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.
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.
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.
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.
There is far too much reliance – even in 2016 – in artistic practice and discourse (and this is something which is still being drilled in art schools) on an idea which can best be expressed as “Duchamp said so.” It stands as testament to Duchamp’s innovation that much of the reasoning of artists hinges on the Duchampian question, yet it nonetheless condemns us that a century after the event we must still retain him as a crutch. Like a speech impediment, the student stammers “Duchamp” and is rewarded with praise. It is as though to merely grasp the idea of proto-Conceptual Art is considered an artistic statement – a statement which expects no exponential discourse or elaboration, and on which the student can declare Terra Firma.
An “artist as conceptualist” (or, as I prefer to think of it, “as thinker”), is the artist who has learned to take responsibility for his or her own works. To have abstract thoughts is the predicate of sentience, and abstract thoughts which remain in abstraction are thoughts as they are normally experienced and expressed. Artists do not have the quotidian luxury of passing thoughts off as tangential experience to be communicated or kept private according to their whims, but must channel those thoughts into their works – indeed, this happens whether the artist chooses it or not. By extension, to keep that work to oneself is precisely the same thing as the everyday thought which is kept private because, as has been axiomatically repeated throughout art history and philosophical enquiry, art is only Art when it arts. It has to communicate an idea in order to function. When a work is kept hidden it is nothing more profound than an object containing no more meaning than its perfunctory intention. We must modify, by degrees, the world around us; question the linguistic framework of all of our social apparatus. To do this the artist has to analyse the first-person understanding of the individual and compare it to the third-person meaning of the object, and by this I mean pick apart the meaning-value in signs themselves. I can think of a train station – not a major train station, which is staffed constantly by an army of individual first-persons, but a small train station which may or may not have one individual sat behind a glass screen. The station is teeming with signs which have been manufactured somewhere else and whose meaning has been placed in them – more often than not – decades previously. Think of the “High Voltage” and “Trespass” signs. These signs are not of that particular station at that precise moment, but are third-person signs generated to remind the subject of dangers which have remained constant throughout a larger period of time. The sign has the same value to the person abiding by their meaning and the person who transgresses the explicit threat. What differs is the first-person reception of meaning, and this meaning is entirely malleable: the abiding person sees the sign as representing authority (the greater organism) threatening legal action (by the organism) and death (by the technology used by the organism) if the station’s signs are not obeyed. The transgressor might see the sign as representing a solution (an easy-way-out for the depressed or suicidal), and in this instance the sign does not represent authority or any greater organism. In each case the signified belongs to vastly different third-person meanings. The sign itself belongs to a greater expansion of time, meant as ideological imperative (the vast majority do not wish to endanger their lives or risk punishment from the courts), which runs throughout the station’s time. At an earlier point in history the sign would have carried the same imperative, even though the peculiarities may have differed (in the early Twentieth Century, there would have been no risk of electrocution, for instance, although the dangers of trespassing on the tracks would have been the same), though this does not mean that the sign has intrinsically changed for the greater organism still compels itself to demand obedience. The sign in the station is merely a microcosm of the larger Capitalist sign which exists as psycho-geographical marker, deterritorialised from the larger Capitalist organism to localise the wider imperative of non-transgression.
When we take this idea of the sign and apply to them Duchampian method, we inevitably invoke the notion of option: the option to take a sign at face value or to manipulate its potential for duality of meaning. This is arguably how Contemporary Art still functions: as a concentration of deterritorialisation. What we have ceased to do, however, is question the dualities or their exponential expansion, to focus on what forces (linguistic or otherwise) create these dualities. One can argue that the Duchampian method was last used to real effect by Joseph Beuys, and there would be a degree of truth in that argument. More precisely, Beuys should be seen as a Postmodern Duchamp in that the ideas begun by Duchamp were applied to both industrial and post-industrial landscapes. Duchamp would have taken a section of track and displayed it in the gallery, whereas Beuys would have uprooted the track and created a deviation outside of the given track’s route – he may well have even retained its functionality by returning the train to the re-routed track. Who is a contemporary Beuys? There are few artists today who have expanded on this linguistic deterritorialisation, which is surprising given the weight given to both Duchamp and Beuys. What we have are re-iterations of the same, or a broadening of the vocabulary to accommodate accelerating technology, but the process is the same: re-route the linguistic origins of a sign from the greater organism to propose a potential for difference. John Armleder plays a much subtler game by exposing the materiality of the dominant linguistic frameworks of culture. An orange and black sunburst pattern is used coterminously on the canvas and an electric guitar (Zakk Wylde II, 2008), while the same Albers-like colour schematic is explored in black and red by a simple translation in form, using the same two opposing objects (Guitar Multiple (FS 164, 1987). Throughout his lengthy career, Armleder has perpetually been investigating this material dialogue, while others exploring the same thing have abandoned the simplicity of this dialogue in favour of the spectacle, in the assumption that the same idea on a grander scale will intensify the meaning. It is not the scale or audacity of the work that expands meaning, but a reassessment of the linguistic principles themselves
Again, an impossible proposition based on an event in literature. This time around, Borges and his famous 1:1 map.
Pushing the limits of the artistic material here to the absurd. If the Conceptual Proposition does not need to be fabricated (thankyou, Mr. Weiner), then does the Proposition need to be possible at all?
The Ceremony of Art Presentation
Being the fourth dimension of meaning somewhere between Sign, Signified and Signifier.
If the sign is the art piece, the signified is the referent and the signified the meaning, there is an extra layer of meaning between Sign and Signified which takes place during artistic presentation. To wit, the meaning in Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting is not on the canvas itself, nor was it during the painting’s creation, but rather lies in its presentation as an absence. This absence is seen often throughout the Twentieth-Century in response to Wittgensteinian silence, which in itself is demonstrated in Ludwig Uhland’s Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn whereby the referent in the poem is the cutting, or sprig. The fact that the meaning of the sprig is never revealed is where Wittgenstein find’s the essence of philosophical truth. Rather than some mystical, ineffable essence, absence is, linguistically, that which has the most power in being shown rather than said.
Count Eberhard Rustle-Beard,
From Württemberg’s fair land,
On holy errand steer’d
To Palestina’s strand.
The while he slowly rode
Along a woodland way;
He cut from the hawthorn bush
A little fresh green spray.
Then in his iron helm
The little sprig he plac’d;
And bore it in the wars,
And over the ocean waste.
And when he reach’d his home;
He plac’d it in the earth;
Where little leaves and buds
The gentle Spring call’d forth.
He went each year to it,
The Count so brave and true;
And overjoy’d was he
To witness how it grew.
The Count was worn with age
The sprig became a tree;
‘Neath which the old man oft
Would sit in reverie.
The branching arch so high,
Whose whisper is so bland,
Reminds him of the past
And Palestina’s strand.
In Abstract Expressionism this thinking is key to an understanding of the Modernist urge to achieve the inexpressible, and we also see it in Conceptual Art as it directs our attention away from formal qualities and focuses instead on that which is absent from the work.
The question is not lost on me why I do not practice more of what I preach, and the answers range from the self-deprecating to the absurd. In the first instance, it must be said that absence is perhaps the single most fragile artistic material, and must be used only by skilled hands. My hands are not as skilled as I would prefer. Secondly, absence is also absolute faith in the unspoken, and here matters become slightly unstuck. Absolute faith and truth are in no way the same thing, although both are subject to interpretation – particularly in an age which distorts the fundamentals of both physical and abstract fact. That which remains unsaid naturally resists Propositional Logic, and as such is often misunderstood for a negation whereas the thing (again abstract or actual) in actuality stands for something which must be preserved from contemporaneity. The grief of a fallen soldier’s mother during the First World War cannot be equated with the grief of a teenage heartbreak. I resist utilisation of the absence because my work is not subjective, nor does it focus on my (or anyone else’s) inner feelings.