Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Very Very Interesting, but do we want more myths? (even if they are created by the people)

I have been thinking about Rauschenberg and the Situationists recently as two (albeit unlikely) sides of the same coin in an effort to understand the historical precedents for what appears to be an emerging trend or, at the very least, a shared sensibility among some individual artists who are exploring the confluence of art and life. They are combining Rauschenberg’s incorporative tendencies with the Situationists’ programmatic call for the dissolution of art into lived experience to produce work that infiltrates the world and subtly alters reality by rewriting its cultural narratives. Situating their art firmly within the everyday, they are each creating ‘real’ fictions with the goal of modifying the very fabric of our social discourse. These fictions are often staged as events, but it is less the performative aspect of the work than the way it is remembered, discussed and disseminated within the public’s collective consciousness that constitutes the conceptual core of each project. In short, the artists are producing contemporary myths from the stuff of the real world, converting the ordinary into the remarkable or, at least, the merely memorable.

I first became aware of this tendency in 2002, when Francis Alÿs moved a mountain – or so the story goes. As his contribution to the third Ibero American Biennial, Lima, the artist directed 500 shovel-wielding volunteers standing in a single line at the base of a 1,600 foot-long sand dune to displace enough earth to shift its location, albeit by just a few inches. This project, When Faith Moves Mountains, evolved out of Alÿs’ response to the havoc wreaked by the decade-long presidency of Alberto Fujimori in Peru. In a place of such severe deprivation and desolation he wanted to create an extreme yet poetic gesture that would reverberate beyond the comfortable confines of the art-viewing audience. Hence Alÿs gave the inhabitants of Lima a ‘social allegory’ to tell and retell until it becomes the stuff of local legend, a story recounting the day the earth moved. Although there are photographs and a video installation documenting this most ephemeral of earthworks, the art, according to Alÿs, can be fully realized only through the recitation and circulation of its narrative. He understands this process as the fabrication of a myth, which, rather than being about the perpetuation of political or cultural values imposed from above, requires the direct interpretive participation of the audience, who must determine the work’s meaning in relation to its own experience.1


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