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"Re-defining the Context of Art: 1968-1997, The Second Investigation and Public Media" at MIT's Weisner Visual Art Center displays Joseph Kosuth's development as philosopher and social commentator, but, overall, lacks visual intrigue. Housed in a small, dimly lit room, the show consists of three large projections that cover two walls, black lettering on the sole window and approximately 25 striking black-and-white photographs.
The work, largely textual, incorporates quotes from essays by Walter Benjamin and Kosuth himself into a montage of philosophical meanderings that derives most of its forcefulness from Kosuth's chosen venues of display. The exhibit thus records not only Kosuth's work, but the context in which the work was originally displayed. One of the projections and a majority of the photographs show Kosuth's text as first introduced to the public: printed on newspapers, computer screens, banners, buildings and big-city billboards.
For example, the projection facing the exhibit's entrance flicks slowly from a barely legible Walter Benjamin quotation on a computer screen to a fuzzy video image of a building sporting another quote on windblown banner. To compensate for the poor image quality and slow scene change, each quotation is re-printed on plaques next to the projection.
The quotations address the post-modern "atrophy of experience," a symptom of the "information age," but the poor quality of the projections dilutes the visual impact of Kosuth's Primary cintext for his text, defying his emphasis on context and art being incorporated into the "real world."
The photographs from Kosuth's more recent work explore the overwhelming theme of text/context most lucidly and beautifully. Kosuth's work defies its medium, as it acquires another level of selfinvestigation with each new form of presentation.
Kosuth demonstrates a most literal attention to self-consciousness and selfinvestigation in his pieces from the 1970s. A series of four photographs from 1975 shows questionnaires that Kosuth demanded that his viewers complete before leaving the gallery. The questionnaire asks the viewer to respond not only to the work, which is not shown in the MIT exhibit, but also to contemporary politics, such that one questionnaire mentions U.S. foreign policy with Cuba.
By exhibiting photographs of these questionnaires, Kosuth tests the boundaries of authorship as he blurs the line between documentation and representation. But as fascinating as the concepts may be, these photographs are aesthetically rather bland.
Far from bland, Kosuth's most recent work consists largely of a dozen photographs of his billboards in major cities throughtout Europe and the U.S. These photos, by far the most visually compelling and intellectually intriguing pieces in the exhibit, show paragraphs of original prose, printed on billboards that blend into the cityscape, even capturing people's candid reactions to the esoteric signs. A knowledge of German, French or other European languages would help the viewer because no translations accompany these photographs. But there are enough photos of billboards in New York and California that the English-speaking viewer can gather the general meaning and formula for all the others.
Each sign commences with a question. "Can you read this?" says one New York billboard, before it delves into an examination of its own meaning and purpose, while challenging conventional notions of the relationship between art and culture. In each piece Kosuth thereby brings the viewer immediately into the discourse.
For Kosuth all art is political, even as it seeks to enclose itself in the protective, isolating walls of the museum space. The New York sign continues: "This text would like to see itself, but to do that it must first see that larger, social, cultural, and political space of which it is a part."
Kosuth uses parentheses brilliantly to clarify his perception of the role of the artist in post-modern society, as he attempts to conflate the processes of artistic creation and artistic reception. Another American Kosuth billboard reads, "This (writing/reading, text/gallery) is a moment in a process of construction which includes you. For you to see this (discourse) you must see beyond this (text/gallery); for you to see this (text/gallery) you must see through this (discourse)."
By using parentheses, Kosuth creates two clear levels of communication in which he can both present and represent, both declare and dissect his own ideology and the process by which that ideology becomes a part of the "culture" in which it finds itself.
For a thirty-year retrospective, the exhibit seems somewhat cramped and a little too casually put together. For lack of space for coat racks, the few viewers line their bags and coats on the floor, beneath the photographs.
Nonetheless, the exhibit presents a wonderful opportunity to read some eloquent prose about art and contemporary society. A few of the photographs are both intelligent and beautiful, and the show, though not multimedia itself, demonstrates Kosuth's ability to take advantage of creative, often surprising, venues of expression.
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