Bill Burns looks at the big picture in Beatrix Ruf
by Gregory Beatty
Beatrix Ruf Protect Us: A Project About Longing
Until Jan. 18
Periodically, stats are released on the average income of Canadian artists. It’s not always easy to calculate, because artists do all sorts of things to survive. They teach, host workshops, have day-jobs with arts organizations, wait tables, bartend, all sorts of things. But when you “drill down” you find that income earned from art practice is around $12,000 a year — which is damn depressing.
Also periodically, news stories appear about artists such as Damien Hirst, Peter Doig or Gerhard Richter selling one of their creations — usually at auction in London or New York — for millions of dollars. Prices like that used to be reserved for deceased masters such as van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso and others. But in recent years, fed by billionaire collectors such as Steve Cohen, Eli Broad and François Pinault, the contemporary art market has exploded.
Artists who sell into that market make fantastic sums while the vast majority of their brethren earn peanuts. Similar disparities exist elsewhere, of course — sports and entertainment being prime examples. But typically, the arts pride themselves on principles of equality and inclusivity.
Historically, too, art and money have always had an uneasy relationship. Many times artists who are now acknowledged as masters were dismissed by collectors and dealers when they were alive. Conventional wisdom is that they were so far ahead of the times that few could appreciate them. Artists who were commercially successful, conversely, are often forgotten now.
But these days, with consumer capitalism entrenched as a veritable religion, and money the prime arbiter of value, the market exerts a major influence on the art world.
In Beatrix Ruf Protect Us: A Project About Longing, Bill Burns dissects that influence. Curated by Jennifer Matotek and Stuart Reid, the exhibition consists of some framed watercolours, video, photography, installation, and six bobblehead dolls.
“I’m not an expert, but it seems that the structure of the marketplace has changed,” says Burns. “Now, most of the business of art takes place at five or six international art fairs. The structure of some galleries has changed significantly too. They’ve instituted the law firm model, so there’s partners and associates. Basically, everyone is in sales. A partner might sell $5 to $10 million a year, an associate might be $1 million. And if you don’t meet those targets you’re probably out the door.
“A lot of this show has to do with the marketplace, and galleries like Gagosian that do a billion dollars of business every year. It’s not the kind of sweet world where people live in garrets. The mythologies are confusing and inaccurate. That’s something I’m trying to point out, and that the art world isn’t necessarily different from other parts of the capitalist economy. And the world can be unfair.”
Before you dismiss Burns’ observation as sour grapes, remember that he more than qualifies as a successful artist. Born and raised in Regina, he currently divides his time between Toronto and London, and has been exhibiting commercially and in major public galleries and biennials since the mid-1990s.
In 2012, Burns was one of 60 artists in a survey of Canadian art organized by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art called Oh, Canada. In that exhibit, he presented several paper models of famous international museums such as Tate Modern (London), Guggenheim (Bilbao) and Pompidou Centre (Paris).
From an architectural perspective, the models critique the idea of showcase galleries, where famous architects design iconic buildings that are then promoted as tourist attractions. But that wasn’t the extent of Burns’ critique. Atop each gallery he installed a tiny sign invoking the name of an international art personality and asking for their protection and support.
“Partly I’m sincere about it, and partly I’m just messing around, because you’re not supposed to make direct calls like that,” says Burns.
At the 2013 Miami Art Fair, Burns took to the sky to plead his case. Apparently, in Miami it’s common to use airplane banners to advertise. So Burns arranged for a plane to fly around with a banner reading: Glenn Lowry Remember Me.
Lowry headed Art Gallery of Ontario from 1990-95, where he was perhaps aware of Burns and his work. In 1995, he was appointed director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which is definitely “one per cent” territory in the art world.
During an opening night talk at the Dunlop, Burns recounted how through a person he knew who knew Lowry, he learned that Lowry had actually seen the banner flying in Miami. With Beatrix Ruf Protect Us, Burns has taken his MassMOCA idea a step further and built a large wooden and orange plastic sign that could conceivably be mounted on a gallery. It reads: Okwui Enwezor Graciously Guide Us.
Enwezor is director of the prestigious Venice Biennale. Along with Beatrix Ruf (Kunsthalle Zurich), Hans Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine Gallery, London), Adam Weinberg (Whitney, New York), Hou Hanru (MAXXI, Rome), and RoseLee Goldberg (Performa Festival, New York), he has a bobblehead in the show.
In two other pieces, Burns broadens his kitsch celebrity critique from director/curators to other influential figures: dealers, collectors, top-rank artists. One consists of a pile of 100 logs — each carved with the name of an art world luminary. In the second, he’s embroidered some of the same names on cheap work gloves.
“The names are all from the Power 100 list from Art Review,” says Burns. “When they rank them, they even show what they were the year before. So it’s like a hockey draft, but it’s for the art world, and people take it quite seriously.”
How do you judge great art, anyway? It’s an inherently subjective process, and in a capitalist economy, says Burns, it can be fueled by what early 20th century American economist Thorstein Veblen dubbed “conspicuous consumption.” When something is deemed status-worthy, people actually clamor to pay more to show off their wealth.
“The Veblen good is an interesting model for how the art world operates,” says Burns. “[Critic] David Hickey calls the art market the last casino. He says things that happen there would be considered felony offences in business or the stock market. It’s really unregulated, and that explains the inflation that’s occurred in the contemporary art market.”
Again, it’s worth emphasizing this isn’t sour grapes. In 1996, Burns even got a shout-out in a Simpsons’ episode for his Safety Gear for Small Animals project where he made tiny hard-hats, gloves, vests and other gear to help animals survive the environmental assault we’re mounting on their habitats.
That’s a pretty impressive claim to fame. Although it’s not mentioned in the watercolours Burns has on display. They’re from an upcoming book project, and function like pages in a storybook.
“All the stories are more or less true, although the chronologies might be mixed up,” says Burns. “Some are stories about my adventures with curators, and the kind of meddling that institutions might do with my work.”
One drawing, he recounts, has the text: “‘The curator made it clear that local content would be looked on favourably.’ That was in the Yukon, so I did a picture of The Call of the Wild.”
During our interview, Burns described the stories as self-aggrandizing. But in person, he’s soft-spoken with a Buddhist temperament (reinforced by a shaved head) that enables him to remain sanguine about the world he operates in.
Still, Burns does wield a deft satiric lance — poignantly demonstrating his longing to join the elite, as in a 2013 video work, where he documents arrangements he made to be paged with an art heavyweight at airports in Paris (curator Catherine David), Vancouver (artist Jeff Wall) and Helsinki (Beatrix Ruf again), before inserting the needle.
“Ideas about merit are used as a disguise for inequity,” he says. “It gets me riled sometimes. I think it’s a guise for treating some people better than others, and giving them more resources and attention. Basically, everyone who isn’t in Art Forum is groveling for crumbs. And the people who are regularly in those magazines and in international museums are making pretty good money.
“I’m not sure if a completely socialized art production is that productive either,” Burns admits. “There are trade-offs, but it would be nice if the middle of the pie was bigger. If you go to Scandinavia, and most of Europe, you do find more opportunities to make a decent living. But in Canada, even very well-known artists aren’t wealthy.”