Photo by Michael O'Sullivan/The Washington Post
Artist plays ‘Let’s Make a Deal’
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Nov. 4, 2011
The artist Agnes Bolt is kind of funny and kind of creepy. (Her recent work is, anyway.) Both of those qualities are on view at Project 4 in a two-part exhibition documenting a pair of recent week-long, interactive performances.
The surprisingly compelling - and frequently amusing - show is called "Dealing," for reasons that will become apparent as soon as you walk in the door. On one wall, there's a poster-size contract (available, in an edition of three prints, for $750 per print) spelling out the nature of the first performance.
In a nutshell, it involved Bolt's moving into art collector Philippa Hughes's condo for one week, during which the artist was mainly confined to a giant, translucent-plastic Habitrail, like ones that house hamsters and other small pets. The agreement between Bolt and Hughes included a clause for everything from twice-daily meals provided by the host - along with a good-morning peck on the cheek - to the stipulation that all oral communications be limited to the subject of art.
If this all sounds incredibly stupid, you should probably stop reading here. Nothing I can say is likely to change your mind. If you're intrigued, however, Bolt's show will reward your curiosity. That's true, despite the fact that her work is, by her own admission, more about creating memories than objects. And it's still true even when you consider that those memories are, to some degree, inaccessible to anyone other than Bolt and Hughes. There's a mystery to the work in "Dealing" that makes it interesting.
The show includes a few traditional art objects or, as Bolt calls them, souvenirs: photographs made during the performance; the bubblelike structure itself; and various other sculptural artifacts, including a fork with a piece of ceramic lasagna on it and a series of dust brushes, one of which was used to clean the bubble. (If you buy one of the brushes - they're priced at $50 - you get an added treat: Handwritten messages between Bolt and Hughes are secreted inside the handles.)
But the most interesting things about the show are the questions it raises: What is the relationship between the artist and the collector/consumer these days, and how has it changed since the era of official patronage? Who, in short, is exploiting whom?
A lot less troubling, and considerably funnier, are the fruits of Bolt's interaction with a second collector, Philip Barlow. For that one, instead of moving in together, Bolt (who divides her time between Pittsburgh and New York) and the District-based Barlow communicated long distance, via Skype and text message. Over seven days, they gave each other various assignments. Barlow, for instance, wanted his portrait drawn. (It's in the show, and it's lousy.) Bolt wanted Barlow to assess her chances of making it as an artist. Barlow, an actuary, produced a meticulously documented report, based in part on statistics and in part on 20 years of experience as a collector. It's in a binder, printed on archival rice paper.
Otherwise, their interactions were mostly electronic. One hilarious piece features video footage of the two engaging in the classic "trust exercise," where one participant falls backward and is caught by the other. Needless to say, it doesn't work, except as art. The centerpiece of another work is a cast-plaster pillow, accompanied by the sound of Bolt's and Barlow's heartbeats. (One night they slept together - virtually, that is - by listening to sounds made by each other's bodies.)
Taken together, the two halves of "Dealing" make for a playful yet engrossing whole, touching on notions of control, collaboration, compromise and commodification in the transactions between the people who make art and those of us who consume it. "I take games and sometimes silly gestures pretty seriously," Bolt says. That suggests a quality that's all too rare for a lot of Bolt's performance-art peers: the ability to both intrigue and to entertain.
The story behind the work
There's a work in "Dealing" that Agnes Bolt created specifically for Philip Barlow, but it's a must-see for anyone who checks out her show. It's called "Philip Looking at Philip," and it's easy to overlook.
That's because it's a tiny photograph of Barlow, not much bigger than a grain of rice. It's printed on a sheet of plastic laminate clinging to the window of the gallery, like a decal.
One of Bolt's instructions to Barlow on Day Four of their week of back-and-forth was for him to go somewhere; he chose the roof of his condo building. "Philip Looking at Philip" re-creates that visual through a clever trompe-l'oeil effect.
Here's how it works: Because Project 4 occupies the uppermost two floors of its building, its windows look out on rooftops. "Philip Looking at Philip" is positioned on the glass at a height that, when you look directly at - or, rather, through - the picture, it creates the illusion that you're seeing Barlow standing on a nearby roof.
But it works only if you're Barlow - or if you're his exact height: 6-foot-4. If you're short like me or if you stand slightly to the right or left, it looks as if its subject is floating in midair, near, but not on, the neighboring rooftop.
-- Michael O'Sullivan (Nov. 4, 2011)