Opening. When asked, a few months ago, to propose a paper for Canadian Art, following a fruitful research trip to Toronto under the auspices of the Canadian Art Foundation’s Anne Lind International Program, I decided to resist the authority (the vanity?) that would have been implied by writing a linear essay that either narrated my journey or positioned my view on contemporary art and its current developments. Instead, I decided to try, perhaps and hopefully in an unresolved manner, to present, with the help of Micah Lexier,1 a series of notes that could form a potential “written” exhibition— something that may or may not exist—the silhouette of a thought, the progress of a research project, fragments. I wish to address the retreat, drifting and repetition I felt were part of many of the works I experienced in Toronto, right up to the last piece I saw, a few hours before boarding a plane back to Paris: A Slowly Dissolved World by Stephen Ellwood, at Art Metropole. These directions are, it seems to me, at the heart of the practices of many international artists working today.2
This portfolio is an attempt to create bridges. It is also part of an ongoing project (here you will be entering a game of Russian nesting dolls) I have developed under the generic title A Fragmented Time, which consists of different chapters existing in different places and times. It could be an exhibition unravelling in time, or a collective tale still to be written. This project includes publications, interviews and exhibitions; it includes a series of “proposals” for different places. The first was realized in Norway in November of 2009: “Proposal (Nacht Und Träume) for Stavanger” included works by Walead Beshty, Karla Black, Bettina Buck, Nicolas Chardon, Kristin Oppenheim and Hannah Rickards, as well as interludes by the composers John Cage and Cornelius Cardew. “Proposal (Nacht Und Träume) for Stavanger” was not articulated around a single theme or notion but instead raised a polyphony of issues: self-processed works, post-minimalism (perverted primary structures), collapse and failure, moving surfaces and double images, impermanence, shifts between different modes of perception, representation and absence. Its title, partly borrowed from that of Samuel Beckett’s last television play, reflected the shifts of form and concept inherent in the works. Nacht und Träume is the title of a lied by Franz Schubert; he adapted the phrase from a poem by Matthäus von Collin. It was then borrowed by Beckett, and now indicates a space, a situation: an exhibition. The show explored how the dissolution of forms can generate new forms. The second “proposal” was for a fashion magazine. “Proposal (Pink Nude Seated) for Glass Magazine” was a virtual exhibition centred on Henri Matisse’s A Pink Nude Seated; it evolved over the course of a year. This is the third: “Proposal (Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown) for Toronto.” The group of projects I have gathered under the generic term “proposal” is not intended to be self-contained; the works operate within a flux of influences, conversations and encounters: they don’t have fixed borders, definitions or locations. They must participate in a bigger scheme and reflect a moving, self-reflexive dynamic, hence their fragmented forms.
“Very soon he will vanish
completely in the wings
of his own
[ * ]”3
Nina Beier. In 2008, the Danish artist Nina Beier was commissioned to create a performance work for the Zoo Art Fair in London. All Together Now required the participation of all of the fair’s interns. They were asked to whistle (or hum) the Internationale (the international socialist anthem) while performing tedious tasks during the fair’s installation, public opening and deinstallation. As Beier explains, “I asked the interns to whistle when it felt natural, when they were in their own thoughts, preparing things. I explained that they should do it with authority, like something they would do while working at home, and only in a public space if they felt very comfortable. They could do it together or alone, but it had to be privately instigated and it was important that it not be performed as entertainment for anyone. It could take place even behind closed doors if they were working in the office or a storage room, or it could be quietly done in a private moment.”4 The performance infiltrated the entire fair, with these often overlooked workers enacting a modest, somewhat desperate and often invisible, but still penetrating, haunting and radical gesture. It must be stressed that the performance was directed not only to collectors, curators and artists (i.e. art “professionals”) and the general public, but also to the gallerists, the fair’s managerial hierarchy and the interns themselves: they were asked to perform even behind the scenes and during deinstallation. The interns’ seemingly innocuous yet contagious act infiltrated both the fair’s soundscape and its visitors’ mental space—some found themselves recalling the lyrics or even humming the song on the way home. The act itself (solitary, unnoticed worker whistling on his/her own) pointed to both the specific political movement it referenced and to work songs in general, slave songs in particular.
The performance succeeded in raising multiple and complex issues using minimal means: notions of space and time, the inseparable relationship between observer and observed, relativity and the multi-layered nature of reality, both physical and conceptual. The work proved how deeply certain signs and roles are implicated in the social world, and drew attention to the behavioural processes linking thinking and doing. It addressed the varying degrees of freedom humans experience in the private and social worlds, recalling phenomenological studies about the body as a performative instrument in the world. The artist engaged in an exploration of human labour as a material condition that can potentially produce meaning. The simple gesture of whistling or humming brought to mind codes of visual and social representation that communicate in multiple modes simultaneously, and in this case had more impact than an image or a linear narrative might have. In this work, active bodies are a conscience emerging into the world, encouraging a reformulation of the intersubjective conditions that govern the social environment. In the context of a commission for an art fair, All Together Now was an original gesture that made plain the transitory value attached to actions and objects. It also represented an alternative performance structure, as much for the performers as for the audience, opening a moving grid of questions/ answers, actions/reactions… The action, which only existed in a social context (the art fair), persisted in a lived space (memory). While activated by individual volition (interns were free to whistle where-and whenever they wished), the group action generated a considerable force. One of the unique social dimensions of this performance involves the issue of co-presence, the subject-to-subject exchange of information. Through her understanding of the situation and careful formal choice, Beier succeeded in making the performance simultaneously social, sensible and historical. This intersubjectivity is the basis of the deeply philosophical and political nature of this “invisible” work.
“Apocalypse. A disquieting feature of this annual exhibition— to which the patients themselves were not invited—was the marked preoccupation of the paintings with the theme of world cataclysm, as if these long-incarcerated patients had sensed some seismic upheaval within the minds of their doctors and nurses.” 5
The French word “essai” has many connotations: essay, attempt (which implies potential failure), test and so on. This piece is an incomplete “essai” whose form and title are shamelessly borrowed from a short story by J. G. Ballard. “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” is part of The Atrocity Exhibition, a novel split up into independent fragments. It is similar in style to the work of William S. Burroughs, who wrote the preface. Its 15 pieces were printed and reprinted as separate fragments well before being gathered in The Atrocity Exhibition, which marked an attempt to present a coherent yet multidirectional book. Each of its chapters/stories is split up into even smaller sections, each just a paragraph long. Ballard has called these sections “condensed novels.” The book has no clear beginning or end, and it does not follow conventional narrative standards: the protagonist’s name changes in each chapter/story (Talbert, Traven, Travis, Talbot) as his role and his vision of the world evolve. One of the fragments is titled “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown.”
In 1976, Ballard published in the British literary magazine Bananas a totally different piece that was also titled Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown. This short novel’s form is derived from The Atrocity Exhibition: it consists of a single 18-word sentence, each word carrying a footnote that leads to links that form the story’s narrative (which is treated as a parallel thread or a metadiscourse).
“Withdrawal as an Art Form
Sensory Overload (Fatigue)
Denial or confusion of a Gestalt invocation of physiological defense mechanism (voluntary or involuntary). Examination of physical and psychological response to simple or even oversimplified situations which can yield clearly experienceable phenomena (phenomena and experience are the same or undifferentiable).
Presentation of recordings of phenomena as opposed to stimulation of phenomena.
Manipulation or observation of self in extreme or controlled situations.
• Observation of manipulations.
• Manipulation of observations.
• Information gathering.
• Information dispersal (or display).”6
VH: In Thread for Room 111 (2008), a thread hangs from the ceiling and just brushes the floor. It is tinted with watercolours. The work, while barely visible, informs the space. When visitors enter the room, it has a kind of cinematic feel, and then a schizophrenic presence: at once invisible and overwhelming. What is your relationship with retreat and withdrawal? Is there a connection to John Cage?
JT: I guess I’ve been hesitant to make objects as such, or I’ve at least tried to make material situations that shift. Gordon Lebredt has described the conventional art object as a kind of bait that’s laid for the spectator. One way to respond to this is to complicate its objecthood in some way. It might withdraw, retreat, disappear or simply refuse to be fixed. Some works are quite literal in this respect (are actually difficult to see) and others less so (are difficult to rationalize or circumscribe). I think my favourite artists make work that is almost stuck between the material and the immaterial. I’ve taken a lot from Cage’s music and writing: the choice to remove certain kinds of choices; the dryness at times; the interest in a relation between spectators, site and a history of making; and the principle that you make not in order to express or communicate, but in order to experiment with perception, cognition, knowledge, time and so on. My work seems to tend towards the time-based, even if the materials are not always kinetic and are almost never powered. My favourite art involves the spectator in a continuity of perceptual-cognitive ambiguity, negativity and irresolution, but also pleasure. One aspect of the retreat you mentioned is a wish to take the perceptual and analytical attention we give to the object and share that with the conditions of its apprehension—light, sound, sensation itself: things we normally ignore. So rather than simply occupy a space, a work should bump up against it, open it or fold it. This interest in the materiality of particular spaces contradicts the tendency of contemporary culture to make all information function everywhere, anytime. Portability and usability are questioned.
Adam David Brown.
VH: Your work, as you wrote, oscillates between “emptiness and form, mark-making and erasure.” Can withdrawal be a strategy of resistance in art?
ADB: I often employ withdrawal in the form of removal or absence in order to get a work to function. Erasure is at the heart of this way of working; I think that we all know about Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing, which is a good touchstone. In some cases my work is an act of resistance or even an out-and-out critique. My work Silence speaks to this point. Words are powerful commands and carry a lot of authority. “Shhh,” as a verbal command, is supremely emphatic, it’s a total interruption. It can affect an entire space and assume control. The work really speaks to that which is no longer there, to what has already been silenced or withdrawn.
VH: The work marks your “interest in silence, ephemerality and emptiness.” However, the piece itself is very present, visible, large. How do you view this apparent dichotomy?
ADB: Silence has been a productive investigation for me. I was already exploring the symbolic potential of the eraser, especially as a tool for mark-making. The work developed to a point where the phenomenology began to depend upon the paradox of working in a medium that is normally associated with removal and erasure. The work basically consists of the granulated traces of Pink Pearl erasers, which are very soft and can’t really withstand much manipulation. So by the time I had completed the work on the gallery wall, at least half of it was already lying in powdery piles on the floor. Of course I had to include these piles as an index: they were part of the work and really contributed to the sense of ephemerality that is at the heart of the piece. The work could have been damaged or partly erased at any time during the exhibition, say if someone had accidentally brushed against it. In fact, I anticipated that this would happen at some point, but to my surprise it never did. If it had I would have considered it to be a logical extension of the work, a kind of assisted dematerialization.
SE: Typically, each of the texts functions as a drawing…or really, as a substitute or stand-in for a drawing. It is always up to the viewer to conjure up the image in their mind, like a memory or a scent or a song.
A SLOWLY DISSOLVED WORLD
Seth Siegelaub and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Could this portfolio be a score for a future exhibition? Is it an exhibition? Or a guide for a virtual situation?
“HUO: In 1968, you curated the ‘Xerox book’ project? Was this a ‘group show’ in book form?
SS: Yes, the first ‘big’ group show, if you like. This project evolved in the same way as most of my projects, in collaboration with the artists I worked with. We would sit around discussing the different ways and possibilities to show art, different contexts and environments in which art could be shown, indoors, outdoors, books, etc. The ‘Xerox book’—I now would prefer to call it the ‘Photocopy book’, so that no one gets the mistaken impression that the project has something to do with Xerox—was perhaps one of the most interesting because it was the first where I proposed a series of ‘requirements’ for the project, concerning the use of a standard size paper and the amount of pages, the ‘container’ within which the artist was asked to work. What I was trying to do was standardize the conditions of exhibition with the idea that the resulting differences in each artist’s project or work would be precisely what the artist’s work was about.
HUO: As Broodthaers said, ‘Every exhibition is one possibility surrounded by many other possibilities which are worth being explored.’
SS: True enough. That is the way I look upon my own organizing and exhibition projects; as so many different ways, different possibilities, different aspects, of investigating the production of exhibitions. For the exhibition I did in Simon Fraser University in Canada in May–June 1969, at the instigation of N.E. Thing Co., we only published a catalogue after the exhibition was over. The exhibition took place all around the University, but unless you were aware that it was going on you just wouldn’t know it existed; it was only afterward—if you saw the catalogue—that you realized you were in the middle of an exhibition during that period. But there was no formal indication that the exhibition was taking place at the time.
HUO: The curator disappears in a sense?
SS: In a way, yes, but it is a false disappearance. I think in retrospect perhaps what I was doing had to do with making the role of the curator less hidden, less transparent, more clear, more open and more aware of his or her responsibility in the art process. Although since then, I have heard curators have become very important, and are even spoken of as being ‘painters’ using the artists they show as a form of ‘paint.’
“You say: the real, the world as it is. But it is not, it becomes! It moves, it changes! It doesn’t wait for us to change…It is more mobile than you can imagine. You are getting closer to this reality when you say it ‘presents itself’; that means that it is not there, existing as an object. The world, the real is not an object. It is a process.” 8
Benoît Maire, Alexandre Singh, Tris Vonna-Michell, Simon Fujiwara. Drifts and derivations (formal, temporal, conceptual and all these at once) have become a major strategy in contemporary art practice. Benoît Maire’s series Tiresias Open is rather cryptic at first glance. However, when we take into account all of its visual components, it becomes apparent that the work is a metaphor for vision. The work takes the form of collages that include the mythological figures of Tiresias9 and the seer; Henry Draper, who photographed the moon in 1863; Erik Weihenmayer, the famous blind alpinist; Canova’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa and so on. Each component derives from and mutates into something else in a metonymic chain, so that the work is kept in a structural loop that refers to the seer but suggests the impossibility of omniscient perception. In his fascinating lectures and narrative performances, Alexandre Singh also adopts assemblage and metonymy: an image or an idea is linked to another, unexpected one to form a coherent—mythical— discourse or narrative. Taking his cue from Homer, Singh can relate from memory The Alkahest, a series of self-composed interwoven tales that feature golems, monks, parrots, 20th-century abstract painters and the creation of the world. In his Assembly Instructions, two overhead projectors display a variety of collaged images that form the backbone of a meandering discussion that ranges from IKEA to Giordano Bruno and from Snow White to oranges. Not only are images and notions linked here, but diverse modes of language are freely appropriated and mixed, from academic discourse to myths, stand-up comedy and journalism. Tris Vonna-Michell’s spoken performances and installations employ a similar strategy, but are more directed toward creating narrative fictions. His dizzying sequences of personal and historical anecdotes weave together myth, fantasy and reality, ultimately pointing to the often fictional construction of history and identity. The recent projects of Simon Fujiwara, which include performance-lectures, published fiction, clippings and artifacts, exist at the borders of ethnology and eroticism, architecture and ancestry. For more than two years he has been rewriting his parents’ life story as erotic fiction, taking their real-life oppression under the Franco dictatorship in Spain as the setting for his stories. The resulting writings, which form a dialogue with his performances and installations, have appeared in a range of publications, from explicit gay erotica to critical journals and art catalogues.
Drift exists as a notion, a word, a form, as a strategy of repetition, or, better, as a stubborn spiral (not a loop) to deepen a concept. One could describe it as a serial musical sequence (Steve Reich, Charles Amirkhanian, Samuel Beckett, etc.) or as a nervous breakdown:
READ THIS WORD THEN READ THIS WORD READ THIS WORD NEXT READ THIS WORD NOW SEE ONE WORD SEE ONE WORD NEXT SEE ONE WORD NOW AND THEN SEE ONE WORD AGAIN LOOK AT THREE WORDS HERE LOOK AT THREE WORDS NOW LOOK AT THREE WORDS NOW TOO TAKE IN FIVE WORDS AGAIN TAKE IN FIVE WORDS SO TAKE IN FIVE WORDS DO IT NOW SEE THESE WORDS AT A GLANCE SEE THESE WORDS AT THIS GLANCE AT THIS GLANCE HOLD THIS LINE IN VIEW HOLD THIS LINE IN ANOTHER VIEW AND IN A THIRD VIEW SPOT SEVEN LINES AT ONCE THEN TWICE THEN THRICE THEN A FOURTH TIME A FIFTH A SIXTH A SEVENTH AN EIGHTH10
Jon Sasaki. Repetition is a form of displacement, a temporal one (in terms of sequencing: one thing after the other). Jon Sasaki often folds two temporalities together to create a somewhat violent tension that results from the absurd resurgence of the past. His work conveys a sense of temporal drift. As Sasaki says, “Temporal displacement has been an element of my video work since the beginning. It is a device I borrowed from silent film comedies: the use of anachronism to trigger humour and/or pathos. Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton all played, at various times, old-fashioned characters who were out of step with the modern world they found themselves in. They struggled humorously to find a place within it, with varying degrees of success. In my video performances, the protagonist is the same sort of ‘fish out of water,’ occasionally finding himself, for example, wearing a short-sleeved shirt in a snowstorm. He struggles to move forward, but is stuck in a static loop. The fact that the loop plays out infinitely, never reaching resolution, is perhaps another source of tension. The video operates in a present that exists outside the continuum of past and future. Although the character’s efforts are centred on self-improvement, it becomes clear that any sort of development is impossible: development, by definition, requires a logical, linear timeline. The fact that he perseveres despite the impossibility of moving forward is pretty tragic. On the other hand, it is also where a bit of optimism comes in. He is unflaggingly determined, undeterred despite the high probability of failure. My Obsolete Mascots series in a way takes time as a starting point. Typically, the audience is confronted with a mascot in the gallery space and is told that this character once had a moment of glory. For my millennium-celebration mascot, for example, that moment probably took place during the second half of 1999, but soon after the new year was ushered in, he became antiquated. When we see him today, sitting in the gallery, we can’t help but imagine for him a very bleak-looking future.”
Patrizio Di Massimo uses repetition and drift as strategies in both his drawings (repeating a figure with discreet variations) and works in other media, such as his sound piece The secret proceedings in the trial at Benghazi, 15 September 1931. The latter work documents the legal process that led to the execution of Omar al-Mukhtar, leader of the Libyan resistance, at the hands of the Italian government. Di Massimo recounts, “I found the document in English on an Arabic website, then decided to ask an actor to read it. What struck me most about the document was that the proceedings were narrated three times, in three different ways: 1) the interrogation of the prisoner; 2) the typewritten account of the interrogation of the prisoner; and 3) the recording of the interrogation of the prisoner. It is a play of narrations that employs rhetoric (the three different accounts), interwoven with the fact that law is a branch of rhetoric in itself.” Another Di Massimo work, Untitled (My Father Emulating Me), is a photograph of the artist’s father in the 1970s, at the age of 23—the artist’s age when he discovered the photograph. The two men look identical. The work becomes a somewhat cynical statement about the lack of originality, creativity and difference in contemporary culture, about authorship and paternity and about our inability to escape repetition and origins.
Jon Sasaki’s A Wound-Down Watch Coaxed to Run a Bit Longer, a video in which an inanimate object comically becomes a source of pathos, is probably the artist’s most literal expression of two temporalities being out of sync. As Sasaki explains, “The hands of an exhausted windup watch are coaxed into running again, although their movements no longer correspond to the actual time. Only 90 seconds separate exhaustion from absolute exhaustion. The piece relies entirely on that violent tension between two temporalities: the ‘real-world time’ that the video was shot in and the ‘exhausted time’ of the watch, which absurdly ticks off seconds that in no way correspond to the world around it. There’s something odd about identifying with an old wristwatch, but I think most people can relate to its plight. I’m sure that at times we’ve all felt the imperative to keep going even when we’re run down. For me, the gesture of coaxing that watch sits somewhere between funny and sadistic.”
Jason Dodge. Dodge’s they are waiting for you at the monument (2007) recontextualizes familiar objects, imparting to them a sense of exhaustion. In this piece, musical instruments are dislocated from their original context, placed on the floor and covered by a sheet of plastic, looking like relics rather than inviting active engagement. This piece resists any clear-cut narrative, generating instead many meanings, suggesting an event in the distant past along with notions of anticipation and latent melancholy. Signifiers without the signified, the instruments suggest the setting for a larger, elusive storyline: the monument of the title hints at past events and collective dramas. Friederike Schönhuth has written of Dodge that the artist “maintains a broken relationship with the rationalized world and expands its horizon through emotionalized fabrications…He strips his objects of their rationality and provides them with sensorial traces of human action, thereby arousing the viewer’s thirst for adventure and the exploratory spirit.” Dodge has a clear understanding of the symbolic, imaginary and literary significance of the materials, objects and actions he links together. His work, with drastic economy of means, links oral and literary traditions with carefully chosen materials and processes, creating unsettling situations in which viewers are asked to actively take part. Dodge often exhausts a notion until it disappears almost completely, until only its core (the seed of a narrative or a memory) remains.
Repetition and drift and a sense of exhaustion:
boredom, spleen (Baudelaire)
To relinquish, resign,
to abandon, indulge in,
give way to
Exhaust, work out
To wear out
To use up, to spend
Possibilities of the image
Depth of image
Double movement = surface in negative: retreat and sterility returning as generative forms, resistance to the image/re-presentation (as both accumulation and self-generation: Nina Beier), to undo. The retreat: silence, invisibility, co-production (Gareth Moore: his performative walks, also processes of drift and withdrawal, withdrawal of the artist himself at times), vanishing.
Sources. This essay is made of drifts and repetition, gathering a number of notes and fragments of research. It may form the basis of a future exhibition, or a book. It is much influenced, in both form and content, by a number of discussions and writings: J. G. Ballard, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, Quad by Samuel Beckett, The Fold by Gilles Deleuze, A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Au fond des images by Jean-Luc Nancy, I–VI by John Cage, Devant le temps by Georges Didi-Huberman and many others. Some of these literary experiments are indebted to modernist literature. For instance, John Cage’s I–VI, a transcription of a lecture he delivered at Harvard University in 1988–89, quotes Buckminster Fuller, Thoreau, Wittgenstein and others. Cage subjected the quoted material to a “mesostic” ordering system guided by the I Ching and a computer program; the result was, unsurprisingly, fragmented prose. In Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, some pages contain only a few words or lines. Footnotes contaminate the narrative and create a parallel universe. The novel also contains multiple narrators, who interact with one another throughout the story in disorienting and elaborate ways.
(10) Alexandre Singh.
Kris Martin. The notions of repetition, displacement, drift, absurdity, dissolution and fragmentation bring to mind the figure of Sisyphus. But Sisyphus without his rock, an even more derelict myth. Despite their apparent simplicity— even fragility—Kris Martin’s works bring together codified knowledge from the anatomical, ethnological, historical and technical realms. He pieces the codes together, disassembles them and eventually recombines their elements in unexpected ways, making each artwork a compulsive heterology made of doubt.
In his work, knowledge is also unmoored from history: it becomes plural and loses its positivity and linearity. Knowledge without temporality is absurd, like Sisyphus performing his act without a rock, or Laocoön in pain with no snakes (see Martin’s Mandi VIII from 2006). Knowledge without any basis in history is grotesque; it is hopeless. This temporal irresolution, which appears in many of Martin’s works, is best described by Gilles Deleuze’s concept of the “crystal-image.” In the words of Donato Totaro, “The crystal-image, which forms the cornerstone of Deleuze’s time-image, is a shot that fuses the pastness of the recorded event with the presentness of its viewing. The crystal-image is the indivisible unity of the virtual image and the actual image. The virtual image is subjective, in the past, and recollected. The virtual image as ‘pure recollection’ exists outside of consciousness, in time. It is always somewhere in the temporal past, but still alive and ready to be ‘recalled’ by an actual image. The actual image is objective, in the present and perceived. The crystal-image always lives at the limit of an indiscernible actual and virtual image…The crystal-image shapes time as a constant two-way mirror that splits the present into two heterogeneous directions, ‘one of which is launched towards the future while the other falls into the past…Time consists of this split, and it is this, it is time, that we see in the crystal.’11” Martin’s works, with their multiple, contradictory, simultaneous layers of history, are crystal- images, fluctuating between actual and virtual, recording or dealing with conscious and involuntary memories, confusing mental and physical time. They play with formal codes via the artistic approaches of faking, borrowing and stealing, and end up in a play with a temporal crack. Playing with equilibrium is equivalent to playing with the possibility of a disaster: there is always a risk of the work being misunderstood. But therein lies the greatest risk: challenging the audience’s perception of the artwork and questioning the spectator’s relationship to his (hi)stories(y).
Sculpture of The Space Age. Can an exhibition exist in a purely mental space? In a temporal crack? “Sculpture of The Space Age” was a 2009 exhibition organized by the Lithuanian curator Raimundas Malasauskas and held at the David Roberts Art Foundation in London. Its title refers to a purely fictional exhibition mentioned in J. G. Ballard’s 1984 short story The Object of the Attack. This exhibition was supposedly held at the Serpentine Gallery in the late 1970s, but of course it never happened—it is not even described in the text, but exists solely as a title. Malasauskas started a discussion with some artists about this phantom exhibition. How could they create it, or—better yet—extricate it from the past and from fiction without illustrating it, maintaining its undecided temporality (as much past as future) and leaving its content fictional and potential (i.e. mental)? Malasauskas describes his curatorial process as “Reapproaching the exhibition that took place in the network of brains: an intermittent experiment of space-time travelling.” Four artists were invited to be part of the project: Gintaras Didziapetris, Ryan Gander, Mario Garcia Torres and Rosalind Nashashibi worked collectively to make a fiction real. The exhibition examined aspects of art production and transmission, the porous boundary between fiction and reality and the positioning of artworks in time and space. As Malasauskas writes, “Sculpture of The Space Age became an anachronism that keeps living on its own ambivalence as something that could have happened, then almost happened again. It openly contains its own possibility and impossibility, as this new diversion suggests: Mario Garcia Torres with Ryan Gander and Gintaras Didziapetris with Rosalind Nashashibi bring Sculpture of The Space Age to where it could have been and where it has never been yet: the year 2009. The show looks as if it was installed in the early 80s, but will open its door only tomorrow.” The exhibition is kept in an indecisive state, most obviously in an almost imperceptible floor installation by Mario Garcia Torres and Ryan Gander. A 2008 project by Malasauskas was entitled “The Hypnotic Show,” and involved artists creating scripts for potential artworks. In order to experience the art, the “viewer” was hypnotized; both the works and the show existed solely in a mental dimension.
Christopher D’Arcangelo’s radical retreat. “What does it mean to be invited? What does it mean to be uninvited? Would you like to buy an apple?” These questions were asked by D’Arcangelo in June of 1978 after he was rejected from a show at New York’s Rosa Esman Gallery (after having initially been invited to participate). A few months later, D’Arcangelo was included in a four-person group show curated by Janelle Reiring at Artists Space. Part of his contribution consisted of the exclusion of his name from the invitation card, the catalogue and all communication around the exhibition. D’Arcangelo also staged actions in museums in the mid-1970s that involved removing or altering artworks without anyone’s permission or help. Twenty-six years after D’Arcangelo’s suicide, Mario Garcia Torres wrote to him in a letter, “You once declared that you hoped to ‘find alternatives to the system that controls our lives’ through the action of giving up white pages of a magazine, as you did for the piece you conceived for the LAICA Journal, so that these could be used in any way by the reader and then displayed on the walls of the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art galleries. In that piece, as in other works from the same period, you objected to the role of curators and to the control they were exerting on what was exhibited in art galleries…That specific piece brings to mind the proposals you made to the Rosa Esman Gallery and to the Van Abbemuseum asking the exhibition spaces to be left empty for people to bring in whatever they wanted to exhibit. Sadly none of this actually happened. One could even say those spaces you conceived remain empty.”
“One cannot consider the artist’s work uniquely in terms of creation; on the contrary, at the heart of every creative act there is an act of de-creation. Deleuze once said of cinema that every act of creation is also an act of resistance. What does it mean to resist? Above all it means de-creating what exists, de-creating the real, being stronger than the fact in front of you. Every act of creation is also an act of thought, and an act of thought is a creative act, because it is defined above all by its capacity to de-create the real.”12
Bethan Huws. From 1993 to 1995, Bethan Huws ceased exhibiting art in order to explore the theoretical and critical foundations of her practice. Without a predetermined plan, she read and wrote, and from this research produced six volumes of reflections and studies. Origin and Source, which runs 1342 pages, is the result of two years of silence and research. What is important about this project is neither the artist’s withdrawal nor her reconsideration of the basis of her artistic practice; what is important is the fact that she decided to exhibit it, to enter the project into her oeuvre. In this way she identified retreat, the fragment, doubt, fertile repetition and even collapse as valid artistic approaches. The negation inscribed in these two years of retreat—of exile and introspection—and the anxiety of turning away become motor and flywheel. Scraped Floor, an earlier work by Huws, shows a surface in negative. Origin and Source is also a surface in negative: retreat and sterility have become generative forms. The title is important, pointing as it does to the aspect of excavation in the work.13 The project shows us the fruits of retreat, exposing it “as it is.” Origin and Source situates Huws’s work in a literary tradition based in post-symbolist 20th-century poetry, according to which language, in its structuralist nature, is a machine for deconstruction (think of Mallarmé14 and Apollinaire). The idea is relevant in the context of some well-known breakdowns (Nerval, Dostoevsky, Strindberg, Rimbaud, etc.): errant paths that found their way through silence, drifts or repetition, or were absorbed by it (an idea best theorized by Mallarmé and, later, Maurice Blanchot). The late 19th century saw a relationship develop between art and writing that would lead the way to a conceptual dynamic (Alphonse Allais’s monochromes, Larionov, Dada and the links between poetry and conceptual art in the work of Robert Filliou, Carl Andre, Vito Acconci and Marcel Broodthaers, among others). Origin and Source belongs to a tradition that links creativity to breakdown: “deconstruction” (Derrida), “worklessness and disaster” (Blanchot), “the accursed share” (Bataille), “the unsaid” (Levinas), “a literature of the unword” (Beckett). It is a tradition of anxiety in which the tension and distance between the self and the other “I” defines the modern subject.
The two years Huws spent studying and writing represent a personal crisis (an “inner experience” for Bataille). Origin and Source is a work that, made public, objectivizes an artistic approach and dissociates the creative self from the social, artistic “I.” Huws’s act of making her manuscript public and making an artwork of it raises the question of possession of voice, the presence of the other in the self. Because the voice is at once improper and proper, mine and not-mine simultaneously, it is, in essence, “atopic” and untenable, “always on the verge of collapse” (as Derrida put it in Monolingualism of the Other). The title of the work is ironic in that it suggests a place, a defined speaking position, and yet the place of speech operating in the work is unframed, displaced, everywhere, nowhere, subjective but impersonal: drifted. Beyond the relationship of the artist to her sources, Origin and Source addresses the crucial question of the anonymous space for discourse and creation, for negativity and collapse. The work is made of fragments, it proceeds by dissociation and association, it operates according to dissolution and assemblage: it is an exemplary work of drift, retreat, repetition and exhaustion.
By Vincent Honoré (with Micah Lexier)
This is an article from the Spring 2010 issue of Canadian Art.
1. Micah Lexier was commissioned to design this piece for Canadian Art. His presence resembles that of the author as described by Flaubert: “present everywhere, and visible nowhere.” Lexier’s work has much to do with retreat, and resonates absolutely with the issues raised in this essay.
9. The seer Tiresias, to whom Zeus granted the gift of soothsaying, was blinded by Hera because, as some say, he disclosed the gods’ secrets to mortal men. Others say Athena blinded the young Tiresias by covering his eyes with her hands when he surprised her naked.