Some years ago I travelled to Poland, where I met with artists who had been making art under Soviet rule in the 1970s and martial law in the early 1980s – officially as “amateurs” to avoid political scrutiny. The unexpected thing I took from those meetings was the discrepancy between the evidence – of urgent, economical and intelligent works – and complaints from the artists about the harsh conditions, the risks involved in making anything but “official paintings” during those decades. At the end of my trip I was left with a pile of recent exhibition catalogues by artists who had made their most interesting work under the watchful, suspicious eye of authority – when officially stripped of artistic freedom.
The relationship between art, freedom and action is ambiguous and unique to its political and social context. At the same time as a Polish artist might have taken the risk of secretly recording the view from his apartment window, a generation of Western artists were flagrantly dismantling the foundations of the establishment. Art embraced action long before the emergence of Fluxus in the 1950s, but it is those outbursts, and the following decades of worldwide restlessness, that provide the clearest banner for visual artists when considering a shift away from static, carefully crafted, museum-bound objects.
Like civilian society, art took to the street in an attempt to wrest artistic agency away from what were seen to be its hegemonic, over-determining rulers, namely museums and the traditions and ideologies they prescribed. Art as a Verb – showing at Artspace in Sydney until August 26 – demonstrates the cross-generational and cross-cultural legacy of this pull. Around its maze of cavity-exposed walls can be found an abundance of denuding gestures, thought experiments, manifestos, instructions to self, tests of endurance – actions ranging from the concise and urgent to the drunk and stupid.
Frustration is the quality one feels in many of these works: action in art comes mostly in the form of “reaction” to the various historical codes of conduct that define both it and society at large. This tug of war is typified in a huddle of VHS-era video works. In Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful (1975) Marina Abramović looks slightly crazed as she combs and yanks at her hair to aurally disconcerting effect, while John Baldessari in I Am Making Art (1971) chants the sentence “I am making art” like a man emotionally straitjacketed by that for which he has signed up. Andrea Fraser’s Official Welcome (2001/03) gives a more recent example; her long video is worth enduring for the Beckettian artistry and theatrics through which she frustrates some of art’s more smug and platitudinous conventions.
While Art as a Verb reveals a state of boiling over – facilitated and distinguished by the technological tools at hand – it also demonstrates the persistence of what Allan Kaprow, the artist who coined the term “Happening” and whose manifesto we are greeted with when entering this exhibition, referred to as the “mausolea” of museums. If this is an exhibition about action, flux and change, then by virtue of these same qualities it also becomes one about the relationship between those anarchical propositions and the ephemera that subsequently represent and communicate them.
Amid the vitrines of documents in this show are explicit statements of protestation against art’s museological confinement. Claes Oldenburg’s artist statement from 1961 begins with “I am for an art that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum” while the posters referring to Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performances reveal that in 1981 this artist stayed outside for an entire year. Through the faces of those vitrines, within the walls of our museums, we consider and pay homage to these important improprieties.
In this sense, history reveals action in art to be something of a dog: it leaps through the gates of the museum in search of life at large before returning home to “sit on its ass” – warmed, fed and given meaning – in those institutional surrounds. Most importantly, it brings that renewed vigour for life back into the grounds – demanding more from those complacent-assed empires. Perhaps this is what the legacy of Fluxus shows, that containment and limitation are the necessary ingredients for energy and action. Any perceived threat to freedom provides friction, frisson and the incentive for people to come together and generate new ideas.
Inside the Iron Curtain, with no public platform, this huddling occurred in smoke-filled apartments. Jirí Kovanda’s actions, made in the former Czechoslovakia – captured on A4 sheets of paper with black and white photos and single lines of text – reveal something of the lean beauty and equanimity of those art actions that lured me to Poland. Contact (1977), a work with understated power in this exhibition, shows the artist brushing past – making the briefest physical contact with – a fellow pedestrian and human. The simplicity and brevity of those gestures amid more extroverted examples gives one the strong sense that life and the artworks emerging from it will always matter more when under threat.
The work of Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch performance and video artist, exemplifies art’s more abstruse capacities for action and peril. Like several important artists of his generation, he played on the limitations and inherent failures of art; this culminated in 1975 when he set out to sea for a work titled In Search of the Miraculous (1975), ultimately disappearing and presumably dying. What’s interesting about Jan Ader’s trajectory is the way works such as the video shown here – I’m Too Sad to Tell You (1971), which shows the artist crying, unable to get his message across – provide a premonitory note to both the failure and subsequent romanticism of his final action. Jan Ader has gained a somewhat mythical presence in art, in part because of the blurry line between representation and definitive action that his final, unfinished work can retrospectively be seen to tread.
It’s curious, in a woozy sort of way, to think about those decades of action, covert or overt, in light of the internet and today’s data hoard: records of static objects and anything seeking to break away from them now streaming at unprecedented speeds, picking up acknowledging thumbs or algorithmic alerts along the way, through the networks of sites and cables belonging to that still relatively new institution that is the net. One wonders whether it is a mausoleum on speed or something more along the lines of what Oldenburg was “all for”. Will its hegemonies encourage or pacify action?
The internet and art, with their endless representing, marketing and transferring, have a great deal in common. But the more intriguing overlap is the clash of libertarian and non-libertarian forces: those who believe it their right, duty even, to speak and act freely, versus those intent on maintaining manageable parameters within which to enable and therefore control such freedoms.
A small photograph showing a circle painted on an oval, one component of Bianca Hester’s 2014 Sydney Biennale work Fashioning Discontinuities (2013-14), is a pithy reminder of the way such forces came face to face on this field recently. The Biennale protests, while to a large extent hijacked by those with the biggest microphones, spoke reassuringly to the spontaneous, intimate gestures and gatherings of Fluxus and post-Fluxus art. In my opinion, the important function of those events was the way they brought people onto the field, to think and talk about what we’re all doing here. That’s what all good art does.
Regardless of major shifts, in terms of the systems and institutions now shaping information, the possibility of narrowing that ideological separation between art and life will continue to provide a crucial raison d’être for artists. Sarah Rodigari’s Strategies for Leaving and Arriving Home (2011), in which the artist documented her walk from Melbourne to Sydney after selling her possessions, brings home the idea that any action, enforced or other, has the potential to be transformative and bring agency to our ineluctably escaping lives.
The kind of action-depicting, systems-analysing documents found throughout this exhibition compile evidence for the case that action spurs thinking and thinking spurs action. Playing havoc with old ideas for the purpose of germinating new ones is fundamental to any endeavour, artistic or merely human.