Getting a Handle On Art of the '80s

The shake-up of contemporary society is reflected an exhibition that includes performance art and other unorthodox, often controversial forms

ECHOES of Laurie Anderson's soft, neutral voice can be heard, measured as a metronome, from the entrance to the new show at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. And it is Anderson's work which echoes in the memory of the exhibition ``Culture and Commentary: An Eighties Perspective'' (on view here through May 6). We hear that cool little voice, enticing as a snake charmer's music, that draws listeners. And viewers.

You sit down on a bench (not just any bench, but more about that later) and watch Ms. Anderson beguile and mystify you with her performance art. Her nine-minute video ``O Superman'' is playing at the Hirshhorn show. Seeing it just once is like eating only one piece of popcorn. I've seen it three times and plan to go back for more viewings when I'm through writing this.

Anderson appears onscreen using herself as a canvas - her downy baby-bird haircut, wide-eyed face with its high cheekbones, delicately boned and graceful body clad in unisex satin jacket, shirt, and tie. She sings her enigmatic song, with its repetitive melody and quiet musical laugh-track - a low ha-ha-ha-ha, which creates a fugue against the lines: ``...When love is gone, there's always justice./ And when justice is gone, there's always force./ And when force is gone, there's always Mom./ Hi, Mom. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha./ So hold me, Mom/ In your long arms, your automatic arms,/ Your electronic arms./ In your arms....''

There's a lot more, but you get the drift. Or do you?

In the view of the exhibition's curator, Kathy Halbreich, artists like Anderson reflect the shake-up of society and culture that occurred in the '80s. The images flash by, seeming at first as arbitrary as the words: airplanes, snowflakes, fluorescent teeth; Laurie Anderson in multiples, in different lights.

Ms. Halbreich, contemporary-art curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, writes in the show's catalog that ``O Superman'' was adapted by Anderson from a tenor aria from ``Le Cid'' by Jules Massenet. She explains, ``Mom transmogrifies into mother country, a malevolent superpower whose `long arms' are electronic and petrochemical weapons that promise only a morbid embrace....''

Or then again maybe ``O Superman'' is whatever Laurie Anderson or you want it to be.

``That's really frightening,'' says a brunette teen-ager as she exits. Other viewers stay on, fascinated by the video as they sit on one of the white-and-gray marble benches etched with sentences by Jenny Holzer, which are also art of the '80s: ``You have to hurt others to be extraordinary,'' reads one. ``Confusing yourself is a way to stay honest'' and ``War is a Purification Rite'' are among the messages running along the seat, sides, back, and front of the bench. They are part of ``Selections from Truisms'' by Holzer, whose work has a whole room to itself further into the exhibition.

Someone once wrote on a downtown wall here in Washington: ``Art is whatever you can get away with,'' an interesting though somewhat cynical definition.

The Holzer room in this show contains four more white marble benches veined in gray and studded with her word-art. It all makes you wonder why one couldn't scrawl passages from Tolstoy's ``Anna Karenina'' on the wall and call it art? At least that's great and original writing to start with.

Among the 15 artists included are eight Americans: Robert Gober, Sherri Levine, Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, and Siah Armajami in addition to Anderson and Holzer. Among the international artists are Francesco Clemente of Italy, James Coleman of Ireland, Tony Cragg of Great Britain, Katharina Fritsch and Reinhard Mucha of West Germany, and Jeff Wall of Canada. Their work is as diverse as their countries.

Halbreich suggests that ``the most dynamic aspect of [art in] the '80s was the marketplace,'' but cites other '80s influences, including micro-chips, Chernobyl, ``advancing materialism (with Madonna's ``Material Girl'' as its anthem), images of the nightly TV news, AIDS, cocaine, the greenhouse effect, `humongous' oil spills, and tragedies like the chemical plant explosion in Bhopal and the Challenger space shuttle explosion.''

A grim list.

But the artists' work chosen here looks more off-the-wall controversial than grim. I hope Senator Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina doesn't hear about the three sacks of kitty litter that are part of the art installation by Robert Gober and Sherri Levine. We could have another anti-arts funding filibuster. The cat sand symbolizes covering up things people don't want to see or smell. It turns up in the Gober and Levine room, which is wallpapered with his tan paper printed with pictures of ``Hanging Man/Sleeping Man,'' a sleeping white man and a lynched black man. If you're white, you may view it as whites asleep to violent racial hatred, but one black viewer saw it as a white man either dreaming of a lynching he was planning or had already seen. ``It's history,'' the man said.

The constant surprises of the show also include Tony Cragg's ``Real Plastic Love People,'' who are dancing. The man is made up entirely of blue plastic trash - buttons, pens, combs, wristwatches - the woman of pink brushes, compacts, bottles, lipsticks, and other plastic fragments.

The found art includes Jeff Koons's Plexiglas and fluorescent tube display enclosing two stacked Hoover vacuum cleaners and his ``Two Balls'' - orange basketballs floating like fish in a water tank.

Siah Armajani creates a whole environment in his ``Reading Room'' of olive green tables and chairs, high-tech aluminum bookcases, and copies of current newspapers and magazines you're invited to sit down and read.

Repetitive art by Katharina Fritsch consists of lovingly crafted vases, cats, money boxes, and madonnas that look as though they'd been mass-produced for novelty stores. Faced with them, says curator Halbreich, ``we invent and inventory again the sense of loss, false desire, and superstition that spring from our need to consecrate and consume.''

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