Art in the City: Disrupting Art and Scene

by Catherine Trifiletti

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s Spring Gala featured Jennifer Rubell’s latest interactive art performance “Send in the Clowns.”

Clowns from Jennifer Rubell’s “Send in the Clowns” performance at the Hirshhorn Gala on May 12. (Photo by Ben Droz)

Within my Google rabbit hole researching New York-based artist Jennifer Rubell, it didn’t take long to learn that her nonconformist body of work is a steady attempt to shake up the traditional dynamic between viewer and art object. One of her recent installations, for example, invited visitors to pie her in the face and then text her afterwards (her cell phone number was nonchalantly listed on several of the paintings on view). In the first few minutes of our phone conversation, Rubell eloquently confirms that her niche exists outside of the traditional art space – one that she says divisively separates the audience from the art in front of them. Her work pushes back against “The idea that art is something that you can’t touch, can’t taste, can’t smell and also can’t really have an opinion about because it has already been decided whether its good or bad,” she explains. According to the artist’s philosophy, active participation trumps passive viewing. This approach has inspired many of her notable interactive installations, several of which involve food. A few years ago she invited visitors of the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ “No Mans Land” exhibit to crack nuts between the legs of a female blow up doll (“Lysa III”).

Her artistic ethos didn’t develop in a vacuum. Rubell’s parents, Mera and Don Rubell, are avid art collectors whose Rubell Family Collection in Miami houses an extensive library of contemporary works. Having grown up fully immersed in the art scene around some of the greatest contemporaries of our time, Rubell recalls a nagging dissatisfaction with the status quo relationship between audience and art. Her work, she says “is essentially a correction of that relationship” – an attempt to draw the viewer closer to the art, to the point where it is their very engagement that elevates the piece into existence.

Jennifer’s mother Mera Rubell posing with performers. (Photo by Ben Droz)

Art was so inextricably tied to Rubell’s life and understanding of the world that she didn’t even recognize it as such. As a young girl working at one of her family’s hotels she remembers leaving anonymous love letters on guests’ pillows, not realizing at the time that this was a style of performance. It took years before she actually conceded to the classification as artist after her food performances (think cotton candy covered rooms) gained national attention and enough buzz to draw the New York Times’ head art critic to one of her participatory installations. Her use of edible props grew from her fascination with “[Inserting] pleasure into the art experience,” something that food has the distinct ability to elicit.

Earlier this year Rubell’s pie-centric installation,”Consent”, lived at the Meredith Rosen Gallery in New York City for six weeks and by the time the show’s run ended, she had endured 192 cream pies to the face – about eight a day. To her, the performance was not a twisted form of masochism, but rather a test of human empathy. From her pedestal, Rubell played with the idea of giving someone the consent to humiliate, finding that it didn’t come naturally. “I’m in a context that’s almost a cliche of an art-object context, so it allowed this kind of expression of feeling, but also forced the viewer to take responsibility for what it means to express that.” She references the ease of internet trolling when individuals are protected by the guise of a computer screen versus an intimate scenario with face to face contact. Even the eager attendees (many whose friends were geared up to video tape the social media-worthy experience), faltered once pie was in hand. “As usual my faith in human beings and our empathy and love was verified,” Rubell is happy to report.

Jennifer Rubell’s “Consent” (Photo by Jason Schmidt)

At Saturday’s Hirshhorn Gala After party, themed ‘all things ’80s,’ Rubell drew from vintage circus motifs that have captured her attention over the past few years, to create a performance titled “Send in the Clowns.” Each of the 30 performers, whom Rubell hired locally, had their own schtick, all of which summoned guests to interact for an edible prize – ” You have to sing for your supper,” Rubell explains with a laugh. Whether it was making a funny face in one clown’s mirror or helping transform a balloon into an animal with another, each performer lured party goers with the promise of a chocolate reward. The performance symbolized a deviation from the standard gala format, which Rubell aptly notes, has not evolved for decades. “The great thing about something in a box, it’s very easy to undermine it,” she says of her performance. The evening was also a homecoming of sorts for her and honoree Jeff Koons, who was recognized by the Hirshhorn for his vast contributions to modern art. Rubell once interned for Koons, a friend of her parents, who she calls the “Northstar,” in her artistic journey for his ability to derive pleasure from basic consumer and childhood objects.

Before the performance was fully underway, there was a distinct space between the clown performers and guests, a gap that physically manifested Rubell’s inherent issue with art as a passive experience. “I really set out to overthrow the dominant position that art has in relation to the viewer and to empower the viewer to have much more personal relation to the art object.” Once party goers began to engage, there was a sense of genuine enjoyment. Conservative adults throwing outside judgment to the wind, giving way to childlike laughter. “You don’t discover a clown to be,” Rubell says. “You find the clown you are.”

Click HERE for more images from the Hirshhorn Gala. 

Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton, artist and honoree Jeff Koons, Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu and Chairman of the Hirshhorn’s Board of Trustees Dan Sallick (Photo by Ben Droz)

Morgan Fykes and Diego Gonzalez-Zuniga hula hoop for their chocolate reward. (Photo by Ben Droz)

Jennifer Rubell poses with clowns. (Photo by Ben Droz)

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