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I Just Don’t Like Eggs!, Andrea Fraser, Fondazione Antonio Dalle Nogare

Text by Lisette May Monroe

06 Andrea Fraser, Hello! Welcome To The Tate Modern, 2007, Courtesy Of The Artist And Marian Goodman Gallery

Hello! Welcome to the Tate Modern, (2007).
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

I Just Don’t Like Eggs!, Andrea Fraser’s new exhibition at the Fondazione Antonio Dalle Nogare, speaks to everything I have known of Fraser’s practice since first studying her work during my undergraduate years. It addresses class, labour, collecting and the oft-cited, now-exhausted term “institutional critique”. That phrase haunts me from art school – trying to understand or deconstruct the work, always ending back at the institution. It felt like how I used to play at post offices as a child, mimicking and challenging a system of power before its mechanics are consciously known. But for Fraser, the institution and its associated structures are not performed through fantasy, but are material.

The Fondazione Antonio Dalle Nogare is an organisation which predominantly collects and exhibits conceptual art. It sits beneath the collector’s home, an infamous specimen of Brutalist architecture angled out from a cliffside in Bolzano. The house and gallery are spectacular and lush, summoning up thoughts of Bond-villain lairs – a blunt interpretation, but there are few other references available for spaces like this. This site, this collection, speak from the guts of Fraser’s research: work which deals so intimately with how work is sold, collected, explained, and lived with, something she has mined with precision. These works cover a span from the late 1980s to a new work “Diagram” (2024), a wall diagram made specifically for this exhibition, so new it didn’t even make it into the exhibition guide. All demonstrate Fraser’s consistent approach to critique.

The exhibition is information-heavy, which is no surprise when an artist deals with research rather than spectacle. All video works are on small monitors – no large projections – and the interpretation for the works is so married to the works themselves that the text panels are a defining feature.

In the foyer of the Fondazione plays Fraser’s earliest work in the exhibition, “Museum Highlights” (1989), which defines the exhibition’s parameters. It is a video documentation of a performance in which Fraser performs as the character Jane Castleton, a tour guide who leads audience members on a tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Instead of focusing on the works or the architecture, Fraser-as-Castleton describes the social and political structures within the museum, the funding structures both public and private, exposing their everpresent hierarchies.

“‘Museum Highlights’ is a class structure,” Fraser tells me, while we sit in the Fondiazone’s Library. I ask her about class, a topic which reoccurs across all the works. “I mean, that distinction to some extent defines aspects of the political polarisation that we’re experiencing throughout the United States and Europe right now. The left tends to define class in terms of economic status, access to economic resources, and professional positions in relation to production in the Marxian sense, while the right tends to define class in terms of culture and education.”

As someone who also comes to the art world with a working-class perspective, these definitions are nothing new to me, but the way Fraser manipulates an audience to think about these things within the site they are playing in powerful, as is the way she manoeuvres herself into that position of power. To think about what it means to be an audience or a collector in real time, as it’s happening, not on the institutional research lag as these topics wax and wane, with class and other marginalisations subject to the art world’s trends. She pulls us into these discussions, and as an audience we experience a complicity, or a collusion. What does that mean? Fraser casts light on the market, wages, holding and sharing information and works. Fraser confronts us with them, but still there is an allure. She herself is not confrontational; the work could be stark but it’s not. There is a warmth, and she flirts with us, with it. It’s a knowing tactic. I ask her about her use of humour and of charm, also strategies that working-class people use to navigate institutional bias.

“Humour is a way of getting people to listen to you,” she says. “Why would anybody take this from me if it wasn’t funny, or if there wasn’t some kind of pleasure attached to it? It’s also a form of seduction. Humour came into art from popular working-class vernacular culture – Dada came from caricature, it came from carnival, it came from Vaudeville. I see humour as a popular and often working-class form of critique.” With “Museum Highlights”, imitation and performance become a way of asking for what we want, in the place that we want it. Packaged in a way the institution can digest, all sides get to feel knowing. But crucially, by being funny, humour makes the art human – which, as Fraser reminds us, is the figure at the core of every institution.

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Courtesy of Nicola Rossiter Jeffs

Another work which feels deeply human is “Aren’t They Lovely” (1992). When invited to work with the collection from the University Art Museum (now the Berkeley Art Museum), Fraser found the collection of Thérèse Bonney, an alumna of the University, who donated her entire home and all her possessions to the university collection in her will. Bonney had artworks from Raoul Dufy, Georges Rouault and Pierre-Auguste Renoir – some bought, some given to her as gifts, but all defining of Bonney’s personality. Here Fraser displays some of Bonney’s personal effects, including some of her art, alongside her correspondence to the institution. In her later years, Bonney had been in touch with the university to ask for the artwork to be acquired; like many in the art world, she lived precariously, with no health insurance, as she aged and became more fragile. In the correspondence, you can see the hope she invests in these works to be her security. These beloved objects must now fight for her, make her safe. The university held her off, strung her along, until she passed away, leaving them everything she had in her will, as her sole beneficiary. Alongside this correspondence are notes from the university’s archives in which they methodically categorise things which seem to have the most value or use to their institutional collection. It is chilling to see someone’s life pulled apart in this way; a far cry from the way we build a life. I think about a line from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”: this patchwork of a life, in its own way, is significant. But each fragment, particularly the art, is part of its own canon, a moment in history somewhere, perhaps. Can the museum contain all of it? How do these objects and artworks slip from artists to collectors to institutions? When is it personal and when is it a commodity, and how does the market and its unending pursuit of profit constantly lurch out of the shadows to tip the scales?

“Outside CCI Tehachapi at King’s Road” (2014) clatters around the gravel driveway. In contrast to the methodical precision on display inside, this work is startling. An audio work recorded at the California Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison, now plays out of the architecture of the Fondazione. It resonates deeply and quickly, as the automatic doors of the gallery open and shut when triggered by a sensor, bringing the urgency of movement, access and availability of culture to the fore. Who has the potential to engage (or not)? What does it mean to have a door that opens, just because you walk towards it? Fraser’s exhibition ferments in me for over a week, during which time I visit the Venice Biennale in all its chaotic institutional glory. Here, I am cast back to Fraser everywhere I look. Somewhere in the city the name “Andrea Fraser” has been spraypainted on the wall, not as a tag but in simple, quick handwriting. Is this a hangover from when she participated in the Biennale in 1993, or is it a coincidence? Once, I think I see her out of the corner of my eye eating lunch, even though she told me the days she was attending and they don’t match up. She’s got into me. I knew she would. I invited her in. ◉