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Brooklyn Rail, September 2004

Counter Culture
New Museum of Contemporary Art
September 2004
-Sonya Shrier

If nothing else, Counter Culture is a clever solution to the transitional state that the New Museum – along with most museums – is in: it is an effort to find a middle ground between the new $20 admission at MoMA and the Star Wars exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. Awaiting the construction of their new space on the Bowery, to be completed in 2006, the New Museum attempts with Counter Culture to provide an exchange between the neighborhood and museumgoers by setting up a collection of “interventions” within a two-block radius of where the new New Museum will be. Each of the seven artists in the show used an existing institution as a base for their piece, making the viewer’s interaction with the non-museum public vital to the experience of the show. However, in setting up this relationship, it was a lopsided exchange from the outset.

“Can You Hear Me” by Julianne Swartz announces the show with its striking form and clear motive. Its bright yellow piping runs from the street into the second floor lobby of the Sunshine Hotel and literally shoves “exchange with the locals” down your throat. The viewer shouts into the piping (something that a wide tube at eye level just begs for) and the residents can communicate back if they are so inclined. In Marion Wilson’s “This Store Too” the artist pushes a cart around a few days a week selling works that she made with objects donated from homeless people from the Bowery Mission, as stated in the press release, to “provide an opportunity for needy people to participate in commercial exchange.”

Though the intentions of the show are noble, the result is something of a failure. While the museumgoer thinks it is a witty concept to be able to communicate with “the people” through a tube, is the person on the other end really having the same intellectual experience? And, conceptually, it may be a nice idea to show how a homeless person can make riches out of rags, but would it really be as easy for a homeless person to sell these works as it is for an artist in a museum exhibit?

In the midst of the overall feeling of the show there were some pieces that manage to negotiate this difficult territory with positive results. “Secret Places” by the Queens based collective Flux Factory requires a very covert type of exchange by asking you to go into Bowery Martial Arts store and relay a secret password to the man sitting behind the counter. You are then lead into the back stockroom of the store to find a makeshift control center where you receive your secret mission. The use of humor along with the idea of infiltration worked to turn the show’s theme around on itself.

Jean Shin’s “Wishing Well” infuses the usually mundane industrial sinks that are ubiquitous along the Bowery sidewalks with a surprising beauty by welding several of them together. Shin’s use of materials shows consideration and respect for the surrounding area as opposed to the negative feeling of infiltration that brings forth the division between the museum and the public in a somewhat unequal exchange.

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