Art Which Can’t Be Art (1986)
It’s fairly well known that for the last thirty years my main work as an artist has been lo- cated in activities and contexts that don’t suggest art in any way. Brushing my teeth, for example, in the morning when I’m barely awake; watching in the mirror the rhythm of my elbow moving up and down . . .
The practice of such an art, which isn’t perceived as art, is not so much a contradiction as a paradox. Why this is so requires some background.
When I speak of activities and contexts that don’t suggest art, I don’t mean that an event like brushing my teeth each morning is chosen and then set into a conventional art context, as Duchamp and many others since him have done. That strategy, by which an art-identifying frame (such as a gallery or theater) confers “art value” or “art discourse” on some nonart object, idea, or event, was, in Duchamp’s initial move, sharply ironic. It forced into confrontation a whole bundle of sacred assumptions about creativity, professional skill, individuality, spirituality, modernism, and the presumed value and function of high art itself. But later it became trivialized, as more and more nonart was put on exhibit by other artists. Regardless of the merits of each case, the same truism was headlined every time we saw a stack of industrial products in a gallery, every time daily life was enacted on a stage: that anything can be estheticized, given the right art packages to put it into. But why should we want to estheticize “anything”? All the irony was lost in those presentations, the provocative questions forgotten. To go on making this kind of move in art seemed to me unproductive.
Instead, I decided to pay attention to brushing my teeth, to watch my elbow moving. I would be alone in my bathroom, without art spectators. There would be no gallery, no critic to judge, no publicity. This was the crucial shift that removed the performance of everyday life from all but the memory of art. I could, of course, have said to myself, “Now I’m making art!!” But in actual practice, I didn’t think much about it.
My awareness and thoughts were of another kind. I began to pay attention to how much this act of brushing my teeth had become routinized, nonconscious behavior, compared with my first efforts to do it as a child. I began to suspect that 99 percent of my daily life was just as routinized and unnoticed; that my mind was always somewhere else; and that the thousand signals my body was sending me each minute were ig- nored. I guessed also that most people were like me in this respect.
Brushing my teeth attentively for two weeks, I gradually became aware of the tension in my elbow and fingers (was it there before?), the pressure of the brush on my gums, their slight bleeding (should I visit the dentist?). I looked up once and saw, really saw, my face in the mirror. I rarely looked at myself when I got up, perhaps because I wanted to avoid the puffy face I’d see, at least until it could be washed and smoothed to
match the public image I prefer. (And how many times had I seen others do the same and believed i was different!)
This was an eye-opener to my privacy and to my humanity. An unremarkable picture of myself was beginning to surface, and image I’d created but never examined. It colored the images I made of the world and influenced how I dealt with my images of others. I saw this little by little.
But if this wider domain of resonance, spreading from the mere process of brushing my teeth, seems too far from its starting point, I should say immediately that it never left the bathroom. The physicality of brushing, the aromatic taste of toothpaste, rinsing my mouth and the brush, the many small nuances such as right-handedness causing me to enter my mouth with the loaded rush from that side and then move to the left side — these particularities always stayed in the present. The larger implications popped up from time to time during the subsequent days. All this from toothbrushing.
How is this relevant to art? Why is this not just sociology? It is relevant because devel- opments within modernism itself let to art’s dissolution into its life sources. Art in the West has a long history of secularizing tendencies, going back at least as far as the Hel- lenistic period. by the late 1950s and 1960s this lifelike impulse dominated the van- guard. Art shifted away from the specialized object in the gallery to the real urban envi- ronment; to the real body and mind; to communications technology; and to remote natu- ral regions of the ocean, sky, and desert. Thus the relationship of the act of toothbrush- ing to recent art is clear and cannot be bypassed. This is where the paradox lies; an artist concerned with lifelike art is an artist who does and does not make art.
Anything less than paradox would be simplistic. Unless the identity (and thus the meaning) of what the artist does oscillates between ordinary, recognizable activity and the “resonance” of that activity in the larger human context, the activity itself reduces to conventional behavior. Or if it is framed as art by a gallery, it reduces to conventional art. Thus toothbrushing, as we normally do it, offers no roads back to the real wold either. But ordinary life performed as art/not art can charge the everyday with metaphoric power.
I remember the first time I went to the Noguchi Museum in LIC, I was walking up on the front, struggling to find the entrance, when a smiling young woman charged up to me with hand out ready to shake and said “Hi! You must be from MoMA?” I told her I was from Minneapolis. She laughed but still thought I was one of the people she was supposed to meet. It was a nice, energized encounter. Once we got it straightened out, we had a rich chat. She was a scholar who’d written extensively about Noguchi and she was meeting a group from MoMA. She told me some great stories about the buildings and work there. A story about him telling his assistant one day near the end of his life that it was time for him to return to the rock–his assistant knew he was in good health so, he wasn’t concerned–of course he died shortly thereafter. It was a magic little class and I’ll never forget it. She loved what she was talking about. I loved it all.
When PIN-UP Magazine decided to interview me, they asked me to pick my favorite place in NYC… of course, I picked the Noguchi Museum.
It was nice to see my friend Fred Bernstein writing in the WSJ Magazine on the outpost Noguchi and his assistant/collaborator worked from on the Japanese island Shikoku in the town of Mure. The property is still run by the stonecutter Masatoshi Izumi. He placed some of Noguchi’s ashes in the rock pictured at the top of this post.
As much as it seems like there are some uncertainties about how things will work out from the business/legal side of things, I trust the place and the work will find its way to the correct outcome. It is all clearly perfect. My sense is the New York entity presents an attitude/aura that is in contrast to the work. Business and legacy and money and conservator issues seem… so small. The work and the place, so large and true.
In a way it’s a perfect story: a man from the East and the West who is conflicted by his identity and isn’t sure which one is right to embrace. Both cultures emerge in him perfectly, he is successful in Western capitalist ways of the ego, the cash, notoriety but only because he so clearly embraced the spiritual side of his Easternness.
The article and it’s story of fear and anxiety about the situation in Japan ends on a saccharine note:
Then Dixon reached for a book published by the Japanese museum in honor of its 10th anniversary, in 2009. She opened to a page bearing a quote from Noguchi: “All things worthwhile must end as gifts,” he wrote. “What other reason is there for art?”
It shows a very western and, for me, shallow reading of what a “gift” is and what “art” is. Makes me think of another quote.
“In the stone is the Stone. Without knowing it. The past tells the present the already forgotten story of them both.” Borges adjusted by me.
I think Jenny Dixon, the Noguchi’s Director should breathe… then listen to this a few times.
If some of these rocks and buildings wandered away from our control? All the better maybe. The we could all experience some true saudade…
And below are some of Fred’s iPhone pics from his visit! I love looking at and thinking about the pre-Noguchi stones or the stones he and Izumi have started to work with but aren’t finished… or maybe they are.
Please enjoy the time and space.
A few years back, Sammie Warren was telling me about this piece… I think he’d read something about it in an old issue of Acne Paper? I never saw the article and haven’t fully thought of it since. The other day, chatting with my friend Frank, I remembered. It only took a few searches and there it was.
“Les Archives du Cœur” is an archive of 35,000 recorded heartbeats (at last count) that are permanently housed on the uninhabitable Japanese island Teshima, which is part of the Benesse Art Site Naoshima. The project was initiated by artist Christian Boltanski in 2008 and is ongoing.
I sorta wish I hadn’t looked at so many of the links the searches pushed up though? Too many pics of Boltanski and vids of the installation. I wish I coulda stayed with this above image and the concept of 35,000 recorded heartbeats on an island
Please enjoy the time and space.
A distinguished lexicographer and the originator of the Reader’s Digest Column “It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power”, Wilfred Funk, compiled the following list of the most beautiful words of the English language:
Please enjoy the time and space
O. K.’s Time Travels (Back to the Future), 2013 – Paul Barsch
Part of Jurassic Paint
Participating artists: Joshua Abelow Iain Ball Zoe Barcza Paul Barsch Tom Davis Scott Gelber Sayre Gomez Ann Hirsch Tilman Hornig Martin Mannig Jaakko Pallasvuo Anselm Ruderisch
Please enjoy the time and space
Swiss Institute is delighted to present the 2nd Edition of its Annual Architecture and Design Series entitled PAVILLON DE L’ESPRIT NOUVEAU: A 21st Century Show Home. Curated by Felix Burrichter, the editor and creative director of award-winning architecture and design magazine PIN–UP, the exhibition channels the visionary irreverence of Le Corbusier for a 21st century take on domesticity.
In such amazing company. Whoa. Holy…
Lindsey Adelman, Nanu Al-Hamad, Aranda\Lasch, Alessandro Bava, Josh Bitelli, Camille Blin, Laureline Galliot, Konstantin Grcic, Paul Kopkau, Kram/Weisshaar, Joris Laarman, Max Lamb, Le Corbusier, Piero Lissoni, Philippe Malouin, Shawn Maximo, Jasper Morrison, Jonathan Muecke, Marlie Mul, Ifeanyi Oganwu, Leon Ransmeier, Sean Raspet, Jessi Reaves, Guto Requena, RO/LU, Rossi Bianchi, Julika Rudelius, Soft Baroque, Robert Stadler, Ian Stell, Katie Stout, Elisa Strozyk, Studio Drift, Patricia Urquiola, Christian Wassmann, Bethan Laura Wood.
More here. And more soon
Please enjoy the time and space.