Monday, January 31, 2011

Chapter XI - Nothing Performances and Comparisons

There are conflicting reports on when exactly Johnson’s first Nothing was.  However, either the first or one of the first Nothings was in the spring of 1962 and performed at the Maidstone Gallery in New York, which was run by Maciunas.[1]  In a video taken by Nicholas Maravell Johnson described the performance himself and stated that this was one of his first performances as well as referring to it as a Nothing.[2]  He started the performance at 3:00 p.m. by throwing a box of wooden dowels down the stairs that led up to an empty gallery and that was it.  It was over within half a minute.  When more people showed up at 3:10 they asked him when the performance would start and he said it was done, so they asked if he would repeat it and he did.  However, he pointed out that the repeat performance was not as, “interesting or good as the first,” some of the original intention had to have been taken away from the piece by repeating it. 
            Johnson's choice of performance as his medium was central to the main concern in his work which was the ephemeral, that which fades away into nothing, that which ends and cannot be exactly duplicated ever again.  A completed performance that is not recorded simply ends and all that is left is the memory of it and memory itself fades and changes as time passes.  When he threw those dowels down the stairs that was an act that could only possibly last a matter of seconds.  That is then accentuated by the fleeting sounds that were made by the wooden dowels hitting and rolling down the steps.  Sound is always impermanent, it is there one second and gone the next as well as being changeable; it will fall upon each person’s ears in a different way depending on where someone is standing in relation to the point of sound.  There is then the change caused by the people who walked up the stairs and stepped on or moved the dowels from their original landing spots after they had been thrown.  The sound, placement of the dowels and the placement of the people are random and ephemeral.   
            When the performance was done a second time it emphasized the nature of the components that concerned Johnson.  The second performance would be different from the first by nature.  The first performance was only momentary and then gone, never to be seen in that same exact way again.  The second piece was also momentarily finished and never reproduced in the same way again.  This is a performance that incorporates the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and change.  It is also refers to Dada with the heavy reliance upon chance.  Johnson uses the viewer to contribute to the chance element by having them walk on the wooden dowels to get into the gallery.
If we look at the wooden dowel performance and compare it to a piece by Kaprow we can see how Johnson took a different path from his contemporaries.  Johnson’s piece was small scale and over with quickly, it involved a small number of viewers and there is a kind of spirituality to it through the sounds of wooden dowels echoing down an empty stairwell in an empty gallery.  Allan Kaprow’s Eat, (fig. 9) was performed in January 1964 and described and reviewed by Michael Kirby.[3]  It was termed as an "Environment," and took place over two weekends.  Visitors could make one hour reservations through the Smolin Gallery.  It took place in some caves in the Bronx which used to be part of an old brewery.  When the viewer walked in he was confronted with a man's voice repeating, "Get 'em!" over and over.  Next he would come upon two girls sitting on two wooden towers with their heads reaching the top of the cave, one holding a jug of red wine and one holding a jug of white wine, which they would pour and hand out in paper cups to the visitors if they were asked to.  The piece also involved banana bunches wrapped in plastic and unwrapped apples tied to strings and hanging from the ceiling, a girl frying bananas on a hot plate, bread and jam in an enclosure that one could only get to by climbing a ladder, as well as the man who was repeating, "Get 'em!," handing out pieces of salted boiled potatoes.  The viewer was free to eat any of the food in the exhibit according to Kirby.
Johnson’s wooden dowel piece was much simpler than Kaprow’s Eat.  It involved a smaller number of people and it was only a few seconds long.  The only other people involved besides Johnson were the viewers.  Kaprow’s piece had several others involved besides the viewer and the viewer did not have as much of an effect on Eat as they did on the piece by Johnson.  Kaprow’s piece had an earthiness that was not at all involved in Johnson’s piece which existed on more of a calm, incorporeal plane.  
Johnson repeatedly returned to that Zen-like state in his work.  In an interview done through email correspondence artist Alison Knowles recounted a Nothing at the Rene Block Gallery in New York though she does not remember the date,
“I arrived and there were two people in the room besides Ray.  We stood and
 looked at each other for a bit and then Ray came up to me where I was 
standing by the Easterly wall and asked me to move my position in the 
room. I did so, stayed for a while as we all did in silence looking about, 
and then left.”[4] 

This Nothing keeps with that enigmatic feel; four people in a room silently looking at each other brings to mind a spiritual or meditative state.  There was nothing said and nothing was left when the piece was over.
            The concept of nothingness was Johnson’s predominant focus.  Coco Gordon described a performance to me that Johnson did at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University.  On a chalkboard Johnson wrote the word ‘SEND’ in chalk, then using ice cubes he wrote ‘Ray,’ backwards and drew a picture of a bunny head.  He then put the ice cubes in envelopes and handed them out to people in the audience.[5] (fig. 10)  This piece contained all of the elements that were important to Johnson.  There was humor, transformation, non-permanence and the final outcome of nothing.  The ice cubes start out as solid objects; the images they make on the board are perfectly visible.  As time goes on the images fade to nothing as the water evaporates.  At the same time the ice is melting, changing into water which will eventually evaporate and disappear.  Giving the ice out in envelopes as souvenirs to the audience is another symbol of impermanence as when the envelope is opened later it will contain nothing.  Then there is the nonsensical, comic-book like bunny head drawn on the chalkboard which is a reminder not to take anything too seriously.          
            Johnson was not secretive about how people should not take him too seriously.  A video taken by Nick Maravell shows Johnson at a barbeque discussing his performance art with two men he just met.  This was their conversation,
            "I am putting you both on, I am acting, I am performing….I am telling 
                you, like, something that's true but I'm also playing a role of an artist 
               who is, uh, talking about what, what he does, I'm, um, I'm playing with 
                you both by talking to you…I'm having fun by talking
about this…I have a Dead Pan club.  I do this with a deadpan, 
you know, expression like I'm really very serious but underneath it all, 
it’s a particular Dada joke."[6]

Johnson often toyed with his viewers and kept them at arm’s length.  He never allowed them to be totally at ease and he always gave himself the upper hand.  He left them wondering, about what just happened.  Johnson was performing, yet to the people to whom he was speaking it seemed as if they were just having a conversation up to a point and then they became unsure.  Johnson even had a “club” for his type of deadpan humor, the Dead Pan Club.  He stated in an interview, "I'm a great put-on artist, I'm the Dead Pan Club and you really shouldn't take anything I say too seriously although I am soberly serious but I'm also a put-on person."[7]  
A later Nothing, done in 1987, demonstrated Johnson’s sense of humor in his work.    There is a video of this piece taken by Nicholas Maravell.  In it Johnson stuffed several Reese's Peanut Butter Cups into his mouth at one time and then he began reading from Walt Whitman's Camden Conversations.  At first his mouth was so full he could not open it and he was just grunting and humming sounds.  As he chewed he started to make garbled sounds with his mouth open and eventually the sounds become understandable words as he finished eating the candy.  Although, he seemed to purposely mumble through parts of it even after it looks as if he had finished chewing.  At the end of the performance he took off his glasses looked at the camera and said, "Does this have sound?" and laughed.[8] 
            Although this piece involves the physical act of eating like Kaprow's Eat does, that is the only similarity between the pieces.  The Peanut Butter Cup reading is small and done only for an audience of two, Nicholas Maravell and the camera.  Johnson also involved his interest in the concepts of nothingness and transformation which is represented by the peanut butter cups.  They started out as two whole, solid pieces of food then were transformed through his chewing and finally were gone after he swallowed them. 
The piece is also full of interconnecting references such as location of the reading which was done in Huntington, Long Island which is the birthplace of Whitman.  Through my correspondence with Nicholas Maravell, who took the video of the performance, he relayed to me that they were standing across the street from the Long Islander, the newspaper Whitman founded and for which he wrote.[9]  It was important for Johnson to establish connections within the elements of his work regardless whether it was between people, places, images, words or sounds.  This network of connections is not always visible.  The viewer of the video would not likely know where the performance was taking place but the location was important to Johnson’s concern with interconnectedness.  This interconnection reflects the Zen philosophy of everyone and everything being a small part of the whole just like all parts of Johnson’s work and life were interconnected as a whole. 
            The Peanut Butter Cup reading typifies Johnson's signature humor.  Although his mouth was stuffed full of candy he was none the less reading something non-humorous in a serious tone.  He always juxtaposed the elements of seriousness with the humorous.  When he so calmly and soberly takes his glasses off at the end and looks into the camera only to crack a smile and ask if it has sound it truly brings the piece together.  This end statement reminds the viewer that this piece is serious and humorous together in one and reaffirms Johnson’s description of his ability to“…combine the tragic with the comic, the ridiculous with the sublime.”[10]
The Peanut Butter Cup Nothing was in complete contrast to the large Fluxus events that went on such as the1970 "Flux-mass."  Flux-mass was organized by Maciunas and included several other artists.  It was a meticulously planned, large event that took place at the Voorhees Chapel at Douglass College.[11]  It was described by Geoffrey Hendricks,
                        "The Priest's assistants wore gorilla costumes... Yoshimasa 
                                 Wada was the priest. The sacrament wine was in a plasma 
                                 tank with a hose. Wafers were laxative and blue urine cookies.  
                                The consecration of the bread, a giant loaf filled with sawdust, 
                                was done by a mechanical dove…which moved across 
                                overhead on a wire and dropped mud from a can onto the loaf.
                                Antiphonal "chanting" consisted of sound effects such as 
                                barking dogs and locomotives…The Lord’s prayer was said
                                in a dozen languages. Signal  flags were used. An inflated 
                                   Superman filled with wine was "Bled.""[12]

In addition there was the burning of a statue of the Madonna, blanks shot out of a gun by Wada, the spraying of audience members’ heads with perfumes and room deodorizers and the release of sneeze powder.[13]  The Flux-mass shows the difference, not only in scale and style between Johnson and Fluxus but the difference in their senses of humor.  The Flux-mass involves a darker Futurist-inspired sense of humor.  They sardonically mock the church while inside an actual chapel, courting a backlash of criticism.  They provoke a hostile reaction from the audience.
            Johnson did not hold any events this elaborate and while he often provoked people, it was in a non-derisive and non-confrontational manner.  He may not have let everyone in on his "jokes" but he did not leave them feeling slighted either.  His humor did not contain the contemptuous element that was portrayed in Fluxus works organized by Maciunas.  Johnson did not directly and openly take on large institutions such as the church.
            At another Fluxus event George Maciunas continued his quest to incite a reaction from his audience.  During a 1970 Fluxus festival, Maciunas sold tickets to various events in which either no ticket was needed, the event had already taken place or the event was non-existent.[14]  The involvement of a trick being played on the audience is somewhat comparable to Johnson's pieces but there a slightly cruel twist in the Fluxus event.  Maciunas wanted a reaction while Johnson tended to be looking to leave his audience with a puzzling feeling of, "what just happened?" which gave them an opportunity to put some thought into what his pieces were about. 
The tickets sold by Maciunas were similar to invitations and flyers that Johnson sent out for various fan clubs that he had created.  Johnson had invented many different "fan clubs" and would mail out flyers announcing meetings for these fan clubs.  Unlike the Fluxus tickets where the viewer showed up to find no event, Johnson was there to see the viewers' reactions to his invitations and there were specific reasons why he had organized a meeting of a group of people.  For example, he held a Paloma Picasso Fan Club Meeting at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York in 1974.[15]  When he discussed it afterwards he said, "Lots of glamorous people came to the meeting…..They wanted to know why they were there.  I told them I was trying to create a room with a certain number of people.  But magically the right number of people did not come."[16]  This is typical for a Johnson event, to bring up the expectations of people and then present them with the unexpected.  No one could assume anything as far as it related to Johnson.  He reveled in deconstructing assumptions.  In a correspondence with Nam June Paik in 1965 Johnson wrote, "I wait, not for time to finish my work, but for time to indicate something one would not have expected to occur."[17] 

[1] Jones, 1999, 204.
[2] The Ray Johnson Videos, DVD, directed by Nick Maravell.
[4] Email from Alison Knowles, August 20, 2008.
[5] Email from Coco Gordon,  May, 25 2007.
[6] Maravell, DVD.
[7] Diane Spodarek,  Randy Delbeke, "Interview with Ray Johnson," Detroit Artists Monthly, Feb. 1978, 9. (accessed June 15, 2007).
[8] Maravell, DVD.
[9] Email from Nicholas Maravell, July 7, 2008.
[10] Wallach, 2.
[11] Smith, 204.
[12] Ibid., 205.
[13] Hendricks,148.
[14] Smith, 207.
[15] Jones, 1999, 207.
[16] Lippard, 1999, 145.
[17]Wilson, 1999, 167.

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