On 28 July, Jordan McKenzie performed At Arms Length in Exeter, prior to the opening of his exhibition Vitruvian: Drawing Works at Spacex.
On a hot Friday afternoon, Jordan McKenzie manhandles a white wooden cube through the crowded streets of Exeter. After rolling, sliding or tipping the cube into position, the artist places himself in close physical contact with the object – sometimes even weighing himself down with it. Then, with intense focus, he begins to draw on its surface with charcoal and graphite.
From smudged patinas created by his palms to arched slashes made by swinging his forearm like a pendulum, the surface of the cube records not only McKenzie’s touch but his reach. Rather than looking to set mark against mark, the artist often draws blind by moving his body against the object. Since each edge of the cube represents the length of his arm, this mark-making also becomes a type of measurement. The connections with Leonardo’s Vitruvian man are made concrete.
As McKenzie pushes the cube onto its next resting-place, he rubs and scratches the drawings against the fabric of the city, and himself. This creates a rich overlay of marks made, erased and remade. Meanwhile McKenzie – shaven-headed, barefoot and dressed in white – also becomes covered in pigment and dust. It’s an arresting sight.
This is a confrontational activity: he is getting in the way. But, bar a flurry of nervousness from the doormen outside Exeter’s smartest hotel, most people take him in their stride. Oh, it must be art, they say, and point their camera-phones and smile. And when a newspaper photographer poses small children and a puppy alongside the filthy, labouring McKenzie, the earnestness of the performance is thrown into sharp relief. The allusory baggage – Christ carrying the cross, Sisyphus’ eternal uphill struggle – suddenly seems just a little too weighty.
For all that, the meeting between the polite citizens of Exeter and McKenzie’s grubby art marathon is fascinating. There’s a playfulness in taking art outside of the white-walled gallery, literally in the form of a portable white cube, and defiling it with street grime. There’s also a host of interesting connections to ponder, from Tony Smith’s 1962 work Die, cited by McKenzie himself, to Gabriel Orozco’s 1992 Plasticine boulder Yielding Stone. It’s exciting to think about the physicality of drawing – as an embodied act as well as a cerebral or aesthetic one – and a few hours in the company of McKenzie is a fine opportunity to do it.
Jordan McKenzie will also be performing At Arms Length in Penzance on 19 August. See www.tract-liveart.co.uk for details.
Gabrielle Hoad is an artist and writer.