Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Mid-Career Crisis

Here is a familiar predicament for artists of a certain age.

For many years the artist X has been internationally successful making a particular work, Y, almost unvarying, perhaps quite narrowly defined. Everyone is tired of Y, including X. We’ve seen it once too often, it’s boring, the artist has no ideas etc. Yet when X initiates a change, making Z, nobody likes it. There is talk of selling out, of working for a market, of failure of nerve. Everyone is glad when Z is quietly dropped and X goes back to making Y.

Now X can be discovered by a new generation, hailed as a pioneer, an inspiration, an artist of integrity. Although X is universally applauded, receives great critical acclaim, a place in the history books, actually no one is interested in the work, no one talks about it or thinks about it, no one goes to see the retrospective shows.

Although this may apply to a style or reportoire of practices rather than a life-time project, the publicly allowable range of digression may be very small. And this attitude occurs strongly (among artists as much as collectors, dealers and arts consumers) in a field where freedom and innovation are assumed to be definitive.

The crazy (perhaps cruel) notion that an artist should do one thing may be more widespread than it seems.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Staying Single

“Purity of heart is to will one thing” – Kierkegaard

Although the telos of infinity in Roman Opalka’s project might seem to commit him to a single path, there is no real reason, other than the sheer impossibility of the task, to make this assumption, since there is no necessary connection between infinity and a commitment to it. After all, he might have painted numbers in the morning, every morning, while making some entirely different art work in the afternoon.

Since singleness is, therefore, not internal to this project, it must have come from elsewhere – no doubt, from a will to singleness or “purity of heart”. But already, if this is the case, Opalka is double ! There is the work, zero to infinity, which is one thing, and its uniqueness, or his tie to its uniqueness, which is another.

The work is thus inscribed with a double failure. In addition to the acknowledged failure to ever arrive at infinity, there is a fall from the purity or self-sufficiency of the work. Is commitment at the service of the work or is the work a mere occasion for commitment ? If not a doubleness, there is at least a doubt.

Maybe it is good to fail and to fail again. Like the impossibility of arriving at infinity, the distinct possibility of not keeping to the task is what gives the task its frisson. Perhaps Opalka’s success must be looked for elsewhere than in the rigour of his life-long project or his career-long fidelity to it. Perhaps it shines best in his acceptance of finitude, in the repeated exercise of volition.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ise Jingu

The wooden shrine at Ise, in Mie prefecture, Japan, the central site of the Shinto religion and an important focus for Japanese nationalism and dynastic authority, has been constantly rebuilt since the seventh century. Although there have been lapses in its long history, the preferred practice is for a ritual rebuilding every twenty years.

Beside the existing shrine, a space is left empty to provide a site for the new building. The old building is then taken down to leave an empty space in turn. Ise shrine thus continually alternates between these two spaces in an existential flicker-effect or instability of identity.

Unlike iconic Western buildings such as the pyramids or the Parthenon, which are massively material and enduring, Ise’s lighter structure summons an energy that must be constantly renewed in ritual practice. The gods are invited to take up a residence which is understood to be temporary, a flow of energy or power. While Western edifices are patched up or stand until they crumble, Ise’s ancient architecture is forever new, immediate and functional.

It is essential to the rebuilding process that no change, development or innovation is introduced into the fabric of the building. Each rebuilding imagines an origin to which it returns in the timeless acts of the ritual. Although small differences must occur over the centuries, the intention is always to return to the same.

You are neither there nor here. Like the vacant space beside the shrine which, far from being a pure negation, offers the possibility of the building’s renewal, a sense of identity must be constantly recovered from emptiness and repositioned in a vision of the same. Practice is not towards some final performance but a life long checking and affirming.

see “Japan-ness in Architecture”, Arata Isozaki, MIT Press 2011

photographs Eiji Watanabe

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


Absalon, Cellule 2, 1992

In 1992 the artist Absalon planned six structures, which he named ‘Cellules’. ‘I would like to make these cells my homes, in which to define my feelings, to cultivate my behaviors’, he explained. ‘These houses will be mechanisms of resistance to a society that prevents me from becoming what I must become.’

The Cellules were planned for six major cities: Paris, Zurich, New York, Tel Aviv, Frankfurt am Main and Tokyo. Two were realized.

One of these is currently installed in the voluminous, austere galleries of the Museum für Gegenwart at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. To enter Absalon’s home is a strange experience: the entire interior is less than ten metres square. You have to shuffle sideways to pass through the entry threshold. The walls, as well as the limited fixtures and fittings, are modernist white, illuminated by open windows that receive light from fluorescent strips hanging above the structure. There’s a living area to your left, with cupboards, table, stool and basin.There’s just enough room to turn around to see a tiny space containing a raised bed, with an adjoining shower/ toilet stall.

Absalon never lived long enough to fulfill his wish to live and travel between these six restricted cells. Nor did he ever claim that he would only produce one kind of work for the remainder of his life. Yet with this project he brings ‘living’ and ‘art’ into extreme, cramped proximity. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Beyond Aesthetics

Bas Jan Ader, I'm too sad to tell you, 1970

In Either/Or, Kierkegaard offers us a choice between the aesthetic and the ethical. Here the aesthetic is not necessarily confined to art, being instead the locus of perception, of experience or sensory immediacy. The aesthetic life is one of appreciation or deliberate enrichment of experience.

By contrast, to choose the ethical life is to go beyond self-interest and gratification, beyond the moment and its acquisitiveness, in the direction of the other, for the sake of the other. Freedom is the ability to break loose from self-concern. The ethical subject is capable of commitment, of postponing pleasure in response to a call.

While the life-time art project is hardly a commitment to the ethical life, it does seem to go beyond aesthetics, in Kierkegaard’s expanded sense of the term. Unless the project is glimpsed beyond its products or moments, the latter make little sense. The project rescues the artist from senseless immediacy. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Niele Toroni

Each member of BMPT (Buren, Mosset, Parmentier, Toroni – formed in 1966) chose an individual form or mark with which to contest issues of authorship, originality, commercialism, aesthetic consumerism or institutional relations.  Buren’s signature mark was the stripe, for Olivier Mosset it was the circle, for Michel Parmentier the striped monochrome.

Niele Toroni’s strategy was to make “imprints of a No 50 paintbrush repeated in regular intervals of 30cm”, a single motif he has continued to employ since 1967.

A form of reduced painting, this spare practice engages a series of apparent contradictions. The touch of the brush is at once generic and particular. No two brushstrokes can ever be identical yet their repetition diverts attention from individual mark making. The participation of the artist is necessary but his role is emptied of subjective content.

Like that of Sol LeWitt, much of the liveliness of Toroni’s work comes from the intersection of an idea and a place, but while LeWitt was a fertile producer of ideas for art Toroni has confined himself to one. He has rightly understood that if the place and the occasion changes then the idea can remain the same. If the motif is the same each time, then attention is brought to bear on the institutional or architectural frame.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Roger Ackling

"My intention was not to work metaphorically, or to illustrate, but paradoxically to set myself a task using parameters which seemed potentially limitless: time and space. I wanted to make a map, a visual belief structure that was a way forward for the hope that something which was non visual could become visual, something potentially meaningless would become meaningful."

Roger Ackling
4 February - 21 April 2012

Ingleby Gallery,
25 Calton Road
Edinburgh EH8 8DL

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Bob Law

From the late 1950s into the 70s, the English artist Bob Law made a series of large drawings and paintings in which a drawn rectangle closely follows the edges of the paper or canvas. Unruled, bearing all the imperfections of the artist’s hand, the rectangle often leans slightly to the right. While framing pictorial space, separating it from architectural or literal space, the rectangle also frames a void, or a depth of psychological projection.

Early examples of these works have the artist’s signature and date at the bottom right-hand corner, as in a traditional landscape, but in later drawings the signature is dropped, leaving only the date. If the artist or viewer is to be plunged into the void, then the signature will be too much of a counter weight, betraying a fear of vertiginous space. If identity is tracked across time, it may dissolve within time itself.

These large, empty canvases, identified by a crudely-painted date in the right-hand corner, make an interesting contrast with the date paintings of On Kawara. In Kawara’s work, the date has moved into the central position. It is painted in modernist sans-serif letters and numbers from which all trace of the artist’s hand has been eliminated. The issue here is time, not psychological space. It is a common property not an existential moment.

Why does the date remain in Law’s otherwise laconic paintings ? Would an anonymous, ruled rectangle not function at least as efficiently as a window on space ?  There seems to be a vestige of shamanic ritual here. Through concentration, the artist draws a temenos or sacred space, in a magical act within time. The date records an occasion of shamanic flight. 

Bob Law: A Retrospective is published by Ridinghouse 2011.