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Trolling The Express or Social Practice End Game: Mark Cameron Boyd on Eliot Hicks’s “Versus”

A stand of metal bleachers, devoid of ornament or fanfare, occupy one of the Corcoran Museum’s galleries, not facing “out” at us viewers but aimed at an empty wall. Maximum capacity is listed as 50, and we are allowed to sit there, but it’s also possible that no one will be seated on any day that you encounter this work.

Versus is the Thesis Project of Eliot Hicks and it’s included in NEXT 2015, an exhibition of the Corcoran School of Art and Design’s BFA candidates under the auspices of George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. As an example of pre-fabricated, industrial metalwork the bleachers are formidable in their understated structure and humble detail. But it is as an artwork that this object challenges both the novice museum visitor who may question it’s very presence there, as well as the visitor familiar with theories of art now over 100 years old. After all, Versus is a readymade and it must bear the weight of Marcel Duchamp’s original concept.

Eliot understands the responsibilities of this burden and readily acknowledges Duchamp’s legacy. Moreover, he speaks of “how manufactured objects allow for a shift in the reception and production of art objects.” However, because many museum visitors will now accept commercial objects appropriated as art, a young artist like Eliot Hicks must add something unique to the readymade experience.

This is where Versus excels because this pref-fab object’s functional use is manifested through action; the true purpose of the bleachers is completed when we sit on them. Like Marx said, “A dress becomes really a dress only by being worn.” Thus, these bleachers are “an object for the active subject.”

During Eliot’s Final Critique last week, one faculty member remarked that Versus might represent the “endgame of social practice art.” In his written Thesis Statement Eliot has envisioned viewers “witnessing the activity that had been stolen from them.” Versus certainly encourages visitor participation, an important methodology of social practice, and Eliot wants the bleachers to be used, whether we sit, or watch others sitting there.

A readymade’s presence in a museum context requires a contemporary artist’s precision of address. Positioning these bleachers facing a blank wall causes us to ask, “What are occupants supposed to be watching?” Does this obscure Eliot’s wish for us to see the occupants as ourselves, thereby “witnessing the activity?” Rather, one might have turned the bleachers inward, to face us in the gallery, to better imagine ourselves as spectators, viewing spectators who are watching us viewing.

In response to further questions, Eliot spoke of “spectatorship” and how museum visitors would be “addressing their own perception/interpretation, while activating the symbol (the bleachers) that represents them (their action, or lack thereof) and what they’re doing, spectating.”

Perhaps this is why Eliot named this piece Versus, suggesting options for his readymade’s positional address and introducing one more topic for our engagement. It has been said that the contradictions within a work make it possible for us to engage it in the first place. The subtleties of positioning and the address of the spectator, the circularity of our spectatorship, and the legacy of the readymade in the 21st Century – all these have made Versus a standout piece in NEXT 2015, and Eliot Hicks an artist to watch.

 Mark Cameron Boyd is an artist, art critic and Professor of Critical Practice Theory at The Corcoran School. His writing lives at Theory Now.