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Body Week 5: Pieces I never did - click opera — LiveJournal
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Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 10:07 am
Body Week 5: Pieces I never did

In 25 years of gallery-going I've seen lots of art about bodies. I've lived through the golden age (and some of the golden showers) of performance art, installation art, body art, and video. I even mounted an installation / performance / video show of my own in a New York gallery back in 2000. I could talk about the most extreme things I've seen (Costes scattering piss on the audience and body slamming into us naked, sending all but the most foolhardy to cower at the back of the room or leave), but I want to talk about just one work, the first I ever saw, and the one that might have impressed me most deeply.



In 1979 I was a teenager living in Edinburgh. There weren't many art galleries. In fact, the city's 'art district' consisted of just two, both in the same building perched over Waverley Station: the Fruitmarket Gallery and, upstairs, the smaller New 57 Gallery. The steps up to the New 57 were steep industrial fire escape steps very like the iron steps I'd daily climb twenty years later in New York, heading for my own performance show on 26th Street, Chelsea. Art world posters lined the staircase and provided a transition to a world that seemed much more New York than Edinburgh -- a world hinted at in the Talking Heads records I was devouring at the time, the world of painters, art students and community video makers emerging from songs like 'Stay Hungry', 'Artists Only' and 'Found A Job'.



You never knew, when you climbed those resonant silver-painted iron stairs, what kind of world you'd emerge into. One month it would be a bright, white warren of Polish theatre slogans, another an open display of cool, restrained geometric paintings. You'd usually have the place to yourself; despite being right next to the south exit of Edinburgh's busiest spot, the train station, the gallery seemed to be off-limits to all but a handful of people - secretive, alien, cosmopolitan, advanced, rarefied. So one day I clanged up those steps, wearing my thick blue Chinese army coat and my clumpy brown Doc Martens, to be confronted by a booth installation featuring the video works of an artist called David Critchley. A girl came out of the office and started the video for me, then scurried away.

It was a tape called Pieces I Never Did. Critchley has since destroyed the work, so it exists only in my memory and the memories of those who saw it. One of those people is, I'm pretty sure, David Bowie, because he incorporated one of the tape's tropes into his 1980 album 'Scary Monsters'. Critchley sits facing the camera, describing in an intimate, hesitant, pompous yet embarrassed way all the pieces he'd thought about doing, but never got around to doing, or never raised the money, resources or courage to do, or stopped himself doing for reasons of taste, sanity, decency. He then does the pieces, but intercuts them with himself shouting 'Shut up! Shut up!' in an increasingly strident, desperate, self-censorious tone. (Bowie shouts 'Shut up!' in exactly the same way, as Fripp plays self-indulgent haywire guitar at the end of 'It's No Game (Part 1)' on Scary Monsters, released in September 1980.)



The pieces Critchley 'never did' (at least until he reconstructed their conceptions and abortions in this tape) include a sequence where he 'jumps against a wall without cease until the stucco loosens, each time revealing a bigger part of the brick wall' and a sequence in which he masturbates to climax. Now, I knew that Egon Shiele had made a Self-Portrait Masturbating in Vienna sixty years before (and in fact my hero David Bowie had been touted to play Schiele in a biopic just the year before). Schiele had ended up in prison for his violations of Austrian sexual ethics, but Britain in the 70s was a slightly more tolerant society. I can't say I wasn't shocked, though. I'd only seen one porn film in my entire life, the pretty but totally softcore 'Black Emmanuelle, White Emmanuelle', and there certainly hadn't been any penises in it. So when the gallery girl came back to rewind the tape we avoided each other's eyes. We seemed to share Critchley's shame, the same shame which presumably made him destroy the tape.

I've seen lots of art since then, and I've met much more extreme body artists like Costes and Ron Athey. But I don't think anything is likely to hit me as hard as 'Pieces I Never Did'. The tape seemed to say 'There isn't anything you can't do in art. Even the ideas you don't have the guts or the resources or the strength and stamina to do, you can do.' Perhaps Critchley's tape was a more British, more sexual, more ambiguous and embarrassed, less macho and gun-oriented take on the performances of Chris Burden (another Bowie reference point, since 'Joe The Lion' on 'Heroes' is supposedly about Burden). Personally, I like Critchley's shame and ambivalence a lot more than Burden's hardman dares. If Burden is all about scarification (one of the things 'body art' has come to signify) and mortification of the body, Critchley is interested in its shameful gratification. He parallels Paul McCarthy, perhaps, but his mixed feelings and the intimacy of his presentation makes him attractively vulnerable. I'm sure he crept away from the London Video Arts studio where he made 'Pieces I Never Did' with something of the same sense of interesting shame that I felt as I descended the blue neon-lit silver iron steps of the New 57 Gallery, heading off in the general direction of my recording career.

31CommentReply

w_e_quimby
w_e_quimby
hobbes
Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 09:39 am (UTC)

I'm not sure if you've done this before or not, but have you ever considered going into visual art? I do know that you're into design and all that, since you're writing for an online design magazine.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 09:55 am (UTC)

Well, like I say in the piece, I have had a one-man solo show in a New York art gallery, which I guess does qualify me as some sort of visual artist. In less than a month I head off to Japan to spend six weeks as an artist in residence doing an installation project at a place called Art Harbour in Hakodate, Hokkaido. It uses sound, but art these days is pretty multidisciplinary, as people like Stephen Vitiello and Christian Marclay show.


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 10:55 am (UTC)
pieces he did

That Critchley destroyed Pieces I Never Did (and other works) is a something of a myth. There is a Critchley sanctioned copy of the tape in the Lux collection in London (see 'Collection' at www.lux.org.uk)
S


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 10:58 am (UTC)
Re: pieces he did

Damn! There was I thinking I'd have to be interviewed for the Tate and MoMA as one of the few people who'd seen it! Well, I saw... the original! I saw it on Betamax! You DVD kids just don't understand video art!


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 11:06 am (UTC)
in search of the miraculous

my favorite performance artist from the 70s (and probably fave ever) was the dutch artist bas jan ader. his oeuvre is very small. it consists of only a few videos. he mixed high philosophic ideas with slapstick. when I hear the clumsy-song from easy toog for beginners it reminds a bit of him.

all his works had to do with a kind of failure. he would express this failure with his body in all kinds of falling. he would stand on the roof of his house and then let himself roll off. he would ride on his bike through amsterdam and with a slight curve drives himself in one of the city's canals. in a series of photograhs he imitates a mondrian painting with his body.

his last performance was a sailing trip he endeavered from the US to the netherlands. he would sail to amsterdam and on his arrival would start a show. he was never heard of again. I think the wreck of the boat was found.

you find more info here:
http://artscenecal.com/ArticlesFile/Archive/Articles1999/Articles1099/BJAderA.html

on the theme of embaressement and shame he made the terribly pathetic video of himself crying : I"m too sad to tell you.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 11:52 am (UTC)
Re: in search of the miraculous

Yeah, I've seen this guy's work. I must say that, like the young Bruce Nauman (and like Toog, damn him), he's just too damn good-looking. You always have to be a bit suspicious of pretty artists videoing themselves.


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metatherian
metatherian
suckling
Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 11:24 am (UTC)

The Critchley thing is fascinating, I'm glad you wrote about it as it's not something I've heard of before... I'm hoping y're gonna write more on this? In terms of macho and other sex/gender ideas art using the artists body (or those of others I suppose as in for example Yves Klein) is such rich territory.
Do you know of the Lithuanian artist Egle Rakauskaite?
She did a performance/video/installation in Reykjavik in 1996 where she "lay in a foetal position partially submerged in honey, visible to the viewer only on a video monitor. The long tube through which she breathed functioned visually as an umbilical cord, and provided a vital connection to the air she needed. Shiny and yellow like the yolk of an egg, her body was extended through the breathing apparatus to emphasize its connection with, and dependency on, the white space in which she lay. This ultimately transformed the space around her into a giant maternal body upon which she was dependent for life".
- quote from The Artist's Body ed. Tracey Warr


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metatherian
metatherian
suckling
Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 11:32 am (UTC)


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)

(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 04:03 pm (UTC)
Re: Vito Acconci

I remember an acconci (anacconci, hmm) performance where a videocamera showed a frame of his hairy navel and he would take out every single hair until the frame would be 'clean' (monochrome). I did not see it myself, but from hearsay it sounds painful enough. oughs!



erik
rotterdam
the netherlands


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(Anonymous)
Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 04:23 pm (UTC)

I'm no doubt in a minority here, but "performance artist doing extreme and often sexual things to his/her body" is such a well-worn path by now that it's getting hard not to see it as parody. "The body" has been a central focus and locus of art and social theory since the seventies - maybe it's time for artists to give their bodies a break, so we can come back to bodies in a decade's time with a different and fresher approach.

H.


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christmas7
christmas7
christmas7
Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 04:55 pm (UTC)

i suppose i'm in your minority as well then, because i'm likewise frustrated with much of performance art as well, the focus on pain & discomfort and the sublime etc...it all seems to portray such a focused and small percentage of the experiences of the body. i met a woman here in montreal who does a lot of performance art based in the public sphere and her work blew me away, much of it is based on surrender, healing, and contemplation, which i consider often more difficult then any sort of self-inflicted physical pain.

http://devoraneumark.com/


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transient_poet
transient_poet
Transient Poet
Tue, Dec. 14th, 2004 06:47 pm (UTC)

Brilliant piece.


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qscrisp
qscrisp
Wed, Dec. 15th, 2004 12:06 am (UTC)

Here's a piece I unfortunately didn't do, as suggested by Stanley Lieber in an earlier post. I went to see Alan Moore interview Eno for Radio 4 today, but was disappointed to learn there was no questions from the audience section. So the following never took place:

To Alan: Please describe the sound made by the snake god Glycon in words.

To Eno: Please reproduce that sound without words.

However, it was very interesting. I have cribbed this from an e-mail to the friend who very kindly got me the tickets, because I'm about to go to bed:

"Yes, it was all quite fascinating. I can't recount it all now, because, as I say, I am exhausted. You'll like this, though. Alan asked Eno about his interest in British comedy. He said he thought it was our best export etc., described The Goon Show as Dadaist, and told us all that when he and Bowie meet up it is rare that they do not talk to each other in Pete and Dud voices. 'So, think of that the next time you listen to Heroes,' he said, then, adopting his Peter Cook voice, 'We could be heroes, Dud... Just for one day.'


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encyclops
encyclops
Wed, Dec. 15th, 2004 12:07 am (UTC)

Despite having what is probably a naive and bourgeois skepticism about most of the performance art I've encountered (i.e., not much), I can kinda see the artistic potential of the jumping-at-a-brick wall video. I'm having trouble figuring out what the masturbation video would accomplish beyond pornography. Would it be simply about context -- jack-off movie in an adult bookstore equals porn, jack-off movie in an art gallery equals art? Is it that the artist is (theoretically) Not Sexy and therefore the viewer is (theoretically) observing the act aesthetically and intellectually and not being turned on or off? Is it the logical extension of taking pleasure in a painted nude, exploring the boundaries between art and porn? Or is it just confrontational and controversial, and therefore worth doing just to Make People Think?

I'm sure the problem here is that I'm just not well educated about art, but I'd like to think that what little I do know would get me somewhere in puzzling out the artist's intent.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Dec. 15th, 2004 08:37 am (UTC)

I don't think there's a single 'justification' for the masturbation scene, and I don't know if it needs one. But there are many possible justifications. I don't think the artist's intentions are either decipherable or particularly relevant. But I will say:

- After all these years, it's the masturbation scene that I remember best.
- The device of shouting 'Shut up! Shut up!' is at its most powerful during the masturbation scene, because of the secrecy and shame associated with masturbation.
- This was the scene in which I felt that 'work was being done at a border' -- and something art does very valuably is cross borders, or transgress.
- The reference to Schiele was there for me, but perhaps it was also really a reference to Vito Acconci, which I wouldn't have picked up at the time.
- Without that scene, it's unlikely I would have thought 'In art, anything is possible'.


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seamusandjamal
seamusandjamal
A Black Guy and A White Guy (no order)
Wed, Dec. 15th, 2004 07:32 am (UTC)

Momus-

I really appreciate your work, the whole gamut of your experience as expressed in words, music, performance. It's refreshing to see that the albums I've been listening to are not a lengthy joke, and that the lapse in time between them is not due to lackluster decadence spent at Club Med, but a life worth writing about.
Thanks


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evizaer
evizaer
arenar of elusian
Thu, Dec. 16th, 2004 05:59 pm (UTC)
masturbation and art.

I wish i could expose myself to the depth of art that you've been able to.

I also found it quite ironic that Critchley, for a part of his piece, masturbated to climax. I find most good art is just that: masturbation to climax. It's just in a less sexual and more disembodied sense. Good art and bad art can be seen similarly to this: good art gets to that climax while the mediocre and bad doesn't quite get there, perhaps because of its influences (looking at bad porn) or because it is just uncomfortable (masturbating in public to those who are very body-conscious) and forced.


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