His first days after the assignment were attended by the same kind of anxiety that for him attends any exhibit, whether it be a tiny part in a group show, or a big solo show. The first task was to figure out his attitude toward the obstacle: whether meaning would be derived from simply spending the time with his wife and daughter, and whether that could be reconciled with his urge to make something or to be considerate of the viewer.
Charged simply with living a meaningful life, he says the irony became that I really did end up spending the last few days intensely and aggressively chewing on a problem. I certainly went all over the place the past few days, he said.
This involved reading, especially re-visiting books held dear, their pages marked by dog eared corners.
Through that process he settled on the idea of presenting a text that would impart meaning. The idea is not dissimilar to some of Ericssons past works, including a piece called Thanksgiving"a black granite slab, etched with the word-for-word transcription of a letter his mother had written him in 1993, describing a family thanksgiving dinner held in his absence, after he had moved to New York. Thanksgiving was exhibited at the Cleveland Sculpture Center in 2008.
I wanted it to fit with the other work I am doing, Ericsson said. The question of branding and having a recognizable identity is really important in our culture.
In choosing to represent his week of living a meaningful life via an object, hes able to both offer meaning, and satisfy his urge to give viewers something to look at. He raises a follow-up set of questions: Can an artist be satisfied with the meaning inherent in his life without making art? Or is the manufactured object the manifestation of that meaning?
THE ENDURANCE PERFORMANCE: DAY EIGHT
Countdown: 45 hours to show time! At 6:22 p.m. I arrive at SPACES for performance rehearsal, script in hand. The Collaborator and I have rewritten four drafts. Actually s/he writes. I critique. S/he rewrites. An adorable Welsh Corgi-Beagle-Jack Russell Terrier greets me at the door. His shiny, wet nose has sawdust stuck to it. Theres a baby in a stroller. Three studio assistants, one perched on a ladder, are painting a wall. Tangled ropes and bicycles and assistants whizzing past, oh my. I step on oozing paint tubes.
Arzu immediately introduces me to her filmmaker friend, ăigdem Slankard, who will be videotaping Love at first site on Friday night. Arzu has been doing student crits all day at Oberlin but is energetic and anxious to begin rehearsal. The cute dog follows us, tail wagging. His name is Alphonso. Arzu is his human.
What follows, though, I cannot tell you, except to say that Arzu danced while I read a script. She also directed. Her goal tonight was to coordinate her choreography with my words. We ran through the script ten times, trying different things. Arzu grappled with two prop malfunctions, too. One prop was easily fixed, although the other will require considerable work tomorrow. Arzu must go to Home Depot tomorrow and then work, work, work. This is all happening so fast that I just have to make a decision and go with it, she says, wiping her brow. Theres no time to second-guess. I nod my head and laugh in agreement. (Theres no time for editing, either.)
About 8:40 p.m., we take a break and hit Kan Zaman on W. 25th St. We share hummus and fries. Our conversation careens from matters of the heart to bongos. Two dudes lounging at a nearby table suck on a hookah. We hear gurgling water but dont smell anything. Can you tell I am rushed? (Sorry, no time for pictures.)
We return to SPACES for a few more run-throughs. We decide to end for the night. Untangling ropes, Arzu exclaims, Sometimes I dont want to be an artist anymore! I laugh. Sometimes I dont want to be a writer, either, I tell her.
We agree tomorrow at 6 p.m. for our final rehearsal.
The challenge to an artist "to live a meaningful life for the next seven days" - is weighty with underlying assumptions: It assumes that a meaningful life can be lived. It assumes that one set of choices may be more meaningful than another, and that anyone could know which set of choices that might be. It also assumes that such a meaningful life would be a departure from what the artist had been doing all along.
"When I saw staring back at me, this assignment to live a meaningful life, what initially strikes me is the absurdity of it," Ericsson says. "It just became such a broad and vague a notion, a completely conceptual notion. If you are asked to behave meaningfully, it's borderline angering. What does that mean, really? I'm a working artist, give me a task and I'll do it."
The Ericsson's challenge can't help but resonate in these galleries, with Spaces' recent shift from object-oriented work to the searching, conceptual presentations of the current season. It's something he addressed directly in musing about it. "The conceptual thing does make me uncomfortable. I have chosen to make a living by making art. It's all I've ever done. My father always told me don't let anyone tell you that you can't make a living as an artist. But how do you turn the conceptual into a commodity?"
He took inspiration from the Swiss-German artist Dieter Roth, Roth, who's best known for his "biodegradable" works made of food, but who also made artist books and was a master print maker. In the early seventies, Roth paid for a series of ads in the Swiss newspaper Luzerner Stadtanzeige. The ads were short aphorisms, little whispers of meaning all but lost amid the shouting clutter of commercial advertisements and editorial copy.
Rather than a little whisper, though, Ericsson chose to make it a shout""simple, Times New Roman lettering cut from vinyl, but measuring three feet tall and nearly 27 feet in length, dominating a wall of the main gallery.
"It will be a pretty impactful work that relates to feelings I had at the meeting," Ericsson said. "I was really struck by the power of large scale letters on the wall."
The phrase he chose: "The sea is a tear."
That resonated in a personal way because there is some ambiguity there. It's also about the value of an individual: the sea being a large group of people, a tear being an individual. The question of living a meaningful life sets you asking about who you are."
"Something I like is asserting the primacy of the individual," Ericsson continued. "People tend to think backward, not valuing the individual but the universal.
If you are an artist making some kind of public communication""if you haven't done the work to know who you really are as an individual, then what do you have to offer other people? Being true to oneself is the most important part of living a meaningful life."
THE SEA IS A TEAR
To live a meaningful life for seven days
As five artists and five writers gathered to hash out the direction of Detour, just one defining element was in place: that each of the artists would be thrown a curve.
Just 9 days before the exhibits opening the only thing certain was that each artist would be challenged with an obstacle to be determined by the other artists"an exercise similar to the 2003 film The Five Obstructions, in which filmmaker Lars von Trier challenged his mentor Jorgen Leth to re-make his experimental film The Perfect Human five times, each time working against a different obstruction.
The key factor for Ericsson seemed to be not any specific obstruction, but the idea of one, that a defining element about his work would be decided not only by someone else, as it might in any collaboration, but by committee discussion.
Ericsson is an artist who makes objects"not moments, or scenes, or ideas, even if those be inherent or implied in his work"but overtly beautiful objects. Having begun his career as a portrait painter, his art has evolved dramatically but never strayed from the age old concept of creating beautiful objects charged with cargoes of symbolism and inherent meaning, both in their content and their medium.
For example, in one series of drawings he screen-printed personally significant photographs using nicotine in place of ink: The smoke of hundreds of cigarettes imprinted the images dreamily onto paper with the sepia stain of addiction. A more recent series used a similar but more labor intensive process involving powdered graphite manually worked through the screens instead of cigarette smoke. Through all these works the artist maintained complete control of the idea, process, and the production of a physical result.
So ideas of control and reservations about giving it up dominated his side of the dialogue as he sat with other artists, negotiating the nature of his Detour. He expressed concerns about focus, about being considerate of the viewer. For him, form is a good thing. I love a simple framework, he said. Just keep telling me more things I cant do, and I will get more comfortable.
He talked of the work involved in building a career as an artist, the labor invested over the years as"approaching age 40"he has made his living that way, building for himself a brand so that his name itself carries with it a cargo of meaning. And yet he weighs the value and meaning of art against the value and meaning of life: Its almost a daily question for me, He says. I know that what I do does not matter. What interests me, in fact, is that it does not matter.
And from that moment comes Ericssons obstruction: Not to make something, not to work at the manufacture of art, but simply To live a meaningful life for the next seven days.
Im not sure if I have time to be meaningful this week, he joked. But Ill fit it in.