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The Art of Following Bird Calls

Douglas Huebier Conceptual Artist at the MFA nd Nov 12

By Meredith A. Palmer

THE NAVAHO INDIANS use the same word for both grey and brown. The Hopi in their thoughts about events include both space and time; neither is found alone in their world view. Douglas Huebler combines a concept of art with out culture's thoughts about events; neither is found alone in his aesthetic view.

My work is concerned with determining the form of art when the role traditionally played by visual experience is mitigated or eliminated." Huebler explains. Art expands consciousness by transposing natural phenomena from everyday experience into mental constructions. He is concerned with thinking about the event rather than the objectness of the situation. Therefore, his works document events rather than recreate them. He picks a situation and applies an arbitrary structure to it--using photographs, maps, and verbal statements. By applying such structures to events--such as mapping the route of an empty package sent to six different U.S. towns--he gives the viewer an insight into how we order our thoughts about daily events. It is the viewer's notion of conceiving the event that Huebler finds artistic.

Characteristically, Huebler's systems of documentation move toward the dematerialization of art. No longer important, the art object is replaced by ideas. Process replaces medium as the aesthetic consideration. Photos are meant to clarify the appearance of an event, not to fashion a visual experience. The camera duplicates rather than makes aesthetic decisions.

In Duration Piece no. 5, he uses photos to define an event--an individual hearing and following bird calls. The photos never show evidence of the bird, they only record tree trunks, park lamp posts, rocks and dirt. Huebler is interested in the human approach to following a bird call not in the illustration of beautiful landscapes and fantastic birds that we imagine.

The work's statement explains: "During a ten minute period of time on March 17, 1969 ten photographs were made each documenting the location in Central Park where an individually distinguishable bird call was heard. Each photograph was made with the camera pointed in the direction of the sound. That direction was then walked toward by the auditor until the instant that the next call was heard, at which time the next photograph was made and the next direction taken."

AN AVERAGE citizen of our culture might find himself in Huebler's situation--following a bird call. Yet, most of us would probably be intent on discovering the location of the bird, and determining whether it was a warbler or a Gymnogyps Californianus. (The Surrealist would be more concerned with painting a California condor ominously perched on a common park beach. While this conceptual artist is more concerned with locating the bird.) It is not surprising that Huebler does not paint bird images, but rather that he labels this a duration piece rather than calling it a location piece. The emphasis seems to be on the activity of tracing the bird, which takes time and extends beyond our realizing a single location of the bird. The sense of bird is even more real in these empty pictures than if Huebler had merely painted or photographed a bird flying from tree to tree. Huebler's arbitrary system evokes the experience that we have individually when we follow a bird call, irregardless of whether it is the motion we would go through in the same situation.

This situation is characteristic of our culture. An Indian from a different culture following this same bird might find Huebler's movements ridiculous, for an Indian's purpose might be to kill the bird and he would move quietly so as not to scare the bird. Huebler's series of park pictures implies that the bird has been scared--a situation the Indian would find unlikely. For a Hopi Indian, who neither separates the event in time or space, there is neither the bird alone nor the call separated from the event. He would use one word for the whole performance--"bird call," and one picture, a bird in the hand.

Huebler works from an awareness of "cultural constants." "Cultural models are constant, phenomena are variable," he said. "I'm interested in models that change your experience with the phenomena."

At Anaheim, California, the home of Disneyland, Huebler took 20 photos of visitors in front of a Mickey Mouse formed by floral patterns. Mickey Mouse appeared the same in every picture at exactly the same position, yet the people in front changed. This Duration Place No. 30 watched people as they watched one of America's cultural constants--they were also taking pictures of themselves in front of the Mickey Mouse. We want to look at our changing selves against a cultural constant. Art and theories of beauty want to look at themselves as a constant. Huebler has reduced his art to concepts, to documents and structures. He thus hopes for the endurance of art, simultaneous yet not identical with the existence of daily experience.

DISCUSSING CONCEPTUAL art without talking about structure is like discussing oriental art without talking about Buddhism. From Huebler's structuring, the viewer learns about the way our culture conceptualizes different phenomena. Huebler structures and formalizes a very informal experience--almost simple-minded, daily tasks. "He uses these events to synthesize a new form," said Christopher Cook, guest curator for the exhibition.

The simplicity of Huebler's work does not negate great imagination and fantasy. Rather, it makes his art less esoteric and more inspiring than some of his conceptual cohorts. One delightful piece captures his ten-year-old daughter in a series of photographs. She was asked to pose...and instructed to keep a 'straight face' -- even though her brother and sister were allowed to try to make her laugh. This variable piece documents more than her struggle to keep from laughing; at the end of 23 frames, she gives in. Inherent in this work is the already animated spirit of the concept.

More serenely beautiful is Duration Piece No. 31, which documents in ten photos taken in a progressive time sequence a continuous stream of water flowing down a cluster of icicles. Adding a humorous note, the same water was later used to prepare the chemicals that developed and fixed the photographs. The photos are not arranged in chronological order; as we view them, we tend to look for the progressive formation of new icicles. When we discover the water was later used for the photos, we are freed from closing our concept on its frozen form. We now look at the icicles as both solid and liquid. The pictures embody two concepts in one.

Huebler's show not only makes vivid our concepts of the phenomena he illustrates, but also makes us more conscious of our notions of art. As one museum spokesman said; "Our own museum membership can't help but question all that was art in their own familiar surroundings." Questioning becomes part of Huebler's aesthetic process; it is the excitement of looking at a work of art. In contrast to the theme of one of Huebler's pieces, this bold museum show should find more than one person who has, and will have many thoughts concerning the artist's existence and his art.

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