Degree Critical,Fall 2020

Friday 11/20/2020

Ei Arakawa, BYOF-Bring Your Own Flowers, 2007, performance. Courtesy of Contemporary Art Quarterly.

Fallback Friday: BYOF-Bring Your Own Flowers

byChristine Licata (Class of 2008)

Thirteen years ago, alumna Christine Licata (Class of 2008) reviewed BYOF-Bring Your Own Flowers, Japanese artist Ei Arakawa’s interpretative performance of Amy Sillman’s artistic process. The act was fast-paced, collaborative and improvisational, incorporating a multitude of contexts: the viewer, the buyer, the artist, the educator, and even the objects in various forms. This improvisational frenzy mimed a now bygone era, punctuated by Trumpism and the Covid-19 pandemic, and Sillman’s own process seemed to foreshadow this impending liminality.

As we are tasked with reimagining what collaboration and process can look like virtually or socially-distanced, the language around this very question of process comes forth in a book of Sillman’s own words: Faux Pas. Selected Writings and Drawings. The artist was recently in virtual conversation with department chair David Levi Strauss about Faux Pas where she describes this process of being in-between things. In figuring something out while doing it, dissatisfaction, embarrassment, and doubt are crucial. As we approach the end of 2020, this idea couldn’t be more relevant. We volley between the material and the dream, what we can and must do, what we hope and we dread is possible. As things go awry, they change, too; Sillman calls this metabolizing. Metabolization offers a way through by being with the material unknown as we grieve, mortified by our own species.

As our bodies are limited or prohibited in sharing physical space, language has a way of transporting, so may this reconsideration of BYOF-Bring Your Own Flowers become some kind of a vehicle.

—Lune Ames, Managing Editor

BYOF-Bring Your Own Flowers, Japanese artist Ei Arakawa’s latest elaborate performance incorporating high-speed construction and deconstruction, was as unpredictable, complex and provocative as the subject it was built around: art and artist. Arakawa created an interpretative, live-action experience of New York painter Amy Sillman’s conceptual process and work. Incorporating the flowers audience members were asked to bring with them, building materials (such as wood, drills, etc.), multimedia and music, he reconstructed the look, feel and process of Sillman’s abstract, psychologically-charged paintings. Along with the physical materials, the performance included the underlying framework of two Japanese traditions-the 600-year-old Ikebana art of flower arranging and the nearly 60-year-old Gutai movement of performance oriented art-actions.

With the help of 12 collaborators or “participants,” as he refers to them, Arakawa remodeled the Japan Society lobby’s quiet symmetry into a dynamic Sillmanesque composition of long, brightly-colored sheer curtains hung from the ceiling. Dividing the area was an oversized, Styrofoam panel used both as a canvas and screen to project the surrounding viewers back at themselves. Tables, covered with the audience’s flowers, were scattered around the perimeter, lights were dimmed and electronic keyboard music, composed by Sergei Tcherepnin, played in the background.

Ei Arakawa, BYOF-Bring Your Own Flowers, performance, 2007. Courtesy of Contemporary Art Quarterly.

In a visually shocking and stunning move, Arakawa and his collaborators began to use the flowers themselves as both paint and brush. With bold gestures and jabbing marks, the pigments in the petals and pollen were crushed out directly onto the Styrofoam panel and hanging curtains, some of which were taken down by members of his group during the flower “painting,” sewn together and rehung, changing their opacity and colors. These actions brought to mind principles in Gutai, that in the decay or destruction of a material or object its inherent, authentic beauty is released. In fact, there was a painful, raw aesthetic in watching the flowers be drawn across the Styrofoam and cloth, such as the roses with their vivid strokes of indignant resistance.

For those in the audience familiar with Sillman’s work, the experience felt like having entered one of her canvases. Arakawa had literally brought her work to life. Being surrounded by the weightless insistence of translucent and solid curtains captured her dynamic compositions and forms. The vibrant, free-associative calligraphic flower gestures embodied the language of her strokes and dense narratives. As if to underscore the expository nature of the moment, passages of Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience were read out loud by Daniel Lepkoff.

Ei Arakawa, BYOF-Bring Your Own Flowers, performance, 2007. Courtesy of Contemporary Art Quarterly.

Two of Sillman’s paintings were then carried into the center of the performance area and immediately a scaffold-like structure was built around them with narrow, plywood beams. Installed solidly in place, the work was put on view for the audience. During the rapid construction, in an opening-night gesture, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer was sold to the audience while a darkly humorous, fictional PowerPoint presentation, written by Patrick Price, titled “12 Steps Towards Non-Alcoholic Paintings” was projected onto the Styrofoam support. Arakawa alternated between reading from the lecture on the destructive and productive effects of alcohol on the arts and auctioning cereal boxes wrapped with photocopies of details from Sillman’s work. The price of the boxes, starting at $20, went up as the Arakawa did tricks, such as picking some off the floor with his teeth or dancing over others.

Ei Arakawa, BYOF-Bring Your Own Flowers, performance, 2007. Courtesy of Contemporary Art Quarterly.

No sooner was the entire structure completed around Sillman’s paintings then it began to be methodically torn down by Arakawa and his collaborators—the lobby cleared away of all evidence of the performance. During its dismantling, two members of Arakawa’s group, Patrick Palermo and Patricia Treib, reenacted an April 2006 interview between Sillman and The Brooklyn Rail publisher Phong Bui. The background music turned to a high drone as the actor-Palermo-Bui asked each philosophical, rhetoric-laden question.

All of this felt familiar too. The performance left the internal world of the artist and constructed the external world of polemic influences via artistic inspiration, theory, the art market, critics and media. In the late ‘50s, Robert Rauschenberg was quoted as stating, “painting relates to both art and life. Neither can be made, I try to act between the two.” Arakawa’s compelling and irreverent performance, BYOF-Bring Your Own Flowers, choreographs the artist’s actions within that transient gap.

BYOF-Bring Your Own Flowers took place at the Japan Society on November 2, 2007.