Sunday, September 13, 2009
Here is a review by means of an essay, generously donated by Andrew Paul Wood.
et al: That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!
Christchuch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu
Non enim excursus hic ejus, sed opus ipsum est.
- Pliny the Younger
And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is as clear as a loading-list
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
And what’s the profit? Only that, in time
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behaving bear, may trace it home.
But to confess,
On that green evening when our death begins,
Just what it was, is hardly satisfying,
Since it applied only to one man once,
And that man dying.
- Philip Larkin
Art, by its very nature is a frivolous occupation – much as the poet WH Auden said that “poetry makes nothing happen” – which is to say it just inexplicably is. Beyond existing, the work of et al also has an ironic sense of humour to it – something that has often been misinterpreted and mocked in the long war between Philistia and Bohemia – and which lends itself well to this approach. And as there is a lot of theory that is overly burdened with style and its own pretentious jargon, I will try to keep such terminology to a minimum – as Dr Johnson said to Boswell, “you must clear your mind of cant – you may talk that way in society, but do not think in it”.
Any discussion of et al is not going to be possible without some sort of explanation of postmodernism. Where modernism was all about clean lines, abstraction, elimination of the human from art, a generally patriarchal and humourless worldview, and a faith in utopian scientific social progress, postmodernism got fed up with this in the 1960s. Postmodernism sought to do away with pedestals and picture frames by spreading the art throughout the gallery through installation (the crap on the floor option), bringing the audience into the artwork’s space and not the traditional vice versa. Artists began to reintroduce a human element in art through performance and reference to decay, entropy, the organic and the scruffy. Postmodernism made room for feminism and indigenous cultures in a real and meaningful engagement rather than merely as window dressing.
There are three artists to acknowledge in this change: the German installation artist Joseph Beuys who exploited ritual, performance, social memory and abject materials to heal the post-war wounds of German society, and declared “everyone is an artist”; Andy Warhol, who believed art, like TVs and automobiles, was for everybody – and probably didn’t deserve its elevated status; and French conceptualist Marcel Duchamp, who considered the idea more important than the object, and showed anything could be art if put in an art gallery, before he gave up art to play chess.
Marcel Duchamp had a go at that Cubism stuff at the end of the Nineteenth Century, but he was only going through the motions. He didn’t get it. He suspected it was a con on the part of the galleries. In 1917 Duchamp put an unplumbed urinal in a New York art gallery as a critique of the power of dealers and galleries to dictate trends in art (coinciding with the rise of the avant-garde, cubism etc). He called the urinal Fountain and signed it R. Mutt.
It became the iconic original of all conceptual art – art in which the ideas generated are more important than the object itself. et al’s portaloo Rapture, exhibited in Telecom Prospect 2004, refers back to Fountain. Portaloos suggest a more democratic and Kiwi alternative to the urinal. This is not the work that went to the 2005 Venice Biennale. It has no relationship to the argument . As it happens, Paul Holmes became the subject of an art work after he referred to the then Secretary General of the United Nations as a “Cheeky Darkie”. The work was called “White Drip” by Ralph Hotere. It happens to now be in Paul Holmes’ personal collection.
The donkey braying emanating from the cubicles may represent French intransigence on the issue, but also one of the constituent personae of et al: p. mule – also responsible for That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true! p. mule is a direct nod to R. Mutt.
As with the enjoyment of a play, a novel, or any fiction, we have a tacit obligation to accept the pretence or pretext – suspend our disbelief and cynicism in order to embrace a metaphorical and metaphysical reality. The same can be said of religion – we must have faith that there is a God in order that we participate in that belief system. It has frequently surprised me how often some very intelligent, worldly people seem to think that art should be any different – that somehow art should be as easily digestible and understood as a soap opera or commercial. There is a reason that high-end food critics do not tend to review family steak houses, and it's because they need to challenge their own sophistication, the public’s sophistication and the restaurant’s sophistication. The critic is not an underfunded extension of any PR and marketing division, regardless of what others may think or desire.
et al installations are obstinately and cussedly difficult things to read, as is et al itself – the trick is not to try so hard. A lot of people have difficulty dealing with the ambiguous nature of et al – is it one person who like Voldemort must not be named (yes), is it a whole bunch of people (yes). The media got their knickers in a twist about this aspect of et al (notably Paul Holmes) because journalists as a species generally default back to black and white worldviews they picked up as court reporters. Their tabloid circuits detected fraud and potential scandal where, of course, there was none. The important thing was that this wasn't actually important – at least, not in a way they understood it.
Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who died in 1935, was probably the greatest poet in twentieth century Portugal – though snubbed for the Nobel Prize for many of the same reasons that hack journalists give et al a hard time. Pessoa liberated his creativity from societal constraints by writing under 72 different names – each a distinct character with a name, a personality and a biography. Pessoa – whose own name translates as ‘person’ or ‘persona’ – called these familiars heteronyms, a word previously used to denote different words for the same thing. For the works he wrote under his own name, he used orthonym – the real name.
Among these diverse entities are included the romantic Bernardo Soares, the modernist Alvaro de Campos, and the romantic Maria Jose – a hunchback girl. Each is substantial, distinct and speaks with a consistent and individual voice, allowing the poet to explore all genres and the various fragments of his psyche.
Another comparison is the scandal that erupted over the Ern Malley/Angry Penguins affair in wartime Melbourne. Two young poets sought to highlight what they saw as the absurdity of emerging (specifically Surrealist and Symbolist-influenced poets like Slessor) Australian modernist poetry and together concocted a late, fake poet – Ern Malley – who apotheosised these mannerisms. The irony was that the Malley poems were far more interesting and alive than any of the serious material either had written individually.
Frequently middlebrow commentators accuse et al and its fans to be elitist. I tend to regard that as a compliment. Surely being an elitist only means being a connoisseur of the best – even if it’s the best kitsch. The nature of elitism. Deception is not always malicious. That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true! gives the appearance of being some kind of setting for something official, a rally of the New Zealand Communist Party perhaps. It pretends to be something and invites you to participate, whereupon the lack of function and purpose becomes apparent. Only people of monumental stupidity should feel cheated by this, in as much as only the naive would believe that Shortland Street is a documentary about a hospital. This is not a practical joke so much as a superfiction.
A superfiction is a visual or conceptual artwork which uses fiction and appropriation in order to feign the appearance of the corporate and official institutional world. The term was coined by artist Peter Hill in 1989. This is a way of subverting the non-art world, and bring art out of the straightjacket of the art gallery context. Superfictions explore the interaction between the observer's concepts and the actual "objective" evidence that is presented. This is like drawing lines on a piece of paper to create the illusion of perspective. Would you call perspective a lie?
et al/p. mule’s superfiction in That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true! appears to be a kind of interactive parody of grass roots anarcho-communist socialism that only survives among the earnest and truly naive in New Zealand who failed to learn from the examples of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Fidel Castro. The installation, having learned many of its lessons from Mona Hartoum and Louise Bourgeois, is shabby, utilitarian, and make do – like some sort of community hall in a working class suburb. The viewer – or rather participant – must wind through a labyrinth of meaningless propaganda notice boards, and insubstantial artworld/bureaucratic psychological barriers (tape on the floor) – which I read as a kind of critique of totalitarian mindsets – up to a platform. It’s the sort of scruffy thing Lenin would have spoken from when exhorting the peasants in villages to rise up, not the exquisite constructivist nonsense dreamed up by Tatlin. Also on the platform – which doubles as a bridge connecting the two halves of the labyrinth – are copies of a fictional utopian party agitprop newspaper, completing the content empty illusion.
American philosopher the late Richard Rorty was probably one of the most provocative thinkers of our time. Central to his primary theme was the irrelevance of truth. He argued that the existence of an ultimate ‘Truth’ was almost entirely irrelevant. What is interesting, Rorty suggested, are the almost infinite intellectual and metaphysical strategies people employ in searching for that elusive and probably non-existent Truth. Rorty – as I would suggest et al does – argued that twentieth century philosophy, psychology and politics, Nietzsche, Freud and Wittgenstein have revealed human society as historical contingency rather than a product of underlying human nature or the realisation of a historical/cultural or racial destiny.
The ironic perspective of both Rorty and et al, while enlightening and valuable on the personal level, does not attempt to advance the social and political goals of Rorty’s liberalism, or the philosophies and movements that et al seeks to parody and subvert through shoddy appearances and superficial suggestions.
et al would seem to fit Rorty’s definition of an ironist. An ironist is someone who fulfills three axiomatic conditions, though it might be claimed that the ironist is an elitist, but that presupposes that elitism is a negative quality:
1. Radical continuing doubts about the final vocabulary he/she currently uses because he/she has been impressed by other vocabularies taken as final by people or books he/she has encountered;
2. He/she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary cannot resolve these doubts;
3. Insofar as he/she considers about his/her situation, he/she does not think that vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it possessed of some kind of authority or power.
Rorty was, in fact, on the side of the artists, believing that art and literature – not philosophy at all – specifically the suitably cynical Orwell and Nabokov (and I would add et al) succeed in the cruelty and humiliation inherent in society and the individual. All express a utopian hope for a liberal culture aware of its own historical contingency, combining ironic and private individual freedom with society’s public goal of human solidarity. That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true! is relentless in sending up the hollowness of the totalitarian regimes that cannot fuse culture with civilisation, preferring to align zeitgeist with authority. Or at least, that’s how I read it.
As Oscar Jaszi wrote in The Dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy: “I regard the chief utility of all historical and sociological investigations to be to admonish us of the alternative possibilities of history”. That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true! suggests what the French Revolution taught us just over two hundred years ago – that the whole social spectrum of institutions and relationships can be overturned almost overnight – consequently European politics became idealistic and utopian, romantic. This Romanticism is a frequent target for et al – but et al is paradoxically Romantic in its own idealism, mixed with an additional heady cocktail of German idealism from Kant and Hegel. Or is that merely what one or other manifestation of et al would have us believe?
et al’s is an art of ideas, and those ideas’ fear of dying, of extinction and the potential liberation of the self from the individual sense of what is possible and what is important. Inevitably et al does this by offering a role model in playful superfiction and heteronym. et al goes to great lengths to achieve a similar liberation in order to be creatively free from what critic Howard Bloom calls “the strong poet’s anxiety of influence ... the horror of finding himself to be only a copy or replica”.
The installation is essentially a theatrical space – a space that is itself the actor. The installation is a ritual place wherein the audience must participate. The function of the installation, like Baroque church architecture or a theatre set, is to pull us out of our everyday worldly thinking and mindsets by creating a new creating a special environment for existential thoughts. As an art gallery to a certain extent already does this, the meditative so-called temple of the Muses model – et al cunningly fashions a second ‘other place’ within the first. This second other place is so mundane and shabby – it is what the French philosopher Baudrillard calls a simulacrum – a hyperreal near parody of the real world but intensified and concentrated. This and bricolage appear to be among the few ways artists make sense of Benjaminian proliferation and Lyotardian fragmentation of signs that represent contemporary life. One suspects someone has been closely reading Pierre Bourdieu and Hans Haacke’s Free Exchange (Stanford University Press, 1995).
And it is political. et al is an Orwell disguising a critique of totalitarianism as dystopian science fiction (and the typical et al installation is frequently dystopian) in 1984 and as a parody of storybook allegory in Animal Farm. et al is Kafka turning bureaucracy into Dante’s Hell, is Dickens on the poverties and miseries of public life, is Charlie Chaplin parodying Hitler in The Great Dictator, is a celebration of the littleness of life, is all of these things and more.
Most of all, this is art.
This essay is based on the lecture “Exploring et. al.” given by the author at Christchurch Art Gallery, August 12, coinciding with the et al exhibition That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true! until November 22, 2009.