Thursday at 8 p.m. in a full to capacity Adams Memorial Theatre, artist Vito Acconci presented a comprehensive retrospective of his career as part of the “The Necessity of Failure: Achievement through Adversity” lecture series.
Before experimenting with performance and installation art, Acconci was a poet. In the 1960s, he began to question the basic constructs of writing, including the progression of writing from left to right and from page to page. For Acconci, the page became a literal space. His writing devolved to include only those words that held little meaning outside the printed page (that, which, the) and not words that could be represented in physical space (tree, sky).
Acconci became obsessed with exploring the concept of space and connecting himself to that space. To further his investigation, he switched from a written to a visual art context, and in 1968 and 1969, he produced his first series of photographic projects about movement in space.
Acconci illustrated his lecture with a collection of over one hundred black and white and color slides that documented his artwork. Initially, his photographs recorded the stages of movement in an action such as tossing a ball. Acconci described the pieces as “not good;” however, they opened the door for him to further his exploration of space. His next experimental project was recorded in a series of photographs that showed how a person’s repeated actions can affect the environment. Acconci showed slides of the handprints and footprints he had created while doing push-ups in sand.
Acconci continued his investigation of space with Following Piece (1969), which was a part of Streetworks, a collection of artwork by various artists that focused on New York City streets. Everyday for a month, Acconci followed a random person he saw on the street until that person entered a private building. As long as the person remained in a public space, he would follow him. The following lasted anywhere from two to three minutes, if the person entered a private building quickly, to seven to eight hours, if the person went to the movies or into a restaurant. Acconci viewed the passivity of Following Piece as a failure. Because the other person was the agent, Acconci’s control over his piece was eliminated.
Unsatisfied, Acconci attempted a similar piece in which he followed a person around a museum gallery. As the person looked at a work of art, he would intentionally stand closer than would normally be deemed acceptable. By invading the other person’s space, he forced the person to move him out of the way. The “Following Project,” shown in a series of black and white slides, elicited laughter from the audience. There is no denying that a degree of absurdity exists in Acconci’s works, especially in his early conceptual projects. However, absurdity aside, his works explore important artistic concepts.
Next, Acconci focused on his body’s ability to adapt to stress. He created Trademarks, a work in which he bit himself, filled the tooth imprints with ink and then made paper prints of the bite marks on his skin. The project was recorded in a series of black and white photos. Acconci continued to focus on the effect of stress on his body in a triad of short films. In the first, he stood blindfolded as someone from behind the camera threw balls at him. The film recorded his reaction to the balls, which he could neither see nor hear. In the second film, he sat staring blankly at the camera and then dumped a bowl of hot soapy water in his face. The film documented the stages of the reaction, until his face returned to the stare. The last film included Acconci biting his hand by sticking it as far into his mouth as possible.
That same year, Acconci continued his foray into film with a longer work entitled Conversions. In the film, Acconci held a candle to his chest in order to burn the hair of his breast. He then pulled on his nipples in an attempt to transform his chest into a woman’s. Initially, Acconci felt that the work was a success because it presented him as an active force and displayed his vulnerabilities. He thought the film would establish a connection between his space and the viewer’s; however, he soon realized that the medium of film created a closed circle and would not allow such a connection to occur. Acconci explained, “I start an action, but the action ends on me.” The film failed in his eyes because the viewer was only a voyeur.
After Conversions, Acconci changed the direction of his artwork. Responding to the fact that the previous pieces had involved inflicting physical stress on his body, Acconci’s next series of pieces were works focused on the mind inclusion of others. In a trust building piece, he stood on a deserted New York City pier at night, stating information about himself that could later be used in blackmail. A person would meet him on the pier, and the two would interact, establishing the type of personal connection that Acconci had wanted to create with his film. A second piece in the series included three people rubbing lipstick on their chests and smearing it on each other. The group projects he participated in at the end of 1970 encouraged interpersonal contact; they “made the [closed] circle bulge,” but did not break it.
In 1971, Acconci did a performance piece entitled Claim that was set up around a staircase. At the top of the staircase, Acconci had set up a television with taped instructions for the viewers to go down the stairs. When a viewer made his way downstairs, he saw a blindfolded Acconci. Seated and holding a crowbar, Acconci made comments such as “I’m alone in the basement. I want to be alone.” When someone approached him, Acconci would swing the crowbar. He had wanted to design a situation for meeting that would include viewers in the work, but instead he created a hierarchy in which the artist was superior to the viewer.
By the mid-1970s, Acconci was creating installations that incorporated sound. His goal was to maintain a connection with the people viewing his work without being physically a part of the piece. He installed works in French galleries that used both French and English dialogues, and in addition, began to reinclude the medium of film in his works. In Memory Box (1974), Acconci created a space into which the viewer could walk and observe a film taking place all around him. Also in 1974, he created a partial-sound installation entitled Plot, which included blackboards placed throughout a room with chapter titles from a fictitious novel written on them. The titles included “Chapter 5: American Cage” and “Chapter 10: Homeless Body.” Acconci deemed the sound installations partial failures because they allowed the viewer to remain passive and unengaged.
In 1979, Acconci’s career switched directions. Before 1979, he had concerned himself with investigating space and including his audience in his artwork. That year, he created a travelling exhibit of steel panels that was installed in various forms in public squares throughout the Netherlands. This piece encouraged Acconci’s interest in designing architectural pieces for public spaces.
Acconci’s most recent pieces have been collaborative works by Acconci Studios. Directed by Acconci, the studio employs six architects, who have worked with the artist to create everything from anthropomorphic landscape art to a dirt wall enclosed in glass at a community center in Colorado to works of sculpture in the Philadelphia airport. Although many of the projects designed by Acconci Studio have not come to fruition, Acconci views the conceptual works as intellectual successes. At the end of the 20th century, with space and place becoming less important and the computer terminal becoming more so, Acconci Studios is working to incorporate this changing perspective into its artwork.
Acconci has never been discouraged by failure or by extreme changes in the direction of his career. Often, he has attempted to explore his shortcomings through his art. Harboring a tendency to withdraw from people, Acconci forced himself, in his early works, to make his person a central focus. Struggling against a stutter from the time he was child, he also incorporated his voice into his works. Scoffing at failure, Acconci explored his shortcomings to create overwhelmingly successful art.