December 28, 2010

The Gouldian Kit


The basic legend of genius pianist Glenn Gould is that at 31 he stopped playing live, describing his audience as a “force of evil” who scrutinized his performance, watching for any failure in his perceived and expected greatness.(1) We know, too, of his meteoric classical performing artist career, from the early performances in Toronto and on Canadian radio broadcasts, to his historic New York City debut, at a mere 22 years of age, that quickly lead to a Columbia Records recording contract. The resultant first recording sessions for Columbia yielded Bach: The Goldberg Variations, an album that had the rare distinction of becoming a best-selling classical LP, and Gould's subsequent concert tour of Russia was a resounding success.(2)

After 1962, and for the remainder of his life, Gould honed his various mythic eccentricities – wearing overcoat, gloves and scarf in all seasons, obsessively taking his own blood pressure and self-medicating with prescription pharmaceuticals, humming distractingly during recordings – and died of complications from a stroke just days after his 50th birthday.

What is among the lesser known facts about Glenn Gould is that he foresaw music’s future in the technology of the recording industry. He understood that the limits of any live performance were its dependence on chance and the psychic and physical conditions of the performer. During Gould’s early experience in the then-developing technologies of analog (magnetic tape) recording, he would discover the inherent promise within the multiple “takes” of a recording session and the production qualities of microphone placements. He was able to see that the wonder of music’s presence and immediacy would one day have the potential to shift from performer to listener, that the “product” might be re-formatted, re-presented through “interpretive” recording techniques in a kind of do-it-yourself “kit” for personal enjoyment. In 1968, he said:

“I’m all for the kit concept…I’d love to issue a series of variant performances and let the listener choose what they themselves most like. Let them assemble their own performance. Give them all the component parts, all the component splices, rendered at different tempi with different dynamic inflections, and let them put something together that they really enjoy — make them participant to that degree.”(3)

Gould foresaw that music would survive the vagaries of random performance by expanding upon the recording technologies. Through this “post-production” music might have an infinite, never-ending potential to yield multiple interpretations.

It should come as no secret that Gould’s vision has now become a reality. Various performers in different musical genres have begun providing ways in which their fans can now interact and participate in their music via access to recorded tracks and/or individual recorded components of their musical works. These “stems” can be re-mixed to suit the fan’s tastes, shared with others, or even submitted back to the “original” performer for approval.(4)

In the postmodern world, this kind of leveling of the “playing” field makes perfect sense. As the author has died and readers have become “producers” of meaning, so too will the binary of performer/fan be usurped. Gould was ahead of the curve in his perception of the necessary breakdown of “live” performance and the then burgeoning freedom of late Sixties’ recording techniques. As Kevin Bazzina has noted:

His creative approach to interpretation, for instance – that free, subjective, self-conscious engagement with musical texts without regard for inherited traditions or the composer’s intentions – call to mind contemporary literary ideas like Umberto Eco’s ‘open work,’ Roland Barthes’s novella critique, and the whole phenomenon of reader-response criticism, even, in some ways deconstruction…His atemporal, ahistorical view of musical works, his advocacy of a mixing of styles (as in his String Quartet or his ‘Baroque-ish’ Mozart performances), his defiance of avant-garde factions and opposition to the notion of ‘progress’ in the arts – all resonated with intellectual trends of his day, in various fields, to such a degree that we might call Gould the first postmodern performer of the Western classical canon.”(5)


Image: Glenn Gould at age 23 in Nassau, Bahamas; photograph © Copyright by Jock Carroll.

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1. Gould, Glenn. The Glenn Gould Reader, New York, 1984.

2. For more on Gould's life and career, see Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, playing this week on PBS stations this week – check local listings.

3. Bazzana, Kevin. Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, New York, 2004, 267.

4. Former Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor figures prominently in the listing of performers who have provided such links.

5. Op. cit., 267.

December 24, 2010

Martin To Go

“The lure in art collecting and its financial rewards, not counting for a moment its aesthetic, cultural, and intellectual rewards, is like the trust in paper money: it makes no sense when you really think about it. New artistic images are so vulnerable to opinion that it wouldn’t take much more than a whim for a small group of collectors to decide that a contemporary artist was not so wonderful anymore, was so last year. In the ebb and flow of artists’ desirability, some collectors wondered how a beautiful painting, once it had fallen from favor, could turn ugly so quickly.”(1)

As squeamish indictment of the fickleness of a certain type of art collector, Steve Martin’s description of moneyed and presumably powerfully influential collectors goes a long way to unveil the kinds of goings-on in the art world that we’d rather not know about. True, we are aware of the fact that artworks are not always collected by people because they are so absolutely moved by them that they cannot live without them. Certainly there is a jaded realization that art achieved its full commodity-status sometime in the late 1950s, if not sooner, and that art world predators are currently scouring the globe looking to corner the market on the next “Big Thing.”

Martin’s novel, albeit a work of fiction, intrigued a few of us denizens of academia because of its potential to reveal some of those inner machinations of that art collecting-art dealing world that someone of his collector status would be privy to.(2) After all, he is a multi-millionaire and former trustee of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who has collected the work of Diebenkorn, De Kooning, Kline, Twombly, Hopper, O’Keefe and Picasso, among others. And while Martin made his fortune from his comedy and acting careers, he has self-taught knowledge of art history and theory, knowledge benefited through close relationships with more than a few art world stars and scribes who undoubtedly shared their expertise.(3)

An Object of Beauty is a mostly gossipy tome about a young woman named Lacey Yeager who works her way up the art world ladder, from Sotheby’s auction-house flunky to owning her own Chelsea gallery. However, interspersed infrequently, and not enough among the book’s narrative arc of the art world’s financial stresses, shenanigans and furtive couplings, are Martin’s rather insightful if not cynical takes on what our 21st Century art world has become. Particularly devastating are the sporadic glimpses of this seemingly small handful of billionaire collectors who have that kind of Collector Clout detailed above; a kind of competitiveness and take-no-prisoners attitude to art collecting that begins to become a bit more of a scorched earth policy to out-doing one another’s contemporary art collections:

“His [Pilot Mouse, a fictional DJ-artist] breakthrough had come when collector Hinton Alberg, the American equivalent of the dynamic English collector Charles Saatchi, swept through a modest downtown show and bought every one of Mouse’s paintings. The paintings, in retrospect, weren’t that good, but when Hinton Alberg bought them out, they suddenly became good. The theory of relativity certainly applies to art: just as gravity distorts space, an important collector distorts aesthetics. The difference is that gravity distorts space eternally, and a collector distorts aesthetics for only a few years.”(4)

Perhaps the more intriguing thing to explore would be why these paintings were considered not “that good.” What judgments of taste determine this or that artwork “good” and others not? Martin’s bitter rendition of how these paintings that “weren’t that good” to begin with suddenly achieve their desirable “aesthetic” valuation because of provenance is smugly satisfying to anyone who believes that the art world has become nothing less than a game of manipulation. Yet Martin’s perceptive tidbits about super-rich art collector dinner conversations or backroom dealer negotiations are not as scathing an indictment of the art world as the 2009 film, Boogie Woogie, in which a lesbian artist is catapulted to instant fame through a series of improbable, feverish conspiracies by both art dealers and collectors to acquire a Mondrian painting.

That it takes place in the art world is not surprising given Martin’s comfortably moneyed access to that world. However, his obvious mistrust of the motivations behind art collecting may be disguised within his misogynist depiction of Lacey. Because what we are left with in the end is a vapid and sketchy tale of this young woman who is not above trading carnal knowledge for position in her power-hungry quest for art world status. We might even further speculate on Martin's thinly veiled comparison of Lacey’s prostitution of herself with the misguided attempts by collectors to falsely attribute value through ownership. All of which does little or nothing to reveal anything more substantial about what art is, why it’s “eternally” valued in ways completely extraneous to its commodification and how artworks of significance came to be canonized within art historicity. That book remains to be written by another writer with greater depth of vision.

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1. Martin, Steve. An Object of Beauty, New York, 2010, 264.

2. However, Martin’s “fans” have not been appreciative of his recent appearances when he talked about art and his book.

3. Art dealer Larry Gagosian and arts writer Frederic Tuten are friends and Mr. Martin dated Cindy Sherman in the late 1990s.

4. Op. cit., 113.

December 17, 2010

Bad Design



Design thrives on function; it lives, breathes, eats purpose and use. To achieve good design in something, first a designer asks, “How is it to be used?” Or designers might also want to know, “What do you want it to do?” This works universally for architecture, coffee grinders, weapons or pharmaceuticals; you find out what the end-user (client) wants and work out the kinks to make the thing (product) to be made.

It’s the philosophy of telos, defining the purpose via the schematics of functionality. When a designer steps outside of that structure he/she becomes something other than a designer; he/she becomes an artist.

Don’t get me wrong: I suppose designers can be called “artists” as long as we understand that doing so is framing them within ancient aesthetics, returning to classic art theories that handed out the title of “artist” to anyone engaged in the “right making” of any thing, whatever that entailed, regardless of whether it was culinary or carpentry.

A recent New York Times piece muddles this issue further by confusing the nature of design with the contemporary artmaking practice of process art. In her article on the German designer Konstantin Grcic (GEAR-tichich), Alice Rawsthorn mistakes his innovative designs as being determined through a methodology of process artmaking, when in fact Mr. Grcic is simply designing things artfully.

Mr. Grcic recently assembled (curated?) a number of objects whose design he has admired, and these objects happen to be (mostly) black rectangular things, and presented them together in an exhibition “Black2” at the Swiss Institute in Rome. There you will find a Marshall amplifier, a gravestone, a television set, a floppy disc, a Moleskine notebook, etc. Mr. Grcic also includes one of his own “designs,” his Diana_B table.

Well and good. But it is Ms. Rawsthorn’s fuzzy impression of his “design process” that caught my attention:

“Many designers begin a new project by imagining the end result, but Mr. Grcic starts by anticipating how it will be used and shapes it accordingly. This means that the form of the object evolves during the design process, and is determined by its function and constraints.”(1)

This reveals either Ms. Rawsthorn misinterpreted what Mr. Grcic may have said, or that she does not understand the basics of how form might be determined by process, and how process art is not design; form doesn't evolve during design, design evolves during design.

As an artistic development, process art was a reaction to the overly schematized forms of Minimal Art that artists like Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt were making in the 1960s. Later, a younger generation of artists rejected this pre-ordination of instructions, blueprint and designed artworks, often not even made by the artists themselves but sub-contracted out to industrial fabricators. So the solution they came up with, also called “Anti-Form” or Post-Minimalism, was to devise a process or sequencing of actions whose resultant form became the art object. This held true to a couple of Minimalism’s theories about rejecting “composition” and “relational painting,” as they introduced new concepts in terms of shifting the emphasis back to the artist’s hand. (See Eva Hesse.) Robert Morris, who had earlier worked in both Conceptual and Minimal Art, wrote of this new process of making in 1968:

“Disengagement with preconceived enduring forms and orders for things is a positive assertion. It is part of the work's refusal to continue aestheticizing form by dealing with it as a prescribed end.”(2)

Now if you’re a designer you can certainly make “artful” or “intuitive designs.” However, the concept that an end result product might be designed through randomness is anathema to fundamentals of design. And even though that cell phone pictured above is fairly “out there” in its differentiation from all the others at the store, you can bet it was designed to function as a cell. Designers simply don’t monkey about with the odds and ends of electronic circuitry to stumble upon a functioning telephonic device. Like Louis Sullivan said, “Form ever follows function.”

Image: Rawphisticated Cell Phone by Branko Lukić.

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1. Rawsthorn, Alice. “It's A World Of Black Rectangles,” New York Times; Dec. 12, 2010.

2. Morris, Robert. “Anti-Form,” Artforum, 6:8 (April 1968), 34.

December 10, 2010

Quinque viae 3



"Quinque viae: Proof 5" was "erased" on Nov. 18, 2010, in Salve Regina Gallery at Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. The work is MCB's text-bisection of the "5th Proof" of God's existence by Thomas Aquinas. Visitors to the gallery were allowed to complete text by using provided dry erase markers to write upon the work which is composed of acrylic paint on clear acrylic sheets. The erasure of the work returned it to original condition to initiate further participation by visitors during the exhibition.

© Copyright 2010 by Mark Cameron Boyd. All rights reserved by the artist. No reproduction of artwork /text /image /video without written permission.

November 24, 2010

Klein-Karmel Continued

Nov. 22, 2010

Mr. Boyd,

I just wanted to say thank you for writing that letter on the topic of Yves Klein's most significant achievements. I think that you were right about Karmel's opinion of the monochromatic canvases--it needed to be challenged, and your response was wonderfully put. It was amusing to see, in his reply, that Mr. Karmel did not understand the meaning of your phrases on the "conceptual objections to ownership." I am researching for a paper currently on the topic of performance art and copyright/notions of ownership, and I wholeheartedly empathize with Klein's experimentation with the purpose of art itself, and with your letter. Thanks again!

Suzanna Ritz
New Orleans, LA

Nov. 23, 2010

Dear Ms. Ritz,

Many thanks for your kind words. It is good to know someone is reading a "Letters" column, given that we seem to have our focus mostly on digital text nowadays. Over the years I've written a handful of letters to "AiA" and a few have made print. For instance, I took issue with Eleanor Heartney's misinterpretation of Richard Prince, and also posted my letter as this essay on my blog: Prince of Thieves.

Later, after it was published, along with Ms. Heartney's response, I replied to her reply, again on my blog: Ms. Heartney's Riposte.

My hope, then as now, is always that discourse on a topic of disagreement might be further engaged other than The Publishing World's rote pattern: reader disagrees with points of view or "judgments of taste," writes letter, author retorts, end of story.

To date, no "AiA" writer has deigned to appear on my blog, though they undoubtedly have been alerted, given the ubiquity of ‘Net-heads. Still, it's saying something that they bother to reply to letters at all; they probably are not paid for it so their response may issue from a respect for opposing views. Or maybe it’s just self-preservation. Either way, the putative "conversation" is shut down in finality in the standard way, with the "author" having the last word.

I do think Mr. Karmel understood the gist of my argument but he decided not to go down that path; to belittle my position with regard to "ownership" and conceptual practice might have exposed Karmel's lack of expertise on the subject. And that might lead to future conversations at NYC openings, with his journalist peers and/or artists button-holing him to lecture on the finer points of ownership vis-à-vis conceptual practice.

In any case, I trust you read the rather timely essay about Yves Klein by a student of mine that I chose to post as a remarkably apropos "stand-in" for my position: It's Immaterial, Mr. Karmel

It was a pleasure to receive your email today. Please keep in touch regarding your future research on performance art and copyright/ownership; perhaps we might discuss a preview posting of it on Theory Now.

Best,
MCB

November 18, 2010

Quinque viae 2


On November 11, a panel discussion was held during the opening of "A Postmodern Meditation on the Five Proofs of God" with Mark Cameron Boyd and Catholic University of America PhD Candidate in Religion and Culture, Patrick Beldio. The panel was moderated by exhibition curator, Dr. Lisa Lipinksi, and an audiofile of the discussion can be found HERE; digital recording/formatting courtesy of Scott Boyd.

Image: "Quinque viae: Proof 4" after one week; © Copyright 2010 by Mark Cameron Boyd.

November 14, 2010

Quinque viae 1


“A Postmodern Meditation on the Five Proofs of God” is an exhibition of the art-work by Mark Cameron Boyd that features an installation addressing logical propositions by Thomas Aquinas to explore language and its putative conveyance of ‘reason’ to ‘ways of know-ing.’

In his ‘Summa Theologica,’ Aquinas introduced the ‘quinque viae,’ or ‘Five Ways,’ that he felt offered rational proof of the existence of God. Aquinas’s medieval theories on God’s existence extended the Aristotelian tradition of ‘rational philosophical truths’ and issue forth from Aquinas’s application of reason, thus they do not rely on ‘faith’ alone to prove there is a God.

Since 2003, Mark Cameron Boyd has been creating paintings with words, which were initially based on his own writings. Since then he has appropriated texts from a variety of sources, includ-ing Derrida, Nana Last, Rosalind Krauss, and most recently, Thomas Aquinas. On a variety of surfaces, usually wood or wood painted to resemble a black-board, or even glass, he writes sentences across horizontal pieces of tape laid on the surface. He then peels the tape away, leaving half of the words, and sentences floating in a field. These ‘text bisection’ paintings are original and fascinating works of art. Their surfaces are covered with lines of writing comprised of pieces of letters, which, at first glance, are indecipherable.

As viewers we are compelled to complete the words and sentences of the text-bisection works, to make meaning out of the ghostly textual images. Actually, viewing is a two-step process, of first determining what the words are, or could be, some are too fragmentary, and second, putting those words into sentences, and then making meaningful statements. One can always bypass reading or opt out of the conceptual demands and enjoy the beauty of the fragmented words.

His text bisections subvert the process and idea of language as signification. Although viewers are invited to participate in completing the words, there is always room for error and creativity. In fact, the paintings depend upon the creative input of the audience. The meanings of his state-ments are suspended and incomplete, left open to play and to change. The irony of some of his titles, which derive from the text written on the surface, also plays a role in this process.

Boyd’s art making process is informed by his reading and teaching of theoretical texts. The idea of obscuring half of the written text is derived from Jacques Derrida’s idea of ‘sous rature,’ placing words under erasure, to signify that meaning is always deferred and words carry the traces of other meanings. His interest in semiotics, the interrelation of word and image, and the process of making meaning in art and language, falls within the tradition of conceptual art and the ‘linguistic turn’ in American art criticism and art history of the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. However, what began as a simple transcription of random thoughts ex-perienced during art-making has evolved into actions upon the text, in particular the text bisec-tion, which undermine the conventional meanings of the words at same time that his writings have become more complex and theoretical meditations on the nature of art, subjectivity, and the process of signification.”


Gallery statement by Dr. Lisa Lipinski, exhibition curator, Associate Faculty at Corcoran College of Art + Design, and Adjunct Assistant Professor at The Catholic University of America. © Copyright 2010.

Image: Visitors decipher “Quinque viae: Proof 3” on Nov. 11; exhibition runs thru Dec. 17, 2010.
Photograph by Scott Boyd; © Copyright 2010.

October 15, 2010

It's Immaterial, Mr. Karmel

Administrator’s Note: In “Scatter Shots” last May, I took issue with Pepe Karmel’s Art in America review of the Yves Klein retrospective exhibit held at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden here in Washington, D.C. I subsequently emailed an expanded version of my critique to AiA and in September they published my letter and Mr. Karmel’s reply. Without transcribing Pepe’s response verbatim, suffice to say he didn’t buy my theory that Klein foresaw “immateriality” as a conceptual move and felt that I needed “to show what critical position in particular [Karmel’s emphasis] his work exemplifies.” As it happens, one of my theory students at Corcoran College of Art + Design has done that and more. Jackie Hoysted has written an essay that eloquently substantiates how Klein “negated” the commodity status of the work of art with his “Immaterial Zones” and, furthermore, that Klein “removes the possibility that the receipt becomes valuable. He [Klein] overturns the normal concept of a receipt as proof of ownership and stipulates, ‘every possible buyer of an immaterial pictorial sensibility zone must realize that the fact that he accepts a receipt for the price which he has paid takes away all his possessions.’” In the interest of a sustained discourse on Klein's contribution to conceptual art, I happily share Jackie’s complete essay for the readers of this blog. As always, I encourage readers to alert Mr. Karmel to this new “reply” so that he might re-join the discussion.


Yves Klein: Metaphysicist, Trickster or Marketer Extraordinaire

Conceptually Yves Klein’s “Ritual for the Relinquishment of the Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility Zones” is a hard act to follow. It is a wonderful play on the antonymous meanings of the expression “to have and to have not” as can be related to conventional notions of art. At its core, the art concept describes a transaction that requires the exchange of gold by the buyer, in return for a receipt from the artist, as proof of purchase of an “immaterial zone” or rather a portion of the void. Although, the receipt is proof of purchase and is transferable, Klein stipulates that it is not proof of, and does not bestow, ownership of the immaterial zone. For ownership to occur, the buyer must burn the receipt. For the owner to become integrated with the work, he/she must partake in a ritual with Klein and art professionals as witnesses, where half the gold exchanged be thrown away, never to be recovered.

At face value, what Klein proposes is a spiritual event – he is offering the purchaser of his immaterial pictorial sensibility zones the possibility to experience transcendence from the realm of the material to the immaterial. Klein adopted the terms human or cosmic “sensibility” or “pure energy” to refer to the soul and believed that the works of an artist (or at least Klein’s own works) are imbued with his soul or presence.(i) Later, he clarified, that the “pictorial sensibility exists beyond our being and yet belongs in our sphere. We hold no right of possession over life itself. It is only by the intermediary of our taking possession of sensibility that we are able to purchase life. Sensibility enables us to pursue life to the level of its base material manifestations, in the exchange and barter that are the universe of space, the immense totality of nature.”(ii) Thus, when he suggests that the buyer destroy the receipt so that “the fundamental immaterial value of the zone belongs to him and becomes part of him” he is creating a pathway through which the buyer can liberate himself/herself and imbue the art with life (pure energy) and to fully experience an authentic work of art.

Additionally, the exchange of pure gold, a symbol of purity and great value, removes any taint of an ordinary commercial transaction. As Klein puts it “finding it unacceptable to sell these immaterial zones for money, I insisted in exchange for the highest quality of the immaterial, the highest quality of material payment — a bar of pure gold.”(iii) The act of throwing half the gold into a river can be seen as a symbolic offering perhaps mimicking the mythological figure El Dorado who threw gold into the lake as an offering to the Gods. The required presence of three witnesses recognizes that this transference of a work of art has occurred and perhaps mimics the biblical story of the birth of Christ and the three wise men that bore witness to the event.

Klein’s proposition is so loaded with humor and irony that it is difficult to gauge the depth of his sincerity or to dispel the notion that the concept is the work of a charlatan. Although Klein had very much the reputation of a showman, nothing in Klein’s own writings suggest anything but his total sincerity in his beliefs and, accounts of the event, although scathing, do not claim to have detected anything dishonest or humorous in Klein’s outward behavior. Michael Blankfort, the first purchaser of the immaterial zones lauded the event and described the experience as a metaphysical one: “I must add that I've had no other experience in art equal to the depth of feeling of this one. It evoked in me a shock of self-recognition and an explosion of awareness of time and space."(iv) Furthermore, Klein was a devout Christian and was inspired by Zen and Rosicrucian philosophies so this ritual could legitimately be considered an honest and natural outgrowth of his beliefs and practices. His prayer to St. Rita where he asks her to intercede with God on his behalf to grant him “the grace of living in … [his] works and that they always become more beautiful”(v) suggests a certain humility and piety in his intentions.

However, it is easier to view Klein as a charlatan. What trickery and audacity – he is challenging the art world to believe that he can inject his soul into “immaterial pictorial sensibility zones” and offers art collectors the opportunity to purchase weighted portions of them in exchange for pure gold. Here Klein goes way beyond Duchamp and the audacity of his presentation of a ready-made urinal as an ‘object d’art’, to an artwork that has no material existence and cannot be proven to exist on any plane. Klein’s artwork or “zones” exist purely in a mental capacity, i.e., they are purely conceptual and the art “appreciator” can choose to accept the concept or not. Indeed, the proposal could be viewed as a modern day enactment of the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and one could go further and suggest that the art “appreciator” may not be capable of “understanding” or “seeing” the idea or concept. In any event, two traditional concepts in art are now negated or thrown into a state of flux – firstly, the need for the artist to produce a physical art object and secondly, the need to validate or appreciate an artwork just by virtue of being able to “see” it. In the context of discussing Klein’s artwork, the words “art viewer” and “art object” are totally redundant. All possibility of discussing the form or the beauty of the object is removed from the art context.

Not only has the art conversation changed from art object and viewer to art concept and appreciator but the language used to describe the artist has changed also. In this context, typical terminology used to describe an artist has become too restrictive. It is inappropriate to call Klein a painter or sculptor or indeed a maker of physical things at all. We see him as an alchemist or metaphysicist, one, who like Joseph Beuys later on, imbues meanings into his work. In Klein’s case, he imbues his soul into all his works, even the immaterial. He is a performer, mimicking religious rituals. He is one who has special knowledge.

The removal of the art object also disrupts the traditional notion of art as commodity. Klein proffers a written receipt, as proof that the bearer purchased one of his immaterial zones. There is no exchange of goods because there are no material goods or physical objects produced. From the standpoint of an art collector, the possession of the exchanged receipt is the only proof that a transaction for the purchase of an immaterial zone took place at all. In the commercial market, in the absence of having a physical work of art or in the case of an exchange of services, the monetary value of the artwork would rest on the existence of the receipt, i.e., the receipt would most likely appreciate in value over time. The artwork has no value here, only the receipt. The receipt is valuable only because it has interest as an artifact, as a mere document.

But Klein, wickedly, is not satisfied that he has negated the meaning of art as commodity or art for investment. He goes much further and removes the possibility that the receipt becomes valuable. He overturns the normal concept of a receipt as proof of ownership and stipulates, “every possible buyer of an immaterial pictorial sensibility zone must realize that the fact that he accepts a receipt for the price which he has paid takes away all his possessions.” He is saying that ownership is not vested in the receipt. There is no entitlement to the immaterial zone by virtue of ownership of the receipt. In fact, holding onto the receipt negates the possibility of gaining possession of the “goods.” In this way, Klein negates the accepted norms of how we understand and communicate that a commercial exchange of goods and services has taken place.

Klein no longer has art collectors but has followers and he leaves no room for “Doubting Thomases” amongst his apostles. You do not ask the priests for insurance against God not existing. You don’t go to church and ask for a receipt as proof that God exists. You have faith or do not have faith. Likewise, Klein insists on total faith and total commitment and explains that in order for “the fundamental immaterial value of the zones belong to him and becomes part of him” the buyer must burn the receipt and partake in a ritual where Klein, in the presence of witnesses, throws half the gold exchanged in the river. Only in this way the zone “belongs to the buyer absolutely and intrinsically.” Once relinquished in this way, the zones are no longer transferable by the owner. Ownership of a work of art is now redefined as the investment of oneself, of ones being, in the work of art. It no longer refers to the acquisition or physical possession of a material object. To truly own a work of art one must be part of a work of art. By participation in the ritual, the buyer invests himself in the process and Klein acts as intermediary to facilitate it. This concept of ritual, performance and art as transformation can be seen as a forerunner to Joseph Beuys’ performance “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare” in an exhibition at the Schmela Gallery in Düsseldorf in 1965 and his later statement that “everyone is an artist.”(vi) In his performance Beuys, with his face covered in gold and honey, acts as a shaman and explains the meaning of art to the dead hare. Animals he believed “comprehend more than many human beings with their stubborn rationalism."(vii) His purpose was to highlight the futility of trying to explain art to the uninitiated. Klein too allows that anyone can become an artist but only by becoming his initiate during one of his rituals.

Duchamp claimed that – “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.”(viii) Klein, with his relinquishment ceremony extends Duchamp’s thought and insists that the work is not complete or does not even completely exist without the spectator. The relinquishment ceremony requires participation from the art appreciator. Art spectators have no possibility to appreciate Klein’s work. It is has to be experienced. Conversely, Klein does pay heed to what Duchamp has said and is aware that he alone could not guarantee the legitimacy of his work. As insurance, he stipulated that three witnesses be present at the ritual with one – either “an art critic or distinguished dealer, an art museum director” – coming from the gatekeepers of the art world. Klein ensured that posterity would know about his work and have opportunity to offer a verdict on it.

One final twist worth pondering – prior to burning the receipt, the transaction was to be recorded in the stub of the Bankers checkbook that Klein had written all the receipts. It remains the only physical object that truly records the relinquishment rituals and hence of real monetary value. It certainly still exists and was on exhibit at the Klein’s recent retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Presumably, it remained in Yves Klein’s hands. Could he be suggesting that the art value and appreciation value is the sole right of its creator and not the collector? Does the Klein estate still own it or perhaps, a collector acquired it? If so, was it exchanged for money?

Image: Cheques for Immaterial Sensibility; © Copyright by Estate of Yves Klein.

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i "The Monochrome Adventure," Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, Spring Publications, 2007.
ii "Chelsea Hotel Manifesto," Overcoming the Problematics of Art: The Writings of Yves Klein, Spring Publications, 2007.
iii "Chelsea Hotel Manifesto," 1961.
iv Michael Blankfort, in Yves Klein USA, Paris, 2009, 181.
v Klein, Yves, "Prayer to St. Rita," 1961.
vi Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys, Thames & Hudson, 7.
vii Joseph Beuys, quoted in Ursula Meyer, "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare," Artnews 68, No. 9, January, 1970.
viii Lecture at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 19, 1961; published in "Art and Artists," No. 1, July 1966.

October 9, 2010

I.I.A.O.F.

A remarked trend of late couples flâneurism with “snark criticism” to produce an irreverent nostalgia which often generates marvelous simulacrum, or at the very least, a laugh. Scrupulous readers of this very site may have noticed my own tendancies toward the edible readymade as I keep an alert eye out for random knock-offs of contemporary found art on city streets.

Enter Is It Art or Fart?, a two-year-old blog whose avowed mission is to point out to us how some urban debris or business façade can occasionally be a dead-ringer, stand-in for contemporary art by using various street captures of items that resemble (or mock) famous and infamous artworks by everyone from Marcel Duchamp to Barbara Kruger. The “anonymously-run” site is “assisted” by art consultant Adam Shopkorn and artist Alex Israel and has generated sufficient interest in derisive buffoonery to prompt a quickie paperback release.

As expected, the site goes to the “easy” targets often, but to its credit I.I.A.O.F. can be tres insider. Nevertheless, does anyone besides entrenched, art world denizens know or care who Wade Guyton, Cady Noland and Dave Muller are? Perhaps it requires an elitist, jaded, Manhattan perspective for these roundhouse jabs to really connect.

September 23, 2010

5 Proofs of God

[Adminstrator's Note: Dr. Lisa Lipinski has invited me to do an installation at Catholic University of America in Salve Regina Gallery. My installation will address the “Quinque Viae” of Thomas Aquinas and the relationship of language to ways of “knowing.” In Summa Theologica, Aquinas introduced “Five Ways” the existence of God could be proved. 20th Century scholars have refuted these “Proofs” with various arguments about Aquinas’s concepts. I plan to use both English translations of sections of Aquinas’ text of his “Five Proofs,” as well as text by detractors, to introduce ideas about God’s existence in the perfect site-specific location of CUA's Salve Regina Gallery. Lisa and I also will panel a discussion about the “Five Proofs” and to that end she invited Patrick Beldio, a Ph.D. Candidate in The School of Theology and Religious Studies at CUA, who holds an MFA in Sculpture, to join our panel. I am posting our initial correspondence because I believe it a suitable prelude to my installation and panel to come. Additionally, it is my hope that the topics may be of some interest to readers of TNOW.]

9-17-10:

Dear Mr. Beldio,

Dr. Nora Heimann suggested that I contact you regarding an upcoming exhibition at Salve Regina. Attached is a short description of the exhibition a part of which is focused on the Five Proofs of God by Thomas Aquinas. We thought you would be interested in the exhibition, since it is philosophical and interactive, involving the participation of viewers to complete the texts.

Mark Cameron Boyd is a contemporary artist who teaches at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. All of his work is a meditation on truth, language, and meaning. One gallery is devoted to the Aquinas texts, and the other gallery will features a mini-retrospective of his work.

Nora thought you would be a good person to speak on a panel discussion we plan to hold in conjunction with the exhibition. Would you be interested in participating in a panel discussion with the artist and other faculty?

When is a good time to meet or speak on the phone?

Nora sends her warmest regards.

Sincerely,
Lisa Lipinski
Adjunct Assistant Professor
Department of Art [Catholic University of America]

-----

Thank you, Ms.Lipinski, for the invitation to attend the exhibition of Mr. Boyd's work and help panel a discussion related to the show. I would be honored to accept. I am not sure, however, if I would be a voice that would celebrate the kind of approach that this show intends. I look forward to seeing the work myself before I draw any conclusions. In general, though I feel I should admit my own bias: especially when it comes to the topic of Divinity, I find art that is used as a tool of philosophy ends up as limited art and limited philosophy. This begs many questions, I know, like are art and philosophy mutually exclusive, etc. and we could discuss this, but God and art are matters of the heart, for me, and not of the head, and so other faculties of knowing than the intellect are engaged in a primary way. You may know from Nora that I am a sculptor as well as a PhD candidate in Religion and Culture and my work deals in issues of devotion to God, so I feel I could contribute to this discussion from both an academic and artistic perspective. My academic work is based on the thought and legacy of Sri Aurobindo Ghose (1872-1950), an Indian who was a revolutionary, poet, thinker, yogi and teacher.

Knowing all this (and I am sorry to be so disorganized in my thoughts), if you still would like to have me on your panel, I would be delighted to contribute.

Thanks again for the email and give my very best to Nora.

Patrick

-----

Dear Patrick,

May I forward your e-mail to the artist? I would like to get his feedback. I think a good panel discussion will present different viewpoints. Certainly we'll make sure that you see the show before we have the discussion, and you can talk to the artist. He plans to install the exhibition the week before Nov. 11 and to have students help in the creation of three of the pieces related to the Five Proofs.

Thank you for your timely and thoughtful response.

Lisa

-----

I am a bit sheepish as I don't know Mark Boyd nor his work, but yes, go ahead and forward.

Cheers,
Patrick

-----

Patrick:

You can see his work and read about it on his website.
I'm sorry I didn't include this information sooner.
www.markcameronboyd.com

Lisa

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9-18:

Thank you for the website, Lisa. I have more of a sense of the complexity of the work. I also look forward to seeing the work in person and meeting Mr. Boyd. I think I could participate knowing that it would be an interesting and nuanced discussion. I look forward to being in touch with you. Let me know what you need from me if anything.

Patrick

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9-20:

Hi Patrick,

Thank you for agreeing to participate in our panel during the exhibition of my work at Salve Regina Hall. I am certain you will bring a lot to the panel. My interest in Aquinas dates from 1997 when I first learned of, then later taught, his theories about art.

I was struck by your thoughts on the limitations of an art that positions itself as a “tool of philosophy.” My plan for 5 Proofs was not so much to provide a tool with which to comprehend Aquinas’s theology but rather to understand that all ideas, philosophical, theoretical or theological, are conveyed in this fragile system of representation that we call language. My simple way of engaging viewers is to ask them to become involved in a physical deciphering of bisected sentences. Through that activation of the site the words and ideas become revealed, and this is may be a way of opening a discourse about such things as “art,” “meaning,” “knowledge” and “God.” As well, I agree that “other faculties of knowing” will be and should be engaged.

I look forward to meeting you in November.

Best,
Mark

-----

Warm Greetings Mark,

Thank you for being in touch and for further addressing important ideas about your work, which is more nuanced than my initial fears gave credit. After I made those initial remarks to Lisa, I was glad to have a chance to spend some time with your website and now to hear from you.

I wonder if I may continue this conversation as I would like to test out some ideas with you. It would be helpful to know what you think since you have clearly given this a lot of thought and you have taught some impressive students (for instance: I am familiar with Melissa Ichiuji's work through a course I took with Martin Irvine last year). I am afraid this will be sketchy so I hope you don't mind following.

It seems to me that art, being what it is today--at least in the secular institutions across the US, serves very philosophical ends, and your work seems to be part of this tradition, which, as you say, seeks to understand ideas of all kinds and to understand them as fragile, unstable, provisional even (?). I would agree and see language this way, visual language included and this is why language and images are so exciting to me. This project, this turn to language, IS philosophical in nature, however. It questions itself, it questions the artist, destabilizing uncritical notions of these words. (If you know Arthur Danto's work on this, I agree with what he describes in the current artworld: art that is about art, which is a kind of post-art, post the Modernist manifestos of what art should/should not be). I gather from your site that you have a keen interest in Derrida, and I too share your appreciation. I first encountered him in grad school courses at the Claremont Graduate School (now University) in L.A. and later through the work of John Caputo. Exciting perspective that remains open to new and "dangerous" possibilities. So, in a word, your work lives in this world of ideas questioning themselves, which engages the mind, but does it engage other faculties, ones that a person for whom "God" is very personal, and for whom would never feel comfortable putting quotation marks around that word any more than one would put quotation marks around the name of their spouse when introducing them to another?

It seems that your work may provide opportunities for opening up Thomas in ways that will be creatively destabilizing for the Catholic U. community. This is a good thing! I find the theology crowd (of which I am NOT a member, I should admit--religious studies and culture are my focus) to be intelligent, interesting and interested, but I would also say that their exposure to modern and post modern art (and post-post!) is very limited. So the current and not so current debates about art are, well, not on the radar screen. I would not say that a turn to language is taken very seriously, though the turn to the subject is. The Catholic Church is still catching up to modernism, really. There are other pockets of Catholics who are interested in these things, but I would say you have to go to Georgetown or somewhere similar Jesuit place to find interested parties. This is not true, I would say, for the campus as a whole but for the theology department.

I will sign off for now and hope that these few thoughts are of interest. I know time is of the essence these days, that if we need to wait for the face to face in November, I completely understand! I wish you the best and look forward to meeting you in person.

Cheers,
Patrick

9-21:

Hi Patrick,

Many thanks for your kind words about my site - I'm glad you visited & found out more about my work.

First, accept my apologies for the shortness of this reply - I teach Mondays & Wednesdays at the Corcoran College of Art + Design & my time is well-accounted for in the early portion of the week. I hesitate to say how much time I may have on Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays, as well, given the short time that remains before actual work has to be delivered to Salve Regina Hall on Nov. 4!

In any case, you hit on some essential "bullets" that I can at least try to respond to in brief:

Like you, I have endless enthusiasm for the "visual language," which we art theorists, sometimes call visuality. Whether, paintings, sculpture, film or advertising, it is all part of our extreme codification in the spectacular world; Guy Debord was a good forty years ahead of the game when he foresaw that in "the future" (the future is now) our interaction one-to-another as humans would be mediated by image. Indeed, we define ourselves through image, as more than a few critical thinkers have taken note; it's the kind of cellphone we use, the clothes we wear, the "look" we wish to achieve.

But I digress...yes, it is a philosophical quest, I suppose, as much as any work in visuality deals with the ontological. My philosophy studies are lead by my interest in textual systems, language or langue (from Saussure, later Derrida) that I project visually but still wish people to read. I'm intrigued by differences, how meaning is established that way (red is red because it's not blue), why looking is different that reading. So there is a tension between these kinds of faculties.

I will close here because I've run out of time. One final point: I hesitated to put God in quotes in my last email - it occurred to me that it might be off-putting. My only intent was to propose that among the audience we hope to engage in my exhibit, as well at our panel, there will undoubtedly be atheists, agnostics and trembling theological virgins. I want to allow them the space to disbelieve, to read Aquinas's words (as well as a couple of nay-sayers) and decide for themselves what can be proven through language. It's interesting that when Martin Heidegger wrote of $100-words like Truth, Beauty and Love, it preferred to strike-through them so that we can agree to our uncertainty as to their "meaning." Derrida, of course, carried this to all words, and this was where my text-bisection was born, as a visual device with which to consider the fact of questioning all words, questioning the ability to convey anything more than just words. As Jacques, famously said, "There is nothing but the text."

Best,
Mark

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9-23:

Dear Mark,

I too am teaching these days, all day on Wednesdays. So, I am glad to get your response and have a chance to reply. It has me thinking more of the connections I see between Derrida, et al. and different understandings of the silence as experienced and addressed in mystical traditions. To deconstruct language is to expose it to that silence that is broken up by words and sounds--by noise. I have more experience in Christian, Sufi and Hindu worldviews of mysticism so I would approach it from these angles. That "there is nothing but the text" is not the experience of those in these traditions, but there is some overlap I think. The HIndu-based thinker I am writing my dissertation on is Sri Aurobindo Ghose (d. 1950), who has an interesting view of language. He knew Vedic and classical Sanskrit (among about ten other languages, both Western and Eastern) and saw an evolution of how language came into being from the nervous system of the human body such that the meaning and the word used for it were organically connected, where it was not arbitrary but a natural linkage, I suppose totally onomatopoetic. I have been studying Sanskrit myself and one can see there the way it preserves this kind of consciousness in its root words, which can actually feel like they sound and feel like they mean. Gradually (and this has been the case for most of recorded history in his view) language came to be abstracted such that ideas/meanings had nothing whatsoever to do with the word used and they were linked conventionally. I will leave our conversation for November but I liked very much how you made clear the connection between Heidegger and Derrida. That was not so conscious before for me.

I wish you the best of success as you continue to build your show.

Cheers,
Patrick


A Modern Meditation on The Five Proofs of God: The Art of Mark Cameron Boyd; An exhibition at Salve Regina Gallery, Catholic University of America, November 11-December 17, 2010.

August 21, 2010

Observations on Viewed Reality: Entry-Level


Ding is a young Asian woman. She’s typing on a typewriter. I wonder if she’s writing about me. The output falls on the floor. People are shooting photos. Ding just glanced at her watch. There’s no clock in here. She just said, “I have to be connected…” (Faded away.) She’s being videotaped. There’s a good possibility that she’s writing about me. When do her observations become about communication?

These were my “observations” about Ding Ren as she performed “Observations with a Typewriter” yesterday at the Smithsonian Museum's Archives of American Art. Having previously asked Ding’s permission to come and observe her performance of observing others, my presence was intentionally not a “performance,” but more of a report. My interest in her “observations” was specifically about her actions generating words (language) from observable realities. Also, I was seeking to “mirror” her observational act somewhat, to introduce the idea of a “chain” of observation. My observations here are italicized and transcribed exactly as I wrote them in my small spiral note-pad. My reflections are after-the-fact to elucidate or expand on whatever thoughts I gleaned from her piece. To that end, my “report” thus becomes further aestheticized, or “abstracted from” the reality of the event.

Is the fact that she’s being videotaped important?

Obviously, documentation of performance presupposes an “art” context; why videotape/photograph it unless there’s agreement at the outset that it is art. Historically, conceptual art is ephemeral, sometimes immaterial, and this fragility is often a result of its time-based components. In this sense, documentation is essential because there are very little “objects” actually produced; or objects have only referential importance to the actual “art” produced.

She rolls out blank space between bursts of typing. Is the blank space “context?”

As much as the “space” that exists in music, I think the space that exists around the focal aspects of art establishes a contextual apprehension of that art. Thus, the “white cube” is essential for contemporary apprehension of art that is often not very “artful.” But since Ding’s action of writing words on paper clearly yields “traditional” foci of literary content, i.e., poetry, this “work within a work” may allow the performative aspects of writing to be perceived as a “performance.” Would you be interested in viewing film of Joyce at his desk working on Ulysses?

Why am I here? At what point does this become less about the recording and more about the act of performance?

My intentions are stated above but I had a moment of doubt where I wondered if my “recording” her “observing” would have any resonance without Ding’s performance, especially as sanctioned by an institution as auspicious as the Smithsonian. My presence was clearly not necessary for “art” to occur, and any attempt on my part to create a relational aesthetic was mostly private and utterly unimportant to Ding’s piece. Still, I was curious enough about the ideas at play here to “participate” if, for nothing else, to generate the reflective contemplation of language.

I’m not even observing her. It’s all about the sound of the typewriter. She’s taken a drink of water. She’s very serious now – maybe anxious to end. “Your hat is gray.” (Ding addressed some person.) Taking a break. Performance can be so boring. I like the rolling of the paper. It seems to imply that there’s more to this than an observational act. Does the “space” of the white paper provide a context for “art?” (That’s a question.)

I became aware early on that my own concentration in hand-writing notes in a spiral note-pad kept my head down to the extent that I was missing the viewable reality of Ding’s piece. This requirement of self-imposed instructions was necessary for my observational recording to occur, yet the sound punctuated the environment somewhat soothingly. Ding’s demeanor fluctuated easily from serious to playful, evoking a relaxed atmosphere to her performance. Performance has often been “traditionally” perceived as theatrical and this can seem boring. Perhaps it is what we bring to it; many wandering into this gallery undoubtedly found Ding’s performance to be an unconvincing display of “art,” having little explanatory knowledge of what she was doing or why. Again, the sounds of Ding advancing the paper scroll through the typewriter introduced another, ambient perception of a performance that did not have to be “observed” to be perceived. And again, the idea of that paper being contextual returned, this time with an emphasis on the actual yardage of paper spooling out across the floor of the Lawrence A Fleischman Gallery, providing if not context at least an environmental actualization that some kind of “art” was being “made” here.

Typing is a lost art – there’s more reliance on gravity, weight and the fulcrum. (Is that it?)

This was one of the most satisfying “observations” that occurred to me during Ding’s performance. I marveled at how the act of writing with so “ancient” a device as a typewriter was able to cause such reflections about simple physics. And, yes, it is a fulcrum. It is obvious that Ding’s performance benefitted from the use of this kind of writing implement instead of a laptop computer. The associative factors of obsolescence and machinery produce “charged” connotations when related to language; writing as controlled information was fundamentally spread when partnered to industry. Parenthetically, “performance” gains recognition, as all art does, when partnered to recognized art institutions.

People are noticing I’m writing. She’s taken a bathroom break – 6:06. I’m going to go read some of what she’s been writing. Well, that’s a surprise – she’s been writing/observing colors of clothing worn by the visitors – each with time noted. So it’s poetry?

At this point my perceptions about Ding’s piece were altered by my straying from self-imposed instructions. When I shifted my participation to “reading” her “observations,” comprehension was introduced through the reading of what Ding was writing. Thus, my deduction and interpretation of the piece was demonstrably changed, and I was somewhat disappointed to discover she was merely noting the colors of apparel items and clothing that visitors to the gallery were wearing. Immediately, this suggested a poetic form, that is to say a method of conceiving poetry. I had imagined that Ding’s observations about the visitors were more descriptive, possibly assumptions or suppositions about them. Instead, there was a clear, simple agenda: note a visitor’s clothing item color and the time. Clearly, my “disappointment” is purely subjective; to interpret her piece as “disappointing” foists my subjective taste upon it. However, the revelation of what Ding was writing further connects her performance to conceptual art; that is to say, like previous conceptual artworks her piece is grounded by a set of instructions. Again, the relationship to machinery – “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”

“That was a four-minute break,” she said, coming back. Not certain of the notations being “observations.” Seem to be more about “recording?” When do these differ? I realize now my “observations” are mainly questions. What does that reveal? (Another question.)

Continuing my own subjective analysis, I now began to critique Ding’s performance. It must be further noted that I had anticipated that my own “observations” would include critical analysis, a “questioning,” and this was something I fully planned on from the outset. After all, my presence there was ostensibly to witness an art performance and I expected my “observations” to be generated by my perception of Ding’s piece. The very nature of Ding’s deadpan observations about colors of clothing had a kind of pedestrian quality but still seemed rigorously “conceptual” and true to the concept. I would also say that Ding adhered more to the idea of “recording” than “observations,” and within this stricter parameter her performance was further grounded in conceptualism.

Two young men are crouched over the scroll of observations like it’s an archaeological relic. I may not have enough paper. (Ding remarks on a paper jam.) The casualness of her approach is antithetical to performance as “traditionally” viewed. Back to the poetry idea – is the randomness of this Fluxist? (Can’t seem to stop writing questions.)

Ding’s performance can be viewed as process art; the form (the scroll of paper with notations) is a result of her process. It was the easiest part of her performance to engage, even though access to the performance was visually more immediate. There is always an attitudinal aspect to performance whereby it is confrontational and visitors are somewhat intimidated by the actual presence of someone “making art.” To her credit, Ding kept the mood as comfortable as possible, chatting amiably with visitors while writing, thus deflecting the intimidation and changing the “traditionally” perceived theatrics of the situation. I believe the Fluxus association is apt, as the Fluxists created a lot of work based on instructions, was time-based and virtually ephemeral, and re-imagined poetry as “lists.”(1)

Poetry coming from discernment . . . (Ding: “I’ve been typing ‘beige’ a lot.”) . . . of experience coming from a reality that is viewed. What is that called? What kind of knowing is that? Observable information isn’t knowledge – or if it is it is the first tier of reality, a level of entry. Then Ding’s performance yields the access to an observable reality. Is this the opening into the void of consciousness? (How did I get to that?)

Here I was trying to make connections between “reality that is viewed” and empiricism, or knowledge based on sense experience. Certainly, we had two senses front and center here, sight and hearing, and my spontaneous assertion that “observable information isn’t knowledge” seems sound – “observable information” can be likened to an analytical proposition, that is, the veracity of a statement is clearly understood within the elements (words) of the proposition itself (“Mark’s shirt is blue.”) – yet the empirical knowledge must be verified within the statement. I doubted this thought even as it formed in my mind, immediately suspecting that this kind of knowledge was entry-level knowing at best, or “first tier” knowledge. Thus, Ding’s performance “opened” my thoughts to how observations, even simple notations of color, might reflect upon notions of our consciousness, one’s self-awareness, even to philosophies of perception.

(We broke concentration for a moment – she explained that I was observing her, etc.) (And I then broke my silence and said the performance was making me think these thoughts about philosophy and poetry . . . Ding said, “Don’t give anything away.”)

My presence alters her act of solitude. Yet I’m here to “mirror” the intensity; reproducing the observational aspects of Ding’s actions. Of course, I’d hoped the “chain of observable reality” would’ve been multiplied by the addition of others to observe me observing her – but that hasn’t happened. So we’re left with poetry – but poetry of a sort that calls to mind relationships of philosophy to reality and how the placement of art can be manipulated both ways.
(2)

Originally, I had invited my Facebook group, “Postconceptual Artists”, to attend and make observations about me making observations about Ding making observations about visitors. My “chain of observable reality” idea was to emphasize the communicative possibilities of observation and I realize now that both my experiment and Ding’s may have to do with causality, i.e., the relationship of cause and effect. Ding’s observations were caused by her visitors, yet she also conceived that these observations would have an additional effect of creating “poetry.” Moreover, the “placement” of Ding’s emotionless words on her typewritten scroll, as well as the site-specificity of the Smithsonian Museum’s Archive of American Art, rendered a performance piece that was intriguingly both philosophical and conceptual.

Images: Ding Ren performing at Lawrence A. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in Smithsonian Museum’s Archives of American Art on August 20, 2010 (top); MCB making observations on Ding’s performance (bottom); photography courtesy of Page Carr; © copyright 2010 by Page Carr.

__________________________________________________

1. Ding's performance was held in conjunction with Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, on display through September 27, 2010.

2. Amazingly, this last observation I made was on the last page in my note-pad; I had arrived at 6 pm and Ding's piece ended at 6:30.

July 13, 2010

958

Shortly before his death in 1922, Marcel Proust published the fourth volume of his ultimately seven volume masterwork, In Search of Lost Time.(1) Entitled Sodom and Gomorrah, the opening section of this volume includes what has been called “the longest sentence in French literature.”(2) At 958 words, Proust’s sentence unspools a stream of consciousness that concerns, among other things, racism and persecution (of Jews blatantly and homosexuals subliminally), hypocrisy and misapprehension of “love.” In its robust linearity, Proust’s mammoth sentence embodies concepts of language as a physical trajectory of words, a literal journey to “meanings.” As a sentence, Proust’s words, though freed within our intellectual cognition, move inexorably to a conclusion. That is to say, we have an inherent expectation of meaning as a given when we read sentences.

Proust’s rambling line of words engaged my curiosity of late because it figured (and may still figure) in a concept I was mulling for an installation proposal. In point of fact, the idea that began to unveil within my mind became so lysergic and vociferous that I have temporarily shelved it for further research. Like Proust’s ever-expanding grammatical monster, the concepts within my proposal begat theories that quickly took on labyrinthine dimensions.

For instance, the simplest of speculations related to the physicality of language – its explication of words along a horizontal trail to enable communicative thought – dissolves under linguistic theories that render this deceptively pedestrian view impossibly naïve. We read sentences with a degree of suspension, smugly awash in denial that these tag-along words following words in their humble quest of ubiquitous “meaning” can represent anything collectively at all, much less individually. If we appreciate Derrida’s sense of helplessness in the knowledge that meaning is “infinitely” deferred then how can we approach a 958-word, meandering python like Proust’s?

But it is rather quaintly “literature,” isn’t it? We, who don’t “read” really, spend our lives assuming meanings, rattling off unsubstantiated statistics, digesting spewed sound bytes as “news,” careening through a life based on conjecture, polls and promises.

Proust’s “modern” novel revels in a spatio-temporal dissection of language and the perception of “real” versus constructed time. As has been pointed out, one theme in In Search of Lost Time is that the true pleasure of an experience comes not at the moment we are experiencing it but in our anticipation of the experience and afterwards in our reflection of it.(3) I think that words and sentences – reading – can be viewed in the same way. In approaching a 958-word sentence we expect some real, palpable connection with the mind, both Proust’s and our own. Yet during that malingering, horizontal trip do we really engage?

Here is the 958-word sentence:

“Their honor precarious, their liberty provisional, lasting only until the discovery of their crime; their position unstable, like that of the poet who one day was feasted at every table, applauded in every theatre in London, and on the next was driven from every lodging, unable to find a pillow upon which to lay his head, turning the mill like Samson and saying like him: "The two sexes shall die, each in a place apart!"; excluded even, save on the days of general disaster when the majority rally round the victim as the Jews rallied round Dreyfus, from the sympathy--at times from the society--of their fellows, in whom they inspire only disgust at seeing themselves as they are, portrayed in a mirror which, ceasing to flatter them, accentuates every blemish that they have refused to observe in themselves, and makes them understand that what they have been calling their love (a thing to which, playing upon the word, they have by association annexed all that poetry, painting, music, chivalry, asceticism have contrived to add to love) springs not from an ideal of beauty which they have chosen but from an incurable malady; like the Jews again (save some who will associate only with others of their race and have always on their lips ritual words and consecrated pleasantries), shunning one another, seeking out those who are most directly their opposite, who do not desire their company, pardoning their rebuffs, moved to ecstasy by their condescension; but also brought into the company of their own kind by the ostracism that strikes them, the opprobrium under which they have fallen, having finally been invested, by a persecution similar to that of Israel, with the physical and moral characteristics of a race, sometimes beautiful, often hideous, finding (in spite of all the mockery with which he who, more closely blended with, better assimilated to the opposing race, is relatively, in appearance, the least inverted, heaps upon him who has remained more so) a relief in frequenting the society of their kind, and even some corroboration of their own life, so much so that, while steadfastly denying that they are a race (the name of which is the vilest of insults), those who succeed in concealing the fact that they belong to it they readily unmask, with a view less to injuring them, though they have no scruple about that, than to excusing themselves; and, going in search (as a doctor seeks cases of appendicitis) of cases of inversion in history, taking pleasure in recalling that Socrates was one of themselves, as the Israelites claim that Jesus was one of them, without reflecting that there were no abnormals when homosexuality was the norm, no anti-Christians before Christ, that the disgrace alone makes the crime because it has allowed to survive only those who remained obdurate to every warning, to every example, to every punishment, by virtue of an innate disposition so peculiar that it is more repugnant to other men (even though it may be accompanied by exalted moral qualities) than certain other vices which exclude those qualities, such as theft, cruelty, breach of faith, vices better understood and so more readily excused by the generality of men; forming a freemasonry far more extensive, more powerful and less suspected than that of the Lodges, for it rests upon an identity of tastes, needs, habits, dangers, apprenticeship, knowledge, traffic, glossary, and one in which the members themselves, who intend not to know one another, recognize one another immediately by natural or conventional, involuntary or deliberate signs which indicate one of his congeners to the beggar in the street, in the great nobleman whose carriage door he is shutting, to the father in the suitor for his daughter's hand, to him who has sought healing, absolution, defense, in the doctor, the priest, the barrister to whom he has had recourse; all of them obliged to protect their own secret but having their part in a secret shared with the others, which the rest of humanity does not suspect and which means that to them the most wildly improbable tales of adventure seem true, for in this romantic, anachronistic life the ambassador is a bosom friend of the felon, the prince, with a certain independence of action with which his aristocratic breeding has furnished him, and which the trembling little cit would lack, on leaving the duchess's party goes off to confer in private with the hooligan; a reprobate part of the human whole, but an important part, suspected where it does not exist, flaunting itself, insolent and unpunished, where its existence is never guessed; numbering its adherents everywhere, among the people, in the army, in the church, in the prison, on the throne; living, in short, at least to a great extent, in a playful and perilous intimacy with the men of the other race, provoking them, playing with them by speaking of its vice as of something alien to it; a game that is rendered easy by the blindness or duplicity of the others, a game that may be kept up for years until the day of the scandal, on which these lion-tamers are devoured; until then, obliged to make a secret of their lives, to turn away their eyes from the things on which they would naturally fasten them, to fasten them upon those from which they would naturally turn away, to change the gender of many of the words in their vocabulary, a social constraint, slight in comparison with the inward constraint which their vice, or what is improperly so called, imposes upon them with regard not so much now to others as to themselves, and in such a way that to themselves it does not appear a vice.”

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1. The remaining three volumes were published posthumously from Proust’s notes.

2. Obviously, there's James Joyce, but he wrote in English and I argue that his are not “sentences” but instead his attempt at capturing thought. Especially lengthy is Molly’s soliloquy (4,391 words) at the end of Ulysses.

3. For further research into Proust, try these: http://tempsperdu.com/ and http://www.readingproust.com/

June 29, 2010

Mini-Skirt Medici

In Patrons and Painters, Francis Haskell writes that the “history of Venetian art patronage in the eighteenth century is largely the history of the various forces which moulded (sic) aristocratic tastes at different periods” and that those aristocrats projected their “tastes” through their “choice of artists, subjects and styles.”(1) We are far removed from those Venetian tastes but the influences of wealth, power and social position upon art making remain constant in the 21st Century. As “social relations” between both “clients” and “artists,” art patronage has steadfast continuity today in a variety of ways, including corporate sponsorships, art dealers, art museum directors and board members.

To clarify, “art patronage” is the support of artists and/or artisans by patrons either through the patron’s social position or with financial incentives, most often as commissioned work; often a patron functions as “client” when specific works are desired and requested; dealers function daily as patrons for their clientele.

Art patronage had its historical highlights, most notably during the Medieval period when the Franciscans produced incredible churches seemingly at odds with their professed vows of poverty and living the simple life. Louise Bourdua has speculated that the Franciscan friars’ preference for their “personal conceptions” caused their rejection of the “official” decorations specified by the mother church.(2)

The true era of arts patronage blooms during Renaissance and Baroque Italy and featured patrons both religious (The Pope) and private (The Medici). The Medici family is of course regarded with celestial importance as they provided commissions, favor and influence to the likes of Masaccio, Michelangelo and Da Vinci.

Which brings us to By Request, the D.C. art scene’s controversy du jour. Conceived masterfully by Jeffry Cudlin, By Request critiques current art world fascination with “relational aesthetics” through Cudlin’s social experiment; seven collector/curator types were paired with seven “creatives” to concoct Cudlin’s version of “an ideal show.” As Jeffry said before the exhibit opened:

“A show that is a) the ideal reflection of D.C. b) the ideal in terms of selling - if the artists to do good job (sic) with the pieces then I'll have guaranteed sales because each piece is tailor-made for the collectors…”(3)

And Jeffry had to throw a “wrench” (his word) into this formula for his “ideal show” by requiring that each of the artists had to represent him in their pieces:

“…and c) it's an ideal show to promote myself like crazy with because the stipulation I made for each artist in the show is that I have to be featured in the piece because while I didn't make any of them, I'm brokering the transaction, my presence is there for full disclosure and transparency - in addition to self-promotion.”(4)

This particular “wrench” is what confirms my “art patronage” thesis. As Jeffry said elsewhere, he was not only “orchestrating all the transactions” but he was also demanding that the resultant artwork be about him.(5) This bears a striking similarity to the role of Medieval art patronage and how the inevitable and requisite “subject” of those Franciscan churches was – God. Moreover, in the Medieval period lay patrons also had significant influence upon those Franciscan church decoration programs, just as Cudlin’s “patron-clients” functioned in their “lay” roles for his “church” project.

Does By Request, while truthfully acknowledging our 21st Century latent “ignorance” of what art is, unknowingly express the belief that in today’s “ideal show” the curator is “god?”

There was also a “20 page survey” that Cudlin gave to the “specific figures in the local art community” that posed questions such as “How do you feel about painterly technique?” Artists were asked to “create the pieces based more on what they know about their collector personally or what they know of that person, as opposed to creating to satisfy what the collector wrote on their survey in a self-conscious moment.”(6)

The resultant show virtually resists categorization – is it an example of a democratized, survey of aesthetics, or just smart curatorial practice? In my experience, anything so difficult to put in a niche is generally pushing the envelope and this is certainly what Cudlin has accomplished. In my view, By Request functions as a meditation on art patronage in the 21st Century, while revealing the obvious fact that any attempt at pinning down what art actually “is” may perhaps be painfully doomed to failure.

Without a doubt some of the heaviest D.C. art world players were drafted into service as the “client-patrons” of Jeffry’s scheme. They ranged from 14th Street commercial dealers (Martin Irvine of Irvine Contemporary) to major art collectors (Henry Thaggert and Tony Podesta). The selection of artists varied but was mostly emerging youngsters Victoria F. Gaitan, Trevor Young, Cory Oberndorfer and Jenny Mullins, with a few established names like Jason Horowitz and Kerry Skarbakka.(7)

On opening night, most of the participating artists were on-site and fielded my questions and criticisms good-naturedly. Consensus among them was clearly positive, as most agreed that the concept inspired them and it was a great opportunity, even if they were unwitting “pawns” in Jeffry’s game.(8)

However, because the cutting edge satire of some of Cudlin’s pre-opening pranks very nearly sidetracked By Request’s focus, the show suffers from concept fatigue. In an admirable and understandable attempt to promote his show, Jeffry performed in full drag as local art patron, Philippa P.B. Hughes, and made guerilla-style appearances at area galleries. Thus, there was the very real fear that Jeffry might turn up at the opening in a mini-skirt. Cudlin also conspired with show artist Cory Oberndorfer to “fake” a graffiti artist and “tag” some 14th Street facades with wheat-paste, again to dupe poor Philippa.(9)

The rock-bottom test of this kind of conceptual show would be how it moves the discourse forward. Hopefully, we can now begin to have a discussion about “patronage” versus “self-expression,” or whether or not subjective “judgments of taste” concerning art can be dispelled by surveys. With a bit more prodding and talking and writing, we might even be able to get to the essence of how the “field of cultural production” functions socially and how it impacts what we call “art.”


ADMINSTRATOR’S NOTE: There are so many images of Jeffry Cudlin in drag circulating right now, I decided not to post one. If you have to see one, go here.

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1. Haskell, Francis. Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, New Haven, 1980, 247.

2. Bourdua, Louise. The Franciscans and Art Patronage in Late Medieval Italy, Cambridge, 2004.

3. www.brightestyoungthings.com

4. Ibid.

5. www.pinklineproject.com

6. Op. cit. www.brightestyoungthings.com

7. Kerry Skarbakka is also represented by Irvine Contemporary.

8. This viewpoint was expressed to me at the opening by one of the exhibition’s artists, while another characterized Jeffry as a “puppet-master.” Both artists shall remain anonymous.

9. Bless her heart, Hughes took it all in stride and smiled diplomatically through all the hi-jinks.

June 15, 2010

R.I.P. Sigmar Polke


Upon returning from vacation, I learned the sad news that Sigmar Polke had died; he lost his battle with cancer last Friday. He was 69.

History has been good to Polke as his acceptance within the fine art canon found sustained impact at the end of the 20th Century. I teach his work yearly and I believe Polke's genius will continue to resonate as these younger artists discover him. In his memory, I reprint a paragraph from a 2006 post on "Art Practice of the 1960s":

But throughout the 1960’s it would be the German, Sigmar Polke, who would fully exploit and develop the idea of transgressive, codified citations of commodity culture. Often utilizing the “ben-day” dot pattern of industrial reproduction, he would then negate this commercial representation technique through his manual execution, in an ironic snubbing of Duchamp’s “detachment.” Even more brilliantly, he stretched “found” printed fabrics (bed-spreads and sheets) as his “canvas,” subversively juxtaposing the consumer codification structures with painterly gestures of Modernism.

Image: Bunnies (1966), synthetic polymer on linen, © Copyright by Sigmar Polke.

May 28, 2010

Scatter Shots



The May Art in America was rife with polemic – but before I begin my “Scatter-shot” of critiques, let me say, “Thank You, Peter Plagens!’ for driving another nail into the Whitney Biennial’s dispirited coffin. His angular wit and crisply tart evaluations of this year’s crop was dead-on. I can only add that Tauba Auerbach must also have gleaned a few ideas from Simon Hantaï’s pliage work of 1960 – everything old IS new again.

First off, Pepe Karmel’s presumptive authority on Yves Klein must be taken to task. True, Klein’s “IKB” monochromes do reign as “classically modernist paintings” but are they his “most significant achievement?” I hardly think so, given Klein’s prophetic and surgical attack on the art “object.” In addition to directing the pioneering “body art” of his Anthropometries, and regardless of what Karmel opines about how critics misrepresent Klein as a “prophet of postmodernism,” Klein did introduce early concepts of the “immaterial” into art discourse with his “Void” and those transactions of “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility.” Both of those experiments clearly pre-figure critical assessments of the “work” of art as commodity and conceptual objections to “ownership.” Yves himself outlined how those transfers of “ownership” of said “zones” were to be “relinquished against a certain weight of fine gold” and that this transaction authenticated the immateriality of the “work” as art.(1)

Tony Godfrey points out that the “making, purchase and ownership of the work of art had become a mystery, or ritual.”(2) Because that transaction both authenticates and negates the art object, Klein revealed that art is not wedded to materiality. Klein’s genius was to position the “work” of art as both a commodity and conceptual “object” by conferring an exchange value on an intangible “idea” through a ritual transaction.

Finally, Richard Kalina’s cozy review of Robert Morris’s 2010 version of an untitled 1968 installation (“Scatter Piece”) at Leo Castelli prompts me to re-engage another of my critical pet peeves – re-creations of previously existing works or performances. Marina Abramović’s recent MOMA retrospective has opened a hornet’s nest of critical issues concerning temporality, authenticity and replication but Morris’s installation was, it seems, “not rule-bound but arrived at intuitively.” Always ahead of the curve in contemporary art, Morris was eager to extricate himself from Minimalism’s absorption into the Art Market and so began his exercises in “anti-form.” I love that Morris claimed the “materials” of “Scatter Piece” – aluminum, brass, copper, felt, lead, steel, zinc – would still be “Scatter Piece,” even stacked in storage.(3) I don’t think we can say the same for Abramovic’s “re-performances.”

Kalina reports that Richard Serra, upon being told he couldn’t kick “Scatter Piece” around, sternly replied, “It doesn’t matter.” Serra was right; Morris was manifesting disorder, the “anti-form” of materials, to “make” art. The difference between Morris’s “re-creation” of his 1968 installation and Abramović’s 2010 “re-performances” is conceptual; Morris never intended his piece to coalesce into an “object,” while Abramović is hoping her “works” will be catalogued among other “objects” within the museum’s archives.

Image: Untitled (Scatter Piece); original 1968 installation at Leo Castelli Gallery; © Copyright Robert Morris.

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1. Selz, Peter, and Kristine Stiles, ed. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley, 1996, 81.

2. Godfrey, Tony. Conceptual Art, London, 2004, 81.

3. It is disturbing to learn that the original “Scatter Piece” was “accidentally disposed of” and this may dismiss all credibility of that conceptual position.

May 22, 2010

The Presence of Being



Awesome in scope and intention, Marina Abramović’s “performance retrospective” (“The Artist Is Present”) at the Museum of Modern Art is yet another salvo in her battle for a sanctified position in performance art history. That performance art is firmly in place in the Modernist (and postmodernist) canon is not at stake; from Dada to Mathew Barney, the strategy of artists using their physical presence and temporal duration to make art is exhaustively recorded, critiqued and validated. What is at stake, as Abramović well knows, is the issue of whether time-based, ephemeral performance “artworks,” whose very essence evolved from a de rigueur engagement with immediacy and confrontation, can be re-inscribed via hegemonic curatorial practices as “permanent” re-creations in the archives of museum culture.

Performance art has been mostly non-archival and temporary, reliant upon the memory of eye-witnesses coupled with reproductions of spotty quality. Granted, video and digital capability of the past 30 years has pretty much resolved the problem of documentation. Yet performance art’s “High Era” (roughly, from 1960 with Allan Kaprow’s first “Happenings” and Yves Klein’s Anthropometries) suffered from a lack of proper documentation. Or perhaps it benefited from various mythologies that grew from those second-hand accounts and fuzzy photographs. Ironically, today’s assertively accurate digital image technologies may have diluted performance art’s credo of spatio-temporal specificity with their introduction of doubt through the possibility of deceptive representation.(1)

Regardless of the documentation issue, the theories behind performance can be problematic for both its commercial marketability and its archival potential. Conceived as “anti-commodity,” acts of performance were designed to produce an audience response, to provoke and engage the viewers, sometimes to allow participation or interaction but, in any case, to bypass conventions of the “artwork” as an inherently static object. Except for cash taken in for admission fees, performance “works” themselves are not salable; they generate residue not revenue. Secondary objects like schematics, drawings, instructions, photographs, film or video have been the traditional commodity items of performance. As “non-objects,” performance artworks are simply defined by their durational time and the performance artist’s physicality; performance is simultaneously located in the artist’s body and the performance space.

I have expressed my concerns about recreations of performance art on this site. I believe that to replicate or “re-do” performance artworks directly contradicts the originating artists’ intentions, producing “conflicts that will undoubtedly arise in future re-enactments of previously performed works that were time-based in a specific place, encompassing a particular presence, and existing within a long-past socio-economic and political episteme.” Without the specific societal and cultural conditions of their particular time period, many of those epistemic issues or “talking points” related to a performance work would be lost on viewers of a “re-performance.”

“Re-performance” is the word Marina Abramović uses to describe the five older works from her oeuvre that are being re-done at MOMA. In one video on MOMA’s website, Abramović speaks of performance art’s documentation and the problems of recreation. She acknowledges critics who claim that “if there’s somebody else re-perform the piece, actually it’s not anymore the piece of the artist’s idea, it would be a new piece because he added his own, you know, personality inside.” Regardless of the “danger,” Abramović believes that her “solution” of re-performance is necessary to communicate the idea of these performances, to provide a “live” experience of them.

Such thoughts were on my mind as I entered MOMA last week to finally see the Abramović retrospective. Walking upstairs to the second floor, I was surprised to see Abramović’s newest piece, “The Artist Is Present,” installed there. Marina Abramović, the art world diva herself, sat in a simple wood chair facing a young woman sitting in a similar chair opposite; gone is a table originally part of the installation, perhaps because some visitors had stood atop it or placed their shoes upon it.(2) It was curious to me that this piece would be the first that MOMA visitors see. However, Abramović’s reasoning and the sadness of it ultimately became quite clear to me.

It has been noted that this piece is apparently a “re-do” of an earlier performance Abramović made with Ulay, her former partner, in 1977.(3) Reportedly, the intensity and emotional impact of this austere piece has brought many MOMA visitors to tears and the vast emptiness of this gallery had been magically imbued with a palpable psychic aura. Abramović’s face was alternately beatific or meditative, while her “visitor” (who sat opposite Marina for the entire two hours I was in MOMA) seemed in a trance. Neither moved, and the surrounding patrons were respectfully quiet, both those in the queue to take a turn opposite Marina and the rest of us who just observed.

What are we supposed to get from this? In all honesty, I began thinking about the simplicity of the arrangement and how Abramović is presenting herself as artwork. As simplistic as that sounds, there are other considerations that revolve around the idea of “celebrity” and what it means to become intimate with such an iconic art world figure, if staring into someone’s eyes embodies “intimacy.” However, a “stare-down” with Abramović seems fairly daunting, given her stature in art history and well-regarded role in performance art. Still, one wonders what the visitor/sitters think about – do they believe they are “encountering” Abramović’s presence or her past when they look into her eyes?

Wandering upstairs to the rest of the show, I can hear other pieces before I see them; anguished moans, screams and voices mingle with hushed whispers from museum visitors. Here is the history, the past life work of Abramović in photography and video: “Freeing the Voice” (1975), Abramović screaming until she loses her voice; “Art Must Be Beautiful” (1975), Abramović brushes her hair with metal brush and comb while continuously repeating “Art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful;” “Rest Energy” (1980), Abramović and Ulay stand opposite one another holding a bow and arrow, with the arrow pointing to her heart.

There is more of this traditional documentary detritus, of course, but it was “re-performances” that I came to see. As expected, there are serious contradictions between what the intentions of Abramović’s originals once were and how the re-performances have changed those intentions now. Only one, “Relation in Time” (1977), seems to have be re-cast effortlessly. In her original piece, Abramović sat back-to-back with Ulay, their hair tied together and at MOMA it survives relatively intact except for the fact that the original was only 17 hours long; here it is performed 7 hours a day for the duration of the exhibit.

Altering the time-length of a performance would not seem to seriously affect its intentions. However, when we realize that certain aspects of Abramović’s re-stagings have essentially created all-new interpretations of her works, we begin to see the “re-performance” dilemma. For example, how does the 2010 “Luminosity”compare to its original version? In her 1997 original, Abramović sat naked on a bicycle seat mounted on a stand; there is a still photograph from a video that shows her only a few inches off the ground; inexplicably Abramović re-staged her MOMA re-performance of “Luminosity” with the female re-performer mounted high on the museum wall - an eight-foot ladder stood to one side of the gallery space, presumably so that re-performer could climb up on the bike seat. Does this difference somehow make the 2010 performer more “object-like?”(4)

Without a doubt, the most controversial, talked-of re-performance at MOMA was the 2010 “Imponderabilia.” This was originally another pairing of Ulay and Abramović back in 1977 and there is film footage of that original showing the two standing naked at a gallery entrance as fully-clothed persons walk between them to enter the space. Much has been said about this re-performance and its re-staging by Abramović that has now evolved to two nude females standing at the alternate entrance to one of the MOMA gallery spaces.(5) Abramović may have been forced to make the gender switch as it has been reported that the male performer “became visibly aroused” and had to be removed. Additionally, an “unspecified number of patrons have been ejected for groping performers.”

In its present incarnation, this “titillation factor” clearly changes the 2010 “Imponderabilia” re-performance significantly. In their 1997 original, Ulay and Abramović were representative of both genders. Last week, two nude, attractive and fit females were the re-performers when I passed between them. I found this experience to be sexually charged, as I am certain it must have been for other heterosexual males who walked between the young, nude women. So is the 2010 re-performance still about “close physical contact with another human being which is generally considered disturbing between strangers?”(6) Or is it now about the controlled invasiveness of personal spaces violated, both that of the re-performers and the visitor, with the added frisson of an authorized permissiveness?

Let me be clear: I understand that artworks can have multiple “meanings,” that aesthetic ambiguity allows individuals to perceive and interpret a work in completely different ways. Interpretation by the viewer is not at issue here. The question is whether or not a re-interpretation of an existing artwork is thereby deemed authentic and sufficiently worthy for recognition as archival quality by museum culture. In Klaus Biesenbach, MOMA’s “Curator at Large,” Abramović has found an erstwhile supporter who obviously champions her belief that performance artworks can enter museum collections as a re-constituted version. Nevertheless, institutional largesse does not automatically confer positive critical assessment.

At least one artist has granted a museum rights to carry out and re-perform a performance piece which provides a possible solution how performance can authentically enter a museum to become institutionalized and re-performed. The young Berliner, Tino Seghal, has sold a performance piece entitled “Kiss,” coincidentally to MOMA, who “loaned” it to the Guggenheim Museum for exhibit this year. Seghal “sells the pieces, for prices that reach into six figures, as editions; the sales agreements are oral; only the cash paid in is tangible. He stipulates that he or someone associated with him must oversee the execution of a sold piece. If unauthorized changes are made, the result will be considered inauthentic, a fake.”(7)

About her first re-performances, “Seven Easy Pieces,” staged at the Guggenheim in 2005, Abramović has said, “My version will be exactly as the piece was, but as a very long duration piece.”(8) This seems to clarify her position that re-performances should be “exact” but this is not the case with the re-performances in the 2010 retrospective. Further questions are raised concerning statements attributed to Abramović about her 2005 re-performances, and those statements have become part of the textual accompaniment to the MOMA exhibition:

“[Abramović] has said that ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ was a product of her frustration with contemporary mass media’s representation of those seminal historical performances with the lack of documentation of them and with the loss of understanding of the context in which such performances were originally executed.”(9)

Granted, and if this the attribution is correct then it indicates that Abramović is ignoring the fact that her 2010 exhibit contains five of her previous performance pieces that are partially if not wholly re-performed outside of the contexts in which they were originally made. Unless MOMA has somewhere provided other information, texts, historic documentation that would allow the museum visitor access to and “understanding” of the cultural, political, societal eras in which those original performances were made, then they are completely “new” performance works.

I do not have a problem with Abramović re-doing old work as new work if she is willing to address these critical deficiencies. Peggy Phelan has stated: “To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology. . . Performance is the attempt to value that which is nonreproductive, nonmetaphorical.”(10) Perhaps it is best to remain that way – nonreproductive – and this critical position would deny the compromised possibility of re-performances of older works.

As I walked back through MOMA’s atrium I began to reflect on the overwhelming accomplishments of Abramović. Her life’s work is on display in the museum and it is testament to her strength, stamina and courage as an artist. Her best works are perhaps behind her now and this is what casts a pall of sadness over the present on-site performance piece. Abramović herself is perhaps beyond the point of endurance work, finished with self-affliction and pain. She is still now, receiving visitors in an institutionalized parlor, unabashedly accepting the respectful gazes as she affirms the simple presence of her being.

Image: “The Artist Is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art, through May 31, 2010.

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1. A photo was once sufficient evidence of “truth.” Nowadays, celebrities who claim their heads are “Photo-Shopped” on nude bodies have usurped photography’s credibility.

2. Besides a handful of “showboating” performance artists, Marina has shared that chair with many more famous: “Abramovic welcomed a stream of guests to sit with her amid a crowd of art-world onlookers that included an impressive contingent of artists who work with performance, including Matthew Barney, Terence Koh, Kalup Linzy, Megan Palaima, Dara Friedman, and Damaris Drummond. Magician David Blaine, a performer of another sort (and a fan of Abramovic's), was there as well, along with Björk, Michael Stipe, P.S. 1's Kate McNamara and Christopher Lew, Whitney Biennial curator Gary Carrion-Murayari, curator Clarissa Dalrymple, Chuck Close, P.S.1 chairwoman Agnes Gund, and critic Jerry Saltz.”

3. “Essentially, it’s a solo version of ‘Nightsea Crossing,’ with Ms. Abramović sitting silent at a table in the museum’s atrium, facing an empty chair. She’s scheduled to sit there all day, every day, during museum hours, for the run of her show. The museum estimates that, if she can stick to the plan, she will sit for 716 hours and 30 minutes, earning her a record for endurance in the performance art sweepstakes. - From “Performance Art Preserved, in the Flesh,” New York Times, Mar. 11, 2010.

4. Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik also noted that “The young "re-performers" at MoMA get to have foot- and hand-rests, too, which helps dilute the piece.”

5. “The nudes-in-a-doorway piece, for instance, is no longer installed on an obligatory path from one place to another; it's off to one side, so that MoMA can leave an alternate, more obvious route for those visitors the work might unsettle. That means that no one passing between those nudes is doing it against his or her will, or with surprise, or is taking anything but pleasure in it. Also, now that it is "staffed" by a changing roster of gorgeous professionals, the whole piece becomes voyeuristic and suspect. It's one thing for an artist to offer her body to her audience; it's another for her to pay young beauties to do so.”

6. www.newmedia-art.org.

7. “In the Naked Museum: Talking, Thinking, Encountering,” New York Times, January 31, 2010.

8. Moulton, Alan. Flash Art 38, No. 244 (October 2005): 89.

9. Quoted from “The Artist Is Present” wall text at MOMA.

10. Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London, 1993, 146-152.