Filthy Toys Aren’t Subversive Anymore: Charlemagne Palestine at Witte de With

by RM Vaughan on February 29, 2016 Reviews + Rotterdam

Exhibition view of GesammttkkunnsttMeshuggahhLaandtttt, Charlemagne Palestine, 2015. Photography Aad Hoogendoorn. Credit: WDW

Exhibition view of GesammttkkunnsttMeshuggahhLaandtttt, Charlemagne Palestine, 2015. Photography Aad Hoogendoorn. Credit: WDW

Charlemagne Palestine: GesammttkkunnsttMeshuggahhLaandtttt
Witte de With, Centre for Contemporary Art
Witte de Withstraat 50, 3012 BR Rotterdam
The Netherlands
On view from January 29-May 1, 2016

Respect and admiration are very different forms of devotion. To wit: I respect Charlemagne Palestine’s long career as a sound and performance artist and his pivotal position in the emergence of spoken word/noise art in the 1970s. I do not, however, admire his visual art: maximalist assemblages of stuffed toys, found fabrics, and other clumps of tat. I wonder if I, or anyone else, is meant to?

Arguably, they function as the visual mirror to his cacophonic sound works, but are impossible to give more than casual consideration, and ask for little viewer investment. Is it possible that Palestine intentionally deflates his vaunted position as a sound artist by creating mounds of rubbish? Cue the psychologists.

The artist takes up an entire floor of the museum. Apart from too-few videos of seminal sound performances, the space is cluttered with thousands of rotting plush toys and scabies-tingling fabric swatches. It’s a damned mess. Toys hanging off partition walls, toys strung from the ceiling, toys infesting a baby grand, toys on the floor, toys, toys, toys. All of which asks the obvious question: What is left to say about abandoned children’s plush dolls?  From Lord Sebastian Flyte’s teddy bear Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited to Ydessa Hendeles’ time capsule collections to Allyson Mitchell’s Santa doll clusters to every “don’t drink and drive” PSA you’ve ever seen, the forgotten toy is a constant metonym for innocence lost. But all the melancholy was drained from that visual metaphor ages ago. The Velveteen Rabbit is now mulch. And everybody knows that there is too much junk in the world, so forget about the consumer culture critique. We get it, Mr. Palestine. Move on. 

Exhibition view of Gesammttkkunnstt MeshuggahhLaandtttt. Credit: trendbeheer

Exhibition view of Gesammttkkunnstt MeshuggahhLaandtttt. Credit: trendbeheer

Maximalism is one thing, pointless hoarding is another. And perhaps that is the point – that in one environment what would be considered evidence of a mental disorder becomes, instead, state-funded high art. But the tight rope walk inherent in that strategy is far less titillating to watch when witnessed in the embalming chamber of the official white cube.

By white cube, I do not, sadly, mean airless laboratory space — the mouldy toys reek. Their festering wet wool and stale vomit smell acts as a keen parallel to Palestine’s abject shrieking noise works, and so we can only see this lack of hygienic concern as intentional. However, the problem, apart from the discomfort of the stench, is that the odor reminds us that we have entered a constructed reality that in no small way looks and smells like the real-life spaces inhabited by actual outsiders. The homeless and the mentally ill don’t get to go to galleries, but galleries love to go to them, so to speak. Or at least to steal their stuff. Pretend outsiderism on view in a well-funded institution infuriates me. But I don’t want to start a class war over Palestine’s oeuvre in this moment, because he and the Witt de With are hardly the only people engaged in slumming-for-grants. It’s another conversation. I just pity the underpaid gallery attendants, and hope they are beneficiaries of a good health care package.

People in New York are still talking about Palestine’s performance-installation at the 2014 Whitney Biennale, which was a sort of homecoming for the native New Yorker. Palestine used the echo chamber of a stairwell and created a sound piece with his voice and hands and feet, and then diffused the resulting score by covering the speakers in rags and plush toys. People loved it. And, although I was not present, that love makes sense to me because what GesammttkkunnsttMeshuggahhLaandtttt desperately needs is an animating presence (pardon my curatorialese), something to make the strung up plushies dance. As it stands, or, rather, limps now, the exhibition gives us toys in the attic but no ghosts.

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