Sam Durant: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. (Reviews)

By Joselit, David | Artforum International, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Sam Durant: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. (Reviews)


Joselit, David, Artforum International


You hear Sam Durant's show at the Museum of Contemporary Art before you see it. When I asked the front-desk attendant where the exhibition began, she told me to follow the music: good advice, not only in terms of orienting oneself spatially but also as an interpretive principle. For in a manifestation of Durant's consistent attitude toward architecture, a cacophonous brew of overlapping sound composed of the blues, rock, and rap tracks that accompany most of his exhibited sculptures blurred and even contradicted the geometric rectitude of MOCA'S Arata Isozaki--designed building. As in the artist's Upside Down and Backwards, Completely Unburied, in which a miniature model of the structure from Robert Smithson's Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, is packed with three CD players, MOCA'S designer building was itself choked on noise. But the sound tracks featured in Durant's projects don't merely produce sound bleed. In his careful crafting of a rock playlist redolent of '60s dissent and its various prequels (in blu es) and sequels (in rap or in bands like Nirvana), he regards music--typically popular music--as both documentary evidence from which history is derived and a metaphor for history's operations. Like history, music is made of time, but one of Durant's lessons is that music also produces spaces to be "monumentalized"--public spaces like the small "city" convened for the free concert at the Altamont Raceway in 1969, or Friendship Park, the breeding ground of southern rock in Jacksonville, Florida.

All of Durant's works at MOCA undertake a complex set of associations--they juxtapose figures as diverse as Neil Young, Robert Smithson, and Rosalind Krauss in remarkably convincing core samples of late-'60s/early-'70s culture. Such eccentric histories can perhaps only be told belatedly by someone who, like Durant, was not a "participant-observer." It would nonetheless be a mistake to consider this belatedness a form of nostalgia, for Durant's desire to revive the '6os--one shared by many artists and scholars of his generation--is neither entirely melancholic nor entirely celebratory. It is a critical effort to recoup a workable political legacy. A better analogue for this retrospective attention is the cover song, as proposed by poet Kevin Young in his catalogue essay: "The cover both replaces and obscures an event--though, like the cover of a great record or book, it might just provide something we open, another totem to take with us."

What distinguishes Durant's wild proliferation of references from a lazy form of free association is his complementary practice of making models that are alternately--and at times simultaneously--physical and conceptual. In a gesture dear to the heart of a modernist art historian like myself, Durant's Quaternary Field/Associative Diagram, 1998, for instance, appropriates the structuralist Klein group diagram Krauss used to map the "expanded field of sculpture" in a canonical essay of 1978. In place of her oppositions of landscape and architecture, Durant introduces terms drawn from Smithson and pop music in order to locate the Earth artist, Kurt Cobain, the Rolling Stones, and Neil Young along axes of, for example, scatology and pop stardom. This is much more than clever parody. Durant is seriously, and I would say successfully, attempting to map the "expanded field" appropriate to our own time--namely, "visual culture," which tries to articulate the complex relation between commercial aesthetics and the aest hetics of advanced art. Part of Durant's wit as an artist-theorist is his deadpan juxtaposition of conceptual models such as the Klein diagram with architectural models like his miniature versions of Smithson's unburied Partially Buried Woodshed. In Durant's recent works, these two systems of modeling coexist in heterogeneous installations of sculptural forms, music, and drawings. But in earlier works, such as his spectacular "Abandoned House" series from 1995, the architectural model stands alone. …

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