Documenting Concrete Escort
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Ei Arakawa’s performance-based work sprawls through a variety of genres, modes, and spaces. In this commissioned text, he extends his piece Concrete Escort, performed at the Guggenheim March 22 and April 26, onto the museum’s website. Guggenheim Senior Editor Domenick Ammirati was asked to document the first iteration of the piece in written form. When all performances have been completed, performers will be invited to contribute further reflections to be archived on Guggenheim.org.
Purchase tickets for Ei Arakawa’s Concrete Escort I, II, III, IV on April 26.
The show started a little after eight in the museum’s rotunda; a small crowd waited and chatted in a rough ring that mirrored Wright’s spiral architecture. We each held a small audio receiver on a lanyard. Over the next 45 minutes Arakawa and occasionally the rest of his troupe would speak to us via its single earbud, to weirdly intimate effect.
The artist appeared and assumed a master of ceremonies role. Most of the participants wore what looked like street clothes; his own parti-color ensemble of sweats and shorts positioned him between ’90s gymgoer, club kid, and court jester. It was this last role, that of the wise comedian, that predominated as he led a playful but unfailingly intelligent deconstruction of the Gutai group’s history, the Splendid Playground exhibition, and museological practice in general.
With no announcement, an older woman, by my guess in her 70s, pushed a large blue wheeled bin into the center of our circle, only to have it tip over—an awkward, poignant, and seemingly unintentional gesture. After the bin was righted, the woman, who was in fact dance pioneer Simone Fortí, reached into it and began dumping armfuls of the newspapers it held onto the marble floor. When the pile had reached a critical mass, she lay down on the ground and began writhing in it.
Meanwhile one of the works in the exhibition itself, a refabrication of Yoshihara Jirō’s Please Draw Freely, was wheeled over from its station nearby. A pair of performers (led by painter Caitlin MacBride) began spinning the wall-like work while others scribbled, or perhaps incised, on the rainbowed patina formed by museum visitors over the last few weeks.
Others in the crowd moved forward to join Fortí writhing on the floor. The whole array, despite its absurdity, was unmistakably erotic. It was a reenactment, Arakawa eventually explained, of Shiraga Kazuo’s Challenging Mud. Together with the whirling crayoned wall, redolent of childhood and now whimsically animated, it made a strange overture to the performance to follow, and to Gutai’s work overall.
The performance cum tour—or was it the other way around?—ascended the museum ramp by ramp. Some traveled on foot, others by the main elevator, still others on a freight elevator, thereby exposing a bit of the museum’s back end. Likewise the performer tapped for the tour’s main motif, a tall, substantial, substantially bearded, unperformerlike man who posed in front of various artworks with an ax. He took the same position every time, the blade arrested in midair in front of him, midswing. He turned out to be Barry Hylton, the museum’s Senior Manager of Exhibition Installations, the man responsible for getting every artwork where it belongs—without a scratch. Thus he could presumably be trusted with an ax in the circumstances if anyone could. His role also made a key point about the human lattice that undergirds an exhibition. One of the writhers had been one of the show’s curators, and guards were grafted to the performance as they met with us at every turn.
I find myself using the passive voice a good deal when describing Concrete Escort. It’s because, despite Arakawa’s central role, he never feels entirely like its author. Nor, despite the work’s clear choreography, does it seem entirely directed. Under the artist’s light hand it seems more to unfold.
Also there is, you will note, relatively little here about what Arakawa said, despite the fact that, via the radios, he was a continuing presence in our ears. It’s because what he said during Concrete Escort was more important for its tone than in its specifics. It was hostly patter, often funny, usually directive—just what one would want from a tour guide.
But why was the museum’s Senior Manager of Exhibition Installations brandishing that ax? It was another reenactment—not of a Gutai artwork but rather of an iconic photo that came about out of Gutai’s efforts at self-promotion. In 1956 the group invited photographers from Life magazine to visit and document (and, it was hoped, promote) the group’s output, included performances staged solely for their benefit. At Yoshihara’s insistence, early Gutai was strict about self-documentation, a fact of which Arakawa, a keen student of Japanese art, is well aware. With their disseminated imagery and eponymous journal, both circulating internationally, they wrote themselves into history. The ax poses, then, suggest the mediation through which Gutai has been seen. Concrete Escort is among other things Arakawa writing himself into the group’s history, and the history of the Guggenheim Museum. The noted performance photographer Paula Court, along for the ride, took shots at every photo op.
At the top of the museum, on the building’s uppermost ramp, history was glimpsed through plumbing. Members of the troupe (led by painter Jutta Koether) offered three-foot lengths of copper to tourgoers like telescopes, and we peeked through them at space-age, plastic and metal late Gutai works. That reference underscored the theme of distance, clearly, but the pipes qua pipes drew in ideas of circulation, infrastructure, drainage.
Somewhere in the middle of the program, on a landing outside the gallery where the Kandinskys reside, the we paused. Three voices (Simone Forti, Jutta Koether, and artist Andrew Lampert) came over the radio receivers, whispering about a work out of sight, one we hadn’t seen or paid attention to, or, for all most knew, one that didn’t exist. The pair was spied on a ramp a few stories up. They were describing a painting deliberately, soothingly—its bright colors, its networking forms, its large scale. It was like the golden age of radio, and another displacement, another foregrounding of the inevitability of mediation between oneself and the artwork. We always see as if through a scrim.
Arakawa’s own work, in its kaleidoscopic formations and reformations, its here-now-gone-in-an-instant nature, makes this point even with regard to itself. There is no pure initial experience of a work; the “interpretive” act materially changes it—since its material is nothing but a collection of memories, mediated understandings, and so on. It is especially trenchant to stress this point with regard to Gutai. The group’s strain of rhetoric emphasizing materiality and close encounter—gutai means “the concrete”—is belied by the way they dealt with Japan’s isolation, and the fact that their output would be apprehended face to face rarely in comparison to images of it in black and white.
The next section of the exhibition was titled “Performance Painting.” Thus the audience was thrown into an active mode. Visitors were instructed to follow the example of Jutta Koether and the members of the ensemble, who dashed in single file along the museum’s spiral wall, jerking to a stop and ducking down low at every artwork they passed for a quick examination of it. This high-speed tour might have parodied the attention visitors usually pay to art in museums, or pointed out the danger art museums today face of becoming purveyors of drive-by cultural consumables. It also might simply have been in the spirit of another of Splendid Playground’s themed sections, “Play.” But in the way our jog whirled the works together it captured a very contemporary paradox, the gap between speed and embodiment, the former in some sense limiting or precluding the latter. Consider, most obviously, the gap between the ass-expanding hours spent in front of computer screens and the instants it takes to transit virtually from site to site, one piece of information to the next to the next.
Performance painting, or performing with paintings, à la Concrete Escort and a good deal of the rest of Arakawa’s oeuvre, removes the artwork from the realm of the timeless. Particularly in a museum, the agent of the transmission of cultural value from one generation to the next, this has effect of putting painting in a context of forgetting, loss, and draining away of knowledge. What’s emphasized in the end is that we don’t know these paintings, that meaning is hardly something that subsists in a fixed state as if in computer code. Rather, if it persists, it is subject to constant restoration, refurbishment, refabrication.
It is also possible that Arakawa is stressing a double loss. Perhaps in an age where computer-based storage of information is the model for memory, we lose not the meaning of individual works. Rather it could be that we are losing other ways of meaning, those rooted in flexibility, ambiguity, hermeneutics, and endless renegotiation.
The tour’s finale took place in the gallery on the museum’s first ramp, which contained two projections of images from Gutai’s initial, groundbreaking outdoor exhibitions as well as a refabrication of Yamazaki Tsuruko’s Work (Red Cube), a room-size construction of red vinyl stretched tight over a simple plywood frame. Collectively, these served as backdrop for a performance that drew together all the members of the troupe, plus one or two others drafted for the occasion—drew them together literally, in a tight, arm-linked knot. One by one, each person withdrew from the scrum, threw a leg onto someone’s back, and began crawling over everyone else, usually with some degree of awkwardness, often (depending on the size of the crawler) with a sense of strain. Quite opposite to the running tour, time slowed down. The images in the projections advanced regularly in their grainy black and white, Yamazaki’s platonic solid hung in midair, and with each vaguely embarrassed search for a handhold we sat around the perimeter of the room, gripped.
The performance was a reenactment, but not of a work by Gutai. Rather it was Fortí’s own classic work Huddle, from 1961. With this maneuver Arakawa braided together Gutai’s history and that of Judson Dance Theater, making a novel link between two groups of revolutionaries. The connection was, cunningly, highly embodied, with Fortí’s own body serving as a living vector of history, of information.
While the finale was impressive, the most bravura moment of Concrete Escort took place earlier, in front of a long, life-size photomontage of the bespectacled Murakami Saburō plunging through a series of taut paper screens. We were instructed to line its 20-foot length, why we didn’t know. A pair of performers then produced a screen of their own, aligning it with Murakami’s first one. And then we waited. Just enough time elapsed for a murmuring to begin, ended by laughter. There appeared on the ramp below us, walking very slowly, Andrew Lampert pushing a baby stroller, and an infant, his daughter Zazie, along for the ride.
As the duo approached step after step and we stared at the banner, the violence of Murakami’s performance sunk in; when it was done, the artist collapsed with a concussion. Would they actually plunge through the screen? There was a teasing sadism to the anticipation.
With the slightest upward thrust, Lampert popped the stroller through the screen, accompanied by a noise like a brown paper bag popping. Zazie was unscathed. For the first time during the performance, the crowd functioned like a conventional audience and burst into applause.