Darren Bader “Forest / Trees” at Greenspon Gallery, New York
By David Everitt Howe
The best thing about a Darren Bader “work” is that you may not know it’s a “work” at all. It just “is,” and often barely perceptible as such, like the infamous two burritos on a windowsill at MoMA PS1, left to rot in the sun, un-labeled. Or the inconspicuous donation boxes at the 2014 Whitney Biennial; one was for donations to “nothing,” and the other for “something.” If you’re getting annoyed at all these “scare quotes,” they’re used with the utmost intention. If anything, they’re so emblematic of Bader’s practice, in that they question prescribed, assumed meanings of things, such as an artwork. Who wills it as such? Through the proper channels of legitimation, i.e. a gallery or museum, anything can be declared “art.”
Bader shares affinities with many artists working in this vein of nearly-unadulterated appropriation, of everyday objects left decidedly just-so, from the early work of Jeff Koons to Josephine Meckseper, Gedi Sibony, and perhaps most close in style to Bader, Lutz Bacher. Her work, like Bader’s, is often just an object placed on the floor. But of course the God of this strategy is Marcel Duchamp, who proved definitively how important authorship is to an artwork’s ontological existence—and of course, the question of utility. If art was reliant upon its “purposiveness without purpose,” as Kant would say1—its autonomy from everyday, used objects like spoons and shampoo—then what if it could be used, Bader’s burritos eaten? Of course they’d remain a highly-valued work, made by a bona fide fine artist, but his objects’ very ridiculousness as artworks is the whole fun of it. He’s remarkably adept at pushing this tired “What is art?” question to its humorous and playful breaking point, then doing it all over again in new, unexpected ways. In the end, the joke is on art and how stupid its valuation can be. The burrito could’ve cost $7.50 at Chipotle; at Christie’s it might fetch four figures, if it could last that long (and if one would even want it to).
Food—and live animals—are something of a Bader trademark. Most memorable perhaps were the two “adorable goats,” as one critic2 noted at the time (Goat as a microprocessor that vomits blood to grow basil, 2011), which roamed around his 2011 Andrew Kreps exhibition CHAD OCHOCINCO. He would’ve included cats too among the myriad objects, such as the shiny red lawnmower, but cats and goats don’t mix. “Some instinctual cat thing,” Bader wrote in a statement, “cat predator, goat prey.”3 Ultimately he would find a way the following year, for his MoMA PS1 exhibition Images. Two dozed on a couch, or played in a nearby box, and were up for adoption. One was named orangutan flesh and Vitamin Water, and another reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. A nearby wall text read, “Each cat-adopter will get an artwork. If you don’t want your cat to be an artwork, I won’t force it on you!”4 The aforementioned burritos, meanwhile, chicken burrito/beef burrito, were accompanied in their otherwise empty gallery by the looping Bob Dylan track “Like a Rolling Stone.” In an adjoining room were wood pedestals propping up whole fruits and heads of lettuce, which were turned into salads at 2pm every Sunday. If the whole thing sounds confounding, that’s precisely the point. Little context was given save for Bader’s cheeky wall labels and on-hand museum staff. The objects and experiences—in characteristic Bader fashion—were presented simply as-is, like a series of deadpan jokes, though there’s much more than that going on.
Taking a cue from the conceptualist playbook that began with Duchamp and continued with Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, Robert Barry, Fluxus, etc., what’s at stake is the very import of language—the way it shapes and articulates our experiences—and how undoing and scrambling its given conventions and hierarchies only underlines how conventional and hierarchical language really is. While language has always been integral to Bader’s work, he’s recently taken something of a turn from a more object-based practice to a more taxonomical one; the artist’s two current New York projects more clearly rely on language play, structures of classification and coding, and the way both can overlap with a more poetic form of prose and instruction.
At Greenspon Gallery, his exhibition Forest/Trees almost eschews sculptural works entirely. Instead, there’s an array of dumpy-looking black, wall-mounted speakers connected by dangling cords to SD memory cards, which are housed within a custom-wired arduino circuit board. This may all sound fancy, but it looks very lo-fi. The speakers play back a series of songs Bader sourced from Google Play and iTunes, the titles of which form seemingly ad hoc phrases, song lyrics, objects, and other things. One speaker’s playlist is Salad Niçoise (the songs “Tuna,” “Green Beans,” and “Olives,” among other tracks named after the salad’s ingredients); another’s is Live and Let Live (the songs “Live” and “Let Live”); another one plays Chorus 7 (UTS), which consists of a refrain from The Little Mermaid song “Under the Sea,” broken up into word segments-cum-tracks; and yet another is The Early Bird Catches the Worm (“The Early Bird,” “Catches,” “The Worm”), among seemingly hundreds of others. Scribbled on the wall in pencil beside each speaker is its respective playlist title. These are also compiled in an accompanying publication, which presents the playlist headers in black, their respective tracks listed underneath, like long, tendril-y columns.
In person, Forest/Trees overwhelms with sound; earplugs are offered at the front desk, in a bowl. As you can imagine, the songs bear no stylistic resemblance to one another, but clash jarringly under the service of a different kind of logic, one organized by Bader’s idiosyncratic interests in “objects and things,” which are ironically “viewed” as sound and pseudo-poetry. An interviewer for Office likened the exhibition’s seemingly random taxonomy to a family tree,5 but I would venture it’s more akin to a rhizome as Deleuze defined it—a system that’s unpredictable and unplanned, and that places random things in close adjacency, like “a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entranceways and exits,”6 as the theorist noted. Or we could even rope in the Chinese Encyclopedia as fabricated by Jorge Luis Borges (and of course, famously referenced by Foucault), in which categories like “sirens,” “fabulous,” and “stray dogs” line up one after another like strange bedfellows.7
Bader’s instructions for chess: relatives—a concurrent performance work on New York’s High Line, in which park visitors play chess using themselves as chess pieces—read laughably similar to Borges’ incongruous organizing system. For those wanting to play King on Bader’s concrete, 16×16-foot chessboard, they have to “identify as either stepsiblings, piblings, or great grandfathers,” the press release notes—piblings being an invented gender-neutral term for a parent’s sibling (Bader helpfully clarifies, “in other words, one’s aunt or uncle”). Queens have to identify as “stepfathers, mothers, or nieces.” The list goes on. Confused yet? Comprised of thirty-two people, plus two others to “play” everyone else, a group’s participants can’t clarify their respective roles once the game begins. God bless the two tasked to manage everyone else; this undoubtedly has to be the hardest game of chess to play, ever, if it even gets played at all (judging by press photos from an earlier iteration in London, it actually has been played). But what difference does that make? The work is just as much about the rules as it is the game. If anything, Bader’s express intent has always been to break the rules and make new ones. We always follow them blindly. Why?
1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgement, trans. J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner Press, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1951), e.g., §§V-VIII & §17.
2. David Greenberg, “Review: Darren Bader,” in Art in America (March 21, 2011). Accessed on May 23, 2017. http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/reviews/darren-bader/
3. Domenick Ammirati, “What’s Not to Like?,” Frieze 166 (October 2014). Accessed on May 23, 2017. https://frieze.com/article/what’s-not
4. Brian Droitcour, “Critic’s Picks: Darren Bader,” Artforum.com (April 2012). Accessed on May 23, 2017. https://www.artforum.com/picks/id=30786
5. Anna Zanes, “Darren Bader on Forest/Trees,” Office (May 19, 2017). Accessed on May 24, 2017. http://officemagazine.net/darren-bader-foresttrees
6. Gilles Deleuze and Féliz Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 21.
7. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences (New York and London: Routledge, 2002), p. xv-xviii.