99 Cents or Less

Review

of an Exhibition

by Rebekka Parker

Published on June 03, 2017, Modified on June 03, 2017

  • Description:

    It seems both fitting and ironic that 99 Cents or Less, the current exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), is mounted in an abandoned auto dealership-turned-contemporary art museum. While some visitors may not be aware of the building’s former life, the essence of the consumer culture which created the demand for the building in its prior incarnation, or rather the iterative degradation of that culture, is the driving force behind the concept for the exhibition.

    For 99 Cents or Less, MOCAD invited 99 U.S. based artists to contribute work made almost entirely from materials purchased at 99 cent stores with a spending limit of $99 for each artist. The result is a meditation on the commodification of art and art of commodification in contemporary culture. In many ways, this exhibition is just what one might expect from a small, non-collecting contemporary art museum. Stark, raw spaces, white walls, vast ceilings, and concrete floors with minimal labels and only one panel of introductory interpretive content on the title wall in the center of the gallery space. However, subtle choices which complement the content of the exhibition come through in the installation of the objects, ambient sounds, and lighting as one navigates the space of the exhibition.

    Two large openings in the raw, brick walls form the entrance to the exhibition from adjacent gallery and café spaces. These other spaces in the museum are dimly or naturally lit which is a marked difference from the bright, white fluorescent lighting in 99 Cents or Less. One large and relatively open gallery makes up the exhibition with a T-shaped structure in the center serving as the title wall facing the entrance and additional wall space in the gallery behind it. As I entered the space, the title wall loomed large and red in front of me and, together with the lighting, reminded me of the retail space of the dollar store around the corner from my house. Somewhere in the gallery I could hear the sound of some sort of pop song screeching through the air with an abrupt choppiness in the quality of the sound. This only added to the sensation of the retail, dollar store environment as situated by the title wall and lighting and I looked forward to discovering the object which incorporated this element of sound.

    As I wandered through the exhibition, I began to notice that, despite the relatively large open space of the gallery, the objects seemed cramped together with the walls tightly packed and freestanding or hanging objects in the galleries creating odd angles to navigate while seeking a place to stand and look. While I’m sure this was, in some part, related to the sheer number of objects in the exhibition, it also seemed to be very purposeful and evoked some of the haphazard conditions one might find in the often-packed aisles of a 99-cent store. The white walls and concrete floors lent themselves well to a deep examination of the materials and concepts the artists were presenting in their objects. There were many details which were central to making meaning from the objects that I think I would have missed the opportunity to discover if a more colorful design palette had been used for the space.

    When I first entered the exhibition, I opted to roam and check out the art before reading the introductory panel. By the time I’d made my way over to the wall to read it, I’d already walked through nearly half of the gallery space. I don’t feel I missed anything in the exhibition by opting to look first and read part way through. As I made my way through the next half of the space, I came across the source of the sound I’d heard upon entering the exhibition. Tucked down on the floor, near an odd architectural corner of the permanent building, was a space heater rigged with lights and sound. The combination of materials and placement reinforced the sensation of a dollar store setting and the cheap, ephemeral nature of the materials used to create all of the objects in the exhibition.

    Each object in the exhibition was identified with a small label which included the title of the work, artist’s name, materials, date of production, and a brief credit line. The museum educator in me wondered if this might have been a frustration for or exclusive of some visitors who might be seeking additional information. The conceptual foundation for the exhibition is so connected to the nature of the materials, however, that the objects themselves seemed to communicate very clearly the ideas which were being presented – impermanence, commodity, consumerism, free trade. I imagine most anyone who participates in our media-saturated culture might pick up on the blatant social, political, and economic messages which were presented by the artists. That said, the labels were sometimes arranged in a confusing way so it wasn’t immediately clear which label belonged to which work of art. I sometimes spent up to a minute trying to seek out and find the correct label for an object to understand more about the materials.

    I would have liked to see some kind of participatory element or response station, however, MOCAD is an institution that offers an ambitious schedule of public programming to support their exhibitions rather than interpretive experiences in the galleries. These programs often take the form of artist lectures, panel discussions with a diverse range of cultural critics, and teen and family programs which generally include hands-on, art-making components. For this exhibition in particular, programming has been structured around examinations of consumerism – both global and in the U.S., inequity, and social services, bringing in a diverse range of expertise to crack open the content in a more direct and disruptive approach. I would certainly like to attend one of these programs although I don’t feel I’ll find my experience in the exhibition lacking without the added context.

Latest Comments (1)

intriguing concept

by Kathleen Mclean - June 05, 2017

What a great organizing concept for an art exhibition—and your description of the space helped me understand the context and rationale for the experience. I find it curious that the labels were difficult to find for each piece—after all, in a 99-cent store, they would have made sure you would be able to find the label immediately—nothing getting in the way of the purchase! Thanks for including the video of the sound piece you described.

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