Andrea Fraser: Boxed Set

March 12, 2010

Andrea Fraser’s series of five filmed performance pieces from 1989 to 2001, Museum Highlights, May I Help You?, Welcome to the Wadsworth, Inaugural Speech, and Official Welcome, draw together linguistic and institutional systems under the same rubric. Using language appropriated from art reviews and journals, catalogs and artists’ statements Fraser critiques both the gallery/museum and the discourse surrounding it for the limitations it places on a work’s ability to generate meaning. An actress posing as a museum docent in May I Help You? moves through contradictory descriptions of the work in an exhibition space, none of which apply particularly well to the objects in question.  Pointing to one of Allan McCollum’s Plaster Surrogates, one of a series of plaster cast objects that appear to be framed, black monochrome paintings, she says that it is all about process, about the brushstrokes, of which there are none.  Moments later, she dramatically proclaims that it “reflects her.” Heard in series, each phrase rings more and more false, emphasizing the way that language and institutional space can circumscribe the available readings of a work of art.

Fraser’s videos create and recreate space. The layering of space depicts a complex system of colliding constructs. On the one hand, there is the tension between the settings where the artist filmed and the images which eventually confront the viewer; on the other hand, there is the continuous negotiation between the spaces of the videos and the surrounding space of the gallery. Perceived in its seriality, Fraser’s work unsettles the linear realm of institutional space. As one watches one video after the other, there is an accumulation of imposing architectural structures, labeled objects, and controlled landscapes, above all of which presides the presence of the mass-media apparatus. This accumulation parallels the suffocation of artificial and official language, creating the impression that the generous and lit space of the Carpenter Center’s main gallery imposes on the visitor the same rigidity.

Although Fraser created the videos as a critique of physical and verbal limitations that restrict and commodify art, May I Help You? in particular runs the risk of remaining largely inaccessible to those who are not familiar with those same systems. Without knowing that the lines are appropriated (the list of sources runs at the end of the video loop), the critical effect could become lost in the art historical jargon. Viewers can more quickly appreciate the other four videos, since Fraser’s critique comes through most strikingly in unsettling lines such as, “We have a moral obligation to have beautiful homes” (as she points to an enormous cement building in Welcome to the Wadsworth).

The exhibition itself presents the viewer with a set of contradictions.  You walked into the Carpenter Center and are immediately confronted by five large, flat screen TVs on continuous loop. It is hard not think about the amount of money that went into purchasing these devices.  Similarly, the title Boxed Set calls to mind special edition commodities, whereas performance art (a genre from which Fraser’s gestures draw heavily) is usually not reproducible and thus less easy to appropriate as an item for sale.  Fraser’s video recorded Boxed Set is one of an unlimited edition. On the one hand, the fact of the work’s infinite reproducibility undermines its value as a rare edition;  on the other hand, this fact undermines the work’s status as a unique performance piece that depends on the presence of artist and audience in the same place at the same time.

Each video lasts for 20 minutes to half an hour. This dimension points to an interesting conflict within the norms of institutionalized display which Fraser critically addresses. In order to view all five videos, one would have to spend more than two hours in the gallery. Do Harvard students have this time to spare on a weekday, in between classes, seminars, and lab sessions? Nonetheless, the repetitive and theatrically articulated vernacular in Fraser’s videos could as well continue, in their emphatic flow, on and on, for hours and days. How long should an artist prescribe to his viewer to linger in front of the work of art, whether it is a painting, an installation, or a video? Fraser effectively poses this question in her critical engagement with the dynamics of contemporary art exhibitions, particularly those involving video installations.

Fraser’s exhibition within Harvard and the Carpenter Center, a center for the production of visual art on campus, provides students with unsettlingly critical material. The “Boxed Set” challenges the cacophony of formulaic critical language, in whose trap students oftentimes fall in the attempt to analyze and categorize new art, including their own work. Fraser’s construction of the smiling art historian as performer warns against the prescriptive dimension of institutional art settings and academic criticism.

By pushing against the systems that define art’s meaning, Fraser’s Boxed Set allows viewers to extend that critique to their own lives. Harvard not only structures our experiences on a daily basis with classes and extra curricular activities, but also defines many of our social interactions and our personal expectations. These structures can seem natural, but Fraser’s work helps us step back and remember that they too are constructed.

- The Harvard Art Review Visual Arts Board

The title of this article was changed from “Andrea Fraser’s Exhibition” to “Andrea Fraser: Boxed Set” on March 21, 2010.


Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Follow Us