British artist Samuel Williams, through e-mail, fax or a phone call, is transmitting daily instructions for the building of sculptures at inova/Kenilworth, 2155 N. Prospect. The show, “Samuel Williams: Instructions,” opened on April 1 with an empty gallery. The first set of instructions arrived via e-mail that day and called for the making of a giant marble run. Here is an excerpt from the instructions:
“Go to a nearby sports shop and buy a dozen squash balls, all of the same type.
Bring them back to the gallery.
Have a cup of tea.
From the storeroom, gather up anything that can be used to make a track for these balls to roll along, including tools, tape and screws.
Start experimenting. Find ways to make tracks, and corners which the ball can go round. Find materials which will make good buffers at points where the ball is likely to fall off. Develop methods for raising the track up off the ground.
Tidy all of this away by 4:30 pm to await further instructions.”
The resulting sculpture reflects the ad-hoc problem solving of the group that made it. A bucket, old plastic piping, ladders and cardboard become a surprisingly clever and functional thing that jigs across the wall and magically rounds a corner, via the artist’s specifications. It’s this “thingification,” as coined by the artist, that makes these daily exercises whimsical, interesting and politically pertinent.
The “make do” milieu of this project has settled over our educational and art institutions like a layer of dust – pervasive, ubiquitous. Shortly after last month’s Madison budget rallies, London staged a protest on March 26, bringing an estimated 300,000 marchers to the city center. Severe cuts to public spending threaten life in Britain as they do in Wisconsin. The daily act of making sculptures out of found materials by volunteer crews via an artist whose host institution can’t afford to fly him to Milwaukee frames the stress of the situation.
Like the Wizard of Oz, this unseen artist, who is completing his master’s degree in sculpture at the Royal Academy of Art in London, concocts his daily assignment then pushes the “send” button to traverse the ocean. Williams feels present within the galleries as his voice and spirit translate into odd contraptions like a shopping cart equipped as a studio/suitcase or a desk drilled with holes.
The project relates to Williams’ broader art practice of self-imposed limitations. “A limitation itself can be just another tool,” he says.
One recent video work called “Sculpture Face” shows people receiving quick transformative gestures that turn them into works of art. He wraps one head in clear tape, drapes another with cloth, attaches cardboard tubes or pieces of toast to another. Within this speedy delivery, Williams chases the elusive moment where a mundane thing or activity takes a turn toward becoming art. His sweetly simple exercises are fraught with defeat.
Williams’ videos, as well as footage from the building of the inova projects, can be seen in the back screening area.
As of this writing, nine sculptures had been built. By the end of the show, there will be 38. Williams’ ideas for projects are varied and often quite challenging. Curator Nicholas Frank seemed to take a deep breath as he checked the e-mail to see if the day’s project had arrived. Indeed it had. Time to get to work. Williams presented the following instructions:
“You have ten minutes to choose four artworks by four different American artists from the early Twentieth Century, working between these dates: 1900 -1925.
We need to cover Impressionism, Ruralism, Realism and Idealism.
Use the rest of the day to do the following:
Film yourself recreating each artwork in twenty seconds.
Aim to do the most faithful reconstruction that you can, rehearse and do multiple takes.
Film outside if you need to.”
Sounds straightforward enough. But what the heck is “Ruralism”? From seemingly simple directives arise many questions. Even the most straightforward and well-considered instructions reveal the limitations of language. The entire back gallery has been turned into a workroom for the production needs of these tasks.
Many of the one-a-day sculptures dip into history. One involved images of sculptures by Sol LeWitt (another master of instruction-based art) that needed to be reproduced with various colors of locally dug dirt turned into mud paint. The various modern movements that utilized lowbrow or castoff materials, decentralized the role of the author, courted chance in denial of predictable outcomes and emphasized performative collaboration all feel close at hand here. Dada, Fluxus and Arte Provera have the same bi-polar, playful yet politically frustrated spirit of Williams’ project.
“What if” is always a generative premise. The inova show is compelling because it keeps asking that question, and, as an audience, we get to see what transpires as a narrow set of orders and time constraints open into nearly endless possibilities. You can follow this project and see all of the daily instructions on a blog, http://instructions.samuel-williams.co.uk/#home. But it’s better to see the show in person.