- Sifting Through the Evidence
In our current state of information over-saturation, consumers and producers within the culture industry are constantly at pains to keep in check an ever-growing mountain of artistic and literary residue. Decisions have to be made on a daily basis whether to retain or discard exhibition announcements, catalogues, posters, magazines, advertisements, etc., not to mention all the leftover bits and pieces that accumulate from daily encounters with museums, galleries, bookstores, and other information distribution centers. The deeper one becomes involved in the gathering process, the more one is faced with a seemingly infinite number of minor value judgments. A “less is more” philosophy may be encouraged by considerations of storage space, if nothing else; however, many of us have trouble parting with even the most trivial reminders of what we see and experience (I have met people who save the little metal clasps given to museum goers). While some people derive a sense of personal liberation from moments of desk- and shelf-cleaning, others grant their hoarded objects a talismanic aura by enshrining them within files meant to be reopened some day for some unforeseen purpose. Skip Arnold, as his recent solo show at the Spencer Brownstone Gallery in New York proved, belongs to the latter group.
Calling his installation The Evidentiary Files, the California-based Arnold turned the gallery into a temporary storage site housing a vast array of remnants and props from past projects. Nothing seemed to be trifling enough to escape his compulsion to collect and sort. Everything from empty gin bottles to expired train tickets was deemed worthy of display; one finally began to wonder what was actually left out. Close inspection of this flotsam and jetsam inevitably led back to a very concrete source: the body of the artist. Each item shown had a direct link to the figure of Skip Arnold, including the photographs and videos that were records of his earlier actions. His work gradually revealed itself to be far less motivated by chance encounters with the ephemeral object than by a search for the permanence of an unstable subjectivity. [End Page 71]
Most of Arnold’s past gallery shows have been performances of varying length. The Spencer Brownstone exhibition was unique in its showcasing the materials of already completed projects; it thus assumed the character of a retrospective, not of the performances but of their iconic detritus. In doing this it highlighted the question of accessibility and permanence that confronts the performance artist, whose work by its very definition is transitory. This is the question of how, in a museum or gallery setting, to present a history of work which depends for its effect on the physical presence of the artist, work which necessarily suffers a loss of immediacy between the moment of the performative act and its subsequent documentation.
Arnold is certainly not the first artist to grapple with this issue. Numerous performance and “body” artists, such as Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke, have largely been ignored by museum acquisition committees, at least in part because of the long-felt and still-pervasive attitude that film and video as documentation are not legitimate “art objects” when they are used to record impermanent, intangible events. Though others have managed to turn their performance accessories into highly prized objects—the lock used by Chris Burden in his 1971 Five-Day Locker Piece has been fought over by collectors hoping to attribute money value to the less marketable artifacts of the 1970s art culture—these seemingly dead specimens have rarely been deemed worthy of inclusion in high-art exhibitions, except those specifically presenting the records of such established movements as Fluxus.
Arnold deals with this dilemma by assigning his props a role that increases their useful life—and value. Last year for a group show in Tokyo, On Camp/Off Base, he was given a sizeable budget and a large amount of space within the exhibition hall in order to spend one month continuously constructing an enormous “fort.” As it grew and Arnold gradually enclosed himself within the confines of the...