Larry and Debby Kline artists and provocateurs – installation, performances, and other works

“Arabian Chess,” a commentary on the work of Debby and Larry Kline by David Antin, August 2013

Written by David Antin, August 2013

Arabian Chess:

The Rules of the Game

When I was in college whenever we tired of literary or art argument, we would repair to the lounge, where we could always find someone for a game of rapids or blitz. Back in the fifties City College was a rich reservoir of chess players at all levels. We had Larry Evans, the national champion and Richard Einhorn, then N.Y. State champion, who generously took on any player who would sit down across from them. though these were for the most part well known accom-plished players. But one day when none  of the regulars were around, a beautiful dark haired girl sat down across from Richard, who smiled amiably at her as she moved pawn to king 4. and went though the first few moves of the Ruy Lopez but then was startled to see her lift her bishop over an unmoved pawn and remove his queen. Richard was stunned and stared at her speechless till she said calmly, “Arabian Chess.’  At which Richard paused for a moment, then smiled grimly and took off her king. “Mate!,” he snarled.

In 2002 the Klines designed and fabricated an elegant chess board with 32 hand made ceramic chess pieces, in which the noble figures on the white side are idiosyncratically individualized: the Queen is the Statue of Liberty and the King, a pile of gold coins; and they are confronted by a black side comprising 16 identically clad bourka enshrouded figures. It isn’t difficult to attribute politically significant meanings to the work, with individualized capitalist culture playing white and the victims of Islamic culture playing black   But this is not where the greatest interest of the piece lies, which is in the attempt to play the game. To play, we need the definition of a move, and then certain founding rules must be supposed, like the alternation of moves of the traditional  game,  and the configuration of each possible move. But above all else, prospective players have to decide whether this new chess set accepts the traditional zero-sum structure of the game. Videos of attempts to play the game without sufficiently negotiated agreements show the absurdity of the game or games that can be constructed for it.  This surely parallels the absurdity of negotiations in the real political arena.  So the Klines can be regarded as political artists, not in the dismal sense of advocating or lamenting one political policy or another, but of outrageously modeling discrepancies in our understandings of political situations. So they are hilarious political artists in the manner of Aristo-phanes rather than Brecht. But there is another sense in which they are not political artists, or not merely political artists.

The Klines describe an early work they call My Dinner with the Klines that they say began before it was an art work. They describe the experience of sitting and waiting in a restaurant between courses or waiting for service and feeling the urge to toy with the eating utensils – the napkins and napkin holders, place mats, chopsticks, straws, toothpicks, matches, teabags, condiment containers, turing them into miniature sculptures of angels and demons, saints and heroes, ballerinas. But they started to rethink their actions as they got more involved in them and as other diners, intrigued by the Klines’ constructions, gathered around their table and   offered extra materials from the rubble of their tables, and  suggestions for new images. So the Klines began to regard these dining experiences as performances that enacted the recovery of art from rubble.  And once again we have a political art or a political art, only in a light hearted ecological discourse. Because they are wonderfully comic artists when they are artists at all.

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