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APPROXIMATING THE ART OF STUART SHERMAN / 2009

Play, pause, rewind. Play, pause, rewind. What happens to an artists' work when they die? Who, ultimately, has the responsibility to preserve the work, to preserve the memory? Is it the artist, or is it the institutions whose raison d’etre it is to archive and classify? Preservation is one thing, but access is another. The institution or library may gather the work (to have and to hold), but this could just as easily translate into the evidence of an artist’s output being boxed  up and disappearing into a huge storage space—crate after unmarked crate to vanishing point. Stop.

I am standing in some sort of climate-controlled room in the Fales Library at New York University. In front of me is a shelf, the top three levels of which contain the ‘Sherman Collection’. These are mostly U-matic tapes—a somewhat chunkier version of the domestic VHS tape. This is a dead format that I have not seen on this scale since I was at university in the mid nineties. In fact, the last U-matic player I saw was unceremoniously dumped  on a pavement outside an advertising agency in central London. It would seem the shift to digital makes such analogue antiquities (and perhaps the stuff playable in them) utterly disposable.

In the Fales Library, I scan the black and grey plastic coffins neatly lined up on the shelf with faded typed labels, overlaid and overwritten again and again with handwritten scrawl—palimpsest I think is the word. Taking out the individual tapes from their cases, I wonder about the notion of ‘life’ in relation to these objects . . . how the ‘life’ of Stuarts work depends on the life of these insubstantial pieces of plastic and flimsy magnetic tape. How many times can these things be played before they start to destroy themselves from within? I am told that much of this work has already been digitized by the Fales, but there is always the argument that transferral to DVD does not necessarily constitute the terminal point of preservation. After all, every substance has a finite life, even a digital hard drive. 

Rewind. I remember seeing Stuart perform when he visited my university as an artist-in-residence sometime in the mid 1990's. As a first year Fine Art student, I liked his work for several reasons. He was the first performance artist I saw who appeared to have a sense of humor—even though I didn’t always understand why I was laughing, it seemed OK to laugh. I also loved the fact that much of what he did was so short - performances lasting a matter of seconds in some cases. In light of my lack of patience with durational work, this economy and brevity provided ammunition in those endless arguments with fellow students who seemed to think that the protracted length of a performance piece in itself imbued it some kind of inherent gravitas. Stuart’s influence on my subsequent work was undeniable, almost embarrassingly so. Hence, in many of my performances at the time, the 'stage' was the surface of a table and the 'protagonists' were a series of props sourced by endless trawling of charity shops and supermarkets.  I am all for debunking the creative process so have no problem in acknowledging being heavily under the influence.

Fast forward. Twelve years later and I am standing on a stage behind a small folding table, holding a red plastic rose in one hand and a white handkerchief in the other, whilst wearing a cheap plastic Groucho Marx style nose. I say the word “Achoo” in as deadpan a manner as I can muster. This, then, is the performance equivalent of a cover version;  one of a series of re-enacted approximations of Stuart Sherman's Spectacles. I always feel the need to emphasise the word ‘approximation,’ possibly in response to a viewer of one of my re-enacted Sherman performances who suggested that all I had done was learn a language without understanding the meaning of what it was I was doing. I could not really take issue with that summation to be honest. While I would not claim to be attempting to definitively or accurately portray the works (the impossibility of absolute replication is a given), the process of annotating and performing these works represents an attempt to define the ethics and implications of this form of interpretation, relative to Sherman’s original intentions. That, at least, is my rationalization. Perhaps the inaccuracies of replication can be acknowledged and even heightened as a means of interrogating the connection of a specific artist to the particularities of his presence as a performer; the uncanny notion of being (or clearly not being) Stuart.

Play, pause, rewind. Play, pause, rewind. Stop. So this has been a matter of watching and transcribing video documentation of performances I have never seen live, as a means of making them live (again). But the same dilemma recurs every time; if I press play now (again), it would seem the life of the tape is further shortened. Play. One may reach a stoic acceptance regarding the entropy of all things, but my anxiety pertains to something more than just incremental decay; that nagging question as to whether an over-reliance on the 'endlessly' re-playable tools of mechanical reproduction such as videotaped documentation leads one down the blind alley of mere blow-by-blow replication. Stuart's friend George Gajek put it to me like this: “. . . given that you have a visual record, you could imitate what you see from the visual record—but it's not the same.” It is whether the video tape acts as a tool to 'prove' whether or not you have got  it 'right', or rather a point of reference that can be utilized to take us into a less than faithful, wilfully interpretive realm.

Play. I am showing John Jesurun a video of one of my re-enactments, and he points out that I am standing too far back from the table, and that the distance between my head and the surface of the table isn't quite right somehow, at least relative to how he remembers it. This is certainly not the first time it has been suggested that I lack a neutral enough presence to carry this off. Paradoxes abound. Could somebody else disappear in the same way as Stuart seemed to in his performances?

But this idea of Stuart 'disappearing' on stage remains contested. Perhaps my mistake as a re-enactor was to cast him as some form of cipher or man who wasn't there. Even if it is, as has been suggested, the objects 'doing the work' (or rather Stuart 'becoming one of the objects'), these sorts of responses from Jesurun, Gajek and others implied that the performer was not interchangeable—a notion that perhaps places me in the invidious position of imposter, or even parasite. It seems strange that even with this sense of Sherman not being ‘present’ in his work, the feeling still persists that for these performances to work, it still has to be him doing them. Stop.

This essay was originally published in Beginninglesss Thought/Endless Seeing: The Works of Stuart Sherman (2011)