To know and be known: They are impulses as old as human history, linked and divisive, competitive and contradictory.
"The Talent Show" at University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum mines a rich vein in a philosophical excavation that began in Plato's cave with questions of identity and our relationships to others. And Shadow Projection by Peter Campus even references the 5th century B.C. Greek. We enter a darkened gallery and stand in front of a screen. Light projects our silhouettes on it and a camera, slightly off-register, films our heads from behind. We become those mysterious shadows on the cave wall as well as the audience watching them.
Campus' work is from 1974. About half of the 21 others in the show are also from that 1960s and '70s era when installation and conceptual art gained coinage. Keeping those dates in mind is important because you might experience some of the art and think you have seen it before. You probably have, but in later works that have been inspired by this seminal art.
For example, the minimalism of Piero Manzoni's Magic Base (1961) is by now a familiar aesthetic, but 40 years ago it was radical, "idea" art with a simple black block on which visitors were invited to stand, turning them into living sculptures and participants in the creation of the art. It also blurred the line between viewer and viewed.
Andy Warhol's Robin (1964) has another much-copied format. It is one of his "screen tests," though early ones such as Robin were considered more as portraits in film. The subject (in this case a young visitor to Warhol's famous studio whose identity has been lost to the mists of time) sits silently in front of a camera for a few minutes. The young woman here seems unperturbed by the probing lens, staring back with rarely blinking eyes. The duration seems much longer than it is and we are tempted to begin imposing our own interpretations of the girl's face. Do the eyes narrow a bit as the minutes go by? Is that a sullen or defiant expression we see in them? Does she repel the intrusive camera or collaborate with it?
Chris Burden is yet another famous provocateur of the time and is represented by three works including You'll Never See My Face in Kansas City (1971). The ratty ski mask we see in a display case isn't really the work, only a small remnant. The performance artist wore it during a visit to Kansas City, inviting comparisons to criminals, and in a gallery appearance there stood behind a screen, invisible to the audience. Burden's dramatic gestures that manipulated and controlled perceptions of him exaggerate the more subtle ways we do so every day.
A few of the works in "The Talent Show" seem more relevant today than they might have when first created. Graciela Carnevale could not have anticipated it with Entrapment and Escape (1968) nor could David Lamelas with Limit of a Projection I ('67) but they seem eerily prescient. In the former, made during a brutal totalitarian regime in Carnevale's native Argentina, guests entered a gallery space thinking they were invited to an opening reception. Instead, the artist locked them in and left, having no idea of the outcome. A photographer was there to record the reactions that became increasingly fraught as the "captives" attempted to escape. Since the gallery was a glass storefront along a sidewalk, all could be witnessed by passersby. One of them finally broke the glass, liberating the group. A series of photographs document the experience.
The unscripted drama is similar to the sabotage techniques routinely employed on talk shows and reality TV. Unlike the current iterations, which exploit the "gotcha" moment, Carnevale used her intervention in people's lives as a metaphor for random, unanticipated violence and the ways people can become complicit with it.
In a different way, Lamelas enables everyone to be in the spotlight, but by choice. He has a spotlight trained down from the ceiling of a dark gallery and the onlooker may step into its bright circle while a misting machine creates a haze (a softening effect like an airbrushed celebrity). Stay as long as you wish and perform what you will. No one or someone might be looking.
In the same spirit, Amie Siegel's more recent My Way 1 and My Way 2 (both 2009) look at our seemingly obsessive need to be noticed. My Way 1 is a group of YouTube Performances by girls and young women (mostly) singing their versions of Gotta Go My Own Way from the movie High School Musical 2, and My Way 2 is the same deal but with young and older men performing the Frank Sinatra chestnut My Way.
I was fully prepared to smirk during the videos; instead, I found myself moved by them. Some sang a capella, some using lush karaoke backgrounds. There was a guitar solo and one version on an electric organ. They looked into a camera or looked down, they were theatrical or shy, they were very good to dreadful. But they all had the shared intent of wanting to be heard. Siegel edits both versions with a deft hand, splicing each into a flowing arrangement that pulls the disparate interpretations into a single performance. And as in other works in this show, the role of the subjects is ambiguous. All knew they would be seen but the artist, again through intervention, has changed how they are seen. So is it their performance or hers?
The most moving work is Hannah Wilke's The Intra-Venus Tapes, which begins when she was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1987 and ends with her death in '93. Wilke was a beautiful feminist artist who rose to prominence in the 1960s. This 16-channel, two-hour film is an unsparing journal of her decline that some will find disturbing. Again, though, it presages the spill-your-guts memoirs and confessional TV shows that now glut the entertainment market.
There are many more discoveries in this exhibition, revelations about the relationships we have with ourselves and with others, all through the prism of discovery. In The Address Book (1983), Sophie Calle probably takes the principle to its legal and moral limits. The work began when she finds an address book on a Paris street and got to know its owner, a man she would never meet, through interviews with the people in the book. Some were willing to discuss him; others were filled with outrage. She accompanies the essays with photographs of the people or the places where she met them. The address book was returned to its owner and the piece was published serially in a magazine. Pierre, the owner, threatened to sue, naturally, but withdrew his protest after the magazine published a nude photo of Calle as retaliation.
Who had the greater revelation?
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.