The exhibition “Elemental Gestures” at the Kunstmuseum Bern charted the development of Terry Fox’s oeuvre over the course of his career in the United States and Europe, bringing together an extensive selection of his videos, sculptures, drawings, and installations, as well as documentation of his dramatic performative interventions. Fox (1943–2008) was born in Seattle and moved to Rome in the early 1960s to study at the Accademia di Belle Arti. He spent time in Amsterdam mid-decade and in Paris shortly thereafter. His decision to abandon a painting practice and begin producing action-oriented works can be viewed in light of the protests he witnessed in Paris at the end of the decade and his desire to engage more directly with his audience.
In the late 1960s and ’70s, Fox lived in San Francisco, where his peers included Chris Burden and Vito Acconci. A number of early pieces on view bore similarities to those artists’ better-known work from the same time. Tonguings is a twenty-one-minute black-and-white video from 1970 in which Fox places his mouth close to the camera, sticking his tongue out every which way—the result by turns comical, repulsive, and erotic. In 1970 he also performed Levitation, in which he lay on a bed of earth in an empty gallery holding tubes of the “elemental fluids” urine, milk, blood, and water; when, by his own account, he focused on rising up into the air, he achieved a state of levitation that lasted more than two hours. Visitors later allowed into the gallery saw the impression of his body in the earth, evidence and refutation at once. Although Fox’s use of bodily materials was not unusual within his milieu, it was informed by personal experience: the long periods he spent hospitalized in his teens and twenties, undergoing radiation treatment and other operations related to Hodgkin’s disease.
After the early period of his career, Fox went on to produce several, interweaving bodies of work in various mediums. For many years, he made pieces inspired by the labyrinth paved into the floor of Chartres Cathedral. The exhibition included a particularly delightful example of such a work: The Labyrinth Scored for the Purrs of 11 Different Cats (1977), a seventy-minute sound installation composed so that each of the labyrinth’s concentric rings is represented by a cat’s purr; at the center, all eleven cats are heard purring in chorus. As the deep, reassuring rumble suggests, Fox viewed the labyrinth as a means of self-discovery.
In pieces incorporating text, codes, and runic symbols, Fox disrupted the customary flow of language. The work on paper Footnotes (1992), for instance, stretches out a short unpunctuated text over several dozen lines—its characters appearing like notes on a musical staff—so that the viewer must piece together the narrative, which starts with an intimate description of sensations within a body and then takes off on a meandering tangent.
Fox’s relationship with his audience could sometimes be antagonistic. Ricochet (1987)—his contribution to Documenta 8—was a performance in a garage that included car horns communicating a riddle in Morse code. Unsurprisingly, many audience members were turned off by the noise. Yet Fox could also command a devoted following. In 1990, he enacted Locus Harmonium at Furk’art, an exhibition on the Furka Pass in the Swiss Alps. For more than an hour, a group of thirty or so people trailed behind him as he hiked up the narrow path with a dead fish tied to his back and carried out a ritualistic performance in which he returned the creature to flowing water and, ultimately, buried it in ice. Photographs and videos showing the performance and its dedicated audience conveyed Fox’s role as a cult figure, but, given the strength of the exhibition, one couldn’t help but wish he were more than that.