Blue Greenberg: Love in the air at the Ackland

Feb. 07, 2013 @ 03:41 PM

“More Love:  Art Politics and Sharing since the 1990s,” Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina At Chapel Hill, through March 31.

Love is a “many splendored thing” and has many definitions.  The poets have their specifications, the musicians theirs and the artists a complex set of interpretations. It is those artistic voices that have come together in the current exhibition about love at the Ackland.
Some of the voices include Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1958-1996), who invites the visitor to pick up a piece of candy from his 175-pound pile; Yoko Ono (b. 1933), one of the most political of contemporary artists, who invites visitors to have their picture taken demonstrating a gesture of love;  Gregory Sale (b. 1961) who gives away buttons with love-inspired texts printed on them;  books about love which can be borrowed or exchanged for other books on love; and Julianne Swartz (b. 1967) whose “Sound Pieces” surround you throughout the museum and at the Museum Store on the corner.  These works of art are acts of love between the artists, the collaborators of the various objects and the audience.
This exhibition is not your traditional show with paintings on the wall or sculpture on pedestals on the floor.  Rather, the walls are covered with documentary photographs, loads of texts and almost no traditional or “beautiful” objects.  While its theme of love seems familiar enough, romantic love is only one small part of the ideas offered.  There is the love of doing something for another human being with no expectation of repayment, a love personally memorialized into a political statement. And there is technology which, on one hand, isolates us and, on the other, connects us to an enormous world, a truly unbelievable act of love.
Organized by consulting curator Claire Schneider, the exhibition has more than 50 works of art by 30 or more artists.  At the press preview she talked about conceptual art as a movement in the 1960s and how that legacy is the foundation of this show.  Conceptual art with such artists as Joseph Kosuth (b. 1945), Ed Ruscha (b. 1937) and Han Haacke (b. 1936) was all about the idea, the work of art created from it was merely a record and language was the process by which the idea took form.  In the 21st century the descendants of these artists are making art not just about ideas, but about emotions, and love is probably the most universal of all emotions.
All art needs the spectator, but traditional art is to be looked at and admired, not touched.  In this show most of the work must have an audience, not as viewers but as participants.  Take the work of Gonzalez-Torres, for example, who is the star of this show; his art has been collected by major museums and is in high demand.  His piece “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, is about the idea of personal love.  It is about the body without depicting the body, about art which must have participants to be complete and about the essence of love.  In 1991 Ross L. Aycock, Gonzalez-Torres’ lover and partner, was dying of AIDS.  The artist created “Untitled” as a memorial to Ross while he was still alive.  Made of 175 pounds of individual pieces of Fruit Flasher candy, the audience is invited to take a piece, unwrap it and eat it in the pristine atmosphere of the museum.  When this piece was originally displayed, Ross, whose normal weight was 175 pounds, was dying.  As the pile of candy diminished, so too was Ross wasting away.   But the power of love is not just for the artist and his lover but for the visitor who, in the act of taking the candy, shares in the humanity of this love.   The object works in a somewhat different way now; the partners are dead and AIDS seems to be under control, but the message of love is still about sharing and supporting the rights of all to equality.
Ono is another artist whose piece would not exist without the interaction of the visitor.  She invites spectators to physically demonstrate their love, either singly or between two or more people in the museum and have that gesture photographed.  The photos will be put on display and participants will receive a gift of a glass prism chosen for the exhibition by the artist.
Over a period of six months Sale walked the streets of Chapel Hill and invited all sorts of people, including the homeless, students and tourists to make up love-inspired texts, which he then transferred to buttons and now offers them as giveaways to visitors to the exhibition.  The one I picked up read was “You are right, I am wrong.”
Several artists addressed the idea of imprisonment. Luis Camnitzer (b. 1937) went on the website of America’s busiest death house, Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, and found the last statements of people on death row.  In their final words they used “love” more than “God” or “forgive” or “sorry.”  Another artist, Antonio Vega Macotela (b. 1980) worked with prisoners at a Mexico City prison. He offered to act as a substitute for various prisoners and, for one, he went to the man’s home and danced with his mother; at the same time, the prisoner danced in the confines of the prison.
Harrell Fletcher (b. 1967) and Miranda July (b. 1974) set up a website, listing 70 assignments, inviting individuals to create work.  One, Laura Lark, responded to the assignment “Write your life story in one day” and someone responded to her life story by making another assignment, “Create a scene from Lark’s story.”  This is, of course, technology at its best; people responding to each other over vast distances in an unselfish act of love. 
Come to the exhibit prepared to take an active part.  The “Sound Pieces” which begin as you enter the museum, set the tone; these ephemeral love letters beckon you to share this experience with the artists and the museum. 
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, P.O. Box 2092, Durham, NC 27702.SNbS