Bataille and Foucault would have it that our day-to-day existence is governed by architecture: the tomb, the prison, the government office, etc. I have previously surmised that the 21st Century is a schizophrenic age, and what could be more schizophrenic (if we accept Foucault and Bataille) than a climate in which architecture is endlessly toppled and reconstructed? In my more languorous moments, I am myself guilty of making the connection between architecture and the human body (or, at any rate, the human psyche), in which social housing is issued on the merits of reproduction and death, educational institutions mirror the structural logic of the prison block (in this, one would be churlish to argue with Foucault) and the architecture of consumption – the supermarket, the fast-food outlet or the shopping complex – mimics the human digestive system, whereby consumers pass through the architectural “body” and experience change as they do so (the change in finance; the change in ownership; a re-balancing of symbolic power during the monetary exchange). The struggle to secure social housing, for the working classes, has produced an architecture of desire – or, indeed, a Deleuzian lack (regardless of the psychoanalytic attributes of the actual architecture, endlessly cycling back to the model of the panopticon).
Even in an age of site-specificity, art is still slave to architecture, as our constantly urbanised world endlessly re-interprets the metropolis in tandem with our fluctuating relationships with it. The lambent nature of semiotics within art is such that a work may not be removed from one location to another without there necessarily being a re-evaluation of its meaning – the removal and re-location itself may actually be the element which contains said meaning. Is the present-day work of art, then, an extension of architecture or is it (logically) a removable part of the architectural body itself? If we have already imbued distinct examples of architecture with psychic properties, does it not then follow that the art – created within one such property – is created with similar properties, and when we re-locate that art are creating a rift in the structural relationship between the architecture and the art?
When studying the relationship between architecture and art, it is difficult not to cite Venturi’s model of the Duck and the Decorated Shed and share the analogy across the two disciplines. Some art is as it is (just as the same is true in architecture), because its form is dictated by its functional meaning. Cinematic Art is decidedly duck because its form and meaning are both historically linked to the Platonic shadow, which retains the basic outline of the archetype without projecting the regularly-perceived reality found outside the screen’s border. Its meaning can be re-interpreted depending on the situation of the screen or the texture of the surface on which it is projected, yet it ever retains its integral nature of duck: it remains as it is due to its functionality. Paintings can be either duck or decorated shed, as history has repeatedly proven – they are both functional and ornamental (depending upon the painter’s intention). Sculpture is formally the closest artistic discipline to architecture, owing obviously to its dimensions, although that too carries a history of semiotic ambiguity.
One must then question why it is easier to apply the duck analogy to Video Art than it is to the other disciplines. One trite answer would be that it is the newest, and therefore its meaning has not been afforded the time necessary to confuse. Video Art has yet to be commodified as a soft furnishing – one can easily imagine a projection of (fittingly) three flying ducks on a living room wall and instantly mock the notion, yet there was a time when sculpture and objet d’art would not be found anywhere other than in the palace. Though Video Art has already proven itself to be semantically malleable: the masterful way in which Krzysztof Wodiczko transforms architecture with projection alters both the video and the structural surface.
A cacophony of typewriters clashes with text and a succession of imagery relating to tensions and releases. A tiny snippet of Tati’s Playtime is smuggled into the assemblage.
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.
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.
There comes a point in any artist’s trajectory (be it an established artist, or an unknown student who can’t even visualise a time when someone would respect them enough to give them the time of day), when they must take stock of everything they have done before. It is necessary if one wishes to go forward, rather than backwards, sideways or plot a drunken, stumbling line of periphrastic aspect around the things one has already said and done. The phrase “one step back,” loathsome and clichéd as it is, summarises the creative impasse which every artist faces – and there are times when the only way to go without falling flat on one’s face is to cherry-pick from the back-catalogue of works and find those things which succeeded, and even begin to contemplate those works which fell short. Because at some point, even the things that fell short have to be re-considered as having potential (why did they fall short? Is there anything that could have been done differently? Were they made for the wrong reasons then, and can the right reasons be found now?). Every artist revisits old themes: like a musical refrain, these themes and methodologies keep cropping up time and again in the careers of any artist who remains in the game. The frequency of these motifs helps to create the tempo of an artist’s output: if John Baldessari repeats such-and-such an idea once every ten years, then that is ten years he has spent exploring other ideas, but this nonetheless means that he had an idea which was worth repeating.
Given my present circumstances, I have had little choice – due to time restraints and the urgency to present new work of substance – but to revisit old ideas, and these ideas happen to be in the form of an idea I had a few years ago of juxtaposing high-brow literature with low-brow ephemera. The first time I went in this direction, it was a hackneyed commentary on Greenbergian themes, but when I began to explore this again I found that other “tensions” were there to be uncovered. For instance, Maurice Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure (being a short fiction noted for its impenetrable nature), begins to assume a dark humour when placed within the context of an old comic book. Similarly, the “Body without Organs” piece used in conjunction with a Popeye comic strip begins to open up notions of diological tension – questions are continually raised (much like the questions one would imagine Deleuze and Guattari firing at one another when preparing to write).
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.
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.