The recombination of image and text has seen a surge in contemporary artistic practice. The exhibition Descriptive Acts, on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from February 18 through June 17, 2012, highlights this phenomenon with a selection of recent acquisitions by Aurélien Froment, Dora García, and Tris Vonna-Michell, contextualized by contemporary works by Anthony Discenza, Shilpa Gupta, Lynn Marie Kirby, and Li Xiaofei as well as a 1976 work by John Smith.
Involving film, video, text, performance, installation, photography, and audio, the works in the exhibition all reflect the artists’ interest in process-based and performative practices. These “descriptive acts,” shown in two consecutive configurations curated by Rudolf Frieling, SFMOMA curator of media arts, are acts of mediation. Some are presented as performative installations that involve an open structure, others as carefully framed reflections on their temporary identity.
“These artists try to grasp language as a fundamental way of addressing the world, but at the same time they exhibit the futility and precariousness of that effort,” says Frieling. The works by Smith, Froment, Vonna-Michell, and Gupta variously use recorded speech in relation to visual representation, while Discenza, García, and Kirby and Li focus on our text-based online presence, hinting at the political and social conditions of our access to online global communication. Whether spoken or written, these artists’ uses of text foreground the complex and often fraught processes of description, narration, translation, and communication. They do so using a strikingly broad range of technologies to achieve their ends.
The exhibition also reflects “contemporary and more conceptual concerns with performance and performativity,” says Frieling. Vonna-Michell’s practice, here represented by GTO hahn/huhn, variation 1 (2010), includes live performance—he is tentatively scheduled to perform at the exhibition opening—but as part of a larger, ongoing process of documenting, archiving, and time-shifted storytelling. García’s Instant Narrative (2006–8) and Kirby and Li’s Diary (2010) “perform” the development of texts over time: the former in the act of live creation, the latter after the fact, documenting a conversation that gradually evolves into the work itself. Other works, like Froment’s Pulmo Marina (2010) and Discenza’s Untitled (The Effect) (2010), consider notions of staging, spectacle, and the ways in which methods of display—including museum display—generate effects and construct meaning.
The presentation of the exhibition in two “acts” references the traditional construction of a stage play, but without the sense of narrative progression usually associated with theater. While the works on view will change, the themes will not, and—as in many of the works themselves—the “story” will remain unresolved.