By Bart Gazzola
There’s elements reminiscent of the arcane book The Golden Bough in Bill Burns’ exhibition Hans Ulrich Obrist Hear Us: symbol and ritual are a factor in experiencing this show, and even though there’s a playfulness to the stories behind his art, there’s also a campy seriousness (if such a term is possible). One of the best titles is Those Who Helped me, Those Who Have Wronged Me, Those In Whom I still Hold Hope and Goat Milking information (a fairly accurate description of the piece, I might add). There’s dry humour here: perhaps Burns is continuing in his role as court jester in the larger art world, as a work like Okwul Enwezor Graciously Guide Us (a mixed media sign that is 28 feet long, shiny orange letters spelling out that litany, on elaborate scaffolding, like a roadside sign of worship along the highway) is surely complimentary to the curator of the Venice Biennial (can one get closer to divinity, in the art world than that?). But it’s also an ingratiation that’s tinged with anger… I’m reminded of Caesar being stabbed by his former acolytes, on the public floor of the Senate….
Before my hyperbole gets (more) out of hand, let us quote the gallery didactic: Hans Ulrich Obrist Hear Us “deals with longing, particularly longing for success, for assistance, for recognition, for a different type of world. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Burns makes overt pleas to art world celebrities, critiquing the politics of power that support them. The artist creates small-scale models of the world’s great museums with rooftop signs spelling out his request to curatorial luminaries. The pleas take the form of a litany: “priez pour nous”, “protect us”, “délivrez-nous”, “hear us.” Burns has met and worked with many of the curators he references through his expansive career in conceptual art in São Paulo, Toronto, London, and New York. In another nod to his powerful peers, the artist has created a series of small bobble-head likenesses that directly address notions of commodification within the contemporary art ecology”.
Frankly, when Bill spoke of — and interacted with — Talismans and childhood ephemera (forthcoming) in the middle lower gallery space, handling the pillow with the special stick with a famous and powerful curator’s name carved on it, joking (or not) how he sleeps with said stick the eve before any important meeting, he charmed me. His work also acknowledges the envy and resentment as unspoken elements felt by many of us trying to make our way in the Arts. His success, in both the Canadian and larger art world, lends a weight to these musings. When he presents works like Hans Ulrich Obrist Priez Pour Nous, Glen Lowry Remember Me, Hou Hanru Hear Us, Iwona Blazwick Entrege me, Adam Weinberg Help Me, Beatrix Ruf watch Over Us, Eli Broad, Sta. Cohen Protect Us, and his appropriating of Biblical or Abrahamic evocations like Psalm 137 (“If I forget thee, oh Jerusalem…”) or Psalm 69 (“save me, Oh Lord, for the waters are come in unto my soul”), we can all share in that voice. Returning to Those Who Have Wronged Me, I now hear Old Testament admonition: “Whoever’s been unjust, let him be unjust still. Whoever is righteous, let him be righteous still. Whoever is filthy, let him be filthy still.”
But here he (we?) prays to the Top 100 from Art Review Magazine, the undisputed power brokers of the monolith that is the international art world. A work Burns dismissed as “boring” — The Bill Burns Show (Part 2) — comprises three black and white monitors of various international travel hubs in which he had himself paged in tandem with several of the elite from the Art Review list. Other works are more personal: such as the The Post-It Note, or Body Language. The first is about a meeting with a curator from the Power Plant in Toronto, wherein after much arrangement and exacerbation on Burns’ part, that upon his arrival for said meeting at the PP on a cold, blustery day, he was handed a post it note with a scrawled dismissive alibi of that the curator “is in a meeting.” Body Language is about a certain kind of dread when encountering a curator / director who is as assured of their own importance as they are of their power over the artist who comes to pay obeisance in hopes of favour, like a meeting with your boss that will likely result in your downsizing (the black opaque silhouette, the joke that Burns made about body language with a stereotypical Germanic fierceness..). Salty Licorice and the Helsinki Photo Biennial is almost cute, in its back story of shared salty licorice between Burns and someone whom claimed to be able to curate him into that Biennial, but misled him… might I compare it to that horrible serial dater who intentionally misled suitors (even exploiting a Jewish dating site) for expensive meals?
This has barely scratched the surface of Bill’s work: and his humour shouldn’t distract from the meticulous nature of his work, such as the domed miniatures like Francois Pinault / Guggenheim Bilbao or Iwona Blazwick / Guggenheim. The bobble-heads are wonderful art objects that shouldn’t be dismissed because satire and sarcasm are just as much part of their making as resin stone. Burns’ work offers multiple points of entry and understanding: you can take delight in his humour, or in the objects he’s created, as even in his sardonic nature there is an appreciation of the world he teases.
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.