There is no problem about a pile being a work of art — not since Marcel Duchamp. At least half the creative act is in the eye/mind of the perceiver/creator; art is not a thing it is an event (at least since Heidegger). Concrete objects may condition the aesthetic event, even though they may not be essential for a generic concept of art (as in music, the dance, bullfights?, mental chess). Also since Duchamp (e.g. "Roue de bicyclette" 1913) it has not been terribly important for the artist to be one and the same man who made the object/thing in the sense of ars fabrIcans. His creative act may consist in compiling (combining, juxtaposing, even separating or otherwise "posing") constituent elements of the art. Duchamp posed the milk bottle rack for his great creative sculpture, "Porte-bouteilles," or "Sechoir a bouteilles," or "Herisson" 1914.
Now, well over a half a century later, it may be enough to call attention to parts of the world as art through assertions, claims, titles or other directions of attention. Duchamp's "Cheque Tzanck" (dated December 3rd, 1919) was a bogus check tendered in payment for dental work, i.e. a $115.00 draft against a non-existent pile of money. The reality: illusion problems of the recurrent Art/Life dialogue are stated again in Yves Klein's "Receipt for the Immaterial Zone of Sensibility" (1959). lain Baxter's proposed (end sometimes executed) extensions of works by various other artists extend this tradition. Extensions for Al Held and Frank Stella are material; for Dan Flavin they are also conceptual, one such extension being the claim for all the city lights in Vancouver as they are turned on in the evening, plus the second movement of the theatre piece, as they are turned off again after sunrise. As a Baxter extension piece, I have already claimed the sun itself (Art International, Vol. 11, No. 4, p. 52-53) on Baxter's behalf; other suns, other galaxies, all galaxies and the idea of light I here offer as extensions of lain Baxter.
But our concern here is with piles. The virtue of radical extensions even for rooted mentalities (apart from being fun) is that they provide or provoke new perceptions especially along the return trip back from the extremes to wherever it is you are still at. Take the concept of piles out for a long dream and idea ride and you will probably return with fresh responses to and reflections on piles in the material realm. (Let us not say "reality" — what about thoughts and dreams, as if they weren't real too.) By the very same token, the artist has no obligation to avoid material manifestations of his creativity — indeed, it is right and proper that prime samples of Baxter's explorations into the Platonic realm of piles be displayed. As a parallel, or anyway sympathetic gesture (In the word-bag of all Introductions) we may augment the exhibition with a few more probes and reflections.
The penalty for what used to be known as "piling on" in American football has been abstracted to the generic phrase "unnecessary roughness." Apart from considerations of "necessary" roughness, there are still piles on the turf. An old Shorter Oxford suggests "a heap of things lying one upon another," with some incredible (but, alas, imaginable) orgiastic possibilities. They didn't actually mention people though.
Jim Morrison and the Doors do talk about funeral "pyres" — but you can have a funeral pile as well. Parsees around Bombay probably have the best ones, built according to ancient Zoroastrian tradition (as their alternative to burial). For piles with the element of fire, the archetype is Herakles, whose apotheosis marks the only time a Greek human being became a god (archeological remains of a temple dedicated to him have been solidly identified); the pile/pyre was a communications medium to Olympus.
Elliptically, a pile is a heap of money. Let us consider J. Paul Getty. In Los Angeles, there is also Howard Ahmanson (reportedly sole shareholder in Home Savings and Loan Association, with assets of over two and a half billion dollars, i.e. $2,500,000,000.00). Both Mr. Getty and Mr. Ahmanson are terribly interested in art. Phil Spector was the first teenage millionaire; he is a genius in the production of rock and roll records: sang in and wrote "To Know Him is to Love Him" plus many others, in addition to producing groups like the Righteous Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, etc. Spector is not terribly interested in art. But then, he does it. Both Getty and Ahmanson built mausolea with their piles: museums, art morgues. The difference between the J. Paul Getty museum in Santa Monica and the Ahmanson wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is that Getty's was built for him to live in, motivated by love. Even so, Phil Spector is much more to the point.
A pile can be a mass of buildings or a large building. The step pyramid of King Zoser at saqqara shows much more class than those piles at Gin. Or take the temples of the Maya sonneteers. In a different medium affording more art with less materiality, Busby Berkeley created magnificent piles of buildings, such as his New York skyline for the "Broadway Melody" sequence in Gold Diggers of 1935, brought to my attention by Mr. Michael Morris.
Underneath the squash courts at the University of Chicago, "the world's most carefully guarded secret" had as its key element an atomic pile, which resulted, eventually in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Which goes to show what governments can do when they keep their piles secret from their own people as well as from the "enemy." And whatever happened to Nagasaki Day parades?
Returning from theatre pieces (the total environment of the blast, the pageants of protest) to more stable forms of art re: piles, there are the little sand piles in Joseph Cornell's boxes. A la recherche de temps perdu, consider the sandbox piles of kiddie days, or the full-scale piles around Johannesburg. Which raises the question of the residuum and aesthetic value: Can what is "left over" be art? Can the effluvium, the detritus, the jetsam of existence be what we have for so long considered the precious, the expensive, the sought-after by the wealthy, snotty and powerful? To look at a sunset or a starry sky, and recognize in ourselves an aesthetic response quite similar to the culturally conditioned reactions of the marble halls and gilt frames, is so much more conceptually comfortable than coming to grips (as it were) with the aesthetic potential of a pile of dog shit. And yet the latter alternative is by far the more adventurous, demanding, and, in the end, more promising and positive.
Kurt Schwitters, constructing his exquisite collages from the residue-throwaway-junk of German gutters perhaps solved this problem in its essentials. But of course his were still very beautiful objects, made delicately, with a superb sensitivity and intellect, like Cornell's later constructions. It has remained for others to present confrontations that go beyond what can be accepted so safely, now, as art.
Greater than the scale of pyramids is the huge pile in West Berlin bulldozed out of the streets — the rubble of years of daily bombing by Americans and nightly bombing by the British, referred to with wry Berliner wit as the pre-war Haupstadt. Even this was constructed by man, deliberately, and adorned with a park atop. Into nature there is the architecture of the anthill, much closer to the self-conscious creativity of art than the casual generic pile, the field patty or the curbstone curlycue, which -- even if rejected in the end qua art nevertheless force the more radical considerations of, and implications for, art itself.
Exactly one hundred years before George Orwell's famous vision of social doom was to occur, there was published in France another book which tells us at least as much about the situation of our current approximation: J. K. Huysmans, Against the Pile, 1884. However, the art of both authors saves their subject matter from forcing itself too much upon our consciousness — the less conspicuous aesthetic mastery of Franz Kafka or Karl Kraus, the Marquis de Sade or Andy Warhol, enables them to embody the same content more completely in their respective works of art. With Oscar Wilde, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, and some of the piles under present consideration, the fullness of embodiment brings art and life even closer. In the end, taste may be the great blinder to truth. If that is too much for you, remember: Preparation H shrinks piles without surgery.
Kurt von Meier, Ph.D