Benefit of the Doubt

Have you ever had the experience of getting together with old friends who seemed not themselves that particular day? That's sort of how my most recent visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in North Miami felt. I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was, but almost everything felt somehow... off, if only ever so slightly.

In retrospect I sensed something was up when I encountered Dennis Oppenheim's Attempt to Raise Hell (1974). This mixed-media installation has long been a fixture in shows from MOCA's permanent collection, so it makes perfect sense that it's found near the beginning of the current exhibition, "Pivot Points 1: Defining MOCA's Collection." When I first wrote about Oppenheim's piece I described how you typically hear it before you see it: The work focuses on a puppet-like surrogate for the artist, seated on a platform, that repeatedly tries to stand, only to find itself banging its head into a large cast-iron bell hanging in front of it. The piece is a mordantly witty embodiment of the myth of Sisyphus as well as a wry comment on body art and a joke about self-abuse, all rolled into one.

This time I heard the whirring and grinding of the motor beneath the platform — but then nothing happened. The figure didn't slowly begin to rise and hence didn't slam its head into the bell with a jarring but also satisfying clang. The crunch of the motor that normally leads to a resounding payoff became just an irritating sound. The gag never achieved the punchline that would have resolved it. I suppose the malfunction could be read as transforming the work into another joke, one about, say, sexual frustration, but the annoying sound stuck with me through the rest of the show.

A single technical glitch doesn't merit writing off an entire exhibition, of course. And indeed, "Pivot Points" has plenty to recommend it. A few feet from the little circular space that has been constructed to house Attempt to Raise Hell, for instance, is Mark Handforth's Untitled (Lovelight) (1999), also familiar from past permanent-collection shows at MOCA. The Miami-based artist, according to the accompanying text, has a history of taking such public urban objects as fire hydrants, signs, and pay phones and presenting them in an altered context.

Here, Handforth shifts a simple street light from its normal vertical stance into a horizontal one on the floor — as the wall text so eloquently puts it, "transforming an object with a practical function into a lyrical sculpture. The quotidian object is mysterious and slightly unsettling, as the light of the lamp continues to glow, even without an apparent power source." I can't improve on such an evocative summation.

Another nearby work however, was a bit problematic — for me, anyway. Untitled (Ross in L.A.) (1991) is by the late Felix González-Torres, described as "a key figure in MOCA's collection." It consists of a minimalist stack of sheets of paper of roughly 24 inches by 30 inches, each printed with a small silver rectangle slightly off-center. Visitors are supposedly invited to take a single sheet away from the 10-inch stack, thereby dispersing the piece, sending parts of it off to unknown destinations even as the original, presumably replenished from time to time, remains behind.

Given MOCA's long history of showcasing interactive art, I longed to lift a sheet of paper to take with me on my way out, thus participating in the piece according to the artist's original intentions. The catch: MOCA's ubiquitous security staff also has a long history, one of being so zealous that it's hard to know when it's OK to take part in the artistic process and when it's not. Without a specific statement in the wall text — something explicit, to the effect of "PLEASE FEEL FREE TO TAKE ONE" — I instead had visions of alarms going off and guards rushing me, so I left emptyhanded.

Fortunately, there was consolation in the form of the Ed and Nancy Kienholz work Soup Course at the She-She Cafe (1982), an ambitious, room-sized mixed-media installation featuring a couple dining out next to a solo diner and an empty table. The Kienholzes are known for ambiguous tableaux that brim with disturbing social commentary, and this one is no different. It joined MOCA's permanent collection last year and is a worthy addition.

A large chunk of "Pivot Points" is taken up by German artist John Bock's Zero Hour, a sprawling mixed-media installation that documents the work's original incarnation as a performance piece with an extensive history. It was first presented as a 40-minute live performance in Munich in 2003, then at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005, and again at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2006. Here, it takes the form of an elaborate spread of props — a gymnast's pommel horse, a motor bike outfitted with guitars, scaffolding affixed with various objects, several makeshift mechanical contraptions, and a mountain of fabric constructions, among other things — supplemented by a handful of video projections.

The "story," for lack of a better term, is inspired by that of the real-life figure of Kaspar Hauser, who turned up in Nuremberg in 1828 after having been raised in total isolation and without human contact. Bock and his collaborators acted out this narrative of someone who undergoes a violent process of becoming civilized, which is chronicled in the video, and the installation presented here is imposing simply by virtue of its scale and complexity. (Hauser was also the subject of an acclaimed fiction film by the eclectic German director Werner Herzog.)

An even larger portion of the exhibition is given over to a suite of related works that make something collectively called No Ghost Just a Shell (1999). This collaborative venture, initiated and coordinated by Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, features works by 14 artists and collectives, including paintings, sculptures, videos, posters, and books. They have in common their subject matter, a character from Japanese manga, or comics, that was purchased by the artists for a sum of about $400.

The overall work raises and explores a whole range of questions about identity, since the character was originally intended as a secondary one and was expected to have a limited shelf life. The artists freed her, in a sense, from her corporate creators, just as surely as they also circumscribed her existence by subjecting her to their own artistic whims. While this is all fascinating stuff, I wish it didn't consume so much physical display space that might have gone to other works from MOCA's permanent collection.

I've been frequenting MOCA on a fairly regular basis since soon after it opened in 1997. There have been permanent-collection shows that missed their mark, as well as the occasional exhibition that really falls short (Othoniel: Crystal Palace comes to mind). But when you consider that the museum has hosted major retrospectives featuring such established artists as Richard Artschwager, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein, Malcolm Morley, Yoko Ono, and Frank Stella, as well as shows with emerging artists like Anne Chu and Inka Essenhigh and such non-art-world figures as filmmaker David Cronenberg and choreographer Merce Cunningham, you have to concede that this is one of South Florida's most consistently overachieving arts institutions, thanks to visionary director/curator Bonnie Clearwater and her expert staff.

Such excellence makes me inclined to give MOCA the benefit of the doubt, especially since it's on the verge of a major expansion that will more than double its exhibition space. I'll overlook a MOCA misfire any day, knowing the greatness this museum is capable of.

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Michael Mills