dan graham

Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
15 February – 25 May 2009; 25 June – 11 October 2009

Walking into ‘Dan Graham: Beyond’, at MOCA in Los Angeles, the viewer immediately sees other museum visitors drifting in and out of the three pavilion works grouped together in the first gallery. The people in sight move slowly, and then suddenly jerk one way or another in order to test the loop of reflection, semi-transparency and fragmentation created by the pavilions’ finely wrought angles of two-way mirrors and perforated steel. It is exciting to watch others not only appear like apparitions (through the semi-transparent glass) but move like them, too, within the space of a museum. However, the clustered, spectacularised pavilions represent only one trajectory of the themes Graham has worked with for over four decades.

This show—the artist’s first US retrospective—includes examples of his magazine works, film and videos, drawings and prints, photos, architectural models and pavilions. The opportunity to examine Graham’s practice chronologically reveals how some of his early interest in embodiment was left behind as he focused primarily on the pavilions and on working (pseudo)-architecturally. In that a retrospective is a chance not only to follow how themes are developed throughout an artist’s career, but also to see those that have been phased out over time, I was most struck by several works made in the ‘pre-pavilion’ days that reveal Graham’s interest in how vision and the visible relate to sexuality and embodiment.

Among Graham’s writing work included here are several conceptual pieces for magazine pages. One of these is Detumescence (1966), for which he solicited a medical writer to compose a description of what happens to the male anatomy and psyche after orgasm. This work has aspects of all the magazine pieces, namely that it produces art outside of the gallery and places an emphasis on systems of information distribution that the art world uses but which are not exclusive to it. In addition, the work’s eroticism and emphasis on sensory experience beyond the visual is significant: it calls very literally (and literarily) for an articulation of sexuality and the insertion of an unseen, repressed aspect of sexuality into the visible world. Detumescence’s simple call for submissions—for which Graham got only one response--expresses the gaps and delays in the system of sexual expression we have built and maintain.

The directness of Detumescence is also found in Piece (1969), a work not included in the show itself but reproduced in the exhibition catalogue. This as yet unrealised piece exists as performance instructions with diagram, inviting audience members to engage with each other in adopting the ‘postures’ shown, all of which are merely sexual positions drawn from the Kama Sutra. Graham is simply proposing an orgy, but the way in which he does this, within the format of performance instructions very common at the time, implicates the audience in the maintenance of age-old divisions between public and private and spectatorship and participation.

Graham’s interest in embodiment is not just found in his writing: several early performances and videos shown in the exhibition address ideas of desire and sexual expression, often as he explores the eroticism and power dynamics of the technology he employs. Works such as Body Press (1970-72) and Two Consciousness Projection(s) (1972) explicitly deal with gender and how the heightened state produced when we incorporate bodies into the loop of recording, projection and feedback, can sexualise our visual experience.

This interest in the ways in which we formulate our sexualities in relationship to and via prevailing technologies is most explicitly addressed in Graham’s well-known Rock My Religion (1982-84), in which a portrait of rock musician Patti Smith is interwoven with references to Shakerism and punk rock. In the hour-long video, Smith is held up as a paragon of gender-bending sexual expression. Graham’s interest in Smith seems inevitable, given the legend of how she experienced her first orgasm while watching the Rolling Stones on television; that anecdote is a graphic instance of the utopian proposal that television could provide opportunities for community-building around ‘issues’ rather than physical proximity, and specifically how these issues could possibly be ones of sexuality or embodiment. That kind of utopian excitement about television at its inception was something Graham was very much aware of and engaged with critically in so many of his video works.

It is no wonder then, that, however novel and engaging the pavilions are, they also represent a turning away from Graham’s experimentation with embodiment and how we embody our sexualities through what is visible or is made visible. The pavilions do explore issues of spectatorship and privacy, but their potential to continue the lines of inquiry set out by works like Detumescence and Rock My Religion is extremely limited. In particular, works such as New Space for Showing Videos (1995), which is a pavilion with various seating areas designed for watching videos, put Graham’s emphasis undeniably on privileging visual experience. In fact, New Space for Showing Videos provides a public space for experiencing absorption, suspension, and illusion in a manner not at all unlike the way we tune into the many viewable formats on our i-Phones. Thus, not only is the pavilion’s potential for heightening our sense of our corporality in space greatly diminished, but so is even the opportunity for creating a more complicated visual experience. Given Graham’s persistence in his interest in addressing sensory experience throughout his career, it is disappointing to see that his focus might have narrowed so much that not even one of the senses (vision) is presented critically.