March 29, 2009

Of Durational Context



The creation of art encompasses procedural, perceptual and contextual stages. The procedural stage is the move from conception to action, through both intellectual and physical processes, to “make” art. An object may not materialize, however, and immateriality returns focus to the concept. Yet even the most conceptual of art often includes instructions, supplements and wall text that are a result of the thought process.

Whether one begins with a concept or not, thoughts occur that move one to action. One’s initial stage of procedure and process may also include improvisation as a working method. Beginning with no idea is an idea in and of itself; improvisation can also be conceptual. In improvisational methodology the artist is cognizant of his actions, as the work at hand changes rapidly through chance, accident and randomness. Improvisational work thus engages in a hybridization of perceptual aspects within its procedures.

It is arguable whether “art” occurs during its making. Some hold that art is only truly experienced in the later perceptual stage. Duchamp said that perception of the art work by the spectator was most significant, as “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 qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

Recent work in participatory art conflates the procedural and perceptual stages as the “art” occurs literally through processes involving spectators’ participation and perception. The art “site” – the locus as installation – becomes another stage whereby access to the “art” is mediated through context; the contextual stage of negotiation with both intellectual and physical properties of the site.

In the contextual stage, the “work” may become evaporative and ephemeral as the site is relieved of its importance as an “art object” and instead allows for the experience of the “art.” The site may be further modified conceptually to allow for a spatio-temporal enhancement of its immateriality. Installations or “works” that are temporary with time-based duration become truly immaterial as they come to an end. As the installation is dismantled – or consumed – or destroyed – the contextual stage is also “erased” as the physical site evolves to the immaterial. Perceptual experience of this immateriality is relevant to art’s transcendence from objects and further evidence of the dominance of concept.

Video: A Contextual Stage (2009); installation at Hamiltonian Gallery, Washington, D.C; © Copyright 2009 by Mark Cameron Boyd.

March 23, 2009

Further Discourse on the Hollow


Administrator's Note: Given that blog comments are sometimes overlooked, I wanted to post this one by Diane Blackwell for her insights and further discourse on last week's essay on The Hallowed Hollow.

Your article touches on two subjects, minimalist theory and the debate between art and artifact. It is stating that Robert Kusmirowski’s sculptural version of Ted Kaczynski’s, (a.k.a. the Unabomber) cabin is a minimalist sculpture because the viewer is denied an understanding of the inside and can only understand the piece “through its obdurate wholeness.” If the artistic cabin were to be considered a minimalist sculpture, it would have to be read objectively as a large cube in the form of a boarded up cabin and the interior would be merely the space formed to support the exterior walls. The viewer would be pleased for the opportunity to have the experience of an abstracted, self-explanatory, in this case cubed object. Its wholeness would be in its solidarity.

The wholeness of Kusmirowski’s exterior form is not sufficient to read his work. By referencing the artifact, Kusmirowski has asked the viewer to use a subjective approach. We cannot fully understand the piece without evaluating the meaning of the denied interior. The artist has opened the viewer’s imagination by boarding up this cabin. The viewer must assign personal experience, reach an opinion, and pass judgment about the “hallowed hollow.” The artist asks the viewer to set aside the initial abhorrence of the place, the home of a murderer, submit to natural curiosities, and ask what it’s really like to get inside. The artist is not asking us to look through the eyes of a murderer but he is challenging the viewer to acknowledge a culpability of wanting a voyeuristic look inside the cabin for a close encounter with the mindset of a murderer. The interior of the cabin and its inferences play a major part in understanding the piece whether we see the inside or not. Both the physical exterior and the personal interior are critical to understanding this work of art.

When comparing different styles, I think of two other boxes: Maya Lin's "Blue Lake Pass" sculpture that is included in the traveling exhibition, "Systematic Landscapes" currently at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Edward Kienholz's "State Hospital." Both use space to intimidate.

Lin's sculpture uses space and form to define her intent. “Blue Lake Pass” has interior space only as a result of the topography she presents. Understanding the interior space is not intrinsic to the work's meaning. It is merely a result of the theme she is presenting. Her use of exterior space does contribute to the understanding of her landscape. “Blue Lake Pass” is a large model of shapes found in nature that impede on our personal space. They ask, “What is out of place - landscapes recreated in a museum or our presence within nature?” The placement of her boxes creates an environment that can be read as topography that can be experienced. The viewer can walk the resulting passageways and become part of the rolling scene. Those same boxes though are placed close enough to give an overwhelmingly physical presence of nature. It is the distance she leaves between her sections of topography that creates a sense of infringement.

Kienholz’s sculpture uses space and concept to get his point across. “State Hospital” has a padlocked, interior space similar to the “Unicabine” in that what’s going on inside defines the piece. The viewer experiences the same sensations of revulsion and voyeurism. Where the artists differ is in intent. “State Hospital” is a social commentary about the complacency of Americans to address society’s treatment of the insane. Unlike Kusmirowski’s piece, Kienholz’s box encourages access. The viewer can enter by peeking through a barred window or by walking around the box. The “rear” exterior wall has been removed so that the viewer can gawk at a world filled with terror and isolation. We are challenged to justify this interior’s existence for we find enough to suggest that a similar room of confinement could exist. The “Unicabine” on the other hand provides a more objective commentary. No where is the viewer asked to engage in a communal sense of responsibility that as a society we could create such a monster. This room documents an environment that does not require any intervention on the part of a society. The viewer is encouraged to fantasize about a murderous madman as if watching a spectacle.

What remains constant among these artists is their use of space to create art. The box has proven versatile enough to stand alone, to offer support, or to suggest an environment. Its universality allows the viewer to accept the shape, bond with it, and move on to a larger understanding of the work - to paraphrase Morris. The artists have used the box well. It is up to the viewer to comprehend and accept the wholeness of their works of art.

Image: Blue Lake Pass (2006); © Copyright by Maya Lin.

March 10, 2009

The Hallowed Hollow


In his assessment of a current fascination with “dark matter,” Stephen Marche “creates” a parallel perception of two quite different sculptural “objects.” Noting the recent Newseum exhibition “G-Men and Journalists” and its inclusion of the infamous “Unabomber’s cabin” among artifacts on view, Marche tells us that Ted Kaczynski attempted an unsuccessful legal maneuver to block his actual cabin from being shown at the Newseum. Marche mentions that in Kaczynski’s legal papers (hand-written) he stated that his cabin’s exhibition appears to violate the “victims’ objection to publicity connected with the Unabom case.”(1) Marche goes on to say: “Kaczynski did not, however, object to Robert Kusmirowski’s sculpture “Unicabine,” which the New Museum in New York was showing at the same time, even though it was an exact replica of his cabin.” (Italics are mine.)

Needless to say, I find this an odd bit of pop cultural detritus. Even more unfathomable is the idea that Kaczynski, as reported by Marche, apparently reveals a semblance of aesthetic distinctions between his former domicile represented mimetically as “art object” and the possible disturbing ramifications of his “actual cabin.”

But I wonder if Marche’s speculation is journalistic license fueled by an over-active imagination and lazy research? My Internet prowl uncovered items that seem to suggest Kaczynski has as yet expressed no such opinion of the Kusimirowki piece. Asked if they had heard from the Unabomber about the “Unicabine” on view, the New Museum’s communications director, Gabriel Einsohn said, “So far, no word from Mr. Kaczynski.”(2)

Before I proceed with my own view on both cultural artifacts - “actual cabin” and “Unicabine” - let me point out that there have been possibly three other previous depictions of the Unabomber cabin as “art.” Jeff Weinstein wrote about two of them last August on his blog “Out There”:

“What a present-day real critic should mention, if he or she had the sense, is that in the last few years at least two other Unabomber cabins sat firmly on Manhattan art floors. ‘Pause,’ by Chris Larson, was shown at Rare gallery in 2005. It had a car crashing into it -- actually a repro of ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ ‘69 Dodge Charger -- made of lumber, too. In 2007, Exit Art showed a more realistic version built by Seth Weiner, undamaged by any vehicle, except that when you walked in, you heard a digitally synthesized voice recite parts of ‘Life Without Principle’ by Massachusetts cabin maven Henry David Thoreau.”(3)

And this year, a “Bart H.” wrote about a “Unabomber’s Cabin” he recalled seeing outside of MIT “a few years ago (about six, I think).” This cabin was specially constructed with wheels and an elaborate mechanism connected to a typewriter (referencing Kaczynski’s writing) that apparently functioned to physically move the cabin about on the sidewalk.(4) (I have found no other evidence or review of this possible work but it appears to have some connection to Kaczynski.)

What got me thinking about all of this was an earlier critique of minimal art, particularly sculpture, by noted art critic Michael Fried. In his seminal essay on minimalism, “Art & Objecthood,” Fried’s opinion was that sculpture represented by the main proponents of the movement (Robert Morris, Don Judd, Tony Smith) had to do with “the nonrelational, the unitary, and the holistic.”(5) Nonrelational refers to minimal sculpture’s rejection of part-to-part composition as traditionally practiced until then; unitary implies the use of a single shape (cube or I-beam) to either embody or construct the piece; holistic is suggestive of Morris’s gestalt idea, that when the shape is easily perceived as a whole then the real “business” of experiencing minimal sculpture could begin.

Fried went on to say that minimal sculptures “most closely approach…other persons” (Fried’s italics) and noted that the “apparent hollowness” of minimal sculpture suggested “the quality of having an inside” (Fried’s italics).(6)

It was this idea of an “inside” that Fried, rightly or not, theorized about minimal sculpture that was resurrected in my brain when I read about the “Unicabine.” It got me thinking about the inherent conflicts between Morris’s and Fried’s views on minimal sculpture. Was it possible that the sculptor of the “Unicabine” (Kusmirowski) was engaging in a kind of art theory, insider’s joke about sculpture that has no “inside?”

Morris’s belief in the obdurate wholeness of his work must be granted critical preference over Fried’s thesis. As conceiver and maker of the sculptures, it is Morris who represents them in writings as having a wholeness of shape that allows one to apprehend that shape and move on to perceptually engage the phenomena of experiencing that shape:

“Characteristic of a gestalt is that once it is established, all the information about it, qua gestalt, is exhausted…One is then both free of the shape and bound to it.”(7)

Obviously, the Unabomber’s real cabin has an interior; the FBI dismantled that cabin and it is on display as “artifact” at the Newseum. However, an artist’s mimetic depiction of the Unabomber cabin is not required to have an interior. Two of the three previous versions of the cabin had interiors represented and both of these creatively engaged in how that “inside” was presented; one with sound, the other referencing Kaczynski’s writing.

This is why Kusmirowski’s version becomes very clever. His replica of the infamous cabin denies entry to its interior and, thus, introduces both an element of mystery and the criticality of gestalt theory in relation to sculpture. Kusmirowski is not concerned with depicting the cabin as “artifact,” nor is he interested in subjectively conveying “feelings” about the cabin itself. But he has introduced gestalt theory, as made historically famous by both Morris and Fried within the discourse of modern sculpture, through the simple gesture of sealing his “Unicabine” tight, dispensing with its “inside” to create a revelation about the Unabomber cabin through its obdurate wholeness.

Who is Ted Kaczynski? A terrorist? Radical writer of anti-government screeds? Robert Kusmirowski, a sculptor, proposes that the answers to those questions are unknown. The media and our government have generated an image about Ted Kaczynski as a terrorist, murderer and madman. It is now perhaps unimportant who the “real” Ted Kaczynski is because his spectacularized image now has currency as the Unabomber. We can visit his cabin, see where he lived, think about his motivations, what made him tick, wonder why he went off track and became mad.

If Ted Kaczynski has knowledge of Kusimirowski’s sculpture (unknown) and truly has no problem with its exhibition (again, unknown) perhaps his lack of concern might be because its “inside” still retains a mystery. Or perhaps Kaczynski knows more about art than we are aware and is ignoring Kusimirowski’s sculpture because it is “art” not replica, therefore not threatening. In his notorious “Manifesto”, the only thing he says directly about art is this:

“Art forms that appeal to modern leftist intellectuals tend to focus on sordidness, defeat and despair, or else they take an orgiastic tone, throwing off rational control as if there were no hope of accomplishing anything through rational calculation and all that was left was to immerse oneself in the sensations of the moment.”(8)

It is evident that minimal art was not considered relevant to Kaczynski’s critique of “leftist intellectuals” as minimalism is far from sordid or orgiastic. However, minimal art can certainly be said to operate through “rational control” so we must conclude that Kaczynski’s knowledge of 20th Century art movements and art theory is limited. We can rest assured that if the Unabomber does become aware of Kusimirowski’s “Unicabine” his reactions would be much the same as our own, that its obdurate, inaccessible presence suggests something abstracted and far removed from the realm of media spectacle about a remote Montana hide-out that housed an insane murderer. Perhaps, the hallowed hollow of this unyielding cabin allows us to consider everything we think we know about the Unabomber's cabin and to then experience the phenomena of sharing space with its spectacularization.


Image: ”Unicabine” (2008); © Copyright by Robert Kusimirowki.

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1. “Kaczynski Angered By Predatory Home Loan” on thesmokinggun.com.

2. “Unabomber Wants Cabin out of Newseum; Is He OK with New Museum’s Replica?” on mediabistro.com.

3. “Unabomber Aesthetics” on Out There.

4. “The Unabomber’s Cabin on gather.com.

5. Fried, Michael. Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews, Chicago, 1998, 156.

6. Ibid., 156.

7. Morris, Robert. “Notes on Sculpture, Part 1,” Artforum, February, 1966, 42-44 .

8. “Industrial Society and its Future”.

March 2, 2009

30 Years of Obscurism



Image: "A Chronological History of Aart & Obscurism" (1979); original document written by MCB; © 1979-2009 by Mark Cameron Boyd.