“You got a particularly morbid one!” the Guggenheim employee told me.
I had just paid her one dollar for a 10-yen coin and inserted it into the slot of a futuristic machine the size of a photo booth. It reminded me of Woody Allen’s orgasmatron.
No such luck. Out popped a piece of original Japanese art -- a hand-drawn postcard of animals maimed or killed. One poor little bunny, arrows shot through his floppy ears, was pinned helplessly to the ground.
I was three-quarters of the way up the Guggenheim’s rotunda viewing an exhibition that should have been a hell of a lot more fun, especially considering its title: “Gutai: Splendid Playground.”
The sprawling retrospective features about 145 works by 25 Japanese artists from the Gutai Art Association (1954-72). “Gutai” literally means “concreteness,” yet most of the exhibition is ephemeral and documentary.
Gutai brought performance art to parks and made paintings with remote-control toys, homemade bombs and bare feet. It’s clearly one of those 1960s situations where you had to be there.
Bells ring. A Chewbacca-like suit is composed of flashing light bulbs. Long plastic tubes filled with colored water crisscross the rotunda.
Some artworks, including an abstract painting and a sheet of red polyester, block your path.
Gestural nonsense paintings dominate, as do grainy films and blurry photographs. One shows an artist “painting” with his entire body, which here means rolling in the mud.
A counterculture blast from the past, “Gutai” hopes to transform the act of looking into performance art and the museum into a communal playground. In the lobby, giddy visitors scribbled on a collaborative work.
I wondered if one of the sculptures had performance anxiety. Yoshida Minoru’s “Bisexual Flower,” an enormous, motorized, biomorphic Plexiglas contraption, did absolutely nothing for several minutes.
Then the juices started flowing, wheels turned, psychedelic lights blinked and alarms sounded. Yellow liquid was sucked into big clear balls and mod floral shapes began to rise and swing. Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” accompanied the orgasmic display, but all I could hear was Austin Powers: “Yeah, baby!”
Call them “Masters of Hoarding.”
These artists drag truckloads of accumulated material into galleries and museums. Then they leave it up to us to sort it all out.
Vietnamese artist Danh Vo, the 2012 winner of the Hugo Boss prize, has installed “IMUUR2” at the Guggenheim. It consists of a bunch of stuff belonging to the late artist Martin Wong and his mother, Florence Wong Fie, all of it from their shared home in San Francisco.
Thousands of objects fill tall, unpainted plywood bookshelves, which line the walls of a long gallery. Among the flea-market assortment of cookie jars, Disney characters, Encyclopedia Britannica and salt-and-pepper shakers are actual works of art.
It’s a tiresome scavenger hunt, rewarded only occasionally by a striking piece of Asian calligraphy or Greco-Roman fragment.
A lot of hyperbole concerning authorship, race, cultural identity and globalism surrounds this obsessive mix of artworks and tchotchkes.
But this brand of readymade exhibition, well past its sell-by date, needn’t be celebrated by a major museum. You can see it in your neighbor’s living room.
“Gutai: Splendid Playground” runs through May 8 and “The Hugo Boss prize 2012: Danh Vo ‘IMUUR2’” runs through May 27 at the Guggenheim Museum, 1071 5th Ave. Information: +1-212-423-3500; http://www.guggenheim.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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