In our regular feature Collection Rotation, a guest selects from SFMOMA’s collection works online. This fall artists with Bay Area ties take over the series. In addition to their rotations, we asked each artist to answer poet Robert Duncan’s request to students in his 1958 Workshop in Basic Techniques and provide us with a set of influences for their work — a “constellation of their genius.” Today, please welcome Justin Hoover.
One recent summer day during a trip to Marfa, Texas, I found myself walking amidst a long line of domicile-scale concrete rectangles in the middle of a well-manicured field of grass, reading a poem by Mary Caroline Richards that was published in an early issue of the anarchist magazine Resistance. It looked like this:
It made me realize that anarchy is, simply, allowing space for free inquiry. It isn’t chaos but direct person-to-person negotiation. It is a conversation of “ethics individualized” . The cubes of Donald Judd, organized so neatly in that polished field, sought to become a surrogate person stimulating conversation instead of pushing any sort of polemic. The sculptures seemed to function like Richards’ poem — hands and birds were a structure with nothing in between except for what I wanted there. They allowed for my idiosyncrasies: my memories of hand gestures becoming birds as shadows made for my wife on our bedroom wall with a flashlight at night, tattoos of swallows in flight across wrists or flocking up arms. The sculptures were organized, yet indeterminate and structural, and that was the point.
Upon returning to the fog of San Francisco, I looked at the SFMOMA collection through the lens of anarchy and engagement, person-to-person negotiations and person-to-object relationships.
All the works featured below were selected because they tell a story about who we are and what we love and fear. Unlike Judd’s work, however, they also put actual demands on the viewer, demands to share, to spy, to look, and to touch. These works of art come alive when physically manipulated; they also push patrons to engage with one another in new ways. These works break free from the confines of the static object and instead become moving targets for negotiating intersubjectivity in the gallery space.
In his video work Relations (1972–73/1979), Stephen Laub aligns his body with a photographic slide projector, fitting himself into family portraits. In this work the artist is physically interacting with the projected light, positioning the living body as a part of the projection surface. This piece was originally a live performance (a recorded version performed for the camera was housed in the SFMOMA library) and the video was subsequently absorbed by the museum’s permanent collection. Laub has since gone on to complete other series, in which images of dogs and constellations are projected over his body. Throughout his work I can’t help but feel that what remains constant and valuable is the insertion of the performative body into momentary structures of untenable relations.
In Ann Hamilton’s indigo blue (1991/2007), the human body becomes a living agent in the room. A live performer is part of a larger installation work: a 14,000-pound pile of used jeans and shirts looms behind a human sitting at a table, quietly at work erasing lines from a book.
indigo blue appears to move the body into a relational place: the viewer is confronted by another living human as an element in the work, yet the work is not fully socially engaged. While it is a deeply moving piece, indigo blue always strikes me as solipsistic and representational, refusing direct interaction between public and performer and only symbolically referencing — as opposed to embodying — labor and race. While the human-object relationship is wonderfully framed — its poetics inescapable, intertwined and elegant, like a sandstorm in the distance — the installation fails to bring the body into direct exchange. The human body in the gallery, although mute and impassable, finds its way into my psyche and is able to challenge what I believe is the role of the live human in the gallery space.
In other works in the collection we begin to see pieces that enable the human body within the work to connect with spectators of the work in new and creative ways. Dora García’s Instant Narrative (2006–8) is one such example.
In contrast to Hamilton’s indigo blue, García’s work uses humans to disturb the process of spectating in order to invite viewers to reflect on interpersonal relations and peer-to-peer observation within the gallery. As we enter the room we see scrolling text projected on the wall and presume it comes from a prerecorded video, until we realize that what is unfolding onscreen is uncannily accurate in its depiction of the room, and the people in it, at the current moment. We eventually become aware that the text is being written live — a live process of constant documentation. This shift makes us understand that we, as visitors, are simultaneously the subject and the object under consideration by the artist. The piece bridges the chasm between social engagement artwork and performance, sliding past the hermiticism of the Hamilton piece and creating a two-way street of action and interaction between the visitor and the artist in the gallery space.
Dor (1975) by Peter Campus is similarly expressive of the human-object relationship in social artwork.
This work is a moving, sparse, closed-circuit portrait of everyday contemporary people. From the description on the SFMOMA website:
A twelve-foot-long access corridor leads into a closed, darkened room. A discreet video camera is placed near the entrance, filming visitors entering and exiting the space; their live image is projected onto an adjacent wall. Viewers already inside the gallery, facing the projection, see the image of each new arrival, gradually perceiving that they can never see themselves as others have seen them. The projected image is a luminous physical presence, but it is only visible to those already within the space, and it is gone by the time the viewer arrives at the vantage site. The visitor exits the space leaving her image in the public record, but without her own visual memory of the incident.
In viewing these portraits, I appreciate the opportunity to be able to look, to stare, to violate social protocol and to drink in the idiosyncrasies and vulgar beauty of the human forms of the people around me. While this normally makes me feel uncomfortable, say on a bus or in an elevator, this work enables and encourages anonymous connection with other strangers in the room and examines elements of being seen, seeing the other, and the impossibility of seeing oneself. In a way it is about being inside and outside of a space simultaneously.
Jon Rubin and Harrell Fletcher reframe the role of the living human and the object in the gallery with their photo studio project Pictures Collected from Museum Visitors’ Wallets (1998), in which museum visitors are invited to take out their wallets and remove the photos in them for re-documentation. These keepsakes, these objects of memory, become the subject of attention in all their banal dignity. The work allows the human in the room not only to contribute content to the exhibition and to the museum’s collection, but also to use the everyday objects they carry into the gallery as a pivot point for a conversation about our lives, our selves, and the aesthetics of the everyday. My friend Brian keeps a little girl’s photo sticking out of a CD load slot in the dashboard of his car. It is faded and pink. She is wearing a dress and is probably five or six years old. I love the fact that he has this photo, and it reminds me that such keepsakes are markers of our humanity. Rubin and Fletcher are able to draw this emotion back up.
The images are humorous in their stagedness, real in their absurdity, intimate in their idiosyncrasies, powerfully emotive and private, and anachronistically entertaining while remaining evidently recent. They help us relate to one another, empathetically if not actively. They remind the viewer of the need to connect with others, as they generously share private details of everyday life between strangers. The project employs the tactility of sharing a photograph as a keepsake that reminds us that we are not alone, but rather part of something greater than the individual.
Deborah Luster’s One Big Self series (1998–2002) presents portraits from Louisiana prisons, made available to the public in a vintage photo display cabinet that the viewer is invited to thumb through. The installation requires activation on the part of the viewer, in a format that is relatively intimate, like a library’s card catalog or a cabinet of curiosities.
These people were, for reasons unknown to the gallery visitor, deemed unfit for society and were removed from it. The images and the stories they tell ooze vitality, even in a space where personal freedoms have been severely reduced and lives dramatically stunted. One sees these individuals and can imagine their family and friends, picture them walking down the street, feel their presence in the room. One Big Self enables the viewer to connect with the people in the display by imagining their unknown pasts.
Anthony McCall’s You and I, Horizontal (2005) is concerned with the space of the room and how a viewer moves through it. It is fundamentally a light and space work but also comes out of the minimalist genre; philosophically, it is concerned with how we relate to one other directly.
Moving through and around the projected three-dimensional forms in the gallery, I reimagine the relationships between myself, the other viewers, and the space that we inhabit. I am transported to a space where basic geometric shapes are rendered completely ephemeral and insubstantial, yet are powerfully present. Like the minimalism of Donald Judd or the light works of James Turrell, McCall’s work represents direct action as the political opposite to representational democracy, suggesting the philosophical tenets of anarcho-pacifism and the exigencies of peer-to-peer negotiation. It signifies lived experience and the negotiation of space as interpersonal and non-coercive, as opposed to governance through representation and order through threat of force. The projected objects possess palpable yet precarious autonomy; seemingly ready to evaporate or dissolve, they have negotiated, through a series of complicated requirements, a stable pattern for living.
Similarly, in his work “Untitled” (Golden) (1995), Felix Gonzalez-Torres creates a flexible barrier that embodies issues at the core of the democratic paradox, namely, the relationship between a privileged in-group and everyone outside of that polity. Entering this polarity in the gallery, the visitor experiences the effects of physical demarcation, yet this membrane is transitory and can be crossed, as opposed to fixed and impermeable.
The faux-gilt and glittering scrim suggests to me opposites: in and out, here and there, this side and that side. It references dreams and reality, life and death, and subject and object. The work suggests something to me about the potentially transgressive aspects of presence and touch, about one’s relationship to an object that needs to be physically manipulated or penetrated, presented in an environment where a viewer is normally not supposed to touch. The scrim itself is surprisingly weighty and cool; the power of the beaded curtain lays itself heavily across my outstretched arm. This work leaves me feeling as though the human touch is magical and the action of parting the curtain is exquisite and dangerous.
1. Mary Caroline Richards, “Poem,” reprinted in Allan Antliff, The Writings of Donald Judd: A Symposium Hosted by the Chinati Foundation, ed. Alan Antliff et al (Marfa, TX: Chinati Foundation, 2009), 182. Richards’s poem was first published in Resistance in 1954.
2. Allan Antliff, “Donald Judd’s ‘First Element’: An Anarchist Genealogy,” in The Writings of Donald Judd, 173.
Justin Hoover’s “constellation of genius,” as suggested by poet Robert Duncan’s diagram:
00:00:00 – 00:07:15 Paul Kos, Atrophy
00:07:15 – 00:16:04 Trisha Donnelly, The Shield, bootleg video of sculptural installation
00:16:04 – 00:20:00 David Ireland photos from Google image search
00:20:00 – 00:32:21 Prince
00:32:21 – 00:46:00 Bas Jan Ader, The Fall 1
00:46:00 – 00:51:24 Rothko
00:51:24 – 01:08:05 Jean Painlevé, L’Hippocampe
01:08:05 – 01:47:15 Justin Hoover, Ways of Exiting #2
01:47:15 – 02:10:23 Olafur Eliasson, Light Show Model for a Timeless Garden
02:10:23 – 03:39:27 Doc Fai Wong, Five Animals Form, from the Hung Sing Lineage.
Justin Hoover is a time-based artist and a curator. As an artist, his work deals with language and translocation through performance, video, and installation. He has performed, curated, and exhibited at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Apex Art, New York; the 2011 Art Life Festival in Guangzhou, China; the Time-Based Art Festival at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, Portland, OR; the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; the Berkeley Art Museum, and many other venues. He is currently Curator and Gallery Director at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco.