The Fussy Eye: Pillows, Paper, and Straw

The best kind of conceptual art confounds you, confronts you, and possibly even annoys you before the dawning smile of an idea. Maybe not the idea, not precisely what the artist has in mind, but close. At least in the same room. Otherwise you feel cheated, or stupid, or both. And there is a lot of room in the installation What Have We Done by Jason Dodge. He has the entire big basement gallery at his disposal, and he’s done very little with it. There are just eight little stations to visit, and the most impressive objects are four one-ton rolls of newsprint that will wind up in the presses of The Seattle Times. During his October visit, Dodge said his work explores “the way we do or don’t leave marks with things that exist in the world. What do we leave our breath on? What do we touch?” For instance, three piles of pillows on the floor that were previously used by acrobats and ornithologists. (They look exactly the same, BTW.) So there’s a lingering trace, maybe a smell, but mainly just the implied and specific history of use. The newsprint is going in the other direction: blank now, destined to be used. But what about the paper’s history, I asked Dodge, was it recycled from something or straight from the wood pulp? He didn’t know, curiously indifferent to the provenance of his material. The largest notional installation is called the living: an entirely empty room with some bits of straw and animal hair on the floor. “The other day,” said Dodge, “this gallery was filled with about 20 farm animals.” Really, what kind? Dodge was coy in reply. “The idea is you putting them here.” So we’re supposed to imagine the goats or chickens or whatever creatures breathed the same air and left their droppings on the floor. But the problem here—and this is true of most conceptual art, not unique to Dodge—is that once you get the idea, or are in the same room with it, there has to be something interesting to look at. And pillows, paper, straw, and a few light bulbs are not. (Contrast that with, say, the work of Chris Burden.) All that’s left is the lingering smell of bullshit. Henry Art Gallery, 4100 15th Ave. N.E. (UW campus), 543-2280, $6–$10. 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Wed., Sat., & Sun.; 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Thurs.–Fri. Ends Jan. 26.

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