Art & Design

Finding Meaning in Bert Rodriguez’s Art Basel Doppleganger

Art & Design

Finding Meaning in Bert Rodriguez’s Art Basel Doppleganger

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This article is a response to two stories, one in The Wall Street Journal and another on The Daily Beast. Both of these stories describe Bert Rodriguez’s performance aboard a docked Celebrity cruise liner called “Reflection,” and the events surrounding it, the weekend before Art Basel Miami Beach started. In the performance, Rodriguez hired a doppelganger to be his “reflection.” The doppelganger turned out to be Murray Miller, who is a lead writer on the soon-to-air second season of the HBO comedy Girls. He wrote The Daily Beast article, a very funny, a rambling picaresque tale written from a detached, “fuck the art world” posture. The WSJ article also approached  Rodriguez’s performance as if it were an indictment of the art world, Rodriguez’s work a fraudulent little tuft of art world silliness, though both pieces admittedly share an air of awe that Rodriguez is able to produce such a work and have 250 art world figures not only attend, but participate in the charade. The performance was a companion to the unveiling of Rodriguez’s large sculpture in the Grand Foyer of the cruise ship: a living tree “reflected” by a stainless steel double, which hangs down, mimicking the ubiquitous image of a tree reflected in the water of a lake.

I met Rodriguez about nine months ago, while interviewing him about these labels he made for Beck’s beer bottles. He had just moved to Los Angeles from Miami, and we hit it off and became buddies. Rodriguez’s is the kind of work that lends itself neatly to cruise ships and beer labels. He is known for things like getting married to strangers, burying himself in front of a museum as if he were a tree, making Cuban food with his mother to share with his audience, switching the generic pictures in convenience store frames with portraits of himself. The best way I can describe it is that Rodriguez is a comedian that happens to work in art. And it’s indefinable, so he can do whatever he wants. He’s always going on about how good his life is, and I can’t disagree.

Officially, Rodriguez asked me to be a “photographer” for the performance. Working an SLR camera is like reassembling a carburetor to me, but I pretended to know what I was doing, because I wanted to help and be a part of the experience. Rodriguez and I picked up Miller at the airport. He had taken a redeye from his birthday party in Los Angeles. I tried to convince myself that the guy looked like Rodriguez. If I squinted, their scruff-hewn faces were similar, their dark brown hair and prominent noses creating the inchoate seeds of duplicity. The WSJ article says “he kind of sort of looked like him.” Even as Miller threw on matching white glasses and a cheap gray suit in the PortMiami parking garage, he was far from a dead ringer. The most ostentatious thing: even though Rodriguez had fitted himself with four-inch lifts, Miller still stood several inches taller.

Turns out it didn’t matter. From the beginning of the performance—Miller greeting guests on the gangway, Rodriguez on the cruise ship mingling—people were confused as to who was the real deal Holyfield. Miller turned out to be a really great improviser, fooling one man who claimed to know Rodriguez, and another woman who owned a self-portrait of Rodriguez (albeit with the artist painted silver and facing the other direction in homage to Kim Kardashian’s W Magazine cover). Miller played the part so well that Patrick McMullan, the famous society photographer, was totally fooled, and photographed me with both Berts. Miller also conducted a few interviews, including one with a woman from the Tate Museum in London, who was so charmed by Miller that she told him his interview was full of refreshingly non-art babble soundbites. In his article, Miller describes just winging it.

In the art world, you can “know” someone by running into them at countless openings, or other events. It’s really common for people to claim to know the artist, even if they’ve only vaguely acquainted them. In a way, Rodriguez’s artwork inadvertently called that fallacy out. Miller claimed, in his article on The Daily Beast, that it just goes to show that no one in the art world pays attention. I guess this is true. But it’s true in a lot of worlds. Art just happens to be able to address it, which is better than suppressing it, and pretending it doesn’t exist. By the end, Miller grew weary of fooling people. He felt bad. Miller is a funnyman, able to cut the targets down to manageable sizes, Girls being known for its writer’s using uncensored confessional elements of their lives, but even he has his limits.

The argument against Miller’s hesitancy is that there is no intentional element. Rodriguez’s performances sometimes teeter on the precipice of an improvisational canyon, the intentionality often in the unknown abyss. He’s not meaning to dupe anyone. Rodriguez iterates that his work is generous in the sense that it’s participatory. Which isn’t to say Rodriguez is uncalculated or whimsical. There is a very real critique happening—those that “recognize” the artist’s double are falling into an art world trap, that of the ArtForum Scene & Herd variety. People are so obsessed with socializing with the “creator” that they don’t actually take the time to look. Moreover, if you’re an art patron, or even just a viewer, the best thing that can happen is inclusion, even if it’s somewhat at your expense. That’s why pranksters like Tom Green and Andy Milonakis are able get people to sign waivers allowing their faces on television: upon reflection, once people understand it’s a ruse, they’re mostly forgiving and are able to laugh at themselves.

There’s a lot of work out there like this open-ended performative piece. Take for instance Dawn Kaspar’s piece at the Whitney Biennial earlier in 2012. She basically set up her mobile artist’s studio at the Whitney, and invited all viewers inside. That’s a great piece, and there’s no possible way she could have guessed the visitor’s reactions, because it was a new experience for most people, not to mention for her to do it in such a well-attended environment. In a way, it’s kind of a formula for confusion—artist sets up structure for people to react to—but I think that confusing is fun, it keeps the audience guessing, and it gives immediate feedback to the artist. I think that immediate feedback is kind of like the artist playing a game of improv comedy, because then the artist has to respond in kind, and it creates an echo chamber.

Amongst the Purell stands scattered throughout the cruise ship like parking meters, the disruptively loud patterned carpeting, the Wisconsin accents, the five security checkpoints, the “entertainment”—a doo-wop quartet singing hits from the Little Mermaid soundtrack—that’s where two Bert Rodriguezes came together and danced with the art world with two different routines. It was a great place for confusion to settle in, the echo chamber getting a little louder when, later, the two articles—Miller’s titled “Girls Writer Murray Miller’s Great Art-Hoax Experiment”—came out. Unfortunately, my photographs didn’t come out at all.