Opinion: A God at the Center of His Own Universe

John Bock, standing center, was joined by, from left, Colin Stillwell, Audrey Chen, and Leslie Bloom at a Watermill Center performance on Saturday night. Jennifer Landes

   We all should write a thank you note to Robert Wilson for locating his grand experiment in arts sponsorship on the South Fork.
    There is a kind of morose nostalgia sometimes about what is considered the heyday of art making here in the mid-20th century. I am often guilty of promulgating the nostalgia for glory times past. But we ignore the bold and innovative experiments taking place here and now at our own expense. This laboratory Mr. Wilson has created, a wonderfully repurposed old Western Union plant on Water Mill-Towd Road, reminds us that the South Fork can still be a setting for bold creativity on an international scale with appropriate relevance to our present.
    This weekend the art fairs set around the Art Dealers Association of America and Armory shows in New York City drew many East Enders west to see them. Meanwhile, many visitors in for those fairs opted to board a bus provided by the Watermill Center on Saturday to attend a concert there by John Bock, titled “Lecker Puste” or “Delicious Breath.”
    The echo of French and German voices filled the gallery and concert space, giving the event a feeling of worldly consequence. Mr. Bock, a German artist, was selected as one of eight finalists in a competition held by the Métamatic Research Initiative. The Amsterdam-based group is devoted to promoting research into the legacy of Jean Tinguely, a 20th-century Swiss painter and sculptor who died in 1991. His work was concerned with movement and time-based ideas and mechanisms.
    Tinguely was also one of the first artists in the 1950s to produce happenings, art with an element of performance or spectacle mixed with the ephemeral, although documentation of such events was common. Even in his less active works there is an implication of static energy, and his sculptures communicate with the viewer, engaging them in a kind of interaction with the nonhuman forms he devised. According to Museum Tinguely in Basel, “they also reveal a feeling for tragicomedy, for the enigmatic and inscrutable.”
    The Métamatic group aimed to capture these elements when it issued a call for proposals. “Lecker Puste” was one of 297 submissions. The interactive element of Mr. Bock’s work is similar to that of Tinguely. Whether he is actually physically there or not, his presence is often implied or replicated through video. His sculptures may contain or focus on mechanical movements, but he often incorporates a softer, more human element if only to contrast the differences and dehumanizing effects of objects in a post-industrial world.
    In his performance on Saturday night, the stage was set with his factory of primitive and vaguely functioned devices constructed from the detritus of contemporary living, a seat for a cellist surrounded by soft sculptures, a Foley artist for sound effects, and enough space for a dancer giving life to the themes of Marcel Duchamp’s “Large Glass” or “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” promised in the production notes for the piece. The themes mingle with Tinguely’s, since Duchamp’s erotic (in his words) themes are communicated solely with mechanical and dehumanized imagery.
    The dancer mimed one or a combination of the “bachelor” forms in Duchamp’s piece — empty suits or carved objects — and he stripped and redressed himself in familiar articles, inside out and backwards. He might stand this way for a while or tie a shoelace to his toe and dangle the shoe from it in an awkward, duck-like dance, revolving around the stage much as the spinning clothesline in Duchamp’s piece implies the same movement.
    The dancer is ancillary, however. It is Mr. Bock’s universe and he, like a god, is at the center of its myths and power. His contraptions each have a predetermined visual and aural impact that he embellishes with additional materials.
    From the white plaster he forms and plays with on a white hinged base that presses the mixture into an oozing flatness to the liquid he pours into the open bottoms of three inverted plastic water bottles connecting to squiggles of metal and plastic tubing and into a long, penis-shaped receptacle covered with a man’s black sock that extrudes a stream of the intermingled liquids onto the floor, he creates nothing but visual interest. The visual purity of the white on white of the first contrasts with the later intermingling of the colors of carrot, cranberry, and green vegetable juices and a shot of hot pink opaque Pepto-Bismol thrown in toward the end. There is even a “small glass,” a rearview mirror-sized piece of Plexiglas hand-sewn to a wire frame that he paints and erases, leaving an empty void in the center surrounded by a white border.
    Each of these tasks is accompanied by the amplified sound effects produced at stage right by a man at a table. Sloshing water, squeezing clay, clopping coconut shells, and other endeavors provide an enhanced sound coordinated to the artist’s movements and activities. Their mutual choreography and its success appears to delight them both, as if they too are surprised and amused by it. The cellist uses her instrument to extract squeaks, moans, and wails when she is not making the same versions of the sounds with her voice. As much as the sound effects performer plays up the mechanical elements, the cellist introduces the human response, and it is not a joyful one.
    Another human element in the piece is a rubberized head of a man propped up on a pedestal. Mr. Bock has some lurid fun with this stand-in, attacking it with hangers, fists, sticks, and other objects. He forces a bloodlike substance from its mouth and jabs the eyes, filled with small eggs, to coax their yellow runny fillings to flow out. It is the violence promised in the production notes, a “showdown of exuberant beauty and disturbia.”
    Throughout it all, Mr. Bock seems adorably childlike in his playing as if he too is caught up in the wonder of his creation. He is a god, but immature in his authority. Playing with a colored light and Jello, he appears to burn himself, jumping back and saying “Ow,” but it is not clear whether it was an actual accident or for effect. He moves from station to station until all have been played out, returning to some a few times before he is through with the performance. He revels in the absurdity of the universe he has created. He then sets out to destroy what human element is left after the other performers have left the stage, namely the cello, using a wood chipper.
    At this point, seated in the front row, there is a palpable element of danger as pieces of the bow flip back out and the shards of the cello itself go flying. It is very American to expect that an audience attending such a function would be protected from those splinters, but the destructive danger, used as well in Tinguely’s work when he blew up two of his sculptures in America, in New York and Las Vegas, seems an apt and final element of the homage.
    The one-night only event was recorded for the Métamatic Research Initiative and will be included in its collection along with the objects used for the concert.