Do's and Don't's

You may want to wash your hands after taking in the trio of oddball (a polite but accurate term) conceptual exhibits that fill the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art this summer. While none are visually edifying, all three challenge conventional, and even unconventional, ideas about the nature of art and art-making in ways that are at times intellectually challenging, at times disturbing, at times downright dirty.

A bizarre traveling show from France that substitutes ideas for objects occupies the West Gallery. Paris curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, who organized the show for the New York-based Independent Curators Incorporated, decided to just do it back in the early Nineties. Working in collaboration with French artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, he contacted scores of artists, most of them in Europe and the United States, and asked them to provide a written description of an action or an object to be included in do it. These descriptions, rather than the actual pieces, form the core of the exhibit; they're contained in a booklet of written instructions that details both the nature of the exhibit and the particulars behind each piece.

The objects themselves have been made, as Obrist intended, for this specific show, as they have been and will continue to be at all the other stops on the do it North and South American tour itinerary. This concept keeps the exhibit, as well as its components, unique to each locale. (And, of course, it also represents a significant savings in shipping.) At BMoCA, the job of making, or in some cases, gathering the do it objects fell to a committee of volunteers, who followed the artists' instructions--sometimes to the letter, sometimes not. The ability of people other than the artist to make artistic choices adds a dimension of chance--an important component of conceptual art--to every work in do it.

Almost immediately upon entering the Boulder incarnation of do it, viewers encounter the work of one of the most famous artists involved, Fluxus-movement founder (and John Lennon's widow) Yoko Ono. She's a key figure in this kind of conceptual art, having created works since the 1960s largely based on written instructions meant to be carried out by others. Here Ono offers a signature work, 1996's "Wish Piece." Her plans ask you to make a wish, then instruct that the wish be written on a piece of paper and tied to a twig; the process is to be repeated until the twig is covered with wishes. At BMoCA, "Wish Piece" hangs from the ceiling, out of reach, making it impossible for viewers to read the wishes, much less add their own. Although this inaccessibility was not dictated in Ono's instructions, the local committee was encouraged to "freely interpret"--and it did. Another famous artist in do it is Michelangelo Pistoletto, an Italian now living in Vienna. Like Ono, Pistoletto is interested in interactive work that documents a series of repeated actions, as shown in his 1997 piece "Sculpture for Strolling." Pistoletto instructs that his work be made of local daily newspapers that have been soaked in water and smashed together to form a sphere one meter in diameter; this sphere is to be rolled around the host city. Although the exhibit's rules call for destroying all the do it pieces immediately after the show closes--to avoid the creation of art objects as an unwanted by-product--Pistoletto gives his permission for this unappealing piece to be displayed permanently in exchange for a $3,000 fee. That's an offer BMoCA can afford to refuse.

Many of the do it works look like installations, but they're not; rather, they're settings for spur-of-the-moment performances. In his 1997 "Do It Now," New Yorker Joseph Grigely instructed that a table and chair, along with pens and pencils, a rack of postcards and a mailbox, be assembled to encourage viewers to write to someone with whom they have not been in contact for a year. BMoCA staffers mail the postcards at the end of each day. "True Crime," a 1988 creation by the New York co-operative Critical Art Ensemble, also embraces an interactive approach. Behind a gold curtain is a small room containing an electric typewriter; viewers are asked to type up a confession to a crime. Most of the dozens of confessions already posted report minor infractions, like smoking or eating fatty foods. But a few are truly upsetting, with references to committing sexual abuse and fostering drug addiction.

Other do it objects are either enigmatic or absolutely indecipherable. Lawrence Weiner's "Cat. #21" is one of the oldest works in the show, having been conceived in 1968, but its mysteries have held up for thirty years. In this most minimal of minimalist constructions (de-constructions?), a 36" x 36" square of BMoCA's wallboard has been removed to reveal the structure underneath; the result is surprisingly elegant. Harder to appreciate is a 1991 work by Russian artist Ilya Kabakov. "White Cube" is an eight-foot tall, completely enclosed cube that viewers access by ladder. After climbing to the top, you see that the cube is entirely empty except for a small scrap of paper bearing some unreadable script.

While all too many pieces in do it are self-consciously hip, "Untitled," a 1994 work by the late Cuban-American artist Felix Gonzales-Torres, is at once touching and chillingly engaging. Meant as a tribute to the artist's lover, who, like Gonzales-Torres, died of AIDS, the piece consists of 180 pounds of individually wrapped candies that have been dumped in a corner.

The real dump is next door in the East Gallery, which is filled with the BMoCA-originated Fertile Waste. Six artists were chosen for what museum director Cydney Payton calls "mini-residencies"; using the East Gallery as their collective studio, the six took trash collected from around Boulder and turned it into an assortment of installations, sculptures and wall pieces. One of the exhibit's sponsors, the Boulder County Recycling and Composting Authority, suggests viewing these artworks as a kind of "soft" reuse of refuse. Unfortunately, few pieces transcend their lowly origins: Garbage in, garbage out.

Denver's Brad Evans and Tim Jag, an artist from San Francisco, supervised the other participants, requesting that they "create projects using...found materials." Evans himself contributes the largest and most engrossing piece: "Waste Composite," a floor-and-ceiling installation in which a green path leads the visitor through piles of debris including a lawn mower, while overhead hang aluminum cans held in Plexiglas cases. Simpler, and much easier to understand, is Evans's "And Baby Makes 3," which lines up three shopping carts with clothing laid out to symbolize a man, a woman and a child.

Jag was the most prolific of the participating artists. Among the most engaging of his pieces is "Jar Transformer/On Site Alchemy," a shelf bearing a row of jars filled with multi-colored liquids that have been back-lit. Also intriguing is "Prize Stories 'Grouping,'" with the spines of old books lined up in a metal frame hung on the wall.

But other pieces in Fertile Waste are a complete waste. In "Rake for Niccolo," a work devoid of any artistic, conceptual or narrative content, San Francisco's Christian Spruell takes a pair of Styrofoam cups stuck with dirty white pushpins and places one on top of a cassette tape. Critics sometimes degrade contemporary art as looking like something anyone could do--and that's certainly true here.

Fortunately, that's not the case with The Entelechy of Reality, a solo show by Josh Bemelen in the upstairs Union Works Gallery. The installation begins even as the viewer climbs the stairs. A ceiling-mounted conveyor belt of meat hooks hung with used clothing creates an eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere that's heightened as the installation proceeds. In addition to those disturbing meat hooks, Bemelen has used two wall-hung, moving boxes filled with body parts made of cast latex. And then there's that clear plastic maze filled with dead cockroaches. (The roaches were supposed to be alive, but they died off in the heat of recent weeks. Luckily, Bemelen was talked out of his original idea: using mice, which no doubt would have met the same sorry fate.)

Bemelen is a student at the University of Denver, where he's a protege of Lawrence Argent, an installation genius. Although you can see the influence of the master in Entelechy (the title refers to an Aristetolian concept regarding self-fulfillment), this installation is much rawer than Argent's work, less fully jelled.

Like the pieces in Fertile Waste and do it, every part of Entelechy was created specifically for its BMoCA debut. So it's not surprising that the museum was very busy in the days leading up to last month's opening, with volunteers and artists working around the clock. Are these three shows worth all that coordinated effort? As any conceptualist would tell you, it's the thought that counts.

do it, Fertile Waste and The Entelechy of Reality, through August 30 at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 1750 13th Street, Boulder, 443-2122.

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