Art and Arnold

An Art-grab Orgy

I’ve always been very leery of “performance art,” that esoteric play acting some artists feel compelled to do often resembling less than amateur hour coffee shop poetry readings combined with late night public access television. Not to dismiss either of those creative outlets, but watching someone shampoo the colossal taxidermy head of a moose while talking about his or her neglected childhood in a shrieking falsetto and wearing a pink rubber body suit will compel my exit pretty fast. Beyond the overt obscurity, no doubt orchestrated in the service of being “art,” there is the audacious expectation on the part of the “artist” that any viewer should sit through it. That the performance, whatever it is and/or tries to be, is worth someone’s time.

I was reminded of this at the closing reception of Terri Thomas’s Pillow Book as Inheritance exhibition at Big Medium while I stood outside the gallery talking with an old friend. What compelled our discussion was the fact that what we had just participated in was definitely, and defiantly, NOT just another moose shampoo. Having already dedicated a previous post to the objects and paintings comprising this exhibition, and their provocative impacts, I am choosing now to focus on the performance itself: a very brief 5 to 10 minute time period during which they were obliterated and disseminated.

To be honest, a few of us were in-the-know as to what was going to transpire. Terri would place a series of instructional plaques on the wall explaining that “the artist has left the building,” and inviting the rest of us to “claim our own birthright” by taking pieces of the artworks for ourselves. Apparently, she was concerned that there would be hesitation on the part of the viewers to do this, and had asked a few people to “get the ball rolling” if needed. But immediately after she placed the last plaque, someone (who I later learned was Terri’s sister) walked up, and ripped it from the wall. There was a sudden gasp from someone in the audience that punctuated the tentative air that enveloped us.

-And then, all hell broke loose-

Instead of standing there like one o’clock half struck with the occasional murmurings of nervous laughter, the crowd erupted into an art-grab orgy as people moshed their way towards the paintings, grabbing and tearing at what they could. But there was not one shred of hostility, or negativity between us.

I had made my way to the far corner of the gallery, and managed to get an entire painting off the wall. At that point, a face appeared in the crowd, and while she was happy for me regarding what I managed to get my hands on, I could tell she was a little disappointed she didn’t have a piece of it herself.

“Here, you want some of it?” I asked holding it out for her.

“I told my boyfriend I’d get him a nipple.” She smiled, and we tore away what sections we wanted before passing the painting off to others who were now fully caught up the action. And what an action it was.

Now, for all practical purposes, the direct involvement of the viewer in the artwork maintains a longstanding history reaching back to the 1960s, if not further. The most obvious example being Allan Kaprow’s series of works known as Happenings. By employing audience members to sweep up trash in The Courtyard, or have them lick jam off of a car in household, these works, among others, diminished the barrier between the artist and the viewer as they relied on, as well as manufactured, an overt inclusivity. Further, Kaprow was strict on regulating the amount, and type, of documentation that occurred. The problem he had with cameras was twofold. First, the photograph diminished the event in time and space into a series of two-dimensional, isolated images; and second, it provoked the audience to play to its lens, its presence thus mediating their experience. To curb these unwanted results, he banned public photographers from his events, instead making sure that any documentation of any kind was only part of the happening, and not from a non-participant. His alternative was to inaugurate the tradition of having participants meet post-event and discuss their experiences, subsequently allowing these recounts about the happening to serve as its record. Imagine what those conversations must have entailed—and that’s just the point, WE can only imagine. What Kaprow created was a unique place in space and time that only those few who were there could fully appreciate. They were part of something unique and special, and they enjoyed the luxury of sharing that moment with each other both in its manifestation, and in its following analysis.

Much of the same applies to Thomas’s closing reception. While she did not prohibit photography, she did allocate for participants to interact with the work, and converse about their experiences afterwards. Akin to the result of the exhibition’s opening, I again found myself talking about sex, its cultural packaging, and the apparent need to consider how it is taught. The difference between the opening and the closing receptions, as well as Kaprow’s Happenings, was that we literally had pieces of the works—we had claimed—to carry out into the world beyond the gallery walls. And, as I witnessed standing outside the gallery talking with my friend, these fragments possess the capacity to provoke further discussions.

Yet, they are only fragments, only part of the picture, and in that way they speak to the unrecoverable moment in which they were made. Much like how we can only speculate on the conversations had after household, the people who we show these torn remnants of paintings to, and recount that evening for, are resigned to a secondhand experience, grasping at the event vicariously.

When I spoke to Terri’s sister as I was leaving, she commented on the fact that we all had a piece of Terri now; but no, this is bigger than just her. This is about the two lesbians boldly taking a painting from the wall and dividing it out into the crowd, or the high five exchanged with my neighbor in celebration of the fact that she got that glittery nipple after all. Beyond just the artist leaving the building, so too did the work, and the viewer. And we left elated, with that crackle of electricity felt after realizing you were part of something very unique, and very special.

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Posted 9th June 2014 by Arnold, H.C.

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This entry was posted on February 8, 2016 by .
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