In 2009 I was invited by the curator Chiara Vechiarelli, in conjunction with the arts organization at Ca’ Zenobio in Venice to reinvent an Allan Kaprow happening as part of one of their scheduled peripheral events to the Venice Biennale.
Allan Kaprow, 'Stockroom' 1967
The invitation to revisit Kaprow’s work in Venice had been preceded by my doing a large scale re-invention of Kaprow’s ‘FLUIDS’ from 1967 at the invitation of the Performa ’07 biennial.
There is a core paradox in revisiting Kaprow’s work. Kaprow’s impulse towards art was founded on making singular works of art that insisted on their ephemeral natures, “something never before done, by a method never before used, whose outcome is unforeseen." I proposed to Ca’ Zenobio to revisit Kaprow’s earliest environmental happening, ‘Stockroom’, from 1961. Their 16th century palazzo seemed the perfect place to envision a spirited and messy American event.
Kaprow issued these instructions for the piece:
“Basically, the work is to be conceived organically rather than geometrically, though one should not interpret these words in any absolute way. The “feel” of it should be one of artlessness or stylelessness, therefore. This of course requires of the composer the utmost in responsibility and devotion to his job. While flexibility is intended within certain limits, license is to be discouraged.”
At around the same time, following a thread of interest that evolved in my studio practice out of watching Tarkovsky films, I found myself reading Stanislav Lem’s novel ‘Solaris’ (which Tarkovsky had made into a film of the same name). ‘Solaris’ was published in 1961, the same year that Kaprow mounted ‘Stockroom’. On the surface this is a benign and perhaps totally unremarkable coincidence - but as I read and then re-read Solaris it dawned on me that there was a relationship between the two art works.
I’d been sensitized to the possibility of a relationship born of coincidence by an arrest at LaGuardia Airport in New York around this time. A young man named Scott McGann was caught on the jetway with a ‘bomb’ - that turned out to be a time machine.
His arrest perfectly mirrored Chris Marker’s sci-fi film ‘La Jetee’ – the time machine, the search for his mother, Orly/LaGuardia airports looking the same - and it left me thinking that confluences of art works across time and space might be more the norm than the exception. At the time I became obsessed with finding collapsed boundaries between art and life, geography, and time. Why couldn’t these events be tied to one another, and to myself? Scott McGann hadn’t woken up from his catatonic state following his arrest at LaGuardia and had been interred at Bellevue – unreachable. We'll never know if he'd seen Marker's film.
In spite of the derision being heaped on him by the press I couldn’t help wondering if perhaps his device hadn’t worked, if his body wasn't just a place holder, a buoy to mark his travels. What if each one of us, Lem, Kaprow and myself were the intersections of a triangle –in some other dimension - forming this new work?
'La Jetee/Daily News Swap' 2009, Zach Rockhill
“Solaris” is set on a space station orbiting the planet Solaris in the far future. The cosmonauts on the station are the last of several generations of scientists who’ve been trying to establish contact with the intelligent and sentient being that is the planet Solaris. Solaris’s one vast ocean creates enormous architectural and sculptural ‘mimoids’, ‘symmetriads’– sculptural forms - for no apparent reason.
“On gala days (for the scientist as well as for the mimoid, an unforgettable spectacle develops as the mimoid goes into hyperproduction and performs wild flights of fancy. It plays variations on the theme of a given object and embroiders ‘formal extensions’ that amuse it for hours on end, to the delight of the non-figurative artist and to the despair of the scientist, who is at a loss to grasp any common theme in the performance. The mimoid can produce ‘primitive’ simplifications, but is just as likely to indulge in ‘baroque’ deviation, paroxysms of extravagant brilliance. Old mimoids tend to manufacture extremely comic forms. Looking at the photographs, I have never been moved to laughter; the riddle they set is too disquieting to be funny.”
The cosmonauts, in an effort to make Solaris in its architectural and sculptural exuberance communicate with them, (which it hadn’t done during the hundreds of years of their research) deliberately irradiate a swath of the ocean with microwave radiation. Following this, Solaris begins to reproduce inside the space station people from the cosmonauts’ past, dead people. The protagonist of the story, Kelvin, has his dead wife Rheya appear on the station in perfect health.
Film still from Tarkovsky's 'Solaris' showing Kelvin and Rheya
My first impression of ‘Solaris’ was that every sculpture student should be made to read it for its fantastic anology to the artistic process – an autistic ocean that makes sculpture, motivated by unknown forces. But then it dawned on me that, in reinventing the historic work of Kaprow, I was bringing back to the living something that was singular and now dead. What Solaris, the sentient and autistic ocean, did to Kelvin’s wife, I was now doing to ‘Stockroom’, circa 1961.
The novel, after the appearance of Kelvin’s dead wife Rheya on the space station, is a meditation on desire, grief and death. In the end, the cosmonauts can’t determine what the motive on the part of the Ocean is in sending the dead back to them, in much the same way that I couldn’t totally clarify my motives behind revisiting Kaprow. From ‘Solaris’:
"Unable to plumb Solaris's motive for the re-visitations, Kelvin becomes aware that despite his scientific and rational effort to understand his predicament, he loves the re-visitation as he loved the original: "You may have been sent to torment me, or to make my life happier, or as an instrument ignorant of its function, used like a microscope with me on the slide. Possibly you are here as a token of friendship, or a subtle punishment, or even as a joke. It could be all of those at once, or - which is more probably - something else completely."
I loved the work, it was a torment and made my life happier, I wasn’t sure what the motive on the part of the institutions that wanted this work were (though I continued to act on that imperative to revisit it), and there was friendship, as well as difficulty and punishment, in the work. Having set this analogy in motion I began to wonder - in a paranoid jag – if I also wasn’t an instrument ignorant of its function.
Film Still from Steven Soderbergh's 2002 version of 'Solaris'
The poles of this problem: history and the past on the one hand, the present tense and expanded field of possibility on the other, Lem and Kaprow, closely model a dilemma that I face as a teacher (of art). The problem was loosely addressed in the performance workshop that I did then with a group of students from the Academia in Venice.
What is the nature of this dilemma for a teacher and how does my odd pairing of Solaris and Kaprow model it? Everything that we agree is art has its genesis in other art, and knowledge in previous knowledge. There is always a precedent, a starting point and a model for what it is. Everyone comes to the endeavor with some idea of what it is and how it functions. The category of art as we understand it – with its constantly shifting tide lines of location, materiality, activity, performativity, dead and undead genres – can only be described by saying ‘the category of art’, -as absurd as that sounds. The planet Solaris can only send back to Kelvin something that he already knows and something that is dead. The mind can only project outwards what it already knows and it looks to repeat itself. Or, as Lem says later in Solaris, through Kelvin’s fellow cosmonaut Gibrarian, regarding contact with extra-terrestrials;
“We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past.”
And yet, what I, as a teacher, want for my students, is not repetition of other models or a mirror of the past. I want for them to make work in a boundaryless field of possibility, in a constant present tense of limitless horizons and enormous energy. I want them activated by what Joseph Beuys called ‘field character’ and I call endless orgiastic play, rigorous pleasure, ‘the planet in orgasm’ as Lem described Solaris – an enormous intelligent will to live. Call it what you like. Every student comes to art with, hidden on their person, the recognition that our lives should be constituted of something greater than this, a utopian impulse, a dream of possible lives - rich, deep, oceanic lives.
This brings me to the question of my role as a teacher, my position during that performance workshop in 2009, and one of the purposes of this symposium.
If on the one hand we’ve all arrived at the space station of - in my case art, but enter here whatever your endeavor in life is; architecture, engineering, cooking - and we are circling the planet earth looking to communicate with a vast intelligent being, that Lem describes as:
‘a monstrous entity endowed with reason, a proto-plasmic ocean-brain enveloping the entire planet and idling away its time in extravagant theoretical cognition about the nature of the universe.’
If we’re trying to communicate and all it sends back to us are the dead, and the teachers themselves speak in the language of the dead, but we believe there is a new form emerging of vast potentiality, how do we teach to it? How do we nurture – to borrow George Kubler’s term - “prime objects” over replications? What is our role as a teacher in this landscape? How do we open the door to the ‘something else completely’ of Kelvin’s description above?
In 2009 I described the project to the students in Venice; that there was a confluence between Kaprow, now gone but having insisted throughout his life on an artistic endeavor of constant innovation, and Lem’s learning to love through the ambivalent gesture of occupying dead forms. I told them about 1961 and about ‘Solaris’ and ‘Stockroom’ appearing on opposite sides of the earth with opposing impulses. I told them that I thought that the earth had asked me to come to Venice to build an elaborate mimoid/installation with them in the hope that we could occupy the present tense together.
They laughed. Being Italian, I realized, they were comfortable with the transubstantiation of the dead. I think this is where the imperative of the teacher in relationship to the student might be the most prescient – because what we were aiming for in that workshop was transubstantiation, transformation, and we were doing it with the hovering danger of committing necrophilia.
What do I mean by this? Every model, every idea of what art is or could be, that a student comes to making art with is at once the vehicle for their liberation - it has taught them that there is an expanded field for them to occupy - and their master, having set the terms of engagement in a vocabulary not their own. In the analogy of Solaris, as a studio art teacher – and I’m sure that the studio art teachers in the room can relate to this – the dead are all the ghosts in a student’s practice. They are the family of artists that a student self-identifies with. The ghosts are the earliest exposure and impression on the student, or on any artist, of the possibility of what a life in art might mean. Most importantly, the ghosts are also what we - as teachers - tell them art is.
Film Still from Tarkovsky's 'Solaris', Kelvin is having to tear Rheya's dress open because Solaris,
reproduced what he cannot remember about his dead wife - the buttons.
They appear and like Rheya, they look similar to things we’ve loved (or the student has), or have been told to love. If you try to undress them though, like Kelvin, you find that Solaris has mimicked only what was in Kelvin’s mind. They have no buttons on their dresses and no laces on their shoes – Kelvin having been unable to recall those details of his dead wife. The student, divided from the original creative act by their own partial knowledge of their attraction leaves equivalent vacancies. Kelvin asks Rheya where she came from – just now – and she can’t answer, Solaris having no memory to project into a past. They’re not fully formed. They are discordant, misshapen, and incomplete. If you mishandle them they are incredibly strong and resilient.
It is at this point at which many teachers of art diverge; with the majority saying simply ‘art cannot be taught’. What they mean is, beyond the etiquette lessons of materiality, the dead cannot rise, there is no transubstantiation. It occurs to me here, as I’m arguing for raising the dead, that my first impulse is decidedly un-messiah like: I think it’s imperative to put one’s hand down the back of Rheya’s dress to check for buttons; to acknowledge that language, whether spoken, written or transmitted through images or objects, is the currency of our exchange, and must, alongside the effort to generate prime forms, be self-aware of its previously inhabited meanings.
The question after that is how to negotiate the space between, on the one hand, the attraction to Rheya, the form, the language (whatever it is) and on the other, the complicated matrix that is our lived experience, between – as flat footed as it may sound – between form and content. The challenge is how to bring them into contact with one another and have the full and unarticulated spectrum of our lives fill the vacancies of the form we chose – ideally to exceed that form and synthesize into something never before done, something else completely.
It would take a second and third symposium to address the methods that good teachers use to negotiate this endeavor. As we’re about to go do a movement workshop with the dancer Leralee Whittle that loosely explores the pedagogic model I’ve described above, I think its important to mention that I see teachers as guides who set structures for unknown outcomes. In the analogy I’ve used, lets imagine that the ‘Rheya’ that has appeared amongst us is our own body, our relationship to it half formed, partial, loving and ambivalent. The only witness in the room is yourself, and Rheya.
Imaginative Reinvention of Education Symposium
Grand Arts, Kansas City