Dawn Kasper has been living her life as a kind of social performance for the last 11 years, since beginning her ‘Nomadic Studio Practice Experiment’ in 2008. This has seen her take up residence wherever she exhibits – including the Venice Biennale and New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art – creating a series of makeshift, messy work spaces. In part a pragmatic response to the financial impossibility of affording a studio in Los Angeles, the project was also a means of testing her expansive practice as an artist – one which increasingly pivots around the idea of living sculpture, social participation, improvisation and collaboration.
Ordinarily resident every day, the artist wasn’t present during my visit to Portikus, but the large, high-ceilinged hall was littered with the debris of past and present projects. Only three elements seemed to propose a more traditional kind of display or installation. Firstly, a huge number of metal bells of various sizes and designs hung suspended from red and yellow cords, which the invigilator gladly bid us ring – while warning us that we weren’t allowed to touch anything else. The bells filled the space with pleasingly loud yet warm metallic sounds, transforming the gallery into a vast musical instrument.
Secondly, ten large inkjet prints of photographed sunsets mounted on plywood were propped against a wall. Thirdly, a large television monitor in the corner displayed footage taken from the artist’s laptop as she shifted between editing internet-sourced images – old astrological diagrams, gold-leaf medieval paintings, pictures of the solar system – to clicking on websites such as Wikipedia or the Museum of Modern Art to playing an episode of the 1990s sitcom Frasier, in which Niles lands a job as an art critic. The film neatly demonstrates the collapse in an artist’s practice between research, distraction and daily life. In Kasper’s world, everyone is a critic, every gallery is a potential studio and the daily labour of an intermedia artist is rendered into a transparent performance – a skeleton laid bare.
The rest of the space appeared to be a jumble of lived-in clutter. Some more comfortable domestic objects softened the mess: two sofas, a chair and several rugs littered the floor. Table-tops were covered with power tools, record players, musical instruments, old cassettes. Elsewhere were piles of artistic materials: chicken wire, plaster, wood – the debris of sculptural work without the finished pieces or props for future performances? Process has emerged as the very material of Kasper’s practice, which pushes against the rhetoric and aesthetic of the traditional finished and polished work of art.
Another tension that runs through all of Kasper’s work is the precarious architecture of calculated versus spontaneous actions. For the duration of her stay in Frankfurt, the artist’s temporary studio will host six planned public collaborative performances with friends – artists, filmmakers, musicians and gallerists. But, Kasper’s absence during my time at Portikus – which resulted in an exhibition experience more akin to a studio visit without the artist to steer you – raises the question of whether this premeditation also extends to the daily routines and rituals she performs.
If general themes such as life, death and desire have often provided the focus of Kasper’s projects, here she nods specifically to Aesop’s Fables – in particular to his tale of the wolf fooled by a young goat who, to avoid being killed, begs the wolf to play the flute, so he may dance before being eaten, and manages to escape when the music is heard by others. For Kasper, this becomes a neat allegory for poetic inspiration as well as the difficulties and challenges faced in all artistic work. But whether she is the kid or the wolf in this analogy is less clear. And, if the latter, does that make her audience the prey-turned-liberated-captive? Perhaps Kasper’s focus is really the music and the dance – simultaneously the spontaneous means of escaping the apparently inevitable as well as the failure to secure what seems to have been gifted.
Dawn Kasper, ‘The Wolf and the Head on Fire’ runs at Portikus, Frankfurt, until 30 June 2019.
Main image: Dawn Kasper, 'The Wolf and The Head on Fire', 2019, exhibition view, Portikus, Frankfurt. Courtesy: the artist and David Lewis Gallery, New York; photograph: Diana Pfammatter