Reducing the Human Body to Object: Political Performance Sculpture and Vito Acconci
In Kathy O’Dell’s 1998 essay, “Performance, Video, and Trouble in the Home,” video art is traced to the beginnings of performance-based art from the 1960s, a time particularly influenced by Fluxus theories (influenced by the Dadas) and in which the expression of the human body (almost as a sculptural object) conceptualized the politics, identification, and implications of oneself and one’s relationship to the public (or, on the contrary, whether there should be a relationship). As she grounds the theme of performance-based art in the stems of “trouble in the home,” (in reference to The Honeymooners) she reveals the fact that Ralph’s character and weighty presence, in essence, calls visual attention to the locus of psychological work from which identifications are formed (136).
In transitioning her essay into focusing on the role of the human body in performance-based art, she mentions, “the body becomes the chief material of these art forms, brought up close by viewers, often pushing its way aggressively into space…” (136), and not only revolves around the “construct of family,” but also the opposition between the home and holiday. To establish her argument, she provides the example of the space of the gallery, where dealers function as maternal or paternal figures, comparable to the home venue, alternative spaces as comparable to the holiday space, and proto-alternative spaces and schools, in which “the bulk of early seventies works” took place as a “curious mix of the two” (136). Artists like Vito Acconci are then introduced, as she introduces the conflict between the question of the stability of institutions versus the institutions to which viewers’ attentions are directed in video art.
As an admirer of Acconci, I was particularly fascinated by O’Dell’s analysis of Claim from 1971. She clearly states that the piece “spells out psychological drama engendered by performance-based video art.” When viewing the piece myself, Acconci seems to be ironically addressing no one, yet repetitively reciting his “humble threat” almost as a part of his conscience: “I don’t want anybody down here with me… I’ll keep anyone from coming down here with me…” Furthermore, by repetitively swaying his head and a bat (yet in a somewhat calm manner), he is unable to make eye contact as he is blinded, and the viewer ironically does not feel threatened by his discomfort. Broadly, Acconci is constantly known to revolutionize the question of what the viewer’s relationship is to the subject of video, and interestingly enough, also constantly poses the question of whether there needs to be a viewer. As I watch Claim, I feel like I am merely a passerby of documentation, my role is completely reduced, and ironically, I do not feel obliged to follow his commands—commands which almost seem passive, chanted, and redundant. As O’Dell also references Jacques Lacan, who describes Acconci’s “emphatically enacted move from the ‘imaginary’ to the ‘symbolic’” (137), I wonder, in turn, what universal symbolism is recreated in Acconci’s chant—is it perhaps one of un-leveling security, self-remediation, consultation, realization? Finally, O’Dell also hints a bio sexual reading of Claim, and this is perplexing, as she introduces the theme of the “conceptualization of the body in processes of identification… Recapturing a sense of unity, a sense of physical and emotional wholeness generally associated with the preoepidal” (137).