New York

Vito Acconci

Sonnabend Gallery

Leveling is the title of Vito Acconci's piece. Leveling with the viewer, being honest, telling it straight. Equalizing viewer and artist, putting them on common ground. But also aiming, directing. Different levels of meaning, intention, interpretation, as all of these definitions apply. The theme an exposition in public of private space. A dramatization of self to which one might refer Erving Goffman's concept of presentation through roles. For although Acconci is not physically present in his piece, he is still the performer. A tape of his voice resonates from the various speakers in the gallery, staging the show for the viewer. Furthermore each speaker assumes a part in the script, corresponding in some way to the room in which it is situated. Together the voices constitute an internal monologue of the artist talking, fantasizing, exhorting, explaining to himself. Converting into public a private stream of consciousness, reflecting on the external gestures of artwork evident in the gallery, ostensibly disclosing the process of intention. But is this leveling? Or is it a theatrical device? Purporting to sincerity, a sharing with the viewer, while maintaining the mask, confining self to the act, regulating person to persona.

Perhaps, though, I ought to clarify the situation. As one enters the gallery from the elevator, the first room is roped off by cords strung diagonally from one side to the other. A hint of subterfuge? At the far end of this room an elongated plastic-covered stretcher extends across to a door. However, before one can reach this, one passes through the second room. Here four cubic boxes, varying in size, hang at different heights and angles from rectangular platforms attached to the ceiling. Some are open, some closed. One serves as a monitor for blurred projections of color, unfocused images suggesting arms, hands, maybe feet. Another, sealed with semiopaque plastic, functions as secret container, only partially revealing its contents. A metaphor for concealment? But to return to the stretcher now visible through the door. Its surface acts as a screen for slides of colors, a crowd of people, Acconci's prone body, his hands—the images all attenuated in accord with the needlelike shape of their support. A deliberate distortion, illusion. The third room contains five stalls angling out from the wall. In the first two sheets of plastic cover blown-up figure drawings (presumably of Acconci)—one a segment of the back view, the other of a side. Veiled shadows of a presence. Pictures of Acconci performing are projected, skewed, across the other booths. In each room colored spots light the show. And all the time one is hearing, listening to the tape, as the sound of the voice shifts from room to room, from speaker to speaker.

Some excerpts. “Where am I? . . . why am I here? . . . Go on, make a step. Find the pitch” (humming, various sounds) . . . “Try to remember, remember” (frequently the commands repeat, echo on different speakers). “I got it. There was a painting—a box—door after door, endless hallways” (the voice here is located in the appropriate room. Numerous associations follow, words playing on each other, the instruction to “discover” evoking the language of a voyage) . . . “Go on, don't, stop, build it up, fabricate, lie, lie, lie. You see this course is here to trap you ... I can see you walking there . . . Stop, it doesn't hold up. I admit it, images slide away, where can it lead?—I admit it, boxes can't hold any meaning, I can't know where you are—I admit it, I've put up a screen in front of myself, who do I think I'm fooling?” The tape progresses through similar stops (self-reflection, questioning), go ons (commands, instructions), and descriptive phrases-dialogue (the lines of a possible script). Finally—“go on, go crazy ...the earth is turning inside out . . . the stars are underground—the people are walking backwards . . . it's all over. Boom, b000mm, b000mmm.” Silence and eventually the tape begins again.

It seems important to note that Acconci's reading is assertively melodramatic. Whining, cajoling, feveredly excited, stagily whispered. And so despite the questions, the searching for answers, one is enveloped by the theater. The format of free association lends an illusion of intimacy to the tape. But the viewer does not meet the artist face to face, on a level. Instead one remains distanced as spectator, riveted to a stage, allowed to confront only a concept of self carefully enclosed within its presentation. Perhaps one might equate all this with the creation of a personal mythology, a legend for the artist. Yet in the end what stands out is the artifice. The enticement to a game of hide-and-seek where the artist flaunts his camouflage but the viewer cannot find.

Susan Heinemann