PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 23.1 (2001) 69-78
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Running with Samuel Nigro: Art and Endurance
I imagine most people like mental cruise control, but Sam does not.
He wants to constantly put himself in unfamiliar situations, both
physically and mentally. He thrives on confronting obstacles,
and finds the challenges invigorating.
--Journal, Anthony DiMaggio, Friday 7/28/00
Samuel Nigro's work is at once very basic and visceral, yet also sophisticated and complex. I first began writing about his projects when I experienced his Digging a Hole, 1996, a 24-hour long earth-moving task embodying a personal exploration of physical and mental endurance. It was a continuation of Moving a Mountain, a work involving removing, breaking, and repairing rocks and boulders while documenting the process and experience. I then reviewed his show entitled Inducements at the Mental Gallery for Reviewny.com last November. I was particularly interested in a work entitled Finding Cobblestones, 1999, an installation where objects complemented video documentation to create a series of powerfully disjunctive mini-narratives. The videos show Nigro collecting stones, submerging himself in a cold autumn Lake Michigan to anoint them, and then trying to walk with all the stones attached to his body with ingenious harnesses made only of duct tape. These, along with the collection of stones, were displayed in conjunction with the videos. In his most recent event, Negotiating with Granite, 2000, which was performed at the Downtown Arts Festival in New York City, he blindfolded himself and engaged a large piece of broken up granite for seven hours by erecting various structures made from combinations of parts from the whole. The rock had been broken and shaped to look almost like a rectangular obelisk, with an internal column or spine that had been excavated out of the original monolith. At times, he would build the entire structure to complete the whole, only then to slowly and carefully take it apart again to re-build other sub-structures. While he had probably never gone through all the possible permutations or combinations before, lack of vision required that he constantly re-fix his orientation to assist in extrapolating them mentally in an abstract space before literally attempting the construction. What was undoubtedly [End Page 69] integral to the negotiating process was a pre-existing relationship with the granite. He had worked with these pieces before, so he was familiar with their size, weight, and general topographies. Nevertheless, while negotiating, he had to function blindly by relying upon the associations between the tactile and the visual in order to navigate the spatial. It was as if he purposely handicapped himself in order to allow the materials to wield a deeper impression upon his other senses to help sharpen spatial orientation within and among the materiality of the stone.
I believe Negotiating could be his strongest, most provocative work. It had a quiet sensual strength as the movements and actions resembled some sort of strange martial art. There was also a subtle elegance to the process, and an odd theatricality; yet, it was not necessarily a performance. He was indeed disciplined, yet unrehearsed in his movements and actions. The event was indeed tenuous, as there is always anxiety about watching someone who cannot see try to function, especially watching someone try to deftly maneuver heavy stones. This gave the work a strangely voyeuristic sense as the anonymous viewers watched him, but he could never see them. It resembled the conventional art-viewing process where the viewer sees work in a gallery, but the artist cannot see the viewer. The formal qualities of all his work provide a richly intelligent blend of video, objects, and action. The events share territory with the body performance art of the 1970s where artists such as Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, or Dennis Oppenheim explored the body as subject. Nigro, however, seeks more to use his body as a medium where the real subject is the combination of his physical and psychological reality engaged with an environment or material. With a visceral tone, he seeks to...