Performance at the inaugural exhibition of Kunsthalle arlberg1800, St. Christoph am Arlberg/AT, 2015
If one were to characterize Alfredo Barsuglia as a “trapper,” he would respond with a question: couldn’t his disconcerting performance at the opening of High Performance, the first exhibition held at Kunsthalle arlberg1800, also be taken as a sign of the pivotal illusory and seductive impact of art itself? For art and traps have a few things in common after all.
Barsuglia literally sets us (the visitors / art recipients) a trap: hanging on the wall is a framed black-and-white photograph of a diagonally arranged grid of dense branches that covers a hole in the ground (a pit trap?), while leaning against the wall is a nine-meter long thin trunk that extends all the way up to the ceiling, its tip shining with yellow, white, and purple lacquer; seated on a dark-brown wooden stand is another “artwork,” a young man, whose left arm is connected to the stand by a liana and who, seemingly bored, is eyeing the audience. Nothing indicates that the appearance is deceptive and that the presented artworks are “merely” props for an unannounced performance.
Fallbeispiel is a work that appropriates space, one in which aesthetic staging, dramaturgy, and choreography intertwine precisely: the young man in shirt and tie is both the artistic object (on a pedestal) as well as the performative figure, who – as if kept on a string – is limited in how he acts and speaks, and yet resembles a “living image.”
Although frozen so long in a motionless pose, only occasionally interrupted by a wink of the eye or a skeptical look at the audience, this male body is not fixed as a tableau and deprived of the ability to communicate through language, quite the contrary: everything about him is speaking, is sad, then angry. Borrowing from Peter Handke’s play first performed in Frankfurt in 1966, Insulting the Audience, the performer does not begin with a negative. Expressly affirmative, he, suddenly and unexpectedly, speaks directly to the public: “I’m a work of art. A meaningless work of art. There are lots like me. But only a few are aware of it.” The young man uses the attention gained for the moment to turn directly to the audience: “I’m watching you. I’m watching you! And it makes me sick, really sick. When I see you all standing around here, then it makes me want to puke. I’m the one who’s looking. And I see buttheads. Lots of buttheads. Buttheads and high-profile, full-of-themselves assholes!” The personified artwork straightens itself up and rants away from above, shouts, accuses, condemns, spits, snarls, lashes out, and no longer just with the tongue, but physically as well, smashing to pieces what it can get its hands on, before leaving, utterly exhausted, the exhibition room. What remains are fragments, the building blocks of what is now completely worthless and useless.
Barsuglia’s carefully constructed Fallbeispiel irritates, provokes, and entraps, misleading us into making hasty judgments. The audience is attacked, verbally and physically. But if the recipient can open up to and engage with the performance, go along with the ambiguous game it plays – where its philosophical truth reveals art to be a trap – then the work suddenly provides lots to think about. About art pretending to be something it is not, or, formulated along the lines of aesthetical theories, about art as a mirror of society setting normative standards as to what art should be and what not. Fallbeispiel calls into question what makes a work of art a work of art and what role the artist and the artistic institution play here, also as regards the value assigned to a work. “How can I be a mirror for you when you’re all blind? How can I be an echo for you when you’re all deaf? But you’re not dumb, that’s for sure: all you do is talk and talk, on and on, mindlessly, spouting contemptible crap. You’re all so contemptible!”