Morgan Meis is freelance writer and founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. Rodney Dickson is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work, The Queen Bee, was on view at Art Basel, Miami in December 2007.
Sometimes it takes going to Miami to get a little dose of reality. Sure, that sounds weird. But I can make it even weirder. Sometimes it takes going to Miami during Art Basel to get a little dose of reality. You’re incredulous, and rightly so. By the standards of basic sanity, Miami during Art Basel is something akin to putting a casino inside of a circus. It’s fantasy twice removed. Then again, everyone knows that if you push too far in one direction, you can sometimes end up right back where you started.
That’s roughly the case at Art Basel Miami. For all the frenzy and the art world shenanigans, Art Basel and all the other satellite fairs are a pretty tame offering. The vast majority of what you’re going to see are paintings, paintings meant to be hung on the wall. The money and the publicity allow for other displays, of course. There are performances and installations and public sculptures and multimedia confabulations lurking in all the corners. Still, painting carries the day. You can have it abstract and you can have it representational. You can have it old school and you can have it in menstrual blood. You can have it for millions of dollars and you can have it for a few bucks. But painting is primarily what you’ll get.
This year’s Art Basel was like all the others in that regard. But if you happened to wander across a parking lot just above 21st Street and Collins Avenue on your way from one fair to another, you might have spied a little shack called The Queen Bee. Created by Rodney Dickson, the structure purports to be a museum of sorts. More specifically, it’s a “war remnants museum.” The museum is in a rickety structure–dimly lit and cluttered. A woman in military stripper gear offers you a flashlight at the front. LPs from the Vietnam War era play on a cheap phonograph. The effect is something between a roadside curiosity shop in the middle of nowhere and a GI bar in Saigon circa 1968.
A lot of people say that the thing we call installation art can be traced back to Allan Kaprow. Perhaps there’s no point in trying to be so precise. But an interesting thing about Kaprow is that he always preferred the term “environment” to that of “installation.” In an interview at the Dallas Public Library in 1988, he explained the difference:
“What’s called an installation today is the child of what used to be called, before the happenings, an environment… If you look at the word installation, installation means, very simply and literally, that somebody is taking something already fabricated or made, generally, and installing it…The environment, the etymology of the word, and the whole connotation of the word environment, is that of a surround, in which the particular parts are not necessarily placed with some kind of formal care for their external cohesion, but rather as an interaction between the person who is being surrounded and the stuff of that environment. It has a kind of fullness to it, which the work installation doesn’t. Installation suggests a discreteness.”
Kaprow doesn’t say so explicitly here, but it seems obvious that a core factor in the difference between installation and environment has to do with the nature of the experience. You might say that installation and environment approach the same goal from opposite starting points. Installations start from the formal “flatness” of the Modernist tradition in painting and sculpture, then taking tentative steps toward reproducing our actual everyday experiences. An installation–the way Kaprow is thinking about it–is basically a late Modernist or Minimalist sculpture with a lot more stuff. The environment, by contrast, starts from the irreducibility of our day-to-day experiences and then fabricates or aestheticizes that experience into something that can be approached intentionally. The environment is like real life if we could create it ourselves, for ourselves.
Dickson’s Queen Bee is environmental, but it makes an interesting second step. The Queen Bee is about war, and war is the ultimate destroyer of experience. War obliterates the fabric of the world in which, and through which we understand ourselves. It’s the ultimate trauma. To take war then, as the subject of an aesthetic environment, is to test the degree to which any environment can truly be a whole. It also suggests that our own experiences are not the result of a seamless fabric, but rather of things ripped and tattered, and mended along the way. The Queen Bee is about the wounded and battered manner in which we hold our experiences together. I watched a number of people walk in and out of the Bee. They always did so in a hushed manner, with tentative steps, and careful looking. They were acknowledging how fragile the Bee is and, therefore, how fragile we are.
The Queen Bee will have its effect anywhere. Yet, there was something doubly poignant about finding it at Art Basel, among so many indifferent paintings. It was a reminder that art can be exciting, that the relationship between art and experience is something we’re still negotiating, and that we’re still exploring new ways to do it.