Art on command

Oliver Herring is not a dictator. Nor is he the head of a congregation, the leader of a cult or even a person of any public influence, at all. He does not threaten or cajole.

Yet, for some reason, when this artist tells perfect strangers what to do, they do it.

Spit food coloring all over myself? Sure.

Lie down with people I’ve never met before? No problem.

Herring, a 42-year-old German-born artist, will be creating “Task,” a work of art where he enlists strangers to perform tasks ranging from basic to bizarre, at the Hirshhorn Museum this Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. Approximately 60 Washingtonians will join the artist and, like slightly-more-creative robots, they will do whatever they are told to do.

Herring’s piece, a part of the Hirshhorn’s “Directions” series, is designed to give participants and onlookers insight into the creative process. Part of the allure, the artist said in a recent television interview with PBS, is that nothing is preventing the participants from ignoring his directions, sabotaging the project, or simply walking out.

“After the first five or ten minutes, the performance is entirely self-perpetuating,” he said. “The rules that I start with are not binding. Anybody could just walk out, or break the rules. But that never really happens. I’m always surprised that there’s no real anarchy – only staged anarchy.”

Each version of “Task,” which has been performed in several cities, is entirely different. Herring begins the performance by allowing participants to randomly select and execute a task which involves working with other people. The participants then write down their own tasks for others to select.

“I really like the sense of adventure in the air when things are not scripted, when anything can happen,” said Herring. “When a performer comes in here and gets that feeling that anything can happen, then it really becomes interesting and addictive, actually.”

In addition to his performance this weekend, Herring has also been involved with art students at GW, speaking about his work and making studio visits. ‘Task’ is funded in part by the GW fine arts department.

“From the moment I began to work with Oliver Herring to realize his project “Task” in Washington, I felt this was a great opportunity for the Hirshhorn and GWU to collaborate,” said Kristin Hileman, curator of the project.

The museum also has an exhibit of Herring’s video works that will be exhibited until July 2.

Herring said that his performance is considered art because it helps people realize the beauty in simple, mundane acts.

“It really becomes about bending rules or defining rules on your terms,” he said. “That determines whether it’s art or not, whether it’s a special situation or a mundane situation. It’s about choice.”

“Task” will take place Saturday from noon-7 p.m. at the Hirshhorn Museum. A discussion will follow at 7:30 in the museum’s Ring Auditorium, and a reception will follow in the Hirshhorn Plaza.

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