THE FIRST THING you need to know about "Work Ethic" at the Baltimore Museum of Art is that it's okay to laugh.
That's in addition to it being okay to take up a hammer and pound a nail into a piece of art; pick up candy off the floor and eat it; use your own body to make temporary sculpture; scratch your head raw in confused consternation; or any number of other reactions and interactions inspired/invited by this big, bold, brilliant and occasionally boggling exhibition.
What is it about? In a word: Labor.
Artistic labor (and the lack thereof). Labor on the part of the viewer to understand, to complete and/or to assign value to a piece. It is a show that takes apart the word "artwork," asking what each of its component parts means, and then forgets to put it back together again. For some, it will be a difficult show. For others, it will be fun. It may even make some folks angry, as Tom Friedman's "1,000 Hours of Staring" seemed to do during a recent press walk-through. The handsomely framed and mounted work on paper is just that: a piece of paper that the artist stared at (or claims to have stared at) over the course of five years between 1992 and 1997. It is, as you may have guessed, blank, and you will either love it, as curator Helen Molesworth does for the questions it raises about making art, looking at art, valuing art (not to mention trusting the artist), or you will hate it.
It seems strange, however, that anyone at all conversant with the art of the last 45 years or so could work up enough ire to hate "Work Ethic." Much of this stuff isn't exactly new, and, even if some of us haven't come around to accepting a tin of feces as art -- "Merda d'artista," made, as it were, in 1961, by the late Italian artist Piero Manzoni and sold by weight for the price of gold at the time -- haven't we all gotten over the outrage?
Which is, simply put, an indication that the show is working -- pun intended. Yes, it will make a lot of visitors smile. But if it didn't still tick a few people off to see a computer-controlled machine that makes paintings by dipping canvases like candles into a vat of white acrylic (Roxy Paine's "Paint Dipper") or a painting made by persons other than the artist who lays claim to it ("Commissioned Painting: A Painting by Pat Nelson," by John Baldessari), then it wouldn't be doing its job.
Part of "Work Ethic's" job, I'd say, is to engender the kind of "thought games" that Molesworth hopes will "pop up" as you tour its several sections, including "The Artist as Worker," "The Artist as Manager," "The Artist as Experience Maker" and "Quitting Time." Each of these looks at art and the artist from one of several vantage points: as someone who makes something; as someone who overseas the making of something; as someone who engineers the viewer's reaction to something; and as someone who resists all of the above.
Emblematic of the first section is such performance art as Tehching Hsieh's "One Year Performance, 11 April 1980-11 April 1981," in which the artist documented his attempt to punch a time clock every hour for a year (I say "attempt" because he also documented the occasional missed appointment due to such inconveniences as sleeping). Another exemplar would be Hugh Pocock's "Drilling a Well for Water." (If nothing else, you've got to love these titles, most of which leave nothing to the imagination.)
In that ongoing sculpture/performance, the Baltimore-based artist will be on-site in the sculpture garden for the next several weeks, drilling for water that will then be added to the museum's cooling system, thereby creating a kind of sculpture whose subject is the interior volume of the museum building itself. Of course, if Pocock doesn't find it -- he's prepared to go 250 feet down, but expects to hit pay dirt at around 100 feet -- the piece will become about the artist's limited capacity and commitment to perform a task, as well as the uncertainty of all human endeavors.
Andy Warhol's so-called Factory is represented by one of the artist's soup-can images in "The Artist as Manager" section, along with Sol LeWitt's "Wall Drawing #280," in which an abstract mural is created from a set of instructions that the artist has created for others. "The Artist as Experience Maker" includes the aforementioned pile of hard candy -- take one, they're free, seeing as the simple act of generosity is artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres's unironic intent. Alison Knowles's "Make a Salad," which consists only of a piece of paper with those three words written on it, is also here. For those who feel somehow ripped off (you know, in an "Emperor's New Clothes" kind of way), it may be comforting to know that the artist was at least in attendance at the opening, you guessed it, making salad.
Okay. Maybe that doesn't help.
The point is that art isn't necessarily a thing, and that the artist isn't necessarily its sole creator. This is never clearer than in the final section, "Quitting Time," in which art such as Yoko Ono's "Sky TV," which plays a constant live feed of clouds shot from a camera on the BMA's roof, suggests there are sometimes better things to do than to stare at the wall of a museum.
Ironically, by tackling the topic of not making art, this section reminds us that art is all around us and that we, as its audience, are at the very least complicit in its making. Like the British artmaking duo Gilbert and George, who actually declared themselves works of art, and therefore proclaimed everything they do art -- including drinking in a pub, documented here in a series of sublimely silly photographs -- we have met the artist and he is us.
WORK ETHIC -- Through Jan. 4 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st streets, Baltimore. 410-396-7100. www.artbma.org. Open Wednesday-Friday 11 to 5, first Thursday of every month until 8, Saturdays and Sundays 11 to 6. $7, seniors and college students $5, 18 and under free. Free on the first Thursday of the month.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Thursday at 1 -- Gallery talk and tour of the exhibition with BMA's Curator of Contemporary Art Chris Gilbert.
Nov. 6 from 5 to 8 -- Gallery talks, hands-on workshops for families, musical performance by Ruckus and appearances by exhibiting artists Roxy Paine and Hugh Pocock.
Saturdays from 1 to 3 -- "Ask an Expert." Museum docents will answer questions and assist with the interpretation of exhibition artworks.
On an ongoing basis during museum hours, Pocock will attempt to drill for water in the museum's sculpture garden.