The kids who transform these stultifying suburban environments into sites of creativity and rebellion are given particular attention by Graham, whose career-long involvement with rock music reflects his firm belief that playfulness and youthful rebellion are productive responses to life in the suburbs—or to any other context structured by authority, whether parental, corporate or curatorial. That is evident to anyone who saw Graham’s over-the-top rock opera puppet show, Don’t Trust Anyone Over Thirty (with contributions in various disciplines from Tony Oursler, Rodney Graham, the band Japanther and others),presented at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2004 and reprised for the 2006 Whitney Biennial.
At L.A. MOCA, children have reacted with glee to Opposing Mirrors and Video Monitors on Time Delay (1974/1993), racing from one closed-circuit video camera to the next. And they dance inside Public Space/Two Audiences (1976),two rooms joined by a panel of soundproof glass and lined on one wall with a mirror, in which participants are put on display and can watch themselves watching others who are watching them. The gallery containing Graham’s celebrated video work Rock My Religion, a polemical collage about the dialectical relationship of punk rock music to Puritan and other fundamentalist religious practices, has been packed with reverent art students.10 Youth culture of the 1980s is captured in the jumpy, handheld videotape of a performance by Minor Threat, the seminal D.C. “straight edge” hardcore band whose shows are now legendary for the raw energy of both the band and fans in the mosh pit.
Graham’s occasional performances extend his anthropological probing of social environments and his phenomenological exercises in self-awareness. In Performer/Audience/Mirror(1975/1977), video documentation of which is included in the retrospective, the audience sat facing the mirrored wall of a dance studio. In front, Graham moved about while verbally articulating the positions he took, the audience’s movements and expressions, and features of his own appearance as scrutinized in the mirror. The stream of banal description continually shifted between performer and audience, individual and mass. As with Alteration for a Suburban Home and Public Space/Two Audiences, in Performer/Audience/Mirror Grahamencouraged spectators—or participants—to see themselves both as individuals and integral members of a crowd or community. In this work, the mirror contributed to a confusion of boundaries between private and public that has become fundamental to the full-scale structures Graham has made since the late 1970s.
These two-way mirrored constructions are the works that first gave Graham significant institutional presence. Sleek and interactive forms of outsize, architectural minimalism, the pavilions—as Graham often calls them, denoting their recreational function and ancillary relationship to host institutions—contain viewers who, beckoned inside, become the objects of others’ attention while seeing their own images reflected back to them. The layered reflections elicit a sense of both displacement and self-consciousness. While many museum-goers have encountered Graham’s outdoor structures at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center, and, in New York, the former Dia Center in Chelsea, “Dan Graham: Beyond”presents less familiar indoor rooms designed for specific functions: Girls Make-Up Room (1998-2000) contains a small stool arrayed with lipsticks and a mirror, and New Space for Showing Videos (1995) offers a series of connected modular spaces for individuals or pairs to watch documentation on monitors of Graham’s outdoor pavilions (though presumably any video could be screened).
Describing the pavilion Octagon for Münster (1987), Graham noted that its two-way mirror glass “deliberately alludes to the modern bank and administrative buildings’ facades in the surrounding city.”11 The glass and steel high-rises to which Graham’s mirrored outdoor pavilions refer are often at odds, visually and socioeconomically, with their surrounding communities. As Fredric Jameson famously noted of the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, “The glass skin repels the city outside” and “is not even an exterior, inasmuch as when you seek to look at the hotel’s outer walls you cannot see the hotel itself but only the distorted images of everything that surrounds it.”12 But projects such as Graham’s Rooftop Urban Park Project (1981/1991) for the Dia Center’s former exhibition space in Chelsea repurpose this ubiquitous reflective glass skin; the city is not repelled but brought closer, the combination of reflective and transparent glass framing shifting fragments of its skyline within an accessible, human-scale structure.
While the initial impact of work first realized in a magazine or as a performance can’t be recaptured in a conventional museum display, “Dan Graham: Beyond” is a lively and revelatory exhibition. And while Graham is still elusive, it is this very slipperiness that makes him vital. Discussing Conceptual art, he has noted, “I got out of the field almost immediately. I didn’t capitalize on it because I didn’t want to be a Conceptual artist. I usually go through things very fast. I like things that are early experiments or models, and what I didn’t want to do was to make a trademark of it.”13 This fast-paced experimentation, and refusal to stay within the lines of the art world, make for a retrospective that perhaps says as much about popular culture of the last 40 years as about Graham himself. The catalogue, full of interviews, the artist’s writings, photo documentation, well-chosen scholarly and curatorial essays, and even a “Manga Dan Graham Story” (by Fumihiro Nonomura and illustrated by Ken Tanimoto), does justice to the intellectual depth and sheer entertainment value of Graham’s oeuvre. It is an excellent supplement to an exhibition that honors a career of surpassing complexity and unapologetic contradiction.