Socrates Sculpture Park | May 12 – July 7, 2013
Glue a [rectangular] table to the sky [table top up, somewhere not too close to the sky’s zenith]
So read the set of artist instructions written by Darren Bader (2012) and interpreted by Grayson Revoir as part of Socrates Sculpture Park’s first New York iteration of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s 20-year-long roving curatorial experiment, do it. For Revoir’s interpretation of Bader’s work, a rectangular wooden table with four legs was upended and secured with tar, at a 45-degree angle, to a five square-foot mirrored base, also set at a 45-degree angle and supported by four structural beams. The perimeter of the mirrored base and legs was either painted an industrial black or left with the raw wood exposed, echoing the unfinished nature of its upended twin. The entire structure faced outward in the direction of the East River, and on the sunwashed day that I visited, its surfaces reflected the blue of the sky with mere wisps of clouds in a movingly poetic visualization of the accompanying instructions. Revoir’s interpretation was simultaneously subtle and monumental: the table indeed floated in mid-air, as the edges of the sculpture and sky became indecipherable in the work’s reflected surface. In sum, Revoir hit it out of the park.
But while this singular experience undoubtedly offers an aesthetically charged and contemplative ‘a-ha!’ moment, such direct or material translations of each artist’s instructional guide are not the ultimate goal of Obrist’s do it. The project’s conceptual premise is much more profound, finding its footholds in the annals of 20th-century art history and the latter half’s increasingly progressive attitude towards curatorial and exhibitionist practices, ideas that emerged out of the 1960s spirit of experimentation and, to a greater extent, in response to the overtly political maneuverings of the contemporary art world.
do it first began in 1993 as a discussion between Obrist and artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, all of whom held strong ties to the avant-garde precedents first set by Marcel Duchamp and realized in the ideals of mid-century movements like Fluxus, Minimalism, and Conceptual art. Obrist notes the impact of Duchamp’s 1919 instruction-based wedding present for his sister, “Unhappy Readymade,”1 and John Cage’s indelible influence on a new generation of artists—Allan Kaprow, George Brecht, Yoko Ono—born from his series of infamous lectures at the New School for Social Research (1956 – 61), as the art historical baseline for do it’s origins. Chance, the freedom of execution, the resignation of authorship, the evolution of forms (both in terms of the object and the exhibition), and the linguistic interpretation of a set of open-ended means all inform the project’s modus operandi. To date, do it has been realized in over 50 international venues, at times simultaneously, and contributed to by hundreds of artists.
Socrates’s iteration of the exhibition, aptly titled do it (outside), is unique: not only is this the first time the project has been executed in New York City, but also it is the first time it has been staged completely out-of-doors—no small feat considering the requisite display of texts, for which Socrates selected over 60 from the accompanying compendium publication.2 In the spirit of community collaboration that do it invokes, the park and its director, John Hatfield, worked with a local architecture firm to devise an appropriate structural solution for the exhibition of these texts and their associated object and performance-based interpretations. The result is an arcade of metal scaffolding, of the type used on construction sites, from which hang digitally printed textile scrims (all donated by the Manhattan-based photo services lab Duggal), displaying the artist’s texts and allowing wind and light to pass effortlessly through the open weave of the fabric. Creation in flux is the commanding vibe of the project’s overall display strategy, with discrete objects, performance remnants from the opening reception, and sculptural solutions occupying open sections of the arcade and its grassy floor, at times spilling out into the surrounding areas of the park.
While a vast majority of the curatorial arrangement focused on the alphabetical colonnade display of original texts—the linguistic expression of said instructions is an art form in its own right—notable physical realizations included Daniel Roberts’s and James Haddrill’s response to a string of Paul McCarthy instructions, for which the artists dug an 18-inch trench in the earth, accompanied by a cement platform and pyramid of dirt-filled buckets, all spray-painted an effervescent silver:
Spend the summer digging a continuous narrow trench. Spring, 1968
In your backyard paint the dirt silver. Spring, 1969
Place dirt in a box or bucket. Paint entire object silver. Spring, 1969
On a more lyrical note, Joan Jonas’s 2002 contribution offered the opportunity for a wide array of performative interpretations, enacted at Socrates by artist and former figure skater Katie Mangiardi:
dance with a large piece of chalk
mark up the nearest surface and pay attention to the movement of your feet
Invoking Jonas’s multi-disciplinary works of the ’60s as well as action painting and performance, Mangiardi transformed the artist’s text into an exercise mired in complexity and restraint. Drawing on her technical expertise as a skater as well as the art form’s historical precedents (the first Olympics to feature figure skating as an event were held in 1908, wherein contestants were judged by their ability to trace patterns on the ice), Mangiardi repeatedly executed a near perfect figure-8 shape, first at the front entrance to the park and followed by sweeping gestural movements in chalk on black panel over a period of five hours. The final product, an 8-by-40 foot drawing, resides on the backside of Sol LeWitt’s contribution to the show, for which viewers were invited to add to the work in horizontal bands of alternating primary colors: red, blue, and yellow. (Sol LeWitt, “A black not straight line is drawn at approximately the center of the wall horizontally from side to side. Alternate red, yellow, and blue lines are drawn above and below the black line to the top and bottom of the wall” (2001).
Such freedom of play consistently questions the notion of authorship in startlingly lucid and clever ways. As opposed to static forms and fetishized objects, do it (outside) provides viewers with the opportunity to participate in the formation of the work, to visualize its transformation ad infinitum via the creative confluence of brain and eye. Such interrogative practices are a rarity in museums: institutions in which one is typically presented with work that has “already happened,” that has been vetted by the sovereign authorities and consequently functions most effectively as a placeholder for the past. do it, in its various forms, grounds the work in the present moment, denying the linearity of time or narrative, challenging the notion of the art object’s spatio-temporal rigidity as well as the singular expression of forms. Here, “the role of the artist is thus transferred from maker to conceiver,” as Bruce Altshuler so eloquently states in his essay for the compendium,3 allowing for the hopeful renewal of a creative and collaborative spirit within a dynamic rather than a fixed institutional setting. do it is a call to arms. A singular battle cry for a contemporary exhibition agenda that equates with the critical demands of our current moment: one that is provocative, fresh, and surprisingly alive.
1. The instructions for “Unhappy Readymade” stipulated that the couple hang a geometry text on their balcony so that the wind could “go through the book [and] choose its own problems”
2. do it: the compendium is edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Kate Fowle and is co-published by Independent Curators International (I.C.I.) and Distributed Art Publishers (D.A.P.) do it (outside) coincides with the launch of the 2013 publication.
3. Bruce Altshuler, “Art by Instruction and the Pre-History of do it,” in do it (New York: Independent Curators International, 1997/2012).
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ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.