A new Walker Art Center show reveals the elusive nature of conceptual art.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Eleey talked about the exhibit and some of the strange things visitors will encounter, including occasional thunder, an electromagnetic field, a bronze skull of a living artist, folk music in the garage, wind chimes in the Sculpture Garden, a hole drilled in a gallery wall, time capsules, a spray-painted sky and 100 buried lemons.
Q Why did you call the show "The Quick and the Dead"?
A Lots of different reasons. Originally, it was a phrase in the King James Bible referring to the end of time when Jesus would sit in judgment. I liked the way it continues to appear in modern life. Beckett used it in writing about Marcel Proust's references to memory and time. Buckminster Fuller used it to differentiate between modern physics, in which matter is composed of constantly moving atoms, and the old Newtonian physics in which objects are static. That's a difficult concept to accept because when you sit on a bench like this, the thing beneath you is obviously solid, or "dead," if you will. But modern physics tells us that it's "quick" and made up of jiggling atoms. Conceptual art is about paradoxes like that. It often involves things you can think about, but can't necessarily see.
Q Can you give some examples from the show?
A Sure. In 1968, Robert Barry made a little metal box containing a 9-volt battery and a mechanism that generates an electromagnetic energy field. You switch it on and it does this, but we don't know how big the field is or how far it extends. Later he wanted to make a work that expands forever, which gas does. So he bought a liter of argon gas, released it in the desert and took a photo of the empty beaker.
Q So what is conceptual art?
A It's a term that has come to stand in for modern art that you don't understand, but that's misleading. Conceptual art tries to allow the world to reveal its own magic. It's a dematerialized and noncommercial type of art that emerged in the 1960s and '70s, when there was a lot of social turmoil, war protests, generational divide and angst about nuclear confrontations. There's a range of classic conceptual art dealing with language, political content and the way we perceive it. I've chosen mostly things that deal with epistemological problems of what we know and what we can't know, things that extend beyond the range of our experience.
Q How are notions of time realized in the show?
A Artists play with different ideas of time. Stephen Kaltenbach, a California artist, made time capsules inscribed with instructions as to when we should open them: "Open before World War III." "Open after my death." They're funny, indeterminate times that require judgment and intervention on our part. British artist Hannah Rickards recorded a thunderclap, slowed it down to six minutes, had a composer transcribe it into six minutes of music for a sextet, recorded that, and then replayed it at thunderclap speed. In the show, it will occur 12 times per hour in an irregular sequence. It's an example of the way we culture nature and try to control it despite its inherent indifference.
Q There seem to be a lot of demonstrations of futility -- an auto tire rotating at high speed, but going nowhere, two fax machines endlessly calling to each other, an audio tape that records sounds, but never replays them. What does that say about the artists and their vision of contemporary society?
A It wasn't something I was consciously choosing, but you're right. It is definitely present. It gets at notions of indifference and meaning. How do we make meaning from things that don't seem to have it, or that are indifferent to our existence -- the river floods and we happen to be in its way. When you can erase the world with the touch of a button, what really matters? The 20th century changed history to something that could end. But here we are -- "Still alive," which is the title of the bronze skull Kris Martin made using contemporary X-ray technology to make a 3-D image of his own skull.
Q Which brings us to "Anonymous II," the human skeleton Martin has buried somewhere on the Walker's grounds. What can you tell us about it?
A It's an extremely complicated work. Kris wanted to take a human skeleton that had been used for medical research and to bury it in an unmarked site, so this person who had been objectified would have a dignified resting place. You know it's there, but the anonymity makes it a powerful symbol of death itself. But cadavers used in medical schools are returned to family members, and traffic in human remains has been restricted since 1989. So we had to find an earlier skeleton. One of my colleagues remembered that the artist Kiki Smith had an old skeleton that she'd been given by [artist] David Wojnarowicz. Kiki gave us the skeleton in memory of David, and there's a certificate in the exhibition showing the [global positioning coordinates] of the grave.
Q Isn't this a little creepy?
A Kris' piece reminds us of how we treat our war dead. Until recently we didn't even allow photos of their coffins covered with flags. His piece only achieves the right to explore this issue because it's fundamentally rooted in a gesture of respect.
Q The show is supposed to be about the "romantic legacy of conceptual art." What is romantic about it?
A It's art that yearns for a presence that goes beyond the here and now.
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431