Responsibility in the State of Art

Ben DeSoto, Untitled (Urban Poverty Series), 1980-1992, silver gelatin and c-prints with collage. Installation view of 11th Hour at Diverse Works, 2013. Photo: Max Fields.

Written by Max Fields

On the night of September 6, I was making way across town doing what most of the Houston art crowd was doing: trying to catch about ten openings in two hours. Of course, this hardly works, no one sees them all, and we miss a lot of the opportunities to see the artists in person, listen to the curator make opening statements, and we miss the artisanal cocktails that sometimes accompany the celebrations. On this night, my plan was to catch Wayne White’s exhibition Dunno at David Shelton Gallery, hit DiverseWorks, and then hurry over to the Blaffer to catch a bit of Feast. I started strong, making the Wayne White exhibition, but missed seeing some of art’s biggest names and the special Fallen Fruit cocktails at Feast due to the unexpected treasure-trove that was the open archive of DiverseWorks’ political ephemera and artwork from the art space’s recent past. I had a fantastic night out. I saw great exhibitions and on Monday I discussed the exhibitions with my co-workers – a pretty routine weekend for me. But, this article isn’t exactly about those shows.  

While walking to DiverseWorks from Dunno, I was browsing through my Instagram feed, looking to see how things were going around the rest of the city, when I came across a beautiful snap shot of one of Olaf Breuning’s ‘Smoke Bomb’ performances, taken at the opening reception of the ultra spectacle art show, Station to Station in New York. Bursting from the tips of smoke bombs, clouds of reds and blues collide in plumes of purples, yellows and greens as the lights from halogen lamps reflect and disperse a radiant shower of rainbows creating an illusion of what I can only describe resembles a floating celestial sky-scape, passing through clumsy looking pieces of metal tubes, ladders, and barricades. It is as ambiguous in meaning at first glance as it is spectacular and inspiring. I clicked the off switch on my phone, walked into DW, and I didn’t look at that photo for another two weeks when I picked up last month’s copy of Artforum to find the magnificent two-page spread advertising the Station to Station exhibition.

Olaf Bruening's Smoke Bomb Performance, 2013. Installation view at Station to Station, NYC. Photo: Jia Jia Fei.

            The ad with its large vignette of a rail yard printed in under-saturated golden hues fills the shape of the U.S. and folds into the magazine’s gutter. Alongside America is a list of artists participating in the exhibition, starting with its organizer, Doug Aitken, then a list of all-star musical performance groups set to perform during the exhibition, a moving image list, a curated food section, a printed works section, and most importantly a list of where and when you could catch the show: New York City, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Minneapolis, Santa Fe/ Lamy, Winslow, Barstow, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In each city this massive boutique train stops, it unloads the contents of crate after crate of artworks, materials for building temporary art tents, stages for performances, lectures and panel discussions, and tables for finding printed matter. It’s an incredible amount of work and the organizers, curators, artists, sponsors, and cultural partners (museums) involved made damn sure that it would draw a huge crowd and be the spectacle of the night in every town to which it came. While talking to a co-worker about the idea, we came up with the conclusion that this is one of those ideas that you just don’t do…it’s a fantasy, impossible, too fantastic to be real, but it isn’t.

Houston’s rail yard sees 25,000 rail cars pass through every year. It’s not the most beautiful place. And, being located in one of the country’s most active industrial centers, it is no Santa Fe Rail Yard or Winslow, AZ desert scape, but none-the-less it’s here, which means that quite possibly, Houston could have experienced Station to Station. The first location that comes to mind, alternate to the polluted sky and water surrounding the Houston rail yard, is the Manta rice mill on Taylor St. You’ve probably experienced the loud roar of a barreling freight train there on your way in or out of an event at Winter Street Studios, which sits adjacent to the tracks. I imagine the lines of Traffic along Washington St., Houstonians usually confined to their automobiles going full pedestrian, walking down the sidewalks to catch Breuning’s smoke performance, and a spectacular line of rail cars back lit by the Manta tower lights, from which the art tents, musical performances, and book sale depositories come to life and fulfill Houston’s love of great art and our spectacle obsession.


Station to Station advertisement as seen in the Sept. 2013 issue of Artforum .

 The idea that an exhibition so insanely extensive and comprehensive could exist in the first place is incredible. The idea that that same exhibition could be packed up into a train and travel across the country, stopping at cities known for their love of the arts is wild. I love it. I love the idea that people are capable of pulling something that I could only dream up as a fantasy and not only pull it off, but do it incredibly well.  And, I don’t think my wonderment is unique. Everyone I mention the exhibition to have responded with almost the same “Ugh! I wish I could have gone,” response.

So, why didn’t Station to Station stop in Texas? Did the organizers contact anyone here? Did they think that Texas doesn’t want Station to Station, or couldn’t support it? More importantly, whose job is it to bring this kind of exhibition to Houston? The Museums? The TCA? Is it the responsibility of local corporations? Or, is simply, the responsibility of the individuals in our community to make these happen?.. If that’s the case we have work to do.