Last Tuesday night artist, Claude Wampler, did what she does best- she messed with her audience. During a lecture in grounds primarily directed at UVA art students about her work, Wampler played an IMP worthy trick as she called on attendees who had seen her work to come to the front and describe the pieces. “Rather than talk about my work, I prefer other people to do it,” she explained at the beginning of her talk. Unbeknownst to the crowd of about 60 students, teachers and guests, the people who went up to talk were plants who had been previously prepared by the artist. I know because I was one of them.
Wampler, who spurns the term “performance art” for her work, enjoys toying with the ways in which people view art. “I like to disrupt the usual pattens of visual consumption,” she said during her brief introduction. “Artwork is an excuse for the interaction to happen.” Her work is a convergence of performance and visual art that allows the viewer to experience her pieces in a unique whole-istic way. In essence she turned her talk into an experiential artwork by having actors discuss installations they had never seen as if they had been present, often embellishing their descriptions with details like who they were with and what they did afterwards.
The audience seemed completely oblivious to the performances as I can attest from a first hand viewpoint. Seated on a stool next to Wampler, in a rectangular white walled studio space in Ruffin Hall, I described an installation which I never saw called Painting, the movie which wowed spectators at the Postmasters Gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood in 2000. I explained Wampler’s playful manipulation of the gallery going crowd who tend to treat viewing art as a check-list item- walking through several exhibits in a day taking only passing glances at most of what they see. In Painting, the movie, she cleverly uses motion sensors to trigger LCD boxes that encase macabre (read temptation of the gross) sculptures to become opaque as the viewer approaches thus hiding the object displayed much to the frustration of the crowd. The sculptures are influenced by Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, a take on Shakespeare’s MacBeth. Conversely, on the back wall is what looks like a modern painting which is reality a clouded LCD glass. As one approaches, the glass clears to reveal what appears to be a film of an elaborately dressed woman who moves in and out of the light similar to a moment in Kurosawa’s film. The “film” is actually Wampler, live, in the next room, dressed as the main female character from Throne of Blood standing on a moving platform that runs on a track to facilitate accuracy. She was at the installation every day and every hour that the gallery was open dressed in that costume, waiting for people to trigger that screen. Crazy, right?
What fun to frustrate the viewing public by hiding the art from site then to observe as they try to beat the fogging of the encasements!
To add believability to my story, I explained that I had been in New York for the opening of another artist’s show and that we were gallery hopping to see what else was out there. I also rambled about how amused I was with the other people who came to see the show and their reactions and attempts to see the art. Another plant who I recognized was Wampler’s husband, Director of UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center, John Campbell, who waxed poetic about a fictitious visit to a strip club after experiencing one of Wampler’s exhibits and how it related to her art much to her chagrin.
As a plant it was enlivened by the rapt attention of the audience and being privy to the joke being played on them. I was even toyed with myself when post lecture I wondered if the art we plants described had indeed been produced or was it part of the ruse.
Wampler says they were all real but that some of the students guessed that the viewers were frauds and also began to question the actuality of the described work. “I like to create a layered experience,” she said.
In reality I have yet to see a full scale Wampler installation but now I really want to see one.
Claude Wampler is a recent transplant to Charlottesville and has been a Guest Artist at UVA this yea