Wednesday, November 01, 2000

Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg: Baudelaire

Walking around Greater New York, the gutters of 19th century Paris seem far away until one arrives at the crotch of the second and third stairs of the grand staircase that leads to the entrance of P.S.1.  That’s where you’ll find Baudelaire, by Chris Hanson and Hendrika Sonnenberg.  From a distance it looks like a sample of the dog turds that foul the city.  On closer inspection it turns to a small bronze figure sprawled on its back.  When I saw it at the exhibition’s opening an overflowing garbage can stood nearby and I politely had to ask an attractive, squint-eyed reveler to kindly part her legs so I could have a closer look.  After recovering from the crisp slap in the face that that engendered, I had to explain tht I only wanted to look at the art.  She had no idea who was between her legs.  The squint-eyed reveler sipped her beer and a small stream spilled from the side of her mouth and off of her chin.  Together we looked down at the puddle that had formed around Baudelaire.  Looking from the sculpture to a piece of paper she held in her hand and back to the sculpture she said, this isn’t on the map."  She was right, Baudelaire is nowhere indicated on the map of works in the exhibition.  To find it one must either stumble upon it or be led there by one who knows.  "It’s funny," she said, "they’re in the show, but not in the show.  They weren’t rejected outright, they’ve been spared that humiliation, but they haven’t been allowed inside either."  "Shut up," I said," at least they’re in."

There are various possibilities for how Baudelaire got in the position he’s in.  It may be the result of the systematic disorienting of the senses for which he’s so well known.  He may have just been ejected or rejected for behavior or art unbecoming.  Or it could be that he shows the supine Lilliputian status of the individual artist compared to the giganticism of the bureaucratic institution.

As for Baudelaire, he’s there because the rug, or rather the base, has been yanked from under him.  Baudelaire comes from a time when sculpture had bases.  The base is what indicated that one was in the presence of art.  It mediated between the sculpture and the world, allowing the sculpture to be placed in the world and still be recognized as art.  Baudelaire comes from a time after the great recession during which the base was gradually diminished and finally removed as a support for sculpture in an effort to have sculpture engage the world directly.  Good idea, fine experiment, failed attempt.  In place of the support of the base a much more contrived form of support was substituted, the gallery and museum.  The impetus to get outside their confines had the opposite effect of strengthening their necessity.  Outside the museum or gallery, much sculpture ceases to be recognized as art and reverts to its simple materiality.  A Carl Andre outside is just a pile of bricks.

However he got there, Baudelaire belongs outside in the rough and tumble.  This is the preferred location in the work of Hanson and Sonnenberg; the transitional, the peripheral, the fringe.  Hence the choice of character.  As translator, art and literary critic, and author of "perhaps the most important and influential poetry collection published in Europe in the 19th century" (according to the 
Encyclopaedia Britannica)
 Baudelaire was a transitional figure, one of those that helped lead art and literature out of the Academies and into the street where the action was.  This should make many of the artist’s inside Greater New York his progeny; but some legacies we intend while others are unforseen, the misshapen and misbegotten forms of good ideas gone bad.  A concerted effort is still being made to fill art with life, but nothing kills the vitalness of art more surely these days than the addition of life.  Like the nightmarish world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron, art continues to be expanded with little regard for quality, but that’s another story.