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Allan Kaprow

"Allan Kaprow" by Joseph R. Wolin, Winter 2009, pp. 115-16

In 1961, Allan Kaprow, the putative father of both performance art and installation, filled the back garden at Martha Jackson Gallery in New York with hundreds of old tires, covering the sculptures that normally resided there with tarpaper and rope. He reconfigured that work, titled Yard, in various places ten times before his death in 2006. To open its new New York City digs, fortuitously occupying the same Upper East Side townhouse that once housed Martha Jackson Gallery, Hauser & Wirth commissioned three contemporary artists to reimagine Yard.

In Yard (To Harrow), William Pope.L hews most faithfully to Kaprow’s original vision, filling Hauser & Wirth’s gallery (the garden long since enclosed) with 1200 tires. Transposing outside to inside, and outfitting the space with dimming and flashing lights, Pope.L changes Yard into “a coal cellar rather than a dump,” as Kaprow himself described a 1982 iteration. Pope.L has also added surveillance cameras, traded Kaprow’s enigmatic tarpaper-covered mounds for a wooden rack holding stacks of glossy black-plastic body bags and included a soundtrack that features a Barack Obama impersonator. Punctuated by the repeated mantra “rearrange the tires,” the voice-over liberally mixes references to contemporary art with nods to “Nazi torture chambers” and “the hills of Afghanistan,” at one point equating “a Happening” with a “terrorist enclave.” Reminiscent of Christian Jankowski’s The Holy Artwork (2001), in which a televangelist preached about art, the foreboding soundtrack, delivered in the president’s familiar cadences, acts in concert with the impenetrable chaos of the cast-off tires, the acrid smell of rubber and the disorienting stroboscopic effects to produce a dark and vertiginous spectacle that feels urgent, even if its import remains obscure.

At the Queens Museum of Art, Yard (Junkyard), a photograph by Josiah McElheny, shows an aerial view of the so-called Iron Triangle, not far from the museum: an intersection filled with used auto parts and repair shops. Projected nearly 80 feet wide, McElheny’s impressive slice of urban grit seems to picture the source of Kaprow’s materials and imagery, but ends up looking like an oversized Jeff Wall, minus the high resolution and the pointed metanarrative. For Yard (Sign), Sharon Hayes placed dozens of examples of signage that recently graced front lawns around the United States in the open field of the New York Marble Cemetery (all the grave markers are affixed to the enclosing walls). Obama campaign signs from last year’s election figure prominently, along with handwritten postings decrying the theft of Obama signs, but there are also announcements for yard sales, open houses, foreclosure bus tours and custom window tinting as well as stranger rants lettered on cardboard about rebuilding New Orleans and the genocide of Native Americans. Hayes has gathered a lively, if cacophonous, community of voices, which, because of the dated quality of many of the messages, might appear to belong to the people interred underneath. She allows the dead to speak to the present day, something that, in a sense, occurs in all three recuperations of Kaprow’s work.

This is an article from the Winter 2009 issue of Canadian Art.

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