London-based artist William Hunt (b. 1977) is known for physically demanding performances. Within a sculptural framework, he often combines acrobatic actions with the execution of his musical compositions, played on various instruments. His recent solo show, “BRA-VO, OH BRA – VO!,” offered insight into the method and folly of his intermedia art.
Much like Allan Kaprow’s Happenings in the 1950s and ’60s, Hunt’s endeavors are intricate mixed-medium displays. On the opening evening of this exhibition, a piano in the front room was suspended by straps next to a wall. Ropes attached to the piano keys disappeared into a hole in the same wall that led to a chamber, hidden from view. Nearby hung a 3-by-5 grid of wooden panels, each containing a different photograph of clapping hands. The panels were connected to one another by thin straps, and the top panel of each column was connected to ropes passing along the ceiling into another hole.
A black curtain separated the front room from a back room, where one entered complete darkness. On the left-hand wall was a small window with a frame around it, through which we saw the artist upside-down engaged in various movements. His inverted position suggested that somehow we were looking into a camera obscura. Eventually we realize that the setup is not a camera obscura at all, but rather a straightforward view into the mysterious chamber. We are in fact witnessing the artist harnessed to the ceiling upside down as he pulls the strings attached to the piano keys to play his melancholy tune, which intentionally allows for rests and pauses when he becomes exhausted. After some time, the artist pulled on another set of ropes, those connected to the photo panels with the clapping hands. Unexpectedly, the flaps in the front room lifted and fell on top of each other, generating an applauselike sound and signaling the end of the piece with a humorous touch. Following a pause, the performance resumed, but as the evening went on Hunt required longer intervals to recuperate from the intense effort.
What remained after the opening night were the sculptural elements and documents that the artist used as tools in his performance, testifying to the ephemeral event that took place: the suspended piano, the chamber where Hunt performed with the remnants of the harness and ropes, a video of the performance and the photos of the hands clapping, all part of an integrated installation.
Contextualizing the exhibition, a documentary video in a small office displayed an interview with the artist. The conversation is at first professional and somewhat superficial, but it soon becomes clear that the interviewer, whom we assume to be a journalist, is actually Hunt’s wife. She is trying to make sense of the artist’s need for extreme physical situations that can often be quite dangerous. Once he submerged himself in a car full of water—with only a tube for breathing—and sang one of his compositions. Suddenly she breaks down, taking the interview on an unscripted turn that parallels Hunt’s own performances, where chance always plays an important role.
Hunt’s work impresses not only because of its physicality but more importantly because of its ability to offer an experience that excites and challenges us intellectually and emotionally. He questions art’s form and limits, while pushing his own boundaries, filling his viewers with wonder in the process.