Slide courtesy of Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc.

Western History as a Three-Story Building (1989)

“Western History as a Three-Story Building was first performed at DC Space, followed by Intermedia Arts, and then at Franklin Furnace. Sherman Fleming and Kristine Stiles drew upon this passage from Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972): ‘Upstairs is a store which deals in religious articles. Above this is a gun store; at the top, an advertising firm which deals in soap accounts. If Western History were a 3- story building…it would resemble this.’ Beginning with a prologue to their 3-part action, Fleming and Stiles appeared nude, separated only by a plank of wood extending from their feet to their chins. They shuffled into the space, hugging each other to maintain the position of the plank, and stopped in the middle of two contact mics. Still holding the plank of wood between them, they began drumming each other’s buttocks until the rhythm became that of a heartbeat. They departed. Blackout.

Now dressed, they began Part I: Fleming constructed a ritualistic labyrinth of ribbons, hanging coke bottles filled with water and suspended above metal bowls filled with burning coals, flowers, and candles, while Stiles copied esoteric terms and phrases from the Maori language, the I. Ching, the Bible and other texts on a blackboard. Fleming released the water-filled coke bottles which doused the coals in each bowl, filling the room with smoke. Next, they violently chopped onions and cilantro, and using fans, blew the smoke and scents into the audience such that it produced tearing among viewers. Blackout. In Part II, they reappeared dressed in formal attire: Stiles wearing a black ball gown, elbow length white gloves, heavy strings of pearls, and Fleming wearing a tuxedo. Both artists were blindfolded and Stiles, in high heels, carried Fleming on her back, causing them to crash through, become entwined in, and eventually destroy the labyrinth. Blackout. In Part III, the artists appeared again dressed in street clothes as in Part I, and projected slides with images of religion, violence and destruction, and advertising. Throughout Parts I through III, Fleming and Stiles also projected an image of Man Ray’s Compass (1920). It is a photograph of a huge magnet holding a gun. They used it to emphasize forbidden erotic and emotional attraction, metaphysical and physical phenomena, and the violence and destruction underpinning American society.”

Sherman Fleming & Kristine Stiles, 2017

SHERMAN FLEMING identifies cultural and social mechanisms through his art practice and community-based projects as a public arts manager. Fleming’s performance work has been featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Intermedia Arts, and Franklin Furnace. His solo exhibitions include Big Rebus Paintings (1990) at Nexus Gallery, Watercolors (2001) at International Visions Gallery, and Codewords (2006) at VIAP Galerie. Fleming has participated in group exhibitions such as Other Bloods (1995) at Arti et Amicitiae, Endurance (1995) at Exit Art, Whisper! Stomp! Shout! A Salute to African American Performance Art (1996) at Colorado Springs Fine Art Center, and The Postmillennial Black Madonna (2007) at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts. He has lectured at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Design and has stewarded public art projects for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. Fleming holds a BFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and a MFA from Hartford Art School.

KRISTINE STILES is France Family Professor of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke University. She specializes in contemporary global art, focusing on performance, artists’ writings, trauma, and destruction in art. Her publications include Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art (1996 and 2012), Correspondence Course: An Epistolary History of Carolee Schneemann and Her Circle (2010), and Concerning Consequences: Studies in Art, Destruction, and Trauma (2016). Stiles was the curator of the exhibition Rauschenberg: Collecting & Connecting (2014–2015) at the Nasher Museum of Art. She is currently working with Kathy O’Dell on completing their manuscript Mapping Experimental Art: Studies in Contemporary International Art Since 1933.