Vito Acconci: “WHERE ARE WE NOW (WHO ARE WE ANYWAY?), 1976”

at MoMA PS1

“Shadowplay 3, Three Relationship Studies,” 1970, Vito Acconci, Super 8mm film transferred to video
Photo: courtesy Acconci Studios

This much-anticipated survey of Vito Acconci’s early work through 1976 consists of his poetry, recordings of performances, films, photographs, installations, and videos. During a three-and-a half-month residency at PS1, Vito and Maria Acconci, his wife and co-director of his architecture and design firm, Acconci Studio, developed the exhibition installations that complement the work. The first room contains a series of curving steel moiré walls that trace a labyrinthine timeline documenting the works in the exhibit. The whole space gives the impression of a gigantic manifold warping back on itself. Labyrinths and manifolds readily spring to mind when considering the centrality of the self in all its complexities to Acconci’s varied career. Even after he expanded his practice beyond video and performance into installation and architecture, his fascination with traversing the territories of the self, from the topology of the body to the endless pathways of memory in its autobiographical and cultural aspects, has never waned. The space with the timeline leads to a hall with a barrel vault ceiling that houses an installation of Acconci’s poetry from the 1960s, featuring sheets of writing on black plastic hung overhead with metal wires. The poetry that Acconci wrote after he settled in New York’s downtown began a journey that led him directly to the cliffs and cul-de-sacs that arise in the disjunctions between the limitations of the body and the endless virtual possibilities that language promises but never really delivers. The late ’60s was an extraordinary time when visual artists and poets freely exchanged ideas to an unprecedented degree. An active writer and editor for the poetry publication 0 to 9, Acconci became thoroughly versed in experiments with poetic form that attempted, impossibly, to bring language into the realm of the material. His subsequent forays into video and performance proved extensions of the issues he began wrestling with as a poet.

It is impossible to exaggerate the revolutionary impact hand-held audio-visual recording devices had on the Downtown art scene in the early ’70s. Indeed, PS1 devotes the bulk of the survey from 1970 onward to the dozens of video pieces, Super 8 movies, and recordings of Acconci’s performances. In his hands, video became a new method for exploring the intersection between language and the physical in a way that written poetry could not deliver. That intersection Acconci first located squarely in the notion of the self as the human body, which both originates language and conveys actual experience. In the early videos, working with his own body, those of his friends and his companion and fellow artist Kathy Dillon, he frequently traveled into voyeuristic and sadomasochistic territory. OPEN-CLOSE, (1970), is a pairing of silent Super 8 clips lasting about three minutes each. The camera in OPEN shows a close-up of Acconci’s groin as he rubs a tomato on his penis until it disintegrates. CLOSE shows a close-up of Acconci’s anus as he fills up the space between his buttocks with plaster. The actions in each clip illustrate their titles, but the location of the actions on parts of the artist’s body generally considered taboo point to the fact that even the simplest meanings require an awareness of a separate self that begins with our infantile explorations of our erogenous zones.

From 1971 onward, sound and the spoken word became regular elements in the videos. THEME SONG, (1973) shows Acconci in a close-up with his face to the camera. With rock music from the day playing in the background, he recites a smarmy seductive monologue directing the viewer to join him: “…come on you know we both need it… you don’t want me to be alone do you…” etc. In shifting his examination of the self from a narcissistic focus on the body in his first pieces to the conversational “you” in this video, he takes on the power tug-of-war embedded in all interactions – a hallmark of his performances from this period. Notable among these is Seedbed (1971), in which he infamously masturbated under a raised platform in the Sonnabend Gallery while fantasizing over a loudspeaker about the spectators walking above him.

The survey ends with a series of works that take a step further in complicating the parameters of the self. THE RED TAPES (1976-77), is a three-part film that explores architecture, sculpture, and cultural memory. In the third part, TAPE 3: TIME LAG, Acconci and a group of performers largely filmed from the neck down, wander about a minimal set rehearsing a play that vaguely relates to American history, although how never becomes clear. As is the case with most of Acconci’s writing, the language is by turns lapidary, ironic, oneiric, and often quite funny, but very Beckett-like in its lack of purposeful import. In the ’80s, Acconci would begin his investigations into architecture and design, but clearly by THE RED TAPES he had already mapped out in exquisite detail the contradictions of the human self defined by layered mazes of competing contexts: the physical, the transactional, the autobiographical, the cultural, the political, and so on. Few visual artists have managed to navigate these recesses as successfully. Following Acconci’s lead is among the pleasures and challenges of this provocative exhibition.