Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Public space, public speech

Scott Illman on Gormley's Plinth, 2009

I am amused, captivated and mortified by Anthony Gormley's Fourth Plinth project "One & Other."

Amused because it's a simple gesture, harkening back to soapbox preachers and, as more morbid commentators have noted, the prisoner's walk to the guillotine in history past. Amused because it's officially sanctioned anarchy. Anything could be said, although I suspect anyone willing to sign up for the computer lottery is less nutcase than media hound.

I love this image of Scott Illman dressed as a town crier; it makes me think of the diaries of Samuel Peyps, a 17th century London merchant who chronicled London's great fire, the exile and return of his King, and his personal picadillos. LA-based artist Monique Prieto brought his writings to my attention; her recent work uses phrases from his diaries to comment on our own time, giving voice to the human concerns that return over and over. I think Illman understood the possibilities and responsibilities of the Plinth opportunity to disseminate news, release decrees or plea for mercy.

Captivated because there is no public space anymore, every nook and cranny of the streets and public plazas are controlled and corporatized--the arts may be one of the few places where embarrassing, angry dialogue can flow (well, outside of the tight control the market has).

Mortified, and this is why I have such respect for artists: what would you (me) do if you were given such an offer? What makes performance transformative is not just an artist's depth of historical knowledge or years of practice, it's the spark of a unique mind which cannot be scripted. This is when their magical spark lights your own, this is what art can do.

It's possible that most of the people who signed up for Gormely's Plinth are egotists, trained perhaps by reality tv that their every inanity is a meaningful as my every inanity--and why not? But this is where a range of people can have a voice. And not all reality tv is bad of course--competitive shows like Project Runway, and even the Antiques Road show, show off forms of expertise and critical judgement so that the use of a ruche front or square-headed nails separates the women from the girls. Enlightening.

© Sam Durant, This is Freedom?, 2009

The Plinth project makes me think of LA-based artist Sam Durant, who has been exploring public speech and its manifestation, and suppression, in American public life over the past half-century. Durant's sign in lower Manhattan is poignant and distressing--indeed, what is freedom in the face of official speech?

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