New York

Alan Sonfist

Galerie Ariadne

Although most of the work in Alan Sonfist’s recent exhibition has been shown before, certain aspects of it have not been previously brought into as clear a focus, and the show warrants their discussion. All parts of the show, including that beautifully monstrous artifact Autobiography of an Abandoned Animal Hole (a 20-foot plaster cast of an abandoned muskrat hole), may be seen either as a suite or a single work, in a manner similar to William Burroughs’ practice of poetic composition. Burroughs begins with a core text; passages are selected from it and grouped into separate poems, parts of which may be repeated in others. The interlocking poems constitute the total work. Like Krapp in Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape, Sonfist makes an annual record of the events of that year in a poetic/romantic language called forth by the quality of his personal and nature observations.

These yearly sections are gathered into a master autobiography whose totality is seen as a foil for the standard “track record” of exhibitions, schooling, etc. that is generally offered to the world as evidence of one’s worth. Sonfist puts up photographs—records of different projects and events. Underneath these he appends varying versions of his autobiography. His “life” is edited to fit the content of each piece. In Autobiography of Living Rock, which is about the infinitesimal movement of a rock in a bed of similar rocks, his “life“ begins in 1951 —“Sticks trailed me”—and ends in 1974 —“Listened to a square inch of ground.” In Autobiography of Molding Canvas, which deals with the growth of fungi on a canvas, his “life” concerns itself with the properties of air beginning in 1946, the actual year of his birth—“May 26 at 10:10 PM: my first experience was air”—and concludes in 1968—“Started growing micro-organisms as an entity.” Because certain phrases are repeated (i.e. “froze my left hand”) in varying contexts, it is not entirely certain whether we are dealing with one life or ten separate lives. A way of understanding ten separate versions of one autobiography is to consider that although some facts remain constant, the past is constantly being reevaluated and rewritten through the eyes of the present.

The literary/autobiographical aspect of Sonfist’s work is central to an understanding of its true thrust. He has generally been discouraged from emphasizing it, and even in this show, though the photographs are hung at eye level, the texts are placed underneath them so one has either to lean over or kneel to read them.

Another neglected aspect of Sonfist’s work is its quality of metaphor. Robbe-Grillet contrasts metaphor with science. He defines the power of metaphor as the literary act which serves to bind man to the earth, and sets up patterns of association and dependence activating the thing being compared, tying it to both the describer (the author) and the alternate perceiver (the reader). Science or natural history is seen seeking to objectify things.

Minerology, botany, or zoology, on the contrary, pursue the knowledge of textures (internal and extemal alike), of their organization, of their functioning, and of their genesis. But, outside their domain, these disciplines are no longer of any use, except for the abstract enrichment of our intelligence. The world around us turns back into a smooth surface, without signification, without soul, without values, on which we no longer have purchase.

Sonfist is taking the world of “things” and visually and verbally establishing a metaphoric relationship between himself and the world of natural history. Only in Autobiography of Hand and Leaf, where dried curling leaves are juxtaposed with a hand clasped in a similar position, does he make the blatant assertion that one experience resembles another. Generally he re-creates times from his childhood when he experienced the lives of certain animals in the Bronx Zoo, or his awareness of the rhythms of nature or the proportions of trees. He feels that in the truest state of metaphor he has become the animal, or one with nature. The Autobiography of Tiger Chance Kill is one such piece. He hid nude in tall grass and “psyched” himself into duplicating the remembered actions of tigers. In this, Sonfist’s work closely resembles the lion poems of Michael McClure, where McClure becomes the lion, and the reproductions of the sound of its voice and mental state structure the poem.

Ann-Sargent Wooster