If I were to pack a bug-out bag today, my survival kit would most likely include my Paper Monuments. As distant as the observations on art and culture would become in a post-apocalyptic scenario, I would still savor the revelatory wit of essays like J.D. Daniels’s “Clocking Out”; Keith Gessen’s “Russia”; or Dushko Petrovich’s “The Painting of Triumph”. I so thoroughly enjoy these reads that I can even picture myself revisiting a good long meditation on The Hills over a freeze-dried soup in an Alaskan bunker.
The new Paper Monument release, Raphael Rubinstein’s The Miraculous, would probably not make the bag. This is not to say that this work is not significant; just that Rubinstein focuses on a kind of artmaking which would instantly become relic of art world solipsism.
Through a series of page-long vignettes, marked only by numbers 1-50, Rubinstein offers an overview of artworks in which the artist acts as a passive siphon for the world; you could probably sum up the overall sensibility in Mladen Stilinović’s 1978 The Artist at Work, a photograph of an artist lying in bed. Basically, the book details a series of examples in which artists make, simply from unmaking.
Artists’ identities remain anonymous in the descriptions (though generously provided in an index at the end of the book). Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, for example, simply reads like this: “#16: In 1974, a Yugoslavian artist declares that for six hours she will stand in a gallery in Naples, Italy, and accept passively whatever the public wishes to do to her.” Similarly, Yoko Ono is described as “a Japanese woman” who allowed an audience to cut her clothing off. Another artist once played violin while wearing ice skates in two blocks of ice, until the blocks melted (it was Laurie Anderson). Transcending time, jumping from sixties to the nineties in one page, the series suggests that art is not so linear as history suggests; without monikers like “identity art”, “conceptualism”, and “feminism”, Rubinstein powerfully demonstrates that these works share something more fundamental. Even the artist index is counter-intuitively alphabetized by the last name of each artist, rather than the numbered order of the essays.
So reviewers can expect to spend a bunch of time checking for fake entries; based on descriptions of artist-aliases like the fake collector team “The Collection of Yoon Ja & Paul Devautour”, it seems likely that Rubinstein would slip one over on us. A fact check on a few of the most unlikely-sounding names from the index reveal that artist Percival Bartlebooth– a “rich man” who travels the world making a series of watercolors, which are cut into jigsaw puzzles, only to dismantle the puzzles and bleach the paper white again– is a fictitious character from Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. True, but obscure, is the time the collective HAHA presented a then-illegal birth control pill in the 1992 group show “The Big Nothing” at the New York City French foreign consulate.
As a whole, the series reveals themes, like pointed pointlessness: in vignette #44, a Polish artist paints thousands of white numerals onto white canvas. Artists invite self-brutalization, such as in #16: artist stands in a Naples gallery and allows visitors to inflict whatever they choose upon her, which abruptly ends when an onlooker saves her from getting shot in the head. Artists make minor environmental alterations, as in #09, in which an artist collects each piece of garbage from a fifty square foot area in three New York City parks, paints each scrap pink, and replaces it as was.
Sometimes, the anonymity simply reflects what I consider stupidity. In #42, for instance, Narcoturismo gives a case of an artist who walks through a city, under the influence of a different drug, for each day of one week: alcohol, hash, speed, heroin, cocaine, Valium, ecstasy. Without the name “Francis Alÿs” attached to the description, I could not care less about the concept. Some context of society’s view of drugs at the time might have been useful, or the fact that this occurred in Copenhagen, though I doubt this would add more weight to this action.
Thus, the anonymous format imbues each of artist’s actions with a bit of a magic, as though the descriptions of actions alone are enough to inspire fascination. And without hierarchy, all works are made to sound equally impactful, which they are not. In practice, Mierle Ukeles’s Touch Sanitation– in which the artist shakes the hands of 8,500 New York City sanitation workers– doesn’t exactly stand up to, say, I Like America and America Likes Me, in which Joseph Beuys flew to America solely to sit in a room with a wild coyote for three days. Beuys’s urgency and risk-taking is sorely missing from Ukeles’s self-emboldened pioneerism, evidenced in the Brooklyn Museum’s description:
“I’m not here to watch you, to study you, to analyze you, to judge you. I’m here to be with you: all the shifts, all the seasons, to walk out the whole City with you.” I face each worker, shake hands, and say: “Thank you for keeping NYC alive.”
“I’m not here to judge you.” This is an artist dipping a toe in the lower classes for the camera, rather than immersing herself in the everyday.
Compare Ukeles’s sensibility to that of contemporary artist Jenny Drumgoole’s Happy Trash Day parties, a series of recent performances which seem to have taken an offshoot path from the kind of everyday art actions catalogued in The Miraculous. This summer, the Philadelphia-based artist has been holding parties for her local sanitation workers, which led to her deep involvement with the sanitation workers’ struggle over union contracts. The project was certainly more mutually beneficial, and made a further reach in the community (at least, the local press) than Touch Sanitation. This doesn’t necessarily make Happy Trash Day a superior artwork, but it does force us to identify the values we expect from art.
The sense of purpose, or lack thereof, in the works Rubinstein catalogues can be identified in the example which lends the book’s title: #49, the Invention of the Miraculous. An artist (Bas Jan Ader) disappeared in 1975, in an attempt to sail a boat across the Atlantic with limited provisions. What was he looking for?
This gets to the crux of the book, which pointedly forgoes any critical reflection. What’s the point of all this? This blatant omission keeps in line with the nature of the art itself– the postmodern belief that art offers no answers, but simply asks questions– so I suppose that’s a question for another book. The Miraculous doesn’t intend to critique, only to delve into a particular method of interacting with the world. As the world changes, and artists must integrate more with their communities, the role of artist-as-passive-receiver may no longer fit. But ultimately, The Miraculous is a comprehensive time capsule, and a better overview of the past sixty years than you get from any semester seminar. If not material for a bug-out bag, then the book should at least be required reading in art schools.