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Artist living in 'hamster' bubble in Philippa Hughes' apartment

May 10, 2011 - 07:00 AM
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(Courtesy Philippa Hughes)

Collector Philippa Hughes may have just acquired her most unusual artwork yet: This week, artist Agnes Bolt is living in her apartment in a bubble to explore the relationship between artists and collectors. But as the project gets started, there's one thing Hughes would like to put a stop to.

"People have compared it to a hamster cage, and I was offended," says Hughes. "It's a person! Who just happens to be inside this enclosure! I felt like I was being accused of taking advantage of her. She's the one who chose to be in this thing."

It does resemble a hamster cage, though, with its Slinky-like tubes snaking through Hughes' art-filled apartment. And the artist herself doesn't disagree. In a phone conversation with Hughes the other day, when I asked to speak to Bolt, I was put on speaker phone with the receiver held up to one of the holes in her plastic enclosure.

"I do feel like I am a hamster in a cage in some way," says Bolt. "My goal is not to be a spectacle or a performance, but something to react to."

Hughes' first reaction?

"It's been quite the intrusion," she says. "It will be interesting to see how it affects me through the week. I hope it doesn't drain me."

Hughes was approached for the project by Brittany Yam of Project 4 a few months ago, and she hadn't thought much about it since, until she was contacted by the artist last week to make arrangements for moving her plastic enclosure into Hughes' home.

"I was like, oh shit there's going to be someone living in my place," says Hughes. I didn't do a lot of preparation, and now that I've been at it for 24 hours, I don't know if I should have done more … we're sort of figuring it out as we go along."

Bolt said she intentionally kept contact to a minimum before she moved in to maximize the awkwardness of the situation – though she does say she "Googled the hell" out of Hughes.

"It's been interesting to examine on what level someone engages with art – someone not necessarily an art major, someone activating a community," says Bolt.

There are strict rules to define their relationship, laid out in a document that has been notarized: Hughes must greet Bolt each morning with a kiss on the cheek. They can talk, but only about art. Any communication not about art must be written on a sheet of paper, and blown into or out of the enclosure with one's breath. Hughes must provide Bolt with two nutritious meals containing neither beef nor pork at exactly 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day. Hughes has only been allowed into the bubble to sign her contract with Bolt (but her cat, Louie, is permitted any time).

"I interpret [the kiss] as, it's a difficult situation we're in right now, so it's a nice way to start the day," says Hughes, who notes that she hasn't shared a living space with anyone in more than three years, and worried that she would grow short-tempered. "I relish being by myself. That's a characteristic of introverted people, they have to recharge by themselves."

Bolt is filming her experience via a camera inside a hat made to resemble Hughes that she wears each day ("I think it's alright," says Hughes of her image on the hat. "It's an abstract representation of me that works."), and she's encouraging Hughes to videotape her activities outside. Hughes will also be blogging about the experience on her Tumblr, Art is Fear. In one of her first posts, she talks of her wariness of the artist's intrusion into her life and space, and her anticipated coping method: Humor.

"I go back and forth between being jokey about it but I'm very anxious," says Hughes. "I get more jokey when I'm anxious. I can't take it too seriously, because then I'd really go crazy."

There's plenty of precedent for this type of live-in performance art: Locally, Andrew Wodzianski spent two weeks living in a storefront window on U Street and broadcasting all of his activities on the internet. His and Bolt's projects are derivative of those of artists Tehching Hsieh and Marina Abramovic. The former locked himself in a cage for a year in 1978, limiting his interactions with the outside world, and the latter lived on a platform in a gallery for 12 days in 2002. Bolt's week at Hughes' place won't be nearly as masochistic, though: She'll be eating twice a day, and Hughes' blog has captured images of her on her laptop and soaking in some sun from the apartment's balcony. When her knees hurt from crawling around so much, Hughes fashioned her some kneepads out of towels.

But performance art isn't the precise definition for Bolt's week at Hughes' house – it also takes inspiration from the practice of relational aesthetics. "A game of social chance," as the artist puts it on her website, it's a classification for art that derives its meaning from the practices of human interactions and relations. In other words, it's not about the bubble around Bolt, it's about the conversation that passes between it. In addition to Abramovic, Bolt says she was somewhat inspired by the artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, who hosts dinner parties and conversations as part of his artistic practice.

"I have a really complicated relationship with relational aesthetics, I'm critical of Rirkrit," says Bolt. "It's a field that I engage with and work in, but undermine all the time … I don't think his work and having these dinner parties is any less synthetic than a real dinner party between friends."

[Update May 11: Agnes Bolt says I misquoted her. Here are her updated remarks about the work of Rirkrit Tiravanija: "I want to say that's the opposite of my point of view. I think that the situation – maybe his work is extremely simulation. There's no way around it being a facade. But artists who make work that tries to bring people together tends to, I think fail, compared to just a real experience where you have dinner with some people, you know, so why call it art? So that's an important distinction for me because making a commentary on a work like this, I'm implicated in it, and in trying to make a genuine connection I also criticize it. So it's a very important difference."]

So far, Bolt and Hughes' conversations about the art have mostly been about how weird this whole scenario is, says Hughes. But Bolt hinted at the deeper stuff that is soon to follow.

"I guess I'd probably say that in my reasons for coming here, this is going to be an utter failure in what my vision is," says Bolt. "And confronting and realizing that I am this strange situation, being layered on top with new ideas, I'm realizing how complex this situation is. I don't want to have an easy solution for myself, and these questions will never fully be answered."

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