Turning the Subject into the Artist

Oliver Herring is guided by social interaction—in communally made photosculptures, in giddy performances where volunteers take on bizarre tasks, and in videos featuring strangers who come by his Brooklyn studio.

Herring pieces together thousands of fragments of digital photos to create his cubistic sculptural portraits, such as Alex, 2009, which will be included in "Slash: Paper Under the Knife," opening next month at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.


On the opening day of his 2007 exhibition at Max Protetch gallery in New York, Oliver Herring made a secret resolution to start saying yes to any request made to him. His resolve was soon put to the test by two recent art-school graduates from Philadelphia. Chris Golas and Joe DiGiuseppe had heard Herring, appearing in an episode of PBS’s “Art: 21” series, talk about collaborating with strangers for his short films that find quirky beauty in mundane activities. They asked Herring if he would come to Philadelphia, in the belief that his methods might help them make inroads into a Puerto Rican community in the area where they had found cheap studio space. He agreed to visit, and his initial trip to Philadelphia snowballed in ways he could not have anticipated. “The work that interests me the most is when I don’t know if it’s even art,” says Herring, 45. “To say yes to everything was a way to meet that head-on, to become more flexible in my thinking, and learn that there are no wasted situations. It changed my life and my work.”

Herring, who has often opened up his Brooklyn studio to anyone interested in making a video, brought his improvisational approach to north Philadelphia. Showing up on a street corner with his camera, he lured some of the neighborhood kids into performing. He suggested they try the trust exercise of falling and being caught by their friends. Throughout the day the children’s playacting developed into all manner of exuberant jumping, leaping, and levitating. “It really became about flying, which was poignant because in this poor neighborhood, there are so few opportunities for physical escape,” says the artist. Herring edited the footage into the short video Howard Street (airborne) and later returned to shoot kids “swimming” in streams formed by open fire hydrants for the companion piece, Waterloo Street(both 2007).

Months later, at the first showing of these videos, in the raw warehouse space where Golas and DiGiuseppe had their studios, Herring implemented another collaborative concept with which he’s been experimenting for several years, called “TASK.” For these events he designates a stage—usually a simple expanse of brown paper on the floor, loaded up with materials like cardboard, tape, markers, string, face paint, aluminum foil, and chairs—and offers participants a basket of tasks to choose from. Written on slips of paper, they could range from “stand on one leg” to “start a revolution.” These “collaborators” pull a slip from the basket and interpret their tasks however they wish, and then they write out a new task to replenish the pool. In Philadelphia the event drew together 350 people from the neighborhood and art community in a giddy, chaotic, ephemeral experience. Herring returned to the city to do another “TASK” party, drawing 600 people to the building, which is now known as FLUXspace and used regularly for art and community events. “It’s a completely changed environment, and I do believe ‘TASK’ had a lot to do with this,” says Herring, who has organized a third “TASK” party there this month.

Social interaction has permeated all of Herring’s work over the last decade, from the videos and the “TASK” events to the sculptural portraits he pieces together from thousands of photos. This collective approach might seem incongruous for an artist who first made his name in the art world through the solitary activity of knitting—throughout the ’90s he fashioned ethereal sculptures from Mylar “yarn.” Despite the change in media and the radical shift in attitude, Herring believes that, in retrospect, his work has been remarkably linear—something that struck him when he first walked around his survey “Me Us Them” at the Tang Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York, earlier this year. “Everything was about gravity, about using your bodily limitations but aspiring towards the transcendent experience of flight,” says Herring, who is tall and gangly and speaks with a trace of a German accent left over from his youth in Heidelberg. “The knitting was a great way to think and move through time and show at the end of the day a certain amount of material that had been transformed. But doing it for so many years was difficult because I was contained in my chair with my mind racing. I really wanted to fly away. As soon as I picked up a video camera, that’s exactly what expressed itself.”

Herring arrived at art by default. He was always good at drawing, but it wasn’t a main interest as a child. He remembers going as a teenager with his parents to the opening of an installation by Joseph Beuys—a controversial figure in Germany at the time. Herring hated the show, which was filled with little pieces of dried sausage, felt, and fat, until Beuys himself arrived and talked about the work in very accessible language. “That was a powerful experience because I looked at something and then I looked at it again and it was totally different,” says Herring. Still, his early passion was playing tennis, and he planned to study medicine. Then in 1985 he took English classes at the language school at Oxford University, and he learned he could get out of his two-year military-service requirement by enrolling as a full-time foreign student. He chose to study art because he thought he could handle that without much language. “I don’t know what was more surreal—that I got into Oxford without speaking English or that I was suddenly making art for 24 hours a day,” says Herring, who focused on representational expressionistic painting.

Despite the demands of the program, Herring maintained diverse interests. He frequented performances by the drag queen Ethyl Eichelberger, whom Herring first saw perform in an adaptation of King Lear in which Eichelberger played all the parts simultaneously. Herring liked it so much he returned the next day, and saw how Eichelberger changed his interpretation on the spot in response to the mood of a different audience. “It was so inspiring to see the sacrifice of something structural for something ephemeral,” says Herring. “That really stayed with me.”

Herring graduated in 1988 and moved to the United States with his American boyfriend, the painter Peter Krashes. While studying at Hunter College in New York, where he earned an M.F.A. in 1991, he was devastated to hear that Eichelberger, who had AIDS, had committed suicide. Herring’s response was to make a larger-than-life flower out of transparent tape that he suspended in the air and lit up like a lantern. “I felt it was the first piece I’d ever made that needed to exist,” says Herring. He stopped painting altogether after Eichelberger’s death.

Feeling a connection with the material of the flower, he began fiddling with packaging tape, rolling it into itself to make nonsticky “yarn.” He asked his mother to show him a basic stitch and began knitting coats and clothing. These transparent objects suggested protection, like a luminous armor, but were also hollow. “The knitting was very diaristic and therapeutic at first and freed up my mind to meditate,” says Herring, who took away the literalness of his garments by knitting larger structures—like blankets or mattresses—around the clothes that seemed to hover over the floor. He had his first solo show at the New Museum in 1993 and began showing with Max Protetch in 1994. This led to broader exposure, with a 1996 “Projects” show at the Museum of Modern Art. Throughout the ’90s his work received broad critical acclaim, particularly as it was emblematic of the AIDS crisis.

What began as a liberating experience took a physical toll on Herring. After close to a decade of such repetitive activity, a pinched nerve in his arm from a slipped disk led him to put aside knitting and begin experimenting with a new video camera. For an early piece titled Exit (2000) Herring used a stop-motion technique that gives the film the feel of a Buster Keaton vignette. The work shows the artist sleeping in his chair, which then flies around the room, and culminates in a whimsical and surreal dance number with multiple Herrings and other characters, who emerge out of camouflage from a jungle painting. “I realized some of what I had been fantasizing about,” says Herring.

Herring continued to create filmic flights of fancy, using friends to perform actions as simple as moving boxes or spitting water. When shown in reverse, the spitting shots look as though people are sucking the life force back into their bodies. In 2002 he decided to abandon any script or preconceived idea. He advertised in his Brooklyn neighborhood that his studio was open to people who wanted to come make a video with him. While most of these experiments were total failures, one of them proved especially successful. Two mismatched people arrived one day—a young man and an older woman. Not sure what to do with them, Herring put on bombastic music and had them do a mock ballet. In Dance 1(2002) their superserious performance of clichéd movements in unison—raised arms, extended legs—gives way to absurdity and affection in a touching duet.

“I learned that if you put people right from the get-go on equal footing, all the social roles they play fall away. You can’t rely on those when you’re dancing and know nothing about dancing,” says Herring, who listens to a lot of opera, particularly Maria Callas records, and likes sharing music with people who come to his studio. Herring has continued to use dance as a strategy to tap into something essential about who people are. For his piece Nathan (2007), part of the exhibition “50,000 Beds,” shown at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut in 2007, the young man who arrived at the hotel room to shoot a video became so committed to his over-the-top ballet he sweated through his suit and eventually broke the bed. “If you give someone an opportunity, and it’s the right person who wants to use that outlet, you don’t know where it’s going to go,” says Herring.

The “TASK” performances, which he first tested in 2002 at a Masonic temple in London with just ten participants, are another way of giving people that type of creative outlet. When Kristen Hileman, a curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., came to do a studio visit, “TASK” was what grabbed her most. She invited Herring to try it large-scale at the museum in 2006. Herring spent a year planning the event, preselecting the participants from an open application process, which yielded a diverse group of 60, including a priest, a self-proclaimed vagabond, and a White House intern. Performing outdoors on a brown-paper stage that he set up around the fountain in the Hirshhorn’s round plaza, the participants constructed a catapult and then toilet-papered the building, elected a prom queen and king, built a kayak and paddled across the fountain, extended the stage out across the street toward the mall to the consternation of the police, and, at the end, all gathered in a circle around the fountain to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

“As an audience member, it was like a play or complicated movie where you picked out your favorite characters—the heroes and the troublemakers,” says Hileman. “Oliver succeeded in giving 60 people an experience that will probably never be repeated in their lives and showing that one can connect with complete strangers around making a visual experience. How does that compare to an artist who puts an object in a gallery that thousands may see? It’s interesting in terms of quantity and quality, but I think these meaningful things for small groups of people are equally important.”

While Herring has increasingly focused his energy on “TASK,” which he is expanding through workshops with teachers, he has not forsaken the object. In 2004, interested in returning to three-dimensional work and the slower pace of knitting, he made his first photosculptural piece. His subject for Patrick (2004) was someone he didn’t know well and whom he talked into participating. After carving a full-scale figure in foam of Patrick sitting pensively like Rodin’s Thinker, Herring photographed every inch of his subject’s body over an extended time period and glued these images to the figure to create a kind of cubist yet hyperreal skin. “The experience of spending months with the same person is incredibly illuminating,” says Herring, who has sought out particular types of people to get to know this way, including a marine who was deployed to Iraq in the middle of the process. Herring likes the way all the variations in the commercially printed photographs and the changes in the individual’s body are incorporated into the piece.

The artist has shown these photosculptures at Max Protetch, where they sell for up to $25,000; his videos start at $6,500, with multichannel installations reaching $35,000. Next month Herring will make the photosculptures the centerpiece of an exhibition that will tour several venues in the South, starting with the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. After selecting a volunteer at each location to be the subject of one of these pieces, Herring will create a studio space in the galleries showing earlier examples of his work, where he will carve a figure and photograph the participant and then leave the 1,000 or so images, plus the figure and lots of other raw art materials, for visitors to play with. By the end of the Frist show, there will be a communally made photosculpture that will travel to the next venue, where Herring will get a new community started on one. “They can do anything they want, chop into it, I don’t care,” says Herring, who plans to have half a dozen figures by the end of the tour. “I hope that someone walks into the next museum, sees the Nashville piece and ups the ante by saying, ‘I can do better than that.’”

Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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