by Allison Hewitt Ward
If Simone Leigh’s “The Waiting Room” succeeds as a work of art, it is entirely contrary to the artist’s expressed intentions. The work, which is currently on display at the New Museum, consists primarily of a room filled with a grid of meditation cushions awaiting use in care workshops. These sessions run a gamut of activities and topics, including meditation, acupuncture, massage, “Black Lives Matter” and “Afrocentricity,” which continue the artist’s efforts to address problems of racism and sexism. Others are scheduled throughout the run of the show (closing September 18). Sandbags are installed around the periphery, a visual clue to the show’s political intentions, and an adjacent room houses a pharmacy medicinal herbs attractively displayed in large glass jars.
In an accompanying broadsheet, distributed for free in the exhibition space, the show’s organizers (curator Johanna Burton, community programs manager Shaun Leonardo and director of education Emily Mello) claim for it two precedents. The first is the artist’s “Free People’s Medical Clinic,” which is documented in video at the exhibition’s rear. More community service than work of art, the “Medical Clinic” seems only to qualify as the latter by virtue of Leigh’s credentials as an artist. The merits of the clinic—the provision of healthcare and wellness services at no cost—can hardly be called into doubt. But the fact that what is essentially a charity clinic, an institution with a long practical history in the United States, becomes, in Leigh’s hands, an artwork betrays both the impotence of action and the uncertainty of art today. In “The Waiting Room” this problem is handily set aside by the project’s placement within the institution and its codification under the generously vague heading of socially engaged art.
Second, the organizers cite the museum’s pioneering display of the art of the AIDS crisis in 1987’s “Let the Record Show….” This engagement with “health justice” serves as the institutional precedent for “The Waiting Room.” They ask:
If a larger vision for change within political structures, to ensure that lives and health matters, cannot, or should not, be relegated to government alone, nor solely to activists whose outcry is too often met with being told to be patient and pragmatic, what might be the role of artists and art institutions?
By asking this question, they offer an affirmative answer to a more important one: do artists and art institutions have a direct role to play in political structures? In other words, they suggest that art institutions have a practical role to play in the reproduction of everyday life; a role necessitated by rigid conventional politics that appear impervious to the demands of real human needs. In “The Waiting Room” Leigh attempts to meet these needs with a hodgepodge of alternative medicine, spirituality and choreographed self-determination.
The marriage of identity politics and self-care is not terribly new. The logic goes that oppressed persons need to make special efforts to care for themselves and for each other. An assertion follows that such acts are themselves political, even radical—the museum calls this an “act of disobedience.” Of course, this is just another variant of the neoliberal cult of self-improvement, in which the individual is expected to acclimate to the order of things, attaining happiness and increased productivity in the process. Collective action and sweeping transformation are effectively anesthetized by mindfulness. A similar movement is seen in art: if aesthetics once sought to shock our senses, to undermine the status quo, much of the art of today hopes only to dull the pain.
The placement of activism in the museum context is also not novel. But until the late 20th century, this phenomenon took the form of artists’ antagonistic stances toward the institution. Even when their actions were sanctioned by museums, as in Hans Haacke’s MoMA Poll, artists did their best to undermine their hosts. The best work of this vein laid bare the financial, political and ideological structures that tied art museums to a broader social discourse. And it had enough respect for its viewer to do no more—to let him or her connect the dots.
By the 1990s the inheritors of these practices had become far less ambivalent. The troubled notion that arose in the 1960s that museums should and ought to be relevant was deployed with little interrogation. Alongside curators and museum directors, artist began to conceive of these institutions as community centers rather than antagonists (for example, Deller, Gillick, Tiravanija et al). At stake was the presence—or absence—of community, the possibility of exchange and the ideal of openness. Yet these works, often participatory, continued to interrogate the category of aesthetics. Even when they appeared rational and pragmatic, they were deployed irrationally.
“The Waiting Room” is remarkable for its lack of concern with its institutional home and its disregard for questions of aesthetics. Unlike the political art of the 1960s, it has no interest in interrogating the New Museum. And unlike the relational aesthetics artists (from whose contributions socially engaged art emerged), its gestures aim to be pragmatic. They are conceived as means (treatment) to an end (better health, and ultimately the elimination of sexism and racism). In this dual break with its forefathers, “The Waiting Room” makes apparent a reality that these prior efforts obscured: when real political action appears impossible, the present conditions all too intractable, political desires find a comfortable home in immured museum galleries. There, the distinction between art and politics is collapsed and desire can be expressed in an ineffective way. Responsibility and possibility are indefinitely suspended.
Thus while “The Waiting Room” purports to be a political agent, it truly is a museum piece. The desire, even the necessity, it seeks to express is left to do nothing more than collect dust. Guided meditations, acupuncture and free massage will never create political consciousness or effect qualitative change. In the museum context these gestures neatly crystalize an inability to do so.
It is when we realize the obvious—that no policy will be changed and no sickness will be cured by what transpires in this museum—that the piece succeeds in spite of itself. Rather than the anesthetization of action (its ultimate pragmatic function), it appears as the aestheticization of a form of inaction, made available to the senses as an object of critique.