In Frank Big Bear’s newest collage—on view now in the Walker’s new Target Project Space—universes are created and collided. Sourced from magazines and books and referencing topics from space and time to history, art, science, and people, hundreds of images are juxtaposed and superimposed. Photos of the Vietnam War mix with pictures of Patti Smith, hairless cats, and Chicago’s “bean” sculpture. […]
Frank Big Bear with The Walker Collage, Multiverse #10 (2016). Photo: Gene Pittman
In Frank Big Bear’s newest collage—on view now in the Walker’s new Target Project Space—universes are created and collided. Sourced from magazines and books and referencing topics from space and time to history, art, science, and people, hundreds of images are juxtaposed and superimposed. Photos of the Vietnam War mix with pictures of Patti Smith, hairless cats, and Chicago’s “bean” sculpture. Figureheads of the American Indian Movement share space with fashion nudes, famous artworks, and Minnesota landmarks. Dubbed Walker Collage, Multiverse #10, the work—the artist’s largest to date—consists of 432 panels, each composed on an invitation card for an exhibition by his son, Star Wallowing Bull. It is at once a microcosmic view of life on Earth and a personal endeavor—throughout the piece, the artist interspersed family photos and plastic photo corners, which might evoke a family album. The work is also dedicated to the artist’s late brother, the poet Joseph E. Big Bear.
The work occupies a prominent location, spanning the entire wall of the Walker’s new restaurant, Esker Grove, and is visible from Vineland Place. Created especially for this space, The Walker Collage, Multiverse #10 will be on view for a full year—and, given its depth and rich details, it invites multiple and extended visits.
Based in Minnesota, Big Bear is known for his elaborately detailed drawings, paintings, and collages that portray a world overflowing with vitality, activity, people, and creatures, like this 1989–1990 drawing in the Walker’s permanent collection. Big Bear’s drawings mesh and meld imagery in a frenetic assemblage manner, which perhaps enabled him to easily transition into collage making—a recent shift for the artist.
Fitting with the collage’s focus on intersecting worlds, the artist has agreed to share with us his Facebook updates, posted throughout the development of Multiverse #10. Collectively, they unearth some of the personal, cultural, and artistic influences behind the work while sharing aspects of his life and artistic process, from his time driving taxi to his love for Spoonbridge and Cherry to his endless appetite for reading. Here we are given a rare glimpse into the parallel existence of Big Bear and his collage.
Visitors with Frank Big Bear’s The Walker Collage, Multiverse #10 (2016). Photo: Gene Pittman
“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag,” President-elect Donald Trump tweeted at five minutes to six on the morning of November 29. “If they do, there must be consequences—perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” The statement shocked many, chiefly because the incoming president’s opinion is at loggerheads with established law: in 1990, the […]
“Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag,” President-elect Donald Trump tweeted at five minutes to six on the morning of November 29. “If they do, there must be consequences—perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” The statement shocked many, chiefly because the incoming president’s opinion is at loggerheads with established law: in 1990, the US Supreme Court ruled that laws banning flag desecration are unconstitutional, and in 1967, the court ruled that the government cannot strip citizenship from US citizens.
Someone well-versed in these laws is artist Dread Scott. As a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1988, he created an installation piece called What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? It consisted of: a photomontage hung on the wall showing images of photo of flag-draped coffins and a shot of South Korean students burning US flags; a shelf with a blank book in which visitors could respond to the work’s titular question; and, on the floor beneath it, an American flag that visitors could walk on to write in the book. Called “disgraceful” by then-President Bush, the work prompted legislators, nationally and in Chicago, to propose laws banning such use of the flag—all of which became law. One, the “Flag Protection Act of 1989,” prompted Scott and others to burn flags on the US Capitol steps in protest. We invited Scott—author of a Walker Artist Op-Ed on the police killing of Michael Brown and an artist featured in the Walker’s 2014 presentation of Radical Presence—to share his reaction.
In 1989 I, along with others, burned flags on the steps of the US Capitol in defiance of the “Flag Protection Act of 1989,” which in part contained wording intended to outlaw my artwork What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? In the resulting Supreme Court case, the Court ruled that flag-burning is constitutional. With his tweet, Trump is issuing an edict that this ruling should be overturned and people should be punished for this kind of dissent—stripped of their rights to become stateless people.
Dread Scott burning a flag on the steps of the US Capitol, 1989. Courtesy the artist
The American flag flew over the Supreme Court that issued the Dred Scott decision that stated that a Black person “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” It was carried by the cavalry that committed genocide against Native American peoples. It is worn by the cops who killed Eric Garner and countless others; it is painted on the drones that kill people in Pakistan and worn by the sheriffs and Army of Corps of Engineers soldiers who are attacking the water protectors at Standing Rock.
Trump has promised to conduct mass deportations, force Muslims to register in government databases, torture families of suspected terrorists, and impose “law and order.” He has surrounded himself with neo-Nazis, climate-change deniers, Christian fundamentalists, and robber barons who with official power aim to eliminate access to abortion, seal borders, and expand wars. And he has unleashed a core of angry white people with a lynch mob mentality. As he does this, he is declaring that fundamental critique of America and the government won’t be tolerated. In the face of this, I hope that there are many more flag burnings. His proclamation should be defied as part of people demonstrating that we will not accept a fascist America.
Some have argued that Trump’s tweet about flag-burning is a distraction from the real issues, like who he is appointing to his cabinet or his conflicts of interest. Believing that this is a distraction is dangerous logic that would end up accommodating Trump’s fascist program. His response to Colin Kaepernick’s courageous refusal to stand for the national anthem was to say, “he should find a country that works better for him” (people have often made this suggestion to me as well). Historically, fascism has required extreme nationalism and created sections of people who have no rights. Fascism suppresses dissent. Trump is targeting protest—and, specifically, protest that challenges national cohesion.
In the Führer’s new America, actors, athletes, and others with a public voice are told to fall in line. It is no accident that he has targeted the extremely popular musical Hamilton because the audience righteously booed Mike Pence’s presence and the cast called out his bigotry from the stage. Trump has bullied and threatened the press, and many are normalizing his rule. Far from being a distraction, when Trump bellows that people who burn American flags should lose all rights, people should rise to that challenge in the same spirit that many who knelt with Kaepernick did. This needs to be done as people build an overall resistance to Trump’s attempt to consolidate his fascist rule.
Detail from What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? Courtesy the artist
In the Name of Humanity, We REFUSE To Accept a Fascist America
Rise Up… Get Into The Streets… Unite With People Everywhere
to Build Up Resistance in Every Way You Can
Don’t Stop: Don’t Conciliate… Don’t Accommodate… Don’t Collaborate
This spirit needs to infuse our action, and I encourage people to read the whole statement as we confront the severity and the enormity of the problem we face.
Now is the time. People need to get outside of their comfort zone and act with courage as if the future depends on it—because it does.
My artwork, Imagine A World Without America, seen on the cover of the November issue of Artforum magazine, encourages readers to do what the title says. It is an important perspective that asks people to consider what the world could be without the profound influence of everything that is America. With fascist movements across Europe emboldened by Trump’s win, it is important to consider what the world could be without the profound influence of America. Art and ideas that encourage people to stand up to petty tyrants who try to impose horrors on humanity are needed now more than ever.
In the One Work series, Walker curators explore the history of single works held within the permanent collection. Rather than examining these in isolation, the works are considered through the lens of their past exhibition history, exploring how an artwork’s context influences interpretation. In February 2017, Jasper Johns’s stage décor for Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time will […]
Jasper Johns, set elements for Walkaround Time, 1968. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives
In the One Workseries, Walker curators explore the history of single works held within the permanent collection. Rather than examining these in isolation, the works are considered through the lens of their past exhibition history, exploring how an artwork’s context influences interpretation.
In February 2017, Jasper Johns’s stage décor for Merce Cunningham’sWalkaround Time will be on view at the Walker as a centerpiece of Merce Cunningham: Common Time. It will be the third time the décor elements have been on view since their acquisition in 2000, although their exhibition history, both at the Walker and at fellow arts institutions far precedes this date. Why has Walkaround Time become such a fitting icon for interdisciplinary collaborative practice, despite being one of many striking stage décor works created by leading visual artists for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company?
In late 1967, Jasper Johns, who used his role as artistic director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company to act as a curator rather than a creator, expressed to his mentor, Marcel Duchamp, his desire to create a stage décor for Cunningham’s new work based on the design of Duchamp’s famous The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, akaThe Large Glass(1915–1923). Duchamp’s now well-known quip, “certainly but who is going to do all the work?” enabled the resourceful Johns to create the setting for one of Cunningham’s most well-known and richly created dances. Working in critic David Whitney’s loft on Canal Street, which afforded more space than Johns’s own studio, he stenciled the imagery from The Large Glass—”The Bride,” “The Seven Sisters,” “The Milky Way,” “The Cemetery of Uniforms,” “The Ocular Witness,” “The Glider,” and “The Chocolate Grinder”—onto vinyl sheeting, which was stretched over seven metal cube frames.
For performances, the images “The Bride” and “The Milky Way,” which appear in the upper register of The Large Glass, were suspended from stage flies, with the remaining five units arranged below. This honored Duchamp’s request that the décor mirror the composition of his work during at least one portion of the dance. As composer Nelson Rivera has aptly noted, the dance relies on lateral movement—the dancers continually enter and exit the stage from the wings and move longitudinally across the stage either across or behind the décor elements. This choreographic structure wryly comments on the dance’s title, which Cunningham explained references the seemingly protracted minutes spent waiting for early computers to process information. The entire dance, from David Behrman’s spoken-word remixed score, to the décor, to the choreographic structure, is an homage to Duchamp. If it’s at all possible to summarize Marcel, Walkaround Time approaches this; the work is, in a sense, Cunningham’s variations on a Ballet Mécanique.1 The dancers themselves seem to take on the movement of machines, often stiff, mechanized. During the work’s intermission, or enter’acte, the dancers remain on stage, seated among the décor, stretching, talking—an adaptation of René Clair’s 1924 film Entr’acte, which screened midway through performances of the Ballet Suédois’s Relâche. During the second act of the dance, Cunningham removes his warmup clothes while running in place, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase(1912). Although the movement and character of the dance is uniquely Cunningham’s, the choreographer embraced Duchamp’s evasive attitude towards authorship and style.
Johns himself is hesitant to claim ownership of the décor, calling the design, in a letter to former Walker Director Kathy Halbreich, “something other than a work by me.”2 Johns is correct in that Walkaround Time is something outside a work by a single artist, more a material embodiment of Marcel Duchamp’s impact on the post-war avant-garde and continued influence today.
The Walker was the first to exhibit Walkaround Time within exhibition galleries in 1994 as part of Duchamp’s Leg, an exhibition that looked to this very lineage of Duchamp’s impact on the younger generations of artists. Although the company was still actively performing—Cunningham had yet to create many of his most iconic works such as BIPED (1999) and Scenario (1997)—curator Joan Rothfuss thought outside the proverbial box in seeking to include these décor works, which were recently retired, but still owned by the company in the exhibition. Only a pair of the seven vinyl pieces on view were installed in the Walker galleries. Displayed in this way, their scale and texture simulated the haptic experience of moving and carrying the pieces across a stage. In the opening sequence of Walkaround Time, Cunningham is seen running in place behind The Chocolate Grinder, allowing the clear vinyl décor to simultaneously frame and obstruct his movement. Walkaround Time is one of the few dances in which the choreography itself was developed in consideration of the décor (Cunningham had his dancers use cardboard boxes in rehearsals until Johns’s work was completed). Dancers lift and carry the cubes and then each other with little differentiation. The cube becomes body becomes readymade. 3
Installation view of Art Performs Life, 1998. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives
In 1998, Walkaround Time returned to the Walker for Art Performs Life: Meredith Monk, Bill T. Jones, Merce Cunningham, for which the complete décor was installed and contextualized within Cunningham’s practice and within the designs artists including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Rei Kawakubo had created for the company. Following this seminal installation, the Walker approached the acquisition of the décor from the Cunningham Foundation, and the work formally entered the collection in 2000. It was only the second object created as a stage décor element for Cunningham to enter a museum collection (the Art Gallery of Ontario acquired Story (1964), a combine created by Robert Rauschenberg during a performance of Cunningham’s dance of the same name).
Emma Desjardins, Melissa Toogood, John Hinrichs, Marcie Munnerlyn and Brandon Collwes performing Events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art during Dancing Around the Bride. Photo: Constance Mensh
Ironically, Walkaround Time has never been installed in the Walker’s McGuire Theater. In 2011, soon after the Walker’s acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, included in which was an exhibition copy of Walkaround Time, the work was displayed on a low stage within the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of the exhibition Dancing Around the Bride: Cage, Cunningham, Johns, Rauschenberg and Duchamp—a “conversation,” in the words of curator Carlos Basualdo, rather than an exhibition, that explored relationships between the leaders of post-war avant-garde. In this active and transitional installation, Basualdo and co-curator Ericka Battle allowed the work to move between décor and sculpture. When the stage was used for performances, the vinyl boxes were drawn up towards the ceiling, creating a newly configured setting to Cunningham’s choreography
The following year the décor was included in A House Full of Music: Strategies in Music and Art, an exhibition that celebrated John Cage’s centenary at the Institut Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt. Although Cage did not create the score for Walkaround Time, his fingerprints on the vinyl cubes are undeniable. Cunningham’s partner since 1945, it was through Cage that Johns and Cunningham developed their close, if reverential, relationship with Duchamp. This is one of dozens of key collaborations Cage fostered through his easily generated and far-reaching network of composers and artists. Cage was more than simply a social interloper between these individuals, and it is key to note how the design of Walkaround Time was in keeping with Cage’s own artistic practice. For Cage, music contained elements of the visual. Outside of being drawn to the theatrical and dedicating much of his life and work to Cunningham’s dance company, Cage’s own musical scores, including his well-known, largely-blank pages for 4’33” (1952), conveyed an acute sense of space, that of both the paper and the space in which the composition was performed.
In 2015, Philippe Parreno included the set elements for Walkaround Time as part of Hypothesis, an installation at the Hangar Bicocca in Milan. Parreno understood the unfixed qualities of Walkaround Time as expressed nine years before Walkaround Time by Johns: “It seems less the machine’s True Story capacities for romance than the capacity of the work to contain Duchamp’s huge precisions of thought-in-art that is conveyed by its vitality.”4
Parreno’s rearrangement of the décor in relation to the stage underscored Cage’s idea of the theatrical space as one that is inherently decentered, a space beckoning to be moved through much as the clear vinyl (or glass in Duchamp’s original work) is to be looked through. For Parreno, the décor element became an object of regeneration, a motif he re-contextualized after its creation by Duchamp and application through Cunningham and Johns. Parreno’s appropriation of Walkaround Time within his installation was a scheme used to indicate the “ability of an artwork to host another,” a type of parasitic homage in which each creation creates a possibility for something else to occur. In this way, he completed the transformation of one artwork into another, leaving the space below the suspended décor empty, a blank stage on which the shadows of TheLarge Glass suggested the possibility of new interpretations, embodiments, and regenerations.
In this way, Walkaround Time, with its origins at the nexus point of conceptual, performance, and composition practice, indicates superbly the shared and intersecting wavelengths Cunningham, Cage, Johns, and Duchamp rode at that moment in time, but act as a type of Rosetta Stone, rich with ideas from different perspectives that continue to foster an embodied approach to contemporary practice. The décor’s creative exhibition history to date is only the prelude to a performance in and around its clear shadows.
1 Ferdenand Léger, 1924 “dance” of Dadist collage for film.
2 Jasper Johns, letter to Kathy Halbreich, December 8, 1998, Walker Art Center archives.
3 David Vaughan notes how Walkaround Time was, at the time, one of the few times that Cunningham diverged from his philosophical approach that the music, décor and choreography be developed individually. See David Vaughan “‘Then I Thought About Marcel’: Merce Cunningham’s Walkaround Time” in Merce Cunningham : Dancing in Space and Time (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998), Richard Kostelanetz ed., 66–70.
4 Jasper Johns “Duchamp” in Scrap, no. 2, December 23, 1960, 4.
To commemorate today’s opening of the Walker’s new Vineland Place entrance, Visual Arts curator Pavel Pyś talks with Los Angeles–based artist Liz Larner about X (2013), the gleaming stainless steel sculpture that welcomes visitors. Working with abstract and geometric forms, Larner has consistently explored the possibilities of sculpture, and in particular the relationship between solid mass and volume. Oscillating between the […]
Liz Larner’s X (2013) during installation outside the new Walker main entrance. Photo: Carina Lofgren for Walker Art Center
To commemorate today’s opening of the Walker’s new Vineland Place entrance, Visual Arts curator Pavel Pyś talks with Los Angeles–based artist Liz Larner about X (2013), the gleaming stainless steel sculpture that welcomes visitors. Working with abstract and geometric forms, Larner has consistently explored the possibilities of sculpture, and in particular the relationship between solid mass and volume. Oscillating between the two- and three-dimensional, between drawing and sculpture, Larner’s works draw attention to the relationship between ourselves and the surrounding environment.
Pavel Pyś: Throughout your practice you’ve worked with a variety of materials, ranging from traditional ones, such as clay, steel, copper, and bronze, through to unstable ones, like champagne, caviar, and sour cream. How do you choose the materials you work with?
Liz Larner: That’s a great place to start. I really feel that material gives a sense of understanding and that it’s always a part of it. I choose materials by their significance, either playing a part in actual applications in the form or in terms of an attitude. So I use it for both, kind of. The same material can function for both. But that doesn’t always happen. The material is how we receive the content, the vehicle for the reception, a lot of times. And so it’s a part of it. I want that part of it to play a significant role in terms of how you understand the sculpture, whether it be the subject or the form or in-between those things.
Pyś: You mentioned that the material carries the content and the conceptual meaning. How does your experience differ when you have the material right to your hand and can touch it versus starting with the work that you can’t touch when you’re making it, for example as a rendering?
Larner: I think that has changed over time. For me, it has almost happened in reverse. I’m now at a point where I really want to have my hand be in the work, which might be part of the reason why I’ve moved to clay. When I started out, it was a more conceptual approach to “what materials are these?” I’ve always been interested in the difference between what something is called and what something is and how we receive it. I guess that was what was more important to me in the beginning, and it was almost some of the linguistic and somatic kind of interactions that the material produces. Now I find any individual hand very interesting. I think it’s something that we haven’t seen as much of recently; he digital has really changed that. In a way it’s more exciting to have a hand up against the digital in these times, when most objects that we encounter have some kind of digital aspect to their making.
Liz Larner’s X (2013), installed in front of the new Walker entrance. Photo: Paul Schmelzer
Pyś: When we think of sculpture, we usually think of solidity, mass, and sculpture being stable. However throughout your work—and this is also the case with X (2013)—there is a relationship in the work between volume and density. Looking across your practice, there is a consistent interest in how to achieve a sense of volume without a lot of stable, solid material.
Larner: Yes. I think that there’s so much there historically in the way that modernism ended. The beginning of postmodernism began, I think, in the late ‘60s with minimalism and post-minimalism. There was a kind of agreement a lot of times, and I think it was seen as the truth to the materials that mostly sculptors and specific object makers were abiding by. A lot of the current industrial methods were being used in sculpture. Though I think they were not interested in illusion, and so I feel that it kept them very true to the mass and density of the material. I looked at that a lot when I was thinking about making sculpture. And ways of changing those relationships between the mass and the volume, or the density and the mass, or the density and the mass and the volume, became something that I sense. Just even seeing a volume at that size, that isn’t made to seem like a solid or is a solid, kind of puts your senses on notice to look more intensely and explore the space of the sculpture and the sculpture itself more intently. I think it intensifies the reception because there’s the sense that it may not be real even though it obviously is real.
Pyś: The line has played a key place in your practice, and indeed X looks a bit like a drawing that has been pulled and pinched and moved into space. How important is drawing to your practice?
Larner: The two-dimensional is important to me. I do make drawings, and I make a lot of drawings in preparation for sculptures. And I make a lot of models. But drawing is not a primary part of my practice. For me, the kind of blurring of the distinctions between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional has been something that I’ve been trying to do for a long time, and that’s kind of where drawing comes in. And it has come in in many different ways.
Pyś: You talked a little bit about the relationship to material and the digital. X was entirely computer-generated. How did you conceive of the work, as you were working with computer imagery?
Larner: Well, I had already made a form on the computer, a model. I wanted to use that form and sort of destabilize it or make it even less readable by imposing “X” over it, and then deleting that amount of form that was in those empty spaces. So “X” took on that form, without relaying the rest of it but just giving a partial aspect of it. That was done digitally as well.
Pyś: How does that shift your approach to the work? I imagine that when you have access to something that’s right at your hands, such as a pen and paper, then there is a certain immediacy. How does that sense of immediacy shift when you’re working with something that’s on the computer screen?
Larner: It’s not that immediate. I mean, it’s very immediate, in the sense that you can do things quickly, and you can do things that you can’t do by hand. So it’s a really good tool for mocking up. But in the end, it’s so different because you’re still not seeing the same thing that you’re going to have. It’s a much different kind of experience to try to make something from the ground or by hand than to have the computer to relay something, and you have to give over to it. Then what happens is when you get it to the stage of making the thing from all of this computer information, you see what you’ve got, so in a weird way, although it has been very clearly rendered, still it’s the spatiality of it in a real space that shows you what you have. So there’s an area of not knowing. Even though it clearly spells it out while you’re making it, you can’t really—as a sculpture, it can’t truly be imagined even though these tools are so powerful that you can move things around and look at them from many angles and simulate surfaces.
Pyś: The version of X in our collection is made of mirror polished stainless steel. In 2013, you showed another version of the sculpture, made of maple, at the University of Texas. How would you describe the difference in experiencing these two materially very different works?
X (2013) installed on the Walker terraces. Photo: Gene Pittman
Larner: It goes back to your first question. It was absolutely interesting for me to see the same form in the final scale in the two materials because they have such a completely different feeling to them. The one in maple is warm and inviting, and it served to let me experience the form in full scale. I think that one of the things about X that’s important to me is that one can be inside the sculpture which we’re talking about, about not having the full mass with the volume, you know, being able to enter into the space of the sculpture and be in the middle of it. That’s something that the experience in the maple is—I mean, the wood is warm and kind of golden, there’s a sense of stability in that and it gives you a completely other feeling than the bright, hard, reflective, fast-moving surface of the stainless steel. So it couldn’t be more different even though they’re the same form.
Pyś: Would you consider the maple X a model or an independent, separate work?
Larner: I wanted to make it in another material. I didn’t want to go directly full-scale into the stainless steel. Stainless steel was a huge commitment; there needed to be something that was in another material so that I could see the form. So I decided to do it in maple and thought that it would be interesting to see the two different materials. But the main reason was simply to have another material that wasn’t quite as extreme in all ways as the stainless steel before I committed to that. But it’s a piece on its own. I don’t think of it now as a model, even though it served that purpose in the kind of trajectory of which piece I made first.
Pyś: I want to ask you about “X” as a glyph, which recurs throughout your work as a sign of potential of the unknown, as you mentioned before. How did you arrive at this particular character or glyph?
Larner: Well, Variable (1990) was the first piece that I did, which was an addition of an “X” that has two very different sides and, I think, five different colors that went throughout, so it’d mostly be different colors on different sides. It’s a mathematical idea of a variable. It’s such a great idea, the simple graphic form can contain anything. It’s illimitable. I felt like that’s such a usable form for a series of sculptures, because I think it allows an abstract sculptor, to be able to have a motif that changes– use it as a variable but in a sculptural way. Each time I do it, it has a different trajectory, I think, it’s going in a different direction, and can be something else.
In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Pavel Pyś considers the 1967 Walker exhibition Les Levine: Two Environments, focusing on the artist’s installation Slipcover through the lens of works by Levine’s peers, environmental art, and institutional critique. By the time of his exhibition at Walker Art Center […]
Installation view of Slipcover as part of Les Levine: Two Environments (1967), Walker Art Center. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives
In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Pavel Pyś considers the 1967 Walker exhibition Les Levine: Two Environments, focusing on the artist’s installation Slipcover through the lens of works by Levine’s peers, environmental art, and institutional critique.
By the time of his exhibition at Walker Art Center in 1967, Les Levine had established a firm presence in the New York art world. Dubbed “Plastic Man,” he worked with materials such as fiberglass, acrylic, plastic and mylar, and championed the concept of “disposable art” that be “destroyed as soon as the owner wishes.” Made of plastic and white foam, Levine’s “disposables” took the form of inexpensive, modular, machine-produced reliefs and freestanding objects that Levine encouraged buyers to arrange as they pleased. “Accumulation of any sort is a constipated activity,” the artist proclaimed, and as a result many of his works from the late 1960s were discarded and survive via photography or moving image documentation.
Curated by Dean Swanson, Les Levine: Two Environments included two room-sized installations: Slipcover and Primetime Star. To realize Slipcover, Levine lined all of the gallery’s surfaces with silverized mylar, while inside the space large mylar bags inflated and deflated. In addition, multiple slide projectors showed images of recent installation views of exhibitions that took place in that exact gallery. Discussing Slipcover with Swanson, Levine said: “I’ve been calling my things places … something that completely encirclates [sic] you, and you become involved in the whole experience rather than it becoming part of another experience.”
Levine’s emphasis on the specificity of “place” and the totality of an aesthetic experience as opposed to the viewing of discreet individual works, speaks directly to the notion of the “environment” as conceptualized by Allan Kaprow (1927–2006) from 1958 onwards. In Assemblages, Environments and Happenings (1966), Kaprow argued that “the line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible,” with the boundaries separating the space of the spectator and the space of the artwork dissolved and shared. Kaprow, and peers such as Jim Dine (b. 1935), Claes Oldenburg (b. 1929), and Geoffrey Hendricks (b. 1931), pushed this logic further through happenings—conflating not only the space of the spectator and artwork, but also pulling the activity of the viewer into the environment itself, positioning the audience as an active participant.
Gianni Colombo’s Spazio Elastico (1967-68), Archivio Gianni Colombo, Milan
Levine distanced his work from happenings, dissatisfied with the notion of the script or planned action, instead arguing that Slipcover operated beyond his control, at any point offering the audience an “immediate, personal reality.” For Levine, “the room is the subject,” and by incorporating kinetic elements, Slipcover challenges the viewer’s very perception of space and their own place within it. Inflating and deflating, the mylar balloon bags prescribed one’s movement around the gallery space, at once obstructing and then giving way. In Italy, Gianni Colombo (1937–93) explored similar concerns in the installation Spazio Elastico [Elastic Space] (1967–68). Within a dark cube, Colombo stretched a three-dimensional, layered grid of elastic cords, each treated with fluorescent paint. Illuminated by black light, the strings were motorized and slowly pulled, skewing and distorting the viewer’s spatial coordinates. Colombo conceived of Spazio Elastico as “an experimental test-construction to research the optical and psychical behavior of the users, who … themselves will end up self-determining, in part, the image they perceive, open to associations of the possible space-dynamic relationships.” Just as Levine placed emphasis on the present, embodied moment, so too Colombo directed attention towards the relationship between the body, mind and surrounding architectural space. Seen together, Colombo’s Spazio Elastico and Levine’s Slipcover (especially with its pulsating, breathing “lungs”) share common ground with the Brazilian Neo-Concretists, for whom the artwork was an “‘almost-body,’ a being whose reality is not exhausted in the external relationships between its elements; a being which, even while not decomposable into parts through analysis, only delivers itself up wholly through a direct, phenomenological approach.”
Andy Warhol, Gerard Malanga, and others release a silver mylar balloon from the Factory rooftop on 47th Street. Photo by Billy Name
With their slick, reflective surfaces, Levine’s Slipcover occupied a material register at odds to those environments created by Kaprow, Dine, Oldenburg, and others. While the latter preferred organic materials and haphazardly painted cardboard and canvas, Levine opted for mylar, plastic, and steel, bringing about connotations to NASA and the Space Age, the futuristic and the industrial. Levine’s preference for the shiny and new chimes with Warhol’s contemporaneous Silver Clouds(1966), the inflatable floor sculptures made for his 1968 retrospective at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, and the tin foil-covered interiors of the Factory. Both Levine and Warhol arrived at Slipcover and Silver Clouds, respectively, via painting, rather than sculpture. For Warhol, the helium-filled floating “pillows” were conceived as of as a means of “finishing off painting”—freeing painting from the space of the wall. Entirely in line with Levine’s notion of “disposable art,” Warhol saw his Silver Clouds as ultimately throwaway—to be “fill[ed] with helium and let out of your windows.” For Levine, Slipcover grew from the artist’s dissatisfaction with painting as bound to perspective and illusionistic space. By positing on space rather than object or plane, Levine sought to temporarily reframe the audience’s encounter with and experience of what a gallery could be.
Atmosfields (1970) by Graham Stevens, St Katherine’s Docks, London
Levine’s choice of materials and his emphasis on the architectural, share much in common with the sculptures and experimental architecture of British artist Graham Stevens (b. 1944). Throughout the mid 1960s and early 1970s, Stevens created a number of large-scale pneumatic sculptures, using inflated polythene forms. Inspired by the kinetic experimentations of artists exhibited at London’s Signals Gallery (1964–66) and collaborative practices such as Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV, 1960–68), Stevens employed inflatable plastics to propose new forms of “total architecture” and means of transport. His projects Walking on Water(1966), Atmosfields (1970), and Wavetube (1971) offered participatory spaces that questioned not only the possibility of what architecture could be, but also how it can exploit natural atmospheric resources, such as the sun, wind, and water. These concerns reached their height in Stevens’s mid-1970s work Desert Cloud (1974), a hovering, reflective structure that harnessed solar power and captured water.
Les Levine with Slipcover, Walker Art Center, 1967. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives
Projected directly onto Slipcover were installation views of exhibitions held in the surrounding gallery space, offering those familiar with the Walker’s program a reminder and of what had recently been on view. By layering images of the recent past, Levine sought to give the viewer a “new version of the room and all that space along with the memory of what it had been, [so that] the room became information about itself.” In doing so, Levine points to the economy of the museum space—the comings and goings of works, and the inherently transient nature of the exhibition format. A year following Levine’s exhibition at the Walker, Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924–76) began the project Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles [Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles], an itinerant conceptual museum that operated between 1968 and 1972. A forerunner in the history of institutional critique, Broodthaers’s sprawling project brought together the usual museum furnishings and didactic materials (announcement cards, labels, etc.) with empty shipping crates (each labelled “picture” or “keep dry”) and reproductions of artworks shown as postcards or projected images. While Levine imprinted imagery of the Walker’s recent past onto itself as a mnemonic means, Broodthaers staged the museological site to question how it produces aesthetic experience and creates meaning. With no actual permanent site or collection, Broodthaers’s museum was his self-proclaimed fiction, a vehicle to unpick and study the methods of creating, collecting, and displaying artworks, and the means by which order and context are imposed upon them.
Brochure cover for Les Levine’s Slipcover, Art Gallery of Ontario, 1966
Levine’s nod towards the Walker’s institutional history dovetails with the approach taken by British artist Simon Starling (b. 1967) in Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts), an exhibition the artist curated at London’s Camden Arts Centre in 2010. Starling selected works from the past 50 years of exhibitions held at Camden and installed them in precisely the same places where they had once been seen before. Criss-crossing vastly different times in the institution’s history, Starling’s exhibition created a composite, layered collage of Camden’s past, highlighting the movements of each artwork, and the shifting contexts they are subjected to. Both Never the Same River and Levine’s use of projected installation views in Slipcover beg the question of how the museological space structures our experience and memories of artworks. Levine and Starling suggest that artworks never exist in their own isolated reality, but instead pick up the traces of where and in what dialogue they had been previously exhibited.
Les Levine in front of Primetime Star installed as part of Les Levine: Two Environments (1967), Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Walker Art Center Archives
Footnotes:  David Bourdon, “Plastic Man Meets Plastic Man,” New York, February 10, 1969, pp. 44–46 / Artforum
 Les Levine quoted in Rita Reif, “And the Walls Come Tumbling Dow,” New York Times, April 19, 1967
 Les Levine quoted in “Les Levine: the image breaker,” The Aspen Times, August 17, 1967, pp. 7C
 Levine exhibited an earlier iteration of Slipcover at the Art Gallery of Ontario (September 23–October 23, 1966). Here, in addition to projected images, the installation included closed circuit TVs that showed the audiences movement delayed by three seconds, as well as amplified sounds picked up by microphones in the gallery space. While it is possible to trace the use of projectors in the materials held in the Walker’s archives, it is uncertain whether Levine used TVs and sound within the installation of Slipcover at the Walker.
 Transcript of conversation between Les Levine and Dean Swanson held in Walker Art Center archives, pp. 1
 Allan Kaprow (1966) Assemblage, Environments, and Happenings. New York: Abrams, pp. 31
 Transcript of conversation between Les Levine and Dean Swanson held in Walker Art Center archives, pp. 4
 Transcript of conversation between Les Levine and Brydon Smith held in Walker Art Center archives
 Gianni Colombo, Spazio Elastico. Ambiente visuocine-estetico programmato (progetti: Milano 1964-67), typescript in the Archivio Gianni Colombo in Milan, published in C. Steinle, ed., Gianni Colombo. Ambienti (Graz: Neue Galerie, 2007), p. 50 quoted in Beccaria, M. The Body in the Net: Gianni Colombo’s Spazio elastico in Christov-Bakargiev, C. (ed.) (2009) Giannni Colombo. Castello di Rivoli / Skira
Neo-Concretist Manifesto, Rio de Janeiro, March 1959, signed by Amilcar de Castro, Ferreira Gullar, Franz Weissman, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Reynaldo Jardim, Theon Spanudis reproduced in Clark, L. and Bois, Y., “Nostalgia of the Body”, October, vol. 69, Summer, 1994. Italics in original, p. 93.
 Andy Warhol quoted in interview with Gretchen Berg, “Nothing to Lose,” Cahiers du Cinéma, May 1967, pp. 43
Since the mid-1970s, Ericka Beckman has experimented with film as a medium for expanding the possibilities of performance, often creating set pieces and rule-based actions specifically for the camera. Presenting the original film in conjunction with animated props, the installation You The Better (1983/2015) implicates the viewer as an active participant in the game. You The Better […]
Installation view of Ericka Beckman’s You The Better (1983/2015) in Less Than One at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman
Since the mid-1970s, Ericka Beckman has experimented with film as a medium for expanding the possibilities of performance, often creating set pieces and rule-based actions specifically for the camera. Presenting the original film in conjunction with animated props, the installation You The Better (1983/2015) implicates the viewer as an active participant in the game. You The Better is on view throughDecember 31in the Walker group exhibitionLess Than One. Here, we talk about the spirit of easy collaboration in New York of the 1970s and ’80s, how the original film resonates with today’s plugged-in audiences, and the analogy between games of chance and life.
Victoria Sung: There seems to have been a real spirit of collaboration—especially in the fields of experimental dance, film, and theater—in downtown New York during the late 1970s and ’80s. We can see this in your films, where Ashley Bickerton, Mike Kelley, and other artist-friends take part. How did you get started in film, and how did this collaborative spirit inform your work?
Ericka Beckman: I loved film because it recorded performance, and I used film as a very plastic element—much like a moving canvas—for performance work. I started first by using myself, and then I began to engage my friends, who all loved to perform. At the particular time this film was made, conditions in the economy and in the art world allowed for a lot of experimentation because there wasn’t a real active gallery scene until 1980/1981. Artists worked with what they could, and a lot of what they could work with was the city itself and themselves. Because everyone was doing performance work, or somehow engaged in it, it was very easy to collaborate and do workshop collaborations (i.e. not necessarily make work that’s finished or ready for an audience, but really just develop ideas).
Many artist-friends—like Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, and David Salle—based their early work in performance before shifting to object-making. And whether or not they were performers in their own works, they engaged pretty easily in the work that I was doing because we were all concerned with the available media at the time, especially the media that we grew up on—records, television shows, and commercials. We tossed around a lot of ideas, mixed what we saw on television with what music we were hearing, what we were reading, what we were watching in theaters. The period was really marked by a fluency among all of these mediums.
Sung: In 1983, when You The Better premiered at the New York Film Festival as a 16 mm film, it wasn’t picked up readily by the “art world.”
Beckman:You The Better was my first 16 mm film. I was trying at this time to build a larger audience for my work than just the few venues that were in downtown New York for screening, so I moved to 16 mm hoping that I would be able to engage a larger distribution structure.
This particular film was created after a long, introverted period in my life when I was beginning to investigate what is behind performance. What is the language of action? How do we learn as children to do things? How is our identity formed through action? I wanted to make something work without using narration or dialogue, and because I was using this theatrical, industrial medium of 16 mm film, I knew that I had to have some kind of hook. When I was making the Super-8 Trilogy that was based on Piaget’s work (my sort of incubation period), I made a film that involved Mike Kelley doing a series of team sports outdoors. I said, “This is it: gaming structure is going to replace narrative for me.”
Ericka Beckman, You The Better, Expanded Study No. 1. Courtesy the artist
When the film came out it was so off the path of what you expect to see in a theatrical film because of its non-narrative gaming structure. Though it circulated quite a bit, I wasn’t able to show it the way I wanted to show it; I showed it on screens in museums in conjunction with a lot of art shows, but there was a really strong divide—a barrier in fact—between film and visual art in the late ’80s.
Sung: It’s interesting to hear about this deep divide between the moving image and visual arts worlds, especially when thinking about the popular reception the so-called Pictures Generation was getting at the time. Though perhaps it’s not as straightforward as this, the language of appropriation, the pre-digital, the photographic also figures in your work. Given this context, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the somewhat delayed reception for You The Better and what it means to see the work being revisited with renewed energy over these last few years.
Beckman: That’s a good question. In the ’90s, when media switched over from analog to digital there was a change, a big sea change, and there were more and more things coming into the gallery that were time-based. I was pretty aware of it, but I wasn’t really thinking about my work re-entering the art world; I was off doing other films at that time. And then, around 2011, some curators came to my studio and sort of opened up a box of my work. It was pretty amazing that there was a younger audience that could totally engage with it. And I find it really rewarding because the conversations that I’ve had with young curators have been the kind of dialogue that I’ve been missing and wanting for so many years.
Sung: We can see today that you were ahead of the curve in terms of engaging such concepts as digital avatars, virtual reality, cybernetics, video gaming—all of which has become so prevalent in today’s networked society. As you’ve hinted above, this may be a reason why audiences are so much more able and ready to engage with this type of work now.
Beckman: Right. When I made this film it was a faux-interactive game, and the idea of interactivity was sort of coming into being, but there wasn’t really anything out there except for arcade games, which I studied a lot, and casinos. You The Better was going to set up what maybe an interactive computer game or an interactive betting game could be. I started with these very simple games of chance. What is chance? Why are there so many games that are fascinated with chance? And it soon became clear to me that the gambling aspect was the fundamental structure for the uber game I was constructing, because I could use the audience as the bettor here. The audience is able to think about why the bets are being laid down, and to engage with what the players are doing. These ideas are cultural: with all of the activity going on today in terms of digital gaming, and the fact that kids now grow up learning the behaviors of other people by playing games, we understand these kinds of games even though many of us don’t go out and gamble.
Ericka Beckman, You The Better, Expanded Study No. 2. Courtesy the artist
While I was doing research for the film, I went to a live casino in the desert in southern California, and inside was a jai-alai game being played by Mexicans and bet on by predominantly white men. There was a big distance between the betting area and the playing area. The betting area was high, like in a mezzanine, and then the pit was the game play. The game play was very rough, and there was a net protecting the bettors from the players. I kept thinking about that kind of use of human value. That informed this idea of the big separation between the off-camera bettor (the audience) and the players; as a result, the audience is not fully able to empathize with the players and the players are arguing with the audience, but they don’t know that it’s not the audience, it’s really the house that they’re fighting against.
Sung: In thinking about the game as structuring device, and the various game piece-like motifs and “blue-collar” uniforms adapted for the film, I’m wondering if you can speak to the larger, social implications of You The Better.
Beckman: Most of the players are boys or young men. That was a conscious decision: much of my work from this particular period created a cast of characters that you saw more and more of in culture, such as the highly active and productive achiever. Again, it’s 1983. I wanted to get at the underbelly of the myths that were out there to promote capitalism. And I found that the casino is a perfect example of it, because you have people going in with this false hope that they can win at something that is either purely chance or rigged. So this optimism for economic gain was a myth that I really wanted to debunk. But I didn’t want to go at it didactically and do something really direct with it; I wanted to create a kind of situation where you could experience what the players are going through.
Ericka Beckman, You The Better, Expanded Study No. 3. Courtesy the artist
Sung: The Walker’s presentation of You The Better shows the film as part of a larger installation with props based on those from the original film. It’d be interesting to hear you talk about the different modes of presentation—16 mm film versus installation—and if and how this changes the work today.
Beckman: Most of the work was shot in a black studio—it was produced in my studio in New York City, a basketball court of P.S. 1, and a swimming pool at Media Study/Buffalo. What that allowed me to do was to have a field that’s off screen that can merge with what’s on screen. I wasn’t thinking about film as cuts, but as a framing device in a larger context, in a larger space. Something is captured here, but there’s all this other stuff going on around it. And I conceived of the world that way—this big game world. So when it came time to do this particular installation, I flipped through all of my drawings from the time to figure out what game boards I wanted to use, what kind of structures I wanted to put in the room with the film. The house shape is the predominant motif, and it keeps on changing from being a target to a scoreboard to representing an actual house. It also brings in the Monopoly element—that we’re occupying some structure here that is motivated by capitalism.
Installation view of You the Better in Less Than One at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman
I’ve been revisiting a number of my films because the work was always conceived that way; I kept a lot of my props in storage because I wanted at some point to do an install with the film. It’s not until now with digital projection, where you can synchronize lighting and other cues to the film itself, that it’s possible to do this kind of work. It’s definitely shaping my ideas for future work. I’m becoming less and less interested in working on a screen per se, like one screen, but instead am looking to work with multiple screens and multiple objects and lighting cues.
Below, a selection of Beckman’s drawings for You The Better :
Ericka Beckman, Playing Field and Spin, Study No. 1. All drawings courtesy the artist
Ericka Beckman, Playing Field and Spin, Study No. 2
Ericka Beckman, Study for Power of the Spin
Ericka Beckman, Study for Center of the Spin
Ericka Beckman, Study for You The Better, Slateman
Ericka Beckman, Study for You The Better, Wheels and Gold
Ericka Beckman, Gameplay, Study No. 2
Ericka Beckman, Gameplay, Study No. 3
 Beckman’s Piaget trilogy—We Imitate; We Break Up (1978), The Broken Rule (1979), and Out of Hand (1980)—applies Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s developmental theories of learning to game playing, exploring such ideas as how team sports use movement rather than language as a means of communication.
In advance of Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World (June 22–October 8, 2017) coordinating curator Vincenzo de Bellis looks at a work from the Walker collection that’ll play a central role in the exhibition, the artist’s first US retrospective. Jimmie Durham‘s approach to art is marked by a depth of concept and a practice that takes […]
Jimmie Durham, Sound Work, 2011. Collection Walker Art Center
In advance of Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World (June 22–October 8, 2017) coordinating curator Vincenzo de Bellis looks at a work from the Walker collection that’ll play a central role in the exhibition, the artist’s first US retrospective.
Jimmie Durham‘s approach to art is marked by a depth of concept and a practice that takes many different forms, all of which revolve around demolishing our shared imaginary and building an alternative standard of the “normal.” The American artist has become known for disorienting operations that prompt viewers to rethink their possible frameworks of interpretation. The open-ended, shifting language he presents seems to suggest that the structure and order of the world, as we are accustomed to seeing it, may not be definitive. His work highlights art’s potential of making us look at the world from different angles, tearing down the barriers between nature and culture, between visual and scientific thinking. This sets in motion a process whereby a constantly evolving personal syntax is used to build an oeuvre with media that range from drawing, to architectural models, to readymades, to video, to sound installations. Let us stop to consider sound.
Jimmie Durham, Stones Rejected by the Builder (2004), Fondazione Ratti, Como, Italy
When I first met Jimmie Durham more than 10 years ago, it was a striking, unnerving, and almost disturbing experience. A long-haired and stern-looking man (he only seemed stern, which I would find out much later), Durham was supposed to deliver a lecture to a class of artists, participating in an intensive summer school course. Before saying anything, Durham placed a rock on the table and then played a video of himself stoning—literally throwing stones at—a refrigerator. In Durham’s hands, the simple violent act of throwing a stone became a conceptual gesture. When the video was over Durham began to speak, with one of his phrases making a deep impression on me: “Listen, always listen; don’t talk, but listen.” Durham has repeatedly returned to this exact advice—offered to his students in 2005, in response to Hans Ulrich Obrist’s questions at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and again most recently as part of a conference coinciding with Jimmie Durham: Sound and Silliness, his exhibition at MAXXI in Rome.
Installation view of Jimmie Durham’s A Proposal for a New International Genuflexion in Promotion of World Peace (2007), MAXXI Museum, Rome, Italy
“Listen, always listen; don’t talk, but listen.” It sums up much of Durham’s practice and much of what an artwork means to him: something to be seen, of course, because sculpture and form are still central aspects of his practice, but also something to be heard. Listened to, if possible, without talking over. The importance of sound in Durham’s artistic practice is apparent in many of his works, but can also be seen from the recurrent references to sound or songs in his titles.
His 2012 retrospective at M KHA in Antwerp was titledA Matter of Life and Death and Singing, and that same exhibition included his Sound Work (2011), held in the Walker Art Center permanent collection. A grouping of eight sculptural elements, each juxtaposes materials, such as clothing, plastic tubes, and wood, to a generally anthropomorphic effect. Each form retains independent status, even though each was conceived in relation to another, to form a single work. All of the eight elements produce a different sound, ranging from white noise and ambient sounds captured by the artist to the voice of Durham himself talking, singing, swearing and shouting: “All the sculptures have sounds made by me: singing, screaming ‘fuck you,’ saying ‘get away from here,’ and so on. The Russian Army greatcoat that has one arm up has the sound of static; slightly menacing, cosmic. Sometimes the sound is mechanical, like things rattling in a box.”
Sound Work was first shown in 2007 (although it didn’t receive its current title until 2011), as part of Durham’s solo show Metaphase und Metathesis at St. Elisabeth-Kirche in Berlin. On this occasion, Durham brought together more than eight components that were placed at some distance from each other, emphasizing the individual value of each element. Later, as is often the case in Durham’s practice, the parts were repeated in different contexts like a constant mise-en-abyme, adapting to the specifics of each place. At M KHA, Sound Work was condensed, and its eight sculptural components, without following any rigid formal or compositional framework, came together as a single whole, like a group of strange friends chatting with each other, or a band playing music.
Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori, as seen in Milan some time between 1913 and 1914
Sound is in fact made of noises, as set forward by the great Futurist artist Luigi Russolo (1885–1947), likely the first contemporary theorist of sound as a form of visual art. In relation to his Intonarumori of 1913, a group of experimental musical instruments, Russolo said that as a whole, noises—he spoke of roars, thunderings, blasts, and noises obtained by pounding on different kinds of metal, wood, hide, stone, pottery, etc.—would produce harmony and sound. Like Russolo’s, Jimmie Durham’s noises are ordinary and “silly,” without any specific apparent meaning. Yet, Durham harnesses silliness in the service of addressing the serious, as a means to inspire a light-hearted courage that helps us confront the big issues of life. It is a sort of invitation to not take ourselves too seriously, even while turning a keen eye on the human condition.
Installation view of Unpacking the Box. All photos: Gene Pittman Unpacking the Box is the first installation in the new Best Buy Aperture, where changing displays will highlight materials from the Walker’s collections, archives, and library. Here, Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung discuss the inaugural conceptualization of the space. Let’s start by unpacking what we […]
Installation view of Unpacking the Box. All photos: Gene Pittman
Unpacking the Box is the first installation in the new Best Buy Aperture, where changing displays will highlight materials from the Walker’s collections, archives, and library. Here, Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung discuss the inaugural conceptualization of the space.
Let’s start by unpacking what we mean by the title Unpacking the Box. We are referring to, of course, the literal box (you’ll see that all of the objects on view take the form of a box or box-like container, whether that be a suitcase, a cabinet, or a backpack) but also the metaphorical box, meaning the museum as white cube or box. These objects throw into question the distinction between an artwork and its immediate frame, or container, and by extension, between the art object and the museum that houses it. The container is complicit, even critical to our understanding of the artwork; in fact, it is the artwork.
This type of so-called “institutional critique” has a relatively long history within the history of art. Perhaps the best place to begin would be Marcel Duchamp’sBoîte-en-valise (Box in a Valise), the first edition of which was created between 1935 and 1941. A suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks (rendered at precisely 33 percent of their original size), the Boîte questioned the status of the unique work of art. What did it mean for an artist to reproduce at miniature scale objects from his own oeuvre? Are these “multiples” diminished as works of art? In reproducing and disseminating his artworks, Duchamp challenged not only the unique work of art but also the authority of the institutions that displayed them. Here, one could have a portable exhibition of one’s own outside of the museum apparatus.
Installation view of Unpacking the Box
The Boîte en valise has been reproduced several times, thus embodying the spirit of the facsimile. The Walker’s red Boîte is from Series F, produced in Paris in 1966 in an edition of 75. It includes several intentional changes from the first production, including 12 additional reproductions. Most recently, the publisher Walther König produced a new, posthumous facsimile, edited by Mathieu Mercier under the supervision of Association Marcel Duchamp. It uses contemporary digital printing and production technologies to allow for a larger edition at a modest price. This new edition, released in 2015, makes it possible for the Boîte to be viewed, reimagined, and even purchased outside of the museum and gallery system, honoring Duchamp’s original democratic desire.
The intentional variations between the two Boîtes is one that we tried to highlight by placing them side by side. In addition to the obvious differences in color, material, and scale, there are more subtle changes that speak to Duchamp’s playful and irreverent sense of humor. If you look at the backsides of two of the elements on view, for example, you’ll see that the 2015 Boîte presents a two-dimensional trompe-l’oeil approximation of the three-dimensional wooden armature of the earlier Boîte. In other words, the structural function of this detail has been rendered purely decorative. Moreover, the proximity between the two editions and their linear sequencing mimics an assembly line of sorts, perhaps intimating the seriality of their production.
Many of the objects on view were acquired by the Walker in 1989, establishing one of the most comprehensive Fluxus collections in the United States, and were subsequently displayed in the Walker’s 1993 exhibition In the Spirit of Fluxus, curated by Elizabeth Armstrong and Joan Rothfuss.Although similar in packaging, each multiple is distinctive in terms of idea, the items they contain, and how artists intended audience interaction. These editions were performative, acting as “scores” or instructions, for exercises of the body and mind.
Installation view of Unpacking the Box
While many of these Fluxus multiples were meant to be physically unpacked, poked, prodded, flipped, and folded, they—like Duchamp’s Boîte—have become fragile over time. Fluxus multiples posited play as practice and audience participation as fundamental to the full realization of the work, but these boxes now exist behind glass in a state of suspended animation. Unpacking the Box attempts to activate these works by prompting passersby to imagine new modes of interaction. Boxes and kits are propped open, the door to a cabinet is left slightly ajar, contents spill out of a backpack in a manner of what might be called orderly chaos. We’ve started the process of unpacking and leave it to you to use your imagination to unpack, arrange, and rearrange the objects on view.
“Heavy metal demands precision, while punk rock can be suspicious of it,” writes Jeff Severns Guntzel of the challenge Yousif Del Valle faced in learning the entirety of Grant Hart’s drum track for Hüsker Dü’s debut 1981 album. “Metal is cerebral; punk is all heart. Metal is Formula One racing; punk is a demolition derby.” In anticipation of […]
At an April 14, 2016 recording session at the 7th Street Entry, Yousif Del Valle plays the drum track for Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record. Photo: Gene Pittman
“Heavy metal demands precision, while punk rock can be suspicious of it,” writes Jeff Severns Guntzel of the challenge Yousif Del Valle faced in learning the entirety of Grant Hart’s drum track for Hüsker Dü’s debut 1981 album. “Metal is cerebral; punk is all heart. Metal is Formula One racing; punk is a demolition derby.” In anticipation of Del Valle’s September 29 in-gallery performance and the release of the limited-edition Chris Larson: Land Speed Record LP that features his drumming, Severns Guntzel looked at the Hate Beast drummer’s process—from computer-visualized sound waves to practice, practice, practice.
Sometimes an artist is as much a subcontractor as anything else—when the work requires some other person to do a thing. That thing might be a part of the art that nobody sees, or it might be the art itself.
For sculpture and video artist Chris Larson, that person-to-do-a-thing is occasionally Yousif Del Valle, a former grad student of his at the University of Minnesota.
Mostly, Del Valle has been called on for his welding skills—infrastructure work for an artist who creates pieces that fill large spaces; sedan-sized, even house-sized creations.
Specifically, he needed Del Valle to learn an album: the 26 minutes and 36 seconds—he had to play it precisely to time—of the first album by Twin Cities punk rock trio Hüsker Dü. That album, from which Larson’s project takes its name, is the recording of a 1981 live show at Minneapolis’ 7th Street Entry (a dungeon of a room barnacled on to the better known, and better ventilated First Avenue).
After learning the part, Larson needed Del Valle to perform it on stage at the 7th Street Entry, where he would be alone in the room except for a recording engineer, Larson himself, a few Walker staff, and Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart.
The recording, now complete and just released on clear vinyl along with the exhibition catalogue, is the gallery soundtrack for Larson’s video piece: a slow pan over and around an assemblage of Hart’s belongings salvaged from a house fire.
Hart is one of those early punk rock characters chased by words like “legend” and “pioneer.” Hüsker Dü is one of America’s punk rock pantheon bands. In the Twin Cities and beyond, there are disciples of this man and that band.
Yousif Del Valle, 30-years-old and reared on heavy metal, is not one of them. And that’s what makes this subsucontractor story so enchanting.
Del Valle with Chris Larson, his former art professor, at the 7th Street Entry. Photo: Gene Pittman
The El Paso–born sculpture artist was not even El Paso–born when Land Speed Record was recorded. In his entire life as a music fanatic, he has never voluntarily listened to a punk rock album. In a nearly two-hour interview at the practice space of his heavy metal band, Hate Beast, there was no reference to punk rock beyond Hüsker Dü (unless you count the band down the hall rehearsing a cover of Bad Brains’ “Re-Ignition”).
I am going to speak to you now as a retired heavy metal-turned-punk rock drummer—as somebody who has worshiped in both warring temples: You have to understand that asking a heavy metal drummer to learn Land Speed Record is musician comedy. Del Valle is the kind of metal drummer who can tell you how fast he can play his two bass drums (“My max is 280 beats per minute, and that’s maybe for 15 seconds.”). With songs as raw and chaotic as Hüsker Dü’s, it’s like bringing a surgeon to a knife fight.
At least it would be comedy, except that Larson conceived of and managed the project with a reverence that soaks every part of the project, and Del Valle took to the challenge earnestly and with military-like discipline. The end result is not funny at all, it’s perfection.
Playing the punk
Heavy metal demands precision, while punk rock can be suspicious of it. Metal is cerebral; punk is all heart. Metal is Formula One racing; punk is a demolition derby.
The laws of physics, at least the ones that apply to punk rock, should have rendered Del Valle inert in the face of the Land Speed Record challenge.
Instead, he learned every smack and thwack of that record—close-listening and playing it through hundreds of times. And in his performance of the piece he managed to telegraph the angst and abandon of the original—and precisely to time.
One of the wonders of art is how it can make rigorous processes invisible. Del Valle has done that here. And oh, the rigor.
It started slow, and probably with furrowed brow. In fact, the first step was just hearing the drums. Land Speed Record is less a collection of songs than it is a soundscape. That’s the word Hart himself used in an interview with the Walker. “The individual songs and the individual rhythms,” he said, “are just simply that, just different ripples from a different wind.”
In practical terms, that means that sometimes you can’t really hear the snare drum. Other times, you can’t really hear the bass drum. At all times, there is a wash of cymbals, as if Hart had subcontractors of his own with sticks constantly striking the cymbals creating a sort of wave that carries and simultaneously washes over everything else, from the first note to the last.
The audio file of Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record. Image courtesy Yousif Del Valle
“Like my first contract kill”
So how do you teach yourself a soundscape?
First, you come to terms with it.
“It’s a really abrasive record. It’s like angry, aggressive kids. It’s not something that you want to listen to constantly,” Del Valle said. “Listening really became a discipline. I’m getting in my car, and I have to listen to this. I want to listen to something else. I want to listen to the news; I want to listen to anything else but this. But I have to listen to this. I’m going to the grocery store, I’m going to listen to this. I’m going to work, I’m going to listen to this. It just didn’t emotionally capture me. It was sort of like my first contract kill or something. I agreed to this project willingly, but it was hard because I didn’t have that emotional connection, whereas now I do—I absolutely do.”
The next step for learning an “angry, aggressive” soundscape? Computers.
Del Valle opened the album in audio editing software on his computer. That allowed him to see the sound. He’d get cues from the rise and fall of the sound waves now visualized before him, and he’d annotate the waves. “I had written notes on the peaks of the waves,” he explained. “So I had sort of a cheat sheet for spots I was having trouble with.”
Having grasped the contours of the piece, he had to get the details. That meant deciphering the drum fills—rather, it meant excavating the drum fills from wall of sound. “It was trying to listen through that noise. That’s what became exhausting.”
In at least one case, listening wasn’t enough.
“There’s a particular spot,” Del Valle explained. “Grant starts doing this one-two-three-four with his bass drum, and then you just hear a couple of tom hits, then a roll, and then the song starts again. In my head, I was like, ‘He dropped one of his sticks,’ because that’s a really weird fill to do.” Ultimately it was a YouTube clip of Husker Du in 1981 that cleared it up: it was a fill, not a flub.
A multimedia installation, the video at the center of Chris Larson:Land Speed Record (2016) slowly pans over Grant Hart’s possessions retrieved from a house fire, set to a soundtrack of Del Valle’s drumming. Photo courtesy the artist
Del Valle’s affect is kind and earnest, but he admits that he signed on for this project with a bit of hubris. There may be punk rock drummers who would balk at keeping up with Hart’s velocity, but velocity was a non-issue for Del Valle. And, in theory at least, the length of the piece he had to memorize was a non-issue, too.
“I’ve learned 40-minute death metal epic songs that I love,” Del Valle said, “and I know them. It doesn’t take me that long.”
But this was different. “It took me longer to learn this, just because there’s so much information crammed into those 26-and-a-half minutes. I came into it arrogantly, not because I think I’m great, but because it’s punk. I was just like, ‘There’s nothing challenging about punk. It’s just like, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2.’ But there are not a lot of repeating patterns, and that’s what makes it hard. You get into a groove and you’re like, ‘Okay, I get the pattern that he’s doing,’ and the song’s over. A minute-and-a-half. Next song. And now it’s a whole new pattern. I started really appreciating that Grant had something unique, even that young. So yeah, it certainly shut me up.”
The thing that gets lost in all this technical stuff is the same thing that has this project walking a line between tribute and trifle: The music Hüsker Dü was making in 1981 was not meant to be picked apart like this. It certainly wasn’t meant for the kind of close-listening Del Valle had to do. Land Speed Record is pure life force, performed by kids whose mindset, as Hart described it, was that “the outcome of the rest of our life is dependent upon this set that we’re going to play now.”
That mindset was not immediately obvious to Del Valle, but through this work of intensive audio exegesis, it eventually came through. “To kids back then, I can’t imagine what that must have sounded like. It’s just them going for it. They don’t give a shit about anything. They’re just there to do their thing, and I really respect that.”
The 16 artists in Less Than One each enact a self that functions as a dynamic ecosystem rather than a unitary form. While it has become almost common contemporary practice to disavow artistic selfhood, often this is enacted either at the level of the individual artwork or through the exhibition. Contemporary art is full of […]
Installation view Less Than One. Photo: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center.
The 16 artists in Less Than One each enact a self that functions as a dynamic ecosystem rather than a unitary form. While it has become almost common contemporary practice to disavow artistic selfhood, often this is enacted either at the level of the individual artwork or through the exhibition. Contemporary art is full of forms of disruption against the suturing gesture of the solo exhibition or its related practice of the retrospective. While many of the artists in the exhibition disrupt these historic forms, they also frequently investigate the wider set of practices that serve to buttress the sense of a whole, complete artistic self. These sets of related, often interpretive practices include—to name a few—artist talks, interviews, and artist writings. They are often seen as peripheral to an artist’s practice, but are fundamental to understanding several of the artists in Less Than One. For the artists in the exhibition, it is frequently through this set of interpretive practices, more particularly this hermeneutics of the self, which is fundamentally called into question. At issue is the artists’ responses when they are asked to perform a self—that is, how they relate to those terms of engagement—and how openly they risk the possibility of being incomprehensible in that engagement.(more…)