Art for a Socially Distant State of Mind

A woman stands on a beach facing the tide.

When I joined the List Center in mid-January, a global pandemic was the last thing on my mind—as I’m sure was the case for most of us at that time! The last six weeks have been an atypical orientation-at-home as I continue to study the List’s history and look back on 35 years of remarkable exhibitions and commissions. At the same time, I have the pleasure of looking ahead to the artists I’m excited to work with and researching subjects that are resonating with them, or surfacing in conversations around this moment. I am grateful, even while our galleries remain closed, to be able to continue conversations with artists around the globe while working toward our upcoming publications and exhibitions—which we will look forward to sharing with you soon!

Natalie Bell

Working from Home: With Peter Fischli & David Weiss

In these home-bound days, I’ve returned to the work of Swiss duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss, who found levity, humor, and even beauty in the everyday, and often in the domestic. Their Wurst Series (1979), part of their 1987 List Center show holds a special place in my low-brow brilliant quadrant. And The Way Things Go (1987), also in that exhibition, is a mesmerizing 30-minute Rube Goldberg-esque delight, to say the least. Both are perfect quarantine studies: the contents of one’s refrigerator, or garage, modestly and masterfully transformed. 

Sausages lines along a mirror dressed up in other clothing such as bread and deli meat.

How to Work Better, 1991

But the quarantine anthem for me is How to Work Better (1991). This piece, which has taken form as a postcard, a screen print, and mural-sized wall-painting (pictured here in New York City in 2016), is in fact something of a readymade: the ten-point instructional text is appropriated (word for word, and even typeface) from a sign found in a ceramic factory in Thailand. 

I’ve wondered, is this a strange marriage of Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art (1968) and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies (1975)? A manifesto for artists against hyper-productivity? Or is it just a somewhat clumsy translation of a manager’s manual so generic it accidentally verges on a universal truth? Its brilliance may just be that it is somehow all of these things, and still sincere and reassuring in a self-help way—that is, in the very suggestion that we can work better (and presumably feel better) in just ten easy steps! Well, count me among those in need of some ten-point reassurance these days. Perhaps we can add our own COVID-era #9.5: Go easy on the news? Wash hands often?

White mural on a building with blue text outlining the steps for working better

Performing at a Distance 

Milan Knížák, Stone Ceremony, 1971

I’ve also been thinking of artists who have embodied public space or landscape in their works—in particularly measured ways. Seeing carefully spaced gatherings in parks calls to mind documentation of Czech artist Milan Knížák’s Stone Ceremony (1971), a solemn affair in which participants isolated themselves with a ring of stones in an abandoned quarry. In 1970s Czechoslovakia, this was not the run-of-the-mill Fluxus tableau it might appear. Soviet “normalization” brought a decade of outright bans on public gatherings. For Knížák, blurring the boundaries of art and life was as much an aesthetic and humanist ideal as it was a strategy to escape the censorship of authorities: one could easily debate, is this act even a gathering? And would it even be seen as art? 

Black and white photo from above of people standing in circles of rocks  in an area of dirt

Joan Jonas, Jones Beach Piece, 1970

I’ve thought too of Joan Jonas, who is of course dear to the List Center and MIT, and whose outdoor pieces from around the same time also play with distancing—but with more clearly defined roles of performer and spectator. Her Jones Beach Piece (1970) segregated the two by “a quarter of a mile of intervening light and air,” and Nova Scotia Beach Dance (1971), like Delay Delay (1972), challenged her spectators with a strikingly aerial perspective. These works, for Jonas, gave insight into the effect of distance on perception: vision and sound are flattened or delayed, and it is “signals” that guide each transmission.

A woman stands on a beach facing the tide.

Annabel Daou, I will worry for you (from dusk till dawn), 2020

Like most of us, a lot of my contact with art in the last weeks has been some kind of transmission too: my inbox is now a steady current of video links, digital initiatives, and virtual engagements; my Instagram feed erupts with live streams as museums, galleries, and artists take up the show-and-tell challenge of our moment. In this virtual landscape, one work that stuck with me was Annabel Daou’s I will worry for you (from dusk till dawn), a durational performance I saw announced on March 18, when I got an email inviting me to write her with a worry and then sign up on a timesheet.

During an overnight shift the following weekend, she dedicated a half hour to each participant’s worry while she paced her apartment’s hallway. With the pandemic declared just a week before, it could not have felt more of-the-moment, but the project was one she’d planned months before, scheduled to coincide with the spring equinox. Tuning in to Instagram Live at 5:30AM (one of few slots remaining when I signed up), I saw her shuffling, focused, silent. As I struggled to stay awake, I was struck to see that I was the only person tuned in: hundreds of miles of light and air between us and yet somehow I felt all the more present with an otherwise public performance reduced to closed circuit, my worry in Annabel’s hands. 

A phone recording a girl painting on a hallway wall.