Marie Antoinette’s Desk: The Hammer Biennial: “Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only”




DURING THE 1970s, Sotheby’s (then known as Sotheby Parke-Bernet) opened an auction venue here in Los Angeles on Beverly Boulevard near Fairfax, generating a lot of local excitement. (Los Angeles was on par with New York!) Best of all, for many of my friends, Sotheby’s was hiring recently graduated art history majors. Jennifer, my college roommate, got a job fielding phone calls from those eager to auction their treasures; it was her job to assess whether or not the callers’ items were worth the time and effort to have them appraised. Not all the calls resulted in auction consignments — and some were surprisingly wacky. In my career as an antiquarian bookseller, I too received many odd calls, but it was Jennifer who fielded the most astonishing call of all, one I never forgot:

Jennifer: Hello, what is the object you would like to auction?
Caller: Marie Antoinette’s desk.
Jennifer: Did you say you have Marie Antoinette’s desk?
Caller: Yes, that’s right.
Jennifer: That sounds promising. Do you have the provenance? May I ask how you know that the desk belonged to Marie Antoinette?
Caller: Because when I went to Versailles, it wasn’t there.
Jennifer: (stunned silence for a few seconds) It wasn’t there?
Caller: Yes, it wasn’t there, and mine looks exactly like the one in the book.
Jennifer: We would need actual proof regarding the history of the desk, such as ownership documents, family papers, written accounts, auction records.
Caller: But I have the proof — the desk wasn’t there!
Jennifer: I have to take another call. Good-bye, and thank you for calling Sotheby Parke-Bernet.
Caller: (sputtering) It wasn’t there! It wasn’t there! I have the desk!

The case of the “missing desk” came immediately to mind when I viewed the current Hammer Biennial, Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only. One installation, and in particular, a descriptive label, made me remember the wayward logic of the desk’s owner, and while other installations demonstrated muddled ideas of one sort or another, Excavation II by Daniel R. Small contained an extraordinary number of startling peculiarities. So first, a brief overview of this project, then, the case of the label — or rather, the label in the case — and finally, a look at several of the other installations, some of which exist only as labels.

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Excavation II: Detail from one of the Luxor Hotel murals. Can you tell if it is an ancient or modern image? The organizer believes you cannot. (All photos courtesy of the author.)

Excavation II is a leaden attempt at presenting artifacts from Cecil B. DeMille’s film set for his 1923 Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments, as legitimate archaeological discoveries. His monumental set was abandoned in the seaside sand dunes at Guadalupe, California, where the Exodus part of the movie was filmed, and over the years, beachcombers have stumbled upon the detritus that the shifting sands have buried, eroded, and occasionally, returned to the surface. The remnants of plaster Sphinxes, assorted props, and the litter left by cast and crew have reappeared and been scavenged over the years, and some of them are now housed in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center; peculiar souvenirs of local history. This is well and good, but recently, Small embarked upon a project to present the debris in the dunes as having archeological merit, on a par with the objects excavated from ancient Egyptian sites. At a recent talk at the Hammer, he and Jack Green, who wrote about the project, agreed with each other that the culture of the 1920s is as remote to us as is the culture of ancient Egypt. Green stated: “The history of one hundred years ago can be just as foreign and just as distant to us as ancient Egypt of two thousand years ago, the way people lived seems to be completely different from the way we live today.” Which is why I recommend reading The Great Gatsby in hieroglyphics.

Small and Green also believe that the unearthing of the movie set provides valuable cultural information that might otherwise be lost and that the moldering shards are genuine antiquities. To anyone familiar with historic objects, this is rubbish (in every sense). To begin with, have they never heard of eBay? The auction site, as well as thrift stores, attics, and museums, are awash in commonplace objects from the 1920s: the unearthing of some broken bottles, dishes, and props serves no scholarly purpose whatsoever — such items have long since been incorporated into cultural analyses of the period — and such studies will go on perfectly well without the addition of the remnants from this site, especially since there are many thousands of objects from the 1920s that have survived in fine condition and that are more suited to cultural investigation. (Trigger Alert to Small and Green: There are still people who were alive in the 1920s and you can actually speak with them to get firsthand information! The decade is not so “foreign” or “distant” — my own mother [or should I say “Mummy”?] was born in it and I was able to understand her without difficulty, although she did pronounce “coffee” as “cawfy” because she was from distant and mysterious New York.) The only purpose the DeMille remnants could serve now is for the scientific analysis of how buried objects have decayed in the dunes over the last 93 years.

As for shedding light on the production of the movie, there is little to be gleaned since we have biographies (and an autobiography) of DeMille, critical studies of the film and its production, and most importantly, we have the actual film. Small’s is bizarro scholarship, the opposite of what archaeology and anthropology aim to discover. Since we have no photos or site renderings from ancient history (much less films), we piece together a picture of the past from both extant structures (The Pyramids, sphinxes, obelisks, stelae) as well as from unearthed objects (King Tut’s sarcophagus, statues, jewelry, pottery). But here, we don’t need to uncover anything: the movie exists, and there is very little we don’t know, including how many sleeping tents were required for the crew (550), how many gallons of water were required per day (36,000), and the daily salary for an extra ($10 per adult; $7.50 for a child). We do not have to reconstruct anything. Reassembling a movie Sphinx is pointless in archaeological terms — we know what it looked like. Such an enterprise serves no purpose: exhibiting the tatterdemalion chunks of pseudo-Egyptian props has no archaeological or artistic value whatsoever. This inability to see, much less articulate, what is relevant and what is not is astounding; the elevation of the inconsequential is disturbing; and the absence of criticality is just plain aggravating. In its press release, the museum states that it supports art that “resists categorization,” and in this instance, it has met its goal. There is no category in which Excavation II fits. Except a new one I have just coined: Fanthropology — as in Fanthropology: the study of Hollywood scraps by obsessed fans in an effort to turn tidbits into treasures.

For a moment, I considered the possibility that the whole enterprise might be a gag, some sort of satire of archaeology and film history — perhaps an attempt to outdo the Museum of Jurassic Technology, where the border between fact and fiction is seamless — but in Excavation II there are no traces of humor, wit, or parody, nor is there any irony, mockery, or comicality in the accompanying brochure. I would have been delighted to find any sign of creativity, cleverness, or astuteness in the project — but alas, there is none.

In addition to the “relics” of the DeMille film on display, there is a trio of Egypto-kitsch murals removed in 2007 from the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, presented, according to the label, as evidence of “paramnesiac memory.” (The actual term is “paramnesia,” as I discovered when I bothered to look it up.) The wall label continues: “Such ‘history paintings’ become the screen through which our fantasies of history are projected, creating a slippage into ontological confusion.” A “slippage into ontological confusion”? (Quick, call an ontologist! A sesquipedalianist is on the loose! Trigger Warning II: Excavation II is filled with puffy prose, as is the entire biennial.) Are they imagining viewers so unsophisticated as to believe that paintings from a Las Vegas hotel represent historical fact, and would thus be confused by them? Does Small think we are that gullible?

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Excavation II: Object label and coin. No one noticed that a B.C. date on a coin is impossible, except as a joke.

Which brings us to the label. As I said, the key — dare I say the Rosetta Stone — to unlocking the unsoundness of the entire undertaking rests in one object and its label: a fake Roman coin dated “45 B.C.” that was among a group purportedly dug up from the dunes. The label reads: Roman Coin, ca. 1923 and goes on to explain: “Although the coins were stamped with the date 45 B.C., statements in the Bible suggest that the Exodus would have taken place around 1446 B.C.” What? I read this several times to make sure my eyes hadn’t misread anything. They hadn’t. But Small seems to have not a clue that any coin dated “B.C.” is an impossibility (despite his “research” into “three thousand years’ worth of history,” see below) — instead, he quibbles with the date. This is the apex of gullibility: believing everything you read. That the curators did not correct this glaring mistake is also cause for concern. We rely on curators to oversee factual information, and especially at a museum allied with a university. Not to mention the fact that Roman coins were not dated, but had they been, Roman numerals — not Arabic — would have been used; that the Exodus was seven centuries before the founding of Rome, that “B.C.” is an English term rather than Latin. So the coin is absurd historically, linguistically, and, most importantly, rationally. Had the organizer and curators presented the coin as an object of humor, as a practical joke made by some mischievous (or ignorant) prop person or puckish extra, the label would not cause alarm. It could even be the basis for an insightful investigation of the illusions, fantasies, and inaccuracies brought forth by Hollywood. But it doesn’t cause any “slippage into ontological confusion” about history, it undermines the soundness of the entire project — it induces brain freeze: does anyone know anything here? According to the museum: “Daniel R. Small embarked on an archaeological project of gargantuan proportions.” Gargantuan proportions? Hardly. Archaeological? No. Small excavated nothing. His “archaeological project” consisted of arranging for loans of some formerly large objects. As the Los Angeles Times reported: “The excavated items in his ‘Excavation II’ are on loan from the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center and private collections. The artist did not participate in their excavation.”

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Excavation II: Wall text.

The curators go on with further inanities:

In many senses, Small’s research is the product of three thousand years’ worth of history […] The breadth of Small’s research into this territory has shed light on many topics […] Small’s project encapsulates many strains and narratives within its expansive reach, touching on the history of epic American cinema, the social conditions of California’s central valley [sic], the fantasies projected onto ancient Egypt, and how history comes to privilege representations of the past.

Fanthropology defined, compounded by nincompoopery, mumbo jumbo, and bombast.

Nincompoopery: “The breadth of Small’s research into this territory has shed light on many topics.” Such as?

Mumbo jumbo: What the conditions, social or otherwise, in the Central Valley of California have to do with a movie location on California’s central coast is a mystery, separated as they are by at least a hundred miles and the rugged coastal mountain ranges. Had Small been even slightly familiar — or even curious — about the actual history of Guadalupe, Nipomo, and the Central Coast, he would have known that there were indeed “social conditions” worth investigating, including the existence of one of California’s most intriguing Utopian colonies — the Dunites — an eccentric group of artists, writers, poets, and astrologers who lived in the dunes in the 1930s–’40s, that a novel was written about them (The Face of the Clam by Luther Whiteman), and that their short-lived magazine Dune Forum featured photographs by Edward Weston, a frequent dune visitor. Nearby is another site that merits inclusion: Halcyon, the Theosophist colony that was established in 1903 just a few miles from the Guadalupe-Nipomo sand dunes; their unusual triangle-shaped Temple of the People still exists. Yet another essential site for the study of Central Coast social history is Hearst Castle in San Simeon, which was built contemporaneously with DeMille’s movie; even without exercising an “expansive reach,” comparing these two mammoth projects would be revealing.

Bombast: “Small’s research is the product of three thousand years’ worth of history.” Three millennia’s worth of history? Hardly. More like a few hours on Google. Small’s “research” must be buried in a tomb somewhere; it certainly is not at the Hammer.

Author’s Bonus: Reader, if you can explain to me what is meant by “how history comes to privilege representations of the past” I will pay you one Roman B.C. coin.

In a video on the Hammer website, Small discusses his project, stating: “There’s some confusion, some kind of uncanny parallel between the real sites in Egypt and their reconstruction as part of a film set that DeMille made in 1923.” The parallel is far from uncanny, of course, since the intent was to represent the “real sites in Egypt.” The only one who appears to be confused — and not just “ontologically” — is Small. He is the one creating a false parallel between his project and actual archaeology, and then declaring it a riddle. To bolster his bona fides while cloaked in the mantle of Egyptology, Small desires to come off as an informed scholar, but as Balzac once described the acquisition of incomplete knowledge, Excavation II “has all the dangers of ignorance combined with the misfortunes of learning.”

In a separate brochure published by the museum that accompanies the installation (and the only work in the show to receive such treatment), Green describes the DeMille site as “a metaphor for history and the futility of attempting to write objective accounts of the past.” This statement is truly disquieting coming from a museum: vacuous, anti-intellectual, and significantly anti-art, it refutes the concept of imagination, the realm from which all art — and history — derive. Art and history result from creative thought, and are achievements in any civilization. It was the Greeks who first recognized history as one of the arts along with poetry, music, tragedy, hymns, dance, comedy, and astronomy — that is, as manifestations of human ingenuity and imagination. History, the art of interpreting past events, can only be an art. For Green to assert that writing objective accounts of the past is futile — and that a buried movie set proves it — is so dunderheaded a notion that it must be thoroughly refuted and discarded. All art is subjective. Artists thrive on this concept, and historians struggle valiantly toward an ideal of objectivity they know they cannot reach. Green does not recognize that the writing of history is an art, an act of creativity; it appears that he would have the works of Herodotus, Voltaire, Hume, Gibbon, Carlyle, and numerous others discounted because he believes they inherently lack “objectivity.” (And is he so naïve as to think that accounts of the present are bias-free?) For someone associated with a museum to profess such a simpleminded viewpoint is intolerable, whether they know anything about the last several centuries of historiographical argument or not.

The installation might have had some merit if it had been an actual exploration of Hollywood and Las Vegas versions of Biblical and ancient events, but limited as it is to just the DeMille detritus and the hotel murals, it is lacking in scope. It leaves out all other relevant subjects, particularly the participation of set designer Paul Iribe, who had been an illustrious fashion illustrator in Paris and who later became a lover of Coco Chanel, and a right-wing nationalist and anti-Semite. Iribe merits only one short description in the catalog as “a proponent of the art deco [sic] movement.” Shouldn’t Small and Green have devoted more of their “extensive” research to the man who designed the very things they deem worthy of digging up? And where are images from the various film versions of Ben-Hur, Cleopatra, Spartacus, The Ten Commandments, and Quo Vadis? Where are the bits and bobs from Caesars Palace hotel? Since Small and Green present their work as having academic merit, why did they exclude the pioneering, scholarly archeological work of Hamilton, Champollion, Schliemann, or Carter? Including them would have been informative and rewarding, but Excavation II is nothing but a bad Wikipedia entry — unverified, unvetted, unedited, and unscholarly. And after all the attention focused on DeMille’s film, wouldn’t you expect a screening of The Ten Commandments to accompany the installation? No such luck. It isn’t there, like the queen’s desk.

However, there are screenings to accompany several other of the works in the biennial, which brings me to Margaret Honda’s installation: two blue film cases holding the reels of her two films. Yes, that’s right, you can’t watch the actual films (except during three special screenings: June 12, July 6, and August 7; if you can’t make those dates, you are, again, out of luck). During the other 74 days of the exhibition you will have to content yourself with looking at the two film containers that contain her reels. Technically, her work is there — but you cannot see it. What you can do is read the lengthy wall label that begins by describing Honda’s films as “grow[ing] out of a sculptural practice that privileges a material relationship to the medium above any narrative or representational concerns.” (Once again, work that “privileges” something. The frequent use of verbification in art texts has reached epidemic levels and a cure must be sought. Did you call the ontologist yet?)

According to the wall label, “Honda acknowledges the films’ objecthood, giving as much weight to this quality as to what is projected on-screen.” This is an equally daft concept as Small’s believing that digging up DeMille’s Exodus set is the equivalent of excavating actual Egyptian antiquities. (Try imagining movie-goers, who, when expecting to watch a film, are presented with only its reel, and being told that its form, or “objecthood,” is the same as its function. Would the audience have to sit and look at the reel for the exact amount of time it takes to screen the film? If so, I hope it’s not War and Peace — well, perhaps there’s an intermission.)

Exhibiting the reels and withholding the actual film is nothing but a manifestation of what I’ve decided to call “late conceptualism,” and a wan descendant of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images made nearly 90 years ago — which is not to say that reminders of the illusions of perception are not welcome, they are — but in this instance, the literality lacks wit and what is worse, causes exasperation, because again, we have the films! One takes the time to visit the biennial, but apparently, Honda and the curators decided to “privilege” their concept rather than give the visitor the experience of seeing the artist’s actual creative output.

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Margaret Honda’s installation of her film cases.

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The wall label that attempts to explain her work.

Honda’s is not the only work that is missing from the biennial: Todd Gray’s performance piece is nowhere to be seen, except in a wall label describing the artist’s decision to wear Ray Manzarek’s clothing for a year. This touching act of friendship, memory, and dedication is only accessible through reading the label — the performance went undocumented by the artist — and the only available images are in the photographs friends took of Gray, none of which are at the Hammer (although some are on display at a local gallery). Gray’s work is a more provocative example of late conceptualism than is Honda’s, but it is nevertheless disappointing — why go to museum to read a paragraph about an idea? Perhaps in the future, when the triumph of such sophomoric conceptualism is complete, museums will consist only of wall labels in order to evoke such curatorial aims as “engagement,” “creativity,” and “imagination” in the viewer.

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Ray: Wall label. Reading this label is the only way to experience the artist’s performance. 

Because the title of the biennial is Made in L.A., one expects some connecting link to the city, and, as the press release states: “The exhibition addresses Los Angeles as a nexus of activity inseparable from the global network of art production, revealing how artists move fluidly between contexts and respond to their local conditions.” I’m not sure what it means to “move fluidly between contexts,” (are artists swimming from Downtown to Frogtown in the Los Angeles River?); neither do I understand what responding to “local conditions” means, but I suppose it implies that somehow, Los Angeles will permeate the artwork in this biennial. It does not.

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tierra: Wall labels. One label is in English, the other in Spanish, and the only instance of bilingual labels in the exhibition.

I found little or no relation to Los Angeles in the works on view, with one exception: Rafa Esparza’s tierra, a compelling installation of adobe bricks that evokes the original building blocks of this once-Mexican city. According to the artist, the mud-and-straw bricks are also meant to refer to the Mexican-American neighborhood in Chavez Ravine that was demolished to make way for Dodger Stadium in the early 1960s. Curiously, the museum has provided wall labels in English and Spanish for Esparza’s work, but not for that of any of the other 25 participants. According to the wall label, the artist chose to have bilingual labels, a worthy decision, but why then didn’t the curators follow his lead and provide Spanish labels for all the works? “Responding to local conditions” might include the realization that Los Angeles has a large Spanish-speaking population, and that labels in Spanish for more than one installation would be useful. That was not the museum’s response. However it was made, the choice seems smug and patronizing. Perhaps it was a curatorial decision to “privilege” English. Quien mala cama hace, en ella se yace. Or as Marie Antoinette might have put it, “Go dig up some cake.”

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Victoria Dailey is a writer living in Los Angeles.


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