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In Search of the Miraculous

His public is shocked when this abstract painter living on the Côte d’Azur paints a series of canvases unlike anything he has ever done before. In contrast to the restrained, geometric compositions for which he is known, these canvases present crudely drawn figures against dark, roughly painted backgrounds. When they are exhibited, people complain that the artist has given in to the then-current fashion for expressionistic figuration. At first he says nothing in his own defense, allowing the public to believe whatever it wants. Only when the series is finished and he has returned to abstraction does he reveal that he has painted his figurative work while wearing a patch over one eye and with his left hand tied behind his back (he is left-handed). Rather than being an attempt to climb onto the latest art-world bandwagon, the paintings are in fact his personal response to a recent nuclear disaster and to the fact that his two brothers had just tested positive for HIV. He names them the Tchernobyl series.

Illustration courtesy of unknown artist to the Brooklyn Rail collection.
Illustration courtesy of unknown artist to the Brooklyn Rail collection.

An audience clusters around a glass booth the insides of which have been painted white. Within the booth are hundreds of flies and a Dutch artist who has just sliced a gash in his arm with a razor blade. The artist allows the swarming flies to settle on his open wound. Using the same razor blade with which he has cut himself, he begins to scrape away areas of the white paint on the inside of the glass so that the audience can see what is happening. He stays bleeding in the booth with the flies for two hours.

In 1964 an artist living in Düsseldorf, where he teaches at the Academy of Art, provokes widespread consternation throughout West Germany by suggesting that the Berlin Wall be heightened by five centimeters.

The regional interior ministry furiously demands that he explain his insolent, treacherous behavior. “Don’t talk about the wall so much!” he tells the officials. “Establish a better moral sense in human beings through self-education and all walls will disappear. There are so many walls between me and you. A wall in itself is a fine thing, if the proportions are right.”

In the 1980s, an artist in Hanover, Germany, provokes widespread consternation by proposing that the city erect a monument to one of its famous native sons, the serial sex murderer of the 1920s, Fritz Haarmann.

In 1974 a young woman artist of Yugoslavian descent declares that for six hours she will stand in a gallery in Naples, Italy, and accept passively whatever the public wishes to do to her. To encourage their participation, she lays on a table in the gallery a variety of objects. These range from objects associated with feminine beauty (lipstick, perfume) to everyday items associated with the body (a comb, a mirror, a hat, a handkerchief, soap) to instruments of potential violence (chains, a whip, a kitchen knife, a scalpel, a hammer and nails, a gun and bullet) to products associated with healing (a Band-Aid, a bandage) to symbolic materials (a rosemary branch, a rose) to food and drink (bread, honey, wine). In all, there are 72 different objects available for use.

For the first couple of hours those present do no more than move around the artist, gently touching or manipulating parts of her body. But gradually the tone of the proceedings changes, and by the fourth hour all her clothes have been cut off and her body is being subjected to increasingly aggressive actions. A short older man pulls her face to his and kisses her at length on the lips. Her naked body is fondled, pinched, and whipped. At one point someone begins to cut her with razor blades, sucking the blood that appears in the wounds. By the fifth hour, as the public realizes that she will offer no resistance to whatever they do, it begins to look as if she will be assaulted and raped before the piece is over. However, as the situation grows increasingly out of control, a group of “protectors” begins to form. When, toward the end of the six hours, an especially malevolent individual places the loaded gun in the artist’s hand, wraps her finger around the trigger and tries to point the barrel at her head, the protectors move in to isolate her from any further danger.

A well-known artist is invited to teach at an art school in the German city of Saarbrücken. Without saying anything to the school’s administration, he involves his students in the following project:

For several months they conduct research into Germany’s Jewish cemeteries. Through letters, phone calls, and personal visits rather than published histories, they collect the names of as many cemeteries, both extant and vanished, as they can. Each time they discover the name of another Jewish cemetery, they note the date on which the information was acquired. This data is then put to use in the second phase of the project.

Saarbrücken is the seat of the regional parliament. During the Nazi era the building, which now serves as the parliament building, was the local Gestapo headquarters. The large courtyard in front of this building is paved with variously colored cobblestones. Lighter stones mark a path leading up the center of the courtyard to the main entrance. The artist-professor embarks on a plan to engrave the name of a German Jewish cemetery on the bottom of each of the cobblestones on this path. Each night his students remove one cobblestone, temporarily replacing it with an imitation stone they have made. On the bottom of the real stone they engrave the name of one of the cemeteries and the date on which they learned of its existence. The altered cobblestone is then returned to its original place with the engraved side facing down.

Since the project is being conducted in secrecy, the students have to resort to subterfuge. On many nights they take guitars and bottles of wine to the courtyard and conduct their excavations under the cover of what passersby take to be raucous parties.

The process of crafting fake stones, engraving the real ones, and making the necessary switches is long and arduous. To complicate matters, employees and politicians at the parliament building start complaining of loose stones in the courtyard. Rumors begin to circulate around Saarbrücken that the students are up to something. Realizing that the clandestine nature of the project is threatened, the artist-professor calculates that it will be better if he reveals what’s going on before some night watchman or nosy politician stumbles on the truth. At first it seems as if he’s miscalculated. There’s intense outrage in parliament—how dare these students tamper with state property, etc.—and the project, still incomplete, is halted. The artist speaks before parliament to make his case. After much heated debate, a vote is taken, and the project is allowed to continue.

On the day that “2,146 Stones—Monument against racism,” as the work is called, is finally completed, the courtyard in front of the parliament building looks exactly as it did on the day the project began.

In 1979 an artist decides to shake hands with every employee of the New York City Sanitation Department. It takes her 11 months and 2 days to shake the hands of all 8,500 workers.

An artist takes a blank canvas and paints “$1.00” on it. As well as being the subject of the work, $1.00 is also the price of the painting, and he soon finds someone who buys it. The next canvas he paints reads “$2.00,” which is also its price. This, too, sells, allowing the artist (who is not primarily a painter but a free-ranging conceptual artist) to make a third canvas marked “$4.00.” The rules of the project are simple: Each canvas doubles the price of the preceding one and doesn’t get exhibited until the preceding one has sold. As of this writing, the artist is in possession of a canvas carrying the price “$65,536.00.” It has been waiting nine years to find a buyer.

Wearing a pair of ice skates embedded in blocks of ice, an artist plays a violin on a street corner. The performance continues until the ice melts and she loses her balance.

A successful German painter who enjoys provoking outrage buys an out-of-the-way gas station in Brazil and renames it in honor of a notorious Nazi long rumored to have escaped to South America. Soon, photographs begin to circulate of a forlorn building on the facade of which have been emblazoned the words “Martin Bormann Gas Station.”

Where past artists have been content to apply colored fluids to canvas and paper, an innovative painter working in Germany devotes himself to painting on water. He explores this new experimental medium by painting on water in many different states and in many different containers. He paints on rain puddles and lakes as well as on pots and pans filled with water. He paints on the sea, both choppy and calm, on limpid water and murky water, on water in shadow and in sunlight. In his quest for different effects, he travels far and resorts to specially designed devices such as a raft with a square opening in the middle.

Sometimes he uses paint, pouring colors into the water, but more often he simply disturbs the surface of the water with a variety of tools such as hairbrushes and flyswatters or with his bare hands. He is known even to use his feet and whole body.

At one point in his career he switches from painting on water to what he calls shadow modeling. This involves nothing more than the artist moving his hands or other opaque elements in order to create temporary conjunctions of shadow and light. Wishing to preserve his creations, he begins to photograph these shadow formations. Then, realizing that this is in contradiction to his pursuit of ephemeral effects,  he abandons shadows and returns to water painting, except that now, no longer so sure of his own motives, he proceeds more hesitantly, often abandoning a work in mid-gesture, leaving behind only an abbreviated, momentary ripple.

This 29-year-old Chinese-born artist has been living in New York for a few years, struggling the way young artists usually do. When his parents come to the city for a visit, they invite him to dinner in a fancy restaurant. He naturally looks forward to this rare treat, but he has a problem: The restaurant his parents are taking him to is one that insists upon jackets and ties for gentlemen, and he has neither. His only formal outfit is a recent thrift-store find: a Mao suit. When his parents, who left China to escape Mao’s communism, see him arrive at the restaurant wearing the uniform, they’re horrified. Their attitude changes, however, when the maitre d’ takes their son for a visiting Chinese official and gives them all VIP treatment. Their son, too, is struck by the effect of his Mao suit and decides to try it out in a more public venue. He crashes a gala opening of a Chinese costume exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he succeeds in having his photograph taken with numerous celebrities who believe, like the maitre d’, that he is an emissary of the People’s Republic.

Adding a few refinements to his disguise—a military-style haircut and an official-looking photo ID pinned to one of his breast pockets—he begins to travel around the U.S. photographing himself at tourist attractions such as Niagara Falls, Mt. Rushmore, and Disney World. Each portrait shows him in his Mao uniform, facing the camera but looking impassively into the distance, his left hand grasping the camera’s shutter release. (In every photo, the release cable is visible stretching from where he stands to the lower edge of the frame.)

The series keeps on growing, making his name and taking him to Europe, where he snaps himself in front of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and Checkpoint Charlie. In his last photographs, taken in the period leading up to his early death from AIDS, he is still wearing his Mao suit, but now he has an assistant take the photograph. This allows him to move farther away from the camera. In a series of photographs shot at the Grand Canyon, he is a tiny figure in the midst of the dramatic landscape. In contrast to the preceding portraits, in which he inevitably faced the camera, in these last images he has turned away from the lens to gaze out on the immense scene before him.

An artist in his mid-30s decides that his next work will consist of sailing solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Born and raised in Holland, he has spent the last several years living in Los Angeles. Recently, he’s mailed out postcards that carry a photograph of him convulsed in tears. The caption reads: “I’m too sad to tell you.”

He has limited sailing experience and selects as his craft a dangerously small boat (12 feet long) with no auxiliary motor. One July morning in 1975 he sets out from Cape Cod. He carries food and water for 180 days but expects to make the trip in less than 90. He takes along a camera and a tape recorder to document the voyage. At the end of 90 days there is no sign of him. After 150 days, a search is mounted. Months later, the wreckage of his boat is discovered by the crew of a Spanish trawler some 150 miles west of Ireland. He had given his transatlantic performance the title: “In Search of the Miraculous.” In an interview the following year, his widow insists that suicide was “nowhere in his consciousness.”

(Noël Dolla, Ben d’Armagnac, Joseph Beuys, Alfred Hrdlicka, Marina Abramovic, Jochen Gerz, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, William Anastasi, Laurie Anderson, Martin Kippenberger, Helmut Heissenbüttel, Tseng Kwong Chi, Bas Jan Ader)

This is an extract from In Search of the Miraculous: 50 Episodes From the Annals of Contemporary Art, (En Quête de Miracle: Cinquante épisodes extraits des annals de L’art Contemporain), translated into French by Marcel Cohen, published by Editions Grèges, 2004.


Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the New York-based author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). Excerpts from his recently completed book Libraries of Sand about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès have appeared in BombThe Fortnightly Review and 3:AM Magazine. In January 2023, Bloomsbury Academic will publish a collection of his writing titled Negative Work: The Turn to Provisionality in Contemporary Art. Since 2008 he has been Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2005

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