after 40 years of controversy, artist vito acconci is as shocking and relevant as ever

From working as an architect to masturbating under the gallery floor, Vito Acconci has famously and infamously done just about everything an artist can do. As a retrospective of his works opens in New York, we catch up with the ever-controversial...

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Jun 29 2016, 3:23pm

Vito Acconci. Theme Song. 1973. Courtesy of Acconci Studios.

In 1971, Vito Acconci sent shockwaves through the art world with his piece Seedbed, in which he lay under the floorboards of the Sonnabend Gallery audibly masturbating and whispering his sexual fantasies to the viewers who walked above. As an artist often reduced to the anecdotal, Acconci's major retrospective at MoMA PS1 makes an impressive effort to contextualize this notorious moment within a prolific career that has spanned poetry, art and architecture.

Despite this, it's impossible to ignore the fact that the space is dominated by the man himself. Throughout the exhibition, his face and body is reflected and refracted endlessly across a sea of screens: Acconci shoving his fist in his mouth, biting himself, spitting, burning his hair off with a lit match, and plastering up his buttocks. It's easy to miss the sly and subversive humor in his work, and collectively the effect is not just repulsion at the relentless offering of the abject body, but a distinct flavor of the absurd.

Meeting him with his collaborator and wife Maria on the terrace of PS1, he is as striking as he is on screen -- he's now 76 but his sunken, probing eyes still carry a youthful intensity. On the subject of why he's chosen this moment to return to his performance work, however, he is evasive. "Ask the curators," he says wryly, "I didn't pick it!" Maria explains further: "We knew going in that it was going to be focusing on the work before 1976. To counter that, we decided it was important to include design elements that give you a sense of what Vito is doing now. The curators very kindly helped us do this -- through all our mood swings and temper tantrums."

Vito Acconci. Where We Are Now (Who Are We Anyway?) 1976. Courtesy of Sonnabend Gallery, New York

It makes sense that he would be reluctant to expound upon the exhibition. The work here is displayed with taxonomic precision, organized year-by-year and accompanied by images, documents and sketches for each work. For the viewer willing to take their time and savor each piece, it's an impressively thorough show. I ask whether it's this meticulous archival instinct that compelled him to go ahead with a retrospective, to establish a chronology of the pivotal period covered by the exhibition. "Absolutely. I always want to know where I came from," he answers. "But I can never do something twice. And with this exhibition I wanted to do something I hadn't done before. It's probably a bad quality."

There is an identifiable logic to his artistic trajectory -- pushing against the limits of the page, then the limits of the gallery space, and then the limits of landscape as an architect. "Everything Vito has ever done is a continuous and organic process, like a Klein bottle," Maria explains. So does it not feel regressive in some way to scale back from the public landscape of architecture to the gallery space? "Vito's not stupid," says Maria. "He knows he needs the gallery at some point. You can't be a rogue maverick. Like Sarah Palin," she adds drily.

Acconci was notably a member of the group gathered under the umbrella term 'body artists,' arguably the first movement in history in which the contribution of women was more significant than that of men. The narcissism and sexual exhibitionism of Acconci's performance work has been placed under intense scrutiny by feminist art historians such as Amelia Jones and Lucy Lippard, who convincingly argue that Acconci's work has accrued a certain respect or legitimacy, while the output of his female contemporaries such as Hannah Wilke or Carolee Schneeman have been unfairly sidelined as egotism.

Vito Acconci. Three Relationship Studies. 1970. Courtesy of Acconci Studios.

On the other hand, Judith Butler's seminal Gender Trouble wasn't published until 1990, while a piece like Acconci's Conversions of 1971, in which he tucks his penis between his legs to form a vagina seems to anticipate the playful and performative expression of gender fluidity and identity politics in art of the past 20 years. "I don't think I ever felt that I wanted to become a woman. It was part of wanting to do something I'd never done, never experienced." Vito says. "With Seedbed, for example, I wanted to become part of the gallery space, and I definitely didn't want to be seen. And I couldn't have been in the ceiling -- then I would have been God. I went to Catholic school, so I never, never wanted to be God."

Even if the performance pieces no longer have the same transgressive thrill as when they were first exhibited, in hindsight they seem remarkably prescient in their relentless self-documentation, their critique of surveillance culture, and their radical approach to gender and sexuality. But Acconci is keen to stress that any political reading of his work is subjective, and his performances are about breaking down the wall between public and private space. "I've been periodically drawn to the idea of acting, but really I hate the idea of being on a stage. I prefer to be in the middle of something," he says. "Any other way, and I felt like I was faking it."

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Text Liam Hess

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