October 31, 2006

Lecter's Lecture



"Della Vigna was disgraced and blinded for his betrayal of the emperor's trust through his avarice," Dr. Lecter said, approaching his principal topic. "Dante's pilgrim found him in the seventh level of inferno, reserved for suicides. Like Judas Iscariot, he died by hanging. Judas and Pier della Vigna and Ahithophel, the ambitious counselor of Absalom, are linked in Dante by the avarice he saw in them and by their subsequent deaths by hanging."

"Avarice and hanging are linked in the ancient and the medieval mind: St. Jerome writes that Judas' very surname, Iscariot means 'money' or 'price', while Father Origen says Iscariot is derived from the Hebrew 'from suffocation' and that his name means 'Judas the Suffocated. . . "

Dr. Lecter resumed his podium voice. "Avarice and hanging, then, linked since antiquity, the image appearing again and again in art." Dr. Lecter pressed the switch in his palm and the projector came to life, throwing an image on the drop cloth covering the wall. In quick succession further images followed as he spoke:

"Here is the earliest known depiction of the Crucifixion, carved in an ivory box in Gaul about AD four hundred. It includes the death by hanging of Judas, his face upturned to the branch that suspends him. And here on a reliquary casket of Milan, fourth century, and an ivory diptych of the ninth century, Judas hanging. He's still looking up."

"In this plate from the doors of the Benevento Cathedral, we see Judas hanging with his bowels falling out as St. Luke, the physician, described him in the Acts of the Apostles. Here he hangs beset by Harpies, above him in the sky is the face of Cain-in-the-moon; and here he's depicted by your own Giotto, again with pendant viscera."

"And finally, here, from a fifteenth-century edition of the Inferno, is Pier della Vigna's body hanging from a bleeding tree. I will not belabor the obvious parallel with Judas Iscariot."

"But Dante needed no drawn illustration: It is the genius of Dante Alighieri to make Pier della Vigna, now in Hell, speak in strained hisses and coughing sibilants as though he is hanging still. Listen to him as he tells of dragging, with the other damned, his own dead body to hang upon a thorn tree:"

Surge in vermena e in pianta silvestra:
l'Arpie, pascendo poi de le sue foglie,
fanno dolore, e al dolor fenestra.


Dr. Lecter's normally white face flushes as he creates for the Studiolo the gargling, choking words of the agonal Pier della Vigna, and as he thumbs his remote control, the images of della Vigna and Judas with his bowels out alternate on the large field of hanging cloth.

Come l'altre verrem per nostre spoglie,
ma non pero ch'alcuna sen rivesta,
che non e giusto aver cio ch'om si toglie.

Qui le strascieneremo, e per la mesa,
selva saranno i nostri corpi apessi,
ciascuno al prun de l'ombra sua molesta.


"So Dante recalls, in sound the death of Judas in the death of Pier della Vigna for the same crimes of avarice and treachery. Ahithophel, Judas, your own Pier della Vigna. Avarice, hanging, self-destruction, with avarice counting as self-destruction as much as hanging. And what does the anonymous Florentine suicide say in his torment at the end of the canto? Io fei gibetto a me de le mie case. - - And I - I made my own house be my gallows."

"On the next occasion you might like to discuss Dante's son Pietro. Incredibly, he was the only one of early writers on the thirteenth canto who links Pier della Vigna and Judas. I think, too, it would be interesting to take up the matter of chewing in Dante. Count Ugolino chewing on the back of the archbishop's head, Satan with his three faces chewing Judas, Brutus and Cassius, all betrayers like Pier della Vigna."

"Thank you for your kind attention."


From Hannibal by Thomas Harris, New York, 1999, 221-234.

October 23, 2006

The Logocentric Playground



I will be installing my Logocentric Playground at American University Museum at Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C. on November 14, 2006. AU's site has more information about my installation and I plan to post weekly reports of my progress In the Studio on my official artwork web site.

During the exhibition span (Nov. 14-Dec. 15) I will write more about the genesis of the piece, logocentricism and the response of the university /art community to my installation.

October 19, 2006

Performance Art:
Recreation or Emulation



Performance art, which gained dominance as an art practice in the 1970’s, was definitively about duration and presence. The performance act is time based certainly, and thus expresses itself in the duration of those actions by the performer(s), and our focus is on the physical body (presence) of the performance artist(s). The fact of the art object’s superfluity was already in the discourse, as stated in theoretical propositions laid out by Lewitt, Kosuth and other conceptualists. This paradigm shift from “commodity objects” to a dematerialization of those objects may have been a factor in the move to performance by many young artists during this era.

Marina Abramovic was one of those original performance artists of the ‘70’s generation and she is practicing her art today. Her "Seven Easy Pieces" performance project undertaken at the Guggenheim Museum last year represents the most visible project of “re-interpretation” of what can only be termed archival performance art “pieces.” What I would like to discuss here is the 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.

First, some background. In the Dialogue with Heidi Grundmann conducted in 1978, Abramovic says:

". . . no documentation can give you the feeling of what it was, because it cannot be described, it is so direct, in the documentation, the intensity is missing, the feelings that were there. And I think that that is why performance is such a strange thing – the performance you do in fixed time and in that fixed time you see the whole process and you see the disappearing of the process at the same moment and afterwards you don’t have anything, you have only the memory."(1)

Operating presumably from “memory,” but fortified with photographs, video footage and “eye-witness” accounts, Abramovic sought to recreate some of the 1970’s era performances, a “greatest hits” collection, if you will, of vintage Acconci, Beuys, Export, Pane and Nauman performance pieces (with two of her own for good measure). For brevity’s sake, I will only critique her recreation of the infamous Seedbed piece, for it is the most revealing divergence from the original performance work and the “particular presence” of Vito Acconci.

Acconci’s 1972 performance, in which he surreptitiously “planted” his “seed” beneath a wooden platform built into Sonnabend Gallery, was an invasive yet hidden ritual. The visitors to the gallery could not see his actions but they heard him on speakers in the space as he masturbated. He referred to the visitors as “my aid. . . my fantasies about them can excite me. . . the seed ‘planted’ on the floor, then, is a joint result of my performance and theirs.”(2)

The obvious distinction between Acconci and Abramovic is one of gender, which clearly validates the original ’72 performance as more worthy, as the “planting” of semen is biologically impossible for Abramovic. Her “cover version” of Seedbed, then, is a travesty, purely reliant on the sensational and voyeuristic modalities that performance has now become. The ’72 piece was clearly not about achieving orgasms, so why would Abramovic chose it to replicate in ’05? Where Vito negotiated the dangerous terrain of sexual power and threat, Marina’s Seedbed seems relegated to the realms of soft-core arousal and empty spectacle.

After Abramovic’s week of performances, in a public dialogue at the Guggenheim monitored by Nancy Spector, a question was raised about “the perhaps insuperable difficulty of preserving a performance’s meaning in a totally different social and political context.”(3) It was noted that Abramovic appeared to “bridle” at this query, and possibly that is “the tell” that would suggest to us that Abramovic had not fully considered all the implications of this performance-appropriation series. For if she sought to emulate the performance pieces, to actually “strive to equal or excel”(4) the earlier works with her re-presentation of them, then she was ignoring her own dictum that “the performance you do in fixed time and in that fixed time you see the whole process and you see the disappearing of the process at the same moment.”

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1. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, 759.

2. Nancy Princenthal, “Back for One Night Only!” in Art in America, Feb. 2006, 91-92.

3. Ibid., 90.

4. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield, 1984, 408.

October 13, 2006

Constructs of Representation

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

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

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

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


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

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

2. Ibid., 72-73.

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

4. Ibid., 858.

5. Ibid., 859.

October 5, 2006

Photo-Text



Photography has two functions in the discourse of art. First, it is an “art form” itself, although Frederick Jameson seems to dismiss it as a true “medium”; and second, it is the “mass medium” by which other art forms are reproduced. Photography reproduces the art that we look at in magazines and books, and it helps us structure an identity for the art work through these reproductions. Setting aside Jameson’s argument for the moment, we might accept photography as an “art form” briefly if we consider the photography of Stieglitz, Adams, Strand and Brassai. These photographic works were supremely descriptive or anecdotal, with their depictions of beauty or candid “decisive moments,” respectively. This kind of “high art” imagery might be theorized as a direct extension of Modernist ideals. Modernist art was premised on medium specificity and explored the expressive qualities of a medium. Modernism’s “truth to materials” credo would be coupled with the above photographers’ delivery of their individual expressions of “subjectivity” into their chosen medium.

Photography’s further relation to the printed page resides in the captions that describe a reproduced image. With “news” photography, the “story” is additionally embellished by more words written by a journalist to establish a relation to the reproduced image. The story-telling nature of photography delivers this “literary” quality that is championed as photojournalistic, to be extended further from “reportage” in the work of photographers like Joe Rosenthal and Robert Capa. The use of photographs by the media to “illustrate” news and events is sacrosanct and rarely transgressed by artists. We can explore the manipulation of “images” another day, as I would like to pursue the relationship of photography to conceptual art.

In the late 1960’s, Douglas Huebler began to use photography to make “location” and “duration” pieces, works that specified random spatial and temporal rules for the production of photographic documentation, i.e., shooting the same space at one minute intervals, or a series of spaces a fixed distance apart. This functioned as a kind of “conceptual cartography,” or mapping. The photographic documentations of Huebler’s pieces were accompanied by his often dead-pan descriptive text that outlined the assignments. In staging and documenting his “meaningless,” non-newsworthy actions, as photographer-critic Jeff Wall notes, Huebler engages “two simultaneous negations, which produce a ‘reportage’ without event, and a writing without narrative.”(1) To be sure, Wall’s insightful critique directs our focus to the essential elements of Huebler’s work:

"The more the assignment is emptied of what could normatively [be] considered to be compelling social subject matter, the more visible it is simply as an instance of a structure, an order, and the more clearly it can be experienced as a model of relationships between writing and photography."(2)

Wall suggests that Heubler’s work is an extension of Modernism, i.e., “the idea of an art which provides a direct experience of situations or relationships, not a secondary, representational one.”(3) Thus, "depictivity” itself is contemplated and Huebler’s conceptual art “permits photography to become a model of an art whose subject matter is the idea of art.”(4)


Readings for 11 October: From Chapter 9: Mary Kelly’s Preface to Post-Partum Document and Hans Haacke’s Museum: Managers of Consciousness.

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1. Jeff Wall, “Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art” in Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, Cambridge, 1995, 258.

2. Ibid., 255.

3. Ibid., 257.

4. Ibid., 258.