RAPHAEL RUBINSTEIN AND HEATHER BAUSE: THE MIRACULOUSby Michael McFadden
University of Houston, Texas | April 18–October 2017
Two yellow posters hang on the outside of the MD Anderson Library at the University of Houston. In summer, the campus was no longer abuzz the way it is in spring, but a student, mid-20s with baseball hat drawn to the brow in an attempt to block the Texan sun, stopped to read them. The two texts detail a series by artist Tseng Kwong Chi—one in English and one translated to Mandarin Chinese. The student spent a few minutes reading, thinking, and then continued toward the entrance to the library.
This student had unknowingly read the final chapter of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014), a collection of brief narratives written by New York-based art critic Raphael Rubinstein, who is also a professor of Art History at the University of Houston. Earlier this year, similar texts—each a chapter from the book—were distributed across the UH campus.
With The Miraculous in Houston, a collaboration between Rubinstein and artist Heather Bause, the text—displaced and reshaped—was laid onto posters and hung across the university. A handful of chapters appear in pairs, one in English and its partner in the subject of that chapter’s native language. A solitary chapter lay on the ground near a fountain, and one chapter was even printed on t-shirts and distributed by the collaborators.
Reading is a commonplace activity on university campuses. It is also typically a private experience, one that often cuts us off from the rest of the world, even while simultaneously bearing the potential to facilitate deeper connections. Through this project, Rubinstein and Bause raise many questions about art criticism, reading, and public art. Rubinstein’s narratives aren’t structured as reviews or articles. They simply tell stories about feats of endurance, attempts of wit, confrontations of oppressive attitudes and policies, and a number of other reasons that drive artists to create (although not all of the stories are factually true—some relate myth or rumor). In ways, they address issues people still face, or are forced to face, in our current political climate.
One poster details a project by the collective HAHA. According to Rubinstein’s essay, they exhibited an abortion-inducing pill, at a time when such medicine was illegal in the US. Because the pill was part of the New Museum’s exhibition at a foreign consulate—therefore, technically on foreign soil—the authorities permitted it. After the exhibition closed, HAHA flushed the pill down the toilet, whereby it entered the country illegally. Affixed to this poster, likely by a passerby during the spring semester, was a Post-It note that read, “Métodos Anti-conceptidos durante la época de Trump?” A loose translation: “Birth control methods in the Trump era?”
The university’s public art collection is vast, and sculptures are dotted across the campus. However, a book—a series of narratives displayed in text—operates as an odd form of public art. There are conceptual and performative aspects to this project, which engage the public in unexpected ways. Text is easier to access than sculpture, and narratives easier still. If a narrative is compelling, one might not even need to see the work of art to understand what it is and why the artist felt the need to create it. These concise and descriptive narratives evoke images not readily available, and this is the style of criticism that Rubinstein has applied throughout The Miraculous. The chapters are brief, yet thoughtful and thorough, as they depict the conception and execution of the artists’ projects. Rubinstein adds the touch of a poet to his descriptions. Treating each chapter almost like a short story, he elevates the descriptions from artist statement to something mystical.
Likewise, Bause is careful in the location and scope of this project. With maps available in print and online, the project can become a game, a scavenger hunt that reveals fifty forms of conceptual art that will teach new methods for approaching some aspect of life.
The poster for chapter one lay on the ground like a heavy rug. The wind pushed it around, but it sat in its assigned area, spotted with dirt. A student walked over it on his way to the coffee shop. He wasn’t the first: several dusty footprints obscured the text. Another student walked by, talking on her phone. She stepped around the art, appearing to have made note of it, but didn’t stop. A third student tripped over the chapter. He was okay, his balance maintained, but he’d kicked over a corner. He flattened it out and took a moment to examine the obstacle, learned about the practice of a deaf artist who collects notes when he can’t read people’s lips and attaches them to anecdotal recollections.
We spend a great many of our days moving through spaces, surrounded by art that competes with architecture and advertisements for our attention. The Miraculous in Houston pops up in the lives of UH students in unexpected ways, through guerilla-like tactics. It reminds us that art—public art in particular—can serve a more mystical purpose. Like a sculpture in a park, reading can be a public experience: we may seek it out or simply stumble upon it, but it deepens our connection to life and the world around us.
Michael McFadden is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail