There are two instances within this essay of previous journal entries being spliced into the main body of text. This works on two levels: the first level is the most logical, in that two short passages lay dormant in relatively spurious pieces of writing, and as an author I decided that they would be put to better use to illustrate similar points herein. The second reason is more abstruse, and perhaps illustrates those aforesaid points to a greater degree. Does the removal of these paragraphs and their subsequent transplanting onto these pages take anything away from their original essence, or are they given greater weight in the context of a lengthier (and by implication, more profound) text? The free play of signs and signifiers (so says Jacques Derrida ) would have it that those words were never rigidly fixed into those journal entries to begin with, and were merely a perceived element of my own construction. Yet what is a similar thing happens to works of art?
Decalcomania is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the process of transferring designs from prepared paper on to glass or porcelain. Without referring directly to the materiality explicit within the definition, Deleuze and Guattari – in their seminal work A Thousand Plateaus (2) – employ decalcomania to illustrate the rhizomatic process of creating maps rather than tracings. Here the map is the origin and centre of thought, whereas the tracing is the regressive tendency of ascribing hierarchical signifiance to arborescent thought, or to suggest that the map is, in the first place, fixed and unable to be altered in any way (with further implications that the map is the word of “God” [we may infer “God” in this context to refer to any form of higher spirituality or metaphysical other] and thus final). The distinction between arborescent and rhizomatic thought is key to an understanding of Deleuze and Guattaris’ philosophical viewpoint, and holistically of poststructuralist theory in general: arborescent plants are hierarchical and operate in a linear, binary and above all vertical manner, placing earlier strata of the root as original and containing greater value. In this way, one can trace Western thought retrospectively through to Plato, and work forwards from there. Deleuze and Guattari suggest the rhizome as a more truthful representation of thought, whereby roots operate in multiplicities, connecting thoughts non-hierarchically and operating within what they call the plane of consistency.
In Naruto, Japan the Ōtsuka Museum of Art has, since 1998, had on display nothing except ceramic reproductions of notable artworks from history. These works are created by firing photographic images onto flat ceramics, and the idea for this is ostensibly (and superficially) one of preservation: keep the art alive for as long as humanly possible by exhibiting its replica. This exemplifies perfectly the tracing as fixed arborescent obeisance to an established academic orthodoxy, and accepts unquestioningly the judgements of historical criticism. However, in contrast to conventional etiquette, visitors are actively encouraged to touch the works on display regardless of the fundamental truth that there is, in fact, nothing to touch – all that is reproduced is a two-dimensional photographic image and even sculptural works are reduced to these two dimensions. One could just as well enter “art history” into Google Images and project the results upon the gallery wall, such is the complete lack of substance for the visitor to actually interact with. These facsimiles also unwittingly work towards destroying the essence and vitality of the original: the more we rely on the reproduction as our primary communication with an artist’s intention, the more we allow that original intention (as most effectively contained within an original work) to fade from existence. This process, while ostensibly done in the name of preservation, actually preserves nothing, and merely allows us the privilege of choosing to erode the original art piece – erosion from the publics’ first-hand knowledge of the work (and, ultimately, memory) versus a more physical erosion which would result from prolonged exposure to public contact.
There are echoes of Georg Simmel (1858-1918) to be found within the not-so-radical praxis of the Ōtsuka Museum, and we are reminded of his lauded essay Der Henkel (The Handle, 1911) (3), in which Simmel postulated two distinct realities for objects: that of functionality and that of aesthetics, whilst correlating the unity of the two.
The handle belongs to the enclosed unity of the vase and at the same time designates the point of entrance for a teleology that is completely external to that form. It is of the most fundamental interest that the purely formal aesthetic demands on the handle are fulfilled when these two symbolic meanings of it are brought into harmony or equilibrium. Yet this is not an example of that curious dogma which makes utility a criterion of beauty. For the point at issue is precisely that utility and beauty come to the handle as two unrelated demands–the first from the world, and the second from the total form of the vase.
Doubtless Deleuze and Guattari would perceive one reality (the aesthetic) as the tracing of the other (the functional), however in the years following their deaths – 1995 and 1992, respectively – much has changed to redefine “reality” in the first place. And in this we arrive (somewhat rhizomatically) at Baudrillard – for we cannot discuss the ramifications of simulacra or an evolving sense of “reality” without also discussing his famous “Xerox degree of culture.” (4) We need only refer to the cloisters of Saint-Michel de Cuxa and their repatriation – twice-removed from their native South West France to New York and ultimately back to their original location to understand that very little is indeed beyond this process of artificial longevity. A dismantling, relocation and reassembling of an original artefact is by no means any less of a reproduction than a direct copy. The Ōtsuka Museum of Art handles art with much the same species of binary removal: once removed, the original works are also removed from the lay consciousness, while its clone assumes the role of its analogue source. For the essence, it may well be argued, lies in the birth of the original, because only at an artwork’s inception is the semiotic unity of intention (signified), creation (signifier) and display (sign) at its purest and only then is an artist and that artist’s audience experiencing a Deleuzian rupture. The event is forever time-locked into an artist’s primary idea and a viewer’s initial encounter. After this event, the art remains as a reference for future discourse. 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. (5)
Contemporary art has a propensity for relying on an arborescent structure of value for individual works – a propensity which has been in decline since Duchamp, yet which still – paradoxically – ascribes immense importance to the Duchampian method: a method which itself stood for (amongst other things) the end of arborescent hierarchies of culture. Art criticism still tends to value the already-valued whilst time-locking singular cultural events (or, to use a term favoured by Deleuze and Guattari, ruptures) in reverence to art historical (or arborescent) hierarchies, yet human endeavour constantly proves that the creative process exists far outside of such rigid temporality. On any given day, the human mind is subject to incalculable heterogeneous abstractions which superficially bear no relation to one another other than their chronological linearity – or the oft-cited stream of consciousness, that convenient one-size-fits-all coat with which lazy commentators have dressed such diverse literary figures as Beckett, Burroughs, Thompson, Joyce and Proust. Terms such as stream of consciousness exist to categorise that which has no formal category (other than, in this instance, that of literature), and visual artists are no more immune to such taxonomies. It is far too convenient to brand Thomas Hirschhorn a “Relational Aesthetician,” or Rauschenberg a “Pop Artist” when those are two synthetic terms created critically and applied arbitrarily. Rauschenberg could be equally as conceptual as any of his contemporaries in the ‘sixties, and in many ways Hirschhorn would have flourished during Fluxus or the Situationists. The only “real” reason why Pop Art was Pop Art is that there were critics present to record it. There is always more going on than critical terminology allows for – indeed, one of the primary questions an artist must ask of his or herself is whether or not their output should “nutshell” the world when the world, subject to the fundamental laws of universal entropy, will never do the same. It is not an artist’s job to present the world in its de facto state, but rather to recognise its many subliminal codifications, deconstruct said codifications and re-present all of this via strategies of different codifications peculiar to an artist’s peculiar specifications.
Certainly, the strategies available to an artist differ all the time, and often in tiny, incremental ways, and thus the artist must surrender to the multiplicity, or the plane of consistency. One can easily cite such an artist as John M Armleder as a primary exemplar of a body of work becoming one with the plane of consistency: ever-elusive of the Modernist propensity for material invention and suspicious of the Postmodernist tendency towards aping the past, Armleder has time and again fused the aesthetic with the utilitarian in his Furniture Sculptures. Initially associated with the Fluxus movement in the late 1960’s, the Geneva-born artist went on to found the Groupe Ecart in 1969 and has, for nearly five decades, produced an evolutionary body of work which makes little-to-no distinction between Art and life. Armleder has variously selected inspirational sources from what he calls “a supermarket of forms,” a term which we can infer to mean a world of constantly-replenished objects, new or outmoded commodities and a semantic slippage of quotidian vernacular.
Thus we have Armleder and The Groupe Ecart on the one hand, offering us the notion that there is virtually nothing to separate the art object from the utilitarian, while on the other hand The Ōtsuka Museum of Art has homogenised the art object, converting it into a simple referent. If Armleder’s marriage of the quotidian to the essential yet retains trace elements of recherché (and one has good cause to argue that this is the case, and more besides), then the Ōtsuka has dredged history of its cultural precious essences, drained its artefacts of their rarity and left nothing but the dried husks picked clean by centuries of critical orthodoxy. The essence, then, can be said to lie within the encounter: an encounter which, owing to that aforesaid Xerox degree of culture, has within the walls of the Ōtsuka, become retrospective, regressive and redundant.
Bereft of its essence (and therefore its life), let us linger on the mortal analogy and imagine a mortuary. This mortuary is arrayed with metal drawers containing bodies: a few drawers are open. If we look at the corpses prostrate in these drawers, we begin to recognise them – there is Baudrillard, whose drawer is adjacent to another containing a perfect replica of Baudrillard. Barthes is on the left and one shelf down, holding a photograph of himself in his present state, whilst Wittgenstein has a ghostly speech bubble protruding from his mouth (the speech bubble is blank). This is how art critics would perceive this morgue, whilst the linguist would see something different (for example, Wittgenstein would have a children’s game of language with him in the drawer, whilst Barthes would be accompanied by a television set broadcasting nothing but advertisements). If a thing is perceived correctly in a certain context by an individual working within that context, is that essence not then of equal value to the perceptions of another viewer considering the same object from another? If a Duchampian shovel can be removed from the context of the gardener and transplanted into a more academic field of semiotics (in that instance, the art gallery), cannot then an art object be appreciated with as much merit in a garden for its ornamental or utilitarian ends? Critical Theory offers us various vantage points from which to consider, not only aesthetics, but the essence of the art object – that often-elusive substance which imbues an artist’s wares with perceived value. If Contemporary Art ever hopes to rid itself of its Promethean bondage and exist with any value in a world outside of its own, then artists and critics alike must ever – like John M Armleder – strive to operate lines of flight (a further term coined by Deleuze and Guattari which refers to a disregard of disciplinary applications and cut through any and all barriers which segregate thought in order to fully appreciate its essence).
We are arguably living in an age in which Derrida’s free play of signs and signifiers is the cultural currency. Few are the objects which remain fixed to a semantic field, yet a lack of semiotic boundaries and demarcations within society and culture themselves, do we not now have to begin to question the old, Modernist notions of value within Contemporary Art? Lines of flight flow through all that we behold and touch and, as the Ōtsuka Museum has shown us, nothing is ever around to touch forever.
Derrida, J. and Bass, A. (2001) Writing and difference. London: Taylor & Francis.
Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. and Massumi, B. (2013) A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
Simmel, G. (1958) Two essays. The Hudson Review, 11(3), p. 371. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3848614.
Baudrillard, J. (2005) The conspiracy of art: Manifestos, texts, interviews (Semiotext(e) / foreign agents). New York: Semiotexte/Smart Art.
Uhland, L., Platt, A. and Ludwig, P. (2010) The poems. United States: Nabu Press.
“…when one writes, the only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work.” These words, written by Deleuze and Guattari in the introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, are key to an understanding of how many contemporary artists – myself included – manipulate the abstract fabric of their works into a cohesion. Artists are haecceities (again using the term as described in A Thousand Plateaus), just as every human being is a haecceity, or a sum of all the events and forces involved in an organism, object or event. Certainly, artists tend to be focal haecceities, but individual haeccaeities all the same, and therefore subject to every singular element and event which led to the individual making x or y decision concerning z art piece. How have I incorporated influences such as The Fall, Alfred Jarry, Louis Althusser or European cinema into my work in the past? I negotiated a method of plugging these separate machines into the art machine, to varying degrees of success (which in itself was subject to the laws of the haecceity). The side of the machine that faces the strata is where all of the external machines are plugged into, and its obverse side – the side which is observed by the audience – is smooth (or as smooth as the artist is able to make the machine). Deleuze and Guattari discuss Kafka and his incredible bureaucratic machine. Kafka himself was a haecceity governed by the strict laws of bureaucracy, now inexorably and miserably linked to its dehumanising values and de-humanised social necessity. The bleak world of Kafka has ever been – and continues to be – a rich source of inspiration for the artist. Fitting, that in a contemporary age subject to fears not only of our employability and stability, but of our very survival, that we still see the relevance in that bureaucratic machine of a century ago begin to erode away at the humanity of its subjects. As such, Kafka has remained relevant throughout the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, because that bureaucratic coding has never altered: on the contrary, it has mutated and made itself more sophisticated; it has mimicked our human behaviour; it has presented itself to us in our own image. It can be argued that some species of symbiosis has taken place, whereby we have become bureaucratic beings (linguistically, at least) and bureaucracy has become more humanised (obviously, this latter is far from the case, yet the maintainers of the bureaucratic machine have understood that, for the machine to survive, it was necessary to make the machine more human-like). Certain machines – like Kafka’s bureaucratic machine – have long-lasting compatibility with the art machine, as has been illustrated. There are however an infinity of machines, varying in size and form, which are ever-present in orbit around our plane of existence. Some of these machines are more difficult to plug into the art machine, and have only a limited time in which they are compatible. Political art tends to suffer from this limitation of compatibility because not all political matters persist longer than a decade-or-two. The trick is always in ratiocinating what larger machine governs the smaller machines, or what greater social factors must be in place for the smaller political machines to function. It has long been an ambition of mine to find a way of re-formatting (particularly resistant to re-formatting) literature and presenting it as art. I have had my eye of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman for a number of years now, and I think that this initially came about because of the parallels one can draw between the protagonist struggling financially to complete his critical work on the fictional scholar de Selby. Any art student can certainly appreciate the protagonist’s frustration at being unable to complete a work of subjective importance due to a factor as fleeting and arbitrary as money. It is not just for this reason, though, that The Third Policeman is ripe for re-presentation: the book is full of that rich absurdist humour which also draws me to Alfred Jarry, Steve Aylett and Sergio Caballero. This absurdist literary machine, to work in this context, must be compatible with the particulars of my current art machine, and that is where the real work lies.
It is often the case that what one initially thinks of as a heterogeneous collection of works in fact, when assembled, turns out to be anything but. There are three distinct lines of thought at play here: the linguistic, the machinic and the Body without Organs. If my original plan was to take the spirit of A Thousand Plateaus as my starting point for this work, then said work is turning out to be quite literal in its influences.
Three-or-four years ago I had a conversation about a certain artist who, for a goodly percentage of the year, entirely shut himself (for I am fairly sure it was a “he”) off from art practice and instead did nothing other than absorb other culture. When said artist (who, although I still can’t recall his identity, is by no means hypothetical) returned to art creation, his perspective had altered slightly, thus his output remained fresh. I have gone from Ruscha to Turrell and back again trying to remember who this artist was, but this is ultimately of little importance here: I know first-hand that this method works (to some extent), because I myself employ it. To churn out artworks continuously implies the Deleuzean Body without Organs in its empty, non-productive state, whereby influences pass freely through the body without assimilation or re-direction. Thus cultural influences enter the body without being processed, fully understood or given new form in an artist’s work, rendering the artist less of an Artist and more of a casual consumer.
I could have used the Summer months to commit to serious study and develop my practice, but I honestly cannot imagine this having as positive an effect on my outlook towards my work as my considered abnegation thereof has afforded. I would eventually have become that Body without Organs. Which, although is sound and remains a method which has (so far and touch wood) never failed me before, brings to the artistic its own problems – or rather problem – in that it can be frustratingly difficult to find a way back into art creation. When everything one has created in the past is passed (and the artist has been so in name only for several months), the artist must then find a way back into a daily routine of the practicing artist. There is usually (and perhaps necessarily) a period of re-adjustment to endure before the artist has fully returned to working at his or her full tempo – a matter of weeks during which any and all new elements and perspectives recently absorbed find their “voice” and those which remain adapt and assimilate these new factors. While this happens on the most sublime level, its results are quite often remarkable.
As an artist, one of my main concerns is how I coherently string my work together, given that there is little in the way of commonality running through it. As previously mentioned, many of the things that interest, concern or catch my attention in any way are sometimes superficial and fleeting, two words which I use advisedly. “Superficial” here does not necessarily mean shallow or vapid, but rather refers to the way that elements of a thing have the power to interest me, while other elements do not. I do not consider this a vacuous habit. Nor do I say “fleeting” in a way to imply that my attention span is limited: I believe that it is now nigh-on universal for an individual to scan rather than contemplate, to briefly consider an object and how it connects to known objects as opposed to deep ratiocination. This is only natural in a world that is literally overflowing with (what I shall for the sake of brevity call) “stuff,” and it is not so much that we don’t have the attention spans anymore as it is that we do not have the time to consider it all. I sift through stuff retaining those elements that not only have distinct form, but which also – in some manner or small way – relate to other elements of other forms. This is how I liken my output lately to A Thousand Plateaus, in that the various chapters of said book (on the surface) bear little relation to one another, but are ultimately joined by a consensual (between Deleuze and Guattari) linguistic thread. This is precisely the way in which I work, akin to Walter Benjamin’s ragman, picking through the clutter and debris of culture and society for that which shines (another advisedly-used word). Much like Jason Rhoades and many like him, this is how an artist feels compelled to work in the Twenty-First Century being walled-in on all sides by ephemera and consumables. What the artist then chooses to make of the “things that shine” is by and large an approximation of what said artist would do with traditional materials. Here then we see nothing more than a material shift in artistic practice, while I strive to maintain traditionalist media, for whatever reason makes sense to me to do so at any given time.
The most fun one can have with philosophy is to cherry-pick from its massive historical inventory of themes and ideas – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. One need not absorb every text by Foucault, or attend two-hour lectures on Althusser to gain a healthy reserve of critical resources with which to formulate one’s own theories. For years now I have found endless creative uses for Plato’s cave and Wittgenstein’s stonemasons, for the very reason that philosophical models function in much the same way as art: intense critical thought and complex abstractions simplified to the nth degree as signs, giving flesh to otherwise untranslatable concepts: art builds real architecture in Utopia and peoples it accordingly, whilst artistic movements provides its zeitgeist and, much to Plato’s imagined chagrin, art is in many ways inseparable from critical thinking. On any given day, the human mind is subject to incalculable heterogonous abstractions which superficially bear no relation to one another other than their chronological linearity – or the oft-cited stream of consciousness, that convenient one-size-fits-all coat with which lazy commentators have dressed such diverse literary figures as Beckett, Burroughs, Thompson, Joyce and Proust. Terms such as stream of consciousness exist to categorise that which has no formal category (other than, in this instance, that of literature), and visual artists are no more immune to such taxonomies. It is far too convenient to brand Thomas Hirschhorn a “Relational Aesthetician,” or Rauschenberg a “Pop Artist” when those are two synthetic terms created critically and applied arbitrarily. Rauschenberg could be equally as conceptual as any of his contemporaries in the ‘sixties, and in many ways Hirschhorn would have flourished during Fluxus or the Situationists. The only “real” reason why Pop Art was Pop Art is that there were critics present to record it. There is always more going on than critical terminology allows for – indeed, one of the primary questions an artist must ask of his or herself is whether or not their output should “nutshell” the world when the world, subject to the fundamental laws of universal entropy, will never do the same. It is not an artist’s job to present the world in its de facto state, but rather to recognise its many subliminal codifications, deconstruct said codifications and re-present all of this via strategies of different codifications peculiar to an artist’s peculiar specifications. Certainly, the strategies available to an artist differ all the time, and often in tiny, incremental ways. Lack of available funds has compelled me, on occasion, to buy flowery canvases from charity shops and paint over them, which in itself opens itself up for the artist’s methodological re-interpretation. Strict budgeting need not be a disadvantage if the artist chooses to emphasise his or her situation – one of my favourite paintings of mine concerns itself explicitly with this very
thing – although there is also the implicit institutional critique of the pristine canvas.
Institutional critique is, for me, re-treading old ground and, if I am honest with myself (which artists really should be in the habit of being), a former easy alternative to hanging my coat on one peg. In over four years I have on no occasion felt that any one concern was vital or pressing enough to potentially base an entire career upon. At one time I attributed this to a lack of focus, at another it seemed due to an ennui of sorts with the kinds of thing other folk feel passionately about. The truth is neither one nor both of those options, and I now credit my unfocussed oeuvre to a species of critical distance which sits somewhere in the middle. Cursed with a mind that reflexively unpicks the threads of any given issue, and always wants to comprehend a thing from its most oblique angle, I tend to find the least obvious aspects the most interesting, and this I believe is the thread that unites everything I have ever created. It is not so much a case of “lack of style in fact being a style” as it is a huge visual representation of what makes me tick – perhaps too far beyond the grasp of anyone other than myself as a bracketed concept, the sheer volume of the ideas I tend to churn out means that there should always be something, taken in isolation, for somebody to pick up on. Lately I have likened my output to Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome, in that the taproot prevalent throughout my work is nothing more complex (nor more trivial) than myself. All other secondary roots consist of the things which concern or interest me, and at this stage in the game I feel a responsibility to examine how all of these secondary roots co-exist and cross over. For the better part of six months, art and artistic practice has been allowed to take a secondary role in my day-to-day existence. This owes much to the fact that, for four years, I had concentrated on little else and – without much breathing space in between – work had been produced in quick succession in an organic, linear order. During this time I constantly soaked up other culture (that is to say, culture as defined by the structural definitions of film, television, literature and theatre) in conjunction with a close eye on contemporary art. In hindsight, this high concentration of influence did not always produce optimum results, owing to the vast array of interests and obsessions I frequently indulged myself in. This year I have taken a break of sorts from the art world (lower case, in this instance), as much to give myself some much needed breathing space and allow myself the opportunity to take stock from a vantage point of removal as it has been to concentrate on other areas of my life (such as they are).