On being and acting


"I ain’t like you. All you can do is think what you would have done if you had done it. Not me. I can do it. I can act."

- Flannery O'Connor The violent bear it away


It would seem history has chosen action over thought. Between 'to do' and 'to be' it is preferable 'to do.' (Nike even demands it of us). Being is acceptable only when an active state. This is referred to in mystical as well as political thought, whether it be Sun Tzu, the Buddha, Clausewitz or the U.N. The difficulty lies always in deciding at which point participation begins. Are we participants as we stand outside and merely observe? The images inundating us -whether from Baghdad or Hollywood - apparently ask only that we see them. But that may not be the case. If it is only to see then we are all the perfect voyeurs, since all of us might echo Chauncey Gardener when he stated blankly "I like to watch." And we do. We like to watch. But that watching may not be as passive as implied. We might participate in ways that surprise us as the experience of what we see, what we are watching, is transformed by our experience of watching it.

The physical transformation that occurs when an object is observed is a matter for physicists. The re-manifestation of an idea, an object and an individual in the process of observation and interaction has been the subject of the artist since at least the beginning of the twentieth century. The imposition of a plastic reality into the gallery (and quickly outside it) has been the stamp of Modernism. From urinals to self-destructing machines, it seemed the Modernist agenda was set on bringing more and more of the interactivity of the world into the gallery. It was the Modernist triumph that introduced a level of reality into art that could previously only be implied, hinted at or simulated. This newfound reality was quick to grasp the hands and bodies of not just artists but of their audience. By the time Modernism had been laid to rest (again and again) it was all but expected of the artist to physically involve the audience.

While the implied passivity of the pre-Modernist audience is clearly a misunderstanding -any true experience of art of the past makes this clear- many Contemporary artists invoke an interaction far beyond the relationship of maker to observer. The Modernist imposition of reality has been absorbed so completely that art that does not demand of the viewer a counter action is often dismissed as passé. This interactivity, this demand that 'I' participate, coupled with the demand of the artist that 'You" participate to make the art has, inevitably, a democratizing capacity that both excites and charms our democracy-crazed world. The public clamors for participation and is happy to be seen participating. But is this really democracy? The artist giveth and the artist taketh away. If not democracy, it is at the very least a challenge by artists to be and to do so actively. "Without you," they explain, "it isn't art." Pull this lever, push this button, enter this space, because if you don't, the event that is the art doesn't occur. We do not see 'art,' we see 'art-ing.' It is the demand that we, the participants in this art experience, make a gerund of both ourselves and the work of the artist. It is in this sense that it gives the participant an active role, perhaps not a role between equals, but a part that we can play in a theater that is made for us but incomplete without us.

All the work in Noun/Verb demands an action of the viewer. The audience must physically act upon the piece in a variety of ways. The focus of the work is what is seen as well as what is experienced by the interaction of the viewer with the work.

Makiko Miyamoto's "Metamorphosis" invites us in. The large, soft form beckons us with sound and moving images. In the tradition of the Japanese home, it requests we take our shoes off. This gesture implies at once a humility and an intimacy that we must return, as a shared experience. Once we have taken our shoes off we can enter the warm embryonic space where Makiko invites us to experience a moment away from all that exists outside. It becomes at once sensual and devoid of the physical, a place to simultaneously lose one's body and become completely aware of it. The overriding sense of life, in its biological and physical aspect is countered by its opposite: a sense of comforting warmth, not unlike a pleasant death.

Nikki Anderson's work challenges us to be childish. The cuteness of each piece and the anonymity of the furniture describe a world of cartoon-like simplicity, where all is decided clearly beforehand. Your body and who that makes you, your gender and your place, are all decided. The small playful voices coming form the amorphous megaphones placed throughout call to us but say familiar yet strangely out of place phrases. This, we understand, is what it means to 'be a girl.' It is simple and funny but our smile wears off as we feel that the joke is a troubling indictment of a verdict cast for charges that are brought up outside the courtroom.

If it is warm and challenging in Miyamoto's and Anderson's world, Nick DePirro's "Big Ball of Ouch" warns of the opposite possibility. Approaching the "Big Ball" it seems to warn itself against us, simultaneously inviting us to come closer. Infused with a Wile E. Coyote sense of the absurd, it challenges the viewer to experience the comic as real, and the real as comic.

For Christa Erickson the realm of childhood has long worked as a metaphor for the perils of adult life. Nostalgia is tinged with a yearning to embrace and disregard the past, as technology is understood to be in its infantile state.

Action is the troubling question of our time. Whether or not we choose to act against or for, to intervene or encourage, to support or suppress, these are the questions we are confronted with each waking day. The passivity that our time has so aggressively fought against has been laid to rest and those who opt for it are, like those who do not write history, the losers. The future is to those who act, we are told. The question for each of us is simple. Are we taking action or merely acting?

-Keith Miller, curator