If the Walker Art Center’s The Quick and the Dead is an art exhibit masquerading as a funhouse, the accompanying volume, edited by exhibit curator Peter Eleey and published by the Walker, is an exhibit catalog masquerading as an artwork. It’s a worthy document of an extraordinary exhibition.
The Quick and the Dead, the book, doesn’t look (or, happily, cost) a thing like the coffee-table slabs that accompany most art exhibits. It’s the size and shape of a hardbound novel, circa the middle of the 20th century. Inside, though, it’s a cabinet of wonders.
The volume performs its appointed task of presenting photographs and concise descriptions of the several dozen pieces that constitute the exhibit, which explores the themes of time and space as addressed by artists of a conceptual bent. The photos are attractive and the write-ups—by Eleey, Daniel Byers, and Andria Hickey—are adequate, though a bit overwritten. They’re supplemented by Eleey’s long essay on the exhibit as well as related pieces by writers including Oliver Sacks (on the neurological perception of time and space), Theodor Andorno (on Valéry, Proust, and the idea of the museum), and John McPhee (on historical geology).
The book is structured to mirror the exhibit, with its first pages devoted to the pieces at one end of the exhibit and its last pages devoted to the pieces at the other. As read from cover to cover, a book itself is a distortion of time and space—the reader proceeds from one physical end of the book to the other over a particular length of time, which may be elongated or shrunk by the rate at which the book is read—and The Quick and the Dead is designed to tweak the reader’s awareness of this fact. The book’s font size grows as the reader proceeds toward the book’s center, and along with the conventional page numbers, the alphabet is spelled out in tiny block letters at the bottom of 26 pages spaced evenly across the book’s length.
What I like best about the exhibit is equally true of the book. While clearly the product of Eleey’s vast erudition and cunning curatorial eye, the exhibit also assays the limits of human understanding, presenting a challenge to the very idea of there being a final explanation or definition of anything. You can read the book’s text and appreciate that yes, there is a design here, there is a coherent intelligence linking all the exhibit’s elements into an ambitious argument about art and the museum and their roles in human experience—but piece after piece, idea after idea, image after image open doors into the infinite, letting all the air out of the authors’ elaborate intellectual constructions. The result is a kind of cognitive vertigo: everything makes sense, but nothing makes sense.
The Quick and the Dead is an incredibly meaty exhibit (in a few pieces, literally so) that gives a viewer from any background a lot to think about—but especially in sum, the pieces are Teflon to criticism. You can’t explain them any more than you can explain what space is, or how time works. You can, however, talk about them, and this book is bound to be a conversation starter.
Jay Gabler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.
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