November 9, 2012

Basbaum’s sparse exhibit is touch-and-go

[img id="101093" align="left"/] The room is pitch black, save for eight bold white words visible on the screen: “Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?” Already, I can see that this is going to be no ordinary artist talk. A few minutes later, the projector switches to the next slide, showing a rather simple image: a rectangle with cut corners and a circle at its center. There are no words, no indication of its size, no context clues. That’s it: a simple diagram. This is his art.

Ricardo Basbaum came to the University this past Monday to speak about his exhibit at the Logan Center, which opened during the Logan Launch Festival in early October. As his exhibit reveals, Basbaum takes a unique and daring approach to art by significantly incorporating the audience into his work. For him, his pieces aren’t simply visual but experiential—they earn meaning through the ways in which they are shared with and affected by their audience.

Born in Sao Paolo in 1961, the Portuguese artist and writer moved to Rio to pursue a career in contemporary art. In the early ’90s, however, he gravitated toward this singular image, allowing the rectangular shape to form the foundation of his future artistic vision. Before long, Basbaum was inspired to give this image, which up until this point had only been conceptualized, a tangible, physical body: The shape manifested itself as a basin-like chunk of metal, painted white and outlined in blue, its most notable feature being a large, hollow spout at its center. This object sits in the center of his exhibition as the underlying element that weaves together all of his artistic output since its conceptualization.

Basbaum believed that this drawing had the potential to produce something, but faced an inherent problem: an awareness of its own apparent “uselessness.” He combated this supposition—derived no doubt from the object’s unusual shape and hulking size, which strip it of any true use—by restructuring the meaning of the object around the ways in which it is actually used by the audience rather than around any objective theoretical critiques of what it can and can’t do.

He called this project, which incorporated themes of participation and transformation, “New Bases for Personality (NBP)”. He focused his art on the interaction of the audience itself, being careful to leave the project open-ended. “I had to fight against the project a lot of the time so it’s not finished in itself,” said Basbaum. The point was to leave the viewer with the ability to create his or her own temporary vision of the object and for the object to grow with meaning in the wake of each viewer’s recorded usage.

He did not want the viewer to stand briefly before the object, observing it from a safe distance before moving on to the next gallery wall and leaving all thoughts of that object behind. Rather, he wanted the viewer and the object to engage in a unique and sustained symbiotic relationship, within which both parties benefit from acting upon and influencing the other. “It is not the result of getting in touch with one artwork,” he said. “You read a book, a newspaper, or see any artwork, but they don’t have the power to work by themselves. They need to connect and work together to produce an effect.”

To further breathe life into the materialized object, Basbaum frequently drew upon biological vocabulary to describe his work during the talk. He articulated this effect of the object as a “symbolic metabolism,” which “made an organic change in the body.” Once it had been planted in my mind, this image was hard to shake, and it occupied my thoughts well after I had left the physical space of the exhibit. It was as if Basbaum’s object had left its physical body and burrowed its way into my thoughts as a microorganism settles on its host.

Extending far beyond the traditional site of the gallery space, Basbaum took the process of integrating his work with the larger world around him a step further by sending his art objects abroad. Inviting willing audience members to take the object home with them for varying amounts of time—anywhere from two weeks to two months—Basbaum requested that they return it with recorded evidence of how they made use of the object.

From this point onwards, his project took on a life of its own, moving independently from Basbaum’s directive influence. He did not simply create a piece of artwork; he succeeded in creating a living, breathing art experience that found its body in the hundreds of bodies engaging with it and through it. From a video clip of a pair of boys using the object as a makeshift surfboard, to one featuring it as a baby bath (the hole in its middle making a nice storage spot for bath toys), to a photograph showing a man using it as a bed, the object—so plain in its former abstract life—bloomed into a rich physical creation with hundreds of different functions. As of this year, there are 30 of these objects travelling around the world.

“Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?” is a project whose emphasis is placed on interactive experience through a common, but vague, process: the act of appropriating an object for personal use and allowing it in turn to define and grow from its user. He appropriately defined the ideological framework of the object as a “contact-and-contamination strategy,” characterizing its later global passage as an epidemic: “The image is like a virus in your body that would, of course, not show in a blood test. But it’s there.”

Ricardo Basbaum's “Would you like to participate in an artistic experience?” on display at the Logan Center Gallery through November 25.