Inside D.C. entertainment

Philippa Hughes' 'hamster' bubble artist bites the hand that feeds

May 16, 2011 - 01:29 PM
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In Tuesday's salon at Philippa Hughes' apartment, the collector attempted to stop her fire alarm from ringing after artist Agnes Bolt (in the bubble, to the left), living in a plastic bubble in her home, filled the room with smoke.

Things did not exactly go smoothly in Philippa Hughes' self-imposed roommate from hell situation last week. When Hughes welcomed Pittsburgh artist Agnes Bolt into her home for a project exploring the relationship between artist and collector, she wasn't expecting to have to cook on demand, to have her belongings taken from her and squirreled away in a plastic "hamster" dome that occupied her entire living room, nor to have the artist suddenly replaced with artist Adrian Parsons. But of all the uncomfortable situations that arose from the contractual relationship she entered into with Bolt, Hughes wasn't expecting to be treated with hostility. Because as much as Bolt's project was about the artist-collector relationship, it was also about setting up a scenario that would make Hughes squirm. It was about biting the hand that feeds you, and Hughes' is a hand that feeds many.

Only an artist from another city could undertake such an endeavor, because Hughes' reach, thanks to the Pink Line Project, has extended throughout the entire local art community. Bolt, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University who was matched up with Hughes by the Project 4 gallery, works in performance art and relational aesthetics, and previous works, such as "Play Me Like a Video Game" and "The Artist Whisperer," relate to control and identity. As an out-of-towner, Bolt had no history with Hughes, and when she "Googled the hell out of her," as she told me she did, she found a local celebrity with an electronic trail that includes such accolades as "art maven," "culture diva," and "most fashionable Washingtonian." Hughes is no ordinary collector – she is a personality.

She's also adored by many in the D.C. art community – for her parties, for her enthusiasm, for her eagerness to support and fund their projects. But when she began blogging about the Agnes Bolt project, she decided to call it, "Art is Fear." Her record of the week documents her fulfillment of their contract and her observations about the project, but also hints Hughes' uncomfortable experience of not having her warmth and enthusiasm returned to her by an artist she supports.

Of her encountering Bolt wrapped in a cocoon outside of her bubble, Hughes writes, "because she was outside the structure, maybe she was transitioning into halting the project. We’d had a tense day yesterday and I worried that I’d screwed up my end of the agreement enough that perhaps she wasn’t into it anymore." When her favorite surfboard ended up inside the bubble, Hughes was upset because a clause in their notarized contract permits Agnes to sell objects in her structure as art objects in a future show at Project 4. A former lawyer, Hughes knew that she could be held to this contract, so at a gathering she hosted last Tuesday to introduce people to her live-in artist, she told me she was asking Bolt to please spare the surfboard.

As for those objects in the structure: When I crawled inside to meet Bolt, she told me why each was selected. A dress, brand-new with the tags still on, was chosen to bring some color into the space. The surf board, she says, was selected to see how she could live with such an obtrusive object. The books were chosen because they related to the project in some way. And the fancy soaps, tucked away in a corner? "I took [the soap] because she didn't get me a drink one time, and I got really pissed off at her. So I took her cleaning products." When Bolt spoke to the Washington Post, she put this in a nicer way: "I’m really hoping Philippa will find ways to meddle in my world more — react or reciprocate,” Bolt said. "I am slowly expanding myself to absorb more and more of her world into mine, so I hope she will do similarly.”

But retaliation and passive-aggression has played as great of a role in this experiment as the daily rituals outlined in their contract. At Hughes gathering last week, one of her ongoing salons, she called it an "art warming" party for her new art – which most of the invitees assumed meant Bolt and her bubble. Instead, Hughes invited Victoria Gaitan to speak about a triptych of photographs she made two years ago, and Bolt's giant bubble became the elephant in the room.

"It's a really interesting reaction, and I haven't quite figured out how to feel about that," Bolt said to artist Jeffry Cudlin, who asked her why she was not the featured speaker (Cudlin has also created art about Hughes). Bolt was still the star attraction of the party, though, and everyone crawled through her tubes to meet her – at one point, at Hughes' request, cramming as many people into her bubble as could fit.

"Even the situation where you all come in here and impose yourselves based on her instructions to do so, for the sheer spectacle of it," said Bolt, would provoke an equal reaction from her. She said that she found it very challenging to provoke a reaction from Hughes. A few days later, artist Adrian Parsons took Bolt's place in the bubble, and when Hughes went in for their daily contractual kiss on the cheek, he turned his face and went for the mouth. "Evil Agnes," as Hughes referred to Parsons, was also very smelly, according to the City Paper's main takeaway from the project.

Bolt told me in the bubble that she listens to Hughes' conversations all day, and was surprised at Hughes' lack of ownership over the project.

"When she talks to press, she's defensive to own it as her own project, [it's as if] we've broken into her house … she's choosing to pretend it's an embarrassment," said Bolt, who also said that she wanted to "fuck with every sense of control" over the project.

Bolt's videographer, Matthu Stull, verified that their relationship has been more hostile than they admit to.

"There are times when it's totally antagonistic and [Bolt is] denying it. For her to deny it is not objective," said Stull at the Tuesday salon. "I've sympathized with Philippa ... [but] I'm in a position where I'm supposed to back Agnes all the way."

It seems that in exploring the artist-collector relationship, Bolt saw an opportunity to take collectors, upon whom artists heavily rely, down a peg. While Hughes told the Washington Post that she hoped Bolt would glean some universal truths about relationships from the experience, the artist disagreed: “It’s really a piece for one.” But the week is up, and Bolt is gone, and Hughes is strangely forlorn, she wrote on her blog. It wasn't all bad. They did yoga together, and got pedicures, and entertained dozens of reporters – typical BFF stuff. Hughes is even advertising for another artist-in-residence, and has interviewed several candidates. And in this piece for one, it became obvious that Bolt didn't supplant another one of the adjectives – "poised" – that easily precedes her subject's name.

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