The Native and Naked Dignity of Man
By Jo Melvin, Hand in Foot, 2013
The analogy between rivers and experience is well known. Heraclitus once claimed that you could never step into the same river twice. Its particles are in constant motion.
JocJonJosch has its own story with rivers. It took place in Basel, where the artists sometimes spend their summer holidays together. On this occasion they were with two friends, one of whom, Chris, had MS and was unable to walk. They decided to take a small boat onto the river and pull Chris behind it in an inflatable dinghy. Soon after being set afloat the dinghy began to deflate, leaving Chris in grave danger. At that moment the friends also realised that they were traveling against the river traffic into the path of a ship. In the little time left Joschi managed to drag Chris’ sinking dinghy to the bank, the other friend made it onto the boat, but Jocelyn was swept towards a bridge. The only thing to grab hold of was a buoy. Panic ensued. But in a comical turn of events it turned out that the part of the river Jocelyn thought he might drown in was shallow enough for him to stand. A potential tragedy became a source of comedy.
I begin the present essay with this narrative because the balance between the serious and the comic underlies many aspects of JocJonJosch’s collaborative practice. As does the precarity of the body and the recounting of stories which, however somber their intimations, always seem to end joyously.
In a short film from 2010, for instance, the collective playfully invokes the classical sculptures of Antiquity, parodying its celebrations of youthful athleticism. The performance takes place in the Abney Park Cemetery in North London. We see Joschi climb hesitantly onto a stone pedestal and become the archetypal discus thrower. His movements are weary because it is a public space in a built up area, frequented by joggers and dog walkers. It is also a place for gay pick-ups, which only adds to the work’s absurdity.
Several other films were made in the same location. Human Removal has all three artists clothed. It opens with Jonathan standing on a headstone leaning against a plinth. His posture recalls the marble carvings of Louis-François Roubiliac, the eighteenth century French sculptor who lived and worked in London. Roubiliac was famed for his sepulchral monuments which depicted the passage from life to death. Ten seconds into the film Jocelyn and Joschi enter the frame. They lift and carry Jonathan off, whose pose remains statuesque. The whole thing lasts thirty seconds. In another film, Cemetery, the scenic greenery of the overgrown gravestones is punctuated by the three members of JocJonJosch. First one, then two, then three of the artists emerge from the greenery like bobbing jack-in-the-boxes.
Each of these works is humorous but also, in its exploration of the relation between the body, death and monumentality, disconcerting. Despite the films’ humour one inevitably thinks of the passing of time and memory. I find it hard to know whether to laugh or to cry at the sight of three naked men among the memorials.
The present essay will consider how some of the ideas encountered in these early works were developed in JocJonJosch’s collaborative practice. It will focus on how these concerns emerge out of the history of Performance Art and how the collective engages with that history. It does this first by drawing together tendencies or characteristics that can be traced to the 1960s – questions of authenticity, authorship and documentation – and then relates these to JocJonJosch’s practice. William Wordsworth once asserted that the force that connected humanity in the face of dereliction was “the naked and native dignity of man by which he knows, and feels, and lives and moves.”1 Though Wordsworth did not mean nakedness in its literal sense, using the term to invoke an open attitude of mind, I would like to use his vision of human fraternity as a guiding image in this essay, especially as it relates to the vulnerability and fragile beauty of the body in JocJonJosch’s work. The essay closes with some comments on JocJonJosch’s most recent works.
Underlying the dematerialisation of the artwork in the 1960s was the ideal of a world in which anyone could be an artist. Joseph Beuys’ assertion that sculpture could take the form of a discussion extended and redefined the parameters of art practice so as to include discourse. Beuys’ lectures were performances which frequently lasted up to ten hours. At the time they were referred to as ‘happenings’, a term which emphasised their spontaneous and durational aspects. Sometimes he wrote and drew with chalk on blackboards. These boards were left as traces, or memento mori, to mark and to mourn the occasion, now past. More important for Beuys’s thinking, however, was that the discourse surrounding the event was not static. It could shift and evolve through the exchange of ideas and in the way artworks responded to each other.
This exchange between artworks was explored by André Malraux, the French novelist and Minister for Cultural Affairs in France during the 1960s. Malraux identified a process of dematerialisation in his book Museums without Walls, published in English in 1967. There he suggests that encountering a work of art modifies one’s previous perceptions of, and relations with, other artworks.2 According to Malraux artworks enter into dialogue with each other in an ongoing conversation inside one’s head. In so doing they modify their meanings. The author also raises questions about site and location and, by extension, questions about how art might be exhibited. The ideas Malraux explored had a cascading influence on artists and exhibition organisers in this period.
The dispensation of the need for walls to exhibit artworks is suggestive of changing attitudes towards the nature of art. As previously noted, Beuys considered both thinking and speaking to be sculpture.3 His redefinition liberated art from a dependence on traditional materials, and it is from this time that Performance Art became a vibrant force for exploring questions of authorship and meaning. Henceforth interpretation entered discourse as another story, another way of recounting, which allowed for fact to fuse with fiction.
The conceptual artist Ian Wilson’s attitude towards authorship is also of interest in this regard. Wilson shifted attention away from the specificities of actual artworks to discourse. Wilson’s Chalk Circle (1968), for instance, comprised a circle about six feet in diameter drawn in chalk on the floor.4 When the artist spoke about this work to people who had not seen it, he realised that its absence occasioned a new way of thinking about art and a new way of experiencing it. Wilson’s ‘conversations as art’ began soon afterward. His exhibitions would involve him in discussion, at an allocated time, with the viewer-participants. A few years later he remarked to the writer Peter Schjeldahl: “The transition from the chalk circle to speech came about when I realised that it was just as easy to tell people about the chalk circle as having them go and see it.”5 In the case of Wilson’s Chalk Circle, however, there is no doubt about whether or not the work existed because Lucy Lippard included a photograph of it in her seminal book Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object. Lippard published the book in 1973 using the documents and information she had accumulated in the period between 1966 and 1972.
It is interesting to note how these concerns have emerged in developed and complex forms in JocJonJosch’s practice. The collective’s recent works are often designed to produce conversations where the line between fact and fiction is blurred. In Existere, a work I will return to in a moment, no photographic documentation exists that recorded the performance. But this loss was really an occasion to think about new ways of dealing with the relation between imagination, narrative and memory. Moreover, even if it is only alluded to in earlier films and photographs, all of JocJonJosch’s artworks contain a performative element. And it was this aspect that led to the collective’s decision to focus directly on the nature of collaboration and to expose the interdependent nature of artworks and their production.
In 2009, for instance, the Dienstgebäude in Zurich became the site for a series of photographs titled Body Cabinet. Formerly a railway cleaners’ storage space and changing room, the space now provides artists with studios and a gallery space. It was there that JocJonJosch found the locker seen in the works in question. In the photographs taken in the Dienstgebäude, and in another photograph taken in a small park near the red light district in Zurich, an improbable (and impossible) body form inhabits the blue locker. The viewer knows that Houdini-style contortions and feats of endurance have taken place, even if these processes are not visible in the photographs themselves.
The shoot in the park in Zurich turned into an awkward but comic situation when a passerby, offended by the group’s nakedness, threatened the artists with obscenity laws and called the police. Luckily they had nearly finished and were in the process of clearing up. On arrival, the police were amused by the trouble caused and calmed the indignant man. The artists left the park and nothing came of it. The point I would like to make here is that these anecdotes, and indeed the performance itself – the processes that brought the work into being – exist only in the form of a few supporting photographs. These record a staged event and, in this respect, they may be understood as stills of a performance.
In 2009 JocJonJosch decided to focus directly on the nature of collaboration and to develop these performative aspects by acting out its projects in front of a live audience. In the performance held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, for instance, the transfer of clothing from one artist to another explores the dynamic between the individual and the group. In the video of the rehearsals it appears as though a metamorphosis were taking place. Each attempt forms part of a continuous action and the three artists appear as a single, multi-jointed body. The elastic shapes created when teasing off these elongated garments recall Henry Moore’s reclining figures, no longer recumbent but fluid and always in motion. It is a painful comedy to watch.
The exchange of clothing that took place during the performance might be understood as a visual metaphor for inhabiting the skin of another, and so of becoming other. The way the three artists perform both collectively and individually requires the acknowledgement of their differences as well as their similarities. The process is alarming and reassuring in equal measure because, if it requires each artist to relinquish his autonomy, it does so only for each artist to gain a greater trust in the others and ultimately in himself.
Similar dynamics were enacted in Existere (2011), perhaps JocJonJosch’s major work to date, with the added dimension that the artists refused to document the event photographically. The naked human sculpture constructed during the performance, where the transience of human existence was embedded, paradoxically perhaps, in a monument to humanity and the human body, was thus allowed to survive in the place where imagination and memory meet.
I am reminded here of Bill Beckley’s first performance, Crossing the Delaware (1969), which draws attention to the relationship between documentation, narrative and fiction. Beckley’s intention was to cross the Delaware River holding a paint pot and a brush which he would use to paint a line spanning its width. At that time he was painting directly onto landscapes – the parameters of fields, for instance – and marking territories, gestures he would record with his camera. Beckley approached the Delaware crossing in the same way. He took a camera with him to document the event. But half way across the river he found the current too strong to continue and was forced to drop everything, including the camera, into the river. The artist made it safely to the other side and discovered that he had come upon the place where George Washington had crossed the Delaware in the fight against the British colonialists.
Without any visual documentation Beckley’s telling of the event became the event. Beckley’s failure became the work. And each retelling reconstitutes and resituates it. But this retelling also raises questions regarding authenticity. Did the event really happen at all? Perhaps the answer to this question does not matter, since the performance now exists in the realm of fiction and the imagination.
Much the same could be said of Existere, where the decision not to allow photographic documentation allowed for alternate means of documenting and recording the event. Existere has an independent life in its continued retelling not only by those who witnessed the performance but also in the conversations held by the many people who did not. One of the questions JocJonJosch wanted to address – a question that may have its roots in Beuys’s and Wilson’s explorations mentioned above – was expressed in this pithy question found on the collective’s personal blog: “Can one type up a sculpture?”6 In other words, beyond traditional forms of visual documentation, how can one retain a sense of the work? What is lost and what is gained? Existere also raises questions concerning the extent to which an artist retains power to control the reception of a work once it is out in the public sphere.
Yet the performance and the resulting ‘shelter’ also opened onto broader questions which were ultimately political in nature. It is not possible to make art using one’s body without inferring the political context which situates the individual in society. Legislation and rights, borders, boundaries and the individual’s autonomy are all bound up with the body politic, which relies on community and governance for its security. The philosopher Hannah Arendt pinpoints these interconnections and dependencies in her book, The Human Condition (1958), where she argues for the public nature of human existence. Arendt suggests that the individual’s autonomy is borne out of an interface with others, which is to say that it is dependent on community. She remarks:
The whole factual world of human affairs depends for its reality and its continued existence upon the presence of others who have seen and heard and will remember, and second, on the transformation of the intangible into the tangible of things.7
This transformation occurs when all is stripped down to a kind of purity, a desired purity. I say ‘kind of’ because the moment the ‘ideal’ is realised it loses its purity. It takes on a material form which by its very nature is subject to decay. Arendt’s discussion of the transformative possibilities that keep the ideal alive is tied to the cultural production of art. The above statement can be understood to bring together the body politic and art because both materialise what is otherwise ineffable. Both record a transaction between individuals through the rendering of ideas. These were precisely the dynamics enacted in Existere and the conversations that took place in its wake. JocJonJosch’s practice draws attention to the nature of human existence and leaves interpretative responsibility to the viewer. Through the infinite possibilities the collective opens up, JocJonJosch reasserts the native and naked dignity of man.
‘Thoughts on Recent Works’
In Dig Shovel Dig (2013), each of the three artists digs his own hole and then fills in the hole of another. The work is a monument to futility. The fruits of labour are annihilated and invisible. Each hole is in effect an anti-monument because it no longer exists. The site JocJonJosch selected is a rural idyll high up in the mountains of Switzerland. It is remarkably beautiful. One thinks of the many artists whose subject matter has been holes. Often these are graves. Keith Arnatt’s Self Burial (1969), for instance, comprises a series of nine photographs in which Arnatt progressively disappears. In the first he stands on the ground and his height diminishes as he goes deeper into the ground. In the end he is fully covered. It too is set in the landscape although it is not a picturesque location. The title is humorous and ironic because the viewer knows that he did not bury himself alone.
Hanging On (2013) is a photograph taken on the seashore at Aldeburgh in Suffolk. It forms part of preliminary material for new developments in JocJonJosch’s ongoing investigation into the nature of collaboration. The artists found a discarded fisherman’s rope beside some boats on the beach. It had already been tied end to end to make a circle. In the photograph the three artists are balanced together by the rope against the backdrop of the sea. Their balanced weight enables a temporary symbiosis. The composition of the work, with the rope drawing a loose triangle around their bodies, is like an inverted echo of Heads On (2010). In this photograph the three men’s naked bodies lean against each other, with their heads forming the apex of a triangle. This balance – beautiful and absurd in equal measure – can only be achieved through a negotiation of the weight of the individual and its relation to that of the collective.
There is a beautiful photograph taken by JocJonJosch on the coast at Aldeburgh when they were developing the tactics for Hanging On. It shows the three men in the dunes, near them the pebbly beach and above an expanse of blue sky. Jonathan and Jocelyn each hold a mirror and Joschi, who is taking the photograph, is reflected in another mirror, facing the others, crouched with his back to the sea. Jocelyn’s mirror reflects the sea and Jonathan’s the sky. The spatial and structural play of light, colour and composition enabled by the mirrors subtly asserts their tactical collaboration. Although this is not a film, I can imagine the sound of the sea when the work is going on.
1 William Wordsworth, introduction, Lyrical Ballards, London, T. N. Longman & O. Rees, 1800, p. 8.
2 André Malraux. Museum without Walls, V. 1, The Voices of Silence,translated by Stuart Gilbert and Francis Price, London, Secker and Warburg, 1967.
3 Georg Jappe, “A Joseph Beuys Primer.”SI, Vol. 183, No. 936, p. 68.
4 Group exhibition, Bykert Gallery, May 25 – June 22 1968, the other artists were Richard Tuttle, Carl Andre, Alan Saret and Gordon Hart photograph of Wilson’s work in Lucy R Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, University of California Press, 1997, p. 48.
5 Peter Schjeldahl, New York Times, 21 November 1971.
6 JonJocJoshi blog entry, Wednesday 21 December 2011.
7 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1958, p. 95.