Note: What follows is a 3,200-word stream-of-consciousness post about some recent, and not so recent, thoughts about Supple, an exhibition I curated earlier this year. It's a "come clean" essay to myself and to you, the reader, and you, the viewer/participant in Supple. I apologize for its length but it all came out and it doesn't seem appropriate to break it up. I hope it flows fairly well and that punctuation mistakes are at a minumum. I've turned off comments on this post but you may feel free to email me with thoughts. Thanks.
With the new year upon us and the opportunity for reflection, I wanted to take the time to share with my readers a more complete story on what happened much earlier this year with “Supple.” I was reminded that I left the subject incomplete by Kriston Capps’ year end review of D.C. gallery shows. My experience pulling together “Supple” was a challenge from the start. It was very educational and beneficial to my development as an artist and curator, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Although, I might wish things happened a little differently.
The conception of “Supple” began in a hotel room in NYC in December 2006. I got the idea of mounting a curated art show in a non-traditional space. For example, early on I targeted empty storefronts, warehouses, office buildings, etc. Once the idea to mount the show in conjunction with ArtDC was hatched, I knew I wanted to time my show to coincide with ArtDC and to be located in very close proximity to the DC Convention Center. That plan was in place, although no details determined.
As for the show itself, I have long been interested in artworks that make use of materials in a way that puts the viewer’s focus on the material and at the same time the beauty in the material. As such, this requires the exclusion of representational works whose “content” might distract from the material. I thought of the word “supple” and it captured the essence of the show so perfectly. I needed to find art that was “supple.”
I needed art, obviously, so I began thinking about the D.C. artists I felt could deliver on the theme of “supple.” Some names fell into place immediately… Robin Rose, Kevin Kepple, Graham Caldwell, Mary Early, and Laurel Lukaszewski. These artists are the more direct examples of material suppleness. In order to expand on the idea of suppleness, I began to think about other local artists who tangentially addressed suppleness in their practice. I thought of Adam Fowler’s cut paper pieces so full of sweeping curves and depth. I thought of Linn Meyers’ delicate line that creates a fabric blowing in the wind. I thought of James Huckenpahler’s digital compositions and Colby Caldwell’s video works of corrupted code. I remembered hearing the minimalist music of Matt Sargent and thinking about how intimate the relation was between music and performer. Both the music and the performance are supple. Last, and certainly not least, I wanted to invite a young artist whose work I knew would attempt to push boundaries and take risks. Adrian Parsons and his video work sprung to mind.
With potential artists in hand, I began contacting each to ask if they would participate in the show. The only requirement was that they submit for the show a piece that dealt with the idea of suppleness. I would make no selections from their bodies of work… if it fit the theme and they wanted to show it, it would be included.
About this same time I found a location to house the show, The Space, located just north of the Convention Center. The Space offered to give me the space for free for the 4 days of the art fair. And so my struggles began. To keep this short, I’ll say that the initial conversations with The Space went very well. I felt confident about the show and the success of using the space. Over the course of the following weeks, the “story” began to slowly changes. Promises were no longer being kept. New restrictions were put in place. Things were going downhill fast.
I’m jumping around here but trying to maintain the timeline. While negotiations were going on with The Space. I was working with the individual artists on the show. For the most part, the work shown at the Warehouse was the same as what was originally discussed. The main differences were with Colby Caldwell’s work… we intended on doing 2 videos at the original location instead of two photos. Adrian Parsons originally was going to do a video projection in the corner of the space that would reflect off a pool of motor oil and onto the wall. Instead, he did… well, we’ll get to that. I was pleased by the group of works for the show… painting, digital photography, sculpture, video, performance, sound, etc… what could be better?
Back to The Space. After small challenge after small challenge, I finally had enough with The Space and questioned their professionalism. That was not received well, at all, and it was threatened that they would cancel the show two weeks before the opening. I did not want to cancel the show so I sucked up my pride and apologized for expecting professionalism. The show was back on. A week before the opening, I was told that there would be no cash bar although that had been promised all along and was a condition of ArtDC using the show for it’s Opening Night VIP Party. The reason provided was that the alcohol license could not be obtained. Hmmm… I was never told that they didn’t have a license, only that we would have a cash bar serving alcohol. This time I lost it and informed the owners I was extremely disappointed and suggested they pay to have free wine on hand for guests (like galleries, this was allowed). Instead, I was told to solicit $50 from each artist to pay for the wine. Um, no. I was told that I was ungrateful for their generosity and I was the most unprofessional person they had ever worked with. I might disagree with that. The show was canceled and “Supple” was dead.
On this site I published an announcement that the show was canceled. Within a few hours offers poured in to house Supple at various locations across town. One of the first and most adamant offers was from Warehouse Gallery. They had a show planned for the entire space but was willing to offer me two galleries to mount “Supple.” I immediately took them up on the offer and began to plan the show in the new location. Artists were contacted and arrangements made. James Huckenpahler had to change his piece from a brand new, large piece to a slightly older, smaller piece. Mary Early had to include a smaller sculpture to make it up the stairs. Colby Caldwell could no longer do videos and had to bring by two photos that tangentially addressed the theme of supple. The biggest change, of course, was to Adrian Parsons’ piece. We had no time to devise an installation for a projector and a pool of oil on the floor. What to do?
I contacted Adrian and asked him if he had anything he could do for the show in the next two days. He said he did. What is it, I asked. Adrian told me about a piece where he would cut off some skin, put it in a hole in the wall, and seal it with Vaseline. The piece would be illuminated by a direct beam of light. I was in a hurry at the time but my visualization of the piece was that it would certainly be supple… skin, Vaseline, light, etc… it would be the most direct representation of suppleness possible and it certainly used a unique material. Therefore, it met my criteria for inclusion… it addressed suppleness. Given the nature of the work I contacted Molly Ruppert and asked if it would be ok. She made the request that no blood would spill on the floor. She also asked what skin he would cut off. I didn’t know.
The next day I was thinking about what skin Adrian would cut off and how. Molly had also asked. I contacted Adrian and asked for ALL of the details of the piece. Just what exactly would happen?
1. A small, half-inch hole would be made in the wall.
2. He would give a short talk about suicide bombers and how if their skin embeds in the skin of survivors, it could potentially grow. For Adrian, this was a conceptual piece that connected him to this horrific act by putting himself in the gallery wall.
3. He would pluck out a few hairs and put those in the wall.
4. He would then pull out his uncircumcised penis and cut off the very tip of it. The small tip would be placed in the hole in the wall and his penis would be clamped. He would immediately go to the hospital for care.
5. Adrian assured me he already spoke with his doctor about the act and that his safety was assured.
One day before the show and this is a lot of information to take in. I remembered by initial requirement for the show… the piece proposed by the artist had to address suppleness. In it’s gross, disturbing way, this piece did. It did a lot more, but it addressed suppleness. It was in.
I spoke with Molly at the Warehouse and told her I found out what skin Adrian planned to cut. She smiled and said “it?” I said, yep, you’re exactly right. She asked if anything sexual would be involved and I told her no. She said that it was ok to proceed as long as a tarp was placed on the ground.
That day or the next day the show was installed. It was beautiful, even Adrian’s hole in the wall had a certain quality to it. The early visitors to the gallery on day one were very positive about the show. One visitor (one of the most well-respected artists in town), told me that hands down “Supple” was the best show in town. I was pleased. Later that night, that same visitor saw Adrian’s performance and our relationship has not been the same since. I wish I could say that was an isolated event.
The night of the opening, as the crowd built, it was time for Adrian’s act. I went around the gallery and asked people to come see the performance. Once I got to the room I introduced Adrian and warned the audience that what was about to occur would be graphic and that if you were at all squeamish you should leave. No one ever actually listens to those warnings, do they? By the time I finished, Adrian had already started. Immediately I could tell that the performance I was told about was not going to happen. Adrian began by plucking hairs from his beard with a pair of pliers. There was no introduction speech about suicide bombers to build context for the piece. Once Adrian finished that and blood was on his face, he took off his jacket and was topless. He turned away from the crowd (and towards me!!) and pulled out a pocket knife (i.e. not a surgical scalpel like you might expect). He unzipped his pants and the crowd gasped. He pulled out his penis, stretched out the skin, and began swiftly cutting at his penis. It took 5-7 cuts before it was done and by this point the crowd was appalled. He took the skin – a massive chunk of skin – and placed it in the hole. It wouldn’t fit well and he made a joke referencing “how big it was.” With one hand he clamped his cut penis. Fortunately only a few drops of blood fell on the tarp. Then, Adrian began talking about suicide bombers. It was too late. No one was listening… everyone told him he had to go to the hospital. I grabbed his jacket, threw it over his shoulders and told him to leave immediately. A local critic immediately started yelling at Molly Ruppert for allowing it to happen. Molly never said a word to me about it. D.C. was abuzz with news of the self-circumcision.
Anyone who knows me realizes that I am not a fan of mutilation art, and really not performance art at all. They also know that I am not a person who stages stunts for attention. However, even people who did know me began saying that the performance was held strictly for attention getting purposes. I don’t know about Adrian’s intent, but it was certainly not mine. I felt it was truly disgusting and overall a bad piece of performance art. I also felt that it was tired, meaning, I felt the artworld had seen similar acts for the past few decades. I was surprised by the attention it got.
Before long, articles were being published online that were very critical of the piece and my decision to allow it. Unfortunately, I set up poor requirements for the show which committed me to allowing it, or so I felt.
In article in the City Paper, it was stated that Molly Ruppert did not know about the piece. This, perhaps, was the most unfortunate part of everything, that she felt the need to lie about it once things got heated. I can’t blame her though, if I were her, and my business was being shut down and I wanted the support of the community, I might lie too. What’s funny is all of the witnesses who overheard her telling people about it before the act even happened. People were approaching me asking if the rumor was real. Perhaps it could be someone else who started the rumor. Regardless, I was the one who told her about it and got her permission.
I ran into Molly at the Warehouse a few months later. We approached each other and after small talk she asked if I was still mad at her. I said that of course I was… she hung me out to dry. She laughed and said something to the effect of “ha, fine, I don’t care” and she walked off. I just don’t understand why you would ask if I was still mad if I had nothing to be mad about. It’s OK though, I forgave her a long time ago.
I know that the vast majority of people read this likely won’t believe it. And I wouldn’t have either. I don’t share this story to harm Molly, but to share the full story. If it comes down to Molly or me, you better believe I’m going to defend myself.
It may seem strange to share this story after so long. Like I said above, I was prompted to write this based on Kriston Capps’ article which read in part:
“Those are two fine examples of how to pull off a performative stunt. One thing not to do? Cut off part of your penis and call it art. Adrian Parsons’ self-circumcision was included as part of “Supple,” a show curated by J.T. Kirkland and staged, it would seem, to wow out-of-towners visiting artDC. Those who did attend might have had their suspicions confirmed; the city gets a provincial reputation.”
I, too, would say that it seems the performance was mounted to wow out of towners. It’s not true, but it seems that way and really that’s all that matters. Well, I did want to wow visitors with the exceptional quality of D.C. art, but not just the performance component… the paintings, sculptures, music, too. I’d say, too, that the performance isn’t what gives the city a provincial reputation so much as the response to the performance. I have to believe that in any major art center this would have been ignored. It should have been ignored. If I were wearing my critic hat instead of curator’s hat, I would have never mentioned it. I was quite shocked by the nature of the response to the piece. Were people really shocked? Have we not seen the same or worse? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. It garnered the reaction it did. That’s that.
The one thing that pleased me was that people who attended the show after the performance and who knew nothing about it, found the show to be remarkable. Those people didn’t even notice the foreskin in the wall. That convinced me that I mounted a solid show, with the exception of one mistake. I took a chance and I can live with that.
While I’m here and writing entirely too much, I want to touch a few more things. As many of you will notice, I have used the term “performance” to describe Adrian’s piece. He called it a “live installation.” Well, I think it was both. By definition it was a “live installation.” The term “performance” means more. The viewing public undoubtedly took the piece in terms of performance art, and that’s fair. But like some commenters stated, it was a bad performance. There’s no question about it. I can see a set of actions that might (might!) make it an OK performance, but as executed, it simply wasn’t. I’ve defended the piece on Adrian’s terms but I now see the error in that. To an extent it should be understood on Adrian’s terms, but the response of it is in the hands of the viewers. It was performance, and I regret arguing against that.
I also regret not informing the other participating artists about the nature of the act. I was asked to not tell anyone and I took that to heart. As a result, I put the other artists in an awkward position of having to share space with foreskin. Because of my decision, I have lost the confidence of some of the artists in the show and they no longer will work with me as a curator. I regret that. I made a bad decision and must live with the consequences. To those artists I hurt, I apologize.
I write all of this to share my experience with you, the reader. I hope you understand a little better what happened with this show and how it unfortunately got away from me. I’m still proud of the show as a whole (and specifically introducing more people to Matt Sargent’s wonderful work). But I learned how to be a better curator. I understand better how to maintain my own vision and curatorial control. I understand better how to work on the terms of the other artists in the show. And I understand better how to work on the terms of the viewer and their various interpretations. Because of these things I’ve learned I don’t regret this experience at all.
To end on an even higher note (to me anyway), the one decision I remain very happy with is the decision not to write a curator’s statement beyond the show title. I was shocked that so many artworlders were offended by that. “What does it mean????” We would slap someone for asking what our art “means” to us. Why do we need explanation fed to us for curated shows? Perhaps it's a product of the times. I believe all art should stand on its own without explanation. Maybe I should have had no title at all! If you’re still wondering what “Supple” was about, just think about the word and recall the show in your head. That’s it. If you want more, that’s cool, but you aren’t getting it from me.
Thanks to everyone who supported me with Supple. Thanks to everyone who challenged me. I don't know which was more important to me.