October 25, 2007

Re-Positionings



Two recent art items signal an intriguing possibility of a “re-positioning” by both artists and critics which may also portend a groundswell of reassessment in art discourse.

A brief article on sculptor Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth (in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall through April 6, 2008) described an installation that “begins as a hairline crack in the concrete floor of the building, then widens and deepens as it snakes across the room.” In attempting to clarify the “mystery” of her 548 foot-long work, Salcedo denies the importance of her work’s process, preferring instead to stress her interpretation of it: “What is important is the meaning of the piece. The making of it is not important.”(1)

Which struck me as a rather broad dismissal of the process of artmaking and a disingenuous presumption by Salcedo concerning an artwork’s “meaning.”

Salcedo is also quoted as saying the crevice “represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred.”(2)

Yet in her attempt to privilege her meaning for the work Salcedo effectively conditions alternative responses to it by viewers and art critics. This only serves to negate differing views and reviews of the artwork.

For example, one astute reviewer offered a different perspective on Shibboleth through a rewarding architectural reading:

“By making the floor the principal focus of her project, Salcedo shifts the perception of the Turbine Hall's iconic architecture and subtly subverts its monumentality and aspirations towards grandeur. Questions are raised about how we read architecture and the values it enshrines, and by extension the ideological foundations on which western notions of modernity are built. These notions are rooted in Enlightenment ideas of nationhood, progress and civilization.”(3)

Not surprisingly, this has less to do with “racial hatred.” So which is the authentic meaning for the piece? Certainly the “determinate mode” of Salcedo’s interpretation for her work only serves to devalue the viewing experience of others. As ever (at least since 1977) in our PoMo world:

“The question of meaning is constantly to be referred to the social and psychic formations of the author/reader [Administrator’s note: as well as 'artist/viewer.'], formations existentially simultaneous and co-extensive but theorized in separate discourses.”(4)

Another earlier essay regarded interpretation as a way to shackle challenging art:

“In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the world of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”(5)

Art is a representation that exceeds specific interpretations and restrictions on multiple “readings.” For artists to operate otherwise and prescribe their “correct” interpretations for a work and then force-feed that meaning on viewers, to tell them what they can feel or think about a piece, only ultimately diminishes its potency. “To interpret is to impoverish.”(6)

And this is why I see Salcedo’s supplemental and published words about her Tate installation as a distinctly “reactionary” re-positioning by an artist in a futile yet dangerous attempt to control meaning in the minds of the viewers. A lost cause at best and a misguided refusal to acknowledge the considerable strengths gained through an appreciation of art’s multiplicity of meanings.

Across the pond, a New York art critic took aim at “Warhol’s children.” In her Art In America review of another mammoth installation (Dash Snow and Dan Colen 's Nest at Deitch Projects) Faye Hirsch courageously re-assesses their “worth” and exacts a severe re-appraisal of the young bohemians. Nest is a recreation of one of Snow and Colen’s vandalized hotel rooms that features 2,000 shredded NYC telephone books, graffiti and school-boy drawings of varying obscenity. Her brutal yet articulate review is nothing less than a bravado re-positioning of the purpose of art criticism itself. Here is a critic not afraid to take a stand, to consider current work in the shadow of its predecessors and to distinguish the quality between then and now:

“Make no mistake: however ‘self-taught’ he [Snow] might be, it stretches credulity to believe that he, and/or Colen (a RISD alum), do not know, if only by osmosis, Walter de Maria’s SoHo 'Earth Room' (to which ‘Nest” has been compared), Julian Schnabel (whose giant canvases with scrawled texts come to mind), Jean-Michel Basquiat or Richard Prince’s jokes. Is it worth saying quotation – even inadvertent – is not enough?”(7)

This is daring and necessary art criticism and I applaud it and other recent reviews. These are new critical voices that have re-positioned themselves positively within art discourse as critics who will not be “numbed by the art world’s relentless trade in sophomoric genius.”(8)


Image: Earth Room; © Copyright by Walter De Maria and The Dia Foundation.

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1. Salcedo causes a rift at Tate Modern, Guardian Unlimited, Oct. 8, 2007

2. Ibid.

3. Huliq.com

4. Burgin, Victor. “Looking at Photographs” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, (P. Selz, K. Stiles, eds.) Berkeley, 1996, 854.

5. Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays, New York, 1966, 9.

6. Ibid., 8.

7. Hirsch, Faye. “Dash Snow and Dan Colen at Deitch”, Art in America, October 2007, 204.

8. Ibid.

October 18, 2007

Chris's Burden


The threat of violence and destruction is latent in much of Chris Burden’s early performance art and helped cast him as Southern California’s “bad boy” artist in the 1970s. Working out of his Venice studio, Chris had himself shot with a .22 rifle, nailed to a Volkswagen roof, fired a pistol at an airliner, tried to “breathe” underwater, crossed two “hot” electric wires at his chest (above) and assaulted a television journalist by holding a knife to her throat.(1)

These are difficult performance art pieces that Burden was keen to present as “sculptures.” They have a mythic presence in “body art” yet he has grown reticent to talk about them as he aged, apparently seeking to distance himself from his destructive early work. His evolving sculptural process began to explore the physics of stress and energy (Samson and Big Wheel) with a whimsical fascination with the “gee whiz” of science. Yet the legacy of Burden’s body art assured that the possibility of imminent and unpredictable violence would remain inherent in the work of succeeding generations of art students “attempting to emulate the transgressive character of Burden’s early work”(2) and contemporary artists like John Bock and Matthew Barney.

In his somewhat lackluster introduction to what he himself refers to as a “haphazard selection of works” (Documentation of Selected Works 1971-74), Burden apologizes for the lack of effective documentation of some of the pieces; either the performances “don’t lend themselves to being filmed” or “somebody forgot to push the button.” This only helped to create their mystique, of course, since the eye-witness verbal accounts have naturally evolved to mythology over the years.

The grainy imagery that did survive presents a cinéma-vérité that is alternately claustrophobic or obsessive, showing a leaner, sinewy version of Burden engaged in “the psychological experience of danger, pain, and physical risk.”(3) Throughout his narration, Burden seems at a loss to validate his work and its impact on performance art. His inarticulateness on this point may have been calculated to further enhance his 1970s persona. Yet his mature position on the “transgressive” and dangerous threat of contemporary performance art was revealed in his letter of resignation to UCLA in 2005 over an incident involving art student Joseph Deutch’s apparent use of “gunplay” as art.(4)

In a disingenuous attempt to “bracket” the art school environment from the “real world” of art practice, Burden said that “The university is a group of people who agree to be civilized. If the student wanted to rent a studio and play Russian roulette and call it art, then art history will decide.”(5)

This comment by Burden reveals his inner conflict regarding his earlier performance art’s steady controversial influence on the succeeding generations of artists. From that same New York Times article-interview:

“Mr. Burden also said he believed his early performance pieces had influenced Mr. Deutch. ‘I'm sure the student was referencing the work I did,’ he said. ‘He was also trying to co-opt and demean it and parody it.’”(6)

Yet it is not productive for the discourse surrounding performance art for Burden to have it both ways. On one hand, he can accept that his earlier work has been “co-opted” and engage in productive discussions about its “parody” by the younger generation of artists. Or, he can withdraw his presence entirely, seeking absolution from the continued controversies surrounding performance art.

It is unfortunate that Burden has evidently chosen to retreat from the discourse by resigning from UCLA and refusing further interactions concerning the body art model that he is partially responsible for developing. For without a continued and viable dialogue about the on-going use of violence and destruction in body art, its practice as an art form remains mired in doubt and confusion tainted by media sensationalism.


Image: © Copyright by Chris Burden.
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1. www.suicidegirls.com: “In 1972, Phyllis Lutjeans, a friend who hosted a cable TV show, invited Burden on the program. Without warning — in a performance he dubbed ‘TV Hijack’ — he held her at knifepoint for several minutes. ‘When Chris put the knife at my throat, I was absolutely terrified,’ Lutjeans recalled for The [LA] Times 20 years later. ‘I thought, 'This guy's psychotic.'”

2. Kastner, Jeffrey. “Gun Shy”, artforum.com, Jan. 20, 2005.

3. UBUWEB

4. Hontz, Jenny. “Gunplay, as Art, Sets Off a Debate”, The New York Times, Feb. 5, 2005.

5. Op. cit.

6. Op. cit.

October 11, 2007

Ma Kelly's Boy



A provocative and seminal artwork, Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document (1973-1979) is the archetype for the consideration of femininity defined through theory. Kelly’s clear appreciation for Jacques Lacan’s views on the social construction of subjectivity provides remarkable evidence of one female artist’s emergence from the traditional methodologies of her interpretive field - art – and her search for other possibilities of approach to art.

An expansion of the “work” across 139 objects, drawings, texts and graphs, PPD is conceptual in its scope by challenging accepted ideas concerning the “object.” Kelly’s time-based project records her son’s entry into the social order at the same time that it disrupts the artwork as singular entity. Taking her cue from linguistic theories (via Lacan) Kelly proposed that femininity is defined through its representational differences instead of essential biological differences between the sexes.(1)

Focusing on motherhood as under-recognized labor, PPD would eventually be a six-part installation which visualized Kelly’s relationship with her son (“K”) from his birth to his “socialization” when he acquires speech and writing skills. PPD would also “analyze the reciprocity of the process of socialization of mother and child.”(2) In Kelly’s analysis (Lacanian), her son defines her as much as she defines him through “mothering.”

A mother’s labor is generally ignored in Western culture since it occurs in the private realm outside of the capitalist sphere. To categorize the job of the mother “as essential and biological is to naturalize this labor, placing it outside of social conditions.”(3) Kelly’s PPD contradicts this categorization and does much to “de-naturalize” the idea of motherhood through her theoretical position.

Theoretical feminism denies that femininity is determined fully through biology but is a social construction of the subject positing instead that a woman's essence exists within the actions and language of her private world, as she (the subject) is bound within her familial and social identity as “mother.” Thus, PPD encapsulates the anti-essentialist position that would continue to gain prominence among the work of other artists and critics during the late 1970’s (Cindy Sherman, Victor Burgin, Laura Mulvey), work that would concern how gender and identity were constructed through representation.

An undertaking of genuine complexity and accomplishment, PPD yields its rewards yet individual artifacts can be perplexing and arcane. After all, it was Kelly’s absorption of Lacan that prompted her utilization of the “Lacanian algebra” as additional texts and graphs within PPD.(4) Still, faux scientific babble gives way to earnest anxieties as Ma Kelly worries about K’s unpredictable rages:

“K’s aggressiveness has resurfaced and made me feel anxious about going to work. I can’t count the number of ‘small wounds’ I’ve got as the result of his throwing, kicking, biting etc. . . I’m not the only object of his wrath but I’m probably the source. Maybe I should stay at home. . . but we need the money.”

This is a key passage that ironically interjects the public sphere of capitalism into the Kelly Household. Ma has taken a job. And where’s Papa? Again, this journal entry requires further re-assessment and a closer reading on our part. Does the introduction of Ma Kelly as public laborer negate her project’s artistic purity? And is the putative Papa complicit in this transmutation of private mother-wife to public artist-worker?

Kelly would later refer to her work as "my archaeology of the everyday."(5) It is an everyday that encompasses those two different worlds of labor – the domestic and the artistic – and a document that “interrogates the boundaries between public and private realms of experience.”(6) Moreover, taking her inspiration from Moira Gatens’ Feminism and Philosophy, Helen Molesworth has stated that Kelly’s “introduction of the problem of such labor leads, in turn, to a consideration of the relations between public and private, which emerges as a defining issue in the discussion of 1970s art and the legacy of feminism’s intervention in it.”(7)


Image: © Copyright by Mary Kelly.

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1. See previous post on Kelly and PPD.

2. From the Generali Foundation site.

3. Molesworth, Helen. From “House Work and Art Work” in Art After Conceptual Art, Alexander Alberro and Sabeth Buchmann, eds., Vienna, 2006, 77.

4. Macey, David. Critical Theory, London, 2000, 223. [Lacan’s later work contained “quasi-mathematical formulae” that were to be used as teaching devices “designed to ensure that psychoanalytic theory can be subjected to a formalization and to guarantee its integral transmission.”]

5. Kelly, Mary. Post Partum Document, London, 1985, xvi.

6. Op. cit., 77.

7. Op. cit., 71.

October 4, 2007

The Matter of Immateriality


The focus on materiality and the form an art object would or could take underwent a transformative period during the late 1960’s. The work of Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner and Bernard Venet each would explore the tendency of matter to transmit both determinate and indeterminate meanings.

Robert Barry’s experiments with gases like argon and helium reveal his evident fascination with the idea that the use of certain materials as “art” can show us that art need not be visible. If the Modernist ideology suggested that art should be reduced to its materials, its medium specificity (see Clement Greenberg), then artists like Barry were engaging the conceptual dimension of materiality. In creating actions like Inert Gas Series (1969) where he released 2 cubic feet of helium (“a material that is imperceivable”) in the Mojave Desert to “infinite expansion”(1), Barry points out that visuality is irrelevant to art and art could be as much about invisible physio-chemical constituents. Interestingly, Barry’s “theoretical entities” require indication through language since they were “invisible” to the naked eye. Unlike a lot of conceptual art of the period, Barry’s actions were not merely linguistic “events” whose “existence” relies on eye witness accounts or other documentation but were materially actual events that express the conceptual dimension of materiality in art.

Lawrence Weiner had also proposed that the material properties of the art object were becoming obsolete. His “36" x 36" removal to the lathing or support wall of plaster or wall-board from a wall” was a witty reversal of the additive logic used in constructing an art object.(2) His legendary Statements would determine the materiality of the artwork yet the work “need not be built” to become art. This seemingly dead-pan neutrality predicts an indeterminacy in art’s “spatio-temporal specification” and yet further envisioned conceptual art as both “timeless and placeless.”(3) Like Sol Lewitt, Weiner would not require fabrication for the idea to become art but Weiner insisted that his ideas became “pieces” when he described them in words, i.e., when they became linguistically determinate.(4)

A similar interest (or disinterest) in the determination of meaning in art can be found in the work of Bernard Venet. Besides his remarkable series of Indeterminate Line sculptures, which elicit an expressivity which appears to contradict their conceptual basis, his iconic Heap of Coal (1963) used raw matter not to convey form but as form itself. His resolute pile of coal chunks presented its indeterminacy without composition or ordering by the artist to convey anything other than the specifics of coal - how the material behaves. Venet has revealed his interest in the semiologist Jacques Bertin and his graphic sign-systems, particularly the monosemic sign which is strictly denotative and whose meaning is not determined through interpretation. Bertin’s monosemy is a kind of tautology and thus similar to the analytic proposition of Alfred J. Ayer(5) whose work would have profound influence on Joseph Kosuth. In conversation with Carter Ratcliff in 1998, Venet noted that the monosemic sign “offers but one semantic level” that permitted him “to leave the field of the expressive image and to investigate that of the rational image.”(6)

A code that might provide for the pure function of the transmission of a message, like a mathematics formula, understandably seduced and intrigued conceptual artists. Whether their messages (or ideas) were actually constructed or fabricated, or even written down in words, it was their ready interest in creating artworks with varying levels of determinacy and indeterminacy that provoked charges that conceptual art was engaged in a “dematerialization” of the object. Yet it would remain clear that materiality was not required to convey an idea:

“That is, the idea is ‘read about’ rather than ‘looked at.’ That some art should be directly material and that other art should produce a material entity only as a necessary by-product of the need to record the idea is not at all to say that the latter is connected by any process of dematerialization to the former.”(7)


Image: Heap of Coal © Copyright by Bernar Venet.


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1. Meyer, Ursula. Conceptual Art, New York, 1972, 38.

2. Celant, Germano. Art Povera, New York, 1969, 83.

3. Osborne, Peter. Conceptual Art,, London, 2002, 30-31.

4. Ibid., 31.

5. “. . a proposition is analytic when its validity depends solely on the definitions of the symbols it contains. . .”; from Ayers' Language, Truth and Logic, New York, 1952, 78.

6. Ratcliff, Carter. “Bernar Venet” in Sculpture Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 2, March 1999.

7. Atkinson, Terry. Letter to Lucy Lippard and John Chandler concerning their article “The Dematerialization of Art”, reprinted in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology by Alexander Alberro, Cambridge, 1999, 52-58.