by Marcia Tanner
Mind Over Matter is the perfect title for this rich and revelatory sampling of first-generation conceptual art and artifacts from the collection of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). Adjunct Curator Constance M. Lewallen, the Bay Area’s preeminent champion of Northern California conceptual artists, organized this intelligently assembled, absorbing exhibition. Thanks to recent museum acquisitions — most notably, the addition of a trove of conceptual art and artists’ ephemera from the Steven Leiber Trust, which accounts for 50 of the 152 pieces shown — Mind Over Matter weaves an expansive narrative, connecting the local with related artistic phenomena happening concurrently, in the 1960’s and 70’s, around the globe. It’s a scholarly, didactic yet exhilarating show, documenting the influential international art movement with rare archival material, groundbreaking art works, and moments of discovery and aesthetic pleasure.
Mind Over Matter also launches a significant initiative for BAMPFA: inviting Cal students to contribute to the discourse around the works on view. The online publication for Mind Over Matter, integral to the exhibition, features an informative overview by Lewallen and essays by UC Berkeley undergrads, each offering in-depth consideration of a single piece in the show. It’s worth reading what they have to say.
Not surprisingly, conceptual artists who’ve lived and worked in the Bay Area are well represented. They include: Terry Allen, The Ant Farm, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Lowell Darling, Terry Fox, Howard Fried, Alice Hutchins, David Ireland, Paul Kos, Stephen Laub, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Tom Marioni, Jim Melchert, Linda Montano, and Bruce Nauman. Also on view are works from Southern California conceptualists Eleanor Antin, John Baldessari, Chris Burden and Ed Ruscha. Works by Left Coast artists are placed in dialogue with pieces from artists hailing from outside the immediate region — Vito Acconci, Bas Jan Ader, Carl André, Joseph Beuys, Alighieri Boetti, Marcel Broodthaers, James Lee Byars, John Cage, Gilbert and George, Jenny Holzer, Allen Kaprow, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Yoko Ono, Dieter Roth, Carolee Schneeman, Lawrence Weiner, and a roster of Fluxus artists, among others. It’s a lot to absorb, but worth the effort for the insights and connections illuminated.
In 1968, art historian Lucy Lippard famously characterized conceptual art making as the “dematerialization of the art object” which “emphasizes the thinking process almost exclusively” and “may result in the object becoming wholly obsolete.” That same year, conceptual art pioneer Lawrence Weiner wrote that whether the artist constructed a piece, had it fabricated, or never made it at all, the artist’s intention was the crucial thing: “the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.”
What viewers receive on the “occasion of receivership” in Mind Over Matter is abundantly material, frequently text-based, and often requires lengthy back stories and extensive interpretation on wall labels to provide context and encourage “the thinking process” these objects provoke, or (sometimes deliberately) elude. On view are films and videos, photographs, collages and drawings, video and photographic documentation of performances, artists’ books, mail art, multiples, Fluxkits, text works, correspondence, and ephemera such as posters, pamphlets and announcements. Language — its functions, powers, vagaries, limits, allusiveness — is the subject, object and common denominator of many of these works.
Performances recorded on film or video, a new genre in the 1960s, enliven the show. They include classics, like Bruce Nauman’s Dance or Exercise on the Perimeter of a Square (Square Dance), 1968-78; Playing a Note on the Violin While I Walk Around the Studio, 1967-68; Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, 1967-68; and the excruciating Bouncing in the Corner No. 1, 1968. (We’re spared Nauman’s later, even more excruciating if unforgettable Clown Torture, 1987.)
In these pieces, Nauman subjected his body to uncomfortable repetitive actions inscribed in space, based on his contention that anything an artist does in the studio is art. Groundbreaking at the time, they emboldened other artists to mine a similar vein of narcissistic, sado-masochistic (sadistic to the viewer, masochistic for the subject), endurance-testing, OCD behavior. (Vito Acconci and Marina Abramovic, anyone?) John Baldessari pointedly spoofs Nauman’s work in his droll 1971 video I Am Making Art — also included in the show — in which the artist slowly revolves in his studio, striking minimal poses, while repeating that phrase.
Another antidote to seriousness is Jim Melchert’s delightful 1973 Untitled (Water Film), a complete surprise to me; I’ve only known Melchert as an accomplished ceramic artist who’s taught at UC Berkeley for decades. Filmed in color and slow motion, this 4-minute piece —inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies — features a nude white man and woman, tall, slender, athletic and pink-fleshed, dowsing each other balletically with buckets of water against a white backdrop, accompanied by a sound track of ocean surf. Who cares if this joyous, playful depiction of a mock war between the sexes (where neither wins and both have fun) is conceptual art? By literally throwing cold water on the subject, it perfectly captures a moment of innocence in the Bay Area, when the potential for radical reinvention of traditional gender roles and relationships — especially if you were white, young, beautiful and heterosexual — seemed boundless.
Stephen Laub’s Relations reworks for this exhibition his six-hour-long performance at the Museum of Conceptual Art (MOCA), San Francisco in 1972-73. In the original, Laub, dressed entirely in white, placed his body against projected slides of old family photographs of his East European Jewish relatives who had succumbed to or survived the Holocaust. For each slide, he labored to align himself with the exact posture of a family member in the image, painstakingly arranging his facial features (which often bear a striking resemblance to theirs) to mimic that individual’s expression. In his re-creation of that exhaustive exercise in deep empathy, Laub used digital technology to approximate the process. The result is an uncanny and moving representation of the artist’s attempt to inhabit fully the identities and histories of relatives, both male and female, who were lost to him in time: to make his body a memorial, channeling memories he had never had.
In her haunting video Mouth to Mouth, 1977, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha also used her body as a receptacle for cultural displacement and imperfect memory. Her mouth is shown in close-up, attempting to reproduce the Korean vowel sounds she was losing as an emigré to the United States. Some vowels are missing altogether, and the image is gradually obscured by visual static: a metaphor for the “snow” of forgetting that threatened to obliterate her mother tongue and thereby compromise her sense of self.
Language fails again in Paul Kos’s short, gemlike black-and-white video Riley Roily River, 1977. The sounds and close-up image of a rushing river fill the screen as voices of a man and woman argue — quietly at first, then with increasing volume — over the correct adjective to describe the torrent. “Riley!” she says. “Roily!” he counters. Their dispute becomes an impassioned screaming match while the turbulent river churns on, indifferent to humans’ efforts to ensnare it with a word.
Collectively, the works in Mind Over Matter exemplify a radically subversive resistance movement. Conceptual artists rebelled against the status quo. In opposition to the art market, they aimed to redefine what artists do, what art is, and who and what art is for. Their work embodied, often with dry humor, a critique of elitist pretensions surrounding art. They rejected the commodification of art and, frequently, the capitalist system that engendered it. Their goal was to democratize art: to make work that would catalyze transformative experiences, expand consciousness and incite reflection, not simply create objects of desire. They wanted to render art anti-elitist, inexpensive and accessible to all. Many of them literally put their bodies on the line to make their point.
As this show demonstrates, their quixotic mission failed nobly. There’s plenty of collectible, commodifiedstuff in Mind Over Matter. And in its conceptual complexity, its introduction of experiential, time-based modes of presentation like happenings and performance, its often enigmatic, text-heavy content, its unorthodox choices of media and forms, and its aversion to producing conventional, traditional art objects like paintings and sculptures — which most people still think are synonymous with ART — conceptual art was open to ridicule and misinterpretation. It remains largely incomprehensible and alien to a general audience.
Paradoxically, conceptual art created its own elite — among other artists, art students, art critics, art historians, and a few adventurous, not necessarily wealthy, art aficionados and collectors who appreciated its processes and intentions, and wanted to support the artists who engaged in it.
It’s had a lasting impact. It expanded the parameters of art, profoundly influenced subsequent generations of artists and permanently changed the nature of art making. It also produced captivating and enduring work, much of which is featured in Mind Over Matter.
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“Mind Over Matter: Conceptual Art From the Collection @ BAMPFA” through December 23, 2016.
Marcia Tanner is a writer, independent curator and swimmer who lives in Oakland. Two exhibitions she organized — Brides of Frankenstein, 2005 at the San Jose Museum of Art, and We Interrupt Your Program, 2008 at Mills College Art Museum — focused on contemporary women artists working with digital and electronic media.