In 1975, Vito Acconci installed his now classic piece Voice of America at Portland Center for Contemporary Arts. The piece was a love letter by way of a music lesson, according to the artist, an attempt at getting under the skin of the nation, and to speak to the inner spirit of the nation. “One kind of American music drifts into another: America presented in a music lesson, a geography lesson: from Ozark fiddle to California harmonica to New Orleans piano,” Acconci says. “My voice is the voice of a mythical Mr. America talking to Mrs. America: we’re giving voice to an American dream… There is a voice calling out from the wilderness, jabs of voice…here’s the response from the children of America.”
Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled 2018 (this is america) (2018), via Gladstone
This sense of reaching out, of seeking connection and understanding in the heart of the American identity sits at the core of a show reprising Acconci’s piece, alongside responses by Paul Chan, Sharon Hayes, Barbara Kruger, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, each of whose practices engage in various formal and conceptual dialogue with the installation. Throughout, each artist’s pieces explore and expand on this sense of dialogue, from the starkly lyrical works of Barbara Kruger, to an immense curtain by Sharon Hayes, depicting the storied landscape of the American West. Elsewhere, Rikrit Tiravanija reprises his recent project printing t-shirts and distributing them to gallery-goers, using the shirt’s surface to distribute and transmit his messages both inside and outside the gallery. Here, however, Tiravanija’s shirts are presented in a pile, accumulated without any user or wearer to animate their message. A similar idea is pursued through one of Paul Chan’s signature fan and nylon assemblages. Flailing in the artificial breeze, the work’s reference to an absent body gives the piece a compelling, even disturbing counterpoint to Acconci’s direct address. Whereas the latter speaks directly to a listener, whether a gallery-goer or America more generally, Chan’s piece presents a figure with no one home to hear the message.
This sense of a bodily absence, of the presence of form but the absence of a deeper subject, is a particularly relevant theme in post-Trump America, an era in which the belief and advocacy for an American identity is not only the subject of fierce debate, but equally in a state of gradual change and dissolution in the face of rapidly expanding communications networks, global information flows and global shifts in immigration patterns caused by war and thinning resources. The conservative backlash following the last election was at least in part carried by fear of change, of shifting politics of identity and history, compounded by a fear of the outside. Yet this same backlash also carries an abandonment of so many of the principles of open discourse and democracy that defined the country’s symbolic appeal. While Acconci’s work came at a time of spiritual and existential confusion for the nation, its reprisal today comes at a time where the original tenets its message was built on have gradually dissolved in symbolic meaning. For the artists responding to this piece, Acconci’s message seems to ring hollow in empty bodies and fractured shells, a message addressed to ears that might no longer be able to hear.
The show is on view through July 27th.
— D. Creahan
Voice of America [Gladstone]