by James Kalm
Birth of a Notion
“The Five Spot Jazz Club was tiny, but it had a huge influence.” I often find myself thinking back on these words, delivered by Dave Hickey during a New School lecture at the beginning of this millennium. As I trace back veins of art history and study the unlikely and humble beginnings of careers, movements, and galleries, they become even more poignant.
A brief list of esteemed accomplishments that started as little more than personal eccentric gestures would include a project by Gracie Mansion (Joanne Mayhew-Young) titled the “Loo Division” (1982), which consisted of an art exhibition in her bathroom on East Ninth Street. Gracie became an icon and driving force behind the fledgling East Village scene, debuting artists like Mike Bidlo, Judy Glantzman, and David Wojnarowicz. Out in Los Angeles in 1954, Walter and Shirley Hopps christened a log shed in Brentwood the Syndell Studio Art Gallery. Despite the problem of hanging pictures on log walls, they showed the work of local artists and a tight-knit group of San Francisco “beat” Expressionists. A few years later, Walter went on to partner with Edward Kienholz and found the Ferus Gallery before moving on to become curator of the Pasadena Museum of Art, where he organized one of the first Pop Art shows, as well as the groundbreaking Marcel Duchamp retrospective in 1963. Meanwhile, in San Francisco’s Marina District, just off Lombard Street, Dimitri Grachis was operating the Spatza Gallery out of a garage he also lived in at 2192 Filbert Street. Given the pathetic nature of its origins, it’s perhaps appropriate that this space participated in the gestation of the movement dubbed “funk,” which included the likes of Wallace Berman, George Hermes, and Bruce Conner, whose disturbing sculpture “Child” was fist shown at Spatza. (“Child” was purchased by MoMA and eventually disintegrated in the museum’s storage.)
If these anecdotes sound familiar, it’s because locally we’re experiencing similar scenarios on a daily basis. David Gibson, one of the hardest working curators in New York, spent five years organizing over 40 shows at what must have appeared as a uniquely self-effacing venue called the Real Form Project Space, a display window at 218 Bedford Avenue. Despite the presentation area being about the size of a large aquarium, 5 by 7 by 2½ feet, many of the featured artists have gone on to establish careers, and several are represented by reputable galleries. Stories like these inspire the realizations that where one starts out is less important than where one is headed; that initiative, creativity, and the courage to take a risk (and perhaps fail), are just as important as a cash grubstake; and that creative individuals are indeed in control of their own destinies and artistic futures.
Speaking of fortuitous beginnings, “The Birth of Baby X” has captured the imaginations and headlines of more news outlets, tabloids, and blogs than any recent Brooklyn performance art piece I can remember. Beginning around October 8, artist Marni Kotak transformed Microscope Gallery into a provisional maternity ward complete with birthing pool, fridge, and bed. The idea was simple: Kotak would inhabit the gallery around her due date and present the birth of “Baby X” as a performance, blurring the lines between “real life” and the aesthetic object. The gallery, a space about the size of a small living room, is painted with a cobalt blue seascape motif, and a band of photos of the bikini-clad expectant Kotak sunbathing on a beach, line the walls like a wainscot. A centrally placed 172-gallon inflatable pool is flanked with twin cheesy trophies towering over seven feet high. At about 9:00 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday October 26, “Baby X” arrived—a bouncing boy weighing in at nine pounds, two ounces. I made my first visit the following Friday and spoke with artist mom Marni, as well as Jason Bell, the collaborator dad, and viewed the “artwork,” beautiful baby Ajax. After weeks of habitation and the birthing process, the gallery acquired a cluttered, lived-in patina. A couple of monitors play disks of preliminary activities, including a visit to the beach and family gatherings, while a time-lapse video of the actual birth was projected on the back wall of the gallery.
There’s a humorous Keystone Cops quality to the jumpy images of futzing figures, popping in and out of the camera’s frame, in preparations that quickly turn dramatic as Kotak steps into the pool, begins shaking, tossing and turning with contractions. After considerable convulsing, the delivery is surprisingly brief. The midwife reaching into the water retrieves the babe and places him in his mother’s arms. There are also scenes of the examination of the placenta, and Bell kneading it on heavy paper, a resultant mixed media “painting” is displayed on the nearby wall. Hospital blue pads, soaked with blood and other bodily fluids, are preserved in clear sealed cellophane bags and stacked near the bed.
Despite the happy scene of mother and child, “The Birth of Baby X” raises discomforting questions about the boundaries between “art” and life. Are there happenings that are too personal to be presented as “art”? Is the presentation of a birth as “art” the exploitation of an innocent infant, unable to consent to its own participation? Will there be unforeseen consequences of this performance that might end up affecting Baby X’s future (Mom, I don’t want to go to another stinkin’ opening)?
I mentioned these hypothetical questions to Kotak and Bell, who seemed less concerned with any potential negative effects than with the invasive nature of the paparazzi. The performance had attracted a flock of international press that expanded far beyond the artistic ghetto. There were notices on the gallery door that photography, video, or audio recording were not permitted. Microscope gallerists Andrea Monti and Elle Burchill even went so far as to shutter the windows to discourage peeping photogs from snapping picks of the mom and babe from the street. This reluctance to engage in the total unregulated exposure of “The Birth of Baby X” establishes the aesthetic event horizon and I think sets the artistic and moral limits of privacy beyond which the invasion of the spectacle was not permitted to impinge. Concomitant with the instinct to provide shelter from the onslaught of prying eyes was a very generous almost familial effort to share the experience. There was a list of 15 people who were notified when the labor began, and about a half dozen friends and fans showed up. Kotak, a tall, robust woman who seems well suited for motherhood, said that she was surprised by the amount of attention the piece generated, and questions how this might affect her future performances:
For me it was a completely natural thing to do. Because I’d never been pregnant before, dealing with how birth is dealt with in our society, I realized that everyone has issues with birth, and these are the points that this piece touches on. I wasn’t aware of that. I don’t have an issue with it, I feel it’s a natural, positive, amazing thing, but it’s something that freaks a lot of people out.
In our current hyper-aware, wired world, little in life goes on without being broadcast. A quick glance at “baby birth delivery” on YouTube turns up 16,800 results. Yet the act of framing a birth as “art” is still a challenging idea, and it’s an intriguing addition to the legacy of visceral feminist performance going back to Carolee Schneemann, Shigeko Kubota, and the “Essentialists.” It also makes visible the contrast of priorities for Kotak between being an artist and being a mother. “Inter faeces et uriname nascimur,” (between shit and piss we are born) to quote St. Augustine, seems to express the messy nature of life, and one could say the same for art. Though the nascent phase of “The Birth of Baby X” has concluded, this work will continue and grow because as every parent knows, your kids are your most blessed form of art.
While cruising Williamsburg on an impromptu Saturday night date, I dropped in at the refurbished Boiler in time to catch an early performance of Tony Fitzpatrick’s Stations Lost. Featured along with Fitzpatrick, are his compadre Steve Doyle, songstress Grana Louise, and guitarist Stan Klein. The one hundred minute travelogue traces the big man’s recent peregrinations, including a trip to Istanbul. A dialogue about travelling the back roads of America and musing on its current state may not have been meaty enough to provide for nearly two hours of stage time, but the production—projected video clips of the artists collages, and bluesy musical interludes by Louise—verged on satisfying. Fitzpatrick, a bear of a guy, is a natural actor, and ham. A nostalgic mood recalling the rock ‘n’ roll ’60s abounds, and references to the TV classic Route 66 establish Stations as a look back on a golden age of middle America that never really was. Still, the banter between Fitzpatrick and Doyle displayed a true warmth, and the experience rested somewhere between theatrical storytelling and a revival meeting, done in a broad-shouldered “Chicago Way.”
Let me also add kudos for NURTUREart’s recent reopening at 56 Bogart Street. Having followed their decade long eastward transitions from Keap, to Grand, and now to the crux of the Bushwick scene at 56 Bogart Street, I’m sure the proximity to subway and bus service will provide this admirable institution with the foot traffic needed to garner it the deserved attention. “Re-Telling,” curated by Melissa Levin and featuring Elia Alba, Becca Albee, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and Aaron Gilbert, was a sweet debut in the new space. Pieces that caught my eye included Elia Alba’s “Study for ‘Girls,’” set on a plinth, a couple of Raggedy Ann-type stuffed dolls fashioned from photo transfers on fabric depicted reclining nudes, and had abundant pubic hair attached for “realism.” Also, “Love Scene” (2008), an oil on canvas by Aaron Gilbert, which shows a moment of interracial intimacy as a partially clad, brilliantly light skinned boy rises up from his dark skinned partner, revealing her vulnerable naked breast. Gilbert’s taut rendering of the figures has a gothic feel and the immaculately smooth finish bares testament to the artist’s commitment to the painting craft.
Despite the piss and shit, let us salute these new beginnings.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.