Live from the Studio
On Statement Objects
“All the things I know but of which I am not at the moment thinking” (Robert Barry)
Some of the art that is most important to me is work I’ve never seen. I’m thinking of La Monte Young’s “Composition 1960 #5. Turn a butterfly… loose in the performance area… the doors and windows may be opened before the butterfly is turned loose and the composition may be considered finished when the butterfly flies away.” It’s a work I’ve only read. Sometimes there’s a photograph, but not one that’s up to the task of conveying the work: Robert Barry’s “Inert Gas Series: Helium. Sometime during the morning of March 5, 1969, 2 cubic feet of Helium will be released into the atmosphere. 1969” I like the redundant “1969” there. Here’s a piece which is invisible, undetectable even, and still expending into space more than forty years later. A piece which we might breathe in accidentally and unknowingly. I’ve seen the grayish photo that Barry used to document this piece, but it added little – a few people on a dusty hillside. The work, if it ever did physically happen, exists primarily in language. Or Vito Acconci’s iconic “Following Piece.” Choosing a person at random, in the street, any location, each day. Following him wherever he goes, hover long or far he travels (the activity ends when he enters a private place – his home, office, etc.) Activity, various durations, 23 days. New York, 1969. The picture I’ve seen of the back of Acconci’s head (though admittedly, a little suggestive and creepy) isn’t what tells you the piece.
I’m fascinated by this whole class of works of art I call “statement objects,” works where a short text (sometimes even a title) acts as an instruction from which the piece can be made. In a way it’s a kind of narrative impulse – the story of the work, rather than the work itself, is the work (a paradox, a bit of recursive code). Or that moment when the story and the work actually collapse into each other, an artistic singularity. It’s a point where the work and knowledge about the work almost become one thing. Such work can be copyrighted, but never precisely owned.
One of the genesis points for this kind of work was John Cage’s famous experimental composition class at the New School from 1957 to 1959 (which included as students George Brecht, Alan Kaprow, Al Hansen, Dick Higgins, Jackson Mac Low, and La Monte Young). This class influenced a blooming of event scores and performance instructions among the loose conglomerate of artists connected to Fluxus. George Brecht’s Water Yam was a box of cards with 70 – 100 of his scores (depending on the edition). One laconic example from Water Yam: “Word Event: Exit” (1961). Alison Knowles’ event scores included “#2 Proposition (1962): Make a salad,” which she is still performing. And of course there’s Yoko Ono: “Wind Piece: Make a way for the wind.” In her book Grapefruit there is a version of the text which goes on: “This was first performed in 1962 Sogetsu Art Center, Tokyo, with a huge electric fan on the stage. In 1966 Wesleyan University, Conn., audience was asked to move their chairs a little and make a narrow aisle for the wind to pass through. No wind was created with special means.”
From another angle, the obvious prototypes of these statement objects are found in conceptual art, in Lawrence Weiner’s “Statements” (for instance “Work Nr. 029, 1969, A square removal from a rug in use”). Or Sol Lewitt’s wall drawings: “Wall Drawing #97 Ten thousand straight and ten thousand not straight lines.”
Contemporary examples include Ross Birrill’s “Envoy” series: ENVOY: United Nations: 2000. A copy of Thomas Moore’s Utopia is gifted to the United Nations.” Or more famously, Martin Creed’s “Work No. 227. The Lights Going On And Off.” Or Santiago Sierra’s “8 people paid to remain inside cardboard boxes (Guatamala City, 1999),” Or playfully, Lee Walton’s Wappenings (web happenings): “Wappening #3: On Saturday, June 9th precisely at noon, an attractive, single and slightly bookwormish woman carrying a stack of books and loose papers will descend the steps of the NYC Public Library. Halfway down the steps, she will awkwardly stumble and spill her papers and books everywhere. Will you be there to help her?”
There are dozens if not hundreds of these works littered on the art-historical and contemporary landscape. I’ve been collecting for the past several years towards an informal archive, a version of which is finding its way into the new edition of the Library of Art. One aspect of the general project of the Library of Art is to participate in a conversation with these works which continue to affect me.
In their nature as instructional works, statement objects are inherently participatory, whether they operate on the level of imagination or realization. They are paradoxically and simultaneously linguistic and experiential. Because they can be made by anyone, they are playful and social, eluding ownership and control.