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Who Are These People?

The art world’s JT LeRoys and odd collaborators say they’re subverting the system and examining identity issues. Is it just a coincidence that they get fabulous publicity too?


The Wrong Gallery, a.k.a. (from left) Ali Subotnick, Massimiliano Gioni, and Maurizio Cattelan.  
(Photo: Olaf Blecker)

Ionce called the Reena Spaulings gallery, asking to speak to Reena. “This is she,” said the voice at the other end. As I later learned, it was and it wasn’t. Spaulings is a fictional art-world “It” girl, portrayed by artists Emily Sundblad, John Kelsey, and a rotating cast of collaborators. That didn’t stop the curators of the 2006 Whitney Biennial from adding her to the show, along with other “artists” of various shades of individual and collective existence.

Given that the literary world has been caught in its own truth-telling-versus-storytelling controversy, curators Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne have certainly stumbled on the Zeitgeist. In their Biennial, there’s a staged film about a trip to Antarctica that may or may not have happened (Pierre Huyghe’s A Journey That Wasn’t), a group of Houston artists who collectively identify themselves as a Bronx MC (Otabenga Jones & Associates), and a Biennial-within-the-Biennial curated by the Wrong Gallery—a trio of artist-curator-critics who maintain a small display window in Chelsea behind a permanently locked door. Their show, “Down by Law,” is “a gallery of mug shots, police sketches, menacing portraits, and twisted icons, both celebrating and degrading the dark heroes of the American Dream.”

Why are so many artists constructing fake identities or forming collaboratives—the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Critical Art Ensemble—that sound like federal agencies and jazz quartets? As Iles points out, this sort of game has a rich history going back to Duchamp’s female alter ego Rrose Sélavy. “When dramatic changes occur in society—political, technological—there’s a destabilization,” she says. “Duchamp was saying, I refuse to have my identity fixed.”

The diffusion or elision of identity also offers certain practical real-world advantages: more attention, instant legitimacy, a pleasant lack of accountability. Iles and Vergne have even invented a “third curator,” Toni Burlap, whose name appears on the catalogue essay. “Philippe and I were so in synergy, it’s like we became one person,” says Iles. “Now Toni Burlap has her own Website. Someone—we don’t know who it is—has set it up.” (If she’s that popular, maybe Toni can take on the inevitable army of Biennial critics.)

The phenomenon may also be a reaction to an overheated art market clinging to the myth of the solo painter in his garret. Iles told Artforum that “using another persona—whether anonymous, fictitious, or both—is a way of creating a space outside the market.” Sounds noble, but some of these personas are also ways for well-known art-world figures to winkingly exploit their status. Consider Reena Spaulings’ Kelsey, who writes for Artforum and has managed to give his star artist excellent press. Or the Wrong Gallery’s Maurizio Cattelan, a household name whose sculptures command millions at auction. Fictitious, sure; anonymous, hardly.

The art pranksters’ activities (like Spaulings’s “Money Paintings,” which reproduce various currencies) may mock the market that plucks fresh canvases from Columbia M.F.A. studios, but they’re fetishized by the same audience. And as these inside jokes become institutionalized (the Wrong Gallery team is curating the Berlin Biennial), they sacrifice their outlaw status. Will that happen at the Whitney? “Duchamp was very connected with museums and collectors,” says Iles. “He was in the center and the margins at the same time.” A position almost every artist—real or imagined—covets.

February 27, 2006 issue of New York Magazine

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