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ART

The NSFW Performance Where The Artist Masturbated And Became A 70s Icon

Por: María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards 14 de septiembre de 2017

Imagine you enter a time travel machine and go back to 1972 Manhattan. You enter the first building you see, which ends up being an art gallery. As you go through the hall, you're shocked to see that in one of the rooms there isn't a single art work displayed. Probably it's just an empty area they forgot to close. But just as you turn around, a group of people enters the room decisively. You wait for them to realize their mistake, but you see something you hadn't noticed before. In the back, there's a ramp that merges with the wooden floor. The other visitors start walking around and some venture to get on the ramp when suddenly a male voice resonates from some speakers. He’s murmuring, and there’s a constant sound you can't identify. You try to pay more attention to the words, and then it all makes sense. The man is mumbling sexual innuendos, and together with constant sound and moans, you realize he’s touching himself. The more people walk on the ramp, the more he gets “excited.” You’re confused, what the hell is this?

Probably that’s the question the first visitors to the Sonnabend Gallery thought when experiencing the performance by the local artist Vito Acconci. Still, no matter how weird or even disturbing that might have been, it was one of the most successful ones in the history of contemporary art and the one that turned the artist into an icon. But what’s the story of this, so far, unknown artist, and more importantly, of this particular artistic demonstration? Acconci never thought of becoming an artist. In fact, up until his death earlier this year, he always stated that artistry had only been a facet of his life, and he didn’t even consider himself an artist.

Thinking about himself as a situation-doer, Acconci thought of becoming a great poet since his teens. With that in mind, he went to Iowa to study literature and poetry but knew that his hometown in New York was the ideal place to pursue this in a professional way. So, he moved back and started connecting with the intellectual characters of the time (we’re talking about the late 1960s). It was then where he met the poet, curator, and art critic John Perreault, a man who at the time worked organizing performances throughout the city. It was the boom of performative art, a discipline that was popularized early during that decade. Every day more and more young artists presented their pieces on galleries and busy streets. Naturally, this atmosphere of rebellious art caught the attention of young Acconci, who didn’t want to be left out of this current.

Soon, he started creating and performing his acts in public places but realized he needed to make more impressive pieces that people could recognize (or at least to let the audience know they were experiencing a performance). He started documenting his acts with photographs and writings and continued making connections with relevant figures of the circle. That’s when he became acquainted with owners of art galleries who, just like the new generation of contemporary artists, didn’t believe in conventional and boring (as they thought) decorative art hanging on the walls of their galleries. They wanted art where the audience could be involved in the piece and become an important part of it. Naturally, Acconci felt the same and started creating more noticeable performances.

By 1972, he was kind of known in the circle and started working at the Sonnabend Gallery, creating performative pieces. For him, one of his main interests was actually the role that the space plays, not only in art but in everyday life. Most of his pieces were focused on a game between space and the audience. That’s when he came up with the idea of his most iconic performance and the one you visited in our time travel machine, Seedbed.

Knowing he wanted to do something related to the floor of the gallery, he started thinking about terms related to the word “floor.” Through different associations, he thought on agricultural seedbeds. Then one thing led to the other until he thought about lying underneath the floor and planting his own seed. But this wasn’t enough for a concept he could present, so he started playing with the idea of taking something from the private sphere into the public area. In that way, his performance became a reflection on the connection between art-doer and audience through an invisible link. He became an omnipresent force acting on the audience.

Despite the fact that this particular piece made him such an important figure in the art world, this wasn’t something that fulfilled him in a professional way. Moreover, the fact that his art wasn’t really sellable became an issue for the gallery owner, who needed more profit than just selling tickets, so he started teaching art and writing. Acconci continued working as an “artist” up until the late eighties, but suddenly he made a shift in his life. He started designing and building furniture, seen and sold as art pieces, and soon opened an architecture studio. The field and discipline he loved the most is the one concerned with space, just as he was. As he explained, Seedbed made him an icon, but at the same time it also was his doom, since nothing he did ever reached the same importance of this performance, both in terms of popularity and concept, but he always felt content with the career decisions he made.

So, do you think masturbating while hiding under the floor could be considered art? I don’t know. What’s certain is that he didn’t think so, which is actually kind of ironic and talks a lot about the essence of contemporary art.

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For more performative art take a look at these:

The Artist Who Attached A Tumor To Her Face To Show The Hidden Pains Of Body Dysmorphia

The Performance Artist Who Was Censored For Dipping Her Body In Chocolate

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