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A BRIEF HISTORY OF SOCIAL ART

by Juan Francisco Garate

 

When Allan Kaprow introduced happenings during the late 1950’s, he accomplished something that would be essential for the future course of contemporary art. This situation, somewhat outlined by the artistic vanguards, which we can observe as a (humorist) program in the work of Marcel Duchamp, can be thought of dialectically since it involves the relationship between spectator and art work historically pointed out until that moment. Accordingly, Kaprow thought that the decisions in art, and those related to its reception, shared a passive form of mutual comprehension. Therefore, a new way to create had to be established. It’s fair to clarify that the audience never suggested an approach any different to the one established by the history of conventions within the art scene. The artists – the only possible spectators from the avant-garde onwards – were the ones responsible for reconsidering change when it came to the old habits of dilettantes wearied out and converted into artist-spectators. In other words, Kaprow thought that the spectator had to abandon his/her comfortable spot in order to interact with the artwork. What to do then? The first thing that had to be done was finish off with the so-called authorship the artist had of “his” work. It would then be immediately understood that Kaprow was a privileged spectator; in other words, an artist. This is why he was able to interpret the critical moments of the vanguard progressively; thus, the registry reappears as a debate during the beginning of the 1950’s: the first critical moment of the avant-garde relates to the intellectual degradation of art history and its mental products. An example of this in the sphere of aesthetics is seen in the piece by Francis Picabia, “Portrait of Cezanne”, 1920. Duchamp himself stated, in a debate held with Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College that it was absurd to continue thinking of art within the realm of aesthetics, particularly the one defined during the beginning of the 20th century. Once the old practices had been overcome, the second critical moment was again, a portrait; Man Ray’s “Rrose Selavy”, also dated 1920. The piece always appears in Duchamp’s catalogue of work, and yet it presents itself indistinctly… as to expose the new truth in art, shaped as a conceptual name game; the piece is the loss of identity of the one in the portrait. In other words, the piece is simultaneously by Duchamp yet not, and the subject in the portrait is Duchamp and yet it isn’t. Now that the artist’s authorship has been de-centered and overcome, it’s possible to move on to the third critical moment and maybe the one most related to Kaprow. I’m referring to Marcel Duchamp’s “Given: 1º The Waterfall, 2º The Illuminating Gas” (1946-66). The mentioned piece introduces a new role for the spectator; he or she must execute an action to be within the realm of the work. Beyond the idea of the spectator being a sort of transitory voyeurist, the relevant issue is that the spectator abandons his historical “passiveness” to undergo a new relationship with the piece. “Given” performatizes the spectator, and this condition inserts Duchamp’s work into the sphere of political critique when related to the precedent history of art. In Kaprow’s case, his Happenings performatize the spectator in such a way that it is somehow intolerable to rewind and reduce him to the static place once known, since this would be politically disadvantageous for – now we know – the future of art. An important happening by Allan Kaprow was “Fluids” (1967), where the spectator had to abandon his role and be a part of the piece with the artist. Finally, the spectator is no longer this, and he becomes an artist; the artist ceases to be an artist and becomes an agent who, by the means of art, elaborates a social interaction with the purpose of an artwork.  In other words, the three critical moments of contemporary art are radically comprised. “Fluids” is the discourse for art as a constant action, and therefore it requires a collective participation for it to be possible. A dialectic synthesis can be observed here since the frontiers set by history for the artist/spectator, are progressively dissolved into an art-philosophy.  

 

Within the local scene, I can think that Sebastian Mahaluf’s “Mnémica” (2005) could be a sort of “ritual” for breaking off the ties from the final bonds that could seize him within the safe space of art. This is a piece we could consider as “the first leap” into the void which is getting lost within the crowd: first, to leave artistified roles behind; then, to get rid of artisticity; and finally, to get rid of the artistic personification. Specifically, after cutting off all the ties in the first performance, the wobbling artist finds his way across the room, heads for the street, and never returns. There are no precedents for a social art in Chile, at least not within the terms recently mentioned. This is why the performance that relates to a ritual, more than to a work in itself, was necessary. It’s an act of resignation to the artistic scholarity, since there is no precedent within the Chilean academy. Maybe the closest we can come to the three critical moments within Chilean art can be observed through the actions by the C.A.D.A group, particularly exemplified in the 1979 piece “As to not starve to death in Chilean art”. This action consisted in handing out ½ liter bags of milk to different people in several socially marginalized neighborhoods in Santiago, which were also under political and military surveillance; in other words, they were also politically marginalized. C.A.D.A.’s action was an imminent political response to the severe events the Chilean society was undergoing during the time, and it didn’t necessarily consider the course of a progression towards critical reasoning in art history; they were threatened to abandon the institution. Therefore, it’s a social art that intends to reestablish the dispersed ties that had been shot down. Perhaps the key piece on social disintegration is Victor Hugo Codocedo’s photo-performance “The Flag” (1975-80) in which the artist documents himself at the entrance of the National Museum of Fine Arts with the Chilean Flag. This act depicts the estrangement related to what should be a place (for art) and the moment of recognizing annihilation by means of the symbols correspondent to national identity. In sync with the actions by the C.A.D.A. group, Diamela Eltit’s “Zones of pain” (1980) exemplifies through a ritualistic act, the spot where state terrorism disintegrated social bonds. Also, in Elias Adasme’s the action “A-chile” (1980), the artist hangs himself upside-down from a signpost at the entrance of the Salvador subway station, in which, beyond the scarce references of Adasme’s action, we’re invited to suppose there’s a reversal or that Chilean Art is standing on it’s head due to the ill-fated social history in Chile. However this may be, all of these examples come back to the fact that the considerations of a social art in Chile are defined by dictatorship, and therefore we are faced with a marginalized and siege society. And this is precisely where the difference lies. Mahaluf’s collective-performative piece responds to motivations related to the critical moments of art history, and not to a context that expels artists, but the other way around. A perfect example of this is Sebastián Mahaluf’s show at the National Museum of Fine Arts, “Dome” (2007). For this opportunity the artist exhibited an installation piece in which he tightened thousands of silver rubber bands over the four walls of the hall near the ceiling, thus forming a precarious construction. This precarious dome, within the dome of the museum itself, was only visible thanks to the light that beamed from within a platform or plinth that contained a suit made of red beads. This suit had been used by the artist on other occasions for his public space performances. Basically, National Museums are institutions meant to conserve art works, and with this premise, the artist is invited to execute a piece in one of the halls. Nonetheless, “Dome” is a (humoristic) piece in which despite the fact it may seem static; it exposes the idea of escaping, precisely, from the institution of the static. The suit “presents” an opportunity for the spectator to head towards the public space… the audience enters with the (deceitful) expectation for works of art, and Mahaluf’s piece invites them towards the exit.

 

From this perspective, the “humor” (a vanguard characteristic by excellence) in Sebastián Mahaluf’s social-performative piece counts on the course the spectator’s conversion will take; or it will at least attempt against the tediousness of Sundays for the spectators which, on the other hand, have no idea they’re spectators until they are already part of the artist’s action within the public space. They’ve had no previous warning. I’m referring to “Nomad” (2007), a public action by the artist that took place in a park in Santiago on a Sunday: on the day meant for tediousness; the day meant for museum-going. This action invades as an action that’s entirely beside other everyday actions. The artist, in his performatic attire (the red beaded suit) moves across the plane of the park in a diagonal direction, heads towards a rubber band wall which is tightened by two trees, and crosses it. One would at least think that the people passing by would manage to giggle, or at least feel bothered by the interruption of their typical Sunday afternoon activities. Apparently, none of this happened. Nonetheless, the action’s discourse proposes these possibilities (whether they occur or not responds to idiosyncratic considerations) since what’s on the line is the critical triad of art’s contemporary history. The very point of the fact is that there is no “adaptation” between the public and the work, even though the artists have invaded the public space with their actions and works. What a paradox! The audience’s indifference doesn’t even refer to the historic role spectators have had in art; it’s a demonstration of the altogether absent spectator. In the end, the artist himself is also the spectator; a spectator is always an artist. A relevant action by the artist comes to mind when mentioning this and it’s a performance by Mahaluf which takes place in a hall that’s an extension of Rancagua’s Cultural Center, both entities that promote culture in several ways. In “The Eternal Jump/ Second to Last” (2007) the artist invites different people to participate in the performance. Two groups of people alienated by facing walls of the hall, tighten an elastic net that nearly uses the entire area of the room. Suddenly, through one of the doors (there were two doors in the space, one on each side) the artist enters dressed in his performatic attire (the red beaded suit) and he walks across a net tightened (mid-body height) by both groups of people. The participants (all artists) have to hold the net while Mahaluf walks across it. Once the total length of the net has been covered, Mahaluf jumps to the ground and exits through the other door. Afterwards, the audience enters the room while the dismantling of the action is being done. The public misses out on the action because not everyone fitted in the small hall where the performance occurred. This is relevant because the space isn’t big enough to accommodate both spectator and piece at the same time. This is a historical/institutional double critique: there is no space for the (historical) spectator; the exhibition space bearly has enough room for contemporary art; all of the previous options. Something similar occurs in the work “Escape” executed in The Bronx Museum of Arts (2010). In this work, besides the fact an action occurs, the elastic bands also take part; they hang from the architectural space where the action takes place, this is, in the case that the action is to take place “within” a space. As a precedent, Mahaluf used the elastic bands to intervene the inside of some public spaces, for example the Cultural Center of Spain, in 2004. The elastic bands postulate a structural tension within the institution; this is the signification of the recurring material in the artist’s body of work. In 2010 Mahaluf hangs the pieces of elastic from the upper vertex of a hall in the Bronx Museum. These elastic bands are tied to the artist’s wrists who’s wearing a performatic translucent bead suit and set in the center of the room in front of a pseudo-pop painting on show that reads “Yankies” besides a cliché figure or logo of Uncle Sam’s hat. The institutional tension is now in place; the artist stretches the elastic bands in direction towards the exit of the museum, until he finally tears them lose and breaks out towards the street. Of course this performance is a critique to ordinary everyday “artisticity” seen in art spaces, setting the standards for an artistic counter-discourse of what occurs outside the institution (the artist’s favorite text is J. Kosuth’s “You should forget what is taught in art school”). On the same note, Mahaluf’s actions insist on always making the audience a spectator-artist and/or vice-versa. We have a recent example of this. In the happening titled “Atmoshpere” (December, 2011) the audience is prepared to perform an act of physical and relational efforts in the act of tightening elastic bands to form a figure in an open space: now, in an esplanade of a Cemetery in Sardinia, Italy. Is this perhaps an elegy for the historical spectator? The two previous actions by the artist are meaningful as a sequence: the escape from the museum, because they represent the NON-places for art, and heading towards the open space, possibly the only place where art can take place. However this may be, Mahaluf’s installation pieces, performances and collective actions, bear the critique of the meaning of art history.