Peter Eleey

Left: Graciela Carnevale, Encierro y Escape (Entrapment and Escape), 1968. Performance view, Experimental Art Cycle, Rosario, Argentina, 1968. Photo: Carlos Militello. Right: Robert Rauschenberg, White Painting (Three Panel), 1951, oil on canvas, 72 x 108”.

Peter Eleey has worked as a curator for Creative Time and, since 2007, at the Walker Art Center. Recently Eleey was appointed the curator of MoMA PS1, a position he’ll begin on July 1. Here he discusses his most recent exhibition at the Walker, “The Talent Show,” which runs until August 15.

I FIRST LEARNED ABOUT GRACIELA CARNEVALE’S PIECE a number of years ago in Lucy R. Lippard’s book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, where she mentions the 1968 action in Rosario, Argentina. It is also described in Mari Carmen Ramírez’s writings, and Claire Bishop included Graciela’s statement accompanying the piece in her 2006 anthology on participation. I’ve always been interested in hostile art––Bruce Nauman’s voice banishing you from his mind and the gallery, for example, or Tomas Schmit locking people out of the theater, or Vito Acconci sitting at the bottom of the stairs menacing people with a pipe––and Graciela’s hostage taking fascinated me with its quieter and coercive violence. Chris Burden also did a hostage piece, in Milan in 1975, but locked himself in with the audience; Graciela simply locked the door and went home. (In both cases, however, the audiences were freed by people breaking in from outside after about an hour.) I had raised the question with Graciela of whether she would be willing or interested to restage the action. Not surprisingly, she felt it was tied very specifically to the political conditions in Argentina at that moment, and did not wish to do so. I don’t know that I would have wanted to try it, necessarily, but it was an interesting thing to consider from within the boundaries of the museum. At the time I was thinking about how vulnerable we are willing to make ourselves in the presence of art, and I liked how Chris’s and Graciela’s actions each used art as a trap.

Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” from 1951, which use blankness as a particularly effective trap, were central to my initial thinking about the exhibition (though I wasn’t ultimately able to borrow one). When you see one, you naturally approach it to examine its surface, but when you get close to it, you often find that your shadow is cast onto the painting by the gallery lights. This shadow play is part of what Rauschenberg considered to be the content of this series, which is a nicely coercive twist on his desire to work in the gap between art and life. Of course, there is something exciting and empowering about being in a Rauschenberg painting, but it is the undercurrent of fascism in that encounter that I was interested in, and Graciela throws that particular dynamic of participation and control into relief against the backdrop of a military dictatorship.

For almost five years in the United States we’ve known that our government spies on us, and we accept it. The corporate collection and use of our personal information has arisen in perfect parallel to the “war on terror” that provided the impetus for the government’s expansive surveillance, and popular culture from American Idol to Facebook has concurrently encouraged us to perform our private lives as public theater. These shifts in attitude toward privacy and their commingling with security and entertainment, which I view as fundamentally coercive, made me look differently at the blank stage of Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” and find in them something with a darker possibility. An artist told me recently that being contemporary means being constantly on view, and I think he’s right. I was trying to create an experience of that evolving condition, in all its pleasures and discomforts––and, as Graciela aimed to, to make us aware of our own responsibility, whether as hostages, witnesses, or willing participants in systems of control much bigger than ourselves.