Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Crack is Filled! Long Live the Crack!

Workers filling the Shibboleth with concrete.

The creation of the Shibboleth, the infamous Doris Salcedo contribution to the Unilever Series, was shrouded in mystery. In the eyes of sporadic visitors, it just appeared as if one day the Turbine Hall cracked open. Speculations as to how the 548ft crack had been built spread like wild fire in the media as well as in the conversations of people milling around the work.

Today I witnessed part of the process aimed at making the crack disappear with a mix of trepidation and disappointment. I still don't know for sure how the work was made and that was part of its charm, but its disappearance is made accessible to everybody. Indeed, the men filling it with concrete are doing so in plain view. Let's hope that whoever fell in it is found before the process is completed.

Even if you don't get to visit Tate Modern over the next few weeks it takes them to repair the trace left by seriously disruptive art, you will still be able to see the outline of the crack by the difference of color between old and new concrete. Doris Salcedo sure left her mark on the Tate: the Shibboleth will remain while other Unilever projects come and go. I believe that qualifies as a monument....
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Sunday, April 13, 2008


Gustav Metzger, Wolf Vostell and Al Hanson
Photo credit: Tom Picton
Lent by the artist's family
Image taken from
Tate Britain's website

Have you ever seen about 200 people simultaneously bending forward in their seats, literally straining to try and hear every word uttered by someone sitting on a stage meters away? It's quite a sight and you would have witnessed this had you attended the Talking Art event with Gustav Metzger at Tate Modern on the 29 March. Indeed, the founder of auto-destructive art had a few chosen words to impart on his rapt audience.
Gustav Metzger is bemused by the current state of the world. To be exact, he has been bewildered by the vicious cycle of conspicuous consumption and waste that we perpetuate for over 60 years. Amazingly, none of that time has eroded his sharp mind, or his conviction that our way of life is wrong-wrong-wrong. In fact, it appears that time is on the artist's side, considering that his work is just as relevant now as it was 30 years ago. Not only is he generating new projects, but he also gets to stage ideas he had decades ago such as Project Stockholm, originally conceived in 1972 for the UN Environmental Conference in Stockholm produced for the 2008 Sharjah Biennale.

His ease with the contradictions that will arise over the course of such a long career is exceptional: he can without a phone, a television and a computer but he is not averse to having someone else Google for him. He believes in the potential of the internet to create powerful networks outside of the realm of capitalism but he doesn't have to let the technology via which internet is accessible dominate his life. He is convinced that humankind is bent upon self-destruction and yet he has faith in the younger generations' intelligence and potential. He is concerned with artists making a living yet he is appalled by the price a piece of canvas can fetch in the current overinflated art market. In other words, he doesn't pretend to hold the answers to the questions raised by his work but he knows the questions need to asked over and over again until enough people think about them.

Feeling like I've been kicked in the head, ideologically of course, I forgo an expensive espresso at the museum's cafe and walk home, still a bit hunched over from all that straining forward but thankful for Gustav Metzger's definition of the Avant-garde: A desire and need to go beyond the existing. I'm all for it.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Animal expression

Thinking of self portraits, the assumption is that they are usually human self portraits and there are countless examples of the genre. But animal self portraits?
Follow this link for a surprise... Perhaps the Tate will debate this new art trend?

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Mapping the Idea

Participatory art as a concept and practice is a slippery notion. It is a shifting and constantly renegotiated conceptual framework which is used to define a variety of activities and practices residing in specific cultural and historical contexts. It has been linked to theories of participatory democracy, it has multiple histories, and its political, social and ethical dimensions are variously described and implemented. Participatory art therefore remains a hotly-debated arena.
→ v.
1. (often participate in) be involved; take part.
2. (participate of) (archaic) partake of (a quality).
DERIVATIVES participation n. participative adj. participator n. participatory adj.
ORIGIN C15 (earlier (ME) as participation): from L. participat-, participare ‘share in’, based on pars, part- ‘part’ + capere ‘take’

The defining of the concept, as well as the terms used to describe those who carry out these kinds of projects - artist, activist, mediator, to name a few - is also of interest. In the workshop Rules of Engagement-Part 1 led by artist Ana Laura, who prefers to describe her practice as public art, some of these questions were addressed while others were raised.
Do practitioners use self-determined labels to describe their role and are different terms used depending on the context? What terms are imposed from outside, for example, to satisfy funding criteria and applications? Do the terms relay the same nuance, or even exist, across language and different cultures? How can, and do, arts institutions, for example, the Tate, engage with these types of practice? And does the institutionalization of practices such as participation, inclusion, social engagement, have the effect of neutralizing difference?
Artist Mark Beech in an article about participation in art, Include Me Out! Art Monthly, April 2008, concludes:
‘The social and cultural distinctions that prompt participation in the first place, which participation seeks to shrink or abolish, are reproduced within participation itself through an economy of the participants’ relative proximity to the invitation. Outsiders have to pay a higher price for their participation, namely, the neutralization of their difference and the dampening of their powers of subversion. Participation papers over the crack. The changes we need are structural.’
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Thursday, April 3, 2008

Scales and Fluids

At about a quarter past 11 on a slightly overcast Saturday morning, a white truck materialises outside Tate Modern's River Entrance. From the back of the truck, a bright orange forklift begins unloading several wooden palettes laden with rather large blocks of ice. The palettes are deposed at the four corners of an ad-hoc performance space demarcated by the sort of aluminium barricading one might find at an outdoor concert, protest rally, or parade. Onlookers have already begun to gather in anticipation of an event, some even pacing in front of the barricades like parents anxiously awaiting the dismissal of their children from primary school, right before the bell rings.

All photography courtesy Sophia Spring

In 1967, Allan Kaprow coordinated Fluids as a participatory activity or "happening," to be staged at locations throughout the southern Californian suburb of Pasadena with the aid of the general public and students taught by him at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Kaprow initially conceived Fluids as a work consisting of several "rectangular enclosures of ice blocks (measuring about 30 feet long, 10 wide and 8 high) ... built throughout the city. Their walls are unbroken. They are left to melt." In 2008, both Fluids and Scales (a similar activity from 1971 in which cinder blocks were hauled up and down the stairwells of the CalArts building by students, one block placed at each step as they ascended) were reinvented for free public view under the auspices of Tate curator Alice Koegel in collaboration with performing art students from Goldsmiths, University of London.
Kaprow also produced small, illustrated procedural manuals outlining instructions for the execution of oddly clinical and rather intimate activities typically engaging partners or groups of partners in close physical and potentially emotive contact. Manuals such as Comfort Zones (1975) were displayed under vitrines in the Turbine Hall over the weekend, accompanied by monitors showing documentation of the original Fluids and Scales activities transferred to DVD. These taken together -- along with an over sized red shoebox containing instructions for subsequent permutations of Fluids written by Kaprow in 2004 -- provided a compelling context from which to consider the events coming to life both within and without Tate Modern that day.

Surprisingly, it was in the details of these activitites that the differences between the 1967 context and those of 2008 began to emerge. One eco-conscious spectator standing next to me offered, "How many glasses of drinking water do you think that is? And how much energy did it take to make it into ice?" With melting polar icecaps and armed conflicts over access to precious potable water marking today's headlines, I suppose Kaprow's work unwittingly triggered political resonance for some viewers (or maybe just in the mind of the guy standing next to me).

I, for one, enjoyed the protective orange mitts and matching hazard-yellow safety vests sported by Goldsmiths students participating in both activities (protective gear of any kind was noticeably absent from the original footage from '67 and '71). I'm guessing that this later point owes much to London's notoriously restrictive Health & Safety measures, as does the fact that this time around the blocks of ice were stacked to a height of approximately five feet only instead of the full eight suggested by Kaprow's original specifications.

Such details aside, one striking continuity between the original documentation of Kaprow's work and Tate Modern's reinventions could be registered in the body language and general attitude of both participants and viewers on that day. I had long imagined early conceptual and performance art of the period as highly austere affairs, black-clad and mostly silent. From the original footage of Fluids and Scales however one gets the impression more of an outdoor barbecue than an historical "happening" or significant art event. Students in the films crack jokes and poke-fun at one other; sometimes spacing-out and appearing unsure as to what's supposed to happen next. Likewise, as the initial logistics of the building begin to work themselves out, the participants at Tate Modern's reinvention gradually relaxed and began striking up conversation with people on the other side of the barricades; tea was had and cigarette breaks taken, an occasional block of ice was dropped. One tourist yells into his mobile phone: "I'm outside by the ice thing, where are you?" and another onlooker responds to her companion's exasperated look with: "I just want to see if they all do something special at the end." A finale?

What came to life quite literally during the reinventions of Fluids and Scales was Kaprow's ability as an orchestrator of rather mundane human behavior, and his interest in revealing the potential for encounters with the poetic realm which lays dormant therein.
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