Charles Garoian: Watermelon Sculpture (1972)
Third post in a series about the installations that are in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Project Los Altos program
In the 1970s and early 1980s, art instructor Charles Garoian included performance art as part of his overall curriculum, placing the students of Los Altos High School on the cutting edge of modern art. Whether an action involved students slicing up watermelons and arranging the pieces in a grid pattern or community participants dropping off ice at the school to create a collaborative sculpture, Garoian's embrace of non-traditional expression in a high school setting inspired a generation of Los Altos students. Although performance art is, by its very nature, ephemeral and impossible to reproduce in a gallery setting, photographic documentation of several actions from the SFMOMA's permanent collection have been put into a slideshow and loop continuously on a TV.
Visitor reactions to the Garoian slideshow fall into two categories: former students and everyone else. Former students, friends of the artist, and people affiliated with Los Altos High School are generally very enthusiastic about the images, because they remember participating in the actions and loving it. They happily watch the pictures through the entire loop, often sharing their memories with children or friends or gallery attendants. As community outreach, it's great.
Then there's the rest of the population, the ones who didn't grow up in Los Altos during the applicable years, or folks from out of town. They walk right by the TV screen without batting an eye. If I point out the TV and describe the project a little, they might watch a few pictures slide by before walking away. There's a strong indifference to the images.
I am not a fan of performance art, or process-oriented work in general. Specifically, I think that when a piece is about the process then the end result is often not strong enough to stand on its own, and just doesn't work as a display in a museum. Perhaps if the documentation had been a video, with interviews with the artist and the students involved interspersed with scents of the project in motion, it would be more engaging - but as it is, this series of photos is like looking at a stranger's scrapbook and trying to piece together meaning with only a few broad descriptions and unfamiliar faces staring back at you.
But I'm glad that this brings back memories for long-time Los Altos residents, and I know that having such a strong performance component to these students' art education was an incredible, unique experience. Charles Garoian should be praised for being willing to challenge his students (and the school's administration) and helping them think about what art is and how it can be. It's just unfortunate that it's so difficult to channel that same energy, drive and passion through a passive slide show today.