Happenings Are Happening Again
By JORI FINKEL
Published: April 13, 2008
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J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times
Rob Hooks digs dirt in the vicinity of Watts Towers (background) in Los Angeles as part of a re-enactment of “Trading Dirt” by Allan Kaprow.
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Courtesy of the Getty Research Institute
Allan Kaprow in 1964.
IT’S hard to know what Allan Kaprow, the artist who gave us Happenings in the 1960s as a way to escape the confines of museums, would have thought of his current retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In some ways it’s even harder to imagine what he would have made of the re-creation of his historic work “Trading Dirt” at Watts Towers here, the first in an ambitious program of reinventions tied to the show.
Kaprow, who died in 2006, began “Trading Dirt” in 1983, long after he had largely abandoned his flashy Happenings in favor of more intimate pieces he called Activities. This one involved offering a bucket of dirt to someone in exchange for theirs. He traded soil from his garden for what he called “heavy-duty Buddhist dirt” from the Zen Center of San Diego, where he was studying.
Then he traded that for “dog dirt” from friends: soil that the artist Eleanor Antin and her husband, the poet David Antin, dug from a spot in front of their house, where they had buried Hayden, their beloved German shepherd.
Anecdotes accompanied the trades, which took place every now and then for nearly three years. And that was it, a rather uneventful series of events that Mr. Kaprow later served up in the form of a story captured on videotape. In much the way that John Cage’s music made space for noise and silence, Mr. Kaprow’s meandering narrative made room for dirt and gossip, and long interludes in between.
So when Rosie Lee Hooks, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, decided to make a film version of “Trading Dirt,” she was deliberately adding another layer of meaning. Her idea was to trade buckets of dirt with a handful of artists who live in Watts and are linked to the center, filming the exchanges to make a 30-minute piece for the government-access Channel 35.
She plans to open her film with 1950s footage of Simon Rodia — the self-taught artist who in a herculean effort built Watts Towers out of scrap metal and found objects — carrying a pail toward his monument. The closing shot will show Ms. Hooks shoveling dirt from a bucket, post trade, into the ground beneath the soaring towers.
“This is a chance for us to give Watts a different image,” Ms. Hooks said on a late March morning at the site. “When you hear about Watts, you hear about riots and welfare. But this community also has loving families who want the best for their children, and an amazing artistic community.”
By 9 a.m. that day Ms. Hooks had dug up the first bucket of dirt from the grounds of Watts Towers. Her adult son Rob had helped. “We had no idea how hard the dirt was,” she said. Then, with the film cameras trained on her, she carried the bucket down the street toward some neighbors who knew Mr. Rodia to make her first trade.
But before she reached their house, the director called out. “Let’s take that again.” So Ms. Hooks, who has a theater background and some film acting credits, walked the block again, pail in hand. After three takes, they called it a wrap.
“This is very interesting,” said the artist Suzanne Lacy, a onetime student of Kaprow who watched the filming. “They’re doing two things at once, the piece and the documentation of the piece. We are witnessing the witnessing of an experience. This is very L.A.”
It was arguably not very Kaprow. Interested in the immediacy of experience (his retrospective is aptly titled “Art as Life”), he rarely made work for the sake of film or video. And although he liked to work from basic scenarios or “scores,” he welcomed spontaneity throughout. “There’s no doubt this film is more structured than Allan’s work,” Ms. Lacy said.
Which raises questions that Kaprow himself increasingly confronted as he aged. What does it mean to restage a Happening, revisiting an event that was meant to be very Zen and present tense? Does the artist’s original intention even matter? And, when it comes to exhibitions, what is the best way to sustain the legacy of an artist obsessed with the everyday and ephemeral, an artist who once compared putting “lifelike art” in a museum to “making love in a cemetery”?
For the Museum of Contemporary Art here, the only United States stop for a show that originated in Munich, one strategy for dealing with such issues has been to encourage visitor participation, both in the exhibition, running through June 30, and at the various off-site events. Its curator, Philipp Kaiser, has not only imported paintings, videos and more from the European show but has also invited a handful of Los Angeles artists to reinvent some of Kaprow’s early interactive installations, called Environments.
One of those artists, Barbara T. Smith, created a new version of Kaprow’s popular “Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hofmann” from 1963 by setting up a living room’s worth of furniture, from chairs to tables to bookcases, all painted blue. Visitors can move the furniture, creating blue scuff marks on the floor.
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Kaprow’s 1967 “Fluids” is being restaged as part of the show.
At the center of the exhibition is another interactive piece, created by Ms. Lacy, the architect Michael Rotondi and the media producer Peter Kirby. Wooden chairs form a circle on a large pad of dirt, with a phone booth in one corner and the Kaprow video of “Trading Dirt” in another. Every Saturday Kaprow’s friends are scheduled to come, sit and record their experiences with his work for an audio archive.
At other times, anyone can enter the booth and dial (213) 455-2926 to record personal memories of Kaprow. (You can also call in from home.) Called “Trade Talk,” in a nod to “Trading Dirt,” this work is more tribute than re-creation. When the space is active, Mr. Kaiser describes it as “a living archive”; when it’s not, he regards it as a symbolic “void” at the center of the museum.
As Ms. Lacy sees it: “The conundrum of Allan’s work is how to move it into the museum, which was so fraught for him. I wanted to capture the part of Allan’s work that was the most significant to him and the most ephemeral. And that is the experience of his work as it becomes part of, and lives on in, someone else’s memory.”
The museum’s education department has organized a full program of Kaprow “reinventions” at sites ranging from local art schools to places overseen by community centers, like Watts Towers. With financing from the Getty Foundation, the museum has lined up 29 different institutions as partners in organizing 32 events (or nonevents) through June. Details are posted at moca.org/kaprow.
On Tuesday, for example, a group of University of Southern California students will reinvent “Drag” from 1984 by dragging concrete blocks around campus. Following Kaprow’s score, when you meet someone you know, you must switch to carrying the block. The next time you meet someone you know, you switch to pushing it. And then back to dragging, and so on.
On Wednesday the Hammer Museum will enact “Museum Portraits,” an unrealized activity that Kaprow developed for the Hamburger Kunsthalle in 1977. He proposed that museum employees move their desk chairs to the street for an hour, exposing the “backstage” of the museum and perhaps revealing the way a chair can serve as a portrait of the sitter. “Van Gogh understood this very well,” he wrote, “when he painted ‘portraits’ of himself and Gauguin by depicting their respective chairs: one, crude, the other, elegant.”
Some of Kaprow’s most famous pieces will also be reconceived. Starting on April 22, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions will present his breakthrough 1959 “18 Happenings in 6 Parts.” And several institutions — including the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Getty Center — will be recreating Kaprow’s 1967 work “Fluids,” starting on April 25. Each will build a large roomlike structure out of 50-pound bricks of ice and then let it melt.
“Kaprow had such a huge impact on Los Angeles, and ties to so many institutions here,” said Aandrea Stang, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s education program manager. “It was exciting to see how many groups wanted to be involved.”
Although he began his career and his Happenings in New York, Mr. Kaprow’s first retrospective was in 1967 at the Pasadena Art Museum, which helped organize a multisite production of “Fluids” across the greater Los Angeles area. Two years later he joined the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts before becoming a mainstay at the University of California, San Diego.
He taught at CalArts at the same time as the conceptual artist John Baldessari, which inspired the one-liner that while all of Mr. Baldessari’s students went on to become art stars, Kaprow’s went on to become social workers. “Or Zen Buddhists or chiropractors,” said Ms. Lacy, who shared a Zen teacher with Kaprow.
Kaprow was also close to the artist Paul McCarthy, who is doing his own, more private performances at unannounced times. The museum says he is planning a version of “Spit” from 1985, using a Q-tip and his own saliva to clean the car owned by Jeremy Strick, the museum’s director. (Saliva was a favorite medium of Kaprow, who had students lick their arms and watch the saliva dry and put ice to great use.)
For Ms. Lacy much of Kaprow’s work has social or political potential, even if he personally avoided that kind of content. Not only does his work bring people together, but it also uses the stuff of real life. There’s just one step, she said, from a Kaprow activity that involves brushing your teeth to a feminist performance that includes ironing clothes.
“That’s one reason the Watts film is so interesting,” Ms. Lacy said of Ms. Hooks’s project. “They seem to be using Allan’s work as a vehicle for political reasons.”
“You could look at their film and say it’s nothing Allan would have done himself, but I think he would have talked about it and thought about it. I don’t think he would have judged it.”
As for Ms. Hooks, she said she found some of her exchanges of dirt fascinating, even at the material level. The dirt offered by the sculptor Kenzi Shiokava was really rich, she said, complete with insects. “And we got some really wonderful conversation and stories, comedy and history.”
“This kind of work requires a lot of trust,” she said. “People could have been suspicious: What are you talking about, trading a bucket of dirt? But they were all so open.”
She plans to finish the film next month in the hopes that the museum will screen it before the end of its show. In the meantime she’s keeping the bucket of dirt.
“I’m going to ride the bucket around in my car until we finish shooting,” she said. “We still have to get some B-roll and wraparound stuff.”