ESSAY: Double Vision (2012)

Text to accompany the Leeds United, L Foundation, MOMA exhibition BRINK, at

The Institute of Jamais Vu, London

INSTITUTIONS

People react in extreme ways when contained and restrained by forces outside of their own control. Agitated captives throw themselves hard against the walls. Political prisoners effect demeaning dirty protests. Ingenious inmates burrow with rusty cutlery, a soiled spoon becoming an agent of freedom. All want a way out, to be past the walls, past the containment, through to some other life. To paraphrase and pervert Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punishment, the purpose of prison is “the isolation of the subject from the external world, from everything that motivated the offence, from the complicities that facilitated it.” He goes on, “Lastly, and perhaps above all, the isolation of the subjects guarantees that it is possible to exercise over them, with maximum intensity, a power that will not be overthrown by any other influence; solitude is the condition of total submission.” Let’s allow ‘subject’ to define both the artwork and the viewer, and by some abstraction the artist too. All three are in some way present between the gallery walls, all move inside then out, outside then in, the idea of all three fluctuates, flutters, and flitters from seeing to sightless, unseen to seen. The walls fight to contain such motion, control it and put it in position; “the condition of total submission.” Foucault’s ‘submission’ comes alive here, in this context, realizing the word’s multitude of meanings: surrender and compliance, but also to present and propose, to suggest and make argument. Gallery walls are not prison walls, but the things they contain do lack some control. Walls figure in much of what LU have done and continue to do: they’ve sanded and drilled them (during more conventional moments) revealing the history of hangings hidden beneath blankets of paint; they’ve cut and hacked into them, a structural disturbance both physical and metaphorical; they’ve pissed on them, quoting art history and re-interpreting institutional critique; and they’ve carried one around with them, the ‘MOMA window’ (Delay, 2001) being a wall-substitute, see-through, but a partition all the same. The gallery walls symbolize the confines of the art world, a microcosmic world, separate yet entirely within. To use the walls so often is to draw attention to such blatant artifice. To attack them is to wish the whole enterprise tumble down; that world of assimilation, which blots up one’s woes and puts them back out on display.

RECENT ACQUISITIONS

Art can offer the viewer a re-framing of the world. Images and objects can become art by being re-framed through art, within an art context. Art, to quote Charles Avery, “is a qualitative attribute, assigned to particular objects and actions at a particular moment in time.” Not every painting is art; some are merely paintings, reduced to their objective objecthood. Some things lose their art status, vigour decayed via time. Other things are rehabilitated through the same processes, reincarnated as objects of authority and import. What makes one thing not the other, what makes the other thing not the one, is the idea of art. It’s an area of high dispute, where perception is key and whatever adds influence over perception – namely context, be it physical, social, ideological, or financial – can bear as much strength as the thing itself being perceived. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City (MoMA) is one of the largest of the contemporary influences over perception; its power is colossal in all four of the aforementioned contextual categories. Recent Acquisitions (2001–present) pushes MoMA’s immense strength into metaphor: power-absolute becoming absolution-through-power. Seen through the glass, everyday views are reclaimed, preserved, made art, made sacred; LU’s two men Crusading out in the world, righteous behavior sans religious sanction. Is a child’s playground art? Sure, ask Carsten Höller. And those plants? Those too, right Broodthaers. That agricultural pasture? Richard Long. And on it goes. Each picture in Recent Acquisitions recalls another artwork, possibly more than just one, possibly some that don’t yet exist. Even the installation evokes other works, diagrammatic photo-studies and meticulous conceptualist stratagems. Sol Lewitt’s On the Walls of the Lower East Side (1979), itself a study of art and authority, comes to mind. Lewitt took hundreds of photographs documenting the nascent graffiti appearing in Manhattan’s LES. Graffiti was about staking a claim, rising above political, social, and financial disenfranchisement to assert one’s right to art and expression, property and prominence. City walls become prison walls become gallery walls, while all the time staying all things at all times. LU’s is guerrilla cultural action, both protest and parade.

Look what art does!

Look what art can do

WORLD OF WORK

‘There’s a piece of work in that’ – a phrase familiar to many art makers in our everything-as-art, art-as-everything time period; scrawled onto napkins in cafés and restaurants; blotted onto beermats in pubs, clubs, and drinking dens; ink leaking through the weave of whichever material is close enough to hand. A spreading of ink, but a fixing of inspiration; semi-permeable paper-substitute better than the untrustworthy transience of ideas in sodden synapses; spit-and-sawdust dreamcatchers for clasping at abstractions. Here, in the work Through and Through (2012), the words themselves are given gravitas, cut in-to and out-of the gallery’s typically white wooden walls. The wall, which like blank paper to the pen’s play of language, acts to host art and artistic gesture. Ostensibly neutral and allegedly free of association, the walls are mute scaffold, not really seen and certainly not heard, an absence, present only by necessity, keeping one world away from the other, an architectural prophylactic guarding against adulteration. The work hacks away at both forms of fabrication: this established pretense scored and splintered, thrown out with the shavings of wood. Geographically, the Institute of Jamais Vu makes this demystification even more abrupt; the gallery having been built in what is essentially a communal living space, looking through (and through) the holes in the wall one instantly sees not art, but life, domestic life, everyday life, ‘real life’ (whatever that may mean). As with Recent Acquisitions, Angle of Incidence (1997), and Trite and Vulgar (1998), the artists claim the work is not the object, or the excavated object in this case, but what can be seen through it and seen within it. Angle of Incidence is a mirror installed in a Leeds pub, engraved with the legend, “Lifelike”, then underneath “100% proof.” Also a mirror, Trite and Vulgar is engraved eponymously, in elegant swirling serif typeface. If the work isn’t these objects – the mirrors, the windows, the punctures in the wall – but what can be seen in them, then what, exactly, is the work? What are we seeing. Who can be seen. Where is this place that exists within and beyond these limits. These concentric mental movements are all part of the work, chasing an image, an image chasing you; intricate helices built into its physically metaphysical structure. Through and Through: thoroughly tiring, tirelessly thorough.

UNSTEADY SIGHTS

LU works have appeared, smuggled in with cunning chicanery and the misuse of relative financial excess, in the international art press. With Review (1998), the artists took out a full page of advertising space in Art Monthly magazine, using it as a means to display and distribute their work far and wide. Less an intervention, more an insertion, Review didn’t intend to obstruct or disrupt the accommodating periodical, but exist within it, as part of it, inoperable shrapnel still irritant to the host’s body. ‘Insertions’ comes from the artist Cildo Miereles, whose Insertions into Ideological Circuits saw him inscribing political messages onto banknotes and recycled Coke-a-Cola bottles, which would then be washed, re-filled, and put back into the commercial system, this new disfigurement well disguised. Review presents itself as both a review of a work and as the work also, operating in constant oscillation between the two. Dualisms are diluted within one-another and a complex critical concoction poured forth. Here, the disfigurement is the disguise, and the disguise the disfigurement; one thing is disguised as another thing disguised as the original thing, and so on; the disfigurement is mutual, the movement unending. Perpetually circular and judiciously disobedient, the piece generates such a haze of hypotheses that, against LU’s wishes, the editors of Art Monthly were compelled to provided the viewer with an anchor of blatant reference: the word ADVERTISEMENT, alone and emboldened, capitalized in the bottom left corner of the page.

SITE UNSEEN

LU works have not appeared in Frieze magazine, some insertions didn’t make it to print. Mid-Atlantic (1999) is an ad for a fictional exhibition at the exact geographical point between New York City and Leeds. It depicts three significant New York art dealers – Marian Goodman, Barbara Gladstone, and Mary Boone – who are involved with the show. Only it’s not that Goodman, Gladstone, and Boone, but their apparent namesakes: three Northern broads, each throwing a get-together in their home, each awaiting guests, well-stocked with glasses of red wine. You can imagine the parley, in the studio one overcast day –

Barbara Gladstone. That’s a nice Northern name.

Don’t she live cross road?

Nah mate, that’s Mary.

Mary?

Aye, y’know, Mary Boone.

[cue laughter]

‘Mary’ and her baggy polo shirt, her too-tungstenized kitchen; ‘Marian’ and the upcoming loft-conversion, Velux already fitted, halfway there; salutary ‘Barbara’ with kid’s toys strewn askew and her homely redbrick frontage; so unglamorous, so not New York, so sodding British. So-sodding-something in fact, that Frieze didn’t run the ad, finding it too bellicose or risqué, and instead censoring it at the last minute. LU have responded with Adrift, an exact replica of that issue of Frieze, with everything save their original ad censored out. The white pages flicker by and by, full of nothing, a heavy nothing; it’s strange. The paper feels right, each sheet between the fingers; strange and uncanny. Then the shipwreck lurches out of the depths one’s daze, and Mid-Atlantic appears, at last, a forgotten image suddenly the only thing in sight. It’s there, in front of you. Three faces and three places, or six of both if you really think about it (they are what they’re not, and also what they are). Disguise becomes demystification, creating an anti-mythology of mimicry, resemblance, and dissemblance. Then it’s gone again, the ad that is, and all we’re left with is the white between our fingers, ever bright inside our eyes.

THE MODERNIST FAMILY

Men in disguise, two men, disguised as more men, disguised as an institution, disguised as parents and progenitors, mummy and daddy dressed up in drag. A counter-cultural art movement and corporate art institution re-interpreted as down-and-dirty prison tattoos, marks of manhood, identity as injury; keep it in the family, even if you’ve long been disowned. Family Values (2003); I’m reminded of an old playground chant, less a song, more an invocation of juvenescent trauma – “Yer dad’s yer mum. Yer mum’s yer dad.” Repeated without end, until tears, teacher, or the appearance of said parents. Dada (the movement) and MoMA (the museum), limbs of the same unknowable body (art), extremities punched out of darkness. Art witticisms played out as prison tat’. Fists are for brawling and bruising, making marks on other human beings; Art is for . . . (don’t go there), and making marks on other human beings. Art and fists; form and force; ideas and the body: tumorous thoughts that need removing, handling, taking away to be looked at. There’s a brawl in the brig, big boys causing a ruckus.

REVIEW: a random dispersal of dust (mutely understood) (2011)

*** First appeared in The Blue Notebook: Issue 10. April 2011 ***

In his 1941 short story The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges creates a universe that is one vast sprawling library “composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.” Within each of these galleries are an exact number of bookshelves (20) holding an exact number of identically formatted books (32), themselves containing 410 pages with 40 lines per page and “approximately 80 black letters” per line. The Library and the books held within it contain every single possible combination of 25 orthographic symbols (the 22 letters of the alphabet, the comma and the period). In short, everything that has ever, or ever will, exist, happen or be thought, is held within the Library; written in every language known, unknown or unknowable, in obscure code, or as “formless and chaotic” gibberish. “For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency.” Also, the Library contains
everything false, everything that never has existed, happened, or been thought, and everything that never will. “In order for a book to exist, it is sufficient that it be possible.”

The detailed schematic that Borges draws betrays the scientific leaning ingrained in his writing. Despite envisaging a universe whose power is held in literature (and that wonderfully unscientific folly: nonsense), it is literature limited by numbers and systems, by whatever mathematical equation it is which produces the finite number of books possible as its solution. Borges’ library is what cosmologists would call ‘finite but unbounded’ (that is: of a certain size, but without borders or end): “The Library is unlimited but periodic. If an eternal traveller should journey in any direction, he would find after centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder – which repeated becomes order.” It is this scientific, often cosmic, quantity that comes to fore in Sean Kaye & Jenny West’s new work: a random dispersal of dust (mutely understood); a book printed in an edition of 500, which acts as a translation of the Borges tale.

I have chosen the word translation as that seems most fitting, but many others are needed to fully explain the artistic gesture of the work. Kaye & West have re-written The Library of Babel as its inversion, as an indirect opposite. So the disciplined order of the Library is replaced by A Random Dispersal of Dust, and the librarians, regulators, custodians of this order, have become vacuum cleaners. The books are now specks, and the letters molecules. Most tellingly perhaps, writing is turned to sculpture. What was certain in the original is now variable, shifting or removed: “A Random Dispersal of Dust is a restless configuration whose approximate outer edge is every absent amorphous form and whose centre is attainable.” The clarity of voice in Borges’ prose is replaced by a buzz of narrative activity and a complex medley of tenses. a random dispersal of dust is not fully intelligible for the whole of its length and while it is never unreadable, some sections are confoundingly cryptic and suitably Babelian. The overall effect is one of a reverse movement: Borges’ library zooming continually outward while Kaye & West’s dust is almost falling in on itself: all numbers have become minus numbers at this subatomic level. Dust is an appropriate inversion of the Library; the universal and the molecular offer a visual and conceptual likeness and quantum mechanics is, after all, a branch of astrophysics. If The Library of Babel is unfathomable in its magnitude, a random dispersal of dust is equally unfathomable in its minutiae. Continuing this line, it can be said Kaye & West have produced the Library’s antiparticle: “a rare form of subatomic matter that is a mirror image of normal matter. The antiparticle corresponding to an elementary particle has the same mass as the particle but is opposite in all other properties.”

William Burroughs, the half-eaten laureate of the nomadic imagination, once made claim that the ‘cut-up’ novel was the writing art-form’s attempt to compete with the aesthetic dynamism of collage painting. The cut-up technique sees a traditionally coherent and formal text, chopped into pieces of different size and then reconfigured aleatorically to form a new text, often more nonsensical than the original but still constructed from the exact same parts; any intentional meaning now warped and secluded. Kaye & West have not left so much up to chance, but the results of their labour resemble collage and abstraction: layers of shapes, places, histories, facts and agendas, personalities and turns of phrase, appear scattered and then reformed into coherent coagulations. Where the language and grammar may fluctuate and occasionally test the reader’s logic, the mood of the piece remains steady throughout. Perhaps because there is a source text to provide a prominent structure, Kaye & West’s work never loses its way, never ambles too far into obscurity.

It helps that the conclusions the artists have reached in regard to what amounts to the ‘opposite’ or ‘reverse’ of the original story are, at the very least, reasonably logical: men changes to women; Man to God; solitude to fellowship; the future to the past. Sometimes the opposite phrase results in a meaning strangely adjacent to its original: an increasing number of suicides is turned into a fewer number of births; the writing of the word ‘infinite’ is instead the crossing out of the word ‘finite’. As a double negative becomes a positive, these actions and their reverse are conceptually, but not physically, alike. In this way, the new text flits between direct opposition and elaborate distortion of the original, weaving itself like a vine through trellis, sometimes snapping the support, sometimes mimicking its shape.

Kaye & West originally hoped to print the Borges story in the same volume as their own, with the two texts running concurrently on opposite pages. This would certainly have highlighted their interrelationship and made referring between the two far easier. Greater attention would be given to the numerous ingenious and genuinely poetic twists of language that occur throughout the piece: the Anatomy of Melancholy becomes the “Architecture of Euphoria”; pilgrimages become “strolls in the park that may evolve into summer fetes”; epidemics become “slow courtships”; mirrors – “minute casts which faithfully duplicate the debris”. Having the two texts side by side might also have made reading the work more fluid and given context to some of its more obfuscate sections. But the Borges estate did not agree to license the original and seeing how the work is now, with Juan Cruz’s well-written preface still mooring it to the Library, that format would have been needlessly prescriptive, cornering the work as a linguistic exercise rather than a text in its own right.

The printing of the book was set by hand and the formatting is somewhat unusual. It is about the size of a school exercise book, but the margins of the text are smaller, more the size of an average pulp paperback, and it is set toward the lower right hand corner of the page. The text becomes a block, framed above and to its left by an inch or two of empty white space. This not only parades a craftsmanship that digital printing does not (the work
is a lovely object), but also suggests another book within this one, one of significance but unseen and in hiding. There is a dust cover also (pun perhaps intended), of semi-transparent paper, coloured a rich vibrant orange. It recalls, to this viewer at least, the orange of a vagrant sun, the sun that brokers day and seals night, the temporal referential sun without which the passage of time would not be so clear. It is too, the orange of campfire confluence and lamplit perusals: a colour with such multiplicity of apt metaphorical purpose that it could, perhaps, cover all the books inside Borges’ Library of Babel. Indeed, as the artists themselves point out and Cruz acknowledges in the preface, a random dispersal of dust must already be sat, quiescent on a bookshelf someplace inside the Library; and what a startlingly articulate and stimulating discovery it would be in that setting, as it is in any.

a random dispersal of dust (mutely understood) is available from Wild Pansy Press