Last Wednesday I attended Philadelphia ICA curator Ingrid Schaffner's lecture on Salvador Dali's Dream of Venus, Dali's surrealist funhouse contribution to the 1939 World's Fair.
Dali's sea-themed, Botticelli-referencing, coral-coated pavilion was entered by passing through an enormous pair of woman's legs, above which women in bikini tops and holding fishing poles attempted to reel in passerby. One of the attractions inside the funhouse was a big tank of topless aqua-ballerinas. It was interesting, in light of Janet Jackson's recent wardrobe malfunction and the subsequent public outrage, to learn about how much uninhibited public nudity this family fair in the heart of the Midwest included. Aside from Dali's mermaids, other fair attractions included Sally Rand and her Nude Ranch, the Frozen Alive Girl, nude Cuban dancing girls, and what was supposedly the most titillating, Billy Rose's Aquacade.
Schaffner attempted to relate Dali's spectacle to the efforts of more recent artists like Damien Hirst's Gagosian show (I think she was showing slides of the 2000 show, Theories, Models, Methods, Approaches, Assumptions, Results, and Findings), Matthew Barney's Cremaster, Jeff Koon's Puppy, Thomas Hirshhorn's Cavemanman, and something by Mariko Mori, but these connections seem a little forced. Yes, these works are all spectacles, but Dali's funhouse was entertainment for the masses, art second. The projects of these other artist's are all definitely capital-A Art first, and with the exception of Koons' Puppy I doubt anyone outside of the art audience is aware of them. A better example might have been Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project, which all of London turned out for, but even that was in a museum. The best might be Arakawa & Gins' park, Site of Reversible Destiny. (Update: Re-reading this I've just realized that most, if not all, of the examples Ms. Schaffner cited were of projects shown in NYC, aaargh! And at least three of those are artists who show at Barbara Gladstone. Another Barbara Gladstone artist whose recent project would have related very well to the talk is Anish Kapoor, and this piece isn't in NYC! Barbara Gladstone is a kick-ass gallery though, that's for sure.)
For all the talk of "an image of a world without form", references to Deleuze, "rhizomes", and "a new world order based on non-hierarchical structures" I wondered how artists in the audience - mostly younger students - might best respond to the contemporary projects cited in the lecture. The pieces referenced required enormous amounts of money and organization, and most of us can barely afford basic art supplies or even just having slides made. Artists have to hire grantwriters to write proposals to raise the funds to make the projects that best meet the mission statements of the foundations doing the funding. It doesn't seem very non-hierachichal to me.