New York

Alice Aycock, Jacki Apple, Martha Wilson, and Rita Myers

112 Greene Street

Alice Aycock’s constructed wooden scaffolding with ladders and the two drawings shown with it for towerlike buildings—Study for a Hexagonal Building and Study for a Building with Footholds for Climbing the Walls may be seen as the pendant to her recent Project for a Network for Underground Wells and Tunnels, built in the fall of 1975 in Far Hills, New Jersey. When I asked Aycock why she built a scaffolding, she answered that when she goes outdoors she builds down and when she is inside she builds up. The scaffolding looks like a giant jungle-gym, a participative play structure in the genre of Robert Morris’s Tate Museum show. But, like balancing on one of Morris’s ledges, the actual experience of climbing one of the longer ladders eliminated any notions I had had about fun. Although the structure is built extremely soundly, employing the traditional bracing techniques found in the construction of bleachers in a large stadium, and while it is clearly bolted together firmly, the ladder is extremely narrow and the platform, when one reaches the top, is too small for comfortable long-term residency. If one has any tendency toward acrophobia, climbing Aycock’s scaffolding will bring on an attack. The narrowness of the climbing structure relates to the compression of space in the tunnels, and both are meant to bring one in touch with fear, however belied by the soundness of the carpentry.

Jacki Apple’s Trunk Pieces are typical of a certain kind of diaristic self-analysis which has been prevalent of late. A little less than a quarter of the gallery space is blocked off into an environment. Three walls of the square space are covered with tacked-up sheets of paper covered with writing and photographs like pages from a journal. The text commences on the far left wall with multifarious definitions of the words “trunk” and “transport.” Skipping the windows, the text continues on the opposite wall and the adjacent one. A series of old trunks and suitcases, some open with a few objects trailing out and others closed, dominate the center of the space. In the far corner of the floor is a black and white photograph of the sprawled figure of a woman partially covered with actual dirt.

Apart from its self-revelatory pose, Apple’s work pivots on the didactic exposition of two interlocking strategies which do not wholly succeed. The principal concept is that one’s life can be read out of its artifacts. She verbally describes incidents from what appears to be her grandmother’s, her mother’s and her own life and bases this description on various nostalgia-laden objects such as a wedding ring, a hat, a “handmade peach silk camisole slip her grandmother had bought in Paris in 1925.” These are either documented by photographs included within the text or are actually present in the trunks.

Apple opposes the idea of artifacts as conveyors of meaning with the notion that it is not the relationship between objects, people and events which connects them, but it is the space between, which is of equal if not greater significance in generating a sense of continuity. Within the manuscript she quotes Lawrence Durrell to this end—“They were actually connected by the empty space between them, the interstices between feelings, so to speak, which set up this electrical impulse called desire.” The effect of structuring the piece around space is that while the quality of memory is evoked, the overall impact of the plethora of unrelated recollections is one of scattering and disjunction.

The primary defect of this initially pleasant piece is its obsession with style and the accoutrements of the fashionable life. One tends to believe Apple less when she is writing about personal pain than when she is describing veneer and its effect. Even when “she” attends her mother’s funeral, it is the style of the event which is of greater significance than the actual termination of life and its meaning to her.

In January her mother died. She’d been to Fellini films and she knew how to look at a funeral, black dress, black hat, veiled porcelain pale face, carefully coifed hair, red painted mouth that smiles and whispers “Thank you” with lowered lashes. Death with dignity and style the way her mother would have wanted it.

Martha Wilson sets up a forced situation which many other artists, such as Joseph Kosuth, have used, in which one is presented with notebooks on tables. The only way one can experience the work is to commit oneself to sitting at the tables for a length of time and reading the materials presented. I do not generally enjoy this genre of art because I do not feel comfortable sitting in the middle of a gallery and reading. Wilson takes into consideration the reader’s sense of exposure, and she deviates from the attempt at a neutral environment which is the norm for this type of work by establishing a stage set of three tables and chairs brightly illuminated with reading lamps. They combine a theatrical depiction of a library and the actual experience of being buried in the stacks and studying in your own isolated carel.

One can call anything art. But, I am not sure that asking a viewer to sit and read three separate versions of the same personal “story” is a facet of the visual arts. It seems to me that one can discuss the literary aspects of many works if they have a coequal visual presentation, but no matter what the Art-Language coterie says, I think there is a difference between short stories, even when very well handled (as Martha Wilson’s are), and art.

Rita Myers uses video images and language to explore the constraints that are placed on the human body and, by extension, the mind. In Dumbdadeaddadumb, two video monitors are set in a corner of the room at a 90-degree angle from each other. They face primitive benches of planks resting on cinderblocks and show two different images of a person’s back sitting on the same benches and swaying with the metronomic self-comforting, rocking of mental patients or dobbining old men in synagogues. The left monitor discloses a continuous view of the entire back; in the right monitor, the camera slowly moves around the figure from as many angles as possible without revealing the face and destroying the anonymity of the figure. The observer is asked to identify with the televised image, duplicating the position of the body on the screen by placing one’s body in a like position on the bench. The 35-minute voice-over tape contains 16 sets of instructions on how to move the body through space, from the kinetic/physiological to the “metaphysical.” In both this work and Investigations/Observations. “We are alone here,” executed at Douglass College in the spring of 1975, Myers has been developing the concept of the anonymous narrator examining, directing and cajoling the observer. The tone of the voice remains constant, but one alternately feels that one is being spoken to by a Brave New World propagandistic type of sleep instruction, the beloved wisdom of a spiritual teacher and the dry, objective descriptions of the New Novel. By committing oneself to listening to the voice, a deliberate mental bonding is achieved. Both monitors broadcast identical sets of instructions, but in different sequences. The words repeat and overlap, and Myers deliberately plays with the observer’s difficulty in locating repeated events in any form of real time. The only major flaw in Dumbdadeaddadumb is the difficulty in absorbing oneself in the work. The extremely public space it was shown in militates against total involvement.

Ann-Sargent Wooster