Oliver Herring: The Art of the Party

by Jacob Kiernan

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Oliver Herring. Areas for Action – Houston: Glitter Group. John head and face covered in Angeli’s hair, DiverseWorks, Houston, TX. 2015. Digital C-print, ink stamp. 43 x 66 inches. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

A party is a wonderland. It’s covered in glitter and adorned in gold. You’ll probably spill something. Hopefully, you’ll spill more than one thing. A good party has music that intoxicates and company that infatuates. It fills intimate nooks and palatial ballrooms, distorts space and time.

New Orleans is a unique bouillabaisse of debauchery. Berliners pack into caliginous clubs, Russians don’t stop drinking, New Yorkers gawk blithely. But New Orleanians have a special aptitude for partying. Whether it involves months of sewing or stumbling out 24-hour bar in full daylight, NOLA’ers get it going.

Unsurprising, NOLA artists have a keen eye for the celebratory. Akasha Rabut’s photographs of high school marching bands and Camel Curves—an all women’s motor cycle crew that performs at second lines—are stunning. Abdi Farah’s “Rivalry Week,” (now on display at Staple Goods) deconstructs the collective effervescence of sporting. Festivity animates their work.

Likewise, German-born artist Oliver Herring focuses his practice on ecstatic moments and wingdings.  Herring’s projects TASK and Areas for Action not only record the rhapsodic, they create it: he organizes parties as a construct of his works.

For TASK parties, Herring clears out a gallery, fills it with art supplies and sends out the invite. Upon arriving, participants write an anonymous challenge on a piece of paper and take one from the pool. The one rule of attendance: you must obey the task you are given. Partygoers must bring the challenge to fruition with whatever and whoever is around. Your assignment becomes to amuse yourself and those around you.

Once the party is in motion, Herring takes a passive role behind the camera. The right alchemy of imagination and immodesty transforms voyeurs into art makers. Subverting the power of politesse, participants cover each other in flowers, spit paint in each other’s faces and turn one another into sensational sculptures. It’s a jubilee of improvisation.

One photograph from a Dubai TASK party shows a little girl cocooned to her father in bubble wrap. As she extends her arms gleefully forward, he carries her in his stomach: they are a two-headed, four-armed chimera. Herring’s photograph captures the monstrous moment of intimacy.

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Oliver Herring. Areas for Action, Day 17: Mondrian Miek (Ian), Ian towards the end of the performance, Meulensteen Gallery, New York, NY. 2010. Digital C-print, ink stamp. 58 x 40 inches. Image Courtesy of the Artist.

Areas for Action fosters a like revelry. Combining performative, sculptural and musical elements, Herring organizes a series of successive parties. He takes photographs each day and prints them out to integrate into the next day’s performance. People wear photographic mosaics of themselves and strangers as a second skin. Gender, identity and nudity are twisted, torn and taped back together.

Both TASK and Areas for Action have gone viral. AFA has been performed in Beijing, Kyoto, Shenzhen, Houston, Chengdu and Dubai. TASK parties have been thrown around the country independent of Herring. The bedlam is contagious.

However, TASK and AFA are more than just jollity. From Lucas Samaras to William Eggleston, the figure of the artist is one often perceived as lone creator. Herring disrupts this image, fostering art making that is essentially collective. He creates a shared effervescence that ignites and excites creativity. Partygoers are as important to the process as recording them, for the work of art is the party.

Henri Cartier-Bresson theorized that a picture could capture “a decisive moment:” a moment that was transitory but expressed a greater truth about the world. This became the guiding philosophy of Magnum and the foundation of contemporary documentary photography. Herring wonders if the photography can capture a decisive moment of something so fleeting as fun.

The answer is found in the unique way he documents contingency. Herring photographs partygoers extemporizing, repurposing everyday material, flirting with new identities and letting go of the conventions to which they have become so accustomed. Picking a task is as easy as picking a stranger to perform it with, and the play is joyfully ephemeral. Herring’s photographs exhibit the rediscovery of childish optimism and ludic exchanges.

In essence, Herrings parties turn the sacred into the profane and vice versa. Zombie-like figures gleefully spit paint into each other’s mouths, lifeless ingénues are covered in blankets of glitter, tin foil is used to make crowns and phallic adornment. A carnivalesque environment, rules become ridiculous and chaos humorous. The concept of a task itself is ironized as the collective transgresses propriety and is liberated to create.

We will never be without tasks, rules and material environment. But Herring satirizes the construct of our goals and rules, creating a space to subvert them. The parties disrupt the norm by injecting playfulness and encouraging the accidental as occupation. They open up a wonderland of eventuality.

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