PRINT Summer 1977

Terry Fox Meanders

WHEN I OPENED THE DOOR I heard a snoring sound coming from a tape recorder across the room. I had been apprised that a performance of Terry Fox’s The Labyrinth Scored for the Purrs of 11 Different Cats was to be held one day in March. Next I tripped over a piton and ring fixed to the floor a few feet inside the door. I assumed that had to do with the industrial or warehousing use of the building; the first floors were still evidently in use for that sort of business, so a piton and ring might be left over from a former tenant. Only later did I realize that this also was part of the show, which puzzled me until Fox told me that there was a piton and ring fastened to the first steppingstone in the labyrinth in the pavement of Chartres Cathedral. The Chartres labyrinth was, in fact, the source of the several pieces in the show, and they are all metaphors for the labyrinth.

The Chartres labyrinth is circular, 40 feet in diameter, with 552 stepping-stones moving in arcs back and forth through the entire figure until one is admitted to the centripetal middle. The arcs of the path are a quarter or a half circle long before the path first turns, and one must retrace one’s steps an interval further away till the next turn. The labyrinth is not a maze: one cannot get lost or be misguided or ambushed, as one can in the high yew hedge at Hampton Court or even as the maidens might have in Minos’ minotaur maze. The path at Chartres is circuitous, but not to mislead; only to impose a discipline and/or physical ritual upon the aspirant. Actually the floor labyrinth at Chartres is now covered by chairs of a modern age, which I take to be a clue from another era that the church had once been open for standing and walking—perhaps for live theater, processions with relics and candles, or some sacred abracadabra that the church put away ages ago. The church must originally have been a more participatory institution. I asked Fox if he felt it might have served as a penance device—the physical equivalent to a prayer, for pacing off an atonement. He thought not, but I still tend to wonder, nevertheless. For Fox the walk pattern is definitely a mantra which can bring one through anxiety and confusion with a feeling of bliss and even an eagerness to create. When the announcement first came in the mail I had assumed that the rubber stamp on the card represented a mandala from Tibet. It seemed very yogic and akin to the prayer wheel. I might even have seen this one before. I traced the path with a pencil on the announcement before seeing the show: such a device invites participation (that had been Fox’s reading of it, too). Similarly, his show required more than disembodied looking.

The next piece, after the ring and piton in the floor, consisted of two stools with their legs fixed together, the seats being on the floor and in the air. A cord between the bottoms of the two opposing stool seats had a cardboard disc with a rubber-stamped labyrinth printed in the center. The upper stool might allude to the tall Gothic space of the cathedral, but what is beneath? Well, there is an underground river flowing beneath Chartres, and since the water table is the same depth as the roof is high, the architects might well have known this and incorporated the relation into their own grand design. Fox himself does feel that the labyrinth is a metaphor for the river (radiating circles could even represent a stone dropped on the surface of water). This “riverness,” in turn, is what suggested to Fox his further metaphorical leap, to the cats purring.

The purrs of the cats on the tape are 552 in number, or rather there are 552 time intervals, measured by the first cat’s inhalation and exhalation, although other cats had greater and shorter purring sequences. (Five of the cats recorded on the tape were from San Francisco, and six were from New York; the tape was made at the Z.B.S. Foundation in Fort Edwards, N.Y., so some were Upstate cats and some city cats.) The taping was completed in December of 1976. The final splicing had the cats in no apparent sequence denoting origin or chronology. Since cats hear up to 90,000 cycles per second, whereas humans only hear 40,000 cycles (dogs 60,000), the loud volume allows one to hear the purring more as it would sound to a cat. Most viewers paused to listen to the tape for awhile, but continued to examine the rest of the show while the tape was playing; others listened as if transfixed.

The first cat to be taped was Boogaloo from San Francisco, and her purring, according to Fox, was the only “real extrovertish sexual purr in the lot.” She had just recently been weaned, but the presence of a recently pregnant dachshund with full dugs still fresh with milk proved overwhelmingly tempting (and no specially cataclysmic occurrence to the dachshund), so cat and dog related in happy symbiosis. This first ecstatic purring may well have been as instrumental to the piece’s inspiration as the labyrinth at Chartres. Boogaloo has, alas, succumbed to leukemia, but most of the cats who were taped are still alive. Samantha came to the premiere performance, but failed to give any sign of recognition either of herself or the other cats. Puffin, Tom and Ernest are still in San Francisco.

Making the tape itself proved arduous. A bus or plane would go by, disturbing the hypnotic resonance. Or a cat would become curious and begin to paw the microphone. Or they would suddenly cease purring and begin to lick their fur.

Fox has been aware for the last six years that the labyrinth was a powerfully suggestive motif, and had been considering this sort of show for some time. His last show to contain any objects was also his last show in San Francisco, five years ago. Since then he has had shows in Naples, Florence, Paris and New York, but with almost no objects. These were body shows, idea acts, videotapes, etc., performances that needed only disposable props—some such thing as a fish, for example. But things were necessary to become metaphoric equivalents of the labyrinth.

One object, which may suggest a scorpionlike form, was the largest and most complex of the (untitled) works shown. In that piece an inclined arc, with periodic switches up its incline, makes contact with a metal ball hung by an electric wire from the 15-foot ceiling. The viewer must set the ball’s circular pendulum in motion. On the sweeps of the ball which close an electrical contact, a device is activated which rattles a rattlesnake’s rattle. The switching mechanism did close a kind of gestalt complex, and the labyrinth itself is a gestalt, but I did wonder at first if the artist had not stretched the labyrinth metaphor too thin.

However, the meaning was clarified by the other ball-on-a-string piece in the exhibition. There the ball revolved around a glass of water; when it struck the glass a tone sounded. Sometimes each succeeding tone was slightly dissimilar to the last. At other times the repeating clinks would be regular in tone, with interval and rhythm.

As the pendulum-in-motion piece begins to run down, the ball stops and starts in the opposite direction, changing its direction again and again and defining reversing arcs, just as in the labyrinth. If the glass object or the pendulum’s own switching mechanism were not present, the viewer/participant would quite likely activate the pendulum in a linear rather than rotating path. Why is the water in the glass? To modulate the tone of the clink? Or does it represent the river again? Perhaps both. And the snake’s rattle? A moment of truth.

There were also drawings, but the viewer saw them scattered together on the floor, not primly arranged on the walls. To examine them you had to get down and pick them up, handle them, pass them to your friend. Printed notes spindled on a nail (which also held the end of a long string, the knotted “score” for another tape) were too close to a corner of the room to read handily. An imposed participation gave you the feeling of looking for clues, examining evidence. The objects were without any particular felicity as objects, but they were infinitely evocative, especially of tools or instruments made, or selected, to be held and used.

These pieces are suggestive to most people in too many, and too personal, ways for the artist himself to have anticipated, yet they utilize one primary mnemonic device that can key into many people’s memories in different ways. By its turns, the labyrinth of arcs defines the lines of the the cross without ever stating them: they are only implied by the shifts at the end of each arc. (The figure also suggests the lotus form of another religion.) By the implied (rather than directly drawn) cross the walker acts on the cross’s directions, metaphorically discovering the cross configuration behind everything, everywhere. Similarly, as various religions insist that God should not be named, Fox’s metaphors only imply religious motifs.

Think of how dramatic it might be to walk this meander very swiftly or very solemnly, utterly alone or in the company of a multitude. The parts are the same and without individuality, without even the certainty of regular sequence (No. 11 is the fourth arc to be walked). And, although the first walk enters close to the center of the labyrinth, you then move away from the center for nine paths of arcs before returning to it—and then only to move further afield before the final return. When you do arrive in the centripetal middle you again have to retrace all your steps to leave. Even at the beginning the message could be stated as “there is your destination, now you must begin to get there.” The whole experience suggests a downward pull for Fox. He did subtitle the whole show “Metaphors for Falling,” insisting that all the pieces are such metaphors, just as to walk the actual labyrinth would disorient you, make you dizzy or even perhaps fall. The completely uninitiated might even trip on the piton at the entrance to the labyrinth. Only the steadfast can persevere. This is an accomplishment for Everyman, although Everyman might well anticipate falling and resist.

One piece in the show expresses falling more obviously than the others. A caged meander of the labyrinth arcs, cut out from the rubber stamp representation on cardboard, hangs down from its center on the ceiling to the entry step on the floor—more like a lemon peel removed in a total coil than a spring. This illustrates quite succinctly that the labyrinth is the continuous meander of a single line, but it also triggers very personal thoughts about plunging descent.

On a table were a drawing of a circle intersected by a cross and a pencil with a string—like a fishing pole with a sinker at the end of the line. I held the sinker directly over the center, as an accompanying legend instructed me to, and moved my eyes back and forth horizontally. The sinker began to move forth and back too; likewise vertically. And as I began to move my eyes along the circle, the sinker began to revolve. After proceeding analytically with several of the pieces, the reader can no doubt parse this metaphor himself. We can proceed to the vexing problem, Does the sinker fall? It is hanging. It is hanging pendulously. Things that are hanging pendulously may have fallen into their present “hang-up.” I seem to wonder if there is still some confusion about the difference between hanging and falling. I do not doubt that my brother, who died in a windy plunge while mountain-climbing, knew the difference.

The gallery’s practice is to give an artist a week to study the space and determine what the show will be and how to set it up, the announcement having gone out before the set-up. The Site Gallery is a large room with an “el” aspect, one deep skylight and another eccentric fraction of a skylight—most of which lights an adjoining studio. Terry Fox’s ideas and their redefinition into objects probably changed in the course of the setting-up time. And the hanging/falling ambiguity may have evolved during that very creative week.

The drawings on the floor diagrammed alternative designs for the floor plan of the show. There was a rectilinear redesign of the labyrinth, in which Fox changed the turn and return to a 90-degree angle turn left or right: the resultant opened-up form was a blocky cross with a base and a crown, somewhat reminiscent of the cross as seen on an altar. If Fox did not puzzle out the architect’s own sources or intentions, then he did propound a convincing argument about another possibility. Another drawing retained the arc, expressed it linearly on a long strip of adding-machine paper. Still another portrayed the labyrinth’s path as a cylinder, with the original flat, rectilinear variation implicit in the curve and the two ends joined end to end. Having the drawings of the floor on the floor made sense when you realized that they were of this very floor.

A flat white box, also on the floor, contained two stacks of 13 glass rectangles. This had the quality of an instrument. I found myself on the floor handling sharp little pieces of glass. One pile began with the center of the labyrinth marked on the pane, and proceeded with the steps of each of the 11 lines delineated on succeeding planes; the other pile performed the obverse, with the 12th pane for the middle and the 13th of clear glass. To protect the others? To represent the river? Or, perhaps, because Christ and the apostles numbered 13? The viewer was forced to be the performer while being instructed by a device to parse the labyrinth. Many must have glanced into the box and felt satisfied to close it without trifling with the piles of panes (whereas viewers frequently decided to play the other glass in glass-harmonica fashion. These sounds added a drone to the tapes, lending it ecstatic intensity).

Another original long tape on the labyrinth theme had been made at a previous performance. Piano strings (probably 11), as long as 22 feet, had been stretched over 6-inch bridges and fastened to the floor of a loft. While Fox played this instrument with a small mallet the audience was in the loft downstairs. There was a microphone in each loft to make the tape, the audience viewing Fox’s hands, and the strings, on a TV monitor. In the middle of this tape was a mix of all the strings, which made the sounds into a mighty drone. This passage proved the counterpart in the cat tape to a mix of all 11 cats purring, a veritable waterfall of sound.

In a glass bowl was a collection of so-called “Chinese puzzles,” none of which I had seen before, although I thought they might be the same as others which I did know about, so I took one apart to be sure. The puzzles are made of two stiff wires twisted into odd shapes and interlocking, the problem being to unlock them; both wires are identical, and to take them apart one must find the exact reverse symmetry.

Finally, there it was again, up on the fractional piece of skylight which the gallery shares with its neighbor: the labyrinth painted on the skylight, fitted into one large pane. Many of the pieces in the show were concentrated along the floor beneath that curious slot of skylight, with the sunlight modulated by the lines of the labyrinth painted on the glass. The rest of the room looked relatively vacant, although the hanging balls rotated in sweeping arcs, and the largeness of the room produced a resonator for the tape sounds.

Knute Stiles, an artist and writer, lives in San Francisco.