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Exhibition Essay: How to Be an Artist, Dan Cameron

Nancy Hwang
This is not a couch.

February 1–29, 2008
Photo: Robert Bingaman

A lot of important art starts off as a rumor. Nancy Hwang’s career offers the example of an artist whom many people actually haven’t heard of, but when you describe a couple of her pieces to them, they suddenly realize they have heard about it before, or at least they think they have. However, because no new objects come into being in the process of Hwang’s art, it somehow seems less necessary to pinpoint the precise identity of the artist who created the bar with a single stool, or set up the manicurist station where one’s hands are worked on by somebody whose face one never sees. In fact, people who have never experienced her work directly sometimes feel free to embellish what they do know about it with small details of their own. By operating so explicitly outside the conventional boundaries of what constitutes artistic practice, Nancy Hwang now has an entire genre practically all to herself: the artist who creates the piece by being herself in a specified place and time, and who leaves people talking about her after she’s gone.

Unlike many artists of the past who did away with—or at least minimized the impact of—the material object, Hwang’s approach to making art is refreshingly jargon-free. She does not weigh down the post-object part of her practice with a lot of bulky words and concepts based on the latest in continental philosophy, but instead operates as much as possible from the area of intuition. Her first step is to ruminate over the situation into which she, as an artist, is being invited, trying to make a certain sense out of it for herself. Generally speaking, the proposals that emerge from Hwang’s meditations are brief, simple, and to the point. At first her ideas seem quite benign, and generally speaking they are demonstrably pleasant for all involved. But for all their simplicity, the narrative released as Hwang’s projects unpack themselves over time is invariably slightly twisted, and quite subversive concerning the artist’s role in society: underlying her art is the faint but always distinct premise that if more artists started making art like hers, soon everybody would be making art, and then what would we do with all the artists?

A case in point: In 2005 I was invited to organize the exhibition ev+a, held annually in the city of Limerick, Ireland. I invited Nancy Hwang to participate, and she said yes, but mentioned that she’d never been to Limerick (or Ireland) before, and would like to base her piece on that condition. Not thinking much about it, I agreed that this seemed like a good starting point. Shortly thereafter I received the proposal for a project  titled Host, which required somebody to lend Nancy a two-bedroom apartment in Limerick for one month. This done, she then proceeded to arrange visits from ten people in the Limerick community, who would each stay as guests in “her” apartment for three days and two nights. Since Nancy was a stranger in Limerick but at home in her apartment, and her guests were strangers in her apartment but at home in Limerick, an odd imbalance in the initial equation quickly sorted itself out. Host and guest each automatically began working to alleviate the awkwardness felt by the other, and by the end of the month, Hwang had a true insider’s view of Limerick, and made more than ten new friends in the process. She gave everybody involved in Hostnavy blue t-shirts at the end of the month, printed with the floor plan of the apartment (no words), and made it clear that the shirts were to be worn, not squirreled away like an artist’s limited edition.

It used to bother me that the nature of Hwang’s practice did not lead the art-interested public to fetishize her name, or the details of her art, quite the way they might if she were a painter or sculptor with sold-out gallery shows. Then it occurred to me that this is perhaps a natural, even necessary, outcome of her entire approach to making art. In that sense, the closest historic precedent for Hwang’s work is probably Happenings, the loosely defined genre of participatory group activity that grew out of Allan Kaprow’s classes at Rutgers University in the late 1950s. Although Kaprow did not quite renounce the principle that one’s artistic practice was invariably associated with one’s own name, the art he produced over a lifetime was so self-abnegating that the boundaries between Happenings he was directly involved in, and those created by people who simply copied his ideas, became increasingly irrelevant. Other artistic practices more specifically linked to the “service” dimension of Hwang’s art are Mierle Lederman Ukeles’ two-decade collaboration, beginning in the mid-1980s, with the New York City Department of Sanitation; and Michael Bramwell’s two-year project, in the mid-1990s, of sweeping an old apartment house in East Harlem.

As her practice develops, Hwang’s use of the duration of time as a starting point seems to diminish. A recent work at the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) titled Skills, took the transitory form of a photocopied public notice, with tear-off tabs at the bottom, typically used to advertise somebody’s abilities to teach Spanish or paint houses. Posted near the CAC’s former café, Hwang’s version offers her abilities to perform a variety of different chores, in exchange for sleeping on the couch of the person who calls her. In the context of a city still in the process of rebuilding itself, Hwang’s appeal comes across as so realistic that it cannot be distinguished from the abundance of similar handmade appeals in laundromats or grocery stores to hire somebody, sell old furniture, or offer myriad talents. Like Host, however, the CAC work focuses on creating a social situation in which the one-on-one interaction between Hwang and the person whose sofa she is sleeping on becomes the basis for a wide range of potential discoveries, none of which can be predetermined. She might wind up helping to clear out somebody’s backyard, or she may spend most of her time keeping someone company.

For the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Hwang developed yet another variation on her spontaneous interactions. This is not a couch. begins from the premise that the only thing people need to make contact is an opportunity to do so, and she created that opportunity by setting up a couch in the Museum’s atrium during the entire month of February 2008. During the course of Hwang’s project, she invited people from the general public to sit with her on the couch and have a talk. Sometimes she functioned as a social networker, other times as a problem solver, and still others as a stand-in friend. As with most of her works, the element of the unpredictable in This is not a couch. caused people from all over Kansas City to meet each other in a context that seemed slightly divorced from everyday life, but nevertheless contained enough of the familiar and non-threatening to make people who knew nothing about conceptual art want to take part.

The larger point of recent works such as Skills and This is not a couch. is that Hwang has allowed situations to unfold in which the outcome is very much unknown, but which enable her to get to the inside of a social order that might otherwise be inaccessible. By framing her position as a set of skills that can be bartered for shelter, or as a kind of perpetual “open house” in a museum’s lobby, Hwang intentionally exposes herself to a set of real-life fluctuations meant to appeal to people who find themselves, or somebody they know, in a situation of uncertainty. Whatever else Hwang takes away from Skillsand This is not a couch., she will have forged domestic and/or friendship ties to a small group of individuals who might just emerge from their interaction with her believing that artistic communication can be as simple as sharing one’s cares and concerns in the name of human solidarity.

Dan Cameron

Dan Cameron is Founding Director of Prospect.1 New Orleans, an international biennial opening throughout the city November 2008, and is director of visual arts for Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), New Orleans. He was senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art from 1995 to 2006.