Steven L. Bridges’ catalog essay for Feeling Is Mutual at Chicago Artists Coalition invokes a quote by Marcel Duchamp as a mission statement for this exhibition of performance and relational art works. Duchamp’s quote reads, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” Artists Jake Myers, Latham Zearfoss, and collaborators Katy Albert and Sophia Hamilton (a performance duo also known as Mothergirl), each in their own way invite audience members to participate in the creative zones they have constructed, in both a psychological and a real physical sense.
The artists were brought together by CAC’s HATCH Projects, a residency program for artists and curators that appears to be a useful incubator for collaboration. Each zone has a polished aesthetic and is imbued with a sense of potential energy waiting for release.
Just in time for the Winter Olympics, Jake Myers assembles the necessary elements for a game-room curling match. The work, titled Stone Throw (2013), includes a long, slick game mat with targets on both ends, brooms, matching flannel-pajama uniforms, and stones made of Frisbees, spray filler, and handles. On the nearby wall, two monitors show stones gliding toward the floor targets. The word “Triumph!” is spelled out in flannel cloth.
As is often the case with relational art, Stone Throw is long on accessibility and short on meaning. The attempt to cut through all the schmancy art stuff and create a fun, relatable experience does little more than imitate non-art experiences that non-artists can do better. Hurling heavy objects down a slick surface toward distant targets is way more fun at a bowling alley. Plus, there’s beer! Myers’ game might be great at a backyard barbeque capable of facilitating the kind of interactions and pleasure that it is meant to foster, without the burden of academic questions of aesthetic merit that are an inevitable part of art shows. What is added—either for DIY curling or for art—by contextualizing the game within a gallery? Blunt relational pieces straining for a likeability factor are only necessary if you assume that more mysterious works deny the audience/viewer an opportunity to actively engage.
Latham Zearfoss’s Court of Public Apology [#1] (2014) also draws our eye to the world beyond the gallery. Rough-sawed logs are arranged to create a makeshift gathering place within a curtain of Plexiglas panels. Participants are invited to sit in the direction of a wall-length window and look out toward the mundane theater of life happening on Carpenter Street. The light of the window intermingles with the gray, violet, and black plexi, shading the space with moody color. At first I thought Zearfoss’s informal hangout was meant to quote Andrea Zittel, until a sudden, startlingly deep bass rattle ruptured the tranquility of the experience. The intermittent thudding pulsed from a damaged-sounding subwoofer below the window. Exhibition literature explains that Zearfoss’s piece is inspired by the court system installed after the Rwanda genocide, through which citizens were offered the opportunity to publicly apologize for individual acts of violence. The bass sound is somehow distilled from audio of recorded apologies.
Sitting on one of the wooden stumps looking out at Chicago in winter, I felt no connection to any of the crimes or attempts at reconciliation associated with the atrocities in Rwanda. Not that art has to necessarily reflect the original intentions of its author, but how important is this connection if it is not at all discernible from what has actually been presented? If anything, the excess baggage of attaching the complex politics of genocide to the art detracts from what was an otherwise pleasurable and poetic experience.
In a space separated from the rest of the gallery by tall planters, Albert and Hamilton have arranged pairs of common items into a substitute home, which the artists invite viewers to engage with. The dumbbells, pillows, knitting sets, bowls, alarm clocks, and a variety of detritus all suggest a kind of domestic setup within the gallery. The performative aspect of their piece, titled If You See Two of Something, Buy It, occurred earlier in the show’s run (unfortunately, I missed it), but echoes of that performance still lingered in the assembled objects. For instance, one of the alarm clocks was on the floor, broken. Melted candles on a double sink also allude to activity constrained by time. The objects all refer to the repetition within everyday rituals: exercise, washing, getting up on time. Body stockings with the phrase “Thanks for the great advice” are hung on the wall, and a small, stage-like platform points to the performative nature of everyday identity. The planters in particular, stuffed with houseplants and pungent with the smell of mulch, reinforce the cyclical nature of life, death, and rejuvenation. Mothergirl clearly has something to talk about.
In any work of art, the space between art and audience is a real distance, one that both artist and audience must be willing to bridge. In the case of relational art, visitors are invited (or asked) to participate physically and psychologically, both formally and conceptually, and that has real risk for the ultimate success of a piece. Unfortunately, too much of the work at CAC underperforms in one direction or the other.
Feeling Is Mutual is on display at Chicago Artists Coalition in Chicago through February 27, 2014.