With the exception of carved sculpture, the making of art has historically been an additive, creative process in which materials are turned into ingenious works. It is both the physical hand and innovative talent of the artist that transform materials into objects that have meaning beyond their simple constitutive elements. Bringing together works by Susan Hiller, John Latham, and Carolee Schneemann from the period when all three were based in London and in dialogue with one another, Controlled Burnings centers on these artists’ challenges to standard additive modes. In fact, the exhibition title’s focus on “burning” rests within a larger category than its purely fire-based title suggests: creation by destruction. This seemingly oxymoronic trend, mostly post-World War II, has been discussed numerous times, notably by Kerry Brougher, Russell Ferguson’s 2014 exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum, Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950. None of the three artists in the tightly curated Lisson show were included in the Hirshhorn presentation. Nevertheless, they clearly belong to this rubric and should be added to that contradictory, anti-canonical classification.
As much as this destructive-type artmaking is a recent phenomenon—as evidenced by the 1950 date in the title of the Hirshhorn show—the practice recalls the hallowed burnt offerings of early religious traditions. Like the specific carbonized practices of Hiller, Latham, and Schneemann, the ancient acts of burnt offerings were simultaneously ritualistic, symbolic, and performative. The three artists purposefully evoke much more intimate, if sometimes ephemeral, connections to the human body and assembled archives, which might be called sacred elements or texts. In fact, it is difficult to discuss these works without invoking religious terms, whether it be the title of Hiller’s “Relics” series, the description “baptism of fire” in Lisson’s press release, or Schneemann’s own claim of making work that is at once “ritualistic and realistic.”
Many of Schneemann’s box-form constructions on view in the exhibition were made before her first trip to London. A controlled burning titled For Yvonne Rainer’s Ordinary Dance (from the Fire Series) (1962), is a tribute, an homage, to Yvonne Rainer, the avant-garde dancer-choreographer. The dedicatory hallowed, ironic ring of the work’s title makes us understand that Rainer’s ordinary dance is anything but. The box constructions shown here, made from the early to mid-1960s, were inspired by Schneemann’s meeting Joseph Cornell. Cornell’s enigmatic boxes, carefully constructed from precisely chosen images (and objects as images), became a totally different animal in Schneemann’s hands. Her use of the torch and glass shards, among other elements, offer a personal and physical engagement that feminist art historian Maura Reilly connects to the next generation’s take on action painting. Schneemann’s One Window is Clear - Notes to Lou Andreas Salome (1965), pushes the homage to Rainer into the category of memorial. In this case, it is the memorialization of Salome, Rilke, and Nietzsche. Using limp, cast-off recording tape as part of her assemblage, the audio vector’s potential to operate—to speak—becomes extinguished, made impotent. It exists solely as a droopy, inert physical element that projects the flat-bed work out into three-dimensional space.
While Latham’s earlier spray works also have been discussed in the context of a next step/next generation’s ®evolution of Action painting, Schneemann and Latham also shared reputations for creating controversial works that tread the verboten. Performance and exhibition spaces in the 1960s refused to present Schneemann’s famously infamous Meat Joy, with its decaying meat, vulnerable naked bodies, and intimations of mortality. While Schneemann took to task society’s general conservatism, Latham’s performance-turned-object, Still and Chew/Art and Culture (1965) took on a sacred cow of contemporary art criticism. In this case it was Clement Greenberg’s 1961 book, Art and Culture. Latham had his students chew individual pages of that influential text and preserved the partially digested remains as “biological specimens.” This seminal work, at once a critique of art writing, theorization, and art making, is in The Museum of Modern Art’s collection. This notable event got Latham fired from his teaching post at the prestigious St. Martins School of Art in London. Still and Chew might be seen as the climax of Latham’s series of carbonized books, also heavily pilloried at the time and currently on display in the Lisson exhibition. With their charred and assembled elements contained in wooden boxes, Latham’s Drawer with Charred Material (1960), forms an uncanny opposite to Schneemann’s Controlled Burning: Darker Companion (1962). Latham’s The Original Reading and Writing Machine (1960) with its mechanical metaphors for production and obliteration, inevitably reminds viewers of the torture machine in Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.”
Susan Hiller has focused more on collecting and assembling natural elements, archival documents, and vintage photographically reproduced artifacts than she has on the destructive means previously discussed. Nevertheless, there are two works by Hiller in the Lisson show that clearly share the exhibition’s means of “controlled burnings”. Hand Grenades (1969–72) bottles the remains of burned paintings of hands made collectively by women artists in studios under Hiller’s guidance. Obviously, the multi-artist works whose ashes Hiller carefully collects into labeled vials challenge the idea of single-artist authorship. In fact, the work’s “culturally inscribed authorship” was Hiller and her team’s feminist retort to the idea of the individual “masterpiece” produced by the “male genius.” The vials of sampled debris were then delicately arranged in a Pyrex bowl as if they were chocolates offered in a domestic candy dish. Hiller’s ampules are individually labeled with unassuming, commercially available paper tags on string. Like Schneemann and Latham, Hiller’s Grenades combines performative, collective, and destructive modes of creation. Yet for Hiller, it is clear that this work is also part of her broader and continued archival, assemblage-based practice. Hiller’s interest in religious meanings, materials, and practices goes beyond the ritual aspects of Latham and Schneemann’s projects. The year Hiller began her Grenades in 1969 was also the year she began a long-term project of gathering holy water from specific but highly varied religious pilgrimage sites around the globe. That project spanned from 1969 to 2011. Based on the research into the locations and meanings of such sacred water, and its sanctification of the body of water that each represents, this religion-based investigation and assembly is part of Hiller’s archival, anthropological instincts and practices. It is also an additive compendium and contemporary study of her personal pilgrimages that lasted over forty years.
In recent decades, there have been a number of two-person exhibitions that created dialogues—contemporary and/or historical—between two artists who influenced each other during their lives or where one served as inspiration for younger or later-generation artist. Consider, for instance, the Barnes’s recent Soutine/de Kooning show. The triumvirate in the Lisson show further complicated such dialogues into complex conversations that ricochet exponentially between and among the featured practitioners. Despite its tightly focused chronologically, and thematic content, Controlled Burnings suggests exponential alternative directions for investigating these three, both together and individually. The show also fruitfully provides an alternative exhibition model somewhere in the spectrum between the monograph and the group exhibition.