This Is This (Leni Hoffman, May Sun, Elizabeth McGrath)

I think it was Dave Hickey who said, in response to a question about the sometimes adversarial roles assumed by artist and institution, that the institution is about life and education, while art is about death and magic. For me, there is some truth in that point of view, for though I was present at the symposium Curating Degree Zero as a representative of ArtPace, my presentation there borrowed more from my practice as an artist than from any role derived from the institution. Perhaps this is an indication of where to look for ground zero in relation to the practice of curating, or at least a tentative compass needle waiting to be magnetized by some new true north that somehow doesn’t assume any directional hierarchies. 

ArtPace, which functions without a curator, is a privately funded, non-profit foundation which invites 24 artists every two years to come to San Antonio in groups of three for two month residencies doing new work. Each residency group is made up of one national, one international and one central Texas artist. Ideally the three artists mix it up among themselves and the community. The artists are selected by a committee of six from the international scene. The 1996 and 1998 selection panels each included one artist; David Avalos in 1996 and Nancy Rubins this year. The rest of the 1998 panel was Annette Dimeo Carlozzi, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, Kellie Jones, Dan Cameron and Amada Cruz. The selectors are not involved in combining the artists into groups of three. This is for the most part the random result of the selected artists giving their preferences for preset residency dates.

The best measure of how this system of selection and combination works is found in the residencies themselves. The most successful ones have been those in which the artists are truly present and can get out on the street with each other and the locals. It is this social process that makes the magic occur. The work the artists do is simultaneously carrot and fuel, but it is the interaction that lubricates the process.

The residencies of Leni Hoffman (Nürnberg), May Sun (Los Angeles) and Elizabeth McGrath (San Antonio) served this ideal rather well. Each of these artists is well connected to play and that is key if you are on the death and magic team.

Hoffmann’s PAL, so named because it runs at a different speed than VHS, was an applied plasticine transformation of space, time and body. A room whose tenant was itself. A room inhabited by a room breathing and listening the way I breathed and listened the night I spent in it, with it. The lights were on and the windows were open, but time was closed. In addition to the breathing I kept hearing the plaintive repetitious beeps of garbage trucks in reverse, another indication that time was on the wane. I lay on the floor most of the night but sometimes I got real close to the plasticine, which was a lot like getting real close to myself.

Elizabeth McGrath’s installation was about as serious as a Dr. Suess book, if you truly get my drift. The components, which some might go so far as to call sculpture, were strewn about the space with a providential abandon which tended to randomize the pre-emptive order provided by various architectural details such as pillar, skylight, and switch plate. This visual and spatial anarchy was echoed in the sensuality of the materials themselves: pink Egyptian cotton terry, Green viscose fur, white silk velvet, hercura yellow mesergown milk, truffula tufting, blue silk embroidery floss, a found old red velvet comforter with all its buttons cut off, etc. Above all, her space was comfortable, but not
because all was right with the world. It was more like the wee morning hours after a toy shop coup: everybody feels pretty good and some of the dolls are smiling strangely.

I had an after hours experience with May Sun’s work too, but it happened in the middle of the day. Her space was divided into a black side and a white side which combined to transcend the polarities implied. The rooms became a model of mind, the daylight consciousness and the unconsciousness and the various overlapping twilit states. The white room was equipped with three monitors showing tapes of vehicles with 1-800-How Am I Driving? bumper stickers being followed by the artist while the 800 numbers were being dialed up by compadres riding in the car with her. This grimly business like activity became quite jovial and was in contrast to the video and sound work in the black room which featured a large scale night scene of cars on the L.A. freeway with May Sun’s recorded voice asking questions such as:

Am I speeding full ahead?
Am I stalled in the fast lane?
Am I causing congestion?

The driving metaphors gradually gave way to more personal queries mixed with darkly humorous innuendoes:

Am I at one with all humanity?
Why do I like animals better than people?
Who the hell do I think I am?

In all there were seventy-six questions on the tape loop.

One afternoon I was standing in the dark viewing the L.A. night sequence. May Sun’s voice was asking, “ If I am the other, what are you?” It was about then that I became aware she was standing right beside me in the darkness, which is presumably where she had been standing alone before I came in. At this realization of another person concealed in such close proximity, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. We said nothing to each other, but the recording was asking us both the same question at the same time.

James Clifford says of his book Routes,  that it begins with an “assumption of movement, arguing that travels and contacts are crucial sites for an unfinished modernity.” Artpace wants to make this argument also I believe. It can be a site for the kind of work in progress Clifford describes, but ultimately it will be up to the artists.

Copyright Hills Snyder, 1998 / appeared in Curating Degree Zero, a book and CD-ROM based on a symposium of the same name which took place in Bremen, Germany in June of 1998. The CD includes images from the ArtPace exhibitions of Leni Hoffmann, Elizabeth McGrath and May Sun. The book and CD appeared in December 1999 and were published in an edition of 700, Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nürnberg. ISBN 3-933096-16-2.

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