Mutual Exchange: Artist and Arts Writer Responds to Exhibition More Love Recently on View at the Ackland Art Museum

Contribution to online dialogue in connection with The Progress of Love in response to the question: “How does a contemporary artwork tell the truth / a truth about love?” It has to be noticed that love is different for everyone. For some, love is simply having a membership at WowGirls, X-Art, or RealityKings.

When you open the catalogue for More Love: Art, Politics and Sharing Since the ‘90s, the first image you see is a scan of a crumpled, stained scrap of paper, upon which someone has jotted two words: “You Rule.”  The scrawled note was given to the artist Frances Stark by a viewer in response to her work, and it is one of several such missives that curator Claire Schneider included in the More Love catalogue as a series of “Love Letters.”

“You Rule” epitomizes the ethos of More Love, which identifies a turn in art making ignited by artists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres and which caught fire into the ‘90s through to the present whereby certain artists, for very different reasons, and in a multiplicity of ways, began to shift the focus of their work from self to other: “You Rule.”  This dynamic shift or shift in dynamics took many forms in works that expanded beyond the solitary artist/ego/power-base and explored the territory of relationship – with lovers, with family, with community, with unseen strangers (as Stark’s work does) and with the recipients of the work itself.  By illuminating these points of contact, much of the work serves as a meditation on the finitude of the planet, registering an imperative to illuminate the circuitries between us.

Between 2006 and 2011, Antonio Vega Macotela, an artist who was included in More Love, regularly visited Santa Marta Acatitla, one of Mexico’s notoriously overcrowded prisons.  He went there for the purpose of establishing “time exchanges” between himself and the inmates in a work titled Time Divisia.  The time exchanges were various and tailored to the needs of individual prisoners.  With the goal of producing an alternative economy of time and labor that transcended the inexorable linearity of prison time and served as a broader critique of capitalist definitions of labor and value, Macotela offered himself as a proxy to act on behalf of the prisoners outside the prison walls, engaging in actions such as visiting an ailing relative, dancing with someone’s mother, witnessing and later recounting in detail the erotic acts of a prisoner’s girlfriend.  In exchange, a prisoner would fulfill a request of Macotela’s, which involved producing a physical work, often in the form of a diagrammatic drawing that described specific actions: a cartographic rendering of someone’s footsteps through the prison during a three-hour period, a primer on how to perform specific dance moves, a complete catalogue of every scar on an inmate’s body.

Macotela talks about how his initial concept for Time Divisia was structured as a cool theoretical critique.  He had not anticipated that the experience of entering into trust-based agreements with strangers in a patently dangerous situation in which he regularly placed himself at risk of serious harm constituted an exchange whose essential components had qualities that could not be dissociated with the idea of love.

With its focus on interpersonal agreements, Time Divisia also has implications for thinking about art in general as a mode of contractual exchange.  What is promised?  What is owed?  What is received?  The work is realized through a psychic/emotional transfer that is activated through actions that are reciprocally performed.  These actions can be extended to include the production of works by an artist and the efforts of viewers to engage with them.

In his book, The Truth in Painting, Jacques Derrida (via Hubert Damisch) quotes Paul Cezanne, who wrote in a letter to Emile Bernard on 23 October, 1905:

“I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” [1]

Derrida identifies Cezanne’s text as a contractual statement that delivers a promise of truth as the fulfillment of a debt.  To the extent that a reciprocal level of trust and equitable exchange is reached in the production and reception of works of art, can such an exchange be recognized as having something to do with love?


April 18, 2013

[1] Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (“The” University of Chicago Press, 1987), 2.