q. Public involved in creating the work for "do it" is that, overall, the show looks more like a warm-and-fuzzy community crafts project than a thought-provoking aesthetic exercise aimed at illustrating the historical importance of Conceptual art in all its various permutations.

Even more, SMOCA's interpretation of "do it" underscores the fact that what was once avant-garde a mere 40 years ago can look and feel embarrassingly dated when viewed from the beginning of a new, technologically oriented century.

This is not to say that there aren't some attention-grabbing high points in the exhibition. Critical Art Ensemble's True Crime piece is ably interpreted and executed by the performing arts staff of Scottsdale Center for the Arts. CAE, a rather anarchic collective of radical artists who authored Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas, commanded participants to "[m]ake an image of an illegal object, an object obtained illegally, or of any illegal activity to which you are specifically connected. . . . All crimes are accepted no matter how modest or severe." After listing a number of qualifying transgressions, CAE points out, "[t]he possibilities are limitless."

Following its own version of the instructions, SCA's performing arts staff contacted members of the public, who anonymously divulged crimes in visual form. Legal breaches include everything from speeding, underage smoking, fraudulently using grocery coupons and willfully failing to scoop doggy poop to the love-obsessed revenge torching of an ex-lover's car and possession of crystal meth with intent to sell.

The instructions also elicited a chilling pastiche of legal documents filed in Maricopa County Superior Court in 1989, with the legend: "Many years ago we were all part of a youthful crime wave. One of us could not live with the crimes committed, and took their own life."

Andreas Slominski's untitled ukase to "[t]ip a bicycle so that the front points upwards and use the seat to squeeze lemons" got the creative juices of members of the Tempe Adult Day Health Care program flowing. Their contorted though functional bike contraption looked like a real Duchampian "readymade," down to its homemade juicing apparatus whimsically cobbled from an upturned bundt pan and a crusty old funnel.

And some of the most inspired instructions, by the likes of artists Annette Messager, Nancy Spero and Pipilotti Rist, were offered only for the "do it" home version. One of my favorites is by Ben Kinmont, who wants the home participant to "[i]nvite a stranger into your home for breakfast."

I have a lingering suspicion that it might have been more challenging to have interpreted the show's requirements to allow working artists from the community to create pieces for the exhibition. But, then again, maybe not. In the words of essayist Altshuler, "For viewers . . . the experience of the exhibition involves an awareness of what is and what might have been." In this case, what might have been is infinitely more intriguing that what actually came to be. When all is said and done, "do it" has been done before -- and done to death.

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Kathleen Vanesian