New York

Vito Acconci

Max Protetch Gallery

We tend to think of the house as a private space somehow apart from society, whereas, in fact, it is the social form par excellence. Vito Acconci’s Collision House and Peeling House are also social houses, but of a special sort—they are shelters that expose us to our own social forms, devices that turn our actions into signs.

Collision House consists of several parts: a hut with, inside it, a black flag that reads “NGGR FLG NO 1,” and painted sky and clouds; a shelter identified as “BMB SHLR NO 2”, and a bicycle with connecting wires and pulleys, surrounded by a vision-obscuring wedge. With the bicycle at rest, the house is closed—the viewer must open it, must operate it (as actor or worker?). As he or she moves the bike, the house opens, revealing the shelter. But what sort of collision is this? Of flags and forms, for one, for surely the bomb shelter, inscribed with its own military fear, is a “Western” form, and the hut, with its sky-blue innocence, is an “Eastern” or “African” form. If so, this is colonialism according to Rube Goldberg, cartoon propaganda for Commie kids, and, as such, it is fun and absurd. But could it also imply that our every act or play—even a sport like bike riding or a game like hide-and-seek—is somehow ideological? If so, it is critical . . . and absurd.

Peeling House takes four to play. It also consists of a hut, but this one has an oriental-style thatched roof. It is encircled by curtains—four, to be exact—so we do literally peel the house. The first one is yellow (as in “peril”?). The next is camouflage-color (to signify guerrilla, i.e., Vietnam, warfare?). The third has a snakelike pattern (the insinuations worsen as the plot thickens—or thins). The final one is pink (carnal, as in knowledge or carnage? Pinko?). Finally, with the house peeled, a three-dimensional swastika is revealed, the ultimate political symbol for our time. But what are we to make of it? What, if anything, is fascist here? The hut? The house—or family in general? The use of the hut (as a symbol of the Oriental)? The work of art? Or is it our act that is fascist? Our peeling . . . raping . . . pillaging? Our peeling . . . uncovering meaning . . unmasking ideology? One thing is sure: Our sign reflex is suddenly numbed, made dumb; our desire to affix types is suspended. And we are made aware of the closure of thought, which was, to Marx at least, the real meaning of ideology.

These works turn on the terms “collision” and “peeling.” There is, first, the collision of subjects, of forms (shelter/hut, “peeler”/hut), of ways of life (“advanced/primitive,” military-industrial/agricultural), of West and East or North and South. There is, also, the collision of artist and public. More and more with Acconci, though, the viewer “replaces” the artist—he or she performs the art, operates the work, explicates it, and is implicated by it. This implication is troublesome: after the fun, we are made fun of, “peeled” of our habitual thought, our Rube Goldbergian models—models of society as purely class or race conflict, culture as merely a reflection of economy, history as simply cause and effect. These things are not mere mechanisms any more than meaning is merely a “peeling.” An ideology is not so simply “exposed”; a symbol is not so immediately “revealed.” This is important to stress, but why here, in the context of “art”? For Acconci, as for many others, art seems to be the place where sex, commodity production, ritual, and political activism may come together. But as what? A mechanism, a desiring machine, a meaning device? A tool, a weapon, or a toy? What is the point? If it is play, there is not much pleasure here.

Hal Foster