A Happening: Visual Arts Recreates “SWEET WALL” by Allan Kaprow

(Rohan Grover / The Triton)

On Thursday, March 8, around 1:00 p.m., people walking through the eucalyptus path connecting the Sun God statue to Library Walk had curious and confused expressions on their faces as they looked at a wall made of cinder blocks. The wall, which sat directly under Robert Irwin’s “Two Running Violet V Forms,” was being constructed entirely out of mortar bricks and held together by what looked like a red sauce and bread peeking through each layer. This project was led by UC San Diego guest lecturer Jeff Kelley and other Visual Arts students.  

“There was no political intention behind this,” Kelley said. “Coming to this point is more complicated than it seems and it’s not purely a matter of doing political art, but it does have political implications.”

Jeff Kelley, a critic, curator, educator, and UCSD Master of Fine Arts (MFA) alumnus, modeled the wall after Allan Kaprow’s happening, “SWEET WALL.” Allan Kaprow, an artist, anti-art theorist, and UCSD faculty member from 1974 to 1993, popularized the term “happenings.” Happenings were characterized by seemingly banal activities, combined with aspects of theatrical productions and participation from the audience, that helped give rise to performance art.

Kaprow carried out this performance in Berlin in 1970, at the height of the Cold War, using mortar bricks held together with fresh bread and jam, which were staples in West Germany at the time. “SWEET WALL” was built and then destroyed within hours near the Berlin Wall, an action that questions the temporality and physicality of permanent structures. This piece, much like Kaprow’s other pieces, is deliberately “anti-art.” It includes its audience on the experience of building and toppling the wall, subverting art directly for the people rather than to an institution.

In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Visual Arts department decided to highlight Allan Kaprow’s work by having Jeff Kelley teach two courses this quarter: VIS 2 Introduction to Art Making: Motion and Time Based Art and VIS 217 Communities and Subcultures. This was fitting, since Kelley had worked with Kaprow during his time as an MFA student. Kelley is also the author of Childsplay: the Art of Allan Kaprow and the editor of Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life.

Photo courtesy of Sabira

Photo courtesy of Sabira Parajuli

“There is a lot about walls in the atmosphere here,” Kelley explained to the crowd. “We choose to recreate this using mortar made from tortillas and salsa, which are local foods, rather than the bread and jam originally used by Kaprow in Berlin.”

Twice the amount of salsa and tortillas necessary was bought and extras were donated to the Triton Food Pantry to prevent food waste; this consideration could be viewed as a “cap and trade,” as Kelley called it. After sharing the context and intention behind the piece, he asked the crowd to go behind the wall if they wished to knock it down.

At 5:00 p.m., after hours of building, crowds gathered along the wall to tear it down. The air was filled with excitement and anticipation as the crowd of students waited for Kelley to count down. The five-foot wall crashed down with extreme force, leaving behind a cloud of dirt. The excitement quickly dissipated as students dispersed or gathered to clean up the remains.

To say that this piece is not inherently political seems out of place, especially since this recreation came days before Trump’s visit to see the prototypes for the possible border wall. The choice to recreate “SWEET WALL” was site-specific. The use of salsa and tortillas for this recreation, rather than jam and bread, speaks to a larger cultural and political urgency, as our campus is within miles of the busiest and contentious border crossings in the world.

Despite differing views, the triumph of Kelley’s recreation lies in its ideological interpretation from the audience. By directly participating, they were given their own choice for how they chose to consume and understand the art that went beyond the artist’s initial vision for it.

As Kaprow himself said of his original piece, “It enclosed nothing, separated no one. It was built in a desolated area close to the real Berlin Wall. The real Wall divided a city against itself… As parody, ‘SWEET WALL’ was about an idea of a wall. The Berlin Wall was an idea, too.”

While “SWEET WALL” may not have been intentionally political, its inclusion of the audience is a testament to the fact that everyone has their own understanding of the piece. The act of pushing the wall over has implications that linger beyond the boundaries of this campus.

Kelley is the curator of the exhibition “Happenings in Three Parts,” on view through March 15 at the Visual Arts Gallery in the Structural and Materials Engineering Building.

Sabira Parajuli is a contributing writer for the Arts and Culture section of The Triton.