Dia napkin decoded (and re-encoded).
I saved this napkin from my visit to Dia:Beacon, to preserve not my notes revealing some random spark of wit and brilliance, but somebody else’s.
Pristine white paper with orange-and-gray text imprinted in a serious sans-serif typeface, these napkins serve various functions. The first, of course, is obvious and practical, as one will undoubtedly need to clean up after consuming an overpriced sage pesto and aged cheddar panini. But these napkins are also a subversive and clever piece of museum interpretation. The list of names outlines the 28 male artists* Louise Lawler utters (and squawks and warbles) in her sound installation. Museumgoers can enjoy a bite on Dia’s grounds with Birdcalls (1972/1981) as their soundtrack, wiping mayonnaise smudges off with the very transcript of the work. You, too, can listen to Birdcallscourtesy of our friends over at Ubuweb.
In this piece, Lawler translates the names of contemporary art bigwigs into quite convincing avian cheeps, tweets, and shrieks. At Dia:Beacon, the sounds seem to emerge effortlessly from the upstate New York landscape, as if a pair of birds were having a pecking skirmish in neighboring bushes. Upon closer listening, however, I realized that the screeches were actually the names of artists engrained in my head as a result of my art history education: Sol Lewitt, Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys. Lawler selected this list as a pointed yet hilarious commentary on the privilege and recognition bestowed upon male artists.
But the napkin serves a third, much more subliminal and calculated function. While Lawler’s piece mocks the idolization of a certain set of male artists,** a good number of these guys are on view in Beacon’s cavernous galleries. Dia has certainly got a type: conceptual art giants who produce megalithic works and who are now revered in the art world. Of the 26 artists on long-term view, only 5 are female.
But people eat this shit up. Dia’s football field-sized galleries are jaw-dropping; the megalithic works residing in them are elegantly confrontational, forcing you to step within its steel walls, or imagine yourself as you plunge into its abyss. I recognize that I, too, am a culprit of such idolatry; I was certainly in trance when I was surround on all sides by Lewitt wall drawings.
Dia Beacon, aerial view (source)
The fact is: Museums build a history of art. The simple act of displaying an object is a proclamation of what should be valued by generations to come. Dia is clearly building a history of a very particular type of art, a type that allows us to forget smaller, more subdued but often equally brilliant works.
So we have this napkin, our key to decoding Lawler’s Birdcalls, a work that derides the domination of men in the art world. But this napkin is simultaneously a clever and paradoxical branding strategy for Dia. It advertises the kind of artists that you’ll see within the gallery walls, while mocking the very art world that deemed these artists worthy of being there in the first place.
Lawler’s birdcalls are hilarious. The only appropriate reaction is to smirk at the parroted artists’ names, and then hang your head in shame for loving them so intensely, and so blindly.
*Or collaborations, as Gilbert & George is a duo.
**A set adored by the folks over at J. Crew, as evidenced by the Men’s Shop’s book selection. This fact always makes me snigger.
Secret: I borrowed the napkin picture from this blog. Mine has some mustard stains on it.