Stuart Horodner, Dependency Project, 1985; documentation of performance

Asks & Acts

Stuart Horodner

I was in graduate school when the call came. My mother explained that my grandfather would be going to the doctor in the morning. He had to take a shower that night, and his foot was wrapped in plastic so he wouldn’t get it wet. “He wants you to help him,” she said.

It was not my most empathetic moment. I did not want to drive the hour and a half to Paramus. I did not want to acknowledge that my eighty-two-year-old grandfather, Max (Pop), was adding new struggles to his ongoing issues with diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. I did not want to be responsible for his frail, naked body. It didn’t matter that he had been the prideful patriarch who attended my Little League games and school events, or secured my brother and I our first job handing out election fliers for the Democratic Club where he often traded opinions with neighborhood politicos. At that moment, it did not matter that he’d cared for me from infancy to adolescence. There were works in progress in my studio that needed attending to.

I did not want to do it, but I got into my car. With the windows open to the evening air and music blaring, I headed north. I was twenty-three years old, capable and independent. I did not like asking people for help and I rarely needed to. It was becoming clear that I didn’t like being asked for it either.

I walked into my parent’s house and there he was, with a bit of a hound-dog expression on his face. He did not say anything but gave me a look that unquestionably confirmed, “Believe me, I don’t like this any more than you do.” After brief instructions from my mom and grandmother, the two of us walked quietly upstairs to the bathroom and got undressed. I adjusted the temperature of the water in the shower stall and we entered.

Pop secured himself by pressing his hands against the textured glass and ceramic tile as I washed his face, arms, back and butt. Then I shampooed his thin grey hair and wiped his eyes with a wet washcloth. Powerful emotions came over me as I acknowledged the distinctions between our bodies and what bound us together in the moment. And of course, I realized the reversal of our roles: me in charge—the protector and caregiver—the responsible one. When we finished, I enveloped him in my father’s terrycloth robe and checked his bandaged foot for moisture. I did not stay long after that.

Why had I been so set against doing this? Fear? Inconvenience? Selfishness? It had been a gift—something that I cherished as it was happening and immediately afterward, and I knew would be with me forever. Driving home, my mind raced. I wondered what else I had been saying no to that might prove to be equally profound experiences.

I was transformed in the days that followed, and knew that I needed to use this event in my art—somehow. I was a great fan of performance artists of the 1970s, including Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Abramovic and Ulay, Tehching Hsieh. I admired their acts of endurance and the testing of their own, and the audience’s capacity for intense physical and psychological pressures. I had already begun to question my ability as a painter and my commitment to that medium. My studio felt too isolated. I wanted something more direct.

What developed was Dependency Project. I put my hands together in a gesture of prayer and asked my sculptor girlfriend, Susan Bowman, to wrap them in plaster bandages from my fingertips to my wrist. I would stay in this condition for as long as I could, not changing anything about my normal schedule: commuting to school, teaching an undergraduate seminar, eating, visiting galleries, etc. My roommate, artist François Morelli, soon understood the parameters of the project when he returned home that night and was asked to feed me dinner.

In the days that followed, I had to overcome my own awkwardness about relying on others and any issues regarding my body as I asked everyone around me for intimate help of one form or another. Friends, family members and total strangers would assist in bathing me, brushing my teeth, driving me around, changing my clothes from the waist down, taking money from my wallet to buy train tickets and groceries, holding my penis at a urinal or wiping my ass in a bathroom stall. These interactions were awkward and uncomfortable, and I explained to everyone that I was OK with whatever decisions they came to about helping me or not.

The project lasted for one week, and although I was forced to speak constantly about what I was doing and what I needed, I felt extremely withdrawn and depressed. My elbows hurt and my hands were dry. I hated being at the mercy of others, but something in me was changing. I was coming to understand that being able to ask for and receive help was a significant part of maturity. Each participant/helper negotiated his or her own sense of risk, comfort and generosity.

I was in London, sitting at the kitchen table of photographer Melanie Manchot, telling her about Dependency Project and the shower that prompted it. She was very moved by the story, and we discussed its relationship to her work, which examines conditions of aging, intimacy and constructions of beauty and desire.

I had recently completed a successful billboard project with Melanie for Bucknell University. It pictured her sixty-eight-year-old mother, Margaret, standing against a black background in her bra, panties and camisole. Her arms are raised and crossed over her head. From the space of roadside advertising, she stared out at motorists who passed by on Route 15. A white text near her posited the phrase, “LOOK AT YOU LOVING ME.” Margaret became something of an everywoman, a heroine who challenged notions of perfection and engendered acts of self-analysis by students and townsfolk. The billboard received extensive coverage in the press, culminating in a live remote interview from the site: me talking to Katie Couric about the work and its reception in the community on NBC’s The Today Show.

I mentioned my interest in reengaging that kind of risk in my own performance, explaining that as a curator I do not feel nearly as emotionally exposed as the artists that I develop exhibitions with. I had been thinking about Pierre Bonnard’s paintings of his wife, Marthe, in the bath, her still body possessed by porcelain in a heavily patterned room. I said that I envisioned myself being in the bathroom performing acts of cleanliness and contemplation, but that I could not be in front of and behind the camera simultaneously. Melanie paused and said, “Are you asking me to take the photos?”

We agreed to take the process seriously and let it unfurl over time, arranging to meet regularly wherever and whenever we could. If Melanie was pleased with the resulting images, she would exhibit them and I had to be comfortable with that. I had never really considered having photographs taken of my naked self, either due to a lack of confidence about my physique or concern about the presence of such images of me in the world.

From 1999 to 2003, we worked on the photographs together at my homes in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and Portland, Oregon; my brother Larry’s apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey; Susan Bowman’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; Melanie’s London home/studio; and hotels in Normal, Illinois, and Venice. In these images, I recline in the bath and stand in the shower as a hot spray of water hits my neck. I kneel on a wooden floor near a fireplace and descend the stairs to a basement. I lie on a garage floor and bend inside of a closet holding fabric. I am reflected in mirrors and surrounded by plastic curtains. I emerge from a pool and walk down a hallway.

Melanie Manchot, Shave, 2007; 2 channel synchron video installation (on DVD) for projection, 75 minutes; courtesy Galerie m, Bochen and Goff & Rosenthal, New York

A few months before I was to be married, Melanie asked me to be in a video called Shave. She wanted to have me seated, shirtless and silent as a London barber shaved the hair off of my head, face, chest, stomach and back, first with clippers and then with a straight razor. A continuous tracking shot would capture the action. I said yes, despite reservations from my bride to be.

During the seventy-five-minute sequence, my hair is methodically removed. I appear complicit, looking straight ahead, occasionally raising my face or lifting my arm to facilitate the shaving. I had no concerns about the barber’s skills; I appreciated his crisp white shirt, handsome face and elegant manner. The occasional nicks of my flesh that yielded a trickle of blood were part of the process, and as they occurred I thought, “This is good for the video.”

I tried to stay emotionally open, without “performing” in any way. I eyed the camera being slowly pushed by me, but more importantly, felt the warm metal teeth of the clippers on my skin, hair falling from my head onto my upper body and down to the floor. The sound of the razor being rinsed in a bowl of water at my side (which was also being filmed and is an integral part of the final work) set a delicate rhythm. When the videotaping was complete, I went into the bathroom and looked at myself. My hairy armor was gone. My skin was red and blemished. I hated the way I looked and felt. I was a “fat-bald-alien-baby-woman-man-hospital-patient.”

In 2007, Shave was shown in solo and group exhibitions at galerie m. in Bochum, Fred in Leipzig, Galerie Chelouche in Tel Aviv, New Forest Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale and Dokfest in Kassel. Shave is documented on websites, in catalogues, and is indexed in feminist archives.

As an administrator, curator, writer and educator, I operate in the space between artists and audiences, hopefully empowering both constituencies (and myself) in the process. I make lists and layouts, write grants, give lectures and moderate panel discussions. I install artworks in gallery spaces and define or defend my intentions for doing so with precise and passionate language. In the process of shaping an institution’s exhibition and education agenda, I routinely ask various people for their advocacy, money, expertise, time and energy. As my colleague Stacie Lindner likes to say, “You like to talk and you’re good at it.” These professional activities constitute my first act.

For almost a decade, my second act has been posing for Melanie Manchot. In her photographs and video I am not identified, nor is my identity as an arts professional mentioned. I am not her subject but a willing object-actor.

I say yes and take my clothes off. I raise my arm or lower my head. I am silent. In this work with Melanie, I open myself up to complex feelings of loss, anxiousness, acceptance and exhilaration. I am myself, but I am also Marthe, Margaret and Max.

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