The name Harrell Fletcher may not be instantly recognisable, if at all. But this is not surprising considering the artist’s aversion to the fame and infamy of the art world. Eschewing stardom and everything that comes with it, the American contemporary artist prefers to let his subjects take centre stage, with the artwork based on the aspirations and talents of others. He also enjoys working with people who may not have any background in art whatsoever. Indeed, Fletcher is internationally renowned for facilitating exhibitions and events based on participation and collaborations with people who often have very little to do with the artwork.
With a background in photographic studies from the California College of the Arts, Fletcher has worked on dozens of engaging projects, among them a temporary museum based on local lives in a shopping mall, the hugely popular web-based project with Miranda July titled Learning to Love You More, and working with an eight-year-old boy as the principal decision-maker for a public work of art in France. Alex Baker senior curator of the NGV, sums up Fletcher’s appeal well: “He is intriguing because what he calls ‘his art’ is about the relationship he forges with others. Fletcher occupies a particular niche in contemporary art and that’s why he is so successful.”
Baker, who has been following the artist closely for a number of years, comments that Harrell Fletcher’s practice, predicated as it is on generosity and collaboration, can be situated within contemporary and feminist art practices of the 1960s and 1970s. These art practices “appropriated a diversity of social forms of engagement in an attempt to bring art closer to everyday life,” says Baker. He further asserts that Fletcher’s work shares many similarities to 1960s situationist artist Guy Debord in terms of “the critique of passivity, the belief in the importance of the active subject, the critique of the artist as singular author, and the formation of participatory communities”.
September will see Fletcher taking residency in Melbourne for a special project titled The Sound We Make Together (Melbourne). This first-time Australian project will include collaborations with seven Melbourne-based community groups: Arts Project Australia, CERES, Crooked Rib Art, Footscray Community Arts Centre, Grainger Museum, Hell Gallery and RISE, as well as two individual artists, Herb Patten and Jeff Sparrow.
The project is made up of three elements: an installation of NGV Collection works selected by the participants, which will be displayed alongside photographs of those involved taken by Fletcher during his August residency; presentations and performances featuring the participants; and a representation of each participant through reading materials and printed newsletters and books. A selection of posters, zines and videos created by Fletcher over the past decade will also be on display.
In line with Fletcher’s participatory style, The Sound We Make Together (Melbourne) also allows for amateur participation within the professionalised world of curating. “One of the central parameters of the project was to ask the nine participants to select one NGV art work of their choice for inclusion in the exhibition,” explains Baker. “Working with me, each participant was lead through the daunting, but enriching, task of visiting NGV’s vast off-site storage facility and choosing a selection of art works, one which would be placed on view.” Fletcher suggested this integral aspect of the exhibition and the notion that this would be a participatory exercise is firmly situated within what the artist calls “participatory research”.
Frances Lindsay, Deputy Director NGV said, “This project is about access, involving participants of various ages as well as different cultural and professional backgrounds.” The Sound We Make Together (Melbourne) will aim to reveal an aspect of contemporary and historic Melbourne: immigration, art and community, identity, urban agriculture and sustainability, urban history and politics and even music.
Baker does explain that “despite Fletcher’s collaborative generosity, he admits that there is a self-interested aspect to what he does as well: to learn more about a particular place where he will be working – in this instance, Melbourne and the National Gallery of Victoria.” But there is no denying Fletcher’s sincerity in providing people with an opportunity to present something about themselves. “In the end, it is his focus on the lives of average people accessed through an unusual degree of sincerity and generosity that defines his artist mode,” says Baker. ”Fletcher’s art is really all about you, rather than all about him.”
The Sounds We Make Together (Melbourne) runs from 11 September 2010 to 30 January 2011 at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia at Federation Square.