FROM SOCIAL ART TO THE ONTOLOGY OF ART
by Juan Francisco Garate
The performatic work of Sebastian Mahaluf has what is social and public as its key to be understood. A great deal of his works puts the participation of the spectators in the actions the artist proposes into play, in the manner of an articulating principle, as an artistic-reflective meeting point. As a matter of fact, the artist proposes a plan in which all the spectators are summoned for a collective action, in a way in which the artist loses protagonism. In fact, the works cannot develop and conclude if there is no participation of the audience. In other words, it is about the minimization of the act of the individual artistic action in order to maximize the social action of the work of art. Hence the fundamental reflection the work of Mahaluf installs art is social; the spectators are artists.
Furthermore, that reflection is critically implicit in other performatic works in which there is no participation of the audience, as far as possible or latent artists making works of art. Performances in which the artist provokes the attention of the audience as spectators but pushed towards a reflection on a body art always in tension and flight. Not for nothing, elastic bands are one of the fundamental materials in order to understand that reflection on the permanent tension of and on the individual and collective body. Tension is a fundamental concept in order to understand the work of Mahaluf. Not only that, tension is the heart itself of the works of the artist, be they body actions or installations, in the restricted space of a gallery or the public space as an ongoing staging. In order to understand the work of the artist, we may say there are basically two reflexively meaningful issues or instances, in any of its material and conceptual dimensions: drama and weave, both crossed by tension. To a larger and lesser extent, these two concepts have been constantly present in the work of the artist. But, and due to methodological issues, we may very clearly establish a sequence in the development of his installation and performatic work. In his early works the artist proposes works in which the issue is the body and the reflection on the role of the artist within the social body. That is why performances will be the fundamental resource in order to set off the reflection of a social art. That reflexive moment is eminently the moment of drama. The body of the artist constrained by elastic bands, bonds and then untying, is the fundamental figure of this reflexive instance, which furthermore proposes an escape or flight of the reduced context of the art gallery to the openness of the public space.
Perhaps Mahaluf’s flight begins with Mnémica (2015), a work in which the artist, wrapped in tense elastic bands dramatically pulls himself out of the constriction of his own body in order to exit the exhibition space towards the public space, tumbling due to the effects of blood compression and decompression produced by the elastic bands. Without a doubt, a metaphor of the bodily drama and its eventual deployment. On that occasion the spectators were mere witnesses of the artist’s flight. The exhibition space has always been the stronghold of the artist and his special social legitimacy, an issue Mahaluf has, precisely, put into permanent tension. Mnémica is an early work and we could consider it a necessary ritual in order to detach himself from the last bonds retaining the artist within the protected space of art; a space that also accentuates social roles. Something similar occurs in Wave motion (2010), realized at the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York. The artist´s recurring plastic bands now hang from the architecture of the location where the action is performed, hooked on the upper vortexes of the museum hall and tied to the wrists of the artist who is also wearing a performatic suit of translucent beads placed in the middle of the hall. The action of the artist consisted in moving towards the museum’s emergency exit and exiting the venue, stretching the elastic bands until they snap. This issue is approached in the Fuga (2016) installation and performance, whose title redounds the arguments presented. The critique is the same. It fundamentally lies in relation to the social roles of the spectator/artist within art spaces, stating the space outside the institution as an artistic counter-discourse.
Not only that, Mahaluf has also stated interesting paradoxes in the spectator/artist relation. The Eternal jump (2007) performance is relevant as it proposes the unsettling idea of a non-correspondence of spectators with the action of the artist. This is, there is no coinciding of time and space among the various social roles. This is a relevant action in which the artist extends an invitation to different people for the execution of the performance. Two groups of people aligned with the opposing walls of the hall, tense an elastic net, almost taking up its total space. Suddenly, through a door (there were two there, one at each end of the hall), the artist appears wearing a suit of beads and walks on the net put in tension by both groups of people at medium height. The participants, artists by default, had to keep the net tense while Mahaluf walked on it. Once the total length of the net was covered, Mahaluf jumps on the floor and exits through the other door. The audience then enters the hall while the action is disassembled. The audience clearly misses the action since they do not fit into the small hall where the performance occurs, a relevant issue insinuating the unsettling critical idea that there is no space for the spectator. And there lies a great paradox.
What these critical instances of art precisely do is promoting active participants in relation to works of critical art. Performances, and above all, happenings are instances that demand an action of society on location, which is theirs, the public space. An issue George Mathieu somehow states with his “public paintings” in 1957, going out to paint large format pieces on the street. And that includes two extremely significant issues: first, a critique of the containing and reductive space of the gallery and secondly, a critique of the work of art finished in order to be exhibited. What Mathieu shows the audience is the creative process of an action painting. Of course, the work of Mahaluf is somehow inscribed in that paradoxical and critical path of social art, going even further. In effect, Mahaluf not only shows the process of the performatic work, but, and essentially, integrates the spectators into the process and as part of the process. In that sense, the spectators cease to be just that and go on to become artists, at least for the duration of the actions of the whole in virtue of the work. This is an issue which occurs with some of the works of Allan Kaprow, with happenings being the best example of the cultural-historical erasure between spectators and artists. When Allan Kaprow started out with happenings in the late 1950s, he achieved a fundamental issue for the future course of contemporary art. One that was already suggested by the artistic avantgardes we see as an almost humoristic program in the work of Marcel Duchamp. I am referring to the Bicycle Wheel (1913) ready-made, the first interactive work in art history, this is, the first work which explicitly includes the possibility of being intervened by the spectator. Kaprow and his happenings made the spectator performative. A meaningful Kaprow happening was Fluids (1967), in which the spectator must leave his passive position in order to build the work with the artist. At last, the spectator ceases to be that and becomes an artist and the artist ceases to be that and goes on to become an agent allowing a social intervention in relation to a work of art. Fluids is a discourse promoting the idea that art is an ongoing action and therefore requires a collective action for it to be possible. And there lies a dialectic synthesis in which the limits of the roles assigned by the artist/spectator history are progressively lost towards a social art. Limits of social roles and classes diluted in the art action of the Chilean C.A.D.A. collective, especially in the Para no morir de hambre en el arte Chileno collective action (1979). The action consisted in handing out half a liter milk bags to the inhabitants of various Santiago slums, marginal places which were also under police and military surveillance. Well, C.A.D.A., through its art actions, procured to reestablish the social links disaggregated by the dictatorship. Perhaps, and in tune with C.A.D.A., the emblematic work on social and symbolic break up in Chile is without a doubt La bandera (1973-80), a photo performance in which Víctor Hugo Codocedo is registered in a sequence of photographs at the entrance of the National Fine Arts Museum with a Chilean flag as an act of estrangement of the place of art and the acknowledgement of the symbols of national identity. In our time, and referencing the social uprising on October 18, 2019, the Las tesis feminist collective have realized a minimal performance known as And the Rapist Was You, which has been replicated in many Latin American and European countries, questioning the cultural assumptions of the patriarchy and the symbols of national identity. In fact, each collective around the world that has recreated the performance with their own social demands, changing the lyrics and some steps of the choreography. A notable example of a socially and politically appropriable art, without copyright or authorship.
Tension, a concept that may well be thought of a a nexus between drama and weft is going to be present in all of Mahaluf’s work. In a certain way tension is the fundamental performatic action for the artist. In a body action, first dramatic due to the constriction of his body and then in the manner of a weft due to the social connections within the art space and the public space. Tension is performatically significant as far as the bodily action stretches the elastic materials until breaking with the links of the art field. That is why the aforementioned material is important, since it proposes the idea of tension and consequently, forcing the material until its exhaustion for distension. In that sense, the elastic bands may be thought of as conceptually dialectic materials, this is, they are materials used for attraction and repulsion of the action subjects. In effect, participants cease to be individual and go on to be a social body, so they stray from each other and inevitably attract each other due to exhaustion. The resistance of some to others is only momentary and in the end the subjects cannot avoid each other. In tune, the contemporary dance piece Gravity-Fatigue (2015) by Hussein Chalayan, contains a similar reflection. Chalayan is a fashion designer and has characteristically introduced state of the art technology in his textiles and designs. The naked bodies of the dancers are only partially covered and tied together by a fabric of elastic characteristics. In the end it is a collective clothing dressing two or more bodies. In the piece we can observe the dancers who try to get away from each other in a great physical display. As hard as they writhe in order to increase the distance between themselves, the elastic fabric inevitably brings them together. In effect, the elastic materials Mahaluf reuses, recycling them from earlier works, providing them with other uses, plot them into elastic nets which will serve as body supports and coverages. A good example of both possibilities can be found in Trap (2017), in which a weft of silver elastic bands is used as a net supporting the body. Hence the tension, which is not more than the performance itself, with gravity, friction and movement of the body. The net then turns into a blanket covering the artist completely. But not only that. In some happenings such as Atmosphere (2011) and Gravitational field (2012) the artist and the volunteering spectators articulate wefts in the public space, thus establishing a tangle with the participants. Each point at which the elastic bands cross each other in tension is a person who exerts and receives the tension. In Atmosphere, the artist prepares the audience in order to realize a physical and relational effort, tightening elastic bands to form a figure in an open space, on the terrace of a graveyard in Sardinia, Italy. In short, the weft is the device to reestablish social links.
Desplome (2020), despite being framed within the paradoxical ongoing critique of the artist/spectator role in Sebastián Mahaluf’s gallery works nonetheless shows us something new. In it, we see the possibly exceeded drama of the body, without the active or performatic presence of the artist. Desplome is an installation which, through the incorporation of new materials whose elemental features result in the idea of fragility. The artist has displayed a large format translucid red cloth in the manner of a net made of fine threads, displayed at the four extremes of the main hall of the gallery. The great weft hangs from the roof of the hall affixed by fine laces, relatively at the same height than the eyes of the spectators. But other materials are also incorporated. Hanging from various points of the great and fragile weft, we find approximately three hundred small glass recipients storing a viscous content. They hang a few centimeters from the ground. The spectators carefully wander around having to incline their heads in order to tour the work and pass through the different points in the hall the recipients mark, tensing downwards under the great and fragile weft with the weight of the viscous content. In fact, the spectator must incline even further if he wishes to scrutinize the jars. Given (1946-66) by Marcel Duchamp is a work that conditions the spectator to bow in order to peek through the peephole of a door and watch the piece in question. The modification of the bodily nature of the spectator conditioned by the piece is precisely one of the critical moments of the history of the spectator. Allan Kaprow on his part puts the spectator’s passivity into play in Yard (1961), turning the material piece, a large amount of old car tires scattered on the floor, into the irregular surface on which the spectators have to walk with great difficulty, turning into performers while they pass from one end to the other of the patio. Following that path, Mahaluf proposes a work that changes the passive attitude of the spectator. In fact, at a first moment we spectators interact with the great weft hung in the gallery grazing our heads during the tour of the work. There is also the difficulty of avoiding the small recipients hanging from all over the weft. Only as the spectator exits his passivity, he has the opportunity of scrutinizing the work, the recipients hanging close to the floor become quite important.
Precisely, the viscous residues we observe in the small glass jars may perfectly well be bodily residues, this is, the minimal expression of a body fitting in a small recipient. A jar, a body. In that sense, the numerous recipients of the viscous substance are more than an individual metaphor, since in their repetition we have a plural corporality without an identity. An issue which since the Earth line (2016) performance and specially Between earth & sky (2016), the artist has been meditating, dangerously perhaps, on immanence, even conceiving the body as a thing. Between earth & sky, a piece realized in a hall of the Bronx Museum in New York, the artist, upside down, with his hands tied to a post with elastic bands, tries to hardly trace a circle spinning around the post in three hundred sixty degrees with a piece of chalk in his mouth, rubbing it on the gallery floor in order to leave his trace behind. Again, the paradox. That is why Desplome is relevant as a piece, since in those terms, the artist confirms us the need of erasing the cultural-historical limits on the social roles of an essential human stronghold, a moment prior to the differential determinations of language. In other words, if Mahaluf’s previous works propose the dissolution of the spectator/artist roles, overcoming artistic individualism, in Desplome we find a primitive stage in non-determined terms, this is, in pure being. All the viscous residues contained in the jars are the reduction and a metaphor of the body in its maximum expression, as a large amount of ash contained in an urn could be a human vestige, or archeological osseous remains indicating a past existence. Quite a different issue from Artist’s Shit by Piero Manzoni (1961), in which the artist supposedly puts his excrement in tin cans, or the Creation and Telematics series by Orlan (1987), in which she keeps body fat left over from her plastic surgeries in jars that are exhibited and sold as art objects. The difference lies in that the aforementioned works of art are only a concrete part of their bodies, this is, they are perceived as bodily fragments or residues. In Mahaluf’s case, the strange content, which facing the uncertainty of being affixed by thought or casually relating it may be understood as a body metaphor and not as excrement or bodily leftovers. It is not a part, but the whole.
With that reservation, we may conceive those bodies reduced to their minimal expression and the fragility with which they present themselves before us. They are bodies hanging from a thread, literally. Loose threads barely affixed to the weft extending all over the surface of the gallery, tensed downwards by the weight of the content of the jars and which at the same time, weakly hangs from other threads. Basically, Mahaluf’s thread wefts are always fragile and temporary and have to overcome the architectural conditions or the openness of public spaces. As happens with the site-specific piece Suspended reality (2011) in which only the fluorescent color of the laces could indicate its presence as a work of art inside an enormous hangar in Nantes, France or in Surplus space (2014) realized in Aysén, in the extreme Chilean south, in which the tension of the ropes did not withstand the open air. In other words, Mahaluf’s small ropes or threads are a fragile material and that idea is consequently derived. In Desplome, what we have is a large number of reduced bodies barely suspended hanging from fragile threads. The covered way has begun with the drama of the body and the liberation from its ties, with the eventual flight of the restrictive spaces of the social roles towards the public space; and we have, by means of a permanent tension, ended up in the reflection of a fundamental weft, of art as a philosophy. Of course, this is a significant change in the work of our artist who always pushed beyond the social determinations and now towards an ontology of art.