Imagine you are Beatrice (you can be whoever you want to be). Now imagine that Hal Foster has led you on a tour of Dante’s Inferno and you see Tantalus sucking on a Diet Coke. That is what Sturtevant feels like.
Approach the Serpentine Gallery cross country and you might spy a regiment of plastic blowjob dolls pressed mournfully up against the glass panes, looking very much like the cast of Pasolini’s Salò wallowing in a Neoclassical fish tank. But what exactly are they trying to escape from, the art? To the show: In many ways, this exhibition is a condensed tour of 20th-century art – albeit a Las Vegas-style, facsimile version… Just to be clear, that last line has been [lifted/hijacked/appropriated] from Alastair Smart’s review of Sturtevant: Leaps Jumps and Bumps published in The Telegraph on 30th June 2013. It is both usefully indicative of the work (the ‘tour’ bit) and an example of a pejorative line of criticism we can dispense with right now. Instead of writing this show off as a bite-size historical simulacrum dreamt up by Baudrillard (a.k.a. not Sturtevant), let’s think about what happens when you re-people an event that has in some unnerving way already past its expiry date.
An original thing to know about this artist is that she has never displayed a wholly original work, ever. This makes it hard to talk about Elaine Sturtevant’s output in terms of objects. If anything, the object you see in front of you – whether it be a reproduced Andy Warhol silkscreen or an adulterated Duchamp – is only really the ‘cashing in’ of an original ‘Untitled’ [Original] that is itself gapingly denied. In critical actuality, the surrounding work falls closer to event. Still, we are not invited to participate in anything other than a menagerie of aesthetically prostrate objects. It is like rocking up to an avant-garde Bar Mitzvah, only to find that the party is already over and the guests have all gone home: you decide to take a seat anyway.
The first thing you notice as you walk through the doors is Félix Gonzáles-Torres’ light strings. Brilliant, FGT always wanted these to be moved around and left hanging whichever way… If retroactive curatorial recuperation is an option here, it is certainly not made to be attractive. The bulbs spill out in fat piles that light up a low-res JPEG of an owl, serially smeared up and down the walls. Skirting around this botched interior design job (it is OK to say Art is something other than itself), you now come up against Elastic Tango (2010). An inverted pyramid of monitors mimetically beams forth spliced images, crosscuts, verbal breaks and affect siphoned off from other works around the show. It looks a little like the Holy Trinity mutating into a schizophrenic talking head that can’t process its own post-internet jingles.
Objecthood veers close in this room. Nineteen monitors, some boxy, some flat, converse behind the backs of sixteen Italianate, hairy-chested dolls. Shut your eyes and you hear (simultaneously) a gaming arcade; a 90s breakbeats compilation, cartoon laughter and, from the following room, the drugged thump of a nightclub. No wonder the Sex Dolls (2012) want to bust out, they’ve watched too much television. Hal Foster turns round and calls this a clean death: I don’t get the joke.
To enter Room 3 (the club) you must first walk past Warhol and Duchamp, who muscle in like two NeoCon executors (the bouncers) checking to see whether you know them (the I.D.). Looking around, the sunny park crowd looks mostly confused. Walk through: a 360º rotating projection of a criminal burlesqued by Joseph Beuys and later filched by Sturtevant lags dolefully behind the beat. Is Dillinger Running Series (2000) really just the metabolic vertigo of an art history consuming its own Style, like Ouroboros and its tail?
Finite Infinite (2010), the final work of this show, peacefully capitalizes on this anxiety. A dog sprints blithely across four projectors ad infinitum. With every looped repetition, the spectacle’s rhythms tighten and harden into an allegory that, like Sturtevant’s show, willfully proves the double paradox of witnessing after the event: the desire to reclaim and the need to mourn.