Saturday, May 22, 2010

Some Closing Thoughts re: "Art After Deleuze" and the Whitney Biennial

When Beom presented his project in our final class Wednesday night, there was some confusion as to whether the "work" itself was his sculpture, or the photos of his sculptures, or his lecture referencing the photos of his sculptures. His response was that it was not important to delineate between those processes or titles, since the "work" itself was composed of all three steps.

This nebulous mutation of art – a kind of constant coming-into-being within multiple different media – seems to me to be the most important recent development in contemporary art practice. It is both indebted to and contrary to Deleuzian theory in that his writing focused on singular works of art (i.e., in a single medium format) resulting from the artist's dynamic encounter with the ever-changing percepts and affects of the world. Yet the concept of creation-as-mutation is integral to work such as Beom's and the examples of 'relational art' and participatory, affective-response works profiled by Bourriard and Hansen. The implication is that Deleuze's 'becomings and trajectories' have moved from the stage of fabrication to the stages of conception, presentation, and reception – with fabrication now relegated to a supporting role to facilitate those stages. Artists are no longer passionate material craftspeople but thoughtful stewards or choreographers shuttling an idea through its various forms and ever-expanding applications. This change can be seen in all arts, from painting to music to sculpture to film/video, and it is being grappled with in widely varying ways.

Take the works on view this year at the Whitney Biennial. If this is any indication of the state of contemporary art (and maybe it is, maybe it isn't), confusion and apathy seem to reign. There is a paucity of moving or passionately conceived work in the exhibition, and after seeing it I felt as cynical about the power and potential of art as the majority of artists represented in the show seem to be. Though I don't follow the discussion closely, I know the various Biennials are highly political, buzzy, pop-culture events within the art world, and there are intense debates concerning their rigor and credibility. Leaving that debate aside, I'll focus on the Whitney exhibition in the context of our class material.

It seems as if many artists working today are unmoored by the shifting nature of art's "body." More often than not, their response is to simply literalize that concept – usually with disappointing results.

Some works attempt this through invoking a physiological affective response in the viewer (a la Jeffrey Shaw in Hansen's New Philosophy for New Media). For example, R.H. Quaytman's optical pattern silkscreens unsettle the eyes and therefore the body for no apparent reason except to foreground the 'nature of perception' (that old standby!) and skillfully invoke the building window that inspired them. Even the artist's statement cancels out the possibility of any determined aim. (“I seek to maintain and simultaneously disrupt painting’s absolute presence.”1 ) Uh, okay. So it's about non-space or non-presence? In relation to what – interior design?

The other common approach to literalizing art's shifting mediations is to obscure the work's affiliation to any particular medium. Because everything is art nowadays, nothing is – it is all derived from other areas of visual reproduction, and curators seem reluctant to draw hard lines between genres for fear of seeming conservative or limited in their thinking. Several works at the Whitney capitalize on that confusion and "inclusiveness." Pae White's smoke tapestry, Charles Ray's willowy flowers, and Aurel Schmidt's detritus-as-beauty drawings are primarily works of graphic design, illustration and political cartooning, respectively, that seem to have talked their way into the art exhibition circuit. The documentary photographs of Stephanie Sinclair and Nina Berman are powerful examples of photojournalism at its best, but they have nothing to do with the plane of immanence into which an artist, according to Deleuze, must enter in order to construct something new from the world.

To be fair, this confusion does not necessarily originate in the artists, as art institutions dictate to some degree the playing field. Case in point, the Whitney's description of this year's Biennial is totally noncommittal ("…simply titled 2010 [it] embodies a cross section of contemporary art production rather than a specific theme" 2 ….to which I'm tempted to ask, "Then what are we paying you for?"). It's true there isn't much of a theme among the new works, except perhaps "creepy suburbia" (e.g., Josephine Meckseper's "Mall of America," James Casebere's "Landscape with Houses", Duane Hanson's lifelike sculpture of a middle-aged housewife).

Rather than simplistically literalizing or trivializing the process by which art is shifting form, blurring genre boundaries, and engaging viewers in disorienting ways, some artists are attempting to engage with this ambiguity in genuinely risky ways. Duane Hanson's sculptures are rigorous in their conception and execution; their careful fabrication process seems to require the artist's personal engagement with the affects and percepts of human figuration, while forcing him (and us) to grapple with figurative sculpture's transition from idealized portraiture to arbiter of decaying social relations.

Among the video works, Sharon Hayes' "Parole" applies skillful filmmaking techniques to portray moments defined by body language and movement (e.g., interviews, interrogations, and dance) and creates an immersive environment for the viewer in which screens and sounds layer upon one another, building in relation to the timing of the viewer's entrance into the space. Like the immersive projection environments of Aernout Mik, this work is passionately political yet nebulous in its aesthetic footing and genre classification. There is a sense we are on a journey with the artist through the works' multiple permutations – as if the images' independent juxtapositions and interactions (the "something that goes beyond testimony to the photographer's art" described by Walter Benjamin3) determines the outcome. The work does not exist solely inside the frame of the images, but in the conflagration of all the screens interacting at once, through and without the viewer – who may be a witness or a participant to the videos' content.

Whether successful or not, today's questioning, unsettled art works show that we are grappling with a new kind of practice whose trajectory must cross not only different media forms but different states of being, in order to become whole. With regards to my own web-based and film/video projects, which feed into and grow out of one another in various shifting ways, I am discovering that the creative process is a kind of constant reconfiguration (Bergson's 'kaleidoscopic' assemblage of images in relation to "the privileged image" of the body4). With no fixed entry or end points, this process unfolds within the germinating pool of ideas or images that I find myself constantly revisiting in one form or another.

Thanks, Sam and everyone, for a great class. Happy summer...



1Whitney Biennial website []; accessed May 20-21, 2010.
2 Ibid.
3 Benjamin, Walter. "Little History of Photography," The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings et al., trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. (Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), p. 276.
4 Bergson, Henri. “Of the Selection of Images for Conscious Presentation,” in Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1911), pp. 12-13.

No comments:

Post a Comment