Decalcomania: Rhizomatic Analogy of the Art Object and its Simulacra – Where is the Precious Essence?

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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 [1]) 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.

 

References

  1. Derrida, J. and Bass, A. (2001) Writing and difference. London: Taylor & Francis.
  2. Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. and Massumi, B. (2013) A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
  3. Simmel, G. (1958) Two essays. The Hudson Review, 11(3), p. 371. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3848614.
  4. Baudrillard, J. (2005) The conspiracy of art: Manifestos, texts, interviews (Semiotext(e) / foreign agents). New York: Semiotexte/Smart Art.
  5. Uhland, L., Platt, A. and Ludwig, P. (2010) The poems. United States: Nabu Press.

No Job for a Grown Man (part four) – The Archetype and the Simulacra

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One very interesting development this year has been Alfie’s increased enthusiasm (or obsession with) Star Wars.  This is no great revelation in and of itself, given that the boy is rapidly approaching six years old and the perfect age to engage with it, but what interests me is the way in which this has affected me, and to some extent takes my work and thought full-circle to four years ago when I combined painting and printing to create a piece which illustrated how “the son becomes father to the man” (or, read another way, how the child inevitably outwits the adult).  At the time I considered this work to be somewhat jejune artistic fodder, relying on an archetypal parent-child dyad, but as this co-relation grows in age and maturity, I cannot ignore how inescapable this has always – to some extent – been for myself and my output.  Of particular piquancy is the way in which Alfie is now, to all intents and purposes and as a textbook Lacanian model, an exact mirror image of myself at his age:  I was Alfie’s age in 1983, and therefore Star Wars is (without wishing myself at the mercy of this cretinous contemporary bombast, yet somehow compelled to align myself with it) “encoded into my DNA.”  The same is now becoming true with my Son, as Freud, Lacan, Berne and countless other critical theorists have postulated.  It is all too easy to dismiss popular culture such as Star Wars as “for children” or a Greenbergian “low,” however the strength of its staying power lies in its universalising all of those psychoanalytic concepts and ideological counter-points which critical theorists have debated and argued over for centuries.  Does it simplify said concepts?  Naturally.  Does it trivialise them?  Not at all.  Rather it, contextualises them in much the same way as Greek Myth and literature have done since we first started telling one another stories.  Particularly revealing is its emphasis on Father-Son relations and its repetitive looping-back on its own themes, which has in no small way found its real-world counterpart in the way in which it now spans multiple generations.  There is a strong correlation between Alfie, who still sees the world through innocence, and myself as I come to understand that the child is still very much active in me and recognise the power of the archetype in Star Wars.  For all that I love the cinematic beauty found in the works of Tarkovsky, Tarr, Jodorowsky and Kurosawa, it is without doubt Star Wars which still unifies the 38-year-old me of today with the five-year-old me of 1983.

It would be strange for a child to love Star Wars and not want a part of its own galaxy of merchandise.  Alfie’s passion for action figures has grown with his passion for the franchise, and here I find my own banal pun on the term “Plastic Arts.”  There is something in the way that these toys have become more sculpturally sophisticated over the years – the figures I played with a small boy were never as detailed or articulated as the figures of today.  There is a demand for accuracy and perfect replication in today’s action figures which runs parallel to the “more real than real” contrivances of the cinematic screen.  The connection between this modern phenomenon and the writings of Baudrillard are so obvious as to make that connection here seem somewhat obtuse, however that connection cannot be ignored.  The simulacrum now precedes the original just as the map precedes the territory, making the sophisticated model almost indistinguishable from the person, object or form it replicates.  In this way, big-budget films (particularly of a fantastical theme) are created in conjunction with the merchandising market, and presented to the public as a bifurcated tree: two branches of the same organism.  This phenomenon is widespread and is by no means exclusive to the film or toy industries, as clothing now strives to emulate “authenticity,” music is deliberately made to emulate production values of the past, and even food is branded to appear as though a return to arcane values.  Nostalgia has a significant price value in a schizophrenic age.