October 13, 2006

Constructs of Representation

After conceptual art, minimalism and anti-form, artists began to realize that the materials and process of art making, the location and placement of objects, must be considered not only as elements of visuality but ruled by the conventions of a system of representation. Under the newly translated influence of theorists like Barthes, Derrida and Lacan, representation was further revealed as existing within institutional power structures, thus authenticity, meaning, sexuality, identity, even “reality,” were revealed to be socially constructed and in perpetual flux within various institutional ideologies. Artists like Hans Haacke and Marcel Broodthaers would attack powerful interests by, respectively, exposing the complicit nature of wealth and power, and reflecting on the status of the art object under the reign of institutional commodity production.

Mary Kelly embarked on a six-year quasi-scientific project that “challenged conventional senses of the appearance and unity of the work of art”(1) in her Post-Partum Document (1973-1979). Kelly set about documenting her newborn son’s “evolution from birth through to the acquisition of language and the ability to write his own name.”(2) Comprised of more than one hundred items, including scrawled writings, footprints, soiled diapers and daily food intake, the Post-Partum Document is much revered as a benchmark work for its wide-ranging epistemology. Showing admiration for the work of Jacques Lacan, Kelly utilized the psychoanalyst’s theories and charts to express her own lived experiences as both mother and artist. As she wrote in her preface about her unwieldy accumulation of “mother’s memorabilia”:

“All these are intended to be seen as transitional objects; not in Winnicott’s sense of surrogates but rather in Lacan’s terms as emblems of desire. In one way, I have attempted to displace the potential fetishisation of the child onto the work of art; but I have also tried to make it explicit in a way which would question the fetishistic nature of representation itself.”(3)

It is additionally relevant that Kelly addressed the idea of a work of art as a text, and her intellect was clearly informed by post-structuralist views of “meaning” as a social construct, as she suggests that “every artistic text is punctuated with an unconscious significance that cuts across the constraints of medium or intentionality.”(4) Her work epitomized the routes and interests that would fuel artistic growth as artists ventured forth in a “post-medium” condition, exploring taxonomy, socio-economics, psychology and gender issues, to develop a new art that “relies very heavily on the viewer’s affective relation to the visual configuration of objects and texts.”(5)

Readings for 18 October: From Chapter 8: Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s Dialogue with Heidi Grundman, Vito Acconci’s Steps into Performance (And Out) and Chris Burden’s Untitled Statement.


1. Paul Wood, Conceptual Art, New York, 2002, 72.

2. Ibid., 72-73.

3. Mary Kelly, “Preface to Post-Partum Document” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Stiles and Selz (eds.), Berkeley, 1996, 859.

4. Ibid., 858.

5. Ibid., 859.


mm said...

After reading this writting i realized that space is a very well consided element in Acconci's work. In seedbed he sets up a very personal enviorment for himself but then exsposes himself by way of sound to the audience, therefore making his discomfort transfer both ways. this is true of many of Acconci and Burden's peices, veiwers become active by emotional stress. the artists action that inflicts pain on only themselves then sparks mental stresses and sympathy and often disgust.
i have a question for everyone: in the peices Burden designs for a small amount of people to see or only the people who participated were there to see, does writting about it to be publised for everyone change the original intention of the work?

Russell Kelbaugh said...

I feel Burden did these performances and the idea of what the performance is enough for someone to know and imagine the piece. I do not think you "had to be there" to understand what he is doing. The imagination of what the piece may even make it stronger. Like Marina Abramovic said when she found out about his crucifixation (sp?) on the volkswagon she thought it was a much grander piece. this work functions better in imagination. so no the effect of publising it works better.