The art of the 20th century avant garde was geared towards the destruction of the idea of the artist as creator. As Max Ernst put it, “I believe the myth of the artist as creator has been destroyed forever. The artist can now witness the formation of the work as a spectator and can follow the phases of its development, with indifference or with passion.”
There are many seemingly contradictory approaches to this concept. For example, John Cage composed music by using the I Ching, the Chinese classic text often used as a divination tool.
French writer, George Perec, imposed a rule upon his own novel, A Void, which determined that it was written completely without the use of the vowel “e”. The 1960s brought us to the opposite end of Max Ernst’s pursuit of the irrational, when the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt could describe his process thus: “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”
In the case of these artists, there is no difficulty in such limitations as he puts on himself. They can, in fact, be liberating. But what happens when he invites the spectator to join him?
Another way in which artists of the avant garde have worked toward the erasure of the artist and the dematerialization of the artwork is through the collective or collaborative ephemeral project that occurs outside the market and the museum. But attempts to evade the arms of the market driven art world have so-far been doomed, because an artist has no art career if his name never appears. These are the questions raised by Heath Ritch’s work, and the historical art context in which his work should be seen.
Heath Ritch’s works are mazes. Like a riddle or a crossword puzzle, the maze is a game devised to challenge and to amuse, whereby it can retain the uselessness (and therefore the value) of an artwork. In this case, Ritch tapes the boundary lines on the wall. The viewer is then allowed to try to reach the end or “exit” by drawing within the boundary walls in chalk. When the tape is removed, we are left with the resulting line drawing. The one I saw at Starland was on the wall, and the three that will be at Alexander Hall will be on the wall. At the Jepson, I understand the maze will be on the floor, maybe because it is happening at the same time as a children’s day at the museum.
Ritch has formulated three rules for his participants to follow. These are his own rules and not the usual rules for solving mazes; they pertain to his interest in the finished art project. I’ll paraphrase here: (1) there must be no stopping to look ahead as you make your path; (2) you may only draw on the wall if the path you have chosen is a new path – if someone else has drawn on it, you jump that line until you reach a new pathway you would like to travel; (3) if you hit a dead end, your turn is over and you are no longer allowed to interact with the maze.
I note the use of the word “collaboration”, a word newly appreciated and used within the corporate milieu, now that it no longer has a social and political venue. Since the reason behind the cooptation of such words is to destroy their original, subversive meaning, those of us who believe in the concept will have to develop a new word for it.
I remember a kind of street artwork in 1970 that was started by one person and joined into by a whole town. It was in response to the massive death toll (estimated at 500,000) from the cyclone in Bangladesh. Someone put up a sign on the pavement of a little seaside village in England that merely read, “Leave Pennies.” And people did.
All along the sidewalk a trail of pennies wandered uselessly; small clumps featured here and there, but mostly they meandered on, a silent reminder of an innumerable loss of life and what made life possible in that far off place.
It resonated with me because of its anonymity. No artist’s name. No contributors’ names. Nothing but the action it took to place those pennies on the street. The pennies may have blown away with the wind off the sea, as the sea had blown away so many distant lives. But this had been a true collaboration, a spiritual joining of hands in communion with despair.
Ritch is a conceptual artist and mazes are an ancient and metaphysical sport. Games like this should be played on the streets amid the population, with the rules being laid down by all who play. They are too serious for museums and art galleries. Their philosophical underpinnings are way beyond the curator’s ability to decode.
But that might finally work to our advantage. All games are metaphors in the end. And all mazes have an exit.
A collaborative installation of wall drawings by Heath Ritch at SCAD's Alexander Hall. The exhibtiion can be seen at Open Studio Night on Oct. 25 at 5 p.m. and at the Jepson Center for the Arts on Nov. 1 from 10 a.m.-1 p.m.