Terry Fox: The Man Who Made Transcending Art About The Berlin Wall

Terry Fox, Virtual Volume (Smoke Exhalation), 1970. Photo: Barry Klinger, © Estate of Terry Fox, Köln
Terry Fox, Virtual Volume (Smoke Exhalation), 1970. Photo: Barry Klinger, copyright Estate of Terry Fox, Köln

Tom sucking Sadie, Pattie, Boogaloo, Miriam, Puffins, Helga, Fergusen, Ernest, Samantha, Spot, Arthur – “The Purrs of 11 Different Cats” is the work by Terry Fox, which opens his posthumous retrospective, “Elemental Gestures”, in Berlin. The sound piece consists of cats’ purrs, which enter the ears, address the body and create a hypnotic, enveloping environment. Placed in a white cube as bodiless scores, the purrs become abstract, dark, and tranquilising. They turn into bodily vibration, internalised and memorised in the listener’s guts.

Everyday sounds, objects, and gestures are the artistic material of California conceptual artist Terry Fox. Unlike John Cage, his aim was not to create new musical sounds, but to use sound sculpturally, as a universal language. Sound surmounts nation and intellect in a way that is impossible to achieve for any language. Freed from desire, agency, and codes of social conduct, simple sounds are democratic; all “pure” sounds are created equal. Terry Fox’s sound art stands close to Buckminster Fuller’s belief that there are no solid bodies, but merely various states of vibration in a field of constant transformation. His aim was to apply the rules of sound to performance art, and to create situations which people could enter as freely as sound enters them.

Terry Fox, Errosore, 1978. © Estate of Terry Fox, Köln
Terry Fox, Errosore, 1978. Copyright Estate of Terry Fox, Köln

The 70s were a time when the term “action” entered the realm of art, when opening a hotel, cutting grass or travelling constituted works of art and opened up new spaces of (inter-) action and conviviality, while blurring the borders of art and life. In a time when art was believed to hold an actual social and transformative force, Terry Fox’s practise aims to extend the term sculpture to the body and the everyday, incorporating sound, video and happening. His anarchic “situations” escape artistic categories and genres in an elusive, yet tangible, and humorous way. The scope of his work transcends boundaries, and very often the limits of his own body.

Terry Fox, The beginning of the “Dream of the eyetooth in the Labyrinth”, 1975. © Estate of Terry Fox, Köln
Terry Fox, The beginning of the “Dream of the eyetooth in the Labyrinth”, 1975. Copyright Estate of Terry Fox, Köln

“Situation”, “transformation”, and “labyrinth” are the cue terms of Terry Fox’s oeuvre. Elemental gestures, such as striking a match and blowing out smoke, and mundane objects are orchestrated in a way that makes bodily movement musical and sound physical. The artist’s “situations” imply site-specifity, action and object agency: they include items and substances as diverse as a bar of soap, a bowl of water, two flashlights, two bags of flours and detergent (“Environmental Surfaces”, 1971, New York). “I am dealing with objects in space and their relationship to each other, and with how my mood alters them,” is what he believed to be the core essence of his “situations”. His interest being the modification of materials – flashlights melting soap for instance – but also an open relationship with the audience, and creating a shared experience.

Terry Fox, Environmental Surfaces: Three Simultaneous Situational Enclosures, Performance with Vito Acconci, Terry Fox and Dennis Oppenheim, Reese Palley Gallery, New York, 1971. Photo: Peter Moore, © Estate of Terry Fox, Köln
Terry Fox, Environmental Surfaces: Three Simultaneous Situational Enclosures, Performance with Vito Acconci, Terry Fox and Dennis Oppenheim, Reese Palley Gallery, New York, 1971. Photo: Peter Moore, copyright Estate of Terry Fox, Köln

A particularly captivating sound piece by Terry Fox is “Berlino”, which originated during the time he spent at Künstlerhaus Bethanien at Mariannenplatz in the DAAD Artist-in-Berlin residence. He put the scores together from his private sound archive, uniting soundscapes from San Francisco, Lüttich and Berlin dating from 1979 to 1988. At Mariannenplatz, in direct vicinity of the Berlin Wall, he saw how this man-made border cut through the city, slicing through streets and even houses: this is when he created the concept for a topographic sound analysis of the Berlin Wall.

Curator Arnold Dreyblatt used the material to develop a sound installation for “Elemental Gestures”, creating a field in which the sound images gradually move from left to right, according to the scores of Terry Fox. Mirroring the wall it describes, the complete score is an endless loop, including the sound of a British military helicopter, rain, thunder and church bells captured at Mariannenplatz, and one single piano wire, stretched from a window to a cupboard in his studio. You can linger in the space of these sounds; the haunting imagery is created anew each time you enter the installation.

Terry Fox, Sound Scored from the Berlin Wall, 1981. © Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Terry Fox, Sound Scored from the Berlin Wall, 1981. Copyright of Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

In tune with the art it displays, the exhibition layout conveys the feeling of a field, which allows for dérive, the possibility to drift and oscillate between the pieces. Yet, the video pieces documenting Terry Fox’s performances seem to escape the viewer; raising the old question of how to exhibit performance art. How can we grasp and judge a situation that is transient, an event we can witness only in black and white video footage, 40 years after its execution, excluding the senses of smell, touch and bodily involvement? The small white cubes displaying his sound pieces on the other hand enable focus and concentration; a reason why “The Purrs of 11 Different Cats” and “Berlino” resonate the deepest. A true artist’s artist, Terry Fox reverberates within the works of contemporary artists who work in the relational sphere, creating situations that are ephemeral, transitional and site-specific.

The sound pieces of “Elemental Gestures” in particular succeed in opening up a space not only between the viewer and the art, but also within the listener. The elemental sounds of Terry Fox, who died in Cologne in 2008, carry stories and images that keep vibrating, circulating, and percolating.

Text by Celina Basra

“Elemental Gestures” by Terry Fox is at Akademie der Künste, Berlin, until 10 January 2016

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