Twenty years ago, art critic and enthusiast, Hans Ulrich Obrist, came upon the idea to write a manual, with the help of some of his well-known artist friends, on how to create art - in a sense. The Do It guide offers instructions to its successors in the form of guidelines, some are rather simple and some quite complex and abstract. To celebrate the book's anniversary, a compendium has been released that includes not just visual art directives but performance, sculpture and philosophy.
This past weekend, the artist live-in/performance space Alabama Song presented 27 artists' take on the Do It: Compendium. The show, Do It: Houston, was organized by colleagues at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Max Fields and Olivia Junell, along with Alabama Song's Gabrielle Martinez.
Fields and Junell chose artists in various mediums and walks of life and each selected a score from the book with which to interpret what the original artists - some big names such as Yoko Ono and David Lynch - were instructing. The idea being then to create an exhibition of these artists' translations on the "how to." The result was an art show that critically examined what art is, what it could be and whether or not it can come with an instruction manual.
The artists' work was scattered about Alabama Song's confined quarters, and given the nature of the locale, some if it blended it with the premises (was that plant a part of the show or.... just a plant?). The pieces were labeled numerically and corresponded to one of the scores from the book; however, understanding which was the matching artwork took some detective work. Once you caught on, the show opened up into a new world of possibilities. For example, walking into the secondary room you see six or so crumpled up balls of paper lying on the floor. You imagine they must mean something, but how could they possibly be considered "art?" You flip frantically through your handbook until coming onto page 263, Christian Marclay's Instruction (1995/96):
tear out this page while listening attentively. listen and crumple the page into a small ball. you can repeat these sounds with other pages. Save the ball(s). discard the book.
You realize that this is exactly what the artist, Gabriele Martinez, did, and suddenly the random paper balls take on a new meaning. What did Martinez "listen to attentively?" Was it the sound of the pages crumpling that he concentrated on or something else? What does crumpled paper sound like? As many times as you may have balled up a piece of paper, have you ever stopped to notice exactly what it sounds like? But the implications can become larger and more metaphorical. How many attempts does an artist make at a creation before he or she is satisfied? How many drawings or sketches or writings become balls of garbage to be dismissed in the corner of the floor? How much of that effort is waste and how much is worth it? And does the artist ever remember that initial attempt or is it a wad of paper from henceforth?
Much of the instructions were subjected to wide interpretations. Artist Rachel Hecker took the instructions by Joan Brossa's Projects for poems, which consist of 12 ideas on how one might create a poem, and literally crossed all but one out: 7. Write a poem using toothpicks to form letters. Oversized toothpicks shaped as letters hung against the wall showing the artist's freedom of expression even within confined ordering.
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Other instructions were taken quite literally. Mari Omori took on Yoko Ono's Wish Piece (1996), which instructed the artist to make a wish, write it down on a piece of paper and tie it around a wish tree. A small tree sat to the corner of a table labeled with almost identical directions with the addition of ringing a bell after adding your wish to the tree. By the middle of the evening the tree was covered with wishes. The concept was quite lovely.
I will be honest and say that I was somewhat skeptical about how the various artists would use the guide and if art could be mandated in such a manner.as I walked into this exhibition. The use of the book itself as a prompt is what made this project all the more fascinating. If there had been 27 artists asked to participate in this event, nothing would be similar. I know, that sounds obvious but mulling it over is eye opening. Of course every artist is different, but think about being given any type of directions and what you do with them. We may all be different chefs but if given a recipe, all of our cakes will come out tasting mostly the same. Maybe we don't understand those Swedish Ikea directions, but eventually we all create similar looking GRUNDTAL.
But what Do It and its compendium ask is where does inspiration come from and the answer is really anywhere. Jonathan Horowitz's Untitled (2002) score asks the artist to "choose two things that are similar and or different." The possibilities are endless.
Sadly, this show was a weekend-only pop up, but it was one of the more exciting and engaging art exhibits I have seen this year.