PIER  18

At the beginning of the seventies, Pier 18 was an abandoned pier on Manhattan‘s west side which turned its back on the soaring vertigo of the city‘s business and financial centre.
On the initiative of Willoughby Sharp, the guru of Concept Art, 27 artists were invited to prepare a performance or define an idea that they would then enact in front of Harry Shunks camera.
As a general rule, photography. in the eyes of Concept Art, is a lingering imprint basically comprised of the potentiality of recording and preserving things of an ephemeral nature. In this case, and without exception, Harry Shunks photographs arc quite magnificent, pouring light, in a range of contrasted tones and through a meticulously clear-cut effect, on the plastic beauty of the Pier itself and the sumptuous backdrop of Manhattan‘s skyscrapers. Each performance is dissected in accordance with the parameters defined earlier by the artist, then focused and recorded by a highly sensitive accomplice.
Concept Art is here an art of calculation which proceeds by scanning time and space. Most of the performances required the physical presence of the artist concerned, in an attempt to forge an equation between a formal statement and its implementation, a concept which derives from avant-gardist commitment, artistic involvement - and humour.
Gilbert Perlein


Loic Malle: When and how did you start taking photographs?
Harry Shunk: At age 15. after seeing an affich at the Alliance Francaise in Paris, I became ‘assistant‘ to the Austrian photographer Madame Dora (Dora Kallmus), who was then 86 years old and, at that time, was working on an exhibition about slaughterhouses around Paris. This was all extremely bewildering for me. since I had no idea how to expose correctly, nor even how to open her Rolleiflex to put the film in! But somehow it worked out.
I remember, in order to keep me (she paid very little money), she used to flatter me, saying things like “tu as un bon sens de cadrage” and it worked: I stayed with her for almost 2 years.

Did you start doing “artists‘ portraits“ right form the beginning?
I was quite taken by her enthusiasm.
In spite for her age, she constantly talked about future projects.
When I told her that I would like to become a photographer myself, she first gave me a giffle (really!) and then told me: well, if you most, find a collaborator, who is on the same level and then work with artists. It‘ll be much easier. If you make a mistake, they might even find the result interesting. She also told me to he careful, there must he about 30 000 artists working in Paris, so don‘t get lost.
I tried to follow her advice to the letter.

Where you already familiar with the art world before becoming a photographer ?
Not really, but I had close friend, Dora Tuynman, who was a Dutch artist and through her I got to know several Dutch artists and their work.

Where did you get the idea of photographing artists in action rather than doing traditional portraits for which they posed?
It just happened.

How did you get involved with artists from the New Realist, Fluxus and Pop Art movements at the very outset of your career ?
The very first artist Iris Clert exhibited was Dora Tuynman, who introduced me to Yves Klein, who passed me on to Jean Tinguely, and so on.
Later I attached myself to several galleries I liked: Galerie  J. Iolas, Sonnabend, etc,

How did you become an integral part of this ‘family of avant-garde artists‘ ?
Again, this just happened.
It was thrilling to live closely with the “Tinguely clan‘, for instance. Often we even slept there or travelled with them.
I remember bringing several works of  Niki de Saint-Phalle by car to Stockholm (for Pontus Holten‘s Movment exhibition). We also had 2 guns and 1 revolver for Niki hidden under the paintings and there were 5 borders to cross ! We tried not to look like terrorists and fortunately were never searched.

“PIER 18 Project“

How did the idea of “Pier 18“ first come about? 
It was Willoughhy Sharp‘s idea.

How did you choose the artists who were to participate ?
We talked it over.

Were they already well-known ?
Some were, others were hardly known at the time.

Did any of those invited refuse to participate in this conceptual project?
Everybody accepted.

Who were the most enthusiastic ?
The most excited was definitely Vito Acconci,
Who just started at that moment with his first performances.

Which  artists actually came to New York ?  Did those who couldn’t come entrust you with carrying out their “performances“ ?
All the artists from New York. California and Canada came, except William Wegman and
Larry Weiner, who were in Europe. Other Europeans who couldn‘t come: Jan Dibbets. Mario Merz and Daniel Buren.

This “conceptual“ project seems to have very humann and humorous sides to it. Was “having fun“ supposed to be part of the project or indeed of the concept itself ?
It was great fun and that was certainly part of the project.

It also seems that this type of project was  typical of what was happening on the New York art scene at the time. Is that true ?
Yes. This was a very invigorating time to work in New York.

Did you meet with any difficulties when carrying out the project, either  with getting it organized or from a purely technical point of view ?
Not really. And it all went quite quickly. There were 27 artists and each event was carried out and recorded in one afternoon or one day at the most.
John Baldessari, for example, was so exuberant, during a couple of hours he performed about 10 different events to choose from. The only one I found rather difficult was Richard Serra‘s piece. This was also the only time we had to come back a second day.

Were you free to apply your own photographic interpretation ?
What kind o/ instructions or recommendations did the artists prepare for you ?
Except for the written instructions at the beginning of each sequence. I was on may own.
Of course. I tried to adhere to the artists vision as closely as possible. Also, some instructions were much more strictly defined than others. Jan Dibbets series going from light to dark, as the sun goes down, etc. had very precise instructions.
Where as Mario Merz just asked for 20 “art photos“, leaving it entirely up to the photographer.

How was it that the project immediately became a MOMA-exhibition and what was public’s response ?
By accident, Jennifer Licht and Kynastan McShine happened to see some of the finished prints in my studio and proposed to show the whole project during the summer months at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
The shouting was done in February and March 1971, I developed and enlarged all the prints during May and installed the exhibition with Jennifer Licht (then Associate Curator at MOMA) end of June 1971.
1 don‘t really know how the exhibition was perceived, because immediately after the installation, two days before the opening. I had to leave for Colorado to work on Christo‘s Valley Curtain.

Have you worked on any other projects of  this type ?
Yes‘ but nothing similar to the Pier 18 Project. This collaboration was just right at the time and exactly suited to the nature of Concept Art.

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