Vito Acconci

Exhibitions of performance artists’ work are often exercises in frustration. Forever deprived of the original event, one must settle for photographs, videos, and other forms of documentation that struggle to fill the void left behind by the missing work. Presenting architectural projects in a museum or gallery setting is equally problematic, plans and models becoming the focus. The unique challenge confronting curators Christine Poggi and Meredith Malone in “Power Fields: Explorations in the Work of Vito Acconci” at the Slought Foundation was how to represent Acconci’s performative and architectural practices in a context seemingly inhospitable to both. Their answer was to divide the exhibition into sections, chronologically and conceptually.

The first part of the show consisted of panels displaying archival documents concerning Acconci’s work of the late 1960s and early 70s. In its laconic simplicity, the curatorial formula here could have been devised by Acconci himself: First, select a work; second, use photographs whenever possible; third, add artist’s preparatory scribbles (preferably incorporating diagrams); finally, attach typewritten description of performance (better if more than one). Each cluster of works in the first section had a unifying theme; if I had to give them labels, I might suggest “Marking Time,” “Public/Private,” and “The Erotics of Control.” The first of these groups focused in part on performances involving predetermined tasks executed at regular intervals; for instance, calling a gallery every ten minutes for the length of a performance (Points/Blanks, 1969) or taking photographs while walking across a stage (Twelve Pictures, 1969) or blinking (Blinks, 1969). In what is probably the most famous example of this kind of work, Trademarks, 1970, Acconci periodically bites his naked body.

Trademarks served here as a transition to the next section, where recurring acts took more threatening, even violent turns. Whether it takes the form of an unseen participant hurling rubber balls at a blindfolded Acconci (Blindfolded Catching, 1970) or the artist hovering over the shoulders of unsuspecting museum visitors (Proximity Piece, 1970), Acconci makes the invasion of personal space a central subject of his work. Some encounters verge on the abusive. Pity poor Kathy Dillon as she is told to tie herself up (Remote Control, 1971) and coerced by the artist into opening shut eyes (Pryings, 1971), or the unlucky gallery-goer to whom a crowbar-wielding Acconci says, “I’ll kill you” (Claim, 1971).

But perhaps our pity should be reserved for the artist himself, or at least for what has become of his work. Despite the curators’ desire to yoke the performances and the architectural projects from the 1970s to the present under the general rubric of the “power field,” the second half of the show was the complete antithesis of the first. Rather than the economy and clarity of documents, one is invited to marvel at the pompous grandeur of floor-to-ceiling computer graphics and photographs, and hypertrophic fonts. Gone are the menacing realities of psychosexual control; fanciful projects clothed in the modish jargon of contemporary design are their impoverished substitutes. The radical undoing of the self that was the old Acconci’s calling card makes way for that paragon of architectural authorship, the commercial office (Acconci Studio, to whom all the post-1988 works are attributed).

Nothing sums up this reversal better than the sprawling Poetry Table, 2008, built especially for the exhibition and installed in the first gallery. In theory, it was meant to be a meeting place for discussion and high-minded mingling. I kept bumping into it while trying to look at the panels, its cut-into form seeming to give it wings mimicking the pincers of some strange metallic monster protecting its lair. I suppose my power field was not operating at the same frequency as Acconci Studio’s. But perhaps Poetry Table proves my point: Acconci is at his most effective when he orchestrates collisions within a given space, not when he tries to construct such spaces from scratch.

Paul Galvez