|Dunleavy, M.P. World Art Magazine, "The View From the Street", no. 3, 1996, pp. 52-56.|
Just as one cannot separat an artist from their vision, it's becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between Ben Kinmont's art and the challenge it resents to the art world, a fact which gained momentum last May during his show at SoHo's Printed Matter. Everything from the not-for-profit venue to the overriding theme of couching the art object in the context of interaction was an emphatic reminder of Kinmont's mission to call into question the art world's self-contained economy and the role of the art object within that economy. Like many of his peers, such as Rirkrit Taranija, Andrea Zittel and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Kinmont explores the interplay of domesticity, exchange and social interaction. But Kinmont employed the exhibition to demonstrate the artistic lineag of these issues by simultaneously showing his own work, the final phase of his unique on- and off-line project "We Both Belong" (1995-96), and a curated show of artists past and present.
The first part of Kinmont's show, "The Materialization of Life: into alternative economies," could be seen as a justification of his own work, but that would be simplistic. Co-organized by David Platzker, head of the board for Printed Matter, the show sought to re-evaluate what Lucy Lippard termed "the dematerialization of the art objec" by recasting the work of On Kawara, Gordon Matta Clark and Mierle Laderman Ukeles as the artistic roots of Kinmont and his contemporaries. To heighten the comparison, Kinmont included works by contemporary artists Joseph Grigley and Paula Hayes. As Kinmont stated in the catalogue: "It might be argued that many of the people Lippard included in her compendium of Conceptual art [ "Six Years: the dematerialization of the art object ] were actually focused on the art object, adapting it into new forms which could allow for a pursuit of life exchange."
Kinmont sought to do the opposite. By taking On Kawara's postcards and telegrams (1968-1994), recipes and other material from Matta Clark's Food (1971-73) and Ukeles "Mintenance Art Manifesto" and photos (1969-70) and putting them alongside Grigely's installation of notes on a bulletin-board, Conversation With Friends (1996) and Hayes' images of people and plant life on Printed Matter's window, Translucent Image Advertisement for Wild Friends (1996), Kinmont created a conceptual link for what he and many of his peers are doing to day — including the second of part of the show, the final phase of Kinmont's "We Both Belong" (1995-96).
"We Both Belong" started when Kinmont hooked up with Benjamin Weil at adaweb to create an interactive work in which Kinmont, who was depicted doing dishes, invited viewers to correspond with him and send photos of themselves doing dishes (http://adaweb.com/adaweb/influx/kinmont/bk1.html). Kinmont then paired their dishwashing photos with his own in diptychs that he then gave away to each participant.
Part three was a roundtable discussion at the end of the show's run in May, about "the interseciton of art and infrastructure." Coordinated by independent curator Laura Trippi and bringing together artists Andrea Fraser, John Simon, Martha Wilson and Kinmont himself, their meeting became part of an "accumulation on-line archive and discussion forum" on adaweb (http://adaweb.com/~dn/a) called "Engaging Infrastructure."
But like much of Kinmont's work, this project evolved into a much bigger manifestation of ideas Kinmont has been working with for the last several years — most particularly, issues of exchange and Kinmont's ongoing exploration of Joseph Beuys' concept of social sculpture; that as much as society sculpts us we sculpt society. From this, Kinmont generated his idea of the Third Sculpture — the space between individuals and ideas that is shaped by our interactions — and the Thinking Sculpture — a reference to Beuys' discussion of the cognitive process as sculptural. Kinmont's work is also influenced by the pragmatism of William James.
Kinmont's tripartite notion of sculpting art through interpersonal exhchange offers the tools with which to dissect the fundamental assumptions of art and the art world. At the same time, form the other side of the windo, for the establishments that have made SoHo a commercial artist's fantasy, the question hovers over Kinmont's work: How can a new system be created within the self-same system that supports it?
The Thinking Sculpture
Tom Cugliani, Kinmont's first dealer who is now at the Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan, points out that what fascinates Kinmont about art sculpted throuthe exchange is the dichotomy. "Wols was a big influence on Ben," Cugliani says. "And what attracted Be to Wols was the dichotomy between the literal and the abstract."
The Third Sculpture, by definition both tangible and ephemeral, was what made the on-line "We Both Belong" so personally significant for Kinmont. This was the closest he had come to locating the Third Sculpture — or not locating it, which may be the point. Like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that a particle can either be located or measured but not both, Kinmont's workilluminates a dichotomy that artists have approached in various ways: that the existence of art depends on the viewer, and art changes accordingly. Or, as Kinmont pointed out regarding "We Both Belong": "Ther is a kind of in-betweenness on-line. The work is never located in one place at one time. Ther is not one work."
This concept has always been present in Kinmont's work, if in some ways latent, as in projects like "Waffles for an Opening" (1991), in which he put paper plates out in a gallery inviting people to come over to his house for a waffle breakfast, or "I Will Wash Your Dirty Dishes," a piece in the Munich RischArt-Projekt 1994, which involved handing out flyers to passersby offering to come to their homes and do the washing up. And though in each there was a shared object — in the first, a paper plate; and in the second, a sponge signed by Kinmont and each participant — the art lay in the interaction not in the object.
In his 1995 Flash Art article "Out of the Darkness and Into the Loop," Jon Ippolito cites Kinmont's pieces (and those of Rirkrit Taravanija and Felix Gonzalez-Torres) as examples of the ascending artistic paradigm of the network " the shift form enlightenment to connectedness." But Kinmont didn't get the Internet connection until he participated in an on-line syposium. "I was there to be the bah-humbug guy," Kinmont admits. According to his co-participant laura trippi, a former curator at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art, Kinmont was vociferous, refusing to "capitulate to a wide-eyed enthusiasm for digital technology, insisting on the importance of face-to-face contact," trippi says. "And at the same time," sheadds, "I pointed out that the emphasis on networks of social interaction in his work parallels the social networks that are evolving on-line." This was, Kinmont says, a revelation, leading him to collaborate with Benjamin Weil, co-founder of adaweb, in creating "We Both Belong."
Gallery owner Andrea Rosen believes that Kinmont shares "a correlation between action and product" with artists such as Zittel, Taravanija, Gonzalez-Torres, Fraser and others. But because Kinmont is struggling with the idea of whether that itneraction requires an art object, she says, "Ben's art is more extreme. His focus is not on an art object — his art forces you to consider the individual."
Born in Vermont in 1963 and raised in rural Bishop, California (pop. 3,500), Kinmont grew up making and contemplating art. His father, Robert Kinmont, was an artist who also struggled, during the 1960s and 70s, with the issue of creating art both in and outside the art world (he's included in Lucy Lippard's Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object). The work of his father's friend and classmate Brce Nauman was typical of the West Coast Conceptual school at the time, and provided another context within which Kinmont grew to understand and criticize art.
Kinmont sustained an ambivalent relationship to the art world, eschewing art school for the more conservative liberal-arts curriculum at Pamona College, until he traveled to Germany to study art on a prestigious Watson Fellowship in 1986. Joseph Beuys had died just four months before Kinmont's arrival, and his art and philosophy were very much in the air, vivdly coloring Kinmont's life there. This was a turning point for Kinmont, who found Europe far more hospitable to the"idea that an artist could be writing and having an intellectual dialogue going on and could be exhibiting art that was spiritual," Kinmont says. By the time he got to New York in 1987, his work was split equally between writing, sculpture and painting.
It's in his early sculptures that one can see what Sandra Gering, his dealer for many years until their separation last year, calls "the seeds of the social sculpture." From his very first show — in sculptures such as Breath (1988) and Compassion Tub (1988) — it was apparent that Kinmont was intrigued by making the intangible tangible, while articulating spiritual issues as artistic issues.
But inherent in Kinmont's emerging artistic philosophy was a challenge, as he was gradually de-emphasizing what traditionally would be considered art objects and emphasizing instead individual interactions. It was this challenge, in part, that led Kinmontoto leave Sandra Gering last year. Shows like "For You For Me For Painting" (1992-3), when Kinmont gave away 21 of his paintings, were extremely aggressive with the context of the gallery because, as Kinmont describes, "I was relocating the value of art object to the archive."
Ralther than a reliquary, Kinmont's archive is an active map of the art project, through produced items such as videotapes, correspondence and flyers. Collectors who purchase an archive are required to update it with Kinmont's new installements and to make it available to anyone who wishes to see it.
The Third Sculpture
Exchange, along with the paradigm of the network, is a dominant theme in the work of many contemporary artists, and Kinmont's concept of the Third Sculpture is a clear explication of that interactive space. Andrea Zittle, whose 1995 Trailer Project highlighted what she calls "the tension between wanting comfort and needing freedom," agrees that she and Kinmont "are both trying to address and engage a different audience and pull them back into the art world." Likewise, Rirkrits cooking (or recently, making drinks) for the public, or Laurie Parsons' inclusion of museum staff in understanding and presenting an exhibition, rely on and incorporate exchanges with artists and non-artists alike. But Kinmont seems to be pushing the envelope of his own Third Sculpture, because his work is also about sculpting the art world itself.
Thus projects like "For You For Me For Painting" or "Exchange" (1995) — which again involved the giving away of objects (in this case, shirts from designer Agnès b.'s men's store) — aggessively include the public, but also aggressively challenge the status quo of the art world, particularly by proposing an alternative economy based on exchange.
In cooperation with the Agnès b. SoHo store, Kinmont gave away Agnès b. shirts in exchange for nothing more than the shirts off the back of participants. Kinmont then removed the designer's label form the shirt (her signature), and replaced it with an "Exchange" label, which he and the participant both signed — agian the notion of shared authorship. The participants' old shirts also lost their labels, and Kinmont painstakingly sewed new Agnès b. labels on to them — all becoming part of the archive.
"I was initially very attracted to Ben's approach to art," explains Yves Seban, CEO for Agnès b. in North America, who asked Kinmont to create a project that would occur during the SoHo Arts Festival. Kinmont warned Seban that whatever project he designed would be "about the consumption activity in the store." And Seban was indeed shocked when Kinmont proposed "Exchange." "I told him it's sacrilege," Seban says. "But what I liked about the project was that it's about giving; it breaks the rules of business."
It breaks a few rules of art as well. "Ben has a strong relationship to the idea of giving somehting to people and creating a real exchange," says Weil of adaweb. "I've always had this weird suspicion that Ben wanted to be a priest." Kinmont laughs at that idea, but he readily admits that aspects of Buddhism and Christianity animate his work, including a three year project entitled simply "A prayer for greater compassion in the art world," for which he had many conversations with religious people about the idea of prayer as sculpture. But all that, Kinmont's former gallerist Cugliani feels, must be qualified, lest Kinmont's work be sunk in the mine of morality. "I think that what Ben sees is the possibility of converting the man in the street to an artistic experience, so whoever can engage in his work becomes a part of this chain of the art experience."
To which Rosen adds that Kinmont and other exchange artists are conscious that "the art-making process is not isolated form the rest of one's life." Putting exchange art in the context of what happened after postmodernism, Rosen says that "instead of the death of art, it was about consciousness of the choice to make art. If someone is going to make the commitment to be an artist, then it has to be personally relevant to them and therefore there is a consciousness of what your role is in society — which leads to a more direct interaction with society at large."
But then how does that interaction become part of an art transaction? Cugliani says that, "Traditionally we have this notion that art is transacted, and Ben is saying that's not necessarily the case — and Ben is going with things that are not necessarily transactable.: Weil argues that "there is no reason why the two transactions cannot exist." But at the moment there is only the traditional transaction: an alternative transaction — a transaction based, perhaps, on exchange — is what Kinmont and his colleagues are working through.
Rosen points out that "Making an art object is something that Ben struggles with," and Kinmont agrees. His archives, for the moment are the only objects he sells. Still, the conundrum hangs in the air, like a question at a cocktail party that everyone is too uncomfortable to answer: is it necessary to sell art to make art?
"I think that most of the art world believes that there is a privileged body and that is the artists, and they hand the work down to the dealers who hand it to the collectors," says Jordan Crandall, editor of Blast and chair of the X-Art Foundation. "Everybody has their prescribed role in the system, and the market is built to maintain that. Ben is proposing what I call an economy of resistance, because it resists the whole structure that has been established," Crandall adds. "I don't think Ben has the answer, but he's asking the questions."