New York

Vito Acconci

International With Monument

Some jokes just aren’t funny. I suspect that many observers of Vito Acconci’s recent work must feel this way—as if the author of so many magnificently perverse moments in contemporary art has finally gone too far. Acconci’s work has always sought to engage as well as confound the viewer, opening up many possible readings and feelings, including disgust. Although we have come to expect him to outrage our sensibilities—as in Seedbed, 1971, in which he masturbated while hidden under a platform in a SoHo gallery—his previous work has also stimulated us with its wit and vigor. The perversity of Seedbed was the product of an extremely focused vision; in contrast, the randomness and lack of focus of the three projects in this recent exhibition produced a perversity of another order entirely. These new works provoke certain questions: Are viewers so put off by the strange banality and vulgarity (which far exceeds the willful tackiness of kitsch) that the work offers no point of entry to ideas with which to struggle? Is the fact that no one else would think or dare to do this kind of work enough to sustain serious analysis or even speculation?

Landing, 1987, consists of three aluminum rowboats precisely notched together; they intersect at right angles but are slightly tilted on different sloping planes. The bow of one boat is filled with water and a small school of Japanese goldfish. Surrounding the boats and this makeshift aquarium are clusters of lush potted plants. Acconci has taken a hackneyed, formulaic amenity of interior public spaces—the fountain with a diligently maintained plantscape—and given it a new edge in a new light. In place of travertine basins, he has substituted leakproof aluminum boats that seem to have been washed ashore, their function inverted to keep water in rather than out.

In Overstuffed Chair, 1987, Acconci has covered an ungainly armchair with a thick coating of gray cement. Corners and edges of the original Naugahyde upholstery poke through the heavy veneer. In the seat of the reconstituted chair are three sitting stools cut to different heights. This abundance of sitting places makes the chair dysfunctional and cancels out any possibility of repose.

The third project, Hole in the Ground, 1987, consists of a culvert covered with flagstones, cement, sod, and ferns, and open only at one end. Laid out on the bottom of the culvert is a large rubber mat in the shape of a schematized human figure. This “welcome mat” is supposed to encourage spectators to participate in the sculpture by sliding into the tube, but it did not appear to me to stimulate the spirit of engagement necessary to prompt such action from more than a few people.

These objects are funny, but after the first moments of amusement and bewilderment wore off I felt tremendous uneasiness. Banality no longer seemed quite so interesting. Although the mundane was transformed through juxtaposition and irony, there emerged a sense of both oppressiveness and quiet deception. The initial humor of these pieces had a false gaiety that incompletely obscured a tragic dimension. It is only the evidence of the artist’s consciousness that gives this ugly and ordinary work meaning. Acconci’s understanding of the complicity of relationships, of the messages and signs contained within objects, has a surgical precision. But these three recent projects are close to becoming cadavers; they are drained of life and strain for significance. They are purposely marginal works, courageous risks, but, finally, noble failures by an artist whose restlessness and reluctance to conform is usually enormously productive and provocative.

Patricia C. Phillips