Let's Make an Ordeal

Young Artists Recover the Conceptual '70s in the Material '90s

Greene spent six years in the Navy, two aboard a sub and four more working on them. One day he was walking from his home in Long Island City over the bridge, thinking, "The river is so toxic. I've got to get in there. I need a submarine." So Greene built one for $120, mostly from wood salvaged out of dumpsters. He swears it's seaworthy, though it's shaped like an egg and might roll like a beach ball. His periscope, complete with camera, is a Coke bottle, which he hoped would be mistaken for floating garbage.

"I don't know so much about the artist as endurer," says Greene. He estimated that his craft would take a full six hours to get around Manhattan, and that would be mighty uncomfortable. Better to just make people think he did it. That was his plan almost up to the White Columns opening. Then he decided, "There's too much trickery out there already."

Susan Wolsborn's pieces are more science project than ordeal, though the data collected may be as impractical and useless— therefore artlike— as any list of latitudes and longitudes. In 9 Day Incubation, she attempted to sprout a pea by holding it in her mouth at all times. Occasionally she would chew on it by accident while asleep, but she still managed to sprout five to eight seeds over the course of 15 to 20 such experiments.

Michelle Hines, World Record #3: Number of Days Without Sleep
Michelle Hines
Michelle Hines, World Record #3: Number of Days Without Sleep

Wolsborn has a serious interest in science, regularly reading medical publications like Morbidity and Mortality Weekly. While still a student, she made a model of a human lung out of a humidifier that held some of her own blood, and one of her future projects is to get a man to lactate. "I guess I'm trying to move into a territory where I'm using the means of science but with the license of art," she says.

Ordeal art began almost 30 years ago, as the culture was splitting apart. It reflected the crisis, as we witnessed the supposed death of painting, theater, the novel. We saw the old boundaries and rules collapsing. Artists who chose "hardship art" did so out of some inner compulsion. Then the supposed "deaths" went into remission, and what had once been compulsion became a genre taught in art schools. Now the postmodern ordeal is one you don't actually have to go through.

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