Fresh Fruit from Rotten Vegetables (part three): The Tension of Kafka’s Bureaucracy

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Why is Kafka so relevant ninety-three years after his death?  Simply because his milieu was one of pure bureaucratic tension: not only did his works comment on the bureaucracy of his age, they foreshadowed the docile bureaucracy of the decades to come.  Today’s bureaucracy is so sluggish and short-sighted that it needs the smiley-faced, epigrammatic lexicon and cheery-voiced affectations of the customer-service ideology to in any way placate a society so ground-down by its ineptitude that is has come to expect the tension of confrontation.  When K attempts to gain entrance to the castle he is met with bureaucratic underlings who embody the rusted cogs deliberately put in place in any system to deter the achievement of knowledge.  For, knowledge being power and power being the ultimate capitalist commodity (even greater than time itself), it must be doled out in microscopic measure and in predetermined quantities (and the predetermining always carried out in turn by those with a slightly greater measure of [again, predetermined) of knowledge).

Kafka is referred to time and again in contemporary art, because his fictions achieved what contemporary art always strives for, which is to tabulate a social or cultural atmosphere and trim away the bureaucratic fat which obscures the fact of a thing from the view of the populace.  In order for any member of a populace to attain a greater standing or position of merit they must first use their predetermined measure of knowledge (granted [again, generally-speaking] on the basis of their social standing) and figure out a way to interpret the climate they live in with the power they are given.  Sometimes this measure of power is out-of-balance with a person’s social standing: for instance, poor communities with little educational clout produce fiercely intelligent individuals who have not the bureaucratic means with which to harness that intelligence.  Conversely, and this is more often the case [or so I have found], upper-middle class communities tend to award the dullest, most docile of its citizens with intellectual power which said individual has no way of yielding responsibly.

So, when speaking of bureaucratic tensions, the artist opens up a vast area for exploration.  And, like Kafka before him or her, has to trim away the fat put in place by the very bureaucracy they seek to expose.

Fresh Fruit from Rotten Vegetables (part two)

The word tension is probably old-hat these days (for, as Mr Virilio would no doubt point out, once a concept or term has been applied to any discipline it is already old-hat, ready for supersession).  But tension is without doubt the cultural vernacular of the Twenty-First Century: our Western, capitalist existence is based on myriad tensions, all applying pressure upon one another.  We have bureaucratic tensions (which are particularly relevant to me at the moment, and govern all of our daily lives), dialectical tensions (created when cultures, beliefs or political leanings co-exist) and – perhaps the greatest tension of all – the tension created when a sublimely fascist government manipulates a society into fighting amongst itself for individual endurance.

When dealing with dialectical tensions the burden is at once upon the artist to identify which dialectical oppositions are in conflict (or, as is often the case, should be made to be in conflict).  Heraclitus postulated that nature and society were a unity of opposites (one relying on the other to exist), but since Heraclitus’ day society has fragmented and re-unified itself so many times that it has created new dialectical unities (patois being an obvious example).  Nature, in the meantime, has carried on regardless, thus giving the lie to the old Greek.  Certainly, using Heraclitus in this manner is to simplify matters to a stultifying degree, and it is the critical theorist’s job to join the dots between the ancient Greeks and what remains of our post-Postructuralist reasoning, not the artist’s.  But finding these tensions (wherever these tensions are elusive enough to require any efforted search) is one of the first tasks when creating work in an environment which thrives on these dialectics.  Most artists – if I am being general – use material tensions to convey the dialectical tensions found in everyday life: steel, plaster, MDF, glass…these are all materials which have their tensions, and the most obvious way of reflecting these tensions is to manipulate said materials.  Find their weak spots, identify the precise area where they are most likely to buckle, etc.  For somebody who largely eschews the usage of materials (although there have been occasions when they have been incredibly useful), these tensions must be found dialectically.

Hence the artist as cultural renovator, manipulator or (and I have long preferred this term) magpie.  What shines in a pre-existing cultural climate must be made to stand in opposition with other things in either the same or a separate cultural climate (whether they be shiny or otherwise): only then do we find the inherent meanings, encoding and – worryingly enough – discriminations, perspicacities and intellectual failings (or, similarly, triumphs) in a given society.

Ryan Gander – Night in the Museum @ Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

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There is an infamous scene during John McNaughton’s Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer in which the film’s two protagonists are seen torturing and ultimately murdering an innocent family, which is disturbing enough in and of itself, until we then cut away from the scene to find that we have actually – and chillingly – been watching the killers watching themselves perform these deeds. It is in this detached act of voyeurism that we find the most human of truths: we habitual third-party observers, even in the face of injustice, intolerance and iniquity. This framing device is a trope which has been used so often in popular culture that we barely register its recurrences, and has been used across the board (in one form or another) by Coleridge, Shelley, Robert Wiene and The Simpsons. Ryan Gander, at Night in the Museum, uses a similar framing device in the form of Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, ostensibly to focus on the act of looking (we encounter, throughout the exhibition, examples of sculptural works “looking” at two-dimensional artefacts from the Arts Council Collection). However, the vaguest familiarity with Degas’ sculpture discloses an historical truth: at the time of its creation, Little Dancer represented the face of the underclass which art criticism balked at. Rendered in beeswax, as opposed to the more traditional bronze, and lacking in grace, she was stuffed away in Degas’ cupboard for more than half-a-century until she emerged somewhat serendipitously, in 1956, to a slightly more enlightened age.

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In 2008, Heimo Zobernig unveiled his curatorial intervention – titled Heimo Zobernig and the Tate Collection in his characteristic detachment – which brought together artefacts from the Tate’s collection and arranged them with a certain dialogical tension alongside the Austrian artist’s stripped-down, aloof (yet, for all that, playful) works.  Zobernig, with tongue-in-cheek, obstructed the view from the gallery of the Cornish coastline with a red chroma-key curtain.  One can read this is a pointed suspension of the relationship between art and leisure, or indeed the preoccupation with the aesthetic balance – a thing which even today is all-too-British.  It was in such disruptions that Zobernig’s exhibition succeeded dialectically, whereas Ryan Gander’s decision to use The Little Dancer in the aforesaid prosopopoeial manner (ostensibly to exemplify a notion of formal liberation) is little more than a cynical attempt to bring the family back into a modernised version of that very thing which Zobernig disrupted.

In this sense, the Gas Hall is an ideal parallel of both the Little Dancer’s story and the present-day state of Government funding of The Arts: until privatisation, this hall was used by Birmingham’s populace to make their gas payments and, although we no longer queue in our serried bureaucratic misery, we are still nonetheless paying a debt. Today’s debt in the Gas Hall is our collective tribute towards a threat of “use it or lose it,” and this re-imagining by Gander of the Little Dancer, as she surveys Modern and Contemporary Art and its indifference to proletariat ballet enthusiasts, finds her in an age in which Britain is happy to pat itself on the back for its obedience to the tribute. Not only is Britain retentive of an holistic understanding of its own cultural heritage, but has also fostered an appreciation of the historical imparity of others’.  One sees art-world rhetoric scattered throughout the exhibition, designed – one imagines – to encourage the family away from Ikea and into the museum:

 “The reason why being an artist is one of the greatest jobs in the world is that you get to see what intangible ideas look like in the real world – the fallout of thinking is never quite as you imagined it.”

 One such magniloquently declarative soundbite boasts in yellow-on-spruce, in its congruent nestling among other such quotes which only ever belong either on a Sky Arts ident or, like here, as a congratulatory punch on the arm to the “family what arts.”  A municipal enterprise such as the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, forever chasing next year’s pot of municipal gold, is terminally enslaved to such bombastic cultural jingoism.

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Gander’s curatorial choices (my cynical take on the exhibition notwithstanding) are well-chosen, given the theme of a crepuscular, after-hours museum.  The paintings, impressively supplied by Robyn Denny, Patrick Caulfield et al, are all of a deep-blue, evening hue.  Though it is the sculptural work which is truly meant to attract visitors.  Sirs Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, solidified within the cultural lexicon of the Twenty-and-Twenty-First Centuries, give the Arts Council the greatest opportunity to flex its muscle, whilst more subdued works by such contemporary figures as Angela Bulloch are arranged as conversation pieces for the uninitiated.  As ever, though, with such municipal ventures, the focus is always upon education – not to mention the implicit condescension that the age of advanced technology has somehow made the populace more beastly and torpid towards its own culture.

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Curiously, the museum elevator is out of order, and given my present cynicism I am forced to entertain the notion that Gander has engineered a false breakage.  My suspicions are leant further buoyancy when a mother with a pram arrives in exasperation of this situation, and as I help her up the stairs towards the museum’s main body I cannot help but feel as though I have been caught up in some elaborate postmodern rouse.  Promotional material for Julia Donaldson’s timely half-term exhibition promises more prams and pushchairs in pursuit of the Gruffalo – a beast whose ferocity in outweighed only by his own credulity.  As we part the exhibition, this updated morality tale feels like the most pernicious indictment of Night in the Museum of all.

“Thomas the Obscure” (Print Proof)

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Thomas the Obscure (1941), Maurice Blanchot’s “ultimate post-modern fiction” re-framed in an old Dandy cartoon strip. Nothing new, this, but old habits…

In an ideal world, this will be screen printed directly onto a gallery wall, although oftentimes the ideal world is quite separate to the actual world.

Roger Hiorns @ Ikon, Birmingham

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The Birmingham weather beating its seasonal tattoo upon the roof of the Ikon provides a soundtrack of no small irony as, accompanied by the spirit of Antonin Artaud and my six-year-old Son and with a handmade poster declaiming human BSE as a conversational topic-starter, we are politely informed of the explicit content beyond. We take heed of this caution and, indeed, there are penises to behold, though their depictions are merely cartoonish, and not quite as explicit to stir Artaud’s spirit. I mention to him that there is more than a hint of Ballard to this exhibition and so, discouraged to venture any further and already perceiving that the fare on offer is not nearly as cruel or absurd enough for him, he decides to wait outside. Had I also mentioned to him that the questionable imagery was to be found on paintings made of brain matter, I muse, perhaps his enthusiasm would not has dissipated so rapidly.
I feel wholly justified in invoking Artaud’s ghost for this occasion for, if not in the individual works themselves, then certainly within Roger Hiorns’ modus operandi does the late playwright also haunt. One only has to listen to Hiorns enthuse about the body – its fragility, its impermanence, its bloody-minded capacity to survive – to hear echoes of Artaud’s oft-repeated rant:

When you will have made him a body without organs,
Then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
And restored him to his true freedom.”

We guard ourselves constantly from the dangers of the world; we distrust its total indifference to our perpetuity, and yet in doing so we inevitably surrender ourselves to those elements which we fail to perceive. This has been at the heart of Hiorns’ output for a number of years now, and accordingly this new exhibition feels like a retrospective in all but name.
Once more, Ikon have selected a body (pun only slightly intended) of work which sits somewhere fashionably in the middle of concept and delivery and which plays on the gallery’s layout sparingly, yet with the feeling of contrivance. As though Hiorns himself vacillated between “too much” and “too little,” decided upon the former only to pad the remaining space out needlessly with work of spurious kinship to the rest; invention sits uneasily amongst a number of nigh-on unnecessary works. Already there is a confusion of materials: on the one hand, Hiorns has clearly handed the lion’s share of his most recent, untitled, exhibition over to the body, hence the piqued interest of Artaud’s discorporated spirit. Simultaneously, however, the artist’s obsession with jet engines refuses to give way to the dominant theme. There are the powdered remains of such an engine, like a wild card set into an oblong on the floor and incongruous with the anatomical thread herein. Like a joke that one cannot bring oneself to stop telling, Hiorns has been displaying this piece for at least three years already, and perhaps should now let go.
This is not to suggest that the work as a whole is in any way old hat. There are some profound sparks on offer throughout the first floor, such as the weighted stunt dummies which hang in a Damoclean manner from the main wall (one of which, Hiorns ensures us, contains a copy of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, although we have only his word on this) and the aforementioned Ballard-esque humanoid forms. Had the late HR Geiger (who famously trod more heavily upon the realm of the phallic) extended his vision of the biological incorporating the mechanical to include the machinery readily available to all, rather than relying on an idea which was uniformly one of science fiction, his output may well have resembled the technologically-transmorphic “bodies” hung (inferred symbolically) from Ikon’s ceiling. All historical and literary allusions aside, the key issue here is that Hiorns is becoming an artist with the depth and scope to fill Tate Modern’s colossal Turbine Hall, yet still labours to produce sculptural works for a gallery space on a human scale. He wants us not to be a mere audience because these works come alive when we interact with them; they only realise their full meaning when we able-bodied and fully organic creatures walk among them, so that not just our differences to these bastardised figures stand out, but also our similarities.

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Roger Hiorns has a keen eye for those elements of quotidian contrivances which emulate human nature: thus we encounter assemblages of car parts steadily ejaculating foam – a visual shorthand, one imagines, for the human propensity for talking much, yet saying little. Hiorns, however, is not so cynical. There is hope here for humanity in all its fleshy, febrile organic frailty. We can live, Hiorns says, beyond epidemics, beyond political turmoil and further beyond what our increasingly-delicate climate can burden us with. Perhaps because the individual body still holds sovereignty over yesterday’s dystopian vision of a Brave New World, Hiorns also refers to older work addressing the issue of vCJD and, more broadly, the body’s susceptibility to micro-organic attack.
His sculptural work alludes more to the failing of the human body than it does to human failings, as one can intuit when passing from one room containing these aforementioned hybridised marionettes into another with an upended (and presumably defunct) X-ray machine. Topical, in an age of endless NHS cutbacks, the piece retains a dry wit of its own: the dead machinery left to rot as the patients it once assisted back to health suffer a similar fate.

There is nothing more useless than an organ!” cries Artaud’s mad ghost from the courtyard below and I – taking my Son by the hand and re-joining him outside– am compelled to agree.