Shrouded in anonymity, the Bruce High Quality Foundation has made a career for themselves out of playful irreverence. Rising out of the post-9/11 New York art scene, the anonymous collective has launched a campaign of physical aggression against public installations (Public Art Tackle), initiated their own free education classes, staged socio-politically charged morality plays on gentrification, all under the guise of a production of the Broadway musical Cats, all alongside a number of pieces and installations that embrace the juxtaposition of art history, pop culture and contemporary society to “invest the experience of public space with wonder.”
Presenting a selection of “less than 17,000 works” by the collective, created over their past decade of existence, The Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective (a first for the group) is a varied, minimal affair taking up three rooms on the ground floor of the institution, and covering the group’s practice in sculpture, installation, video, mixed media, photography and performance. Keeping the space of the exhibition to a minimum, the museum’s curators have chosen a wealth of selections that allows thematic elements and creative ties to develop organically, without overwhelming the viewer. In one corner, a workers union protest balloon, shaped like a rat, slowly fills with air and deflates, accompanied by a hapless voiceover. In another, a series of silkscreens recreate the destruction of the World Trade Center (which figures heavily in the Bruce creation myth).
Throughout the show, these cultural images take on a notable prominence, thrown into focus by the lack of a creative figurehead. Films, news articles, photographs, art objects and advertisements are all bent through the Bruces’ creative lens, foregrounded against the personalities of the artists themselves. Discussions of art and food (paralleled as objects of consumption in a capitalist dialectic), celebrity, pop culture and politics center on the objects themselves, and not a singular, authoritative perspective on them.
The result is a much broader range of interpretation, one that places the cultural contents of the works’ materials directly into conversation with each other. In the titular Ode to Joy, a television floats precariously on a block of styrofoam in a filled, collapsible pool, blaring a dated video performance of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (recognizable as the official anthem of the European Union). The viewer cannot help but feel a sense of foreboding, watching the electrical cord powering the television dangle over four feet of water; a life-threatening potentiality that could destroy the makeshift island. The political and social connotations are bold, calling forth dated notions of pan-Europeanism, cultural tension, and financial insolvency in the current Eurozone, combining the art historical with international finance and globalism to examine the relationships and rhetorics that modern political interaction is couched in.
In a society defined by cultural consumption, aesthetically refined identity, and the increasing intricacies of art as financial capital, the BHQF seems to understand the role of art, both as a part of the global milieu, and its capabilities for working outside it, helping to define and recontextualize its inherent pluralities. It is for this reason that the show’s size and scope works so well. Carefully selecting from their artistic output, thematic elements and cultural signifiers are given room to breathe, and running narratives throughout the works are welcome to rise to attention. For example, the visage of Marlboro Cigarettes appears in a variety of forms throughout the exhibition, both as a facetious “sponsor” of some of the collective’s video works, and as a sculptural element throughout their works. At turns exemplifying the self-destruction inherent in cigarette smoking, American constructs of freedom, masculinity and classic values, or the daunting scope of corporate conglomerates (Robert Morris’s ownership of Kraft Foods is mentioned in one video work), the BHQF paints an image of a society where cultural capital and commercial image has become a nearly ubiquitous force, shifting and changing based on its context and presentation.
In a third room, the group also exhibits an installation split somewhere between miniature museum gallery and classroom, showcasing a number of recreated ancient pottery and other crafts, tying lines between contemporary art and the relative functionality of early art forms, while subverting their new role as both status symbol and cultural artifact, leaving the viewer to struggle in identifying the attached pieces of paper as either a cataloging device or price tag. Alongside this work is a cluttered classroom, perhaps underlining the Bruce’s commitment to arts education at the BHQF University, and its role in altering the landscape for art consumption and understanding.
Culling from the massively broad scope of American visual culture, Bruce High Quality’s more than 10-year existence has been marked by major foreign wars, increasing corporate consolidation (particularly in the media fields), and a crucially destabilized financial market. Pulling from the multifaceted images of American society and culture, their mission of “impregnating the institutions of art with the joy of man’s desire,” assumes an increasingly complex role: creating artistic work that understands the functions and language of modern capitalism, where the broader tenets of economic production, marketing, social identity, and creative histories are almost inextricably tied into the language of day-to-day life. The question the Bruce’s pose is one of choice, whether to expend our energies seeking to untangle their multifarious meanings, or to make these new subtexts our playthings. Ode to Joy is on view until September 22nd.
Artist Website [BHQF]
“The Bruce High Quality Foundation Takes on Art, Money, and the Fame Game” [Village Voice]
“From Brooklyn, an ‘Ode to Joy'” [New York Times]
Exhibition Site [Brooklyn Museum]
“Even Young Rebels Can Float a Retrospective” [New York Times]