Let’s Make an Ordeal


World Record #3: Number of Days Without Sleep is the document of an artist in extremis. In 16 time-coded images taken from a videotape of her ordeal, a haggard Michelle Hines plays solitaire, clutches a friend, stands in the shower. As her accompanying text on the gallery wall explains: “From November 29­December 21, 1994 I sustained a period of sleeplessness for 528 hours 17 minutes, breaking the previous record by some 75 hours. . . . During the endeavor I was under constant video surveillance in order to certify that I had indeed not had any opportunity to sleep.”

World Record #3 is part of “Journey,” a show at White Columns featuring what the gallery describes as “young artists who perform feats of physical perseverance.” Most of them are right out of art school. While the press release cites the risky precedent set by ordeal artists like Chris Burden in the ’70s, “Journey” may be more about the distance traveled since such work was in vogue. World Record #3, for example, is a fake, though I admit to being fooled by it.

“I think people want to believe,” surmises the artist. Her World Records could only seem authentic in a world where so many extreme acts have resulted in so much art for so long. Last year at another gallery, Hines exhibited stills from World Record #4: Peristaltic Action, in which she supposedly deposited the world’s longest shit down the length of a bowling alley. And she fooled people there too (since, according to New Art Examiner, some gallery goers were offended). Hines says her series is about the quest for immortality and the absurd lengths one will go to be remembered. She dares to parody work which has always been treated with reverence by vanguard artists, even if others regarded it as masochism or madness.

While some of the other pieces in “Journey” are for real, none of them approach the mad heroism of a piece like Burden’s Shoot (1971), in which he had himself shot in the arm by a friend, or his Prelude to 220, or 110 (1971). For that one, he lay bolted with copper bands to a concrete floor, near two buckets of water in which live 110-volt lines had been submerged. Had anyone visiting the gallery chosen to spill the water, Burden would have been electrocuted. Such performances created a context in which it was possible (though not probable) that the artist would die. Fear or pain, Burden said, “energize the situation,” and that energy was his subject.

Hines knows such work had its time and place, but “I guess for me it didn’t seem necessary to actually have done the thing. Today you don’t really have to do anything.”

In the Late ’60s, artist On Kawara began obsessively documenting his place in the world, in a continuing series of canvases on which he painted the day’s date; in a series of paintings noting his latitude and longitude; and in daily typed lists of people he met, daily postcards mailed to friends announcing what time he’d gotten up, and, for a while, telegrams declaring, “I am still alive.”

Such “dematerialized” work no longer has a context, since art has now rematerialized with a vengeance. Still, one artist in the White Columns show dared to engage in the currently unfashionable enterprise of bringing art— that is, a certain mindfulness— into everyday life. Bringing a technological update to the enterprise, Stephen Cartwright recorded his latitude and longitude every hour of every day for one year, with the aid of a Global Positioning Satellite computer (about the size of a cell phone). What’s on display at White Columns is his logbook and long white scrolls covered with lines mapping his travels, also shown in 3-D on videotape. This piece invokes another infamous ordeal piece of yore, in which artist Tehching Hsieh punched a time clock every hour on the hour from April 1980 to April 1981. But Cartwright’s piece is less extreme. Unlike Hsieh, he didn’t have to wake up every hour since his coordinates didn’t change during the night.

For the past year and a half, Cartwright also noted his location in another logbook every time he saw an old woman about the age of his grandmother. During the latitude/longitude year, he flew to California and rode his bicycle back home to Philadelphia, mounting his computer and four counters on his handlebars. All the way across America, he counted people who waved, old women the age of his grandmother, people who engaged him in short conversations, and people who engaged him in long ones. And for the past two years, Cartwright has been recording the number of light-years he rides on his bike every day.

Why? Some may understand this sort of art through the Mount Everest answer: because it’s there. Cartwright says he likes involving himself “in an arbitrary system.”

While some of the work at White Columns doesn’t seem much related to “perseverance,” I did appreciate the relic from an ordeal as phony as Hines’s sleepless nights. Shawn Greene’s Racoons in the Darkness purports to be a submarine that circled Manhattan. Videotape from its alleged excursion is playing inside for those who manage to climb down into it.

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.

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.