Jochen Gerz

For an American audience unfamiliar with Jochen Gerz’s work, the traveling retrospective “People Speak” provided a good introduction, offering a wide selection of work from the past 27 years. The exhibition included both freestanding sculptures and wall works combining text and image; exhibited as well were examples of “interactive sculptures” (some produced in collaboration with Esther Shalev-Gerz), pieces either re-created, presented in the form of photographic documentation, or made accessible by computer.

Though formally diverse, Gerz’s works all seek to empower viewers, offering them the authority and freedom to construct meaning. This is most evident in his “interactive sculptures,” which solicit public opinion as their primary material. Gerz supplies the means and the viewers supply the content. In the installation The Memorial Day for May 29, 1974, Takes Place on the Same Day, 1974, for instance, viewers are invited to speak into a microphone hooked up to a loudspeaker, which projects the voice of anyone who wishes to be heard. The work equalizes the roles of artist and spectator, dismantling the traditional hierarchy that elevates art and artist above the viewing public.

The content of The Memorial Day is ephemeral—the voices are not recorded. However, Gerz’s most recent interactive piece, The Plural Sculpture, 1995, involves recording and archiving participants’ opinions. This work resulted from a workshop Gerz conducted with art students at SUNY Purchase. First designed as a World Wide Web site on the Internet, it is a repository of responses to the students’ query: “If art had the power to change your time, what would you ask for?” The several hundred replies range from serious musings on international politics to whimsical wordplays and simple rebuttals like “more time.” The variety in the responses reflects the diversity of the international community existing on the Internet. Visitors to the exhibition could also enter their own answers into the database.

“People Speak” also included an extensive collection of Gerz’s conceptually based photo-text works from the ’60s to the ’90s. The photographs often involve multiple subjects: 12 portraits of young women in Le Grand Amour #1 (Fictions), 1980; views of the sky cropped by foliage and a dark shadowy interior in The Sleeping Dog, 1984; and close-ups of a grassy meadow and a sky reflected in water at dusk in The Marriage, 1986. The images are accompanied by texts describing the thoughts or activity of an unspecified individual. Here, as in Gerz’s photo-text works, the juxtaposition of text and images is like a blank slate, the significance of their relationship awaiting to be constructed by the individual viewer.

Gerz’s work is pluralistic and open-ended. Empowering the viewer through the invitation to participate in the fabrication of the art’s meaning, the interactive sculptures and photo-text works subvert the singular voice typically associated with artistic authority: the spectator’s interpretation can be reduced, in Gerz’s critique, to the words spoken by a ventriloquist’s dummy. The collaborative nature of these pieces permits diverse and complex experiences to coexist in the public sphere.

Kirby Gookin