POINTS OF DEPARTURE Inner and Outer Journeys in Contemporary Art Feb. 6-23; Reception: Feb. 23, 5-7 Fox Gallery, Logan Hall
Organized by MFA Candidate Shayna V. McConville; featuring a number of artists including six of our MFAs: Milana Braslavsky, Jeff Fichera, Daniel Gerwin, Julia Landois, Caroline Santa, and Molly Winston!
Images of work below: Shayna working on an installation; work by Jeff Fichera and Milana Braslavsky (waiting to be installed):
January 31 - February 7 Upper Gallery, Meyerson Hall
A celebration of digital time-based media; featuring work by eight MFA film, video, and digital media artists: Andre Callot, Lissa Corona, Kristen Gayle, Leejin Kim, Julia Landois, J. Makary, Francesca Pfister, and Anastasia Wong. Curated by MFA '07 Elizabeth S. Lim and Fine Arts Exhibitions Coordinator Jeremiah Misfeldt.
Images of work by (descending): Francesca Pfister; Anastasia Wong (left) and Julia Landois (installation and projection on the right); Anastasia Wong (foreground, left) and J. Makary (background, right); Leejin Kim (left); Andre Callot; and the opening reception:
On the Problematics of Social Sculpture By Daniel Gerwin (MFA '08)
Joseph Beuys put forward the notion of “Social Sculpture/Social Architecture,” asserting that everybody should be a creator, a sculptor of the social organism. Beuys felt that “Even the act of peeling a potato can be a work of art, if it is a conscious act.” Indeed, as part of his artistic practice, Beuys ran for elected office, orchestrated the planting of 7,000 oaks, and founded the Free International University. These examples are but a few among many of Beuys’ activist projects. In today’s postmodern context, it is beside the point to ask the question, “what is art,” as it is by now clear that anything presented as art becomes art simply through this performative act. Yet it still seems relevant to ask “why is it,” or a corollary to that question, “is it successful?” I would like to ask these questions of specific works of art by Beuys and later artists as an attempt at critical inquiry of social sculpture and related artistic enterprise.
Consider Beuys’ planting of 7,000 oaks. Dr. Wangari Mathaii, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, has thus far orchestrated the planting of over 30 million trees in Africa. Beuys would probably consider Mathaii a wonderful artist, but I am quite sure she does not view herself in this manner nor have I heard anyone else frame her achievement as art. Moreover, I will hazard the guess that Mathaii (despite her PhD and considerable erudition) was not inspired by Beuys’ precedent when she began her endeavor. Matthew Barney, in talking about the impact of Beuys, holds to the faith “that art provides useful tools for understanding the world that can proliferate into the broader culture.” In this sense, art is not distinct from any other action, just as Beuys taught. If we locate the impact of art in the general symbolic realm, we must then recognize that all actions have cultural significance. 30 million trees make for one hell of a symbolic impact, as the Nobel committee recognized. For better or worse, so do twenty thousand Starbucks cafes. Everything has symbolic, cultural impact.
Pursuing the theme of social sculpture, we can consider the work of a local Philadelphia collective, Baskamp. In one project, “making room for redundancy” (2005 and ongoing), Basekamp set up discussion panels, not unlike Beuys’ “100 Days” (1972) when he engaged in discussion with the public for 100 days at Documenta, the German art fair. Ultimately, Basekamp intends to produce a document resulting from this project. Artwork of this kind appears directed exclusively at fostering the consideration of ideas, something that books, articles, and writing in general does exceedingly well. From this point of view, Noam Chomsky’s bestseller, “Hegemony or Surivival” seems to be a much more powerful and thus more successful work of art. To name just a few examples, Francisco de Goya, Honore Daumier, and Jacob Lawrence all succeeded at including social criticism within their art, but in these cases this criticism was only one aspect of the form and content. By contrast, when art purports to exist only as spoken or written words, it must contend with spoken and written language in general. As Terry Atkinson asked in the first issue of Art-Language: The Journal of Conceptual Art: “Can this editorial, in itself an attempt to evince some outlines as to what ‘conceptual art’ is, come up for the count as a work of conceptual art?” If the answer is yes, why hasn’t Chomsky been featured by ArtForum, Modern Painters, or some hipster artzine?
In a different Basekamp project, “hegemonic bar” (1999), the collaborative created a three-tiered bar corresponding to working class, middle class, and upper class economic strata and their stereotypical drinking environments, and placed participants into one of these three categories. I understand this work to be aimed at raising people’s consciousness of class structure and the impact of these divisions. Similarly, Hans Haacke produced a piece “Gallery-Visitor’s Profile" (1969-73) in which he collected and presented simple descriptive statistics on the population of gallery-goers. Haacke’s work highlighted the privileged class of people who dominate the audience for art. Compare the aforementioned works to a collaborative performance by a large number of organizations but led in large part by one of America’s greatest performance artists, Dr. Martin Luther King. This work was known as the Civil Rights Movement, and included such memorable pieces as the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington. Which of these works has been more successful as social architecture? Which work acts most powerfully in the symbolic realm? The efforts of Beuys, Basekamp, and Haacke are anemic compared to those of Mathaii, Chomsky, and King. To give the devil his due, one must acknowledge perhaps the ultimate master of social architecture and its aesthetics, Adolf Hitler.
I would like to offer a few final, indirectly related, examples. Carston Holler has made works he calls “Valerios,” which are slides designed to offer us a sensation of freedom and loss of control as we go sliding. How does a Valerio compare to a giant water slide in any amusement park? In a related case, I was surprised by comments made in a presentation at Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) by Nancy Spector, curator of America’s pavilion in the 2007 Venice Biennale, which will be showing the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Gonzalez-Torres’ work was described as “generous” because we can take parts of it with us out of the gallery, such as a piece of candy, or a sheet of paper. Can generosity be found in a painting by Van Gogh although we have to leave it in the museum where we view it? I am not criticizing the work of Gonzales-Torres, but rather the shockingly concrete explication of it that was offered that evening at the ICA.
It seems to me that one of art’s greatest qualities is its ability to operate in the realm of the irrational and mysterious, regions that cannot be accessed or exhausted by rational exegesis. As conceptual art has taken up Beuys’ maxim about peeling a potato, content and its formal expression have become more concrete and less compelling. I am not calling for a return to the Modernist notion of art that only investigates its own particular material and formal character. Rather, I am suggesting that in a world where everything and anything can be viewed as art, artists run the risk of becoming dilettantes, or of simply being tedious.
I recognize the poetry of Beuys’ 7,000 trees, and of his many socially directed gestures. Perhaps they were futile and utopian, but that is party of their poignancy. Perhaps it is unfair to compare artwork to political action, but the works I have considered all beg the comparison by the very nature of their intent. I am troubled by the suggestion that art such as Beuys’ trees or Basekamp’s class-based bars is political or eloquent when there are individuals and organizations acting in the political realm with far greater eloquence and impact, both symbolically, and in material terms that directly affect people’s lives. If we value art in terms of its moral urgency, the work of Beuys and Basekamp is pretty weak stuff. Furthermore, if we are using this yardstick, where does that leave Matisse?
I will close with a final example and an artwork of my own. The example is that of conceptual artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. Among the many performances for which he is known is one in which he cooks and serves noodles to visitors in the gallery, engaging them in conversation while providing a meal. In the spirit of Atkinson, the artwork I now offer you is nothing other than this article you are reading; it is my own attempt to engage you in an exchange of ideas. I am not, however, going to leave you without a meal. In the spirit of the old adage, “give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat all his life,” I give you my mother’s excellent recipe for Butternut Squash Soup. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the artistic lineage here: Lawrence Weiner’s conceptual art, in which he simply provided the instructions for making an artwork, supposedly subverting the idea of the artist as author. With this recipe, I give you the opportunity to destabilize the myth of authorship by making the soup yourself. Enjoy.
My new Pumas are getting dirty. Not in a good way, by which I mean a dirrrty way. They’re getting dirty, and the fact that I’m upset by this plagues me.
When I was thirteen, I made my father drive me to Payless Shoes so I could buy a discount imitation of the super popular shoes at the time. The most popular shoes of the time were, of course, black and white Sketchers with a thick platform sole and a chunky heel. Everyone was wearing them.
They looked like someone designed Chuck Taylors for a new, urban-oriented doll, and somehow the design found its way into the vengeful hands of a bitter shoe manufacturer (was Steve Madden in jail yet?) and ended up on the hooves of every pretty pre-teen girl at my middle school. At this point in my assimilation, I still naively thought the right shoes would magically point me in the direction of that Oz of suburban normality. My inability to discern between the real and the copy has become a self-conscious point of interest now that I’m almost fully aware of the intricacies of my relationship to middle-class culture.
After choosing the perfect, implacably white (never scuffed!) Skecher knock-offs, I nervously brought my golden ticket to the cash register, only to be informed that the shoes I chose so carefully were actually different sizes. The right was nine, a size I still seek out in clearance racks at every “Designer Brands for Less!” type store. The left was a ten. Ten is a number usually reserved for those pretty preteens from my middle school who grow up to be bulimic sorority girls at my graduate school with nose and boob jobs (and some other, genuinely pretty girls). I chose the tens, because it was an even number, and because I foolishly believed my feet would expand forever and ever. They didn’t. They stopped at eight and a half. Sometimes I wear a nine, especially in heels, but mostly I like to say I wear an eight and a half, which makes everyone of a certain class and education think of Fellini and smile that special acknowledging smile everyone of a certain class and education is seemingly born with.
I wore those shoes twice. I bought them so late in their short-lived season, and so much larger than my feet, that they were rendered useless almost immediately. My mother still brings up the large shoes. They’re my Payless albatross. I’m embarrassed for forcing my father to pay for those clods of a pair of those, and for asking for the gigantic size as a precaution for the feet that stopped growing. Maybe the purchase of the shoes stopped the expansion of the feet. In any case, I have become wiser in my shopping ways.
My graying white Pumas used to correspond so well to my white IPod and my subscription to the New Yorker and my numerous failed attempts to be an impressively speedy crossword solver. I don’t know when I became the person with a subscription to the New Yorker and little white buds in my ears.
This strange and false status I’ve ruefully allowed myself to embody with the help of expensive yet faulty monochromatic objects withstood a serious test when my father’s hip was crushed after he was slammed into a wall by a forklift. The test came much later. Later than the early morning on which I took an Amtrak train to Baltimore and a cab to the hospital instead of a day trip to New York I had originally planned. It came after the weeks I spent at the hospital and the physical therapy center, worrying about internal bleeding and blood clots, options I had only experienced previously with the help of highly rated prime-time dramas. The test came after my father moved from being bedridden to a walker to crutches to finally limping slowly from the kitchen to the couch. The test was in my explanation of my father’s accident to acquaintances.
I found myself faltering when I was explaining the circumstances in which my father works, the windowless factory, sweltering hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. My friends don’t have fathers in factories. It was as if I expected them to be confused, to assume a car accident or a rock wall mishap. Factories are the stuff of Henry Ford biographies and Charlie Chaplin Film 101 assignments. It was as if my brand-name (it’s the quiet flash of logos that gets the knowing glances) clothes would be exposed, and I would be known as the girl who buys her Ralph Lauren shirts at TJ Maxx.
It was an irrational sensation, but I felt it. What’s worse, I identified it and still felt it. I will probably feel it my whole life, just like I will continue to buy Pumas at Burlington Coat Factory, and marvel at the deal.
The GIGANTIC By Nathlie Provosty
One time I was chased by a GIGANTIC bumblebee. I swear it was about the size of a humming bird. But humming birds are the epitome of cuteness and giant bumblebees are the epitome of soccer game nightmares. I was walking along the creek of Burnet Woods, the urban woods near my house. Actually, I was walking my dog Chacco (she’s a girl) who was having a grand old time leaping into the puddles, sprinting forward twenty yards, stopping and bending her head around to make sure I was still there, then sprinting back directly into my shins. Repeat. Anyway, I was hopping along the rocks and the hubcaps busy sniffing the moist soil air. Moist soil is a delicious smell. You know at The Gap or Bath and Body Works or one of those types of stores, they sell a perfume called “dirt.” It’s true. It sits right next to “cut grass.” It’s like how the brand Jelly Bellies has the jellybean flavor “throw up.” But throw up is disgusting—no moist soil, that’s for sure! I wonder how many people enjoy gummy chunks of vomit hurls. Hmmmm.
Anyway, so I was walking enjoying the fresh earthy air and Chacco started barking at a hole in a tree trunk. I decided to check out what all her yipping was about. And I love tree trunks. I really do. So I go up there and peek into a hold. It is a dark hollowed out interior about half-crouching level from the ground. The trunk is the size of about half-crouching level from the ground. The trunk is the size of hug-ability, meaning if I wrap my arms around it the tips of my fingers on either side nearly touch. I look inside and hear a low painting sound that if I didn’t know better resembled an evil little chuckle. Immediately I thought of the scene in the movie “The Labyrinth” where the worm comes out of his hole in the wall and says, “Hello. How aw’ you? Would you like to come in and ‘av a cup ‘o tea with misses?” Classic. But that was a nice hospital worm, and this sound was foreboding.
Chacco continued to bark and I proceeded to search for a stick. Yet, I had poking in mind. It is called passive curiosity. You want to touch something but the feat factor keeps you from expressing your desires forthright—hence the intermediary. I find a stick suitable for marshmallow roasting and bring it back to the hole where Chacco tirelessly perseveres with her incessant yaps. Making sure to keep my head about fifteen inches from the hole I insert the stick. I hit a goes wall. Blahh. Circular pokes render no more insight so I start getting bored. Okay, I’ve had enough.
I continue walking along the creek, figuring Chacco’s herding tendencies will catch her up with me. Little did I know it was the GIGANTIC, not Chacco, on my tail. I hear the evil chuckle behind me. Out of my left periphery comes this ENORMOUS bumble bee madly flapping its wings. I am dead serious. It is the defensive tackle of bumblebees. It is the iron man car pusher, the shot-put thrower, the big Bertha of bumbles! With blind glory it aims, shoots, scores…right up my surprised left nostril! I scream that makes all the frogs on this side of the Midwest hop back into their respective bodies of water. This GIGANTIC has thoroughly lodged its furry black head into my fuzzy dark hole. I shake my cranium so vigorously my brain sloshs around. No change. Eventually I begin to calm down. No change.
I didn’t want to brush the bee off with my hand because with this pricker pointing out I could possibly receive the mother of all stings, the atomic bomb of beestings! Actually, setting it free of all be an invitation to receive its wrath. Seeing no other option I readied myself to throw my head into the creek. But suddenly, pity overtook me. How audacious to kill this creature just to avoid a string. How selfish to value my comfort over its life!
Growing up I was the type to always save insects. You know, I would let (a.k.a. throw) the spider out my window instead of smooshing it. Or I would see a roach and do the grossed-out hopping dance until it, terrified, scurried back into some dark nook. I never wanted to be the killer. And hey, I had to give the GIGANTIC the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it got lost and mistook my nostril for the hole in the tree. I mean, my nostrils are pretty big. And they have a pleasant habit of flapping in the breeze that I’m sure any creature in a time of fear and confusion would find comforting.
Unfortunately I realized I could not continuously sit idle as the poor helpless bee wiggled in vain like a stubborn bogger. Pity is not action. I took a hard look at my face in the reflection of the water. After a few minutes I made the decision. If I stuck my face in the creek I would drown the bee—but help the bee forward in its spiritual journey. It would be a blessing in disguise. It would be the right thing to do. I bent down on my knees and looked up to the heavens. The light flickering through the late autumn leaves was stunningly beautiful. After a deep breath through my mouth and right nostril, I took one last look down my nose at the poor striped wiggling creature. I lowered my head into the pure sacred water. The bee’s body jerked as it struggled to break free. Echoing inside my skull I heard its last little gasps. Then there was silence. Then there was nothing.
I felt profoundly sad.
The ephemerality of life was literally placed right below my nose. But what can you do? What can you do? Keep walking I suppose.
The University of Pennsylvania MFA Forum (also known as the PennDesign MFA blog) is a resource for current students enrolled in UPenn's MFA program as well as for alumni and other artists. Announcements of events, lectures and exhibitions, as well as student, alumni and faculty activities are an important part of this blog's mission. The University of Pennsylvania MFA Forum is independently run by students. To write for the blog, please email fadenrechtt[at]gmail.com