Little Frank and His Carp 2001 is a single channel video featuring the American artist Andrea Fraser as she walks around the atrium of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao listening to the institution’s official audio guide. After an initial shot of the entrance to the building, the video shows Fraser wearing a short green dress and black high heels picking up an audio guide inside. Once she begins listening to the guide the soundtrack changes so that the viewer also hears the same male voice as the artist (and without any background noise). Shot with five hidden cameras – one on Fraser herself and four others operated by assistants moving around the atrium – Little Frank and His Carp depicts Fraser from varying angles and proximities as she initially follows the audio guide’s instructions closely, her emotions visibly changing (in an exaggerated fashion that suggests satirical intent) in response to the material she hears. Told that modern art is ‘demanding, complicated, bewildering’, she appears anxious, but when the guide tells her ‘the museum tries to make you feel at home’, she immediately seems reassured and happy. After being instructed to touch a limestone-clad pillar, Fraser lifts her dress to rub herself against it in a sexual manner, revealing her white underwear. Cutaway shots show a crowd of people watching her performance with surprise, before Fraser composes herself and walks away. The video concludes with shots of the American sculptor Richard Serra’s Snake (Sugea) 1994–7, a work composed of three enormous curving pieces of steel commissioned for the opening of the museum, after which the credits play out as the sound of the audio guide fades.
The title of the work refers to the architect of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Frank Gehry, and a story related on the audio guide – in which he is referred to as ‘Little Frank’ – about how his experiences buying live carp from the market and playing with them in the bath led to fish-inspired forms in his later designs. Since opening in 1997 the impact of Gehry’s building on the local economy has been much discussed and the term ‘the Bilbao effect’ has become prominent in debates surrounding the role of cultural institutions in urban regeneration. The sexual aspects of Fraser’s performance in Little Frank and His Carp may be seen as an ironic response to the erotic language often used to describe the Guggenheim Museum – the audio guide talks of its ‘powerfully sensual’ curves – as well, perhaps, as an allusion to the notions of power and potency frequently invoked in critical assessments of male architects and artists such as Gehry and Serra.
In an essay written in 2003 Fraser criticised the ‘image control’ of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which she claims includes the prohibition of filming and photography inside the building, the use of copyright law to prevent unauthorised reproductions of Gehry’s architecture, the issuing of tight guidelines for employees’ appearance and the ‘spotless’ nature of its interior. Fraser wrote, ‘Together, the security, corporate hospitality culture, and shine make the lobby feel like a cross between a business hotel and an airport – all that’s lacking are trolleys with piles of luggage’ (Fraser 2007, p.245). Her performance in Little Frank and His Carp and the surreptitious recording of it might be seen as attempts to transgress the ‘image control’ imposed by the institution. Yet her actions in the work also stem from a close adherence to the audio guide’s instructions. As art historian George Baker has pointed out, ‘Fraser follows the museum’s injunctions, only to produce effects that they were never intended to allow’ (George Baker, ‘Fraser’s Form’, in Dziewior 2003, p.71).
Little Frank and His Carp was created while Fraser was based in New York, where she moved in 1981. In 1986, while studying at New York University, she began giving museum tours in the city. An exploration of the public and private faces of art institutions – including their educational tools, marketing materials and funding arrangements – has since become a major element of Fraser’s artistic practice, which has encompassed live performances, texts, videos and installations. In the video Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk 1989 (Tate T13715) Fraser – in the guise of a fictional museum docent named Jane Castleton, a persona the artist has adopted in other works – leads a tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in which she satirises the language used by institutions to describes art works and also draws connections between the historical development of the gallery and places of punishment and imprisonment. Works such as this and Little Frank and His Carp can be closely related to the idea of institutional critique, a mode of practice exemplified by the work of artists such as Hans Haacke and Michael Asher that explores the structures and ideologies underpinning museums and galleries.
Little Frank and His Carp was the first work by Fraser acquired by Tate.
Yilmaz Dziewior (ed.), Andrea Fraser: Works 1984–2003, exhibition catalogue, Kunstverein in Hamburg, Hamburg 2003, pp.69–72, pp.218–21.
Andrea Fraser, ‘From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique’, Artforum, vol.44, no.1, September 2005, pp.278–83.
Andrea Fraser, ‘Isn’t This a Wonderful Place? (A Tour of a Tour of the Guggenheim Bilbao)’, in Museum Highlights: The Writings of Andrea Fraser, Cambridge, MA 2007, pp.233–60.
Supported by Christie’s.