Precursors to this type of artistic digging have often been mired in a form of institutional critique. Take for instance two works by American performance artist Chris Burden, Honest Labour, Vancouver (1979) and Exposing the Foundations of the Museum (1986 [ongoing]). The title of the latter tells us that this is Burden’s obvious critique of the institution of the museum. What the title does not say is that this work has travelled a circuit of museums since 1986, a niche where performance and non-object art practitioners can infiltrate the art market or Biennale. However, the former, Honest Labour, is another type of institutional critique, albeit more modest in size and reputational gains. The work’s back-story starts with Burden visiting an art college in Vancouver, and instead of speaking about his work to a group of students from the college, he simply, but laboriously, dug a trench.

Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End (1975) is more in keeping with the spectacle of Underground at Basic Space—not to mention that Basic Space’s warehouse similarities to Pier 52 New York (the site of Matta-Clark’s Day’s End). Matta-Clark’s series of cuts in the walls, ceiling and floor of the derelict warehouse space were performative inscriptions to allow the elements of light and water to puncture the space, a sublime spectacle. Day’s End has a poetry and romanticism about it that is not too distant from the aesthetic ideals of one Caspar David Friedrich.

The existence of Basic Space and the Underground artists’ cultivation of the site also questions how art production is always bound to the fluctuating market value of property, calling to mind Matta-Clark’s collaborative project Fake Estates (1973-74) with the Anarchitecture Group, who collectively bought unusable plots of land in Queens and Staten Island New York for $25-75.

There is another work by Matta-Clark that is a direct precursor to what the Underground artists achieved at Basic Space. The contradiction is this was not Matta-Clark on the periphery or outside the conformity of the institute, this was Matta-Clark in the gallery.

The work in question begins with Matta-Clark being issued a warrant for his arrest by the New York Port Authority because he had compromised the architecture of the pier and warehouse with his Day’s End ‘cuts’: the artist promptly fled to Paris. In Descending Steps for Batan (1977) at Yvon Lambert Gallery Paris, Matta-Clark dug a hole in the cellar of the gallery as a tribute to his recently deceased twin brother Sebastian (nicknamed “Batan”).

Matta-Clark fleeing the scene of the crime drags up the history of Caravaggio’s exile to Malta, where the artist would end up imprisoned in a bell-shaped cell in the ground. The image of Matta-Clark in the basement of  Yvon Lambert Gallery Paris in 1997 is a portrait of the artist on the periphery. These material excavations by the artist as exile require physical labour rather than hands-off concept. New York artist Mike Bouchet also got his hands dirty with his The New York Dirty Room—a  jokey re-enactment of Walter de Maria’s Earth Room (1977)—wherein the artist filled New York Gallery Maccarone Inc. with compost from a DIY store and Riker’s Island penal colony in 2005. 

The Swiss artist Urs Fischer’s You replicated the previous acts of Burden, Matta-Clark, and the Underground artists, by digging up the commercial gallery floor of Gavin Brown Enterprise New York in 2007. You can’t help but see these acts as market-driven actions. However, Jerry Saltz proclaims that Gavin Brown “gallery has been a site of experimentation, provocation, and community” in the New York art scene since the ’90s, but also observes that Fischer’s You was “Intensely lit and rigidly framed” in the gallery.2 Fischer’s You is in one sense a replication and translocation of art history into a commercial gallery, but as excavated absence rather than artefact to mark that history.

Another type of translocation in relation to the spectacle of artistic digging occurred at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, in the summer 2011 with Mark Manders’ projected slide sequence Two Interconnected Houses (originally proposed for Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum,  2010). Intriguing and experiential in and of itself, the photographic document acted as a proposal for a real work by the artist, which entailed connecting two houses, one fabricated cabin situated in the Guggenhein Museum New York, and another across the road from the Museum. In essence the photographic tableau was an excuse for Manders to conceptually stage his museum-like works, minus the labour. What is more befitting for this discussion is the subterranean passage from house-to-house which is a perfect analogy of the artist’s vain attempt to dig their way out of a ‘house’ of strict parameters only to end up in the museum, like Burden and Matta-Clark before them.

As current and recent students at an art college, the nine artists (including the initiators of Basic Space) achieved something that is connected, but also autonomous from the art college. Seminal exhibitions seem to happen within rather than without the institution, such as Freeze in 1988. However, whereas Freeze was underpinned by a desire for art market recognition by its main organiser Damien Hirst via the advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, Underground’s camouflaging seemed counterintuitive to such aims: the identities of artists and artworks was blurred. This exhibition says more about how art is taught in art colleges and how it always finds new ways and means to exist outside the institution. To my mind Underground is the most thought-provoking, critical and crucial exhibition to occur in Dublin for some time, and it proves the point that art happens when necessity—the mother of invention—rears its head from the rubble.

Two Interconnected Houses (Slide 40), 2010

Slide projection loop with 80 slides

Courtesy of the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp

Exhibited at Douglas Hyde Gallery, Dublin, 2011.


Historical Cases of the Subterranean Kind


10 – 13 November, 2011, Basic Space, Dublin.

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