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Essay

by Paul Chan (2006 Grantee)

Published in Foundation for Contemporary Arts' 2013 Grants Booklet


Stuart Sherman, the New York poet, performer and artist who died in 2001, used to stage what he called “spectacles." They were short routines, done in parking lots, street corners or occasionally in theaters, usually based on Sherman moving or manipulating everyday things on a portable TV dinner tray. He would shuffle cups and playing cards, then place a carrot on top of a hat, and then put on a pair of glasses with blacked-out lens, and so on. The pace was deliberate, like a ritual, but not from any earth-bound culture. He created over twenty spectacles in all, which now only survive in documentation. I have only seen one in person, and remember saying to myself at the time, what I would eventually say to myself every time I watch one of them on video: What is happening?

This is what is most pleasurable about them. What we are interested in most tends to be what is most agreeable to us. But this is also why all things are full of weariness: they are made exhausted and old from our interestedness; from our wanting to know what purpose they can fulfill for us. It is said that the only true knowledge is the insight that one does not know anything. Sherman's works endure in part because they are hypnotizing—in form—what is in effect the unknowability of their content. They feel light (like a bird, not like a feather) from a lack of want and the need to be known. And they teach without really teaching just how pleasing it is to experience and reflect upon something that holds no design over us other than being simply, stubbornly, incongruently, what it is.

If I close my eyes now, and try to conjure the spectacles in my mind, what I recall most vividly is the polyphonic nature of the rhythms Sherman used in performing his pieces, and the way in which he carried himself in front of that tray, which was at once intense and awkward, as if he was not fully in control of his own body, and was being directed remotely by some alien force. Sometimes in the middle of a spectacle, Sherman would pull out a piece of paper and look it over. He would then put it back into his shirt pocket, and continue performing. I have always wondered about that piece of paper. What was on it? Notes for the performance? A set of instructions telling him what to do and when to do it, like a score of human cues from an inhuman intelligence? It may be nothing of the sort, or just another prop on his tabletop universe, no different than the sponge or the can of Spaghetti-Os.

Still, I wonder. Thinking about that piece of paper is pleasing because it resituates Sherman's work beyond the confines of its own hermetic world, and into a wider array of relationships and meanings that his work was trying to build on its own terms. Maybe another way of saying this is that Sherman's gesture with that piece of paper brings up a question I often ask myself. That question is: What do I do now?

I assume everyone asks themselves this question, except those, I imagine, who know what they are doing. When I ask this question, it is usually directed at what I am working on, or who I am working with. There are times when I ask this to nobody in particular, and out loud. It is, to me, largely a moral question, insofar as morality is understood as tantamount to being a kind of inner law; a set of guiding principles a person follows to distinguish between the right and wrong way to go in the course of one's own development.

But it is also something of an aesthetic question, since an aesthetic is a sensibility that informs what one makes and what one likes. In both cases, it is a matter of choosing for oneself something worthy enough to follow in order to work towards becoming more of what one wants to be.

I think about that piece of paper as an emblem of all the peculiar inner laws Sherman ended up following to become who he became, so that he could make work as odd and miraculous as the spectacles. It is arguable that a person's work is not the same as the person who makes it. This is true enough. But on the other hand, a work, if it is worth paying attention to, expresses not only what it is, but also traces of the kind of person who made it. This is similar to the way that the “grain" of a person's voice embodies the one speaking or singing. The “grain" is the quality of the sound that expresses the particular shape and path air takes as it travels from the lungs, to the larynx and out the mouth. It is the body in the sound.

Likewise, I'm always curious about the body in the work. It is the evidence left behind after the act that illuminates how a way of living has enlivened (or deadened) a life into form. Duchamp expressed a similar sentiment once, when he said the most interesting thing about Warhol's soup can paintings wasn't the paintings themselves, but the mind that thought it would be worth the time and energy to paint them in the first place. I want to know what kind of person would make something like that? Especially if what is made is as unyielding and unknowable as Sherman's work. It reflects, I suppose, a way of being I feel at home with most. But then, why would anyone want to be around someone or something unyielding and unknowable? I'm not at all sure why. But it is a good question.

Paul Chan is an artist based in New York. He received a Grants to Artists award in 2006.

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