A long, narrow space runs behind a pair of walls built inside an art gallery; it’s chock-a-block with glue and foam, paper and canvas, pencils and pens. There’s a jumble of cords and hardware; there’s even a circular saw. This gap of a place also possesses a desk with a computer, a sleeping loft and a cardboard tunnel to the gallery’s bathroom. Sitting at the desk when he’s not scurrying about is the artist, the habitat’s inventor. He never leaves the enclosure—although we’re told he sometimes ventures out at night ‘to forage for food, materials and mating opportunities.’ Thus if we want to see him we have to peep into the peepholes in the walls or stare at the handful of suspended video monitors wired to surveillance cameras. The artist pecks away on the computer keyboard and spends a great deal of time making art, drawings and dolls and things. He puts the circular saw in motion; the blade carves a slit into the drywall through which he slides index cards with such expressions: “Self-criticism just isn’t sexy. I don’t know why.” Other small works seem to magically pop up daily, on a clothesline or in a flat drawer or behind tiny doors freshly cut into the room’s dividers. All is for sale. Welcome to We Have Mice.
Part installation, part performance piece We Have Mice was the creation of the American contemporary artist Ward Shelley who in 2004 hauled himself into his Brooklyn gallery and resided there for more than a month in the artificial passageways he had constructed. Shelley wholeheartedly embraced the metaphor of mouse for man.
The notion of an artist sequestering him or herself for a prolonged period of time in a gallery or a museum as a work of art, a comment on the human condition, has its own tradition that Shelley himself nodded to in his show. He rolled up pencil drawings, referencing earlier performance pieces including Joseph Beuys‘s influential and most famous ‘action’ that Beuys performed in 1974. Coyote: I Like America and America Likes Me found Beuys encased in felt, living behind a wire screen with a live coyote for a week at the René Block Gallery in New York.
For Shelley, “We Have Mice was about how artists work like foragers around the margins of the economy. Despite the centrality, or respectability, of the Institution of Art, the artist works from the edges of the society, scavenging and improvising.”
A reviewer of Shelley’s piece summed it up this way: “[T]he mouse, in the end, seemed like a safe choice compared with the more tenacious and embattled (and less cute) rat.”
 Martha Schwendener, “Ward Shelley,” Artforum, April 2004.
Additional sources: Sarah Schmerler, “Ward Shelley at Pierogi,” Art in America, May 2004; Holland Cotter, “Sampling Brooklyn, Keeper of Eclectic Flames,” New York Times, January 23, 2004; Caroline Tisdall, Joseph Beuys: Coyote, 2008.
(Image: Webcam still from We Have Mice by Ward Shelley, 2004, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)