For weeks before the opening of Shahryar Nashat and Bruce Hainley’s show at the Renaissance Society, the only information critics and the public had from the duo was a candid photo of Robert Pattinson snapped sitting outside, eating pizza. At some point the two substituted a couple more photos of Pattinson pulled from Instagram, images we understand to be operating in lieu of a title for their show.
Although undoubtedly designed to provoke, the images-as-title offered plenty of clues as to what the show might be about. Celebrity, social media, humor and play, reality (or its simulation), the body were all issues at play in the gesture. Refusing the convention of an exhibition title also hinted at the artists’ broader interest in challenging art’s conventions and that is, perhaps, the aspect of the chaotic show at the Ren that is most readily apparent.
In what has become typical practice for artists playing with the Ren’s space, Nashat and Hainley have retrofitted the gallery entrance, installing a work by the artist who goes by the name Puppies Puppies, consisting of a bright, almost garish set of green spotlights and a beaded curtain visitors must pass through to enter the space. On either side of the entranceway a set of speakers projects a robotic voice thanking the participating artists, including Robert Pattinson, as though announcing the performers about to grace a stage.
The show itself contains little of Nashat and Hainley’s own work, consisting instead of the work of others, although the two decidedly reject the notion that it is a group show.
A rarely shown video work by Larry Clark plays across three monitors which are triangulated above a small oil painting by Karen Kilimnik featuring the outline of a woman’s face stripped of defining features. There are other images of faceless heads on view in the space. Directly across from the Clark and Kilimnik are two identical prints by Larry Johnson which feature sketches of what the title tells us is Chelsea Manning’s face in varying states of completion. In another corner, Marie Laurencin’s “Head of a Young Woman” from 1926, borrowed from the Art Institute, is installed across from a stage upon which pole dancers hired from Fly Club Chicago will perform every hour the gallery is open.
The dancers, as well as a number of other works on view, challenge the art world’s definition of art and artist as well as what happens to a body when it is no longer the property of its owner, as Hainley put it in an artist talk.
TikTok figures prominently. A series of curated, regularly updated TikTok videos play on a loop on three smartphones installed in multiple positions on a plastic-covered work table. The videos, some of which are funny, some more troubling, also play on a small speaker, their sound occasionally erupting to take over the larger speakers at the gallery entrance. In a crawlspace-like area cut out of one gallery wall, visitors can step inside to watch videos of two livestreams, one of kittens sleeping and another, from Twitch featuring Sleeping Pig’s livestream of, unsurprisingly, a sleeping body. Both livestreams, as well as the dancers, and a range of other collaborators (again including Robert Pattinson) are credited in the gallery’s exhibition checklist.
As this description indicates the show is a lot, both visually and aurally. It is full of activity and it feels vibrant as it engages, appropriately, the entirety of the visitor’s body and sensorium. Stepping into the show is overwhelming. I didn’t know where to start, what to look at first. I was, as Nashat and Hainley no doubt imagined, continually returning my attention to the dancers and getting distracted by the fragmented soundtrack bumping from the gallery’s speakers. Much like our experience online, I walked around the space several times before I could focus my attention on a single work. There is much that could be said about the show’s commentary on ownership, the fine line between tragedy and comedy, art and non-art, between looking and being looked at. But perhaps the most salient statement the two are making is the way in which the Internet is the primary culprit responsible for destroying these lines altogether.
Shahryar Nashat and Bruce Hainley at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 5811 South Ellis, Cobb Hall, 4th Floor, on view through July 2.