By the title of this essay I imply not that I am providing an introduction to this topic, for the uninitiated, from the perspective of experience. Rather, I intend to share the experience of my own introduction to this topic, in preparation for a course I will be teaching next semester. Prior to beginning my research, I posed the following question to my Facebook friends; their responses follow.
Explain “relational aesthetics/social practice,” using only common language (no artspeak), and without bringing up Thai food. Go.
Jay Gallegos: Practical collaborative participation. It’s more like Ethiopian food.
Casey McGonagle: Do regular stuff, only it’s art.
Randall Szott: Art for artists inspired by Martha Stewart.
Chloë Rayson: One mans trash is understood by another man to be treasure
Richard Holland: Sometimes people make shit up.
Jennifer Reeder: Block party fantasy camp.
Albert Stabler: Making a blog about an ethically-motivated garage sale.
Randall Szott: Wait, that cuts a little too close to home there buddy.
Sherelle Castro: The kind that comes with cats and batteries.
Anne Harris: I have no idea. And I’m actually about to eat Thai food. Imagine that.
Kevin Freitas: Bullshit
Meg Duguid: The composition of moments and actions that shed light on a concept. You should be able to talk about this work like one might a painting or a composed photo, composition, movement, content. There should be a broad exposure to multiple practices from Mierle Ukeles, Mary Miss, Maya Linn, to Gordon Marta Clark and Rick Lowe. There should be a range of politically overt and implicit politic. I actually think that you could leave politics out all together and look at some of the work of the Judson Dance Group and some of Kaprow’s late performance work. I would liken some of it to the idea of found object as it is found motion.
Robert C. Anderson: Verbal self-abuse.
Mike Malorin: Peanut sauce… Dammit!
Kevin Freitas: Soup kitchen
Sarah Kaiser: compare visual stuff to the rest of the world
Michael Mlekowski: Stuff you look at and if it’s any good you get to take a free sample home!
Diana Dorwin: The importance of the object or action isn’t determined by the artist, or the individual viewing the artwork, but the viewing community as a whole.
Grub Fay: some young art student goes to a party where everyone is having a good time, and starts yelling, “look at us, we’re all art!” and of course makes the party less good, and ruins the art.
From this hyper-informal survey, it seemed that among my friends, many were not disposed to take the topic seriously: not only in the humorous, playful responses to my question, but in their attitudes towards relational aesthetics as a serious practice. Others recognized its legitimacy, and a few (e.g. Meg Duguid) spoke from firsthand experience working in this genre.
I’ll admit some past skepticism towards relational aesthetics; my perspective (thought not so eloquently phrased) echoed Casey McGonagle’s: “Do regular stuff, only it’s art.” I decided that I owed it to myself to learn more about the topic, to at least add some nuance to my skepticism and hopefully gain a greater appreciation for it. To this end, I volunteered to teach a course on Relational Aesthetics next semester (Spring 2015), and began research in preparation for this. The following essay is a summary of my initial readings.
The phrases “relational aesthetics,” “relational art,” and “social practice” have becoming increasingly common in the art world since the late 1990s, while their exact meaning continues to elude many of those not directly involved in this field. In order to study this aspect of art, we need to understand exactly what it is that we are talking about.
French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud defined the approach in 1998 in his book Esthétique relationnelle (Relational Aesthetics), calling it “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” He had coined the phrase two years earlier in the catalogue for the exhibition Traffic, curated by Bourriaud, at CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux.
Relational aesthetics, then, can be understood as a way of looking at things, as a guiding principle, and as an approach to artmaking. An artwork can be considered “relational art” if it is essentially based on social interaction. In this way relational aesthetics is very different from traditional art forms such as drawing, painting, sculpture, and photography, which are defined by the physical materials and tools used in their production. Relational aesthetics may be more similar to a movement, such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, etc. Writer and director Ben Lewis finds many similarities between relational art and earlier “ism”s at their beginnings: relational art is often not considered art at all because it redefines the concept of art, many artists considered “relational” deny that they are such and relational art had a “founding” exhibition.
Since relational aesthetics is not defined by a single medium, it follows that relational art can be made in any media. And certainly, examples of relational art can be found in a wide range of media. However, certain media lend themselves to relational aesthetics. In particular, the best-known examples of relational art often exist as a subset of performance art. The poster child for relational aesthetics has always been Rirkit Tiravanija, and his best-known series bears a close resemblance to performance. Beginning with Pad Thai (1990) at the Paula Allen Gallery in New York, Tiravanija cooked and served the exhibition’s eponymous food for gallery visitors. The difference between this form of relational art and other types of performance is that in most performance art, the artist’s actions are the essence of the work; in relational art of this type, the essence of the work lies in the interaction between the audience and the artist. Cooking Thai food could be a performance; serving it to visitors moves it into the realm of relational aesthetics.
Other forms of relational art more closely resemble sculptures or installations. Some of Tiravanija’s works resemble installations, albeit installations inviting viewer interaction. One example, from Traffic (relational aesthetic’s seminal exhibition) was described in Frieze magazine: “‘Traffic’ predictably included the model practitioner of this kind of art – Rirkrit Tiravanija. Around the second floor viewing gallery he provided simple, user-friendly arrangements of tables and chairs made from brown packaging cardboard, each with a free mini-bar of red wine and mineral water.”
However, the clearest example of the sculpture/installation model of relational art is Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Nearly all of his work consists in some way of objects arranged in a space. Some, such as his stacks of printed posters and his piles of candy, invite viewers to take one of the component pieces home with them. In Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud describes the problem posed by these takeaways:
“One is allowed to take one of the posters away with him/her. But what happens if lots of visitors walk off in turn with these sheets of paper offered to an abstract public? What process would cause the piece to change and then vanish? For this work did not involve a “Performance”, or a poster hand-out, but a work endowed with a defined form and a certain density, a work not displaying its construction (or dismantlement) process, but the form of its presence amid an audience [italics original].”
This problem is more a theoretical one than a practical issue; the medium of the work itself is described in this case as “Offset print on paper, endless copies.” The museum, gallery, or collector would simply order more copies of the poster made, and replenish the stack. Similarly, the piles of candy are replenished from commercial sources. The issue is not one of logistics, but rather of the interaction, via the artwork, between the artist and the viewer, who becomes a complicit participant in its creation. This is what places the work within the realm of relational art.
Gift-giving is only one possible mode of social interaction of course, and yet relational aesthetics often carries with it a presumption of generosity. Another mode is communication, often the transmission of information or the teaching of a skill. I think now of Hui-Min Tsen’s walking tour of Chicago’s Pedway. [http://chicagopedwaytour.com/Home.html] Tsen guides participants on a walking tour of this underground route through the city, a form of casual urban exploration, a better way of getting to know the place.
My wife Stephanie Burke and I created several artworks which, though we didn’t necessarily use the term at the time, are in hindsight relational in nature. In one series, called Shooting With Artists, we took Chicago-based artists to a shooting range in Indiana to shoot guns. For many, this was their first time shooting a gun, and their first exposure to “gun culture.” We thought this was interesting because art culture and gun culture generally never meet; they are seen as polar opposites politically and socially. The exceptions to these, where these cultures overlap, become nuanced and unexpected. These trips were documented with video and still photos, but the works themselves were essentially relational.
Another project, which was Stephanie’s concept, was called “Snow Coffee.” In our neighborhood (as in much of Chicago), people would claim “dibs” on a parking space that they had (ostensibly) shoveled clear of snow, marking it as their own private parking space with various items, most often patio furniture. Playfully interacting with this contentious practice, we would put on our bathrobes and take a carafe of coffee to enjoy while sitting in these impromptu cafes, consisting of no more than a pair of lawn chairs in a snow-free parking space on the side of the street. Eventually, following the epic snowstorm remembered as “Snowmageddon,” Stephanie spent the better part of a day digging our Jeep out of the snow. When we left the parking space thus created, we “claimed” it with two chairs and a card table, complete with tablecloth and a vase of flowers.
This essay documents the beginning stages of my research into relational art and social practice, in preparation for a course I am teaching next semester at Northern Arizona University. This research will continue until and throughout the Spring 2015 semester. Feedback is welcome; contact me through Facebook (Jeriah Hildine) or at jeriah (dot) hildwine (at) gmail (dot) com.
It has been one year since I left Chicago for Flagstaff, Arizona, after accepting a position as a full-time lecturer of foundations at Northern Arizona University. Many other Chicago-based artists and educators, some with roots and connections to Chicago’s art scene far deeper and stronger than my own, have made the same choice. Some leave for personal reasons, but for the most part, artists leave Chicago to find work, or, more accurately, they leave as I did, to accept an offer of employment from a college or university located elsewhere.
Most recently, Chicago painter Molly Zuckerman Hartung announced (on Facebook) that she’s leaving Chicago: first to Knoxville, TN, to teach for the fall semester, then to Miami for a residency for the spring, then back to Chicago to teach next summer, and finally, fall of 2015, to New York City for, presumably, all the usual reasons that artists go there. Molly cut her way through everything that stood in her way to get where she is, left an indelible mark on Chicago, and if anybody can pull the rock star Hail Mary of the New York scene, it’s her. I wish her all the luck in the world, not that she needs it.
Earlier this year, Tony Fitzpatrick closed up shop in Chicago to head down to New Orleans, a place that had been dear to his heart for many years. I remember him telling a story once, I hope he doesn’t mind my repeating it, about how he used to fly down to New Orleans all the time, and he used to carry a gun. He’d just mail it to himself. So one time he was walking along the levee in the French Quarter, gun in his shoulder bag, and a couple of teenagers who looked like trouble walked up on him, maybe said something, asked what was in his bag, whatever. Tony put his hand in the bag, on the butt of the gun, and told the kids to walk on. I guess they figured he was serious, because they did as he asked, walked on. But then Tony’s thinking about it, thinking about if they hadn’t, and then Tony’d have shot the kids, and he’d have that on his conscience, all for what, his wallet? Nothing, to Tony’s mind, worth shooting a couple of kids over. So after that he stopped carrying a gun. In my memory, the story ends with him pitching the gun into a canal, but I’m probably mapping that over from another story another guy told me about accidentally flying to Germany with his dad’s forgotten pistol in a pocket of a suitcase he’d borrowed from his dad. Anyway, Tony’s in New Orleans, but Tony can do anything, anywhere, and he surely will.
Adam Benjamin Fung, a painter who shows with Zolla-Lieberman Gallery in River North, left last summer to teach at Texas Christian University. Sweet gig, good for him. Amy Mayfield, another Zolla-Lieberman painter, returned to her home town of San Diego, I think more for family reasons than for a job. This was a couple years ago I think. Photographer Adam Ekberg, who I worked with at Hyde Park Art Center, moved to Florida to teach, along with Noelle Mason, who continues to show with Thomas Robertello. Liz Nielson and Carolina Wheat, artists who formerly ran Swimming Pool Project Space, moved to New York for a job; Stephanie and I adopted Carolina’s son’s ball python, Homestar Runner, whom we immediately renamed Snake. Dayton Castleman moved to Arkansas. And many more.
The reason these artists keep leaving, with one or two exceptions, is almost always employment. Chicago generates an amazing diversity of artists, not just SAIC kids, but Columbia, Northwestern, UIC, and of course the self-taught, the non-academic, and the artists who, like I did, move to Chicago after school and set up a practice. But Chicago can’t keep these artists, because it can’t afford to feed them. Some move to other metropolises, and do very well for themselves as exhibiting artists: Chicago’s loss.
Others move for a teaching job and do well for themselves in that regard, and hopefully (I’m hoping for myself here) can maintain something of a practice. But it’s a challenge, that last bit, one that I’ve been wrestling with for the past year. A lot has happened, I’ve got every excuse in the book, but the fact is, in some ways it’s been a pretty dry year for me, as far as painting goes. The move and the job are part of it, but honestly buying a house and fixing it up was the bigger part. I got some stuff done, did the Walking to Mordor project, that was pretty sweet. Did a few paintings but honestly none that are any good. I’ve got some ideas but they’re slow in getting going.
The gallery thing is rough out here. There’s one gig in town, Beaver Street Gallery, that’s pretty legit. If I play my cards right, make some decent new work, I’ve got a shot at showing there, I’d bet. And I’d love to. But, if you think Chicago lacks collectors, you should check out Flagstaff. The occasional Phoenician rolls through, but they mostly buy plein aire landscapes, or the kind of silver coyote regionalism that’s all over out here. Maybe things are better down in Phoenix. I’ve got some work up in a restaurant called The Bordello of Jerome, in the little town of that name, not far from here. Maynard from Tool has a winery out there; maybe he’ll buy a painting. We have another ball python named (by his previous owner) Maynard, in his honor.
Of course one hopes to leave Chicago with some connections intact, and I’ve been back and done a few group shows in the past year. The big deal of course is still the idea of having gallery representation in the city. I’d bet most of the artists I named above held on to their Chicago gallery connections. I think I pretty much shit the bed on that one. I had a solo show at Linda Warren Projects back in May of 2012, and was stoked to do another one. I had some good work going in the studio in Chicago. I made it back a few times, worked on the paintings a little. We kept trying to schedule a studio visit to line up the next show, shit kept coming up, it never happened. Why? Well, it’s tough when I’m only in town once a month or so. So I just picked up the last of my work from the gallery, packed up the studio, and drove it all down here in a Uhaul. I’m still hoping to do another show with Linda in the future, of course, but again, it’s tough to do, long-distance like this. It’s not all bad, of course. The job is decent, full time at least, though not tenure track. I’ve got a pretty sweet house I bought, nice yard, garden, bird feeder, all that. I’ve got a good studio space in what used to be the garage, all finished now, carpet and a wood stove and all. Of course it’s pretty full of stuff from the move, got to get it cleared out a bit, so I can maybe make some damned work again. So we’ll see.
And that’s what happens. That’s what’s waiting for you, on the other end of all those teaching job applications you fill out. Maybe. Depends where you end up, I guess, and your attitude, and your work ethic. But a new job and a move like that can really knock the wind out of you. A year without making a decent painting really does a number on your pride. So you get up, you get back on the horse, and hope for the best.
My relationship with representational painting must be a common one: drawn in, as a child, by the painted illustrations in books about dinosaurs, in particular. Who hasn’t been awed by the “gee whiz!” factor of an impressive piece of realism? As much as we are taught that photography is a form of abstration from reality, “It looks just like a photo!” remains synonymous in common usage with looking like reality.
Howard Ikemoto is famous for the anecdote in which, after telling his daughter that he teaches people to draw, she replies, “You mean they forget?” It’s adorable, and certainly there is something to be said for the childlike sense of wonder that comes from drawing without fear, without self-consciousness, but drawing for the pure pleasure of it. Thinking back, maybe when I was very young I had this. I still have a few of my early drawings, almost all of prehistoric life: “a caveman daddy building a fire,” a prehistoric whale I knew as Zeuglodon (since I learned of it in the early 1980s, its name has reverted to Basilosaurus, a name dating to when it was mistakenly believed to be a reptile, but proper according to taxonomic rules), and an Apatosaurus guarding a nest of eggs.
I was inspired in this early drawings by the magical ability of paleoartists, through their paintings, to bring extinct animals back to life. The realism of the paintings made, in a very literal sense, their subjects real. Without life restorations, who would really believe in dinosaurs, and who would care about them?
In early adolescence I felt a precursor of John Berger’s notion (from Ways of Seeing) that to possess a painting of a thing was to possess in effigy the thing itself. I built an army, an empire, by drawing warriors and their weapons. My archetypes here were defined by the illustrations in Martin Windrow’s Soldier Through The Ages series, and by the airbrushed sihlouettes of airplanes in the works of Bill Gunston and others.
This interest in military history and technology led, through an interest in medieval combat, to an interest in fantasy. I bought Dungeons and Dragons sourcebooks, not to play the game, but to look at the illustrations. Keith Parkinson and especially Larry Elmore were my heroes. As with my early interest in paleoart, I admired their ability to drag, by brush and pen, unreal worlds into reality. Related to the illustrations in this role-playing sourcebooks are the work of other fantasy illustrators, among them Boris Vallejo, Wayne Barlowe, and Tim Bradstreet. These artists formed the core of my artistic interest in my mid teens.
The recurring theme with the representational painters and drawers whom I admired in my childhood and adolescence was that they were all illustrators. One doesn’t imagine Vallejo and Elmore debating semiotics. Questions of meaning, of significance, of the role of their work in society, simply do not come up. The artists content themselves with honing their craft, with creating original compositions which tell the story that they want, or were hired, to tell.
There is nothing new about this. Medieval and Rennaissance painters working for the church weren’t expected nor allowed to take liberties with the Biblical narrative. It wasn’t part of their job to provide a new perspective on religion. Later artists working as hired portraitists were similarly expected to play it straight, though in some cases, such as Goya’s painting of the royal family, they may have slipped in some subtle criticism.
In technical terms, prior to the invention of the camera (Vermeer’s camera obscura notwithstanding), realistic painting reached its zenith in the Baroque era paintings of Rembrandt. In the years after Rembrandt, representational painting slipped into a state of what could be called decadence. Braoque became Rococo, and Fragonard took the place of Rembrandt. About two hundred years went by before anything new truly appeared under the sun.
As Monet and the Impressionists were changing our understanding of what art was and of what it could be, the sort of art beloved by the Academy (which has in hindsight become maligned as a backwards, short-sighted, atavistic institution) continued to be made, and beloved by the public. In particular Bouguereau is known for his playful scenes of frolicsome nudes. There was no Salon de Refuses for Bouguereau; his work sold exceptionally well throughout his life, and while intellectuals in Paris might have rooted for the underdog of Impressonism, collectors loved to adorn their walls with Bouguereau’s tits and ass.
It was this fork that consigned realism to the ghetto where it now finds itself: for decades, criticality become synonymous with the apparently unstoppable march towards formalism. The purity of abstraction was seen as a prophesied messiah, an inevitable goal towards which art had always, unknowingly, been striving. Artists who rejected this direction, who failed to march in lock step in Greenberg’s army, found themselves marginalized. Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish (whom Rockwell described as “my idol”), and the aforementioned Bourgereau achieved commercial success but have been pushed to the margins of art history.
The idea of the abstract expressionists that one could find God through painting may in hindsight seem painfully naïve, but for those caught up in its fervor it must have felt very real. What those its sway should have seen coming, but of course never do, is that like any movement, abstraction was doomed to hit a high water mark, to buoy up a generation of painters and then break on the shoals of something new. Pop art carried us through a couple of decades, but it was the last of the major -isms, and it was followed by the new pluralism within which we now find ourselves. One might bemoan this pluralism as constituting a lack of direction, but in this openness is infinite opportunity. As they say in Fight Club, “It is only after we’ve lost everything, that we’re free to do anything.”
Abstract expressionism had been a might castle, and Pop art had assaulted it by mining under its walls. When the supports were burned away, the mine and wall collapsed, leaving a great breach, into which rushed a vast army of would-be successors. Figurative representation counted itself among these, and in several forms.
“Photorealism” is what many in the laity say when referring to any work of particularly accurate representation, but in saying so they generally miss what is most obvious. As revealed by the name itself, Photorealism isn’t a direct representation of reality: it’s a representation of a photograph of reality. The differences between how the eye sees and how the camera sees are inherent to Photorealism. This is not to say that the camera does not remain a valid and powerful tool for the representational painter. Working from source images offers many advantages over direct observation, as well as many disadvantages. These concerns are entirely separate from the practice of Photorealism, which focuses on these process artifacts, rather than working around them.
If figurative representation had a rock star of the 20th Century, it was undeniably Lucien Freud. Freud’s earliest known work dates from 1940, but he really hit his stride in the 1990s, expanding his distinctive style of impasto figuration. Freud’s influences (acknowledged and otherwise) include Medieval Flemish painting, German Expressionism, and his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries in the mid-20th Century. In auction at 2008, his 1995 painting Benefits Supervisor Sleeping set a world record price for a work by a living artist, selling for $33.6 million. Freud died in 2011. Other representational painters who have cut their way into the heart of the contemporary art world include Eric Fischl and Neo Rausch.
Odd Nerdrum, born in 1944, was the next generation figurative realist darling. Represented by Forum Gallery in New York, collected by museums the world over, Nerdrum is hardly ignored by the art world, but his reception has always been mixed. Defining himself as a painter rather than as an artist, his manifesto On Kitsch was a response to his feeling of weariness at seeing a Rauschemburg combine including a goat and a spare tire. Unlike Freud (and other painters like Eric Fischl), Nerdrum seems to have intentionally positioned himself in an adversarial relationship with the art world. When he says, “If I were an artist I would not paint,” it is less a declaration of intent, and more a tautology: if, as Nerdrum believes, artists don’t paint anymore, then if he paints, he is not an artist, and conversely, if he were an artist, he wouldn’t paint.
Nerdrum was a pivotal figure in my education in painting. In school, we learned that realistic representation wasn’t cool anymore (though there were many of us who stubbornly persisted in doing it), but Odd Nerdrum gave us hope. He showed us that there was at least one person out there in the art world, with a gallery and a monograph and everything, who was still using the realistic painting techniques of Rembrandt and his kin to tell stories. Nerdrum was better for us than Freud, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Freud was of an older enough generation that we always sort of suspected that his figuration was a kind of legacy. Secondly, Freud’s imagery was pointedly mundane: a woman on a couch, a man in bed with a dog, etc. Nerdrum’s apocalyptic landscapes reminded us, or at least me, of the sort of fantasy illustration that had drawn us into painting in the first place.
In graduate school, our knuckles were bruised as we were taught that no, Nerdrum wasn’t a good artist, wasn’t someone to emulate. The problems were never clearly elucidated to us, but in hindsight I think they were twofold. In both cases, what we loved best about Nerdrum was exactly what was wrong with him.
Firstly, Nerdrum’s technique was too well-established. Even Freud seemed to innovate technically, beginning in the 1950s with a sort of retro-Flemish, sable-brush pointillism, and moving by the 1990s towards a knife-thick impasto. Nerdrum’s technique seemed to say, “Rembrandt nailed it; why look for silver if you’ve got gold?”
More importantly, though, Nerdrum’s theatrical melodramas clove too closely to the illustrative fantasy end of the representation spectrum. While Freud and Fischl, like Leipzig painter Neo Rausch, painted people in open-ended environments loaded with psychological tension, Nerdrum’s scenes approached the same objective but created too specifically literal of an alternate reality. This, again, is part of what we loved about Nerdrum: that he had created a plausible world, a bleak apocalyptica in which we could imagine each painting being just over the horizon from the next. But in the era of semiotics and theory and all that, it was too close to the lowbrow world of comic books and role playing game covers.
Jenny Saville’s recent work (judging from the advertisement in ArtForum for her upcoming show) seems to have drifted away from her earlier, meaty depictions of surgery and obesity, and towards Cecily Brown’s drippy, linear, erotic cartoons. Saville’s adaptation is indicative of the sort of change figurative realists are adopting in order to survive in today’s “cult of the new” art world. Another example can be found in Walton Ford, who has continued for decades now to paint Audubon-style depictions of wildlife enacting human dramas. Saville and Ford provide us with examples of how figurative realism can remain relevant.
Chicago’s art scene is as pluralistic as any, but in between the queer performances, feminist videos, conceptual abstraction, and sound art (just to name a few), traditional techniques of representational painting endure. Laurie Hogin, Stephen Cephalo, Julia Haw, and Rory Coyne are just a handful who leap immediately to the forefront of my mind. Each strikes their own unique niche in the spectrum of figurative representation, showing that realistic depictions of people, animals, and spaces remains a potent force for expression.
My wife and sometime collaborator Stephanie Burke and I recently completed a 140-mile walk as a perforance piece called “Walking to Mordor.” The walk was based on an Easter egg introduced in Google Maps three years ago: if you asked it for walking directions from “The Shire” to “Mordor,” instead of the usual “Walking directions are in beta” warning, a pop up announced, “Caution: One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor.” The line is Boromir’s, from The Fellowship of the Ring. Ignoring his naysaying, the two hobbits Sam and Frodo proceed to do exactly that.
The line, as spoken in the 2001 film, spawned an Internet meme which consisted of a still image of Boromir, hand in mid gesture, coupled with a line of text reading, “One does not simply…” followed by whatever the author wished to decry. Instances date back to at least 2004. In 2011, Google Maps joined the party by adding the Easter egg to their walking directions. Along with the warning, however, Google actually did provide a map and directions, from a restaurant called “The Shire,” in Chehalis, Washington, to a tattoo shop called “Mordor Tattoo,” in Arlington, Washington, 138 miles away.
When I showed Stephanie the joke, she mentioned that, coincidentally, she has family in Chehalis, and had spent some time there growing up. It didn’t take long for us to decide that it would be fun, and funny, to take Google Maps’ directions at face value, and walk the route. Almost immediately thereafter we realized we had to commemorate the journey by getting tattoos at Mordor, and that the tattoos should be of the map of the route. We documented the project with a series of photographs called “Instagram vs. Holga.” Stephanie, a trained photographer, shot on the cult classic crappy medium format film camera, while I, with no more than a couple of undergraduate photography classes under my belt, used my phone’s camera and the everyman’s favorite app.
As has happened with more than one previous project, we didn’t set out to make art. Our process is more often that we have an idea for something we’d like to do, and then, almost against our wills, we realize that it is starting to look quite a bit like art. Or at least like things that other people call art. And certainly, going for a long walk has quite a history as a form of performance art. It has spawned books, blogs, and even a society. Well-known examples include Francis Alÿs,Regina José Galindo, Simon Faithfull.
The history of walking as a form of performance art can never be severed from its history as a form of protest. Galindo’s 2003 walk from the Congress of Guatemala to the National Palace, her feet dipped in blood to leave red footprints, was intended as a protest against Guatemala’s former dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt. Montt had formerly led a military regime known for widespread human rights abuses, and at the time of Galindo’s performance was running for President in a democratic election.
Not all of those who have walked in protest have identified as artists. Perhaps the most famous example, internationally, is Ghandi’s Salt March or Salt Satyagraha. By directly and pointedly disobeying a British law against domestic salt production in India (forcing Indians to buy imported British salt), the march essentially started what became the international Civil Disobedience Movement.
Inspired by Ghandi, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march itself covered barely more than a mile, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, though the 250,000 participants (60,000 of them white) had traveled from much farther away by bus, rail, and plane. Some spent 20 or more hours on buses traveling as far as 750 miles. Two years later, voting rights activists marched 54 miles, from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. The Selma to Mongomery marches are commemorated by a National Historic Trail.
America’s racial history (obviously still in the making) continues to inspire performance artists. In 2009 I reviewed Meg Onli’s Underground Railroad project for Art Talk Chicago. (Five years later, her work holds up better than my early efforts at writing.) Presented as part of Twelve Galleries Project and curated by Jamilee Polson (who is also this blog’s managing editor), Onli’s project consisted of her retracing, on foot, the route of the Underground Railroad: a 440-mile journey, in Meg’s words, “in search of blackness.”
Exploring another form of blackness entirely, Chicago-based curator Amelia Ishmael co-edits Helvete, a journal of Black Metal theory, in the first issue of which was published David Prescott-Steed’s “Frostbite On My Feet: Representations of Walking In Black Metal Visual Culture.” (If you’d like to read the article for yourself, the entire journal is presented for free, as a downloadable PDF, at the above link. A print edition, also available, is well worth the price.) “Frostbite” tracks a few reference points linking walking with Black Metal culture. Principally, it finds the common ground between a grueling trek into the Norwegian tundra, led by Gaahl (former Gorgoroth frontman), and the author’s own experience walking the mundane streets of an Australian metropolis while listening to Burzum:
In this case, “blackened walking” is seen to be less about the activity of walking itself and more about the circumstances under which one can move through space—walking not just for the sake of exercise, pleasure, or getting to the shops on time. With the modern world (invested in trains, planes, and automobiles), the slow, simplicity of a walk (Walking? How pedestrian!) seems to have lost some of its value. However, walking is capable of bringing one’s focus back to a fundamental question of what a body physically needs to do in order to transition through, and therefore go on, in the world. Perhaps mourning the forgetting of the existential significance of walking, “blackened walking” pays respects to walking as the chance to explore self-determination and a readiness for the unknown.
We hadn’t conceived of the “Walking To Mordor” project initially in terms of its connection to Black Metal, but as we walked, Prescott-Steed’s phrase “blackened walking” echoed in my mind. The connection, however ephemeral, clarified itself in my mind as I looked over Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth, and researched his languages. Two of the bands mentioned in “Frostbite” take their names from Tolkien’s writing. Gorgoroth is an arid plateau in the northwest corner of Mordor, surrounding Mount Doom; the name comes from Sindarin (the Gray Elven tongue) and means “dreadful horror.” The name of another band, Burzum, means “darkness” in the Black Speech of Mordor.
Far from the tradition of protest marches, whether as performance art or otherwise, “Walking To Mordor” was in some was a playful exploration of what happens when a joke is taken 138 miles too far. A linguist became an author. His book became a movie. The movie spawned a joke. The joke became a meme. The meme became an Easter Egg embedded in the principal means by which Americans today naviage their world. With every breath spitting in the face of Alfred Korzybski, originator of the phrase, “the map is not the territory,” most of us today confuse a glance at Google Maps, followed by a drive in the car, with exploration. We think of distances first in minutes of driving, or hours of flight. The landmarks we note are gas stations and Starbucks locations. Google Maps has become the average person’s understanding of the world. Moreover, our culture is becoming one of remakes and mashups. References have taken the place of wit: “that’s clever” has been replaced with “I have heard that before.” Tolkien has been reduced, in the public imagination, to the origin of nerd-chic Internet memes, and we have tried in our way to be true to his work by dragging a piece of derivative humor, kicking and screaming, into meatspace.
This past weekend was the opening reception for the third biennial taxidermy exhibition at La Luz De Jesus in Los Angeles. The exhibition included works from Jessica Joslin, Simone Smith, Divya Anantharaman, Emily Binard, Sarina Brewer, Kristin Bunyard, Kevin Clarke, Catherine Coan, Cindy Cronk, Bruce Eichelberger, Ai Honda, Katie Innamorato, Jeremy Johnson, Lauren Kane, Jeffrey R. Kibbe, Dr. Paul Koudounaris, Brian Poor, Emi Slade, Nick Veasey, VegA, and Brooke Weston.
The works in this exhibition span a variety of approaches. Jessica Joslin’s constructions bring new personality to animal skulls by adorning them with glass eyes and vintage metal. The adornments evoke jewelry, ears, wings, etc., and give each skull a new identity. The titles of the pieces are these new characters’ names: “Butch”, “Star”, “Annabel”. The use of vintage metal, as with Chicago’s own Jason Brammer, draws inevitable associations with Steampunk, the subcultural aesthetic William Gibson brilliantly described as, “when Goths discovered brown.” And it is admittedly difficult not to read Butch, with his underbite and spiked helmet, as one of the goblin guards from Labyrinth. But these superficial associations, besides being inevitably annoying to the artist, are a distraction from the unique characters that are all Joslin’s own.
The word “charming” comes up a lot in attempting to describe the works throughout the exhibition. It is a near universal that, like Joslin, artists working with taxidermy will create characters with an endearing personality. Some, like Emi Slade, create threatening monsters that evoke the good old days of physical special effects creature features like Jaws or Critters. But others go in the opposite direction, creating little animal friends with whom you’d be delighted to spend an afternoon. Simone Smith’s “Dinner Underground” is a perfect example. Taxidermied moles enjoy a meal of snails in their subterranean parlour. From the upturned bottles and tilting glasses, it’s hard not to imagine that the little fellows have enjoyed a few glasses. Sometimes art is about big ideas. Other times, it’s as simple and funny as enjoying the idea of a couple of moles getting shitfaced.