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JOHN O'BRIEN

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS
OF AN ARTIST TO BE


I was recently asked to speak at the Get a Life in the Arts event for high school students in the San Gabriel Valley and worried about what possible relevance my experience could have for teenagers.  I remembered that I finished high school in Naples, Italy at a time in which there was little contemporary art around (lots of antiquity, however) and in which I had little or no awareness about contemporary visual arts.



Dennis Oppen\heim.




Dennis Oppenheim, "Bus Home," 2002,
steel, perforated steel, acrylic, concrete,
paint, electric light, Ventura, CA, 26' X 100' X 50'.




Dennis Oppenheim, "
Engagement Rings," 2005,
steel and glass, installed at Harbour Green,
Coal Harbour, Vancouver BC, through Dec 2006.
One day, looking through the local paper over a cappuccino and croissant, I read that there was an art exhibit by a renowned American artist in town.  What interested me most about this announcement was where it was--across town.  That was the draw, since I enjoyed taking the bus or the funevia (trolley cars) and traveling to parts of Naples that I didn't know as well as the Mergellina area where I lived.

I managed to convince three friends to plan a day trip with me on this trek across the city, but by the time the date actually arrived they had all, for one reason or another, bailed on me.  Undaunted by this turn of events, I set off on the three bus rides which would take me to this "art place."  Traversing Naples is like going through several countries, each zone or quartiere of the city is different and distinctive from the others, each with its own lore and local attractions.  I enjoyed it immensely and stopped along the way to see the sights and browse the storefronts.

When I finally got to the "art place," it was even further away than what I had expected.  It was a house on the periphery of the city in an abandoned garden.  When I went in the open door, there was no one in sight, no signs, and I almost left.  Cautiously looking around, I heard the sound of spoken English, so I went towards that.

When I finally got to what I assumed was the exhibition, it was quite unsettling.  There was an intricately patterned carpet suspended in a low-lit room that effectively bisected it into an upper and lower area.  On the carpet in the upper area, there was a suspended television set at the far end of the room.  It was turned on its side, with the black and white image of a doll's head swinging back and forth into view. From somewhere in the room, the sound of a recorded voice repeated a litany made up of the same phrase over and over again.  At that moment I had no idea of what to think or even how to think about this experience.  I had just encountered an installation by the artist Dennis Oppenheim.

Over the next few weeks, I recounted to the amazement and delight of my buddies the story of the weird art thing at the edge of the world.  But that was pretty much the end of it.

A few years later, just after I had enrolled in the Istituto Statale D'Arte di Urbino, an art school in Urbino that specialized in the art forms related to book making (I would subsequently specialize in printmaking), I took a trip to visit my family in Germany.  By then I had decided to study the arts, but had not begun to make work yet.  I considered great art to be the stuff of antiquity, comics, and maybe M.C. Escher and Albrecht Dürer.  The rest was absolutely an unknown.  One day I was talking to my friend Knut, who mentioned an art fair up in Kassel called Documenta. He knew about a cheap campground where we could hang out and go see the art stuff.  So he and I, along with our respective girlfriends, hitchhiked part of the way and took a train part of the way.  The campgrounds were tough going.  Unlike Italy, Germany can be cold and wet that time of the year.  We had to camp out and scrounge our meals from the schnellimbiss (fast food carts disseminated throughout the city) as best we could.

Sometime that week, I found myself in the window at an end of one of the exhibition halls looking over at the Jennifer Bartlett panels.  It was a pretty interesting place, full of surprising images and objects.  My companions had taken off for awhile and I was just resting at that moment.  At my back I felt some tugging.  So I looked around to see an emaciated man making signs for me to move over so he could climb in the window.  Aside from being extremely gaunt and almost skeletal, he was dressed a little strangely, wearing a cloth hat and a fisherman's vest.  I thought that maybe he was a homeless person or maybe a bit kooky, so I got out of his way.  He climbed in, but then took me by the arm and started pulling me towards the center of the hallway.  I didn't really like what he was doing but he didn't seem dangerous so I went along with him.  He then hooked the arm of a woman and began to kind of shuffle back and forth with us as he dragged his foot along the floor behind him.  This was done as, all the while, he spoke German in a low, calming voice.  At one point, he stopped and let us go, then he went over to an empty black board in the corner that I hadn't noticed and began drawing diagrams while everyone around erupted into applause.

I wandered off not altogether clear as to what had just occurred.  When I found the others, we went back and Knut translated from the writing on the wall.  It appeared that I had participated in an event within the FreeTime University, an ongoing performance art work by the German artist, Joseph Beuys.


Arnaud Maggs, one view from "Joseph
Beuys, 100 Frontal Views", 1980.







Views of Beuys' Freiheit Universitat
"Social Sculpture" performance.






When I got to Urbino and started my studies, I located the small library in the school where there was a very good collection of recent art books and catalogs.  There was lots of writing about this Joseph Beuys guy, and something about Dennis Oppenheim too (at first I couldn't remember his name but the librarian helped me, and I recognized the kind of work I had encountered thereafter.)

I remember that some of the writing was very good, but that some or it was just plain incomprehensible.  I thought that maybe some day I'd try my hand at writing about contemporary visual arts, but that I'd aim to be more lucid, as well as to make complexity more inviting and less daunting.

Thus my friends put up with my first phase as an arts thinker.  I would offer long practice disquisitions to them about the art shows in Urbino, Pesaro and Bologna.  That went on for about six months.  They finally informed me to that I would need to get back to normal or they wouldn't go with me to see exhibitions any more.  So, I shut my mouth.  But I kept on writing.