Saturday, February 25, 2017

French Artist Spending a Week in a Boulder Reminds Me of Kafka's Hunger Artist

Winter scene in Prague.
This week the Art Daily eNewsletter carried a story about an artist who is planning to hatch chicks after spending time locked inside a rock. The press conference and photo shoot that was to precede this event took place on Monday, February 20. The performance artist is Abraham Poincheval.

The 12-ton boulder he is now entombed in for a week is made of limestone. Whether the numeral 12 is significant is hard to say, but the number of chicken eggs he'll hope to hatch using his body heat is 12 as well.

The hollowed out boulder is not cave-like, but rather more custom-formed to his body. He'll not have a lot of room in there so it made me curious as to how he planned to address the practical matters of urine and excrement. Evidently it made some of the journalists covering this story wonder the same thing and before entering his limestone tomb he caved in and said he would urinate into the water bottles he has there, after he drank them.

According to a UPI story the artist explained what his art project was about in this way: "The purpose is to feel the aging stone inside the rock," he said. "There is my own breathing, and then the rock which lives, still humid because it was extracted not so long ago from the quarry. So there is that flow, that coming and going, between myself and the stone."

Poincheval's previous art project involved spending two weeks inside a stuffed bear.

* * * *
At the Franz Kafka house in Prague.
As I read about the above art project, I couldn't help but recall to mind a famous Franz Kafka story about hunger artists. His story begins with this statement.

In the last decades interest in hunger artists has declined considerably.

It's a great opening line. It implies that hunger artists were once in vogue, but have now become passé, as if it were a great tragedy for these once important artists. After that introductory statement Kafka continues:

Whereas in earlier days there was good money to be earned putting on major productions of this sort under one’s own management, nowadays that is totally impossible. Those were different times. Back then the hunger artist captured the attention of the entire city. From day to day while the fasting lasted, participation increased. Everyone wanted to see the hunger artist at least daily. During the final days there were people with subscription tickets who sat all day in front of the small barred cage. And there were even viewing hours at night, their impact heightened by torchlight. On fine days the cage was dragged out into the open air, and then the hunger artist was put on display particularly for the children.

Upon reading Poincheval's story again, one wonders then what's the point of housing oneself inside a rock and then sitting on a dozen chicken eggs till they hatch? Why not just write a story about it? Is the artist, Mr. Poincheval, truly seeking personal revelations and self-understanding? If so, then why all the PR and media magnification? Clearly the media coverage is an essential part of this event and his experience. Would he be doing this on the back forty of his father's farm in the absence of media exposure?

Kafka's "hunger artist" chose public locations because he desired fame and recognition. Perhaps this is to some extent the point of the story, this extreme dedication to one's art in pursuit of public affirmation. Perhaps it's not unlike the 1930s barnstormers who were essentially aerial stuntmen in search of their own affirming crowds and fans. Those performers, aerial artists, were also producing a death defying show like the hunger artist, except rather than 40 days of fasting they did 40 minutes of stunt flying.

Which brings me back to living seven days inside a chunk of limestone and a month of sitting on eggs. What is it that our French artist is striving to achieve? Accolades for an absurd art form that as yet appears fairly meaningless? Or perhaps he's hoping to start a movement. Perhaps one day I will find a way to reach him and ask him myself.

Read Kafka's The Hunger Artist

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