Wednesday, October 6, 2010

with sustainable ply

I'm about to mention the grand final again. At first I thought this was going to be a footnote to the last post, but it grew. We were at a Melbourne Fringe show on Friday night, a dance piece called Intimate Exposure, and at one point in this show the dancers began to speak. "I've got wool in my mouth," one of them said, and then, looking at a member of the audience who was holding a glass of wine, "I wish I had a drink." A different one commented on a woman's handbag. Then one of them was turning with her arms in the air, and she said, "Another grand final!"

I don't know if that was the line exactly, but it was something like that -- another grand final or the grand final again, or two grand finals or similar. She was talking about the replay on Saturday, which Collingwood won by fifty-six points.

That was going to be the end of my story, but then, thinking about the dance, I began to think about the art in the gallery above the rooms where the performance was taking place, and about the labels the artists had written for the exhibition -- there was a paragraph propped up next to each piece. We'd been up there the evening before, and I'd noticed that the language the artists used to describe their own art was sometimes inflated, and sometimes vague, as if they were describing an idea of an object, and not the concrete thing itself. Perhaps you could say they were describing their hopes for the thing, as if the thing itself had only been thought of but not constructed, as if it had remained in the realm of the possible without entering the material world, or as if they pined for what it had once been, an imaginary thing.* For example, one of the artists said that her work was "[a reinterpretation of] Hieronymous Bosch's triptych of humanity from creation to damnation.

Scenes from present existence and an imagined future are depicted in repurposed propylene. Cohabiting with sustainable ply they cast an elegant facade for the purpose of illumination."

It looked like a chandelier made of cardboard with white balls strung off the sides. Automatically I began to fret over the language. Why "cohabiting," I wondered. Of course they were cohabiting -- or coexisting -- she'd attached them to one another with string -- they were inanimate objects -- they had no choice -- why use a word that gave them agency? What did she mean by "cast an elegant façade"? The chandelier was casting a shadow, but a shadow isn't a façade, and casting a shadow doesn't serve "the purpose of illumination" except inadvertently -- shadows are a byproduct of illumination. Did she mean something closer to "constitute"? "Together they constitute a façade"? But why "façade"? The curved shape cut from sustainable ply wasn't the façade of the object, it was the object itself. If the chandelier was a façade then the real object of the artwork (its core, its true self, the meat behind the mask) was the lightbulb.

So I fretted and picked.

The obvious answer is, she's not sure about the word façade, she used the word "cohabit" not because the ply and the balls are creatures choosing their habitats but because she wanted to let the organizers know that she was in sympathy with the theme of the exhibition ("The city has a face, the country has a soul," or, the creep of the suburbs from the city into the country), and the word "cast" seemed appropriate to chandeliers because chandeliers throw out light. The application got a little muddled, but the idea is there. She's circling it. She reminds me of -- who does she remind me of? She reminds me of Françoise. Her written English is Françoise's spoken French, but where Proust attributes Francoise's inventions to her peasant background (picking up unfamiliar words she uses them wherever they seem to fit, placing them firmly like Humpty Dumpty ('"When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less"')) this artist seems to have come at hers from the opposite direction, from years at university or collage, or some other place where your superiors tell you to produce a work in the style of a well-known artist and then explain your process and goals. You, the student, you will be judged on this. And so, living in a universe where nothing is certain, you decide that you need an advanced degree of protection (Greek gods, if you could, but they're no longer available) and you erect a bulwark of words. Protect me words! you say. Make me sound smart, thoughtful, and accomplished! Propel me, O words, into the universe of my lecturers and judges! And then you write, with hopeful emotions, "façade," and "reinterpreting" or, if you are the people behind the Home Is Where The Craft Is craft exhibition, you summon a phrase from your old textbook -- oh yes, you think, "mixed medium" -- and you put the following note in the Fringe programme, "No longer obscured by it's residential location, creativity is expressed through home based mixed mediums," and with this spell you hope to project an image of power, O some great dark dominant phenomenon with eyes and teeth, or at least wisdom -- great and evident wisdom, flagrant and shining, your marvellous ambassador and bodyguard.

And it's a fact that once I thought of the chandelier artist as Françoise, I felt friendly towards her, I stopped fretting at the gap between the prose and the object (it felt as if the gap had been filled, even though nothing outside my head had changed at all), and I said to myself warmly -- Françoise, Françoise! It was an interesting transformation.

* Two days later in a gallery I saw a piece of computer artwork: a monotonous green screen with a red oval jerking to and fro at the centre. It was, said the artist on his label, a representation of a football being bounced at the beginning of play, but he had left out the figure of the umpire who was handling it. The sight of this work (he wrote) prompted the viewer to consider the nature of Australian masculinity. The chasm between the object itself and the effect it was meant to have was so extraordinary that I wondered if anyone would ever be able to straddle it. One of those times when the only bridge between the artwork and the outsider is a note. To the point where it feels to me as if the only reason he made the artwork was to give himself a reason to write two paragraphs explaining it.

I'm reminded of this quote from José Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, which I came across a while ago on Mills Baker's tumblr page --

Take stock of those around you and you will ... hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which will seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyse those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to the reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual us trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. Life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his ‘ideas’ are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defence of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality. The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those fantastic ‘ideas’ and looks life in the face, realises that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost. As this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost—he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground.

-- and I wonder if this should help me to explain the irritation, the itch, that I feel when I see artists on their labels saying that "My artwork prompts the viewer to do such and such," or "I have created an allegory of so and so," and then the relief when I come across a more open-handed note, like this one in the Intimate Exposure programme: "'Intimacy,' 'exposure' and electrical energy sources led them [the dancers] to an interest in physical ramifications of invisible threats on the body; they have contemplated nuclear technology, atomic theory, personification of weaponry and the sexuality of war."

Not, "We have created an allegory of atomic theory," or, "Our dance piece prompts the viewer to think about the sexuality of war," (and there's nothing like these stark declarations to make the audience say rebelliously, "Well it didn't make me think about that," or, "Like hell you have") but more humbly, wisely, and helplessly: "We have contemplated it."

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