The Pulitzer's 'Art of Its Own Making' is Marvelously Metaphysical

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

In “Art of Its Own Making,” the new exhibit at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, works spanning 50 years by both established and emerging artists explore how outside influences affect and contribute to an artist’s work. Marking the debut of curator Gretchen Wagner, who joined the Pulitzer just last October by way of MOMA, the diverse show features sculpture, film, video, installation and performance and sound works that together serve as a catalyst for deeper thought on the true nature of reality, namely, what is ultimately real?

"Yellow Movie" & "Condensation Wall" Courtesy Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts

Installation view of the Entrance Gallery, Art of Its Own Making
The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 2014
Photograph by David Johnson

In a larger context, the exhibit is about the metaphysical nature of the universe, which, among other things, posits that all things are interconnected. Here, the works are in one way or the other influenced by air, temperature, exposure, wind, light and other external influences. Consider Haans Haacke’s, “Condensation Wall,” a plexiglass box wall with a small pool of distilled water in its bottom. Over time, the water evaporates, forms condensation on the walls, and eventually makes its way back to the pool to repeat the process. Look closer and notice that the front wall is reacting with extra condensation on one side due to its position facing the front entry, which subjects it to some mild temperature fluctuations—bursts of cool air coming in the front entryway or warmth from the heat register on the floor right next to it. Not only is the whole piece reacting to its surroundings, half of it is reacting differently than the other.

Next to the Haacke piece, “Yellow Movie,” by Tony Conrad, is essentially a coat of varnish on photo paper. The viewer watches it turn indecipherably yellow. One of 20 similar works that “premiered” at the Millennium Film Workshop in New York, this “Yellow Movie” has been turning yellow for 40 years. Here, among the atmospheric influences on the work, time becomes its principal catalyst of change, and who could argue that time does not play its own “yellowing” game on each of us.

Art of Its Own Making - Main Gallery Courtesy Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts

Installation view of the Main Gallery, Art of Its Own Making
The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 2014
Photograph by David Johnson

In Wagner’s introduction in the exhibit gallery guide, she suggests that by having an experiential encounter with art, as opposed to purely visual, it can lead to “extremely productive thinking about how one inhabits the world.” In fact, it’s a thought process that’s difficult to avoid. Once one accepts the influence of atmosphere on how objects behave and the multifarious connections between all things, it’s easy to accept other more mysterious connections.

One is reminded of the yogurt telepathic experiments, one in which a pile of yogurt is split in half, one side is fed sugar and the other non-fed side reacts as though it had been fed too, or perhaps it reacts angrily to not being fed—who knows? Or the experiment where a bowl of yogurt—with its living bacteria—reacts to a nearby person’s emotional state. To some, the first case illustrates connectivity, and the second that our minds can exert more influence on our physical surroundings than we know. As Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Ground Control by Edih Dekyndt Courtesy Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts

Edith Dekyndt
Ground Control, 2008
Courtesy of the artist and Carl Freedman Gallery, London
Photograph by David Johnson

We don’t need yogurt experiments to make us believers though. How many times have you walked into a room or nightclub and felt a “bad vibe,” or so much manic energy in the air that your skin tingled? While the exhibit doesn’t play at telepathy, it does raise the question of outside influences. If we believe that yogurt can react to human brain activity or that one person’s bad vibe can bring down a whole room, then we can accept that we too are having an effect on the art, or at least that our emotional state can affect our experience with it and perhaps even the experiences of those around us.

If the Pulitzer exhibit can lead us to such contemplations, it is beyond successful. It’s clear the works have been curated with much profundity, and none illustrate Wagner’s concept and the building’s influence more than “Pyramids of Conscience.” The Agnes Denes work consists of four pyramids, three of which are filled with either tap water, oil, or Mississippi river water. The fourth is made of mirrors that reflect the viewer. The visual quality of the work is influenced by the quality of the reflected light from the watercourt (is it cloudy or sunny out?), the liquid they contain, and the height and angle at which the viewer sees them, all of which influence the colors, hues, transparency and emotion that we perceive as viewers.

In her writing on the exhibit, Wagner quotes political theorist Jane Bennet, who states that our “newfound attentiveness to matter and its powers” may not give us the ability to change the world for the better, but “it can give us a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin in the sense of [being] inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations.” And why can’t this realization change the world? If we all see the connection between all things—that each small act is as a pebble thrown into a body of water that then reverberates far beyond its expected influence—perhaps saner, more compassionate mindsets will prevail. With Wagner’s auspicious debut, the Pulitzer’s “Art of Its Own Making” becomes one such magnificent pebble.

“Art of Its Own Making” continues through Aug. 20. For more information, visit the Pulitzer Foundation For the Arts website.

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

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