Can You Dig It?

Photo: Ellen Page Wilson/Courtesy of Gavin Brown's Enterprise

Urs Fischer has reduced Gavin Brown’s Enterprise to a hole in the ground, and it is one of the most splendid things to have happened in a New York gallery in a while. Experientially rich, buzzing with energy and entropy, crammed with chaos and contradiction, and topped off with the saga of subversion that is central both to the history of the empty-gallery-as-a-work-of-art but also to the Gavin Brown experience itself, this work is brimming with meaning and mojo. It was also a Herculean project.

A 38-foot-by-30-foot crater, eight feet deep, extends almost to the walls of the gallery, surrounded by a fourteen-inch ledge of concrete floor. A sign at the door cautions, THE INSTALLATION IS PHYSICALLY DANGEROUS AND INHERENTLY INVOLVES THE RISK OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH; intrepid viewers can, all the same, inch their way around the hole. Fischer’s pit is titled You, and it took ten days to build, costing around $250,000 of Brown’s money. (Heaven only knows what his landlord thought of it.) The gallery’s ground-level garage doors facilitated the jackhammering and removal of the concrete floor and the use of a backhoe to excavate tons of dirt and debris, after which a crew closed off the space with immaculate white walls. There’s also a cramped antechamber, superfluous but well executed: A smaller reproduction of the main gallery, down to the air ducts and electrical outlets, it’s sort of a mini-Me You. Ducking through its pint-size entrance is like going though a door in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You have to crouch as you enter and watch where you step in preparation for the more precarious and thrilling main event beyond.

Fischer’s extraordinary gesture touches on the tradition of indoor earthworks that includes pieces from the sixties and seventies by Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Chris Burden, and others, while also bringing together many of his ongoing themes of transparency, transformation, disruption, and destruction. He’s cut holes in gallery and museum walls and created sculptures that merge with one another. You simultaneously attacks and fetishizes the attributes of galleries, the qualities that the critic Brian O’Doherty has described as “something of the sacredness of churches, the austerity of courtrooms, the mysteriousness of research laboratories, something that, together with stylish designs, makes them unique cultic places of the aesthetic.” You is like a nest, a bunker, or Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wreck of Hope, his painting of a ship smashed to pieces in a sea of ice. It is a perfect metaphor for a revved-up art world as it is stripped down by the market.

In a very minimalist yet surreal and expressionistic way, You makes space palpable. Initially the chasm dominates your vision and takes over the room, like Magritte’s painting of a giant green apple filling space. As your vision adjusts, your inner ear goes into high gear as you realize that while standing at floor level you’re no longer at the base of the gallery but halfway up the walls. The room transforms into something unmoored, like a Tiepolo or Correggio painting. As you survey everything from this unfamiliar perch, your eye takes over and details come into focus. This I-can-see-everything realism echoes the experience of paintings by Ingres and David.

You is less a Deconstructivist avant-garde gesture or a parodic work of anti-art than it is an inversion machine. To be in it is to be above and below at the same time. You are indoors and outdoors; there are the perfect white walls of the gallery and this red-brown New York earth. Jeff Wall has talked about how painting a person is “the simultaneous trace of two bodies and so is inherently erotic.” You is a tracing of Brown’s gallery and galleries in general, and it pulsates with erotic energy. Intensely lit and rigidly framed, it also has the abstract presence of a photograph, recalling the trench in Wall’s own photos Dead Troops Talk and The Flooded Grave.

A hidden layer of content adds more meaning. Gavin Brown was a leading member of a wave of dealers who opened galleries in the midst of the early-nineties art-market downturn and who helped reinvigorate New York. Over the years his gallery has been a site of experimentation, provocation, and community. Among other accomplishments, Brown was the first New York gallerist to mount solo shows of Chris Ofili, Jake and Dino Chapman, Piotr Uklanski, and Anselm Reyle. But as Brown helped frame the discourse of the nineties, and rightly profited from it, the recent money frenzy has seen Ofili leave for David Zwirner and Uklanski and Reyle defect to Gagosian; the Chapmans now show at Gagosian, too. You suggests that exhibitions themselves have become conventional, that too many of them go down easy or look the same—product after product, all lined up on the wall or in a room, like orderly items for sale. Thus, You is a kind of warning sign. At the same time, it’s making fun of the convention. After all, there is a clownlike exaggeration and madness to the piece.

Mostly, You is an amazing sight that warps psychic space. It’s a bold act that brings on claustrophobia and agoraphobia at the same time, makes you look at galleries in a new way, and serves as a bracing palate cleanser.

Urs Fischer. Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. Through December 22.


Can You Dig It?