As a modern practice, Institutional Critique is something of a double-edged sword. Part of the central irony is that work that comments on the institutions and conventions of the contemporary art world is contained entirely within the very structures that it interrogates. Some institutions are keenly aware of this and use it to their advantage, such as MoMA and other museums commissioning and displaying critical work as a way to shield themselves from inquiry. In order to maintain a necessary critical distance, successful inquiry often needs to be presented outside of the Institution. (Jayson Musson’s YouTube seriesArt Thoughtz is a good example, even if it comes with its own problems around celebrity and disarticulation.) This can also help overcome another potential hazard with Institutional Critique- that when the relationship between inquiry and subject becomes too close or obtuse, the inquisitor can end up levying their criticism at a different, and perhaps undeserving, subject.
Which brings me to Snow, the interdisciplinary exhibit by Zachary Cahillshowing at the Museum of Contemporary Art through the end of the month. The artist presents a collection of works from the imagined perspective of an art therapy patient- with all the formal deficiency and asinine politics that characterizes such work- within the hypothesized setting of a socialist dystopian near-future. Walking through the exhibit, it’s clear that Cahill is trying to load some of the stigma of modern mental health care (hyper-medicalization, schmaltzy inspiration porn, etc.) onto his fictional setting, which then becomes a vehicle for criticism of social and cultural institutions generally and the role of art within these institutions specifically. The problem with Snow is that Cahill’s work yields consequences that are arguably unintentional but almost certainly harmful.