Vito Acconci’s career-long exploration of the self has been articulated through poetry, photography, Performance, film, video, installation, and architecture. What began as an investigation of the artist’s own body in space—how it interacts with a given environment and how, in turn, that location affects it—has evolved into the construction of space itself. This trajectory is inscribed from the private, photographic recording of the body in a designated site to his more recent creation of sites for public engagement. The relationship of the private to the public—and how the self participates in the surrounding world—has been a constant theme in Acconci’s art.
In 1969, already a published poet, Acconci made his first visual artworks, moving from the static domain of the printed page to the dynamic space of the empirical world. Combining photographs with texts, the artist documented task-oriented activities—jumping, stretching, bending, etc.—that he performed specifically for the lens. In Grasp, Acconci acknowledges the archival capabilities of photography—“camera as grasp, photo as storage”—but foregrounds the performative act of picture taking, of physically seizing an image. This project announces the dialogue between camera and body that is essential to Acconci’s subsequent work, particularly in the series of videos and Super-8 films made between 1969 and 1974 in which he obsessively contemplates his own body as a (gendered) site. These privately filmed performances (which are also documented in photo/text panels) involve a level of corporeal manipulation that borders on masochism—Acconci is shown plucking hairs from around his navel, throwing soapy water into his eyes, and cramming his fist in his mouth. In Conversions II, the second in a trilogy of films interrogating the rigidity of gender binarism, the artist attempts to feminize his unquestionably male body by hiding his genitals between his legs. By casting his own masculinity into question, by performing its absence, Acconci problematizes the dictum that the male (or female) subject is a coherent being.
Acconci’s recent TELE-FURNI-SYSTEM, an installation designed for watching video (his own and those of other artists), invites each visitor to interact with the environment by choosing his or her own viewing positions from a menu of different architectural options. Each monitor serves as a separate video channel and a building block in the network of stairs, benches, and lounges that constitute the piece. Here it is the viewer who activates the space by physically engaging with it and contemplating the panoply of moving images on display.
In Gregory Crewdson‘s photographs, suburban America is besieged by inexplicable, uncanny occurrences. His elaborately staged panoramas often elicit comparisons to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Steven Spielberg. Although he eschews the clarity of narrative film, Crewdson engages with his material as a director might, going to great lengths to construct fictional realms, recently employing a crew of up to thirty-five to help realize his cinematic visions.
In Crewdson’s work, meaning is kept just out of reach, where it lurks like a repressed trauma. His early Natural Wonder series (1992–97) focused on wildlife—birds, worms, and insects—forced to the edges of suburbia. These scenes take on the air of mysterious rituals. In one photograph, several birds have created a circular clearing in the grass and lined it with their speckled eggs, over which they stand guard. In another image, dozens of butterflies converge in a frenzied mass, smothering whatever lies beneath them. These ambiguous activities go entirely unnoticed by people, although a human presence is often suggested in the photographs by placid houses in the background. In his series Hover (1996–97), Crewdson turns to the human realm and explores its darker aspects. Abandoning the close-up views of Natural Wonder for higher, more expansive camera angles, these black-and-white photographs offer glimpses into private backyard sanctums in which disturbing acts occur: a man kneels over a woman who has collapsed and is inexplicably bound by festive balloons; elsewhere, a man obsessively mows his lawn in ever-larger concentric circles.
Crewdson’s most recent series, Twilight (1998–2002), returns to those uncanny suburban motifs, staging them in a more elaborate manner. These dark-toned images are illuminated by shafts of light, as if from some outside force making contact with the inhabitants of the pictured world. In Untitled (pregnant woman/pool) (1999), a woman stands in a small inflatable swimming pool as celestial beams of light shine prophetically on her pregnant belly. The characters often seem lost in internal reverie, like the family members at dinner confronted by their naked mother coming in from the garden. They share physical space but are emotionally lost to one another. The Twilight photographs are self-consciously staged, yet the sense of drama and mystery permeating the scenes compels viewers to overlook this artifice. Like all the artist’s work, these images suggest that at the heart of the American dream of property and privacy, emerging where least expected, darkness lurks.
Privileging neither photography nor sculpture, Rachel Harrison (b. 1966, New York) makes work that permits formal diversity without material rivalry. It is never one medium against the other in her installations—stagings is perhaps a better word—but rather, objects and images coexisting. It can be a peculiar coexistence though. In one piece from 1996, old black-and-white photographs of celebrities (such as Johnny Carson) were affixed to a yellow papier-mâché form resembling a giant lemon balanced between three vertical poles. A recent installation, Perth Amboy (2001), consisted of a labyrinth-like structure made out of sheets of ordinary corrugated cardboard. Upon entering, viewers encountered things like a wheelchair-bound, Barbie-like doll named Becky, random canned goods, various reproductions of artworks, and a series of framed color photographs of the front of a house in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, like the one shown here. The images refer to an actual incident that happened in 2000: an image of the Virgin Mary appeared on the glass of a window of the home, drawing miracle-seekers and the faithful, who stretched out hands and arms to touch the vision, as if just looking was simply not enough.
Robert Mapplethorpe arrived in New York in the 1970s amid two simultaneous but disparate events: the rise of the market for photography as a fine art, and the explosion of punk and gay cultures. Originally trained in painting and sculpture, Mapplethorpe gravitated toward photography, first making erotic collages in 1969&#*211;70 with images cut from magazines, then creating his own images using a Polaroid camera. Within a few years he was exhibiting erotic male and female nudes, still lifes of flowers, and celebrity portraits, all made with a large-format camera. By the late 1970s his work had developed into a style that was at once classical and stylish yet retained the explicit homoerotic themes for which the artist is perhaps best known. Mapplethorpe’s subject matter made his work a lightning rod for the contentious debates on public funding for the visual arts during the 1980s that would ultimately decimate the federal government’s support for artists. However, this legacy of controversy tends to overshadow Mapplethorpe’s aesthetic impact.
Although he occasionally worked with color, Mapplethorpe remained devoted to the minimal elegance of black-and-white photography, using the medium in part as an agent to explore certain paradoxes and binary relationships. In many of his works, for example, the distinction between male and female is problematized: in Ken and Tyler the male assumes the more traditionally femininized role of the nude, while Calla Lily takes an object used as a cipher of femininity and redeploys it as a male organ. The black male nude is often juxtaposed with an emphatically white object—a shroud, marble statuary, flowers, or, in the case of Ken and Tyler, another nude male.
Mapplethorpe’s sustained investigation of black-and-white photography may seem nostalgic next to the preference for color demonstrated by most artists working with photography in the 1980s. But his restricted palette, which recalls that of the modern masters whose work he emulated (especially George Platt Lynes), proved most effective at conveying the poetic and often melancholic quality of his subjects. At the height of his career, Mapplethorpe was stricken with AIDS. In contrast to earlier self-portraits in which Mapplethorpe assumed various personae such as rocker, leather fetishist, cross-dresser, fashion plate, and so on, Self-Portrait, taken about a year before his death, has a more somber mood. The photograph serves as a haunting document of the artist’s transitory existence.
GORDON MATTA CLARK
Like his father, the Surrealist painter Roberto Sebastian Matta Echaurren, Gordon Matta-Clark studied to be an architect. While it never became his profession, architecture—with its inextricable relationship to private and public space, urban development and decay–became his medium and subject matter. Using a practice that fused Conceptual art’s critique of cultural institutionalization, Earth art’s direct involvement with the environment, and Performance art’s engagement with sheer physicality, Matta-Clark literally sliced into abandoned buildings to create dizzying, Piranesian spaces sculpted from voids and fissures. By destructuring existing sites, he sought to reveal the tyranny of urban enclosure. The economic implications of private property are at play in Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates, which incorporate deeds to microplots of land—slivers of curbsides, and alleyways in Queens—that the artist bought at auction for 25 dollars a piece and combined with maps and montaged images of each site. Fascinated by the idea of untenable but ownable space, Matta-Clark purchased these residual parcels to comment on the arbitrariness of property demarcation.
Conical Intersect, Matta-Clark’s contribution to the Paris Biennale of 1975, manifested his critique of urban gentrification in the form of a radical incision through two adjacent 17th-century buildings designated for demolition near the much-contested Centre Georges Pompidou, which was then under construction. For this antimonument, or “nonument,” which contemplated the poetics of the civic ruin, Matta-Clark bored a tornado-shaped hole that spiraled back at a 45-degree angle to exit through the roof. Periscopelike, the void offered passersby a view of the buildings’ internal skeletons.
Office Baroque, a lyrical cutting through a five-story Antwerp office building, was the artist’s second-to-last architectural project before his untimely death. Inspired by overlapping teacup rings left on a drawing, the carving was organized around two semicircles that arced rhythmically through the floors, creating a rowboat shape at their intersection. Matta-Clark described the piece as “a walk through a panoramic arabesque.“ As in all his interventions, the building itself constituted the work of art. To counter the ephemeral nature of his sculptural gestures, he emulated their dynamic spatial and temporal qualities in unique photographs made by splicing and grafting negatives to create quasi-Cubistic images. No substitute for balancing precariously on the flayed edge of a structural cut, the photographs nevertheless document the essential aesthetic of Matta-Clark’s “anarchitecture.”