The following texts were written on the occasion of the 2006 Wight Biennial: Anxiety of Influence at the UCLA New Wight Gallery, Eli and Edythe Broad Art Center, curated by Jesse Aron Green, Daniel Horn, Vishal Jugdeo and Jacob Stewart-Halevy.
To download a pdf of the poster for the exhibition, which was made to be cut and folded to create the catalogue, click here. It was designed by Henri Lucas and Davey Whitcraft of willemaugustus.
The following short passages are connected only insofar as they were written in response to works made by the artists in the 2006 Wight Biennial. These writings, however, are not made in an attempt to see each individual piece as a representation of a larger whole. We are graduate students in art, first and foremost, and curators only incidentally, and so we are interested in conversing with our peers instead of organizing their work under the aegis of a particular curatorial strategy, or subsuming their work into a synthetic example of that which is current or emerging in art. As Okwui Enwezor has noted, artwork “in any case, is understood a priori to be extraterritorial to an exhibitions logic,” which we take to mean that artworks have an autonomy resistant to the misreadings given to them under the systematizing attempts of an exhibition. What we have then, might be described as an exercise in extraterritoriality: that is, an exhibition, a catalogue, and a satellite of conversations that seek to emphasize a discursive site, with an international purview, over and above the physical and temporal site of the gallery alone.
The Anxiety of Influence
When I visited the Städelschule in Frankfurt to do curatorial research for this biennial I met Tris Vonna-Michell who seemed, by nature, anxious. We chatted casually and I got the feeling that I was keeping him from something, but not anything specific, like an appointment for a haircut or calls he had to make. I asked Tris about his work and he explained that under normal circumstances — and our meeting evidently did not count as a normal circumstance — he would sit at a table in a gallery or museum and chat with viewers until they asked him about his work, at which point he would then perform. At this point in our conversation, of course, Tris began to perform (but first he had to sit down at his table). He set an egg-timer, and once it started turning, began to recite what was, according to his description, an opera in five acts. He spoke at such a rapid pace that I found it challenging to follow the parenthetical asides, droll word play and myriad literary references that he wove into the opera. The story concerned his quest for the reason for his own name, and this was not a quest simply imagined, but an actual search that brought Tris from the UK through France and to elsewhere (he spoke so fast it’s hard to recall the itinerary, but it involved both Chopin and quails). He had ephemera from his journey laid out on the table that served as props, and slides for further illustration.
What became clear is that there was more to his opera than simply the tale of his travels, more to his narration than an idiosyncratic narrative, and more to the objects he had assembled than simply artifacts or evidence. His performance was a practice unto itself, concerned not only with the formal nature of speech as both material and fodder for art, but also with the ways a personal (or national) mythology is constructed out of misunderstanding, faulty memory, and invention. W. G. Sebald’s own narratives serve as a point of departure, which is to say that when Tris transposes Sebald’s literary reconciliations with the Second World War into the context of contemporary art, he engages in a misreading that serves to demarcate not only his own artistic territory, but also contemporary traumas particular to Europe. His is a misreading in the sense that Harold Bloom writes of in The Anxiety of Influence: it is a testament to the historical pressures of the past bearing down on the present, and it asserts the work of the present as an inventive and necessary misreading of that past.
Andrea Büttner set out to make a round discussion table, and the subject of the discussion was to be Dieter Roth’s diary. However, the table did not turn out to be round. She didn’t have a saw with her when she made it. On top of the table she drew charcoal lines to improve the table’s shape, but she says “people taking part in the talk might become a little dirty.” What would people discuss, sitting at that table? Would they concentrate on Roth’s work as exemplary of a persistent aesthetics of shame? Would they see those works in opposition to the denial of shame in Western visual culture, as typified by unabashed representations of nakedness and the preponderance of public confessionals? Or would they become awkward under the gaze of onlookers, and silently hide their sleeves, now dirty, under the table?
The Myth and It's Makers
Oliver Lutz and Peter Jaques both make work that may be described as a personal reckoning with mythology, although they do so at opposite ends of a technological spectrum. In making the photographic series titled The Twelve Labors of Hercules, Jaques uses neither light nor a lens, but solely the chemical processes particular to pre-digital photographic practices. He to listens to audio renditions of the tale of Hercules, memorizes them, and then translates each labor from these twelve stories into a physical action. He then performs these actions upon photographic paper with a chemical solution, leaving a series of marks (although these marks are not always abstract, and sometimes take the form of text itself). The resultant works are reminiscent of works by Cy Twombly: scribbly, monochromatic, and when discernible as text, largely illegible. By extending the Homeric tradition of aural storytelling into the realm of the visual, Jaques manages to concretize myth into his own terms; his translations extend tradition while giving a personal and inevitable misreading.
Oliver Lutz uses a cosmology of characters from stories of the past to act as analogues for his own critical position, which in turn addresses the mythos of the present. Take Ascender Diptych for example. In it Lutz uses the Beowulf story — specifically the knight's battle with the beast Grendel — as the illustrated subject of a painting, done in a line-driven gestural manner with black pigment on canvas. This layer of the painting however is but the top-most in the palimpsestic work, and detectable as such by way of Lutz's innovative use of surveillance and defense technologies. The black paint used in this top layer is sensitive to infrared light, and is used on military aircraft. A surveillance camera trained on the painting uncovers the layer beneath, painted using normal acrylic, the image of which is fed via closed-circuit video signal to a monitor elsewhere in the gallery. This under-painting is of a grand mountain landscape, alongside a rendering of Lutz wearing a furry hat with silly ears. In the Beowulf story Grendel loses the battle, but by revealing himself as “beast” in paradox to his role as “artist,” Lutz replaces the character of the vanquished with the character of the author, i.e., the character with power (albeit artistic power). At first blush this uncovering is a self-conscious action, effective at bearing the burden of the contemporary artist as both the maker of artwork and an inevitable subject of interest to the viewer. However, this uncovering is predicated upon the viewer also being subject to the apparatuses of social control. The work, then, begins by marking the bounds of an enframing system, which defines the ways in which both the artist and the viewer perceive, understand, and even imagine their relative powers. The rhetoric and mythos around such systems may portray them as enabling or structuring relations in this way, but Ascender Diptych exemplifies something even further: that technology
is power, unto itself.
Le Cheval Emballé, a French film from 1908, pictures a run-away horse gone berserk, galloping wildly down a street toward an ever-growing crowd of pedestrians. Presaging the dominant aspect of disaster film denouements, the film’s forward progress toward danger is averted. In this case it is not only avoided or stopped, but literally reversed: the film is run backwards, thus returning the horse to its starting position and the city to its original undisturbed state. The film, like most from this time period, was shot and distributed on celluloid with a base layer of nitrate, which burns easily and disintegrates over time. Its demise is fueled by the gas it releases in the process of its own disintegration, akin to the fire in Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet, consumed by itself, an end that cannot be reversed. Less well known is the fact that intertitles — the textual explanations that comment on the action — tend to degrade at a faster rate than the stock used for the images. The words rot and disappear, leaving the visual track to do its work alone. While this demise is particular to nitrate film, the mutations of a medium that cause it to lose its voice and its anchoring in a fixed narrative may provide the thematic framework for a film itself.
Kim Schoen’s work is such an example. Her video Rotten Row is especially attentive to the dominance of physical presence, and the sense of speeding inevitability that are common to both disaster films and early silent films. The piece pictures a woman atop a horse, speeding frantically down an empty street in London. The street is named Rotten Row, which derives from Route du Roi, or King’s Road, which in turn comes from the Latin Ratumena Porta, found in ancient Rome. (Numerous intermediary names bear the trace of the mutation of language.) The horse and rider in the piece are part of the tradition of statuary in tribute to martial heroes, but Schoen uses the reference to uncover its unsettling, sinister aspect: the danger from which the rider is chased, or after which she chases, is unstated, and the military force that she inherits is loosed of its power. The video’s lack of situating text or narration is a dominating, if silent testament to this state of being out of control, and in turn, being a subject in a state that is out of control. Unlike Le Cheval Emballé, the horse and its accompanying disaster in Rotten Row are unstoppable and irreversible; repeating, loop after loop, the video is a testament to unease.
A Decorative Impulse
In Justin Beal's studio there is a sculpture made of component parts, joined together by a mass of compound slathered on in heaps. This substance holds the disparate parts together, and in this sense it is practical; but as a hardened oozing excess, it gestures also towards both decadence and decoration. By embellishing the material’s utility, Beal makes a sculpture that engages with a central concern of design and architecture: the way in which a structure is defined by its points of assembly. By extension, he renders visible the fault lines of Modernism: that a decorative impulse is central to the practice of building.
Manuela Leal no longer makes sculpture, although in the past her sculptural work addressed the architectures of Brazil. Now her work uses images of architecture in warring regions, which she culls from online sources such as Google. Printed on letter-size copy-paper using an ink-jet printer, the images are then drawn upon, mounted on thin board, and covered with materials such as sawdust or spray-paint. This treatment serves a triple purpose: to lend the otherwise stolid images defining shade and texture, and to thereby draw attention to the aspects of the image that deserve particular critical attention, and to pose the problem of images of war as forms of decoration. in this way, Leal is aligned with the Situationist tradition of re-imaging the built environment: her works question the ways in which a city’s design can be seen as constructed, and in turn, destroyed.
Derek Dunlop scribbles a lot, perhaps to the point of excess, but his scribbles are also tied to issues of construction and destruction, to decoration and concealment. Simply put, Dunlop uses colored pencil in thick blocks to conceal other drawings underneath. These other drawings may be the actual site of that which is excessive. Without these overdrawn markings, however, the under-drawings would swim on otherwise empty and huge sheets of white paper; the overdrawings, then, not only conceal, but also give context, and both literally and figuratively construct connections between the excessive, and otherwise disconnected, bits down below.