“The Only Things That are Unchangeable are Tombstones”: Vito Acconci (1940-2017)

Vito Acconci in 1973. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Vito Acconci, a towering figure in the history of performance art, and more recently known for his experimental architecture, has died at the age of 77. The cause of death was a stroke, according to the art dealer Kenny Schachter, who showed his work.

Born in the Bronx in 1940, Acconi came to fame in the 1970s, and remains best known for his unsettling work of that time period. As Randy Kennedy wrote last year in the New York Times on the occasion of a tribute to the artist’s early work at MoMA Ps1, “The genetic impact of his performances, photographs, and video works from just an eight-year period – 1968 to 1976 – is so pervasive that it is difficult to trace.”

Among the best known, and sometimes infamous, pieces of his early period is Following Piece (1969), which saw him stalk random strangers on the street until they entered a private space, and Trademarks (1970), for which the artist sat on the ground, naked, biting his own body, then filling the bite marks with ink and using his body as a human stamp.

An image from the film “Seedbed,” by Vito Acconci, from 1972. Credit Acconci Studio, New York, and the Museum of Modern Art.

Acconci’s most deliberately discomfiting work is likely Seedbed (1972), for which he secreted himself beneath a false floor at the Sonnebend Gallery, muttering obscenities into a microphone and masturbating as visitors passed over.

As with a performance art peer like Chris Burden, Acconci’s career trajectory went from exploring the raw vulnerability of the body to spectacular, sometimes odd installations, such as Adjustable Wall Bra (1990-91), in the Museum of Modern Art collection, a 17-foot brazier made to attach to a gallery wall, created at a time when he identified as a “former performance artist.”

In the 1980s, Acconci made the turn to an experimental architecture practice. Among his most famous commissions is the experimental, transformable façade for the Storefront for Art and Architecture, created with the architect Steven Holl in 1992. Rendering the architecture permeable between private and public, this architectural installation can, in its way, be been seen as a continuation of the queasier themes of public and private in Following Piece and Seedbed.

The Studio’s works, however, could create truly unexpected spaces, like the seashell-like Mur Island in the city in Graz, made to be a bridge, theater, café, and playground at once, made in 2003 for the Austrian city’s stint as European Capital of Culture.

The Murinsel in Graz, Austria, designed by Vito Acconci in 2003. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In 1988, he founded Acconci Studio, and has concentrated on architecture. In a 2007 interview with Architectural Record, Acconci was asked what he preferred about architecture to art. His answer shows the unexpected modes of thinking he was able to bring to both:

The beautiful thing about architecture, it does have the anticipation of renovation always built into it, which I find so refreshing from art because art is supposed to be unchangeable. The only things that are unchangeable are tombstones.

This feature was originally published on artnet News, one of our partners.

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