At the opening of First Among Equals earlier this month, a pink Boticellian Venus—a living statue—pushed a rolling piece of chain link fence right up against Alex Da Corte’s installation, SCENE TAKE SIX, then stood nearby on her half shell for a couple of hours. When she left, the fence remained, jutting into Alex’s piece: an ambiguous guest.
“When Kathryn Andrews first came here and said she was going to make a big fence and put it in front of someone’s work, I said, ‘Me first!’” Alex says. “There’s nothing to be gained in a group show by people’s work sitting politely and not looking at each other.”
We’re at ICA’s spring Free For All event, where later this evening there will be pistachio doughnuts, ice cream sandwiches, and a band. First, though, there is this tasty conversation hosted by two members of ICA’s student advisory board, David and Julie, who pose questions about how First Among Equals came about, how Alex thinks about making art, and how his work will exist after the show ends.
The fence intervention—and the living statues that periodically move it around the gallery—comprise a piece by Kathryn Andrews called Serial Killer which vividly dramatizes many of the issues the show explores: What happens when artists work together? Where does cooperation end and competition begin? What does it mean when one artist uses other artists’ works of art as material for their own?
This unlikely sounding situation can be found in many forms in First Among Equals, including Alex’s SCENE TAKE SIX itself, a two-sided installation that uses works by six artists on one side and six on the other to make a new whole—almost the way a group exhibition, organized through a curator’s vision, makes a new whole. Alex, though, takes marvelous liberties it’s hard to imagine a curator taking. He has fashioned a microphone for Sam Anderson’s bust of Aretha Franklin, for instance, and piled works by Anna Betbeze, Paul Thek, and Karen Kilimnik on top of each other. Some of the works have been borrowed from collectors for the run of the show. Others, which Alex calls dedication monuments, are recreations he built himself with direction from the original artists. Which are which, though, he’d rather not say: “I don’t want to say if it’s real or fake, because in my mind it’s all real. I was thinking that all these materials are equal, even if some have a greater monetary value.”
Among other things, SCENE TAKE SIX is a kind of meditation on memory. Black-and-white on one side, color on the other, the two sides formally mirror one another; but since you can’t look at them both at once, all the time you’re looking at one side, you’re also thinking about what’s on the side you can’t see.
Alex relates this constant presence of absence to the nature of the scavenged materials he often uses as material: “Most of the things I scavenge are missing parts, and I don’t know what they are.” A little later he says, “My work is just stuff—just a bunch of crap piled together—but the minute it’s in a white cube being photographed…” He trails off.
It becomes art, he means, that trailing ellipsis alluding to the moment of transformation without naming it. Another missing piece, though this time we can see what it is.
Stuff to art: when exactly does that happen? I was in the gallery last month watching as Alex put SCENE TAKE SIX together: spray-painting vitrines, twisting branches, nailing painted flowers to the wall. Was I there for that elusive, magical moment? Did I miss it?
A little earlier, talking about all the disparate elements that go into a work of his, Alex said, “It’s a bit like a dream where your mother, your pet dog, and Johnny Depp are all there.”
And what of Kathryn Andrews’s fence? Is that too part of the dream? Or is it, with its bright steel bars, the ringing alarm clock that threatens to wake us from the dream? Or perhaps it’s the ringing alarm clock that we, unwilling to wake, incorporate into the dream so that we may sleep and dream just a little while longer.
The next living statue, an evergreen tree, will move the fence on Saturday, May 12th at 2:00.
First Among Equals is open through August 12.
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