At this stage, the artist himself considered his „finest sculpture“ to be his first solo exhibition Levitation (1970), which was presented to the viewer as a room-installation, following a performance from which the public was excluded. On view in the Richmond Art Center, was an exhibition room completely covered in white paper, in which a ton-and-a-half of earth had been distributed over a floor measuring 3.5 x 3.5m. The only information one could glean of the artist“s previous actions within this ambiance was contained in a note written by the artist himself: „I drew a circle in the middle of the dirt with my own blood. Its diameter was my height. According to the medieval notion, that creates a magic space. Then I lay on my back in the middle of the circle, holding four clear polyethylene tubes filled with blood, urine, milk, and water. They represented the elemental fluids that I was expelling from my body. I lay there for six hours with the tubes in my hand trying to levitate.“3 Terry Fox is convinced that his levitation experience, which began some 4 hours later, („I felt I was somewhere else. I’d gone. I’d left my body“) was also emotionally transferred to the viewers of the virtually empty room – although they had not seen the performance at all. In this way, both the setting and the relics of the performance produced a „sculpture, because the whole room was energized“.4 Shortly afterwards in fact, the exhibition was forced to close by the authorities. Although a breach of fire-regulations was the official reason cited, the artist suspected – probably with some justification – that the generated „space energy“ and his unusual interpretation of „sculpture“ finally prompted these draconian measures. In his performances Pushing into a Corner (1970) in the Reese Palley Gallery, San Francisco, Fox’s own body becomes a constitutive element of the artistic reception. Pressing himself, as tightly and firmly as possible, into a corner abutting two walls for a length of time, Fox finally loses balance. This corporeal experience granted him a concrete appreciation of the „tremendous physical pressure“ to which the corners of a room are subject, and of the „dialogues which can take place, psychically and physically“5. Consequently, the body and its immediate sensual experience also appear to be „sculptural“.
From Painting to Street Actions
Born in Seattle, Washington in 1943, Terry Fox moved to Rome at age 19 to study the roots of painting from the great masters of the Renaissance, before returning to San Francisco after one year. A few years later, after a 12-month stop-over in Amsterdam, the young artist arrived in Paris in May 1968 – a date rich in programmatic symbolism. Its air thick with revolutionary fervor, the French capital became the setting for his departure from painting and his embrace of process-oriented art, which initially manifested itself in street actions. „I started making sculptures by opening fire-hydrants. I liked the water running down the streets: turning and running, turning and running. Even the throwing of cobble stones, and the police: all that was sculpture to me. It began there and I felt that sculpture was something you did for an audience. For me a performance is a form of sculpture being done in front of an audience.“7 Living in a city under a state of emergency, the artist found himself – nolens volens, and in common with many other citizens – embroiled in the daily round of police raids, interrogations and incrimination which almost inevitably lent his art a political dimension. Instead of presenting materially-durable paintings to an exclusive circle of aficionados in the limited context of a museum or gallery, Fox recognized, in the dynamics of the strikes and the street unrest, his true „working environment“. „The entire objectivity, materiality and events in the world are discovered as energetic and sculptural potential“8, is how Eva Schmidt appositely formulated it. At the same time, the the intellectual climate of the student unrest became the catalyst for a new action-oriented definition of work („riots changed everything“9). The reform of social values prompted a breakdown of rigid regimentation and static norms, fueling great upheaval. At the Sorbonne, Terry Fox attended lectures by Sartre and Genet, read about and lived through the „Beat Generation“, and discovered Antonin Artaud: all proving to be crucial for his creative output.
The Magic of Material
„It is certain that (…), this physics of absolute gesture which is the idea itself and which transforms the mind“s conceptions into events perceptible through the labyrinths and fibrous interlacings of matter, gives us a new idea of what belongs by nature to the domain of forms and manifested matter.“10 Essentially, Artaud’s concept of the „Theatre of Cruelty“ is based on the idea of sensual experience. „Given the degenerative state in which we find ourselves, one must once again allow the metaphysical be absorbed by our sensibilities via the skin.“11 The objective of his theatre is „to transcend the conventional boundaries of art and word through the use of people’s nervous magnetism“, in order to „express and establish the notion of eternal conflict and tension“.12 Art should be direct, enduring and experiential as a second reality by virtue of its physical impact and presence. In the radical writings of Artaud, who „elevated the anarchical destruction“13 of fake worlds and bourgeois convention to a program, Terry Fox discovered the blueprint for the fundamental concepts underpinning his belief in the possibilities of art. Having renounced ist representation and reception for elite groups, art was now to become universally accessible and ecxperiential. Both in their physicality and universal language, the actions and movements within Body- and Performance-Art appeared suitable for generating among a large audience the existential energies, vibrations and stimulations Artaud was already aspiring to. The performances Pisces (1971) got – literally – under the viewer’s skin. Dressed in a white suit, Terry Fox was lying prostrate on the floor – his penis and tongue connected by a length of cord to two living fish on the floor a few meters away, removed from their water, fighting for their lives. The vibrations of the wriggling fish were transmitted along the cord to the artist, who experienced, first-hand so to speak, the fish’s desperate death throes. Preceding the performance was a rigorous spell of asceticism, lasting for several days, which, in addition to fasting, also included sleep-deprivation, thus maximizing the sensitization of his sensory perception. A fish bound with string is also featured in other performances. For example, in L’Unita (1972), which Terry Fox staged at Lucio Amelio’s in Naples, the fish – „a metaphor for sacrifice“14 – appeared along with a lump of dough which Fox had mixed together from yeast, milk and water, and which – when placed under a heat- lamp – started to rise like a living organism. However, the artist interrupted this natural process several times to knead the dough, thus setting into motion a permanent interplay of growth and collapse. Creative production and destruction, growth and decay, the individual and the general – in these works new boundaries are continually being explored. The boundaries of life and art – and their disintegration.
In fact even as a youngster Terry Fox had already encountered his own boundaries, which led him to direct confrontation with death. Hodgkins‘ Disease, which required him to spend regular spells in intensive-care wards and quarantine units over a period of 11 years, led to extreme, existential experiences. Isolated from the daily hustle and bustle and cut off from any kind of communications and information, Fox began to reach beyond physical determinants. The boredom generated by months of deprivation was transformed into a new mode of perception in which „suddenly every tear in the wallpaper becomes interesting“.15 In an environment in which external stimulation is reduced to a minimum, the experience and definition of time also change necessarily. It appears less a successive chain of events, and more a meditative continuum of the absolute present. Sickness and suffering as the cathartic turning point: It was no coincidence that the one-hour performance Isolation Unit (1970) was staged in the cellar of the Düsseldorf Art Academy together with Joseph Beuys.
„My concern fort he body has grown out of real experiences too. So many operations have been performed on me, I“ve been the object of action so many times that I became material. I was a piece of meat that people were acting upon.“16 The passive endurance of medical interventions transformed itself into a pro-active exploration into external processes. Allied with this was an intellectual appreciation of sensual experience. „I’m appealing to the mental space through the senses. It is tiring, it“s painful, you get confused, you get lost, you have to retrace your steps over and over again. And this is also a physical experience. That is a lot different than reading a text in a book.“17 The body becomes a tool, a medium with which to highlight elementary processes. Art and reality merge to form their own existence. The emphasis on the perceptible, even comprehensible reality of art culminated in the concept of the „public theater“, which Terry Fox initiated on his return to San Francisco from Paris. In contrast to the the production of a play in the theater, the artist’s „theatrical sculptures“ 18 were staged in the street. Once per month, Fox invited the public to attend the „public theater“ at different sites around the city, following the wide-spread distribution of self-designed posters. The street actions witnessed by audiences were as varied as the performers themselves. Sometimes it was Terry Fox, who instigated generally unprepared actions, either solo, or together with friends; at other times it was a blind woman from the street-corner, who played her accordion on the edge of an excavation; (or, in London it was a weekly market which was suddenly declared a Public Theater, attended by an audience of unsuspecting passers-by). The „Theater of Life“ becomes an „attempt at a new communication“19, which was based on the directness of the action. „I used the body to transmit non-verbal things, things that happen, and afterwards you couldn’t even explain what they meant.“20 In the performance Cellar (1970) it was the interfaces of art and life which challenged Terry Fox to stage provocative actions. Instead of showing art on the streets, the artist recruited a homeless man from the Bowery to camp-out in the cellar of New York’s Reese Palley Gallery. „During the performances Ronnie was lying on a piece of ground he always lies on. It was real.“21
In his art Fox focuses on everyday things and natural processes. Usually this involves the use of simple materials which he has found, and which in his performances, photographs (untitled, Amsterdam 1968; Virtual Volumes, San Francisco 1969), and videos develop their own language and sharpen our senses to the unanticipated potential of the familiar, to the magic of the material. For this reason, Terry Fox has also been described as a protagonist of American Arte Povera.22
The Labyrinth and the Power of the Image
In the video series entitled Children’s Tapes (1974), found objects, coincidence, and ephemera are used to generate great tension. In March 1974, Terry Fox recorded a total of 34 video sequences in his studio, each with a running-time from between 1 and 17 minutes. The videos were originally envisioned as an alternative, „home-made“ TV-program for his small son who had developed an enthusiasm for moving pictures, (which, taken together with the general lack of quality in children“s broadcasting, inspired his father to try his hand with a camera). Produced using the most basic of resources, the video series was to prove so popular not only with his five-year-old, but also among other children (and adults), that it was soon being shown in various area schools and museums. Initially, these silent b/w videos appeared to be anything other than spectacular, featuring, as they did, everyday objects such as spoons, forks, bowls, water, candles, matches, textiles, etc. However, Fox had actually set up physics experiments, which – presented partly in close-up – had an astonishing impact. For example, the close-ups of a tomato under a metallic bowl, which is kept in position by a matchstick tied to a length of string, takes on an almost dramatic quality – particularly when a housefly settles on the apparatus, causing the bowl to capsize and revealing this object to be an elaborate fly-trap. Similarly, the balancing-act of a spoon on a fork generates considerable tension when an ice-cube and a towel (as a wick) are added, as the melting ice gradually threatens to disrupt the precarious equilibrium of the configuration. Shown in real-time, these phenomena are based on the natural laws of physics and apply gravity, vacuum formation, capillary-attraction, and centrifugal force in both an entertaining and instructive manner. In addition to these, the elementary forces of fire, water, and air feature as ephemeral, yet key players – and in the fascinating alterations of their aggregate states and the effects that these changes trigger, the seductive banality of commercial television loses its appeal. Instead, Terry Fox“s videos stimulate our engagement in active experimentation, and inspire us to adopt a different perception of everyday things and processes; where even waiting for a candle flame to be extinguished by the slowly rising level of water becomes a tension-filled climax, and so reveals a very different measure of time than that found in the frenetic and lurid images of standard TV fare. Although half the material has since been lost, the Children’s Tapes series makes for humorous, sensitive, meditative, and simply beautiful viewing. Furthermore, these process-oriented videos produce a lasting impression of the concrete possibilities of cause, effect, and change. „I really get off on certain situations and objects that have their own substance and reality. But it“s not so much an interest in those particular objects that the tapes convey, it“s more an attitude…An attitude of contemplation… of wonderment, of relating to something real… without having to take sides.“23 Slowness, process, transformation – Terry Fox counteracts the corrupting power of TV images with a dynamic antidote.
In contrast to the spell-binding effect of television, the Labyrinth of Chartres possesses a very different, positive visual magic for the artist. Over a period of six years, Fox focused his energies on the floor mosaic of the cathedral, manifesting his impressions in a variety of forms and techniques – it became the image of (his) life. During the preparations for his 1972 exhibition at Ileana Sonnabend“s in Paris, he first set eyes on the extraordinary labyrinth of white and blue stones, measuring 13 meters in diameter, „…and it just knocked me down to the floor. It has happened to me with other things too, but with this…it made such a correspondence with what I felt about my life up till then…“24 A correspondence between one“s own existence and aesthetic experience had already formed the leitmotif of his previous performance and video art: During the course of his work on the labyrinth in Chartres, the spectrum of materials he used now enlarged to include objects, drawings, environments and sounds. Through his partly scientific-analytical, partly artistic-creative research into the labyrinth’s background and purpose, Terry Fox sought to unveil the secret of the mosaic“s powerful impact. Analytically charted by the artist, the 552 steps, 11 concentric circles, and 34 turns become integral elements of a visual entity which incorporated far more than the sum of its parts-. „Because it“s amazing. It“s not a sculpture, it“s not a decoration, it“s really and truly a metaphor…But for what?“25 Having cut out the shape of the labyrinth from a piece of cardboard and uncoiling it like a spring , Fox exploited the impression of three-dimensionality to study each individual twist and turn. He cast the shape of the labyrinth in plaster with the hope of gaining new insights by using his tactile senses. He then had the 552 steps carved in stone and laid in the earth over an underground water channel. In fact during his exhaustive research, he discovered that an underground river ran beneath the cathedral at a depth of 37 meters and that the top of the cathedral was also exactly 37 meters above the mosaic floor. With his stool object A Metaphor (1976) Terry Fox gave visual expression to the labyrinth“s extraordinary setting: A cardboard model of the labyrinth is suspended by a length of string exactly above the horizontal axis of 2 stools, joined feet-to-feet, „so the labyrinth is in between these two incredible forces, moving water and the atmospheric forces“26. The act of walking through the labyrinth generates a rhythmic, spiral-shaped movement in the space, a „to and from movement in which one thinks that one has almost arrived only to be led back along a zigzag path“27. From start to finish, the path does not proceed in a linear fashion, but is cyclic, coiling in twist and turns – altering the experience and perception of space and time. It is no coincidence that Terry Fox is convinced that the floor mosaic in Chartres „must have been designed to be used as part of an initiation. …This kind of initiation doesn“t seem Christian to me; pagan, rather“28. The obvious relationship between the labyrinth“s to-and-fro motion and rhythm has inspired the artist to produce various works using pendulums. In addition to the dynamic element of pendulums, it was also their acoustic qualities which increasingly captured Terry Fox“s imagination. Against the background of his obsessive dissection of the visual language of the labyrinth, his revelation of the Chartres mystery was achieved using not only visual, but also musical devices. Consequently, many sound works such as 552 Steps through 11 Pairs of Strings (Performance, San Francisco, 1976) and The Labyrinth Scored for the Purrs of 11 Cats (Audio Tape, San Francisco, 1977) were inspired by the intricate mosaic. A variety of resources were deployed in transposing the visual language into sound, including taut piano wires, or purring cats, but all returned to the specific geometry of the labyrinth, to the 552 steps, 11 circles and 34 turns. The Documenta work Action for a Tower Room (Kassel, 1972) was already placed in the context of the synaesthetic translation of visual experience. For 6 hours daily over a period of 3 days, Terry Fox played the monotonous-sounding tambura, thus filling the tower with uninterrupted circular sound.
Picture Puzzles, Sculptures and Transformative Space
„The actual labyrinth is also kind of an instrument. Because it’s on the floor, and when you walk it, you make this very precise pattern in the air, and it works like a magnet. Like you could charge yourself by walking this thing“29. An instrument emits sound, renders each state experiential, and evokes emotion – „creating electricity“30, as Terry Fox put it. The energy in the mosaic of Chartres, which fascinated the artist, now becomes the subject matter of his art. The concentration, compression, and transformation of the sensual experience in the most diverse materials and modalities, The equally contemplative and stimulating impact of the mystifying labyrinth becomes the catalyst, a barometer of his own output. What mysteries lie behind this indefinable, incomprehensible phenomenon?
Since the 80s, works have emerged which systematically explore the relationship between the written word and the image. The series Catch Phrases (1984) is dedicated to the interdependence between the discursive and its sensual manifestation. Based on the 26 letters of the alphabet, the 26 objects are structured in three layers. Serving as the foundation of the drawing is a collection of propagandist expressions written in pencil on paper which Terry Fox had culled from the American Armed Forces Network Europe radio station, and American newspapers. These two-word expressions (e.g. „death squad“) use euphemisms to deliberately dilute the impact of their terrible meanings. Euphemisms constitute an important instrument in the context of war propaganda – as evidenced in the last Gulf War (e.g. „friendly fire“). Deployed as a tactic to appease or pacify, they control emotions and motivation in a latent fashion. Such manipulation of perception only becomes apparent in the first level of Catch Phrases through careful reading of the expressions, which are written in thin pencil. This becomes more conspicuous in the second level, which is applied on the text grid in black felt-tip. The artist had collected symbols and graffiti over a period of 2 years in Italy. As variations of hammer-and-sickle motifs or modifications of the Cross and Nazi swastika, these „communications finds“ are common, subconsciously recognizable signals, which are also full of political connotations. The third layer comprises a reproduction of the graffiti made of a welded metal bar – an aesthetisization, through which their readability in the real sense is lost. The underlying layer of drawings assume rather the character of an object, and in their three-dimensionality are characterized clearly by their facticity and – literally – their tangible reality. Thus, the Catch Phrases form layers of text and image, such as politics and art. In the act of being viewed, the sketches gradually evolve not only into sculpture, but also highlight the varying impact of discursive, logical, and aesthetic sensual perception. Whereas the text only gradually manifests itself, the images are possessed of an incomparably profound intensity – which in the work of Terry Fox is critically scrutinized in terms of its significance for instrumentalizaton. The Catch Phrases are transformed into mysterious hieroglyphic symbols, dark omens, whose very spatial presence underlines the fascinating impact of language in its various guises. In this way language becomes sculpture. Even in his early objects, such as Bird of Prey (1981), Fox is focusing on the true reality of the symbolic – in a humorous and subtle manner. His Bird of Prey consists of a hammer and sickle and two one-dollar-bills. In other works Fox likes to play on words: the echo of „a bottle air“ turns into „Baudelaire“ (A Cloud Ladder, Berlin 2001), and palindromes inspire a different perception („Time“ changes into „Emit“).
Probably the most „universal language“31 is sound. In common with the word- games, notes and sounds also render our perception of our environment more sensitive. Although since 1971 he has been continually analyzing the acoustic properties of everyday things in his sound performances and sound installations, Fox does not conceive of himself as a musician, but rather as an „amplifier“ of the forces inherent in the objects. By setting the objects in relation to each other, notes and sounds are created which technically are subject to no further processing. „And it’s making the sound of what it’s attached to. That’s the most important part. I mean, to be able to vibrate a wall, a huge wall, and have the wall make a sound – that’s wonderful to me. That’s sculpture. Or a car, attach it to a car and get the car to sound.“32 A piano wire, a ladder, a board, drops of water, glass – nothing is acoustically insignificant. The sounds generated by Fox in this way, give sensual expression to that which remains invisible in common and familiar objects. In the process, the overtone-rich sounds of the materials can easily start a whole room vibrating. The vibrations are also physically perceptible, and are indicative of hidden energy stored within everyday objects. The room becomes a resonating-box, an orchestra, an actual instrument which is played upon by the objects within it: spatial sound as a sculptural, constitutive element which engenders a different experience of time, not just during the sound performance itself, which can last hours or even days. Terry Fox has given harmony to the simultaneity of life and death in the object Envelope (1984/91): time as a continuum and as a cycle of growth and decay. The red cradle is weighed down by an iron ring which hinders he easy rocking motion of the cradle. Mounted in this way, the „vessel“ resembles more a coffin than a child’s bed. Another in this series of works, Ovum Anguinum (1990), also reflects the Condition Humaine. The oval piece of wood is only held in position by a ladder leaning against a wall. Spanning across its center is a wooden beam bearing the inscription „odorless, tasteless, colorless, formless, silent“ which suggests a zone of both lifelessness and eternity. Whether the ladder leads from the „snakes‘ egg“, like Jacob’s Ladder, up to Heaven, or whether it facilitates our progression into a world of tranquility – as with all Terry Fox’s works – both directions remain programmatically open.
The exhibition Ataraxia (1998) also offered an opportunity for introspection. Among other things on view, were the two Vortex-objects (1991/92) made of metal. Lying on the ground was a reproduction of a huge thorax, along whose ribs ran a continual band of text dealing with various physical perceptive faculties. On the wall was a kind of schematized head with its seven orifices (eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth), standing in permanent interaction with the exterior world. Next to it was the Listening Fox, a sculptural self-portrait, which the artist himself integrated into the multilayered, cross-references of Ataraxia.
„Body without head…“ forms the entrance of the exhibition Blood Line (1996). Terry Fox draws his „bloodline“ as a text installation onto several thousand letter cards, which are mounted on the wall, on the ground, and under glass covers. The many rows of fragmented words and short sentences in the room seem to propagate themselves in an uninterrupted staccato – continually beginning new stories. Here the individual combines with the general, and one is tempted to identify key biographical moments in the continual flow of the blood-red letters. However, the „origin“ or „bloodline“ of Terry Fox becomes blurred in the sequence of incoherent linguistic particles which rigorously blend physical and psychological perceptions. Consequently, the installation is essentially text-based, and yet of a visual impact which exceeds the purely discursive. „The dimension of Blood Line is basically a mental space… to allow the viewer to cross into the experience of the text.“33 The red letters of the alphabet become the lifeline which perpetuates itself in the exhibition room. Intense silence; space as sculpture. In the works of Terry Fox, text, time, sound, objects, symbol, and space are interwoven to such an extent that real space and mental space combine to create a new space. In the interaction of cognitive and sensual experience, forces are set into motion which render perceptible what is beyond comprehension. By virtue of his psychic-physical constitution, the viewer becomes the code-breaker of the world. What is a sculpture? The answer must have something to do with both the unremitting fleetingness and solidity of being. And ultimately, the mystery remains ever central.
(Translation: John Rayner, Köln 2003, re-proofed by Ron Meyers, Los Angeles 2014)
1 Terry Fox in: I Wanted My Voice To Influence Its Appearance. Interview with Willoughby Sharp, 1971, in: Terry Fox, Ocular Language, ed. Eva Schmidt, Gesellschaft für Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen, 2000, pp. 8-41, here: p. 24.
2 Ibid., p. 20.
3 Ibid., p. 14.
4 Ibid., p. 16.
5 Ibid., p. 26.
6 Terry Fox in conversation with the author on 22.02.03.
7 Terry Fox, in: From Floor To Ceiling And From Wall To Wall. Interview with Lothar Schröder. 1999, in: Ocular Language, p. 198.
8 Eva Schmidt, in: Ocular Language, p.iv.
9 Terry Fox in conversation with the author on 22.02.03.
10 Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and ist Double, New York 1958, p. 62.
11 Ibid., p. 106.
12 Ibid., p. 98.
14 Terry Fox, in: Exploring Boundaries. Interview with René van Peer, 1993, in: Ocular Language, p. 166.
15 Terry Fox in conversation with the author on 22.02.03.
16 Terry Fox in: I Wanted My Voice To Influence Its Appearance. Interview with Willoughby Sharp, 1971, in: Terry Fox, Ocular Language, p. 10.
17 Terry Fox, in: From Floor To Ceiling And From Wall To Wall. Interview with Lothar Schröder. 1999, in: Ocular Language, p. 202.
18 Terry Fox in: I Wanted My Voice To Influence Its Appearance. Interview with Willoughby Sharp, 1971, in: Terry Fox, Ocular Language, p. 34.
19 Terry Fox, in: It Is An Attempt At A New Communication. Interview with Robin White, 1971, in: Ocular Language, p. 80.
20 Terry Fox, in: From Floor To Ceiling And From Wall To Wall. Interview with Lothar Schröder. 1999, in: Ocular Language, p. 208.
21 Terry Fox in: I Wanted My Voice To Influence Its Appearance. Interview with Willoughby Sharp, 1971, in: Terry Fox, Ocular Language, p. 38.
22 Cf. Bernd Schulz, in Terry Fox, Works With Sound, ed. Bernd Schulz, Exhibition Cat., Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, Heidelberg 1999, p.7.
23 Terry Fox, in: Children“s Videotapes. Interview with Willoughby Sharp and Liza Bear, in: Ocular Language, p. 64.
24 Terry Fox, in: Exploring Boundaries. Interview with René van Peer, 1993, in: Ocular Language, p. 168.
26 Ibid., p. 170.
27 Terry Fox in conversation with the author on 08.02.03.
28 Terry Fox, in: Exploring Boundaries. Interview with René van Peer, 1993, in: Ocular Language, p. 170ff.
29 Terry Fox, in: It Is An Attempt At A New Communication. Interview with Robin White, 1971, in: Ocular Language, p. 98.
31 Terry Fox, in: Exploring Boundaries. Interview with René van Peer, 1993, in: Ocular Language, p. 176.
33 Terry Fox, in: From Floor To Ceiling And From Wall To Wall. Interview with Lothar Schröder. 1999, in: Ocular Language, p. 200ff.