In a 2006 interview with Nancy Spector, Marina Abramović told the story of a Tibetan devotional tradition in which a worshipper uses a mold to carefully make one hundred thousand and one clay models of the Buddha, counting each and every one. The danger, however, was that the worshippers would tend to fixate on the models instead of the Buddha, transferring their reverence to the object instead of to the subject. Abramović explained the solution: “After you have completed the first part, you must do a second part. You take the same mold and go to the running river and try to make the imprint into the water, where you don’t see anything because the water flows.”1
The following is a list of artists who work in that split second when the water fills the mold. The gesture may leave behind an art object, language, video, a photograph, a story, but the most salient artifact of each of these works is their ability to be reconstituted in the viewer’s mind. In this way, the work is like water, taking the shape of a suggested mold but resisting physical encapsulation.
1. For Cornelia Parker’s Measuring Niagara with a Teaspoon (1997), a Georgian silver spoon was melted down and drawn to the height of Niagara Falls. The result looks like a length of fishing line, but conceptually the object functions between language, material and space.
2. Another series of nearly magic physicality is Dennis Oppenheim’s collaborations with his son Eric and daughter Chandra in the Two Stage Transfer Drawings from 1971. In the piece, one person draws on the other’s back while the person being drawn upon tries to simultaneously recreate the same drawing on the wall. Oppenheim describes the work as “drawing through” his collaborator.2
3. In We’ll Dance Our Way Out Of The Womb, Dario Robleto secretly replaced all of the 36 front porch lights on the block he grew up on with bulbs of higher wattage, making the entire street significantly brighter. This early work exemplifies Robleto’s alchemical soulfulness even without emphasis on tangible material.
4. William Lamson’s Hunt and Gather is another subtle-yet-powerful act of replacement. For the work, the artist traveled around New York City using a bow and arrow to shoot down pairs of shoes dangling from power lines. He would then replace them with those he was wearing. Lamson did this over and over, creating a chain of reciprocal acts. Lamson is “engaging with another person’s act of intervention” and describes the results as “a constellation of actions and reactions.” 3
5. In Cecilia Vicuña’s El agua de Nueva York, the artist set her precarios, tiny constructions of found and often ephemeral materials, afloat in the river, puddles and gutters of New York City’s “urban bloodstream.” Described by Lucy Lippard as “visual poems,” one imagines passersby jolted from their daily routine as the find Vicuña’s tiny crafted boats in such waters. 4
6. Sara Thacher’s Smell Supplement to the Providence Public Library is yet another insertion of the unexpected. Based on scents described in interviews with library patrons, “two copies of a twenty-one volume scratch and sniff collection of important and meaningful smells was compiled and added to the library’s circulating collection.”
7. In Cats and Watermelons (1992),Gabriel Orozco photographs one of his charming and spontaneous subversions of strict grocery store systems. As his wife, Maria Gutierrez de Orozco, explains in the Art21 video Loss & Desire, “he realized what an ordered, perfect world the supermarket is, and he realized the minute you put it back and it’s not in its place, there’s this chaos…” (Her full comments are at 24:37 in this link.)
Works like Chaw Ei Thein and Htein Lin’s Market Days and Francis Alÿs’s Tourist push similar sensibilities into the economic and political realm, expanding, critiquing and activating the role of the artist.
8. In May, 2005 in Yangon, Burma, Chaw Ei Thein and Htein Lin set up a stall called Mobile Art Gallery and Mobile Market and sold daily items, paintings and homemade traditional medicines at fair prices rendered obsolete by the government’s inflation. They were both temporarily detained for this performance. Prior to this, Htein Lin spent over six years as a political prisoner, using smuggled paint on prison uniforms to create over 1,000 paintings, and organizing secret performances inside the jail.
Chaw Ei Thein and Htein Lin also continue to make work about shattering silence. Their exile is both a consequence and enabler of their work.
9. Francis Alÿs, a Belgian artist based in Mexico for more than twenty years, also references displacement and labor. In Tourist (1996), Alÿs lined up alongside tradesmen for hire (plumbers, painters, electricians, etc.) offering his services of professional observation as an artist. In the same vein is Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing, in which Alÿs pushed a large, melting block of ice through the city.
10. To end with a work whose physicality is heavy, dense and concrete, but embodies the idea of impossible progress, let’s look at Jonathan Taube’s Endless Stoop. It’s a four-step concrete stair, the kind you might buy prefab for your back door. The back, however, is rounded. Once the climber reaches the “top” he finds himself at the “bottom.” Progress is impossible. Furthermore, as the artist explains, “the mass and momentum of the rocking stairs makes it impossible to stop.”5
In some way, each of these works inverts a hierarchy, inserts the unexpected and hinges on a compelling paradox. They are “water flowing through a mold;” long after, and apart from any resulting artifact, the idea of them stays with you.
1Marina Abramović interviewed by Nancy Spector, May 2004 in Seven Easy Pieces, Charta, p. 20. A similar tradition is also referenced in The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art, 20: Laksha Chaitya Offering, by John C. Huntington and Dina Bangdel, Colombus Museum of Art, p. 116
4 The Precarious / QUIPOem: The Art and Poetry of Cecilia Vicuna, “Spinning the Common Thread” by Lucy R. Lippard, Wesleyan/Kanaal Art Foundation, p.10
5 E-mail with the artist
Carrie Schneider is a conceptual artist who sees artists as activators, free agents, problem solvers, tricksters, healers, liminal space dwellers and conduits for change. Her work includes collaborating in the development of labotanica, facilitating art projects for refugee youth from Burma, and launching an online library of public-generated audio walking tours around Houston.