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Introduction to The Paper Sculpture Project

On Apr 21, 2020

New York, NY, USA

Introduction to The Paper Sculpture Project and instructions on the proper use and reading of the introduction

This introduction was written by Mary Ceruti, Matt Freedman, and Sina Najafi, the curators of The Paper Sculpture Show in 2003. It was originally published in The Paper Sculpture Book, that accompanied the exhibition. The publication itself functioned as a compilation of detachable pages, each with a design for a paper sculpture to be made (or not) by the reader.


When the initial version of this project was presented in Cabinet magazine in 2001, it was noted that few readers were actually willing to sacrifice their magazines to build the sculptures. (A notable exception was an artist who, while stuck for several hours in a stalled subway car under New York's East River built all the projects. This artist has been invited to participate in the current show.) The present format is specifically designed to be taken apart and asks the readers, as urgently as is politely possible, to actually build these projects. Exhibition visitors are further requested to leave behind their completed projects for subsequent visitors to admire or criticize. By making the success of our project explicitly dependent on the collaboration of our viewers, we have raised a series of questions. None of these questions has any clear answers, nor does it seem to us that clear answers are desirable. Therefore, we propose to construct the remaining portion of this curators' essay as a kind of unresolved paper model of a paper.

We will present a series of propositions, queries, and points of debate. In the interactive, slightly unpredictable spirit of the exhibition itself, we happily leave the final organization of this introduction to the reader. Just as the ultimate conformations of the sculptures are up to the assemblers, the ultimate conclusions are to be reached by the reader. The seams of this essay (and those of most of your sculptures) will probably remain visible. Not all the tabs will be tucked in neatly, nor will all the glue drips be carefully wiped away. It is in the nature af this project that multiple resolutions of a fairly specific schematic plan are possible. What to make of this confusing freedom? This is the heart of our inquiry. We will now present a series of emphatic and absolute statements regarding the questions raised by this exhibition. If you disagree with a particular proposition, rest assured that you will find its counter-argument presented with equal fervor shortly thereafter. It is your prerogative to select and assemble the arguments you favor into the catalogue essay of your own design.


PROPOSITION I. No One Reads Introductions By Curators

It is true that hardly anyone, including ourselves, ever reads curators' introductions. You, dear reader, are one of the exceptions and you are now free to stop. To help you decide whether you wish to abandon us at this point, we would only point out that this problem of reading or not reading that which has been written anticipates the larger challenge set by the project—to build or not to build the sculptures—and poses its own paradoxical question.

SLOT A: Does an Essay Lying Unread in a Catalogue Make Any Noise

Insert either TAB 1 or TAB 2 into SLOT A

TAB 1) Yes. Read the next paragraph and then stop. It is completely unnecessary for you or anyone else to read this essay for it to do its job. It is a surprising and dismal truth, but catalogue essays are not written to be read. They lounge impressively at the front of the exhibition catalogue, radiating credibility and creating critical elbow room for the artists whose images are shortly to follow. The essay writer, often the hired gun of the gallery, is there simply to lend legitimacy to the entire enterprise, like the wine and cheese and the clean white walls. “Images without text are embarrassing,” writes Boris Groys, “like a naked person in a public space.” (1)

TAB 2) No. Read this essay. The unread essay is silent and even slightly absurd. If it is not read, then its ideas are not shared between the writer and the reader and is by definition a failed and useless thing. This book is not simply a catalogue for a show; it is, redundantly, also a book. And it is also, to be twice redundant, the show itself. The show cannot clothe itself in what Groys calls a “textual bikini,” for the essay itself is far too modest to provide much cover; it is transparent and skimpy and potentially reversible. You cannot fully experience the contingent nature of the show without embracing the compelling ambivalence of the essay. Everything contained herein is part of the show and fails or succeeds along with it. In any case, this essay has no interest in establishing a market value, for there is no market value to establish. We have nothing left to sell you once you have acquired the book. Indeed, you really don't have to buy anything at all. The artworks are free for the taking in the gallery, providing you build them first and leave them behind for the duration of the exhibition.

If you wish to continue reading the curators essay, do so only for curiosity's sake. No polemic will be unloaded on you and only a couple of famous intellectuals will stick their noses in to lend the project greater heft. We are on your side, the side of the viewer, the side Baudelaire took over 150 years ago when he launched the field of art criticism. This alliance with the public was abandoned in recent decades when the professional art critic, in search of friends and patronage, jumped the fence and became the lapdog of the art world. We will not drape the artworks coyly in words. We are old-fashioned exhibitionists who strive only to provide you with as clear an idea as possible of the impulses that drove us to organize this exhibition, and of the thoughts that occur to us now that we contemplate the project as a whole.

PROPOSITION II. You Must Build These Projects

In a sense, most art exhibitions are dead by the time the first viewer steps into the gallery. Whatever was done to make the works on display good or bad, interesting or not, was accomplished by the artists, possibly aided and abetted by the curator, before the art moved into public view. Opinions may vary as to the success or failure of an exhibition, but essentially all opinions are autopsy reports. Here, on the other hand, the viewer is not merely an onlooker but to a significant degree also the maker of the show. Viewers construct the works according to the directions of the absent artists. Even more importantly, the show develops as the built projects accumulate in the exhibition venue. How well or how poorly viewers construct their projects and engage in the de facto collaboration with other visitors will determine the amount of pleasure and instruction subsequent visitors derive from the show. Far from being dead, the exhibition is constantly being born and reborn. This proposition, however, is more controversial than it might at first appear. It can be argued that the sculptures should not be built at all. You can assemble this argument or its counter-argument as you see it, using the following information.

SLOT B: The Unmade Paper Sculptures

Insert either TAB 3, TAB 3.1, or TAB 4 into SLOT B.

TAB 3) … An Utter Failure. The worst-case scenario is that no one builds anything and the exhibition space remains bare. Such emptiness would announce the visitors' indifference, if not their outright hostility. No conventional show leaves a trail of its own failure. A painting cannot tell you if the last person in the gallery looked at it for five enraptured minutes or sneered and turned away in an instant. In any case it is a cliché of museum culture that works of art attract the attention of each viewer for an average of less than ten seconds. Given this, The Paper Sculpture Show makes what could be considered unreasonable demands on its visitors. The simplest sculpture in this show might take five minutes to complete. You may say without fear of contradiction that you enjoyed the latest Impressionist blockbuster at the Met even if you only caught the most fleeting glimpse of a single water lily between fifteen jostling shoulders. You cannot, however, say you fully experienced The Paper Sculpture Show unless you built a paper sculpture.

TAB 3.1) … A Different Kind of Failure The unbuilt sculpture, besides falling to contribute to the evolving installation, denies the visitor the exhibition's most exquisite experience of all: the opportunity to experience the creative activity of the original artist. Not to build a sculpture is to deny yourself the evanescent and powerful palpitations of creativity; the jittery, risky, high-wire joy of making something new and shiny out of something old and familiar.

Not building the sculpture also denies you the opportunity to face one of art's most metaphysical conundrums: can we identify an exact moment when the artist's raw material magically transubstantiates into a plausible and compelling work of art? A long Jewish joke about irrational fear involving kreplach, the dumpling delicacy, is relevant here, though somewhat tedious. (2) The joke teaches us that the moment at which something in the process of creation becomes the thing its creator intends is deeply mysterious. Even if we think that this moment does not exist, our claim to distinguish art from non-art paradoxically relies on such a moment having existed. This is true of art as well as kreplach. Here in the Paper Sculpture project, however, the problem is admittedly more complicated. Did it become art when the original artist completed his or her design, and does it remain art despite all of your well-intentioned but unprofessional tinkerings? Or does it only become art the moment you finish building your version of the work, which after all was the originating artist's intent?

The fact that you follow the guidelines set by another is irrelevant; you are the ultimate creator of your artwork. Borges's Pierre Menard heroically attempted to rewrite Don Quixote word for word, hilariously finding that the same words that flew into Cervantes's seventeenth-century Spanish mercenary's mind were much more difficult to generate from the perspective of an early twentieth-century French intellectual. It can hardly be as challenging for twenty-first-century art lovers to re-imagine the creative experience of twenty-first-century artists. We acknowledge that if this book lasts for 300 years, future builders may find it more difficult to put themselves in the minds of the artists. But we are not sure of this. Only time will tell.

TAB 4) … A Success Is not necessary to touch even a single piece of paper to appreciate work of the artists. The book is beautiful. The gallery installation is beautiful. Look at all the unbuilt works lying there in your lap or laid out in front of you on the table. So elegant! So intriguing! In some ways, the participating artists’ ideal viewer is one who chooses not to build any sculptures at all, but simply to look at the untouched designs and dream of what they would be if completed. As dream-designs, they are perfect, and hold limitless possibilities of beauty and profundity. It is only as they begin to take actual form that they, like all works of art passing from the artist's head through his or her hands, begin to be compromised by the harsh limitations that talent and circumstance place upon every human endeavor. Visitors who wish to avoid the poignant sadness and icy intimation of mortality that accompany the completion of any work of art are advised not to embark on any of these projects. Perhaps you can learn this hard lesson only by trying and failing, but our only interest is to save you from yourself.

And in any event the physical appearance of these projects, weather they attract you or not, is really beside the point. What is more important, as we have argued, is that you have the opportunity to understand the intentions of the artists as clearly as possible, and you need not construct the artworks to reach this understanding. This understanding will always be incomplete, though just how incomplete is up to you and the project you are contemplating. Some of the artists will help you with precise and thorough instructions. Others will intentionally frustrate you with projects whose subject is the very impossibility of retracing another's footsteps, of recreating any experience or moment in time.

SLOT C: The Completed Paper Sculpture Is ...

Insert either TAB 5 or TAB 6 into SLOT C.

TAB 5) ... A Success If you build it, it is good. There are no bad paper sculptures. The mere act of sitting down, cutting out a project, and assembling it is all we ask of you. Do not worry about making the perfect sculpture; you cannot fail to make a positive contribution to the exhibition. Simply by building the work, you make it yours, whatever yours means. In so doing, you memorialize an encounter as sincere and demanding as you are likely to have with a work of art any time soon. And remember, every interaction between a work of art and a viewer is incomparable; no one viewer has a privileged response that is uniquely valid or “correct.” Probing the notion of “good” versus “bad” acts of construction reminds us of an underlying question which may trouble some readers. Are these artworks kits with instructions to be slavishly followed in order to recreate a mere approximation of the absent original work of art? No. Each project is a potential original, and each new “creator” brings a specific personal history to the problem of making a new work of art. By this standard, the more “original”—that is, the less “conventional”—your construction techniques are, the “deeper” and more profoundly analytical your “reading” of the instructions becomes, and the more successful and “true” your resulting artwork will be. The more you suppress your distinctiveness by submitting yourself to the fascistic superego of the directions, the more conventional and less interesting your sculpture will be. The artist who produces work according to a codex can only be mediocre. Imagine the instructions for the paper sculpture projects to be the equivalent of the nineteenth-century French academy. Your hapless inability to follow the rules prefigures the birth of modernism.

TAB 6) … A Failure. There is no perfect work of art; therefore all works of art are to some degree failures. The closer you come to the completion of your project, the more palpable your failure will be. It follows from the contention of TAB 4 that not building any projects shields the viewer from the sadness that accompanies the completion of any work of art. Therefore, the built sculpture emphatically embraces that sadness. If you have completed a project, then you have inevitably fallen short of your goal, whatever that goal was. Even if you cannot quite articulate what your goal was, you are reminded of your limitations by the inadequacies of what you have just built. Some of you may be quite charmed by your projects, but look closer. Did you cut everything just so? Is everything tucked in properly? Aren't some of the sculptures that others have built much nicer? We are not relativists. We do not believe in art as therapy. We have standards. Is your work up to snuff? Probably not.

And what if you think you did the best job here? So what? Who have you helped? Isn't artmaking ultimately a selfish and antisocial act? Maybe if you had spent less time selfishly perfecting your project and more time selflessly contributing toward the Common Good, the world would be a better place. Even the most egotistical artists (well, perhaps not the most egotistical artists) have pangs of doubt as to the ultimate morality of their calling. Like sensitive football players, self-aware artists periodically torment themselves with questions of legitimacy: “Who am I helping? I struggle to construct a work of beauty that cries out against the gathering clouds of war and injustice and it ends up on a rich man's coffee table. What am I but a small-scale manufacturer of luxury items?”


Now that you have mastered the two propositions, chosen the appropriate tabs, and fit them snugly into their slots, you have in effect written, or at least edited, the catalogue essay for this exhibition. By the time you have reached these final few words of the essay—your essay—everything should be in place. You should feel the confidence from the above diatribe radiating in your bones. You should have convinced yourself of the logic and sincerity of your position and the uniqueness and quality of the exhibition you are promoting. The “Stockholm Syndrome,” in which the captive begins to sympathize and identify with the causes of his or her captors, holds true for hostage situations and for catalogue essay writing, two situations perhaps not as dissimilar as we would like to imagine. If you cannot fully endorse the exhibition at this point, then there is something fundamentally wrong with your essay and you must go back and rework it, possibly from the ground up. If you have, on the other hand, become fully enamored with the remarkable attractiveness and importance of The Paper Sculpture Show, then you have accurately and thoroughly completed your essay. You may reward yourself by reading the kreplach joke now. (3)

(1) Boris Groys, "Critical Reflections," Artforum, October 1997, p. 80.

(2) Wait. Do not read the kreplach joke yet. Save it until you have finished reading the essay. Then read it and let its aftertaste linger in the mouth of your brain.

(3) A mother tells her rabbi that her son has a deep dread of kreplach. The rabbi advises her to show the boy exactly how she makes the kreplach so that he can see for himself all the ingredients and labor that go into them and realize that there is nothing to fear. The mother decides to follow his advice. She leads the boy into the kitchen and shows him how she rolls the dough and cuts it into little pieces. "This is the same dough that I use in your favorite pancakes. Ummmmmmmmm! It's nothing to be afraid of, is it?" "No, Mamma." Next she shows him how she chops the meat for the filling. "Yummy meat. It's nothing to be afraid of, is it?" “No, Mamma." Then she spoons the tasty meat onto the squares of his favorite dough. "It's nothing to be afraid of, is it?" "No, Mamma." Then she starts to cover the filling with the dough. "See, I fold over one corner of the dough like this. And I fold over the second corner like this. Oh, so easy! Then I fold the third corner. Nothing to it! Now I take the last corner ...” And the boy screams, "Ahhhhh kreplach! Kreplach Kreplach!"

The kreplach joke appears in Paul Hoffman and Matt Freedman, Dictionary Schmictionary! (New York: Quill Press, 1983).