1.18 / hippy-dippy-dreamy-druggy…

Artist as Archive

By Jarrett Earnest July 1, 2010

Image: "Jeanne-Claude and Cristo, Press Conference for the Wrapped Walkways in Jacob Loose Memorial park, Kansas City, MI," 1978. Photo:© Marion Gray.

This article and portfolio originally appeared in Talking Cure Summer 2010.

Jarrett Earnest: I want to talk about what moved you to start documenting Performance art, and what’s kept you doing it?

Marion Gray: I had just returned to Berkeley where I was working in art history and sculpture with Peter Selz, Joan Brown, Peter Voulkos, and Jim Melchert. I was introduced to a whole new way of operating and engaging with the world - ideas and materials. It was a real coming together of creative forces from all sides, whether it was someone drumming on a bronze sculpture, a performance gathering up in the hills with many participants or a showing of the experimental video, like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Mouth to Mouth (1975). Being around those people changed my way of thinking about work and how to approach it.

It was at this time I decided I wasn’t really an art historian. I’m still so glad I was at Berkeley then because of the energy. I really sat down and asked myself “what is it I like?” “Well, I like to be at times by myself, but not on a daily work basis, so that eliminated being a writer.” I wanted to be out interacting with people and decided that the best solution was to commit to the photography I had been doing. So I bought two cameras, they were the first Olympus’ that I could carry - one for black and white, and one for color, and I would use both of them at the same time, with filters to shift between indoor and outdoor lighting. It just became an activity and a way of working in the environment that challenged me intellectually, and gave me the opportunity of preserving something that I thought other people should see. Performances were not being documented at the time, like they are now, of course there was not the technology or the sensibility. This was about the time the Running Fence project was starting.

JE: One of the other things that I hoped we could talk about is Christo and Jeanne Claude.

MG: Running Fence was the first project I ever photographed seriously. I had just left Berkeley and in my back yard was what I believed to be the most exciting “art world” event happening at the time. I have gone on to work with Christo and Jeanne Claude many times since, but this will always be very special for me.

JE: How do you like the films about their projects - how do you feel the experience relate to its filmic representation?

MG: The Running Fence film brings me back to the very moment of working on the fence every time I see it. In the beginning of the film, you are seeing groups of workers headed out in the early morning light to their appointed locations, it was like an army of artists crossing Marin and Sonoma counties. The fence was 18 feet high, and as it was going up it started to feel like we were part of a crusade. The poles that held the fabric had wires with grommets and when the wind blew they hit and and made a sound reminiscent of a boat in full sail, the fabric billowing out. The sounds for me add another dimension to the film. Anyone who saw Running Fence can never look at the landscape again without recalling what Christo and Jeanne Claude created. It made everyone look at California and the hills so differently. The films to me are honest, exactly right.

JE: In some ways this is like a portrait of an artistic family, a community. How do you feel about that?

MG: I have been in the Bay Area for a long time now - the people I have worked with, or the projects I have photographed, are an extension of what a family would be.

For instance, the way Tom Marioni’s social action is a formal recognition of an interaction between people coming together. Before I started going to New York or Europe, many artists would come to the Bay Area. In a way its like when you are traveling, moving around in different countries over and over again, you see people in Italy and have dinner with them, then you end up in Germany and there they are, and you make friends. For those who are moving around and working, these connections are the richness of being in the art world.

JE: That is at the heart of one of the things that blows me away about what you do. Because the idea of documentary photography has a sense of assumed “clinical” purpose, it is supposed to be showing you something that is “true”, it is kind of distanced to “show you what really happened,” which is just a fantasy anyway. But with your photographs, you get this very subjective perspective, its like you can tell that you are really excited and you love whats going on and you want to share what you love about it with other people and that motivates the photographs. So they’re not “documents” as much as very personal sharings, and you get these wonderful things. They are kind of bizarre, if you thinking about them “showing what happened” in the future, but then they show it in another, perhaps truer way.

MG: Thats very nice to hear because that is exactly how I feel about it. I like to enjoy my life. I feel you have to make everyday the best it can be, so I have a lot of fun.

JE: I know you have seen so many, but what are some of the performances you’ve seen and thought “This is just the best thing, most important thing, I’ve seen”?

MG: Sometimes the most important performances were not things that need to be documented. The one piece that stands out in my mind was John Cage and Merce Cunningham’s final collaboration Ocean, performed in 1996 in the Harmon Gymnasium on the UC Berkeley campus which was circular so that the orchestra encircled the audience who encircled the dancers. It was all there - the music, moving figure, and orchestration of space.

JE: So did you photograph that performance?

MG: Of course not, it was something to sit back and enjoy. I probably took a few photos, but with no real intention, just something for me.

JE: It makes sense that we both love Richard Tuttle - its all about space. I have never worked with another photographer on installing a show that really worked to put up the images architecturally within the space in a way that makes meaning outside of the photograph. Usually its like: I made this photograph or painting, and its done, and I stick it on the wall. You brought such an awareness to how it would be encountered spacially.

MG: Thanks for saying that - that is key. That is a consideration that goes into every step of the process- composition, printing, etc. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Its almost like an addiction. I feel very fortunate as an individual to have found what really to me is never ending and exciting.


A Portfolio by Marion Gray


"Barney/Beuys, SFMOMA 2006/Documenta 1977." Photo: © Marion Gray

"Eiko and Komo, UC Berkeley Campus," 1979. Photo:© Marion Gray.

"Pauline Oliveros, Mills College, Oakland," 2000. Photo:© Marion Gray


"Hemann Nitsch ... partitur der 56. aktion... requiem fur meine frau beate, Bologne, Italy," 1977. Photo:© Marion Gray

"Terry Fox, Berkeley Art Museum," 1978. Photo:© Marion Gray

"Portrait of George by Robert Arneson," 1981.  Photo:© Marion Gray

"Car Dance, Jules Beckman with Keith Hennessey and Jess Curtis, San Francisco," 1997. Photo:© Marion Gray

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