An Apple's-eye view of the Motor City

Dec 17, 2003 at 12:00 am

There is a curious comfort in writing about things from an outsider’s point of view. Ridden of expertise, we often have the most to say about what we know of least, and Detroit — itself a cultural metaphor for the outsider in America, with New York City a converse signifier of all that is insider — is a problematic and complex subject at the best of times.

Please forgive the arrogance of Gotham, where we might presume to tell Detroit what it is really about. But understand that in our grand conceit this is quite something, because, well, we don’t even pay attention to the rest of America here. Such are the circumstances of cultural capital, being in a place where most forms of creative production are measured, and more particularly where a New York gallery and a New York curator would presume to mount a show on Detroit art.

In Manhattan, where the cost of a parking space is equivalent to an apartment in most other cities and our notion of car culture extends about as far as our hand when hailing a taxi, the peculiar mythic status that Detroit connotes within our imagination is not so much for its automotive industry as perhaps it might be regarded elsewhere. Besides, as a place keenly aware of the varied economic and social topography that makes up its own “greater metropolitan area,” most here have some sense of how that distance is measured between the City of Detroit and its suburban-based corporations.

The Motor City, in fact, is an urban and aesthetic construct that, whether we understand it properly or not, is a living template for the greater social dis-ease by which the pastoral American identity confronts the postindustrial paradigm of city life. And you may hate us for saying this, but the greatest export from Detroit is not its ecologically disastrous assembly line of SUVs, it is its people. Even for those who have never been to Detroit, there is always an inherited knowledge through all the people who come from Detroit.

There’s a very grim side to any consistent brain drain, where a place can produce such outstanding people but rarely attain the critical mass of support to keep them there. But what most other transplants rarely bring with them is the incredible sense of identity that Detroiters do. They may have moved away 20 years ago, but if you ask them about themselves, they all remain first and foremost “made in Detroit.”

Up against this wealth of preconceptions — the white flight, the riots, that single pit of urban dread so deep that it remains uniquely resistant to the homogenizing effects of renewal and, of course, one of the greatest musical legacies ever — the D Troit exhibition was as assured of hyping our expectations as it was of inevitably failing to meet them. Put together by Trevor Schoonmaker, one of the smartest young curators in New York City today, D Troit is, by most any way we measure contemporary art, one of the better group exhibitions up at the moment in New York. It benefits not only from the interest that this emerging curator now garners (following his radical cultural intervention with myth and museumography in staging Black President: The Art and Life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti at the New Museum of Contemporary Art), but the inherent attraction that any new space has to a city addicted to novelty.

Even of its own accord, the gallery Gigantic Art Space (GAS), opening its doors for the first time with this show, was bound to be a curiosity as it is but a part of a more epic “synergy” of film, art, fashion and music companies (including Gigantic Pictures, Gigantic Music and Gigantic Brand, whose founder, Brian Devine, is rumored to have the deep pockets of a Toys ‘R’ Us heir). All that accounted for, the hordes that descended upon the opening came with some shared agenda of checking out what the Detroit art scene was all about.

Ultimately, D Troit was a mixed offering of the familiar, as in the case of Tyree Guyton, who is almost iconic in this regard, some revelatory talents like Mark Dancey and Kenji, who clearly deserve wider recognition outside (and perhaps inside) Detroit, an amazing project of historical musicology in an installation of iPods containing nearly 20 hours of Detroit music from John Lee Hooker to the White Stripes by noted journalist Mike Rubin (who also contributed an excellent text to the exhibition catalogue), and some work that struck this writer as closer to a suburban art-school vision of Detroit than a true inner-city expression.

Among the best work in the show, clearly a big hit was the brilliant documentary film, Hot Irons, on the outrageous subculture of Detroit’s African-American hairstyling and its annual competition at the Hair Wars convention. That this work was by the only artist in the show without any Detroit roots — Andrew Dosunmu, a Nigerian-born photographer and filmmaker who has long been regarded as one of the most creative and influential stylists in New York City — goes to the tricky conundrum of provenance and proprietary authenticity that has seemingly plagued Detroit’s visual identity. As much as D Troit proved the vitality of Detroit’s art community, these images must register against a lineage of non-Detroit artists, from Diego Rivera and Charles Sheeler to Robert Frank and Stan Douglas, who have gone there to draw from its rich urban tapestry to tremendous effect.

I can’t guess what Detroiters would actually feel about the work of others who have come there over these many years to access its great visual plunder of industrial glory and postindustrial decay. Perhaps it’s not so different from the ambivalence New Yorkers register when Hollywood’s movie and television industry descend regularly on our town to capture that gritty city vibe with all the authenticity and sensitivity of a back-lot studio set. More troublesome for the art world at this time is this revised edition of Otherness that is currently infecting our curatorial, collecting and critical practices. It would seem, by the same manner that the world is suddenly infused with a dizzying slate of international biennials — from Havana to Venice, Istanbul to Cairo, Whitney to Documenta and on, each one hyping hot new emerging talents from remote exoticas like some nouveau cuisine platter for the adventurous cultural gourmandizer — Detroit itself may soon face the risk and reward of being consumed as the latest flavor of the month.

What Schoonmaker accomplished in this show is really quite phenomenal. There are others that I would have preferred to see in this show, but it’s not fair to criticize an exhibition for its omissions. And the obvious fact that no 10 artists could adequately represent a city of the scale, diversity, cultural history, creative community and sociopolitical dynamics as Detroit, is ultimately only a failure of ambition, for which Schoonmaker should be more praised than blamed.

Of course, D Troit was not definitive, but it was a very important first step toward introducing an even greater treasure trove of sadly underrecognized artists to the art world. The stakes, I’m afraid, are dear, for they involve not simply the possible ratification of a number of truly unique visions but how those visions could in turn revision the identity of Detroit itself. That potential is one that can be neither realized in Detroit nor New York, but somewhere, somehow, between both of our cities.

Carlo McCormick is senior editor of PAPER magazine in New York. Send comments to [email protected]