24 October 2012 till 2 January 2013
Review by Suzanne Rietdijk
translation: Jenny Wilson
The revealing capacity of art almost seems to have become a thing of the past. With the rise of Wikileaks, Twitter and Facebook, art has as good as lost its urgency in being a subversive medium. Now that everyone’s able to radically express themselves through social media, the notion of the rebellious artist has become somewhat outmoded. It is at this time that art has to reorder itself and establish a new role within society. ‘Toothpick Geometries’, a performance by Italo Zuffi (1969, Imola, IT) during Kunstvlaai, can perhaps be seen as an example of this new approach.
With his contribution to the project, ‘PAY ATTENTION, please’, Zuffi’s performance at Kunstvlaai was the last in a series of public events that took place in Milan, Beetsterzwaag and Amsterdam. Organised by FARE (IT) and SYB, ‘PAY ATTENTION, please’ became an international collaboration that continually created new spaces in which members of the public were able to experience moments of concentration, attention and effort. Here the emphasis lay on developing the actual ‘works’, which took the form of workshops, exercises and studies. In doing so, the focus didn’t lie on the object, but the work itself became the immaterial environment for a particular moment or a now. This was also the case during Kunstvlaai.
Zuffi’s perfomance takes place in one of the corridors of the old Sint Nicolaas Lyceum. This space, complete with linoleum flooring and a modular ceiling, forms the noisy setting for Zuffi’s intimate ‘Toothpick Geometries’. The first part of the performance begins with inviting two visitors who are asked to get on their knees directly underneath a video camera that is facing the floor. With the aid of a toothpick in their mouths, the two participants try to create and hold the form of a straight line while Zuffi records the action from above with a camera and reveals the images to the rest of the public by projecting them directly onto a large screen. The camera’s set-up in relation to the projection screen results in the performance being split into two visual components. On the one hand, the public is an intimate witness of a close-up of the toothpicks, which almost seem detached from their performers and continue, as abstract objects, to search for their geometric form. On the other hand, the public sees two people on their knees who have shut out their environment in order to jointly perform what seems to be an almost impossible task in a rather inconvenient position. More and more people are invited to participate during the subsequent parts of the performance, resulting in an increasingly complex geometry being formed with the toothpicks (a triangle, a square, a pentagon…). However, the form created by the toothpicks becomes increasingly unsteady and less accurate because of the uncomfortable hard floor and the task’s ever-rising demands.
The practically impossible tasks imposed by Zuffi’s ‘Toothpick Geometries’ force participants to conjure a moment of concentration and effort in the middle of a very noisy Kunstvlaai. Body and spirit are pushed to extremes and the toothpicks’ geometric forms, becoming increasingly hesitant, serve as a visual realisation hereof. Furthermore, the toothpicks also create a very intimate and awkward distance between the individual participants; social interaction takes place within an unusually small surface area. The participants come closer than they would normally do with any other strangers in an everyday situation. This surface-restriction ensures that the core of the performance takes place within a few square centimetres; its epicentre being the point where the toothpicks (nearly) touch.
Besides the toothpicks’ contribution as normative objects to the entire performance, the toothpicks also carry a certain absurdity as banal objects. The toothpick’s protagonist capacity offers this performance, which realises an essential seriousness, far more playfulness. The participants have to focus on this particular practical object in such a way that an internal conflict arises: they are confronted by the everyday while simultaneously being required to turn away in order to actually carry out Zuffi’s tasks. The synchronised shutting off from and opening up to the trivial during the performance almost seems to be a reflection of the dilemma of the artist. After all, the artist wishes to shut himself away from society and his environment as an autonomous individual, yet at the same time longs to remain a critical citizen involved in society.
Although Zuffi may not have have directly intended to create a moralistic work, ‘Toothpick Geometries’, as part of ‘PAY ATTENTION, please’, seems to be a performance with a message. With blaring art as a thing of the past, Zuffi’s work raises awareness of the value of repose, contemplation and hesitancy in our contemporary society. At a time when everyone is able to say their piece through social media, a direct advocacy has arisen in which doubt is judged. Zuffi allows us to experience, through the impracticability of his geometries, that it’s not necessarily about achieving perfection and directness. After all, the moving images of the constant repositioning of toothpicks is aesthetically more challenging than each static image of a perfectly formed geometry. It is doubt and hesitancy that create moments in which we can look at things in a different way, and allow us to look for a new way in order to ultimately form a critical opinion. The fragility of the form therefore reflects the fragility of the moment which we experience these days; seeing as we strive for goals and therefore forget the now. By enlarging and intensifying these moments through a joint effort, ‘Toothpick Geometries’ offers us the space to take a new and closer look at our experience of the everyday, and to appreciate the beauty in our valuable hesitation.