Patrick Clancy

Houston Center For Photography

Patrick Clancy sets rigorous tasks for his audience. Both his wall-size photoscroll 365/360 (The City and the Plowed Field) and the 60-minute performance 365/360 (The Crossroads) possess considerable intellectual density and thus present a challenging degree of viewing difficulty. This factor is relative, of course, to the standard of the “conditioned glance,” i.e., the few seconds that a viewer devotes to each work in a gallery environment, or the general inclination toward passive reception in theater/performance situations.

Somewhat resembling the format of a photographer’s contact sheet, the photoscroll consists of six horizontal rows of continuous photoimages derived from various sources, with two lines of text beneath each row. As a further test of the viewer’s will to grapple with meaning, the lower line of text is printed backward and must be read with a hand mirror or deciphered letter by letter (mirrors were provided by the museum). For Clancy, the sustained engagement of this task represents the sort of deconditioning of viewing habits that he believes is necessary to enter the work fully. The mirror, in fact, is a simple device whereby we converge with the work as we move sideways along the wall, tracking the narrative sense of Clancy’s voice in the guise of Arthur Cravan, the proto-Dadaist writer and amateur boxer who apparently vanished in Mexico in 1918, at the age of 31. Sample: “Accelerate the process of meaning construction. The many signs and people I encounter as well as my prolonged disorientation increase my ability to pay attention without being mystified. My attitude is not unlike his indifference, but I have selected a more physical realm and possibly the consequences are more exacting.” A notation at the end of this backward text ascribes the material to what Clancy calls “The Lost Notebooks of Arthur Cravan,” and the “he” referred to in the above quote (“his indifference”) is Marcel Duchamp, whom in Clancy’s fictional account Cravan sought out in Buenos Aires in 1918. (Actually Cravan was last seen in Vera Cruz in spring 1918, after having married Mina Loy in Salina Cruz that February. It was she who went to Buenos Aires, having taken the only available berth on a ship bound for South America; he was to meet her there and the two of them would continue on to Europe, but he disappeared.)

Clancy posits Cravan and Duchamp as two elements in a tripartite paradigm of the artist, the third element being “the Marey runner”—the man who ran while wearing the chronographic apparatus devised by the 19th-century French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey for his motion-study photographs. Duchamp is described as the voyeur whose locus is the balcony of his apartment; from that fixed point he views the passing world. Cravan, on the other hand, operates in a less cerebral, ”more physical realm." He is an adventurer, a traveler, a boxer—a man of locomotion. Of these three recurrent figures—Duchamp, the marvelous iconoclast who by a mental leap shifted the site of art to the hardware store; Cravan, the physical giant and antiesthete who made a career of molesting bourgeois virtues; and the anonymous Marey runner–it is the latter who provides the key, the peripatetic metaphor, to the visual conundrums that proliferate in Clancy’s imposing project. As viewers we identify with Cravan’s mobile sensibility because we, like the Marey runner, have had to traverse the trans-historical delirium of images and language presented by Clancy’s wall. It is the Marey runner who undertakes precisely the set of tasks that confront viewers of this work, and who serves as guide, optic nerve, and forager in a world of spectral images. During the performance, the Marey runner (Clancy) hurls himself against an equivalent wall of images and text fragments recreated by slide projection. Symbolically, this wall of ghostly semblances that he attempts to break through may be understood as das Erfahrungsfeld (the field of experience) or as the shadows of Plato’s cave.

Clancy claims not to be constructing (or reconstructing) myth. However, despite all of its rich and lively density, 365/360 may be hermeneutically overdetermined: the interpretive space left for the viewer feels somewhat confined. Furthermore, there is a palpable though not altogether unpleasant romanticism that clings to its protagonists and gives the appearance that Clancy is taking up history on the side of continued masculine ascendancy by assuming the role of son to these fathers. The one female principal, Mina Loy, played by Gwen Widmer in the performance, does not present an independent voice. Instead, as Cravan’s lover she amplifies his story while having no corresponding subjectivity of her own. At this point, 365/360, which has been a long-term undertaking for Clancy, remains a work in progress. It is unclear to what extent any gender bias might inhibit or stall the forward development of the Marey runner—but certainly, insofar as he is meant to signify an integrated artistic model, the issue deserves examination.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom