Durational Devices

By Annie Godfrey Larmon


In her 1980 collection of essays, Diana & Nikon, Janet Malcolm wrote, “all the canonical works of photography retain some trace of the medium's underlying, life-giving, accident-proneness.” Deborah Wing-Sproul’s work is generous to that very trace of life-giving accident across mediums—it underscores the profundity of the unexpected, the mutation, and the indeterminate spontaneity of nature. In each of her performances, videos, sculptures, photographs, and prints, Wing-Sproul employs a rigorously spare economy of gestures and formal constraints within which the unpredictable is allowed to unfold. Her peripatetic practice has taken her, specifically, to the extreme borders of the North Atlantic Ocean. These far-flung sites have offered a kind of distributed locus in which to consider liminality, transformation, and scale, and to execute performances that are deeply invested in the body and its being in and of the world.

Wing-Sproul’s acute engagement with the body has evolved from her early years as a dancer and choreographer. In the late 70s and through the 80s, she studied under Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, and Douglas Dunn. While she later turned from her training to study visual art, she translated the formal inquiries proposed by dance into her subsequent work, and across her objects and performances we see a deep investment in movement, temporality, and embodiment. In 2009 and 2010, Wing-Sproul was a member of the group Marina Ambromovic trained to re-perform her seminal works at the Museum of Modern Art. Many connections can be drawn between the work of the two artists: both wrestle with exhaustion and endurance, activity and passivity, inward and outward expression, and structure and improvisation. But where Ambromovic theatrically sculpts her artistic persona, Wing-Sproul empties out her form, seeming to vacate her body by assuming an explicit neutrality, in expression and dress, that allows any viewer to map their own subjectivity onto her performing figure.

Wing-Sproul arrived in Maine in 2005, and while she did not turn to the state for its specific artistic traditions, the northerly climate and the tidal pull of the North Atlantic undoubtedly informed her work. In each work in the ongoing video series Tidal Culture, the artist sits unmoving before the vast Atlantic Ocean. She has visited six sites since 2004, beginning with Maine, and moving on to Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and the Outer Hebrides. The artist sits with her back to the camera, her form overwhelmed by the landscape. Each performance is open to the unscripted turns of the tide, the birds overhead, and rainfall, recalling John Cage's dictum that “there is no such thing as silence.” These prolonged, single shot videos emphasize that there is always something occurring outside the punctum of the captured image, outside the intentions of the artist, outside the drama of the ego-something that nevertheless resonates.

“My body is not an autobiographical body,” she says of the project. “I am merely a stand-in for the viewer. I do not presume to be having an experience that is uniquely ‘mine.’” This attempt to abnegate bounded subjectivity reveals the artist’s effort to strip socialized structures and narratives back, to focus on the very simple but nonetheless infinitely confounding sensation of existing in the world. For the artist, the ocean serves as an entropic force, but also as the connective tissue between cultures, bodies, and time. She makes impermanent, utilitarian objects out of seaweed sourced from the sites of her various performances. She carefully crafts slippers, vests, spoons, and bowls—artifacts that reference the body—which disintegrate over time. Likewise, Wing-Sproul’s body, sitting before the expanse of nature for long durations, visually integrates into her surround. Her projects always test and seek to expand the perception—her own, and that of her audience—of scale, be it temporal or spatial.

In Tidal Culture, Wing-Sproul looks outward. Her struggle to remain extremely still-expressed, we imagine, as the twitch of a limb or a strained facial expression—is foreclosed to the viewer. This compositional tactic arrives via 19th-century German Expressionism, in particular via the landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich, who mastered the trope of figures depicted from behind, beholding their environment. Such figures, Rückenfiguren, allow the viewer to insert themselves into the scene. These figures passively suggest a focal point that is not in fact themselves, but the landscape they observe.

Conversely, the performances in the ongoing series Durational Devices reveal internal exertion and stamina, homing the viewer into the subtle intensity of action performed under severe restraint. For the five performances in this series, the artist designed variously-sized aluminum carts on which she assumes a position—supine, prone, fetal, or in child’s pose—that she maintains for two hours. In each position, the artist grasps a drawing utensil—graphite, oil sticks, an etching needle or stylus—such that it will trace the surface below her. Once in position, Wing-Sproul uses her toes, which barely graze the floor, to inch over the concrete, copper plate, or aluminum below her. In this way, she produces an indexical trace, which she cannot see and can hardly control due to her restricted pose. Each device presents a different series of constraints and possibilities, affecting the marks she subsequently makes on the floor. These performances render the artist, and her work as an extension, vulnerable to the whim of the environment, to accident, and to her own surrender. By reducing what is available to her—in terms of movement, vision, tools—she explores different kinds of seeing, feeling, thinking, and producing. Her audience likewise enters into a space of endurance, asked to share the silence for two hours in order to become open to the nuanced shifts in the artist's actions and in the dynamic that is generated by a particular constellation of people occupying a particular space.

The Durational Devices conceptually owe something to Surrealist automatist drawing and Yves Klein’s Anthropometries body prints, in that they distance mark-making from the design or intention of the artist through a predetermined constraint. But moreover, they recall Shigeko Kubota’s 1965 Vagina Painting, whose title is sufficiently instructive, and Janine Antoni’s 1993 Loving Care, in which the artist painted directly onto the floor using her hair as an applicator. Like these latter works—each also a kind of drawing performance—Wing-Sproul’s Durational Devices engage questions of labor; in this case, the body's relationship to machines. Each of Wing-Sproul’s carts, like any device produced to modify or assist the performance of labor, dictates the range of movement available to its user. As the more explicitly feminist efforts of Kubota and Antoni also make evident, expression is always subject to the limitations of one’s tools. Wing-Sproul’s performances address contemporary labor in broader terms. As automation and immaterial labor alike transform our understanding of what it means to work today, it is easy to lose sight of the very material, very physical labor that persists; labor that is so often foisted on people with no means of self-representation, who are often not visible in such debates. Wing-Sproul’s body—variously appearing to be engaged in ritual, torture, prayer, sport, or surrender—cedes control to her industrial aluminum carts, but she also makes a mark. She makes visible the specific gestures of the laboring body. Her mark illustrates the difference, the chaos, the accident, and the agency that remains in the laboring subject, despite the extremity of its limitations.