The Art of Fieldwork


Simon Fujiwara, The Museum of Incest: A Guided Tour, 2009 (performance), courtesy of Neue Alte Brücke, Frankfurt

In 2008, the New York-based artist Ellie Ga joined the crew of the Tara, a sailboat drifting in the Arctic Ocean as part of a scientific expedition, occupying the incongruous position of the ship’s “artist-in-residence” among a team of scientific researchers. The role of “artist in residence” on a scientific expedition is a malleable one, without clearly defined parameters, thus Ga decided that her project would be to become the ship’s archivist, attempting to capture the various facets of life aboard the Tara: the ways in which the crew organized the world around them without conventional landmarks; how they entertained themselves; the sense of uncertainty that results from following the whims of weather patterns, never quite knowing where they would move next; as well as her own personal associations and insights about the expedition and their surroundings, unburdened by the demands of scientific fact or reportage.

In the resulting body of work, which has taken various forms, including lectures, performances, slideshows, and videos, her personal narratives and memories often occupy a central role. In the performance Reading the Deck of Tara at the Lower East Side gallery Bureau in 2011, visitors were given one-on-one readings with the artist herself, in which she used a custom deck of cards inspired by those used in fortunetelling to relay aspects of her life aboard Tara. Each visitor’s particular cards determined the form and content of the narrative, with each reading—and thus each version of the story she’d tell—being particular to that visitor, the performance’s element of chance echoing the movement of a ship adrift.

Ellie Ga, Reading the Deck of Tara installation (2011)

Borrowing methods from various disciplines, from sociology to fiction writing, Ga is one of a number of younger contemporary artists whose work is tied to a kind of artistic fieldwork, investigating aspects of their lives and interests by merging the apparent objectivity of documentary forms and anthropological research with a plainly subjective, flexible approach, drawing on multiple methodologies and discourses. While the “archival impulse” in contemporary art is hardly a new phenomenon, and research-oriented practices have arguably become the norm rather than the exception, what seems to differentiate work like Ga’s from those that fall under the broad, often contested banner of “relational,” “dialogical,” or “socially-engaged art,” is that the endgame here isn’t to offer a historiographic corrective or engage an outside community; rather...