The ICA: Exhibitionists?
WALKING INSIDE THE MUSEUM for the first time, through its monumental glass doors and into the foyer, the first thing I lost sight of was the water — blocked by, of all things, the gift shop. What those priorities would eventually mean for the shows, at the time I could only guess.
Fast-forward to 2010: One of the ICA’s most recent exhibits featured Dr. Lakra, a Oaxacan tattoo artist who draws tatt-like imagery onto pictures of vintage pinup girls, baby dolls, and other found objects. Vanity Fair called it “easy-to-love schtick,” and that’s where the intellectual exercise pretty much ended, unless you swallow the museum’s promotional statement that the work “challenges social norms by blurring cultural identities.” Sure. If you’ve never wandered over to the sidewalks in front of Berklee College of Music and dodged the dozens of smokers with (real) tattoos challenging social norms every day.
Compare Dr. Lakra with the Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal. In his performance, …and Counting, at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in New York last March, Bilal addressed the invisibility of Iraqi civilian deaths during the war by tattooing his back with a map of Iraq that marked the war’s casualties — 5,000 dead American soldiers signified by red dots in permanent ink, and 100,000 Iraqi deaths by dots of green UV ink. During the performance, people read the names of the dead. The work haunted long after it was over.
The Dr. Lakra exhibit was a shadow of Bilal’s. Its big takeaway concept? How cool and attractive graphics can be. And how buyable: Many of them were found on ICA-branded merchandise (from postcards to T-shirts) hawked to the crowds walking through that entryway gift shop.
More examples of flaccid art at the museum? Consider its biennial Foster Prize for local artists. One of 2010’s finalists, Rebecca Meyers, presented three short films that interwove various nature scenes such as whales, the moon, snow, and glaciers. Either the judges admired her courage (Isn’t it brave that someone born into the digital age is using film?), or they were pleased to catch an echo of Stan Brakhage, who presented the concept in a better light a few decades ago. Another finalist, Evelyn Rydz, is a decent illustrator who drew objects washed up on the beach to no particular effect. All in all, it’s occasionally clever and sometimes competent stuff, which leaves exactly no one’s mind blown.
And then there was the much-talked-about Shepard Fairey exhibit in 2009; the centerpiece was his “Hope” poster, which became iconic during President Obama’s campaign. The Fairey exhibit certainly got people through the door, but it didn’t give them much to think about once they were there. Like Dr. Lakra’s show, it was largely about graphics. Actually, Fairey’s work is controversial, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the art. Fairey is known for “borrowing” imagery liberally without compensating the original artist (as happened with said Obama “Hope” poster), but having zero tolerance when other artists incorporate his work into theirs. With Fairey, then, the debate isn’t really about art. It’s about money — who gets it and who doesn’t.