When is a cliché not a cliché? When you are forced to experience it, rather than rely on it to represent a set of meanings for you. When you are led to realize why it was powerful enough to become a cliché to begin with. Because, as Anya Gallaccio knows, there is no one-to-one correlation between experience and prefigured notion, between cliché and the thing itself. Her bed of roses laid out in a gallery withers, giving off an obscenely thick perfume. Her block of ice in a boiler room is not as ephemeral as planned, taking months instead of weeks to melt. At ArtPace, her bramble of barbed wire—the national wire of Texas—beckons like a siren, charging the air with the anxiety of a thousand little implied snags. A cliché is static, fixed, but Gallaccio’s metaphors are fleeting. They beg undivided attention, imply their own destruction, refuse to be commodified. By agreeing to be dismantled—to die—they bring the cliché to life.
In examining the relationship between artist and collector, Gallaccio decided the ante could be upped, the scale of the relationship between audience and artist tipped. With her work, it is the collector, or the gallery, who has to deal with the aftermath of creation and its attendant problems. Request Gallaccio, and you will receive the legendary excesses of the Artist in tangible form. Like some of her peers, she is the master of the extreme gesture—but she deploys it in the service of an exquisite sensibility—or rather, sensitivity.
Her rooms full of wilting flowers, poured with molten lead or painted with chocolate, are not photographed for exhibition or sale, because then an audience could see them without smelling them or touching them—in short, the audience could forego the engagement of all the senses needed to experience the work. Gallaccio’s work is truly process art—not about the creative process, but about the ephemeral processes of the thing itself. It shares an affinity for impermanence and mutability with artists like Eva Hesse, who broke Minimalism open to allow for memory, sexuality, and humanity as well as swaying, sagging, and dripping.
Gallaccio’s second Artpace work, a curtain of barbed wire spiked with tiny pink and green buds—jelly beans—has all the prickly sexuality of a Hesse. When Gallaccio, in the 1989 exhibit Freeze, poured molten lead on the floor of the gallery, people inevitably compared her to Richard Serra, of whose earlier work with lead she was unaware. They might have as easily compared the work to Lynda Benglis in the late sixties, pouring liquid rubber on the floor, allowing the material to take its own form.
As Gallaccio’s work developed, it took the subversive simplicity of the same decade’s Arte Povera movement, which took time as a fourth dimension of art one step further–using materials so humble as to be ephemeral.
An installation by Anya Gallaccio demands the sort of attention we give a person rather than an object. It will not always be with us. You can own a work, say a bundle of flowers pressed between glass, but it will be accompanied by a set of instructions. There are feminist values at play: the work asks that we nurture and replenish rather than own. The work asks for a commitment greater than money or idle gazing. It asks for relationship.
Gallaccio travels from site to site creating work which often references its setting. In many obvious ways, her works aim to please a foreign constituency. Beauty is a big part of the way they function, as it is a big part of the way strangers interact. By using materials appropriate to the site, the installations promise the creature comfort of familiarity. Still, they said there was a paradise way out west offers its graceful attributes in much the same way that Felix Gonzalez-Torres gave his viewers shimmering candy in place of his AIDS-stricken body: with total vulnerability. The work is unapologetic about its own philandering because it trades on it. It matters that the white stuff underneath our feet is stunning at the same time that it matters that it is salt—in itself a humble barb—11,000 pounds of it.
The gesture is both excessive and restrained. Gallaccio has not rubbed her salt in our wounds but has given us instead a desert of it—a dry turn, if you will. Its edges seem to vaporize into mist, dematerializing the edges of the gallery, the actual boundaries which contain Gallaccio’s practice. Though barbed wire often marks a perimeter, here it stakes out the center of the room like a pencil drawing that avoids the edges of the paper. One long chain loops back on itself, hanging like a curtain in one corner, swooping through space in a vinelike manner. A thin walkway around the room offers different vantage points from which to venture into the center–certain patches are accomodating to visitors, others have trip-wires slung treacherously low.
This work brings to mind Texas’ miles of fenced-in prairie, or the Texas/Mexico border (Gallaccio had ample opportunity to witness the ways of the border when she did a project in Tijuana). It is guarded space—not rationally guarded, as with a straight fence, but guarded in a tangled, reactive fashion. The border’s exact location, and even its rationale, come into question. After all, what is being guarded here, if not more fences? In the end, Gallaccio has laid herself on the line with her surroundings. they said there was a paradise way out west illustrates not so much the condition of Texas, or the condition of two foreign cultures, but that essential thing to which all others are related: the condition of our souls, strung up with barely navigable boundaries, thirsty above a sea of salt.
Despite ourselves, sometimes we look at a piece of art and say, “But would I want to live with it?” An installed environment forces us to ask a more involved question: “Would I want to live in it?” In the case of Gallaccio’s decaying flowers or melting ice, perhaps, the imaginary answer is yes—if only to witness the entire process of disintegration. But in the case of this installation, fraught with frigid beauty, seductive danger, and the deceptively cool parch of salt, the question for each of us becomes not “Would I want to live here?” but indeed, “Do I already?”
Shaila Dewan is a writer and art critic in Houston, TX.