On a flat-screen television before me, the Baywatch actress and sometime model Pamela Anderson frolics with her then-husband, Tommy Lee. “Babe,” she calls him, only the voice is dubbed, and the Pamela gamely smiling at the camera was animated, all flat colors and sharp lines. I am watching, not the original videotape of the infamous Anderson-Lee honeymoon, but Kota Ezawa’s animation after the original.
Anna Nicole Smith died the day before I watched Ezawa’s Two Stolen Honeymoons are Better than One (2007), and she stayed on my mind through Pamela and Tommy’s pastel California honeymoon. Like Pamela, Anna Nicole had been a “golden girl,” known for her stunning good looks and tabloid love life. Ezawa’s piece stays away from the original’s lurid tabloid overtones — the tape is better known in some circles as the Anderson-Lee “sex tape.” The video gives a shared fantasy, a dream of life as bubblegum, cordoned off from danger and deprivation by beauty and privilege. Though Ezawa describes his piece as an investigation into our consumption of celebrity, the animation’s sweetness blunts any critique.
Ezawa’s piece appears at SFMOMA, as part of the 2006 SECA Art Awards Exhibition. The show, like most SECA-associated exhibitions, eschews an overarching curatorial thesis. I can tell you that there were five artists in the SECA show: Sarah Cain, Kota Ezawa, Amy Franceschini, Mitzi Pederson, and Leslie Shows. The artists skew towards the younger end of the demographic spectrum. The work, though quite formal in execution, bore a strong craft influence, and all five artists referenced the 1970s in some form or another.
As I began assembling my notes from the SECA exhibition, I had trouble situating these works within a broader critical landscape. My response to the work seemed caught between the subjective (“I like this,” “I do not like this”) and the antiquarian (“This work reminds me of Mike Kelley,” “Pederson’s pendulous sculptures remind me of Eva Hesse,” “Sarah Cain’s leaf sculpture, & if each color, by you like a lover so let to the streets (2007), reminds me of Arte Povera“).
I can tell you that Franceschini came from a family with roots in the San Joaquin Valley, that Pederson favors glitter, and that Ezawa had the patience to watch the Anderson-Lee video, and then animate it. I can tell you that I found Ezawa’s animation touching and sentimental, something I did not expect. I can also tell you that I enjoyed Pederson’s ability to play with lines in space, and I found her combination of black glitter and grey concrete in her sculpture untitled (ten years later or maybe just one) formally compelling.
The SECA show is symptomatic of a broader problem within contemporary art — on one hand, art critics and historians no longer possess the appropriate tools to write about contemporary art, and on the other hand, contemporary art contains no models and no practices that can serve as a common language. Conceptual Art did away with the boundaries between theory and art. Today, art is art. Art is self-reflexive. Art is anything that we declare as “art.” “Art” lodges in any practice, in any moment. So contemporary art is studded with a few moments, sublime or aesthetic, or simply “breath-taking” or “spectacular” (in the Debordian sense), but as a field, it does not, and cannot, cohere.
We are left with reruns of the past. Skilled reruns, to be sure, but still reruns. Like their Arte Povera forebears, Cain, Shows and Pederson turn towards base materials. But what read as technical radicalism in the late sixties now reads as institutional entrenchment. The idea is no longer new, nor does it remain avant-garde. The execution, however, can still be formally compelling. The object can still exhibit care, thought and craft. In their best work, these artists produce objects that fill these criteria.
Unlike the Arte Povera artists, however, the leftist critique that once went hand-in-glove with these practices has dissipated, or been sublimated. All that remains is consumption. In Ezawa’s video, Pamela and Tommy’s interactions have been transformed into aesthetic problems. Projected onto double screens, one rendered in cool-tones, and the other imbued with a warm, yellow cast, the figures lead us to consider questions of color, geometry, and line. Pamela and Tommy have become purely aesthetic. All along, we have suspected as much. They were never truly human, not even in their darkest moments, or in their wildest joys. They have always been objects and Ezawa’s video completes the cycle. In Two Stolen Honeymoons are Better than One we continue to consume these bodies as beautiful objects, but this time without guilt. They are, after all, only paper dolls.
The 2006 SECA Art Awards show runs through April 11, 2007 at SFMOMA. More info (at sfmoma.org).