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Tuesday, Nov 30, 2021

Vito Acconci: "Way Station" and Art of Subversion

“It was in ’67, ’68, when the U.S. was making great efforts to invade Vietnam that I realized that religion and politics — these abstractions — were what caused people to do these things. So I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to show people something concrete.” Vito Acconci, renowned artist and sculptor, stuttered as he spoke, and  his witty sarcasm induced waves of surprised laughter from the auditorium.

“I want the audience to spend as much time thinking about the empty brackets as I did writing them,” Acconci said. The audience is then presented with another piece of art — a paragraph that is but a small fraction of the page, yet similarly elusive in meaning. One would expect the next piece, a page full of words, to provide more solid grounds for comprehension — and yet, it was an excerpt of an article. It turns out the time it took him to read it was the time it took him to traverse a block to another.

“I wanted to correlate reading with walking,” Acconci said.

Acconci’s installation, “Way Station I (Study Chamber),” on campus burned down 30 years ago after years of abuse by students, according to a College Museum of Art press release. According to Emmie Donadio, chief curator of the Museum of Art, Acconci’s reaction to learning about his sculpture’s incineration was that “he couldn’t believe that you can burn steel.”

Way Station I was Acconci’s first permanent commission and marks his transition from temporary installations to permanent architectural work. Made during his term as a Christian A. Johnson Visiting Artist in January 1983, the installation was a large metal shed that included painted images of flags of the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, as well as mirrored glass. On the inside of the structure were panels spelled ‘GOD,’ ‘MAN,’ ‘DOG,’ which were playing cards on the reverse. Intentionally sited in proximity to the College Observatory and with a backdrop of the Adirondack Mountains, it was intended to provide students with a space of rest and contemplation. It’s location at a pathway travelled regularly by many students, now an area bounded by the Ross Commons, McCardell Bicentennial Hall and the Freeman International Center, symbolized a time of precarious dislocation for students.

“You could go into this place that it was in the middle of the year and you would think: maybe I want to transfer to Los Angeles. You know, maybe it’s too cold here. Should I go on for the second semester and transfer to Los Angeles?,” says Donadio. “He fantasized that it would be a place where people could stop and think. The work, according to Donadio, is also characteristic of his pieces in that it involved a play on words — where one is literally perched in the middle of two pathways. Which one is the ‘Road Not Taken?’”

Unfortunately, its plain metallic appearance and location incited contention and abuse from students and faculty alike. In May 1985, it was set ablaze by an unidentified group of vandals. The Committee for Arts in Public Places, set up in 1994, are now working on to restore the work on campus. However, Acconci is not enthusiastic about having the work restored, as he didn’t consider it a well-made work.

“We have been trying for 20 years for Vito Acconci to let us reconstruct it,” said Donadio. “We thought it was important because it was the catalyst for the whole Public Art Programme on Campus. Frankly, the reason why we are not creating a new work is budget. He would have much preferred to create a new work.”

If not for the stir of tweed jackets and black overcoats, the distinctive disheveled and overbearing mannerisms of members of the art community around him, his presence is unassuming, even when he tries to play it down.

“I don’t like to make ‘art.’ The word seems to carry a sense of praise,” he said. Acconci rejects performance art for the label ‘performance’ too, because of it seems too theatrical.

Like his art, his presence is paradoxical — slightly hunched, and carrying his words with a feeble, awkward stammer as he assaults the audience with piece after piece of subversion and surprise, whose reaction of confusion and awe was a motif of the seminar.

It is interesting to note that he did not start off as an installation artist, but a poet and a performance artist (yes, the very art form which he today dismisses as “theatrical”). “Emphatically transgressive,” as Donadio puts it, one of performances involved a video of him burning his own chest hair and pulling his breast in an attempt to grow a woman’s breast to portray desire; another involved an uneven floor that he built, under which he would constantly masturbate to the footsteps of incoming audience, with which he “built his sexual fantasy” and “led him to come.”

Later, believing that art was more than a passive medium, he sought interaction with his audience through installations and architecture. One can see a quantifiable amount of mischief in his work — among them was a plank-shaped bar table that extended through the window as a diving board; a huge slingshot carrying a bowling ball place against a TV, which was the window. He built alternative forms of living spaces — houses made out of stacked cars; the Bad Dream House (1984), a habitable space which consisted of two houses and a glass house stacked together in an inverted manner.

His change in form is also indicative of the thematic change from a “psychological self to sociological self.” One of his works includes a house in which the entrance is hinged upon the cooperation of bikers, as the bikes operate to keep the structure open — a demonstration of interdependence in human communities. Marcos Barozo Filho ’17 liked his blueprints of the New World Trade Center because it challenges economic elitism, “forcing executives to live with regular folks.”

One of his less subtle works was his studio, which involved a glass wall filled with soil to resemble a geological cross section of the ground that curved through the S-shaped structure of the building.

“My work almost always involves a play on words. I don’t think I will ever get out of the habit,” he tells us as he explains an installation of a cafe set-up for blind people, which is transparent. “I was asking myself what color should it be, but then I thought, how can blind people see?” The fact that the seating is one large interconnected stool meant that the blind will experience constant interference, as one has to move in for another to come in, which parallels their experience in real life.

When his talk went fifteen minutes over an hour, he shuffled nervously, “Should I go on?” After an awkward silence: “Yes, go on!” Donadio shouted from the front row. A few people shuffled out, but the room was still as packed as it was in the beginning.

“In real space, you are often lost and don’t know where to begin. But I like this sense of confusion because it provokes you to think,” he said.