Posted by Riva Symko on November 8th, 2016
See Steve line up his driver on the green. See Steve hit the golf ball. See the ball soar into the water hazard. See Steve berate himself: “Ack-gaaah! C’mon Steve! It’s not that hard of a game! So embarrassing.” Next, as per standard commercial narrative, it is suggested that the protagonist’s dilemma – his frustration – his self-chastisement – can be resolved via simple producer/consumer relations: if you can’t do it, buy it. And so as the scene pans out to show us Steve’s golf-mates awaiting their own moment on the green, the announcer chimes-in: “Go easy on Steve, Steve – that was the club’s fault”, and the Golf Town logo flashes onto the screen beside the tag-line: “TRADE IN YOUR OLD CLUBS – TRY ALL THE NEW ONES”.
…Cut to Johannes Zits (as Steve) standing, shirtless, on a pile of laundry in front of an ironing board in the middle of Latitude 53’s main-space gallery. He picks out a brightly printed blue cotton button-up shirt from the pile under his feet, and inspects it closely. Pulling off an indistinguishable piece of lint, he stretches it over the end of the ironing board, adjusts the collar and the sleeves, and applies the iron. Back and forth, methodically pressing out the creases, he shifts the shirt inch-by-inch over the board. Tipping the iron back onto the board, Steve gives the shirt a crisp shake, slips his arms through it, and fastens each button from top to bottom. Adjusting his shoulders a few times, pulling the left sleeve over his watch, and fixing the collar, Steve turns around to face a large, full-length mirror set opposite the ironing board. He peers at himself, scowls slightly, turns to the right, adjusts his collar again, turns to the left, scowls again. He walks back to the pile of clothes, chooses another brightly printed (this time red) cotton button-up shirt, turns back to the mirror, and holds it in front of his torso.
Finding this shirt equally dissatisfying, Steve returns it to the laundry pile, walks around to the outer side of a folding table standing to the left of the ironing board, and plucks a book from an unkempt stack on its surface. The book is heavily tabbed and notated. Steve pages through it, scanning for something – a chapter, a passage, a quote? As he begins to read aloud, it becomes clear the book is a self-help guide, and what Steve is really looking for is some guidance, direction, resolution to his incessant need to iron out every imperfection (real or imagined): “Make good decisions…bad decisions come from not caring enough…don’t be careless.”
Despite the fact that Zits’ Steve is reading these passages aloud, there is nothing explicitly interactive about Don’t be so Hard. (Zits as) Steve does not even allow us (the viewers) the satisfaction of acknowledging we are watching him, thereby inadvertently alleviating the innate awkwardness of our espial. Rather, both Steve and Zits are fully engaged in the task at-hand: self-criticism via dressing, and undressing/clothing, and more clothing. Visitors drift in-and-out of the gallery, some lingering in the seats lining each side of Zits’ performance. We are rubberneckers here – as though we are watching Steve at home in his bedroom, or his laundry room – waiting in anticipation to see what’s going to happen? But nothing really does – the cycle of Steve’s self-doubt repeats and repeats for, in this iteration, a full three hours.
It could be argued that all performative art contains an element of voyeurism in the way it transports the viewer outside of the quotidian, and forces a complex power dynamic between the spectator’s sense of self in the surrounding space, and the performer’s body and actions in the same space. But Steve’s actions/Zits’ performance is a guilty voyeurism. We should probably help this guy out of his rut – we all know he won’t really find what he is looking for in that pile of laundry. If only we weren’t so paralyzed by our own self-dissatisfaction. If only we weren’t just as critical of ourselves. If only we weren’t stuck in this audience/performer interstice with Zits.
At one point, Steve reaches into the pile of laundry for a second? third? fourth? pair of pants, pauses, then moves instead towards the table. This time, he retrieves a paper shopping bag with the American Eagle Outfitters logo emblazoned on the side. He pulls out yet another printed cotton button-up, inspects it closely, ponders the (still attached) price tag. He fishes the receipt out of the bag and holds it up to read and we can clearly understand that he still has the option of returning it. He appears to consider the shirt’s worth compared to his own worth, then slowly folds the shirt, and places it back into the bag.
In 1988, Stuart Ewen coined the term ‘commodity self’ in reference to what he observed as a new relationship between commodities (material objects carrying economic exchange value) and individuals. For Ewen, individuals living in Fordist North America during and after the 1920s began to recognize and form their sense of identity through the commodities they consumed. This process of commodity-based identity formation has gradually intensified over the past five decades until today, when our sense of self is almost inseparable from the objects and services we buy. From this point of view, Steve is a physical manifestation of the commodity self described by Ewen – the ‘self’ Steve sees reflected in the mirror is contingent on the shirts and trousers he is trying on. Just like Golf Town can help their Steve become a better golfer with new clubs, Zits’ Steve cannot see passed his outfit to any other ‘self’.
Even I, as one of Zits’ viewers, can’t help wondering how Steve might look in the documentary stills of this performance – the ‘final product’ so-to-speak. Stacked in a grid, the photos of Steve pondering himself in the mirror could pass for one of VOGUE’s seasonal high-fashion runway collection reports.
For Ewen, the emergence of the commodity self was a direct result of corporate advertising’s ubiquitous extension into everyday life, and its promises of “freedom” and (American) “nationalism” for consumers. Further to this, Jennifer Way has written that, today, individuals find their own value and meaning in the commodities they consume “by using them to establish, clarify, or change their identities and to communicate their identities as individuals and members of groups affiliated by ethnicity, nationality, region, religion, gender, sexuality, and generation.” For example, Christians might purchase and wear gold crucifixion necklaces, business professionals connect to one another through their iPhone mobile devices, eco-conscious citizens drive hybrid vehicles, Steve visits Golf Town to improve his game, and Zits’ Steve likes to look good in a cotton button-up.
Steve is bound to his own indecisiveness, and stunted by an obsessive, performative quest for some ambiguously-defined perfection spurred on by the consumer cycle itself: need. buy to satisfy need. desire better. buy to satisfy desire. change one’s image/status/social group/etc. buy to reflect this. repeat. Steve tries to counter this by turning to self-help: “No more self-bullying about your appearance,” or, “You cannot earn worth through what you do”. But even the most sincere self-help is part of a larger industry – one that idealizes certain ‘types’ of behaviours, successes, lifestyles, and people as a very commercialized quest. Although this quest promises fulfillment, it also intentionally fails to deliver in order to guarantee itself capital perpetuity.
Every so often over the course of his ceaseless task, Steve picks up a fresh piece of clothing from the pile, and one or two small stones fall from the folds and bounce conspicuously across the concrete floor. Steve bends and picks up each stone, rubbing them between his hands to warm what we learn are actually “healing crystals”. He walks to his inspiration wall and reads out-loud a passage pertaining to the particular type of crystal (for example: “topaz: success, optimism, reduces procrastination”). Then Steve places the crystal in his ears, or in his belly-button, periodically adjusting them while he irons. The crystals function as part of Steve’s self-helping, but they also happen to be his closest connection to the outside, natural elements.
Zits’ larger body of work demonstrates shares an ongoing interest in exploring the divisions between our bodies and our environments. For instance, his 2012 Re-Dressing Landscape (performed at StFX Gallery in Antigonish, Nova Scotia) attempted to extend the performer’s bodies into the local landscape in a stripped-down, skin-to-elements walk, crawl, writhe, and brush through the sand and rocks of Arisaig’s beach, the coastal grasses at Chez Deslauriers, and the softwood forest lining the Pomquet trails. Along the journey, the performers took notes, photos, and video, and collected natural materials (sand, rocks, grass, branches) which they later brought into the Gallery to make what curator, Tila Kellman described as “a second nature”. The crystals featured in Don’t be so Hard function like a second nature for self-hood itself.
In previous performances, Zits was explicitly reconnecting what are otherwise culturally-reinforced disconnections between the body and the landscape. Our clothes provide a literal barrier between our individual bodies and the elements. But we also detach ourselves from nature in more concealed ways – by commercializing it for resource production, or romanticizing it for adventure and mythology. Ironically, these divisions have been both naturalized and politicized. For Zits, “Considering nature as a body and as an active participant, ensures that it can be neither construed as a passive prop or backdrop nor adored and fixed in the realm of the sublime.” Similarly, Don’t be so Hard de-naturalizes the relationship between commerce and our sense-of-selves.
As the evening wears on (pardon the pun), Zits’ face flushes – partially from the steam puffing and gurgling through the iron, partially from Steve’s unending dissatisfaction, and partially from the endurance of the performance itself. In fact, the entire gallery feels at least a degree or two warmer. “Learning how to be kind to yourself takes practice, motivation, and patience”, reads Steve as he continues to smoothe out the creases of self-doubt itself.
- Stuart Ewen, All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (New York: Basic Books, 1988). ↑
- Ewen, 30. Ewen places late nineteenth and twentieth-century American industrialization and commerce at the centre of his study. For him, the notion that individual progress and distinction can be obtained through consumption is the foundation of the ‘American Dream’, and even American democracy itself, 59. ↑
- Jennifer Way, “Commodity Self,” Visual Arts and Cultural Studies Section, Encyclopedia of Identity, 2 vols., ed. by Ronald L. Jackson II (SAGE Publications Inc.: SAGE Reference). Retrieved May 23 2013 from: http://knowledge.sagepub.com/view/identity/SAGE.xml ↑
- Tila Kellman as quoted in Richard MacKenzie, “Performance artist coming to Antigonish”, The Casket, August 15, 2012. ↑
- Johannes Zits, “Don’t be so Hard on Steve, Steve”, http://www.visualeyez.org/festival-2016/artists/johannes-zits/, September 2016. ↑
Posted by Riva Symko on November 4th, 2016
It is a blustery weekday afternoon shortly after lunch-hour in downtown Edmonton. Golden autumn sunlight is casting sheathes of warmth along the upper reaches of brick, concrete, and glass office towers. Alexandria Inkster – wearing white slip-on sneakers, white jeans, and a white cable-knit sweater – makes her way eastward along the north-side of Jasper Avenue like a striking, ghostly mime (with clear and serious purpose). She is carrying a heavy pile of white paper under one arm, and a wooden folding tv-table under the other. To her right, (handler/ photographer/ volunteer) Alice carries a matching set of folding chairs, and a camera around her neck.
The two of them pause just to the left of the 102nd Street bus-stop, unfolding the table and chairs like they are setting up an easel for a day’s worth of land(urban)scape painting. Inkster arranges the newsprint-sized stack of paper on the tv-table and places a large rock on top to prevent the already fanning sheets from blowing off into the street. She chooses one of the seats for herself and sits tall, upright, deliberate: unflinching, but relaxed. She stares straight ahead – part-expectant, part-lonely, part-stoic, part-anticipatory, part-meditative – but also open. Tucked ever-so-slightly into the alcove where the faded brick of the CIBC building juts out from the shiny granite façade of Commerce Place, Inkster is both on-the-street, and in her own space. The wooden chairs, the table, and Inkskter’s white clothing are framed by their own forms, looking and feeling like a Robert Rauschenberg White Painting (1951), while behaving something like a decontextualized White Cube.
A decade after they were made, composer John Cage described the White Paintings as “airports for lights, shadows, and particles…receptive surfaces that respond to the world around them.” In a similar way, Inkster – with her table, chairs, and paper – gives us, me, you, and the people walking-by a landing-pad for all of the quotidian things, thoughts, and seeings that we are carrying with us down the street that day. I approach the table and Inkster asks me if I would like to join her for “a wordless conversation?” I say I would and take a seat on the vacant folding chair across the table from her. She explains the parameters of what seems almost like a pensive game: “To have a wordless conversation we need to maintain eye contact without speaking – our communication will be through our eyes. If we break eye contact, the conversation stops, but we always have the opportunity to re-establish eye contact.”
Although I have been looking straight at her eyes since she first mentioned “eye contact”, at some inexplicably defined point we have initiated eye contact in a more decidedly inaugural way and, simply by non-verbal consensus, I know that our conversation has started.
The content of the White Paintings “lies in the shifts in attention they require from the viewer, asking us to slow down, watch closely over time, and inspect their mute painted surfaces for subtle shifts in color, light, and texture.” So too does this wordless conversation held via eye contact depend upon my own ability to contemplate on the moment itself. Given the theme of the week, I am trying to meditate on the idea of ‘kindness’ – I want to send warm, inviting, happy energy to Inkster. I have what I think is an ever-so-slight smile on my lips, and think about what it means to smile in/ with my eyes.
Inkster herself has written that kindness: “is a gift, an offering of sorts…a gentle touch, which may or may not be registered, accepted, or reciprocated, but is offered nonetheless…an invitation to form connections with the world one inhabits.” So I think about how I am connecting to this stranger in a strange situation. At one point, a wave of sadness, or melancholia, passes over me – maybe that would happen in any performance, or circumstance, where human connection is the forefront of the experience. But I try to conceal it from Inkster as quickly as possible. I am also drifting back-and-forth between determining what messages and affectations the eyes in front of me are holding, and what uncategorized thoughts of my own are randomly interfering with the concentration required to truly decipher those messages and affectations.
I can only see it peripherally, but I know the pile of paper is there, and I know Inkster is doing something that resembles folding with a sheet of it during our conversation. I am aware of the paper, aware that her gestures with the paper seem repetitive, aware of the labour required by Inkster to fold the paper. As the performance goes on, I am mindful that it is becoming more and more difficult for her to fold the paper as its’ thickness increases. I can feel it billowing up onto my arms in the wind and I rest my hands on it to help keep it from blowing around. But, at the same time, I am resisting the urge to notice the paper. I am trying to not to contemplate anything but holding eye contact (and staying ‘kind’).
As one reviewer described, Marina Abramović’s well-known performance of The Artist is Present (2010) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was “largely about experience in time. Abramović’s goal was, essentially, to remain present, to remain ‘in the present’ for the approximately 731 hours and 30 minutes that the performance lasted. The work invited audience members to both witness and join in this present. A teenage visitor to the show was reported as observing of those who sat with Abramović in the work, ‘I think they lose all perception of time when they get up there.’ ” But sitting in Inkster’s piece, I am actually more aware of time – aware of holding a gaze for a particular duration of time and wondering how long I can hold this eye contact. I think it is Inkster’s act of paper folding, in particular, that is grounding me in time, and keeping me on the street with her. Her repetitive gestures act like a metronome that ground us in the present of where we are and what we are doing. Where the perception of time, or even the perception of present-ness, might be the signature context of The Artist is Present (especially given it’s physical relation to the rest of the exhibition it is situated in, that is; Abramović’s retrospective), We are in the folds is about perception itself. Inkster’s modus operandi, here, is to “make art to precipitate an awareness of different ways of perceiving, and actively participating within, our shared and overlapping lifeworlds.”
However, since We are in the folds is not completely stationary (Inkster with her table, chairs, and paper literally move – west down Jasper Avenue – as the day progresses), there is also something unfixed and unspecific about it. Inkster’s path is not random, and the locations (and the spaces they create) less defined, less significant to her action than that of Abramović sitting in the centre of an exhibition space at the MoMA. Inkster’s direction is as controlled and aesthetically minimal as the rest of her performance. She moves west down Jasper Avenue in a straight line, and she creates a space with every new stop along the way (an architecturally-absent, momentary gallery site).
As the day progresses, Inkster also experiments with changing the parameters of some of her wordless conversations. At times, audience members participate with her in the folding. Inkster taking the lead and the viewer simultaneously mimicking her actions while trying not to break eye contact: starting at opposite ends of the sheet, both make a one-inch fold, press the crease, flip the whole sheet over, and repeat until the paper has become a pressed-spiral cube. In this iteration, the conversation is even more like a game, and the dialogue held less in the visual than in the act of folding itself.
At the end of each performance, Inkster gives the participant the folded sheet of paper held together with a rubber band. It becomes a sculptural record/remnant of an exchange. Our conversation(s) to be left in the folds of the pleated cube, “or to open up to the air to breathe.”
- John Cage as referenced by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art online: https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.308.A-C ↑
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art online, as above. ↑
- Alexandria Inkster, We are in the folds artist statement: http://www.visualeyez.org/festival-2016/artists/alexandria-inkster/, September 2016. ↑
- Abigail Levine, “Marina Abramović’s Time: The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art”, Hemispheric Institute, online, 2010. ↑
- Inkster. ↑
- Inkster. ↑