"Many Happy Returns"
Exhibition essay for Happy Birthday
by Nuit Banai

First solo shows typically introduce a cumulative body of work. The five works in Happy BirthdayHappy Birthday to Mrs. X, Happy Birthday from Nuit, Happy Birthday from Ed, Happy Birthday to Ed, and Happy Birthday to Jen, all 2008—in contrast, highlight the constitution of artistic meaning via the collaborative dance among collector, critic, gallerist, artist and, though unnamed, the public. Rather than discrete objects for contemplation or purchase (the gallery is empty save for a single statue of the gallerist, Ed Winkleman, nude, behind a column), the exhibition comprises traces of interactions and transactions that may have taken place or that promise to occur. It is within this peculiar temporality and the intersubjective relations among the protagonists that Christopher K. Ho complicates one dominant account of post-war art and locates the conditions of contemporary art.

Happy Birthday’s genealogy can be traced to the cultural and socio-political upheavals of the 1960s. In the span of a short decade, the transformation of the modernist “work of art” into the postmodern “discursive site” irrevocably unmoored the locus of aesthetic meaning.  With the simultaneous appearance of performance, conceptual art, and institutional critique, the self contained, visually determined and materially bound work of art was replaced by a dispersed, analytic, and contingent site that could not be singled out from the capitalist flows of mass production and consumption. This decentering not only grafted aesthetic meaning onto spaces, ideologies, and gestures that were once beyond art’s purview, but also crystallized the difficulty of locating the source and criteria of aesthetic value. This is Happy Birthday’s point of departure.

One residue of a past transaction is a small red dot that appears every time the show’s title is mentioned, suggesting that the entire exhibition has been pre-purchased. Happy Birthday to Mrs. X transforms the codes of art consumption into the content of an art exhibition; the dialectic between a collector’s purchasing power and the value of the work become the subject matter. Yet, because the gallery is virtually empty, it is unclear what was purchased. Does the collector own the rights to the exhibition’s title? Or does she have possession of all the printed matter (wall text, catalogue, press release, invitation), as well as unforeseen incidents that transpire during the exhibition’s run? Moreover, did the exhibition once contain objects to which the collector had privileged and prior access? The dot positions the general public as always-already belated, always- already having missed the show.

No matter what was exchanged, or whether there was an exchange at all, Happy Birthday to Mrs. X points to the artist and collector’s mutual validation. The former provides the latter with an opportunity to make explicit his or her ability to participate in the art market, thus revealing economic wherewithal, social stratum, and aesthetic discernment. In turn, the collector anoints the artist with public legitimacy and increased marketability. The “umbilical cord of gold” between art and commerce is as evident today as it was during institutional critique’s high noon, yet the intimacy and seamlessness of relations demand new approaches. Accordingly, in place of the didactic, sometimes bombastic, modes of critique deployed by Daniel Buren and Hans Haacke, Happy Birthday’s tenor is reflexive, descriptive, and often humorous. It proposes a third option that is neither cynical (defeatist) nor critical (doomed).

Underpinning this third option is the assertion that if institutional critique can occur at all, it will not be through object production. In removing the material object altogether, Happy Birthday suggests that aesthetic meaning and value can now coalesce anywhere, including in an empty space, a linguistic utterance, a concept or any other platform. This observation is developed in Happy Birthday from Nuit, a transaction between artist and gallerist whose only trace exists in its retelling by the critic. Instead of a linguistic description of an object on view, as is usually the case, the critic is charged with bearing witness to the artist’s purchase of the gallery before the exhibition’s opening and his gifting it back to the owner after its closing with a $30,000 value increase:

I, Nuit Banai, art historian and critic, confirm that Christopher K. Ho acquired Winkleman Gallery at 637 West 27th Street, New York, NY 10001 on the 11 January 2008, and gifted it back to its original owner, Ed Winkleman, on 8 February 2008. Having hosted Christopher K. Ho’s solo exhibition during this time, the gallery’s value increased by $30,000.  

This testimony from a voice of (alleged) authority not only begs the question of whether the event actually happened, but, more importantly, what function it plays in the authentication of the aesthetic. Can a work exist solely through the critic’s description? Is the critic’s word more credible than the artist’s? What is the significance of the claim that the gallery increased in value (despite the fact that Happy Birthday consists of only one quasi-traditional art object)? This possibly fraudulent mise-en-scène, reminiscent of Yves Klein, leads to two contradictory implications, pointing at once to the artist’s “presence” (merely as brand name) as sufficient collateral for the amplification of a gallery’s worth, and to the critic’s “aura” (also a floating signifier of power) as the arbiter of meaning. Yet unlike Klein and other predecessors, the legal document that authenticates this transaction is not proffered for scrutiny. Once again, value and meaning escape the logic of the nominal, administrative, or legalistic, and emerge instead out of overlapping discourses.

The third protagonist in Happy Birthday is the owner and director of the gallery, Ed Winkleman. A 1:1 statue of Winkleman in his birthday suit lurks behind a column. Made out of coated and sanded polyurethane and painted gray to match both floor and walls, Happy Birthday from Ed pays homage, tongue-in-cheek, to the gallery’s patriarch. Recalling an archaic Greek kouros, it links Winkleman to a lost aristocratic ideal. At once alluding to origins (of Western sculpture) and conclusions (the statues of young men guarded graves), Happy Birthday from Ed is nevertheless of the present. As the title suggests, Winkleman bestows a unique gift by supporting an artist’s first solo exhibition. Happy Birthday from Ed’s companion piece, Happy Birthday to Ed, responds to this career—and potentially life—altering gift by retroactively pricing past work and promising that future sales will be split between the artist and the gallery. In keeping with Happy Birthday’s emphasis on art’s discursive identity, the only record of the piece appears in the catalogue, as a credit line under each caption (“Courtesy Winkleman Gallery”), newly conferred prices and dimensions (in US dollars and in inches), and in appended dates (“/2008”).

Two interrelated issues underpin Happy Birthday from Ed and Happy Birthday to Ed’s seemingly benevolent gestures. The first is that the previous works are mostly site specific and made for alternative, non-profit venues. Since many of these works only exist as photographic documents, if at all, the question of integration into the conventions of a commercial gallery arises. As Happy Birthday to Ed suggests, the most pragmatic answer to this problem is to retrospectively re-brand these ephemeral works by giving them price and pedigree. The second issue emerges precisely from this paradox of inscribing such non-commodifiable works into a commercial framework. Historically, sited works aimed to resist facile commodification by refusing to circulate as goods in the market. Happy Birthday to Ed’s retroactive inscription into the commercial context highlights the most serious problem for such non-commercial artists. Works do not “exist” if they are not sold by galleries and, in order to be sold, they need to be transformed into manageable, easily identifiable commodities. The work implicitly challenges Winkleman and other galleries to find an adequate, appropriate means to commodify such art, and thus maintain its longevity and legitimacy without undermining its conceptual basis.

The fifth piece is Happy Birthday to Jen, a 40th birthday party organized for Jennifer Dalton, an artist Winkleman Gallery represents, on the same night and at the same time as Happy Birthday’s opening. This double celebration, publicized on either side of the exhibition’s invitation, conflates one artist’s debut with another’s self-designated transformation into a “mature artist.” Happy Birthday to Jen suggests that both the birthday party and the art opening rest on similar principles. They are largely self-initiated and commemorate the “birth” or “emergence” of a unique subjectivity or artistic statement. Yet the obvious “production” of both events, within the unspoken context of the art market, also implies that a constellation of contingent forces generates an artist’s identity and, of course, endows meaning and value to their work; the myth of the individual author and the singular art object emerges from the reciprocally validating (and profitable) interaction between artists, gallerist, collector, and critic.

While the other players in this collaborative dance each have something consecrated to them, the public’s presence and participation cannot be overlooked. Indeed, it is the assembly of public witnesses who share, document, and animate Happy Birthday to Jen. Much like Yves Klein’s The Void (1958), the locus of aesthetic experience shifts from the precincts of the self-contained object to that of the institutional framework and the public. In this dematerialization, the dispositifs that condition art practice are made visible and the public is charged with activating the space around them. In this context of the highly ideological configuration that constitutes Happy Birthday, might we hope that “spontaneous” or “authentic” occurrences could prevail? Could the elimination of traditional art objects create alternative conditions for public enunciation? It is an arena explored by recent relational practices, but it is Klein’s more rigorous practice that Happy Birthday extends.

If we are to learn anything from Klein, it is that the conditions of possibility for a model of distributive authorship can be generated even within the mechanisms of ideological control that constitute spectacle culture. Indeed, practicing in a “post-Situationist” condition, and using the commercial gallery as a microcosm, Ho begins from the recognition that spectacle has become “naturalized,” making it impossible to criticize it from a position of exteriority. Working from within spectacle’s parameters, then, Ho’s task is to reveal his own implication within its mass-media apparatus and reflect on the degree to which both subjects and objects are formed by its mechanisms. In this context, Ho’s almost totally denuded room disseminates authorship even farther afield than Klein, who maintained the authority of the artist as the essential entity that could control the parameters of the spatially situated event. Ho not only gives up any notion of the integral author, but decenters the work and its meaning into an expanded field of mass-culturally produced protagonists, techniques, and supplements that simultaneously articulate, maintain, and subvert the logic of capital by both instantiating and continuously deferring it. In the face of such deterritorialization, the question poised at the horizon is how the artist’s second exhibition will or will not extend this sited-discursive/sightless-spectacular intervention.