Across the Art/Life Divide

Across the art life divide_front cover.jpg

HAMSTER Issue 4: An Aotearoa Review Anthology
The Physics Room


The separation of art from the everyday is an arbitrary but vital distinction that enables artists to frame or reimagine aspects of life. And yet, artists often intentionally erode this division to actively engage with life’s most fractious elements such as identity politics, social networks, and power dynamics. At least, this is one among many conclusions that could be derived from Across the Art/Life Divide: Performance, Subjectivity, and Social Practice in Contemporary Art, a recent publication by Wellington-based writer and academic Martin Patrick. 

By grouping an unusual array of art practices, ranging from performance art to zines and from stand-up comedy to artist-run initiatives, Patrick assembles an intriguing enquiry that considers art/life tensions through the intersections of performativity, social engagement, collaboration, and individual authorship. Of particular note is Patrick’s discussion of the ‘self’ that unpacks the autobiographical conventions apparent in the work of the American comedian Richard Pryor. Patrick reveals how the personal narratives in Pryor’s stand-up routines were a cutting satire of US racial politics while also holding a mirror to the comic’s own self-destructive tendencies. This is further teased out through a focus on other famous comedians including Dave Chappelle and Steve Martin and evolves into a consideration of persona creation and celebrity being an act of fiction and camouflage. Also explored in this vein is Wellington-based artist Bryce Galloway’s long running zine Incredibly Hot Sex with Hideous People. As a type of self-deprecating post-punk memoir, Galloway’s zine chronicles the mundanity of middle-class suburban adult life in contrast to the angsty ideals of the artist’s youth fuelled by the worship of rock celebrities.[1]

Tactics of social engagement and collective action, as a way to navigate or subvert life’s power imbalances, is another key tangent in Patrick’s multifaceted enquiry. Here a selection of Chicago-based artist-run initiatives is discussed at length including artist Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Project located on the South Side of Chicago. Patrick highlights Gates’ ability to perform numerous roles across the art/life spectrum including being an “artist, activist, businessman, manager, motivational speaker and/or minister”[2] to game the system in favour of low-socioeconomic African American communities. This conversation develops to consider artist-run initiatives that function as strategic curatorial entities such as SHOW gallery in Wellington (2004-2006). These artist curator models, according to Patrick, circumvent art world hierarchies by supporting artists that have been excluded from or overlooked by curators in mainstream public institutions and commercial galleries. 

While Patrick’s unravelling of art and life leads the reader down many forking paths, he consistently ties all threads back to the Fluxus artists of the 1960s and 1970s. He argues that the Fluxus legacy is very much present in contemporary practice due to its experimental live happenings, its diverse membership, collective ethos and incessant blurring of public/private boundaries. Another consistent strength of the book is it mixes internationally canonised figures, such as Robert Rauschenberg, David Hammons, and Thomas Hirschhorn, alongside those lesser known including a number from Aotearoa. This last point makes Patrick’s publication a unique contribution which broadens art world topologies as much as it does our understanding of the art/life divide. 

[1]Martin Patrick, Across the Art/Life Divide: Performance, Subjectivity, and Social Practice in Contemporary Art(Chicago: Intellect, The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 83–84.

[2]Patrick, 159.

Bruce E. Phillips