Who's in a Name?
Los Angeles, USA: Self-published, 2013
143 pp., 26 x 17.5 x 1.5 cm., hardcover
Edition of 500
Surely the most over-used and misapplied art world aphorism is Andy Warhol's "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes". The statement, which was first quoted in Time Magazine in October of 1967, presumably speaks to shrinking attention spans and disposable celebrity culture more so than guaranteeing a moment in the spotlight, however brief, to every single citizen. Since Facebook, Youtube, Tumblr and Twitter, the impulse is to interpret the original utterance as prophetic, but also somewhat quaint. A 2007 Banksy sculpture features a variation of the line stenciled onto the screen of a painted pink television: "In the future everyone will be anonymous for fifteen minutes". An essay on the changing makeup of the music industry by the artist Momus opens with the line "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen people". Warhol himself had a go at revising his own statement in 1979, when he said "I’m bored with that line. I never use it anymore. My new line is, “In fifteen minutes everybody will be famous.”"
In 2011, John Baldessari took the axiom as the starting point for a public art project for the Sydney Festival, called Your Name in Lights. An LED sign reminiscent of a Broadway or Hollywood marquee was installed on the facade of The Australian Museum, and participants could register to have their name lit up on the sign and simultaneously live-streamed over the web. Baldessari set the time at 15 seconds, suggesting an acceleration of Warhol's prediction. "Warhol is so yesterday”, says the artist, who turned 82 earlier this summer, “be a celebrity for 15 seconds! Be a celebrity, a living legend and an idol. Experience the thrill of seeing your name in lights!".
By appealing to the audience's narcissism (as well as the desire to see text actualized, as anything other than a font on a computer screen), the work was a huge success, attracting the participation of over 100,000 people. It's a festival-ready piece, the type of crowd-pleaser I've seen pitched countless times as a Selection Committee Member for Toronto's Nuit Blanche.
Who's in A Name?, by Los Angeles artist Susan Silton, documents an intervention that improves upon the original. She put out a call to other artists in advance of the Baldessari launch, asking them each to register a name. But not their own – they were asked to sign-up to have the marquee display the name of an artist who had committed suicide. Some of the names were well known in the art world, such as the Canadian-born, California-based Jack Goldstein who killed himself in 2003, or Ray Johnson, whose 1995 suicide is considered by many to be his final work, an elaborate mysterious performance.1
Others are more obscure, found on a Wikipedia page of suicide victims that left a profound impression on Silton2. "I was greatly moved by it for many reasons," she told Artforum, earlier this year, "primarily because of its sheer existence and secondly because there were so many artists on the list that I didn’t recognize. When I stumbled on Baldessari’s project, it was a kind of perfect storm; the Wikipedia archive immediately sprang to mind the subjects his project was addressing—the illusion, promise, and acceleration of fame. Baldessari's platform seemed to me like the ideal venue to give life to the Wikipedia list."
Questions of fame typically surround any artist suicide. Was the indifference of the world towards their work a motivating factor? Some of the artists featured in Silton’s project were later recognized, after their deaths. Francesca Woodman, for example, took her life at the age of 22, in 1981. Depressed by an unsuccessful attempt to receive funding from the National Endowment for the Arts (and from a failed romantic relationship) she leapt out of her loft window. Recently her work has been featured in solo exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Kunsthal in Rotterdam, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, whereas she had very few exhibitions in her lifetime. Numerous books of her photographs have been published posthumously, and a highly rated feature length film about her life was released in 2010.3
Other examples are more complicated. Jack Goldstein hanged himself from a tree in the yard of his Los Angeles home in 2003 just as his work was beginning to be reevaluated. Once successful, the artist fell on hard times in the early nineties and exiled himself to the Californian desert. Friends suggest that he wasn’t entirely comfortable with his comeback, and that old resentments die hard.
Controversial suicides seem to be pointedly left out of Silton’s project. Mark Lombardi, whose work mapped intricate ties between governments and criminal activity attracted the attention of the FBI4 and whose studio was mysteriously ransacked, was found dead in 2000.5 In the summer of 2007 artist Jeremy Blake and his filmmaker girlfriend Theresa Duncan both committed suicide; Duncan of an overdose and Blake a week later was seen walking into the ocean, where he drowned. Vanity Fair6 published a story which raised doubts about their deaths, and noted allegations of harassments from Scientologists. Blake had done an album cover for Beck, who he had agreed to star in a film by Duncan, something which the singer later denied outright, despite having given an interview to an Italian journalist months prior where he listed it as part of his upcoming activities. Blake had warned friends that if something happened to them, they should suspect foul play.
In a brief back and forth with the artist, I ask if Mike Kelley would’ve been included if the piece had happened a year later. She replies “While [Kelley] is super important with regard to this project's timing, as well as some of the chatter that surrounded his suicide with regard to motivation, etc., no, I wouldn't have chosen him precisely because he is so iconic at this point in time.” She also points out that Jack Goldstein and Ray Johnson are fairly generic sounding names, unlike Rothko or Van Gogh.
"I began to think about the ways in which we identified with this sequence of letters as being ourselves, even if we have the same name as countless other people," she told Sharon Mizota of KCET.org. "A name becomes the stand-in for the body." As the title of the book suggests, Who’s In A Name, poses questions about authorship, “name recognition”, and the artist’s name as stand in or guarantor. The volume starts to become as much about text and the way that works and artists are written about, tying back to Baldessari’s ostensible interest in fame as subject matter.
The book addresses the cultural stigma surrounding suicide, a topic rarely tackled head-on without some feeling of exploitation, sensationalism or well-intentioned condescension. Silton began to think differently about suicide after seeing footage of people jumping from the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11. "I realized in that moment that that was a choice. It was a forced choice, but it was still a choice. It's a way of taking control of your death, and I find that absolutely stunning and very proactive." The insight reminds me of a David Cronenberg interview I read in Rolling Stone in 1992, where the filmmaker addresses the idea of suicide:
"It´s probably the only way we can give our death a meaning. Because otherwise it´s completely arbitrary. It comes because of small bodily misfunctions or some accident - a safe falls on your head. You´re Krazy Kat and a safe falls on your head and it doesn´t mean anything! It means fuck-all. And so you say, I don´t like this, I don´t like the fact that death, which is a pretty important moment in my life, I don´t like this to have no meaning. The only way you can do anything about that is to control the moment and the means of your death. And that means suicide, basically."7
The artists who participated in Who’s In A Name were asked to forward Silton the announcements they received regarding the timing of the name they registered. She then sat at her computer, at all hours of the day and night for the weeks that Baldessari’s piece was active, collecting screen grabs as they appeared in the online live-stream. These images are collected for the book, which also includes 200-word biographies of the participants, both the artists who helped her register names (a group which includes Yvonne Rainer, who herself had attempted suicide in 19718) and the artists memorialized in the work.
Brief bios are a staple of art book publishing, but when they are foregrounded, as they are here (they take up the bulk of the book), the absurdity of summarizing a life (or even a life’s work) comes into sharp focus. A commissioned essay from Liz Kotz, which rounds out the volume, notes that “Most often, when we encounter them in books, catalogs, and publicity materials, the authors and sources for short biographical identifications are unacknowledged. They may have been written by the subjects themselves or culled and compiled from all sorts of found and existing information…How can a text represent one person, while appearing in the voice of another? Whose narrative is this? Who controls this story?” These questions of authorship and representation becomes less academic and gain poignancy when placed in the context of a collection of artists who have taken their own lives.
While the work existed first as a public intervention and as a large scale painting (of the Goldstein grab), Who’s in a Name? functions best here, as a bookwork, which is handsomely bound and produced in an edition of 500. It’s available at the MOCA store, here, for $40.00.
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Artists_who_committed_suicide. A similar page on musicians appears here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Musicians_who_committed_suicide
5. After an event at the AGO in 2004 I spoke with family members of Lombardi’s who had serious doubts about the official “suicide” story. They noted that the artist feared he was being followed and had suggested more than once that if he is discovered dead, it was not of his own doing.
6. Vanity Fair, January 2008. http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2008/01/suicides200801
7. Rolling Stone, February 1992. http://www.davidcronenberg.de/lunchstone.html
(I remember reading it at the time and thinking that the following issue was bound to be filled with angry letters accusing the filmmaker of advocating that readers take their own lives. Not one complaint appeared).
8. The artist writes in an email that this is entirely incidental and it was their friendship that resulted in the invitation to Rainer to participate, not something from her personal history.