at Nine Gallery. Portland
It has been observed that when an art opening is attended mostly by fine artists, many of the conversations are not so much dialogic as they are recitations of résumés, perhaps more like what others would say of some presbyters networking rather than engaging in fellowship. One might also liken it to maneuvering through a sales meeting in an attempt to get the boss’ ear. Insiders may accept the rules of the game while those unfamiliar with these social settings, rightfully so, would find the practices wholly unsatisfying, and even rude.
This is how I remember artists’ receptions in Chicago some years ago. It was not uncommon for someone to leave a conversation without so much as a parting nod, only to set up camp next to someone of supposed greater social stature (curator, gallerist, critic, collector) and more beneficial to one’s art career. The art world is very competitive, and every little edge is needed to pad the vitae and pay the rent, so between artists, such behavior is soon forgotten, if not forgiven, because it is understood as the way the game is played.
Not a pretty world: social yet not always sociable, which goes a good way to deflate the myth or notion that art-types are a more sensitive and astute lot. The offenders may seem self-involved and arrogant when in actuality they are merely behaving in a manner perceived as needed to succeed in a food chain, therefore moving them closer to our furrier cousins. When people have only their individual agendas, nothing else matters, and the conversations ultimately are no more than empty chatter.
Judging from Bill Will’s installation, “Are you listening to me?” at Nine Gallery in Portland, he has noticed the same tendency.
Upon entering the gallery space, one sees groupings of various coffee makers affixed to iron rods that are in turn welded to platforms in grouping of 2 or more. The pots are all upside down with their lids hinged to the bodies. A string runs from each pot up to and across the ceiling, then down a wall to a mechanized contraption, which is in turn hard-wired to a box that instructs the viewer to “Press and Hold” a mounted button switch. When one follows the instruction, the mechanism causes this:
Most unsettling. So much so that one dares not hold the button down for long for fear of disturbing the sanctum that is the adjoining and larger gallery space on this quiet Saturday afternoon. Still, I was amused. Mr. Will makes his point quickly and clearly, thereby answering the installation’s title question: Just like so many openings with people chatting away at once, no, no one is listening.
I suppose I could stop with an analysis of the meaning behind Bill Will’s installation with the above remarks: The artist asks a rhetorical question, and the mechanized sculptures are emphatic in their response; end of story. Yet, I remain troubled by the title of the piece, which in turn leads to a series of other questions, the most important one being: Is listening to me the same as understanding what I mean? Asking such a question opens the piece to further inquiry.
I don’t understand why the coffee pots were used. Is it because people in Portland are big coffee drinkers and may get so hyped on coffee that they are incapable of shutting up long enough to listen? Or were the pots used because their shape suggested heads and the lids hinged jaws? I’m guessing the latter.
And what does it mean that the viewer of the art has to choose to engage the mechanism to make it produce the noise? If the viewer does not see the button or choose to push it, does the installation have the same potential for meaning as when the piece is made to function? How does this interaction or lack thereof relate to the social? Do we enter social situations voluntarily and are likewise free to engage or remain apart? And in that the noise persists only as long as we hold down the button, in essence controlling the clamor of the crowd, is he asking to be listened to during situations of his own making in which he cannot be heard without yelling? And finally, what does it mean to create a contraption that disturbs the otherwise relative quiet of the adjacent gallery space?
Trying to determine meaning from what is presented is not as straightforward as it as first seemed. I thought about emailing Mr. Will to ask him what he had in mind with this installation and its title, but thought again and decided against it. I would have listened to what he had to say; yet, I did not want the possibility of the multiplicity of meanings — no matter how troubling or buried in subtext — to be quieted.