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Artist seeks purity and insanity

For those watching on the webcam, the breakdown was quite a spectacle to behold. The artist, dressed in all white, carved into clay the words, “Porcelain 6 sucks! F- him. F- me. F-. F-. F-.” The artist then karate-chopped the clay and began throwing it at the white walls. The finished vases on the shelves, testaments to his artistic abilities, were then chucked at the walls as well. White rice and boiled egg whites began flying around the room. The artist then looked at the camera, flicked off the viewers and broke free from his self-made prison.

The strange performance was the result of an art project gone awry. USF student Kyle Smith, majoring in art with a concentration in ceramics, was having problems achieving the perfect cone – a shape achieved by throwing clay on the potter’s wheel. The cone is a difficult shape to master as it is, but Smith further complicated the process by attempting to make an extremely large cone – 2 feet high by 2 feet in diameter.

To make matters worse, the artist decided to work with porcelain, which is not as sturdy as other types of clay. To achieve this desired shape, it often takes around eight years of experience with throwing clay on the wheel. However, Smith has been throwing clay for only two years, a fact which should have prevented him from embarking on his strange journey.

Having difficulties achieving his goal, Smith decided to isolate himself from the rest of the world to eliminate all distractions. Using logic that possibly only fellow artists can appreciate, he decided that the perfect cone shape could only be achieved through purity and insanity, both of which are conveyed through the color white. So Smith began making his art studio white. The walls and pottery tools were painted white, the ceiling panels and bed were covered with white sheets and white shelves were installed. The refrigerator and shelves were filled with white foods – white rice (cooked), egg whites (hard boiled), mozzarella cheese and coconut shavings. The studio was further stocked with 60 bottles of water (the empty bottles would be used to collect his urine) and other essentials – all white, of course. Smith dressed in a sleeveless white T-shirt, white shorts and white socks, and then locked himself inside his studio. It was 11 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17. He was not supposed to exit the studio until Saturday, Sept. 22, after five days of seclusion.

Smith is not the first artist to lock himself away for the purpose of art. In 1971, Chris Burden locked himself inside a school locker for five days in a performance that became known as “Five-Day Locker Piece.” In 1972, Vito Acconci hid under the floor of an art gallery and masturbated to the sounds of visitors for eight hours a day, three days a week in a performance titled “Seedbed.” Although the concept of isolation is not a unique one, Smith used isolation as a means of producing work instead of as the piece itself. And of course, there was no masturbation involved.

As if being locked inside a studio for five days was not hard enough to deal with, Smith’s every move was recorded by a webcam and played on the Internet for viewers to watch. However, Smith told few about the project to avoid others’ input and expectations. Those who did know and had the Web address, though, spent several days in voyeuristic bliss and wonder. Locked away, Smith began working on achieving the perfect cone. According to his theory, this should have been easy. After all, he was surrounded by an all-white environment – pure and insane. Although it seems outlandish, the idea is conceptually sound historically. The color white symbolizes many things, including purity, as represented through wedding gowns, and insanity, as represented through straitjackets and insane asylums. However, Smith reinterpreted the concepts slightly. For him, purity is defined as the skill of the form – the perfect cone. Insanity is defined as seclusion – isolation from all stimuli and distractions that can potentially interfere with the creative process. Insanity was a given; purity was the problem.

Despite numerous attempts, Smith could not make the perfect cone. Every time he neared perfection, the cone would become misshapen. The frustration built. Days of frustration. Days of failure. Those watching knew that something was about to happen. Smith dissected the failed cones and scrawled messages such as “failure” and “do not expect MUCH” across the wet porcelain. The useless clay was then thrown around the small room and smashed – the object of his frustration. Thoughts of escape filled Smith’s head.

Friday came; only one day was left. No cones were made. Smith had nothing to show for days of self-imprisonment. He grew tired of his diet of white rice and egg whites. He grew tired of being frustrated. Smith was done. He wrote one last message in clay, destroyed his studio, and broke free. The exit was dramatic – done in a way that only an artist could do. Smith ran outside, finally free, and cried at the sight of the sun.

Though the purpose of the Smith’s confinement was to produce the perfect porcelain cone, he does not believe that he failed. According to Smith, he learned a lot from his seclusion. For example, he now knows that distraction, at least a certain amount, is necessary. Social interaction is needed, even if it is a simple “hello.” Also, perfection takes time – it cannot be achieved in five days.

Although the perfect cone was not achieved, fellow artists and students praised the performance.

“I was impressed by the obsessive nature of the project,” said USF alumnus Alex Costantino.

Professor Gregory Green suggested that Smith use the performance as his piece for the upcoming Exploring Ideas, Interacting Spaces show at the William and Nancy Oliver Gallery in October.

As for the cone, Smith is still working on it, and hopes to one day achieve its perfect shape.