Last updated: November 17, 2012 3:07 am

Tubular belles

The works of architect Vito Acconci, DesignMiami/’s designer of the year, are informed by his past as a performance artist
A rendering of the Klein Bottle Playground by Vito Acconci©Courtesy of Acconci Studio

A rendering of the Klein Bottle Playground

The problem with being a performance artist and presenting a piece where you lie masturbating beneath a ramp in a gallery for two weeks vocalising your desire for those walking unseen above you is that the event will dominate your oeuvre for the rest of your career. Such is the fate of Vito Acconci, the 71-year-old New York native who created the above work, called “Seedbed”, in 1972, and is still hearing about it 40 years later. Even the fact that he abandoned art for architecture and design in the 1980s, officially opening his office Acconci Studio in Brooklyn in 1988, hasn’t dinted his reputation for self-abuse beneath the floorboards.

Perhaps being accorded the title of designer of the year at next month’s DesignMiami/ will help to alter the situation. “I would certainly like to think that it will bring him some of the respect and attention he deserves,” says DesignMiami/’s Austrian director Marianne Goebl. At the New York announcement, according to Goebl, a range of media and museum types of all ages came out as huge fans; a cultural attaché revealed a Vito Acconci tattoo he’d received at DesignMiami/ in 2007. “I hope Miami is a huge success for him, and I’ll be proved right,” she declared.

As designer of the year, Acconci will create a public project for the city of Miami, in his case a children’s playground that is likely to be completed in 2014. (Predecessors including Marc Newson and Konstantin Grcic have, respectively, added a slick steel fence for a high school and a system of swing seating that will eventually have pride of place outside the Herzog and de Meuron-designed Miami Art Museum when it opens in 2015.) But for DesignMiami/ itself, Acconci will install a show in two empty retail spaces in the Design District. “What I’d like to do is create something like a tangible virtual space,” he told me last week, after he’d returned from a weekend visit to the location. “Maybe something in transparent or mesh-like materials, with a lot of sound and voice – I used my voice a lot in my pre-architecture work.”

In fact, Acconci was a poet before he became a performance artist, and language still keenly informs the work of Acconci Studio. “We talk a lot. That’s the process – group thinking, talking and arguing. If something is going to be public, it can’t start private.”

Vito Acconci©Courtesy of Acconci Studio

“It was fascinating when he visited the spaces in Miami,” says Goebl. “He takes a strong verbal approach, it’s about talking, not computer-aided drawings. You can feel the poet.”

In the performance that followed the poetry, Acconci used his own body as the starting point of every piece. For one, he sat down and bit himself everywhere he could reach, then highlighted the marks with printer’s ink. For another he filled his mouth to gagging point with a woman’s hair (while still attached to her head). He danced with his own shadow. “It was the late 1960s, early 1970s,” he says now. “Everyone was trying to find themselves. So I did. With myself.”

Lobby for the Time Being (2010) at the Bronx Museum of Arts©Courtesy of Acconci Studio

Lobby for the Time Being (2010) at the Bronx Museum of Arts

Acconci was never out purely to shock. His obsessive archives of his performance work (hundreds of manila envelopes stored in the Brooklyn studio) reveal a continuous thread of analysis and investigation into human interactions and relationships. “Seedbed”, for example, had several daintier antecedents that explored sexual attraction to unseen or anonymous persons. In one, called “Specification Piece” from 1970, he sent a telegram each day to a gallery expressing desire for a hypothetical visitor. “You in the orange shirt,” it might say, “I want you.” Photographs of the time show visitors quizzically reading the telegrams and unable to resist checking if they’re indeed wearing an orange shirt that day.

Apart from a constant negotiation of the body, there is a continual thread of humour in Acconci’s work. His father, who arrived from Abruzzo in Italy aged 11 and became a bathrobe manufacturer in the Bronx (where Vito grew up), was, according to his son, “entranced by the American language. He loved the songs of Cole Porter, and making endless puns. I grew up knowing that laughter was important, and that humour was more important than tragedy.”

Acconci says now that he changed his practice because of its dependence on the gallery system and the 1980s art world’s increasingly unattractive relationship with money. “Art goers are very few,” he continues, “and I wanted stuff to be available to everybody, to attract and puzzle people. It’s not that I’m interested in space, it’s the people in the space. I wanted to make design and architecture that made people freer. Usually architecture tells you what to do.”

Mur Island (2003) in Graz, Austria©Courtesy of Acconci Studio

Mur Island (2003) in Graz, Austria

His 2002 building in Graz, Austria, certainly makes some attempt at this. A floating platform that looks like a giant seashell in the river Mur, it contains a café and an amphitheatre but is really there to confuse and be explored. “It’s not an easy space,” says Marianne Goebl, who came upon it by chance during Graz’s year as city of culture in 2003. “It really pushes the idea of inside and outside, and it’s meant to be taken over by people rather than have a specific function. It felt like a spectacular discovery when I first saw it.”

A tunnel through a building that is under construction in Indianapolis, in which LEDs will be triggered by those walking and cycling through, “is another attempt to make a space that changes with you”, says Acconci. “It’s based on a swarm of fireflies.”

Acconci’s playground was first devised in 2000 for the Swiss NGO Art for the World, one of a series of propositions voted for by children in a number of cities. A continuous transparent tube, based on the Klein Bottle – a mathematical model in which there is no inside or outside but one continuous surface, itself a 3D interpretation of the Moebius strip – it was first choice in both Milan and Beirut. “I don’t have children, though I love other people’s,” says Acconci. “I want to retain some of the magic and awe of childhood. I decided early on not to have any. I don’t like the idea of the child seeing the parent as superior. I’m sure they learn quickly that you’re not and then spend the intervening years working out how soon it is before they can get away from you.”

Instead Acconci has wedded himself to his work, though not for economic reasons. “We’re always in financial trouble,” he says of his studio, which was down to a skeleton staff of studio manager, archivist and two designers before DesignMiami/ came along. “And I’m not saying it’s great. But then what do I need? I have a lot of books and CDs. And I wear the same clothes every day. There are enough decisions to make when you’re doing work. I don’t need any more.”

DesignMiami/ is at Miami Beach, Florida, December 5-9. www.designmiami.com

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'Resin Fossil Table #02' by Nucleo

Fibre glass and polyester resin create this “Resin Fossil Table #02” by Nucleo, a design collective based in Turin, Italy, and shown at Gabrielle Ammann gallery

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“Out of the Workshop of Tiffany” is a witty trompel’oeil effect brooch (2012) by German designer Gerd Rothmann made in gold and zirconia. At Ornamentum, a small gallery specialising in contemporary jewellery based in Hudson, New York

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