Last year, back when talking to people in real life was a thing, Fernanda Gomes showed me round her solo exhibition in São Paulo, Brazil. In one corner, stacked on the floor, was a pile of coins, a typically minimalist gesture by the artist. “This work is a gift to the public,” she said, “who are free to replicate it at home.’’ Back in London, I took up her invitation and recreated the sculpture, using several Brazilian coins. Stacking the money, I’m pleased to say, used up a bit of quarantine time.
A lot of art involving everyday objects can, by definition, be copied, and some artists actively encourage us to remake their work. In 1919, unable to attend his sister’s wedding in the immediate aftermath of the first world war, Marcel Duchamp sent from Buenos Aires instructions for an artwork by way of a present. Suzanne Duchamp was to source a geometry textbook and suspend it by strings from her balcony overlooking Rue la Condamine in Paris. “The wind had to go through the book, choose its own problems, turn and tear the pages.”
As an art critic currently starved of art (notwithstanding online projects ), I was tempted to take Duchamp’s work and regift it to myself . But sadly I do not possess any geometry textbooks (no home-schooling in this household).
Instructional art took off in the 1960s with the advent of the Fluxus movement. Its time may have come again for the budding self-isolating artist. In 1964, Yoko Ono published Grapefruit, a book full of whimsical tasks that anyone might try. Originally limited to 500 copies, it was republished six years later with a foreword by John Lennon and gained cult status.
“Listen to a heartbeat,” read one request. “Make music only with overtones,” said another. “Imagine one thousand suns in the sky at the same time / Let them shine for one hour / Then, let them gradually melt into the sky. / Make one tunafish sandwich and eat.” Sandwich-based sculpture is a medium I endorse.
Grapefruit would go on to inspire the mother of all instructional art repositories: a website created in 2002 as part of curator Hans Ulrich Obrist’s long-running Do It project. Originally conceived in 1993 with artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, it allowed schools and artist-run spaces to stage museum-quality group shows, with each organisation making exhibits under instruction.
Now Do It (Home Version) takes the work straight to the people: Ulrike Grossath commands us to “lean, shove under, force in, tilt, pile up, make fit” our household furniture into a pile; Mona Hatoum lays out how to make a lamp from a colander; Shimabuku encourages us to make art that will be appreciated by our pets; Paul McCarthy suggests “use your penis as a paint brush”.
Obrist says: “It’s an outlet for experimentation, to bring art where it would not normally be. A few weeks ago, I suddenly heard about people in Italy revisiting Do It during the lockdown. The project changes as the world changes. Many of the original instructions incorporated activism – Eileen Myles produced a guide of how to run for president – or had a practical purpose. So now I’ve started asking artists to make new instructions for how we can help each other in this moment.” The curator says he will post these on Instagram over the next few weeks, for his 300,000 followers to undertake.
US choreographer Yvonne Rainer was another artist interested in radically rethinking authorship. In 1966, she relinquished control of Trio A which features a series of easy movements without music to be performed solo, including standing on one leg, walking and toe-tapping. Rainer allowed it to be taught by anyone who had danced the work, a high-brow precursor to TikTok memes. It was in homage to that work that last week Rainer released instructions for a new performance, called Passing and Jostling While Being Confined to a Small Apartment.
If Rainer’s intention was to stave off the claustrophobia of self-isolation, then Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure – a set of typed instructions originally produced in 1974 – only compounds it. Nauman encourages us to press the front of our body against a wall, as hard as possible, all the time imagining that, on the other side of the bricks, we ourselves are pushing the other way with the back of the body. This, he warns, may “become a very erotic exercise”. Well, imagining the walls closing in did nothing for my head (or libido).
Working my way through the various actions proposed within this rich history (with the exception of McCarthy’s paint-with-your-penis challenge) got me through a few quarantined hours and I appreciated the radical democracy of the whole endeavour.
Honestly though, I might be a fan of Brazilian artist Lygia Pape – but sitting opposite someone, each holding a single red ice cube (some carefully frozen tomato puree, wine being too precious these days), and seeing whose melted first, proved a poor substitute to art made by actual artists. I miss museums.