Dan Graham Beyond Eastside

A survey of 30 years of the peripatetic American artist and philosopher of social space.

The current show at Eastside Projects contains a dozen major works of video and architectural models by Dan Graham, articulating the perplexing intellectual breadth of his work over the last thirty years. His artistic projects—from video to performance to urban photography—were seminal to the development of multimedia in contemporary art. His writings are almost canonical. Yet he remains an outsider, uncommercialized, and his art is resolutely 'hybrid' (his words), moving along the 'edges' of artistic genres.
From <i>Dan Graham: Models and Videos</i> at Eastside Projects, Birmingham
From Dan Graham: Models and Videos at Eastside Projects, Birmingham
Curated by Maurizio Bortolotti and Gavin Wade, the show's venue at Eastside Projects is an ideal artistic situation for Graham. Artist-curator and director Wade engages exhibiting artists researching urban change in this industrial inner-city area. There are few artists who could at once frame an investigation into the sensorial morass of consumer street culture or emergent music as well as the aesthetics of architectural form. Graham's architectural models in this show, whilst modeling a seeming neo-modernist formalism, always admit an unpredictable and uncontrollable socio-cultural dynamic. The models and videos frame a non-linear investigation into the performative nature of seemingly indifferent or abstruse physical structures. While Graham is never one to make easy connections, the interaction (and collision) between these two art forms offer a range of possibilities for framing some serious unofficial thinking on Birmingham's new official urban strategy, the 'Big City Plan'.
Artist Dan Graham at his exhibition at Eastside Projects, Birmingham
Artist Dan Graham at his exhibition at Eastside Projects, Birmingham
In this exhibition there is no actual beginning or end as such—unlike mainstream exhibitions, the space is not didactic, directing thought and movement as if it knows something the viewer does not. At the exhibition entrance, only one work is immediately visible, Graham's 'Death by Chocolate' from the mid-1980s. A video of Canada's West Edmonton shopping mall, it is a visually engrossing observation of shoppers negotiating the architectural complex of the mall. Graham's approach is one of immersion. Our sense of time begins to change, each work will demand anywhere between 10–40 minutes, and the nature of one's visual attentiveness must adapt as it moves from Graham's 'perceptual machines' (as he called some of his pavilions) to the circuitous interiority of his videos. Graham avoided conceptual art in the 70s because of its 'theorization', and consequent distance to the object of perception. This Eastside exhibition is an effective example of the way Graham has repositioned the necessary theoretical moment in art, from its usual role as a pretended framing of the art's production to something that forms as the reflexive moment in the viewer's extended acts of perception. If 'theory' could be an experience, then Graham's work performs it.
In this exhibition there is no actual beginning or end as such—the space is not didactic, directing thought and movement as if it knows something the viewer does not.
Video still from 'Death By Chocolate' (1986–2005) at <i>Dan Graham: Models and Videos</i> at Eastside Projects, Birmingham
Video still from 'Death By Chocolate' (1986–2005) at Dan Graham: Models and Videos at Eastside Projects, Birmingham
The exhibition reverses the usual curatorial predilection for 'housing' video: video mostly faces outwards, competing for active attention. There are only two main wall space expanses—featuring six of Graham's classic Homes for America photographic series, and large photocopies of his article on American corporate interiors for Building Design in October 1988. The latter, as with classic essays like 'Garden as Theatre as Museum' of 1989, conveys an acute analytical grasp of the tectonics and engineering of architectural construction, yet explodes the complacency of professional practice by integrating it into a narrative on the social performativity endemic to such spaces.
‘Swimming Pool’ (1997, foreground) and ‘Model for Ying Yang’ (1997, back) from <i>Dan Graham: Models and Videos</i> at Eastside Projects, Birmingham
‘Swimming Pool’ (1997, foreground) and ‘Model for Ying Yang’ (1997, back) from Dan Graham: Models and Videos at Eastside Projects, Birmingham
Other videos feature further pavilions and more recent installations (from 1974–2009). They reveal a sophisticated dialogue with phenomenology and the psychology of space—'the impossibility of locating a pure present tense' ('Video in relation to Architecture')—but also the ever present temporality and social anarchy of urban consumerism. In one of the exhibition enclosures the architectural models Swimming Pool of 1997 and Model for Ying Yang (one of his few public commissions, a pavilion for MIT, installed 2004) express the internal contradiction of 'pure' architectural form—its structural integrity is premised on an (impossibly) absent and socialized humanity.

The now classic video 'Performer/Audience/Mirror' from 1977, is the only work here where Graham as artistic persona emerges—as a low-key but engaging interlocutor. Later featured in his selected writings Two-Way Mirror Power (1999), this piece defines Graham as a peripatetic philosopher of social space. The work opens up the way socially inscribed aesthetics of vision perpetuate concealed modes of cognitive domination at the same time enabling critical moments in human interaction. Graham is one of the great American post-minimalist artists, in part as the implications of his work are still yet fully to unfold.

Jonathan Vickery is Associate Professor at the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, University of Warwick.
Until 16 April 2011
Dan Graham: Models and Videos
Eastside Projects , Birmingham, United Kingdom

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