Highly Strungby Kavish Chetty / 26.10.2011
I feel the venom in my fangs about to drip incautiously. In an earlier draft of this review, I found myself committing to the same curiosity I sought to expose; encouraging the phenomenon I wanted to reject. In order to cure myself of this I essentially need to not simply participate in, but rather own my criticisms here. I’m not here to slag anyone off, but rather admit of my own aesthetic reaction and the philosophical terrain it marks out to skirmish over. This is polemic: not a matter of perplexity but vexed-ness.
Art has no sense of triage. Historically, it’s belonged to a kind of autonomous domain of cultural practice: some kind of free-floating discursive “space” rich with the leisures of contemplation. This space is free from the ravages of hunger, utility, urgency; those fleshed things which give our lives and the lives of others a hierarchy of needs. These things don’t remain mute even if (some) art disavows them. They are the spectres of art, its repressed content, and they mobilise a regiment of irresolvable questions which echo throughout the history of aesthetics; vital questions which remain endlessly rephrased, their answers endlessly deferred, but never any less relevant.
I’ve got to lay my cards down face-up here. I allowed my initial aesthetic reaction to Hoist – which was one of a rage in heat – to de-barb itself and become a kind of inquiring spirit. I spoke to an artistic circle involved in Blank Projects (the Woodstock gallery at which Hoist is exhibited) in this same spirit. Included amongst them was Michaelis prize 2010 winner Jared Ginsburg, author of the piece. Although our conversation was intelligent, adding texture to the themes, they remained in an essential deadlock of irreconcilable premises: mine versus theirs (multiply), with moments of sympathy and congruence. But I realise after-the-fact, that the conversation produced all its charms precisely because of my reservations about a certain tendency in conceptual art – it became serious because I took it seriously.
Before I expand on that, I should get the frames of reference in place. Hoist occurs in an (otherwise) empty room with asylum-white walls. A winch is fitted to one of the walls, and an object is suspended – hoisted – in the centre of the room. The objects change at Ginsburg’s will. He has variously hung a bed-frame, a chair and a trolley (also my recording equipment during the interview) in this space. This is all the labour required in the piece: winch, hoist, object, empty room. I encounter this anchoring description on the gallery’s website: “Hoist serves to relieve each object of its utility, jogging familiar associations and prompting an alternate engagement.” This, for a bed-frame hung in a room. In the Mail & Guardian, a commentator – I believe rather pretentiously – reaches for continental philosopher Martin Heidegger, writing “Ginsburg invites us to engage with Heidegger’s meditation”. The meditation in question is a tortuously complex one on subject-object relations, the relations between consciousness to objects, phrasing this with such alienating jargon like “noesis” and “noema”. This possibility of the Heideggerian meditation is not etched into the woodwork of the bed-frame – it’s conjured up, a reaction, the reflexes of a particular critic’s cognitive life. And all this for a bed-frame hung in a room: such a simple, experimental gesture; no boundaries violated, no force. A quotable friend of mine dismissed the everyday nature of the work vehemently: “for experimental art to impress me, it’s got to be batshit. This one is bullshit.” A case of two types of shit that act as the organising principles of conceptual art. This sends us journeying through history to the Italian art movement Arte Povera (1960s) where Piero Manzoni literally sealed up his own shit in tins marked “artist’s shit”. The contemporary form of piss-taking (or shit-taking) ranged against outmoded notions of high art are left depleted against the finality of these original gestures.
Marcel Duchamp is the single greatest influence on this tendency: he strained “art” to its splitting point by sneaking a sculpture he called “Fountain” into the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York in 1917. The sculpture was – with the brilliant jolting power of getting there first – simply a urinal bought at a hardware store. Cue the enduring insight that art is not the thing itself, but rather the idea of thing. This returns me to where I left off earlier remarking Hoist “became serious because I took it seriously.” Ginsburg, I suggested to him, is not the actual author of this artwork. He could almost be reduced to something of a labourer, a re-arranger of objects. The real author of Hoist is – please permit the masturbatory phrase – the discursive space of the gallery. The gallery is the arbiter of art. The gallery is the reason we are compelled, in the face of a suspended bed-frame or trolley, to contemplate subject-object relationships. The gallery is a place which produces the anxiety to contemplate. It produces the anxiety the moment we step inside, because it is a compressed space bearing the marks of history, operating under conditions of pressure. “Art” is not just some cheap designation, a marker, a signifier: it’s something alive with an aspirational quality. To call something “art” is to mark it out as culturally relevant, to mark it out as interrogative and intellectual in a way that the merer pursuits in life (the raw aches of sex and consumption and entertainment) are not.
So a bed-frame hanging in a gallery is made art by pure virtue of spacing, location. If I took a hammer and smashed the speakers on my desk, exposing its inner circuitry, “relieving it of its utility”, have I not then accrued all the prestige of artistry in my own bedroom? Or if I see some Joshua Doore employee hoisting a bed-frame to a third-floor apartment, has he not unconsciously inputted all the labour involved in the conceptual artwork? Under this inclusive conception – one which is being reiterated a century after its first arrival – art proliferates. Art is just there to act as a stimulus, a thing to react to, an act which in this case does not intervene but remains mute and cloistered in a gallery whimpering “look at me”. Art is just about a critical reaction and we have them everyday, from car-crashes splayed out on highways to the redemptory qualities of introspective boredom. We are eternally, unstoppably altered by the vortex of everyday life. So why should we take it seriously? And if artists don’t want us to take it seriously, then this arbitrariness licenses a strong criticism which I choose to charge here – arrogance. The arrogance is there, even if unconsciously. Ginsburg, in person, is the diametric opposite of arrogant; he arrests the stigmas of “artist”. The arrogance lies in the act of taking something you or I could do, throwing it up in a space accessible to the public, and thereby creating “art”. We need to get real about this.
Art of this kind is condemned – like literary theory’s pursuits of linguistic texture, a field I admit in “strategic self-deprecation” I am complicit in – to a circuitous private conversation amongst a marginal group of individuals. When I asked artist friends of mine to comment on the piece, they sprang into well-rehearsed defences and sympathies. One said to consider Ginsburg’s attention to process. Another remarked on its “sculptural presence” and “less laboured approach to artistic practice”. But non-artist friends of mine, having no stake in the industry, were quite willing to embody my own vengeance against what I perceive as absurd, dated, pretentious – even useless – artistic gestures. Importantly, these gestures are not limited to Hoist; the exhibition does not stand in isolation. Hoist is simply a representative of a broader trajectory, which reveals itself often enough to inspire invective. One acquaintance of mine said “Given enough time and energy we could rescue this thing [Hoist] as having value… but given enough time and energy we could do that with anything, so why bother?” Another said, engaging the substance, “[Hoist] is not just exclusive and politically irrelevant. It’s pretty much culturally irrelevant as well.”
The reason this kind of art can be perceived as essentially irrelevant to the world and our society is because of context and history. Hoist operates in that “autonomous domain of cultural practice”, unanchored from knowledge of time or place. When Duchamp, and (also) avante-garde literary figure Samuel Beckett, produced their art/literature they were operating under particular conditions that rescue them as more than just bourgeois wankers. Europe saw industrial-scale carnage after the war, giving umbral doubt to notions of “civilisation”. In their own way, these figures were trying to destablise the superstructure of capitalist/modernist ideology which produced this violence: this exposed, relevantly, the disjointed fabrications of what makes the world seem whole. But they were standing at the end of a “fascinating cul-de-sac”. They ruptured and deconstructed and constructively angered, but left little to continue in its vein: the terrain was staked, the gesture was complete. Hoist is an old idea which operates without all the urgency of all the former. Hoist happens here to simply be the unlucky representative of a whole vagabond nation of artworks which conduct themselves with similar narcissism, self-absorption; in short, a caricatural freedom to perform as willed and acquire legitimacy through the gallery. Such works are not inoculated from criticisms with the same serum that runs through Duchamp’s “Fountain”. They answer now to new conditions, new contexts, in which the laugh of critics, their essential disbelief and failure to care seem quite sane.
So finally, I realise that what I have produced is both criticism and contradiction. By engaging Hoist I have given reign to the basic stimulus it always sought to provide. But my point essentially has been that it’s not Hoist – it’s not some bed-frame hanging in a gallery – that prompted these discussions. It’s everything, it’s patience, it’s contemplation; it’s the condition of being embodied and colliding with material things that exist in the world. If Hoist was going to accomplish anything, it might more accurately satire its own irrelevance, its conformity, the structural autoeroticism which belongs to most art of its type. But its mute seriousness interrupts the possibility of this self-awareness. Is Hoist good art (this is a review after all)? Well, is it radical, is it clever, is it unique, does it entertain, does it reach out, does it disrupt, does it intervene, is it beautiful, does it reach people, does it contribute, is it relevant, does it have a regard for history and the historical conjuncture of its moment, is it funny, is it self-conscious, did it require effort, did it require formal talent, does it include, does it pretend, does it care? The rubrics of adoration are not equal. The well of this sort of art was poisoned a long time ago, and I think it’s time to furiously call “bullshit” on art of this style, not succumbing to the discursive pressure to convince ourselves of its experimental eccentricity: its “batshit”. Take away the benefit of the doubt, and the illusion, the aura, slips away revealing quite simply, a bed-frame hanging in a room. As Karl Pilkington once remarked, “What’s art about that?”
*Hoist runs at Blank Projects (113 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock) until the 29th of October.