Dan Graham

Dan Graham is associated with the Conceptual artists, who since the mid-1960s have been experimenting with new aesthetic and methodological approaches to the art object, leading to its dematerialization and claiming a preeminent role for the idea rather than the object’s creation. Perhaps one of the most eclectic artists in terms of his quest for new means of artistic expression, Graham also ran an art gallery and was the author of various articles on art, television, and film before he began creating works that, through experimentation with different media and techniques, include video, performance, photographs, and his well known pavilions.
His earliest films, made between 1969 and 1974, reveal an interest in the immediacy of the medium and its capacity to transpose, without mediations and reworkings, the real passage of time as it is captured by the movie camera. In Sunset to Sunrise, 1969, the time is that of the setting and rising of the sun. The movie camera first frames the sun on the horizon at dusk, then—in a spiraling movement toward the sky—expands to take in the entire firmament; while a spiraling movement in the opposite direction is described by a movie camera in the same position, at dawn on the following day, ending on the horizon line with the rising sun. The sun defines the beginning and end point of the film shoot and measures the passage of time.
In Binocular Zoom, 1969–70, the elapse of time is that of the aperture of the zoom lenses of two small movie cameras that, placed at the eye level of each of the cameramen, frame the sun, which is partly veiled by clouds. Projected next to each other, the two images gradually reveal their disparity as the zoom function of each of the cameras expands the visual field at the same speed, but the eye of the viewer momentarily identifies precisely with the line of view of the movie cameras. Graham is particularly interested in human perceptual potential and human relationship to physical space; he treats the human body as a receiver of stimuli and uses the movie camera to conduct a quest for human identification with the surrounding environment. In Roll, 1970, two projections show a performer rolling around on the ground and a film shot by the same performer while he is rolling and holding the movie camera. To the viewer’s eye, there is a continuous sensation of movement, but the relationship between the body in motion and the perception of that same movement creates a strong sense of alienation.
A focus on the body and on ways of perceiving space in relation to it is also present in Helix/Spiral,1973, and in the earlier Helix/Spiral (Simone Forti), 1973, in which the same action is carried out by the artist with the performer and dancer Simone Forti. A cameraman at the center of the stage has the movie camera take in the space around his body, shooting the surrounding space while, simultaneously, a second cameraman frames the center of the stage, moving in a spiral direction. The two films are projected simultaneously on two opposite screens, reflecting the movements of each cameraman and defining a new space of action in the setting. This almost seems to follow the dictates of the new Vitruvian man: it is the body of each performer that determines the view of the movie camera and consequently the boundaries of the filming.
Graham’s primary interest in the viewer is in his or her relationship to the work of art, and this is a predominant theme in the pavilions the artist began creating in the mid-1970s. In many of these, executed both in transparent and mirror glass, viewers are involved in a dialogue with themselves through a play of mirrors that makes them an integral part of the work. Halfway between architecture, which the artist admires for its functionality, and sculptural object, the pavilions establish a dialogue with people and with the surrounding environment, seeking out new possibilities of experimentation for the viewer.
The pavilion in the collection of the Castello di Rivoli, Children s Day Care, CD-Rom, Cartoon and Computer Screen Library Project, was first created as an interior pavilion for the exhibition Skulptur Project Münster, in 1987. Conceived specifically as a space for children, where they can feel free to play, watch cartoons, or read comic books, the pavilion seems to stand in defense of freedom and against conformist and restrictive education that reduces individuals to the same level and, even at a young age, turns them into easy prey for rampant consumerism. The existence of a place where each human being can feel truly free seems almost a luxury, if not a utopia.


Dan Graham’s first works, starting from the mid-1960s, were a response to the contemporary art and the art system. Following a brief experience as the director of an art gallery, during which he came into direct contact with the emerging Minimalist movement, he decided to use the pages of commercial magazines to present his own works. With respect to the context of traditional art spaces, Graham was attracted by the close tie the press has with real time and its necessity to renew its contents daily, weekly, or monthly. Thus the artist could put his audience in contact with a temporality not aligned with the ideal eternity of art. On pages otherwise intended for advertising he published conceptual works that subverted that same Pop logic of using images taken from media and mass culture contexts that reflect on the idea of art as an economic product.
Interested in the complex relationship that exists between the work of art and the spectator, starting in the seventies Graham began to use performance, video, and film. Through performance, which video can document in real time, the artist investigated new definitions of the concept of the audience, elevating it from its traditional position of mere observer. Even when he exhibited himself, Graham experimented with ways that allowed the audience to find itself in a position analogous to and equally important as that of the performer. The importance given to the visual process as the determining element of the content and meaning of the work was developed in the films he produced between 1969 and 1974. Through its declared presence in the sphere of the work, the video camera affirmed the pre-eminence of the visual act. However, it is video—often presented within the context of structures similar to architectural models—that is the medium which allows the artist to more freely analyze the themes regarding vision and its relationship to spatial and temporal dimensions. In various installations, Graham has used a video camera connected to a monitor, allowing the public to perceive its own image in a different time with respect to that of the actual recording. The categories regarding present, past, and future are in this way re-examined. Similarly, the concepts of internal/external and public/private are also placed under scrutiny, thanks to the use of glass and mirrors. Above all, however, it is the role of the audience that becomes fundamental, as the artist’s work exists only through its viewers. In Graham’s videos, the observer often corresponds to the person who is observed: both are the subject and object of the work. And in turn artistic work shifts from the traditional object to become a fluid process open to the surrounding world, capable of interacting and taking an active part in the sphere of social exchange.
These themes are further investigated by the artist in the pavilions he began to produce in 1980. Constructed in metal and glass, they are characterized by an aesthetic that intentionally refers to Modernist architecture and Minimalist sculpture, both of which are subjected to a profound critical investigation. Often installed outdoors, like real independent constructions, Graham’s pavilions are traversable structures. The use of opaque or reflecting glass contributes towards regenerating the artist’s investigation concerning the borderlines between the presumed identification of the internal as a private dimension and the external as a public place, hence renewing the question regarding the definition of the work of art and its context. [MB]

List of works

Past Future Split Attention, 1972
video, black and white, sound, 17 min. 03 sec.
Castello di Rivoli Museo D’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Inside the same space two persons who know each other speak into a microphone: one man predicts the behavior of the other, while the other person narrates the past behavior of his acquaintance. The performance documented by the video represents one of the artist’s investigations dealing with the psychological aspects of space and time.

Performer/Audience/Mirror, 1977
video, black and white, sound, 22 min. 52 sec.
Castello di Rivoli Museo D’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
In real time, the artist describes his gestures to the public, and then describes the public itself. He subsequently places himself in front of a mirroring wall and once again begins the two descriptions looking at the reflected reality.

Minor Threat, 1983
video, color, sound, 38 min. 18 sec.
Castello di Rivoli Museo D’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
With a documentary style, the artist talks about a concert by Minor Threat, a Washington, D.C. hardcore music group. The video shows the aggressiveness unleashed by the concert and represents a chapter in the more in-depth investigation regarding popular music and its ritual implications the artist has carried out in a number of his works.

Rock My Religion, 1982–1984
video, black and white, color, sound, 55 min. 27 sec.
Castello di Rivoli Museo D’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Torino
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
In making use of written texts, sound, and visual material, the artist’s intention is to demonstrate the close relationship between religion and rock music. The video focuses mainly on the Shakers, the religious sect founded by Ann Lee, a woman who believed she was the female incarnation of Christ. More specifically, the artist concentrates on their community rites, which included dances done in a state of trance and considered necessary for the healing of the soul. These rites, which have represented an important aspect of American culture, are paralleled with the ideology of fifties and sixties rock’n’roll music.