30 September 2013

(Don't) Look at This F_____g Hipster

First, this bit, which ran in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago, in which the magazine wildly breaks with its usual format to offer a blunt assessment:

"Want to see a very big show of very bad art? Sure you do, to be up on present trends in bigness and badness. The young California-born Brooklynite {Matthew Day Jackson] processes solemn platitudes — vitrined skeletons and flayed anatomies, moonscape reliefs, a droopy pastiche of “The Burghers of Calais,” an uglified “Pietà” — tastelessly. (Not in bad taste — in no taste, savoring solely of blind ambition.) Plainly inspired by the spectacular effronteries of Damien Hirst, Jackson makes the overbearing Brit seem a very Watteau of sensitive finesse, by comparison. Gigantic in scale and pipsqueak in imagination, the show must be seen to be properly disbelieved. You’ll want to talk about it."

Almost concurrently, this (via Chicago) turns up at Daily Serving:

"If you’re at all interested in seeing Wisconessee, Duncan R. Anderson and Daniel Bruttig’s semi-collaborative two man show at Kasia Kay Projects, I can tell you right now there’s a good chance you’ve already seen it. Typically, I’m not one to write a negative review for the sake of teeing off on artists who are just trying to get some work out there. But this show is typical of the broader cultural trend of favoring work that’s long on stylish cynicism, full of derivative posturing, and the worst kind of irony. It’s an established and mechanically rehearsed drift that is certainly worthy of comment.

Wisconessee simply can’t mask its own clichés. The exhibition checks off so many of the familiar tropes associated with hip urban bohemia the artists may as well have used a “Best of” collection from Juxtapoz as their creative blueprint. Barry McGee–style clusters of individually framed art pieces are faithfully reproduced in what has become practically a mandatory installation strategy. Half-man/half-animal composite creatures so dutifully inhabit the artists’ “personal mythologies” that Maurice Sendak’s estate should be collecting royalty checks. If shows like Wisconessee represent a common metaphorical language of childhood experience and Gen X/millennial angst, then that language is now a babble, tongue-tied and hoarse from exhaustive repetition. Unintentionally, the show is less a collection of works by two individuals and more like a taxonomy of popular signifiers of self-conscious alienation and the postures of marginality so common among young urban creative types. They quote The Smiths, for fuck’s sake!"

Granted, two isolated examples doesn't make a backlash; but I'm not used to seeing such brash verdicts being aired so freely in print. Perhaps some people are getting fed with certain "hot" young artists recycling some of the thinnest of '90s art post-"slacker"/"high art lite" sensibilities? Can't help but think that these sorts of missives are aimed at the artists so much as the high-profile galleries that mount such shows. The critic or publication's way of serving notice, à la: It's the opening of the art season and you're supposed to be trotting out your best, FFS. This simply will not do. Why are you wasting our time?

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26 September 2013


Josef Albers, various studies for the Homage to a Square series.

Via Socks Studio.

21 September 2013

Concrete Islands: Tony Smith meets the Interstitial Sublime

In somewhat uncanny coincidental timing with my prior post, David Salomon at the Design Observer writes about another key influence on Robert Smithson, on the artist’s creative shift that brought him to create The Spiral Jetty and other such earthworks. That being architect and sculptor Tony Smith’s revelationary nighttime drive on the unopened New Jersey Turnpike back in 1951.

I'd thought to write about it a long while back, because it's an intriguing bit of late modernist minutiae, but (like so many other things) it ended up falling between the cracks. Some readers are probably already familiar with the incident, or more specifically of Smith’s account of it. For the unfamiliar, here’s how Smith described the event to Samuel J. Wagstaff, in an interview published in Artforum magazine:

"When I was teaching at Cooper Union in the first year or two of the '50s, someone told me how I could get on to the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. I took three students and drove from somewhere in the Meadows to New Brunswick. It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder markers, lines, railings or anything at all except the dark pavement moving through the landscape of the flats, rimmed by hills in the distance, but punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes and colored lights. This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn't be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn't know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.

"The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that's the end of art. Most paintings look pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it. Later I discovered some abandoned airstrips in Europe -- abandoned works, Surrealist landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, created worlds without tradition. Artificial landscape without cultural precedent began to dawn on me. This is a drill ground in Nuremberg, large enough to accommodate two million men. The entire field is enclosed with high embankments and towers. The concrete approach is three 16-inch steps, one above the other, stretching for a mile or so."

It was a fortuitous coincidence that the interview would be published in December of 1966, the same month that Dan Graham’s “Homes For America” project would first appear in the pages of Arts magazine. And that some of the ideas that linked these two items would be echoed a year later by Smithson when he published his pivotal “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” text in the December 1967 edition of Artforum.

This was the era when the New York that Robert Moses had transformed began to wane, shedding jobs and residents who headed for where the future was said to be shaping up – the “crabgrass frontier” of the suburbs. And the New Jersey Turnpike – as a long, major artery supporting traffic into and out of the city – was designed and built to meets the needs that arose from that population shift. Smith, Graham, and Smithson each hailed from New Jersey, and naturally couldn’t help but notice the radical reshaping of the landscape that was taking place during those final years of the country’s postwar economic boom. Landscapes – “artificial” and “synthetic.” New monuments, new ruins (“in reverse”). Colossal infrastructural construction, the serial repetition of modular iterations of post-Levittown suburban housing development. Each artist took it all in with mixed degrees of aesthetic disinterestedness.

Tony Smith with "Cigarette" [ via ]

In perhaps the most interesting part of the DO article, Salomon offers a dissection of Smith’s impression of his nocturnal experience on the Turnpike, one that’s inextricably part of postwar American car culture. One that gets at one a key essence of late modernity, that of the automobile, acceleration, and the vast infrastructural networks built for the sake of facilitating travel:

“Why did that architectural encounter leave such a strong impression on Smith? The drive took place over time; it could not, like a painting (or architectural drawing) be taken in all at once. Nor could it be reduced to a specific form or location. Generating an overall impression of the event (as of a building) required one to sequentially (and simultaneously) use powers of attention, memory and imagination. However, it differed from conventional architectural experience in important ways. Smith was sitting down, engulfed by the architecture of the car, moving rapidly through a dark environment. And psychologically he was trespassing; not for material gain, but for the sake of his enjoyment. It was an event without clear function.”*

Tony Smith was a full generation older than the other artists, old enough – hypothetically – to have been their instructor during those years that he was teaching at the Artists League in New York City. Coming to sculpture late in his career after years spent in architectural design, the work that Smith produced was seen (by some, at least) as being roughly in league to that of nascent Minimalist movement. Graham and Smithson, on the other hand, would each prove instrumental in conceptualizing the key directions that art might go in Minimalism’s wake. All three, or each in his own ways, intuited from their environment previously uncategorized domains of artistic activity, formulated a notion of what Rosalind Krauss would classify as “the Expanded Field” some dozen years later.**

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*  I find myself at this point thinking of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, specifically of the scene that befuddled so many critics and viewers -- the long driving sequence that falls in the film’s early reel. Why, many have wondered, did Tarkovsky choose to devote so much time to such a mundane, unimportant aspect of the story? The scene has been interpreted by some as a meditation on the passage of the character from the rural countryside into its alienating opposite -- the built environment of modern concrete and steel metropolis (in this case, Tarkovsky filming in Tokyo circa 1971). Not that that explanation makes the sequence any less tedious or whatever; but there you have it.

**  with the essay in question, Krauss attempted to go beyond the standard dialectics that were so common in much of the art-thought of the postwar period. But dialectical thinking had very much been the order of the day. Donald Judd, in his Minimalist quasi-manifesto “Specific Objects,” had written that the most interesting artwork circa the early 1960s was that which was “neither painting nor sculpture.” If anything, Smith’s experience on the NJ Turnpike prompted him to start thinking in terms of objects that were neither sculpture nor architecture.

17 September 2013

Myths of the Near Future, II

Clip via Adrian Searle at the Guardian, concerning Tactita Dean's latest film project, JG; which is currently on view at Frith Street Gallery in London.

Which I guess effectively completes a triangulation. Dean has in the past acknowledged J.G. Ballard as a formative source of inspiration. With Ballard, in turn, having written quite glowingly of Dean's texts and her abilities as a writer. And both being admirers of Smithson's work, with Dean previously done two projects devoted to the artist -- Trying to Find The Spiral Jetty (1997) and From Columbus, Ohio to the Partially Buried Woodshed (1999).

And Smithson was himself, back in the early days of his career as an artist, an avid reader of science fiction; the inventory of his personal library suggesting that Ballard was perhaps his favorite author in the genre. Which only stands to reason, given Smithson's own fascination with geology, megaliths and primary architectonics, and the increasingly synthetic, artificial character of the built human environment in the modern age. Smithson's own writing about The Spiral Jetty took on the qualities of a fantastic, vaguely SF-ish text experiment at times:

"The helicopter maneuvered the sun's reflection through the Spiral jetty until it reached the center. The water functioned as a vast thermal mirror. From that position the flaming reflection suggested the ion source of a cyclotron that extended into a spiral of collapsed matter. All sense of energy acceleration expired into a rippling stillness of reflected heat. A withering light swallowed the rocky particles of the spiral, as the helicopter gained altitude. All existence seemed tentative and stagnant. The sound of the helicopter motor became a primal groan echoing into tenuous aerial views. Was I but a shadow in a plastic bubble hovering in a place outside mind and body? Et in Utah ego. I was slipping out of myself again, dissolving into a unicellular beginning, trying to locate the nucleus at the end of the spiral. All that blood stirring makes one aware of protoplasmic solutions, the essential matter between the formed and the unformed, masses of cells consisting largely of water, proteins, lipoids, carbohydrates, and inorganic salts. Each drop that splashed onto the Spiral jetty coagulated into a crystal. Undulating waters spread millions upon millions of crystals over the basalt."

Poking about, I see that Dean's film has been circulating since earlier in the year; with Andrew Frost at the Ballardian blog already having written about it at length some six months ago.

Dean suggests that she’s "solved the mystery" of Smithson’s enigmatic Spiral Jetty, claiming that the work may have been inspired by Ballard’s 1960 short story “The Voices of Time.” As Frost sums it up in the Ballardian post:

"The protagonist, Powers, after encountering a spiral structure meant to represent the square root of -1, surrenders to the flow of cosmic time within a spiral mandala, located on the salt lake of an abandoned air force testing range. Ballard’s use of the spiral as a symbol for cosmic time, from the scale of the sculpture to the magnitude of the galaxy, finds its expression in Smithson's sculptures."

Curiously, the story includes numerous references to Eniwetok – the Marshall Islands atoll which had served as an Pacific H-bomb test site for the U.S. military in the postwar years. Eniwetok also turns up as the setting for Ballard’s story "The Terminal Beach." In that particular story, the narrator describes the island’s abandoned architecture and the telltale signs of destruction left from the detonations; at one point offering:

"'This island is a state of mind,' Osborne, one of the scientists working in the old submarine pens, was later to remark to Traven. The truth of this became obvious to Traven within two or three weeks of his arrival. Despite the sand and the few anaemic palms, the entire landscape of the island was synthetic, a man-made artefact with all the associations of a vast system of derelict concrete motorways. Since the moratorium on atomic tests, the island had been abandoned by the Atomic Energy Commission, and the wilderness of weapons aisles, towers and blockhouses ruled out any attempt to return it to its natural state."
And elsewhere:
"The series of weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, and the pseudogeological strata condensed the brief epochs, microseconds in duration, of thermonuclear time. Typically the island inverted the geologist's maxim, 'The key to the past lies in the present.' Here, the key to the present lay in the future. This island was a fossil of time future, its bunkers and blockhouses illustrating the principle that the fossil record of life was one of armour and the exoskeleton."

The Spiral Jetty is located at Rozel Point along the eastern shoreline the Great Salt Lake, Utah. Smithson chose the site for a number of reasons. Firstly, there’s the natural reasons – its geographic isolation and the surrounding landscape. Also the lake's high salinity levels and the variety of red algae it harbored. But there were also non-natural aspects of the site that appealed to Smithson, as well. Taking the backroad to the location, one passed through the remnants of a disused oilfield, with leaking abandoned wells and derelict vehicles scattered about the roadside. Likewise with a couple of abandoned military amphibious vehicles rusting away in the sun, which must have somehow – one presumes – found their way to the place from the Dugway Proving Ground located on the other side of the Lake. Smithson described the journey to the location thusly:

"Slowly, we drew near to the lake, which resembled an impassive faint violet sheet held captive in a stoney matrix, upon which the sun poured down its crushing light. An expanse of salt flats bordered the lake, and caught in its sediments were countless bits of wreckage. Old piers were left high and dry. The mere sight of the trapped fragments of junk and waste transported one into a world of modern prehistory. The products of a Devonian industry, the remains of a Silurian technology, all the machines of the Upper Carboniferous Period were lost in those expansive deposits of sand and mud.

"Two dilapidated shacks looked over a tired group of oil rigs. A series of seeps of heavy black oil more like asphalt occur just south of Rozel Point. For forty or more years people have tried to get oil out of this natural tar pool. Pumps coated with black stickiness rusted in the corrosive salt air. A hut mounted on pilings could have been the habitation of ‘the missing link.’ A great pleasure arose from seeing all those incoherent structures. This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes."

This adjoining, interim vista of pollution and ruination was a deliberate choice on the artist’s part – a way of incorporating another landscape for the spectator to pass through en route to seeing the monumental Jetty, a desolate precursor to the experience.*

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* Even though, as I understand it, much of this debris was been cleared from the site back about ten years ago.

15 September 2013

The One and the Many

"Money is the one thing that connects us and that we cannot truly have in common. In societies without qualities we can, in theory, have any number of things in common. However, after the decline of symbolic orders, it is an enormous effort to call them up and give them words and form. Remember, this is the desert of the real ...So never mind good intentions, they won’t get us anywhere: when art addresses the future in (self-)skeptical ways, it refuses nostalgia and hope as sentimental compensations for an uncertain future. [...]

Aesthetic problems can’t be solved in the social sphere, and vice versa, because the two are one, and the one becomes two. The social begins and ends in art, but not the other way around: art dies when it becomes a model. ...Are models necessary? Social models usually have a mimetic relation to a given reality, and they start with the whole, not the part. ...What would it mean to engage in historical processes and social struggles, but proceed without a specific model or image of the society to come?

Arguably, such an approach can only be articulated momentarily, as a flash, and maybe its sense of undoing and letting go relates first and foremost to aesthetic experience. In the early 1970s, Jean Baudrillard gave an alternative, downbeat definition of utopia: utopia, he wrote, is what is never spoken, never on the agenda, but 'always repressed in the identity of political, historical, logical, dialectical orders.' Utopia is what the order of the day is missing ...Something elusive that dies when aggressive interpretation sets in. When utopia is deprived of its telos, it becomes compatible with aesthetic thinking, with the ambivalence and skepticism through which art returns real events and bodies to virtual non-places. Like utopia, art is insoluble and uninhabitable, its speech threatened by reality principles."

From Lars Bang Larsen's "The Society Without Qualities", in the latest edition of the E-flux journal.

Also of interest in the same issue, Amanda Boetzkes and Andrew Pendakis's essay "Visions of Eternity: Plastic and the Ontology of Oil." In some respects it represents an attempt at de-reifying the material economy of petroleum, which is a notion that's intrigued me for some time.

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