Alex Wisser


Month: May, 2010

Decorating Loos

by Alex Wisser

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artists: Adrian Gebers, Alex Pye, Alex Wisser, Audrey Newton, Clare Johnston, Crystal Skolnick, Emma Anderson, Francesca Mataraga, Georgie Pollard, Goran Tomic, Huw Lewis, Kate Mackay, Laura Gamio, Mamadada, Pineapple Park, Susannah Williams, Todd McCoy, Victoria Waghorn

Dec­o­rat­ing Loos explored the aes­thetic impulse through the prism of one of its most basic forms – the desire to embell­ish the lava­tory walls with the mark of our dis­tracted fancy.  It did this quite lit­er­ally through the con­struc­tion of 15 toi­let cubi­cles in the gallery, each of which was given to an artist to “dec­o­rate” accord­ing to their prac­tice.  The result was 15 immer­sive envi­ron­ments, each draw­ing on dif­fer­ent medi­ums, gen­res, and sub­ject mat­ter – from video and per­for­mance to instal­la­tion, paint­ing and draw­ing – each a dis­crete world of imag­i­nary prac­tice, and all exist­ing in intense prox­im­ity to one another.  The instal­la­tion was intended to inter­ro­gate the value of aes­thetic endeavor by super­im­pos­ing advanced con­tem­po­rary art prac­tice onto the much den­i­grated act of pub­lic toi­let van­dal­ism, ask­ing what is the rela­tion­ship between these two activ­i­ties?  Are they so dif­fer­ent, and if so how?

At the heart of its enquiry is a wry ref­er­ence to the Mod­ernist archi­tect Adolph Loos, who equated dec­o­ra­tion with bar­bar­ity and the progress of cul­ture with the grad­ual erad­i­ca­tion of the orna­men­tal from cul­tural pro­duc­tion.  He wrote stri­dently against the dec­o­ra­tive urge.  He con­sid­ered it to be a prim­i­tive cul­tural prac­tice that moder­nity strove to over­come in its progress towards a ratio­nal, effi­cient, and orderly soci­ety adorned only with the clean lines of func­tion and the smooth planes of rea­son.  At stake is the sense of authen­tic­ity, of the capac­ity of art to carry the unadorned truth of its sub­ject, to give us some access to it’s real­ity, free from the signs of an explicit inten­tion to influ­ence or seduce us in it’s appre­hen­sion.  Dec­o­rat­ing Loos makes no attempt to resolve the ten­sion between the artis­tic and the dec­o­ra­tive, but only to stage it’s con­flict and ask what it might mean in an era that is no longer the high moder­nity of Loos, but is also no longer the post-modernity that attempted to super­sede it.

Decorating Loos was a joint curatorial project by Marrickville Art Lab (Alex Wisser and Georgina Pollard)

Merlin Carpenter “The Opening”

by Alex Wisser

Mer­lin Carpenter’s “The Open­ing” is in fact an art open­ing.  Usu­ally staged at an up-market gallery, the event takes place dur­ing the “pri­vate view” that is held prior to the pub­lic open­ing, and reserved for col­lec­tors likely to pur­chase works.  The gallery walls are hung with blank can­vases, the fine qual­ity of which is attested to in the media release mate­r­ial and com­mented on in the reviews.  The guests are left to wait until they become impa­tient and uncom­fort­able.  At this point Car­pen­ter enters car­ry­ing a bucket of black paint that he then uses to splash abu­sive, lurid, and even puerile state­ments of protest across the pris­tine can­vases and gallery walls. He then leaves and the can­vases are sold for upwards of $40,000 each.

At first glance, this work will appear as either a clever though defeatist protest against the money dri­ven cyn­i­cism of the art world or as an equally clever exploita­tion of its con­di­tions.  The assump­tion of either one of these posi­tions almost imme­di­ately relin­quishes its sin­gu­lar or unary con­di­tion to a creep­ing aware­ness of the endur­ing pres­ence of the other.  In other words, it presents as a para­dox – an expres­sion of eth­i­cal out­rage that is at the same time an act of cyn­i­cal opportunism.

The two sides of this para­dox are not merely lay­ered one on top of the other, but folded into each other.  The insult thrown on the can­vas “Die, col­lec­tor scum” is ren­dered more pow­er­ful, more den­i­grat­ing by the fact that the col­lec­tor, com­pelled as he is by mar­ket (and cer­tainly cul­tural) forces, will pay $40,000 of his own money to receive the insult.  The trans­ac­tion ren­ders the col­lec­tor servile and abject in the extreme – to pay so high a price to have some­one spit in his face.  But the para­dox con­tin­ues, because if viewed from the other side, from the posi­tion of the col­lec­tor the trans­ac­tion looks very dif­fer­ent.  If we imag­ine the paint­ing hang­ing on a collector’s wall, over­look­ing a din­ner party of his art col­lec­tor friends, its sig­nif­i­cance is very much trans­formed.  It would hang there as a tro­phy, a tri­umph, an emblem of the sophis­ti­ca­tion and cap­i­tal prowess of the col­lec­tor who has been able to pur­chase the out­rage of his enemy, and in a sense stuff and mount it on his wall.  It would be quite humor­ous actu­ally, in a din­ner party kind of way, to see this insult so humil­i­ated on the wall of its intended target.

What Car­pen­ter has done, is to per­form the entire art world cir­cuit from pro­duc­tion to dis­tri­b­u­tion in a sin­gle move­ment, col­laps­ing the struc­tural antin­omy between artist and col­lec­tor that sup­ports it, thus pre­sent­ing the con­tra­dic­tion at the heart of its func­tion­ing.  It is an almost clas­si­cal act of decon­struc­tion – the two poles of oppo­si­tion, each depen­dant on its dif­fer­ence from the other for its own iden­tity, are col­lapsed, made to stand at the same place, thus ren­der­ing the entire trans­ac­tion inca­pable of sus­tain­ing mean­ing.  By clos­ing the gap between artist and col­lec­tor, Car­pen­ter fore­closes the space within which the pos­si­bil­ity for trans­gres­sion is con­ceived, and value cre­ated before being trans­formed through its pur­chase into pres­tige, lux­ury, com­mod­ity fetish, etc.  That the trans­ac­tion still occurs, despite its impos­si­bil­ity, is per­haps the most pow­er­ful affect of the entire per­for­mance – the impres­sion of the art world as a liv­ing corpse.

But this work’s reflec­tion on the art world goes beyond an iso­lated con­sid­er­a­tion of the poten­tial for protest to a more uni­ver­sal reflec­tion of con­tem­po­rary art in its cap­i­tal­ist con­text.   In fact, slo­gans are not the only things Car­pen­ter slops onto the can­vases. Many of them receive only crude ges­tural strokes and splat­ters, rough par­o­dies of abstract expres­sion­ism.  Car­pen­ter even calls the can­vases “Black Paint­ings”, con­flat­ing the deep pes­simism of their func­tion­ing with an all too obvi­ous ref­er­ence to the move­ment of for­mal purifi­ca­tion that led many mod­ernist painters to reduce the sur­face of the can­vas to a black field.

At stake here, as always, is the com­pe­ti­tion of val­ues.  On the one hand, the val­ues expressed or man­i­fested in the work of art and on the other hand there is exchange value, the dom­i­nant value of Cap­i­tal­ism.   The com­pe­ti­tion is of course uneven.  Exchange value, like it or not, reg­u­lates and deter­mines the cir­cu­la­tion of cul­ture.  It is also a very dif­fer­ent kind of value because it is empty, and has no mean­ing or value in itself, but serves only as a medium of con­ver­sion and exchange between other val­ues.  Con­vert­ing the value of a work of art to its exchange value ren­ders it rel­a­tive and ulti­mately alien­able.  By putting a price on a tran­scen­dent value, you destroy the absolute nature of that value, and place the power of money above it.   That cit­i­zen of dying Rome, Gaius Petro­n­ius Arbiter put it best:

“men whose one idea is to pile up the dol­lars can­not bear that oth­ers should have a nobler creed than they live by them­selves. So they spite all lovers of lit­er­a­ture in every pos­si­ble way, to put them into their proper place– below the money-bags.”

The peren­nial strug­gle of the artist to resist and defy the com­mod­ity sta­tus of his/her work is bound directly to the defense of its value as art, and iron­i­cally the price that a work will demand depends on the gen­uine­ness of those val­ues it is meant to man­i­fest.  A Rothko, for instance, could not demand the price it does, if it could not sus­tain the high seri­ous­ness of the dis­course that cir­cu­lates around it.  If it could not sus­tain the man­i­fes­ta­tion of those val­ues it is said to con­tain; if it were imme­di­ately reducible to the sta­tus of com­mod­ity, of kitsch, who would want to buy it?  What makes it valu­able in terms of exchange is exactly that which resists exchange – the more tran­scen­dent, the more authen­tic, gen­uine, unique the work of art; the more desir­able it becomes and thus the higher the price tag.  If the trans­ac­tion can be sus­tained, the rela­tion­ship is inverted: it is then the exchange value that con­fers and main­tains the pres­tige and impor­tance of the work.  It becomes seri­ous, and valu­able, and wor­thy of our close atten­tion because it costs so much to own.

In fact it can be argued that Green­ber­gian for­mal­ism is no more than a mythic strat­egy (in the sense of the myth as a syn­thetic means of rec­on­cil­ing irrec­on­cil­able con­flicts within a soci­ety) for rec­on­cil­ing the tran­scen­dent value invested on the sur­face of the can­vas with the sta­tus of the object it makes up as a com­mod­ity.  The her­metic frame of for­mal­ism iso­lates the autotelic tran­scen­dent pic­ture plane from the world in which the paint­ing hangs as an object amongst oth­ers, and from which dan­gles that sig­ni­fier of its poten­tial cor­rup­tion, a price tag.  This strat­egy main­tains the ‘higher’ val­ues of the art object while per­mit­ting it to be bought and sold in the process of its’ cir­cu­la­tion.  In fact, many of the black can­vases of for­mal­ism were the nth degree of this impulse to purify the pic­ture plane of any ref­er­ence to, or con­ti­nu­ity with the world in which the paint­ing stands.

Car­pen­ter mocks this fic­tion by paint­ing his abstracts across both the can­vas and the wall on which it hangs.  He even comes to call one of his later shows “Intrin­sic Value”, com­ment­ing directly in his press releases on the rela­tion­ship of the art mar­ket to the cur­rent finan­cial crisis:

“A Matisse is still her­alded by the auc­tion houses as being of ‘intrin­sic value’. For the con­tem­po­rary art scene this implies find­ing a source of value untouched by the recent spec­u­la­tive mad­ness, whether it’s paint­ing or crit­i­cal authen­tic­ity. Mean­while, with a gnaw­ing sense of dread, cap­i­tal­ists are look­ing for a way to rebuild prof­its in the depression.“

While he quite cogently sug­gests that the ‘intrin­sic’ value of the Matisse is its abil­ity to sus­tain its exchange value in times of eco­nomic hard­ship, he is not iden­ti­cal to the posi­tion he takes in order to say so.  There is a sense of pos­ture and impos­ture that is inescapable within the con­text from which he is writ­ing.  i.e. he is speak­ing from within the media release intended to pro­mote and sell his own works and thus, no mat­ter how accu­rate or true his descrip­tion, it is imme­di­ately impli­cated in the process it describes.  His cri­tique is in itself an ‘intrin­sic’ value which jus­ti­fies the $40,000 invest­ment col­lec­tors will make in his paintings.

After all “The Open­ing” is a per­for­mance.  In fact, it is per­for­mance art in the high­est degree, because, far from per­form­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the art world, he per­forms a direct pre­sen­ta­tion of it’s func­tion­ing.  The per­for­mance is the actual pro­duc­tion and sale of art works, com­plete with the exchange of large sums of money for the art objects.  Art and the world are indis­cernible.   In this dimen­sion of his work we see his (men­tor) Mar­tin Kip­pen­berger, who pio­neered the strat­egy of “self per­for­mance”, of the artist per­form­ing the var­i­ous posi­tions from which they make art, gen­er­at­ing an essen­tial inde­ter­mi­nacy between the ‘authen­tic’ self of the artist and the strat­egy employed in self pre­sen­ta­tion and pre­sen­ta­tion of the work.  As George Baker points out in his essay on Kip­pen­berger in Art Forum, that he would often assume two dia­met­ri­cally opposed posi­tions that would can­cel each other out.

“In just this way, Kip­pen­berger, espe­cially in his paint­ings, used the lan­guage of cita­tion and appro­pri­a­tion to sus­pend his own work inco­her­ently, locat­ing it between the most log­i­cally incom­pat­i­ble artis­tic posi­tions staked out by his imme­di­ate predecessors.”

This was also Carpenter’s ear­lier method, paint­ing pop­u­lar media images on abstract expres­sion­is­tic backgrounds.

Car­pen­ter man­ages to bring the two sides of this equa­tion as close together as any­one since Warhol, when he dis­carded the scru­ple of con­tain­ment sep­a­rat­ing the value of the art work as art and the exchange dri­ven value of the com­mod­ity.  I can only imag­ine that his Brillo Boxes in their day would have pro­duced the same sense of incredulity and ver­tigo that The Open­ing pro­duces today.  Only of course, Warhol’s Brillo Boxes weren’t con­ceived as an insult to, but a cel­e­bra­tion of com­mod­ity cul­ture, and they weren’t imme­di­ately snapped up for a tidy sum.  In this we can find rea­son to assert Warhol as Carpenter’s antecedent, though Warhol never took it so far as to ren­der the trans­ac­tion null.  He played the com­mod­ity game bril­liantly, and both the art and glam­our indus­tries prof­ited from it.  Carpenter’s work offers both sides noth­ing but a sense of their own des­o­la­tion – an effect due in no small part to the lack of insti­tu­tional resis­tance it faces, a con­di­tion, which we can credit in part to Warhol.  Min­i­mal­ism, on the other hand, far more earnestly attempted to dis­card the dis­tinc­tion between art and the world and paid for it by the pro­duc­tion of works that, despite their sever­ity and high seri­ous­ness, were defense­less against absorp­tion into their com­mod­ity sta­tus at the cost of their hard won austerity.

Karl Marx, speak­ing of the capac­ity of Cap­i­tal­ism to dis­solve value wrote “Every­thing solid melts into air, all that is holy is pro­faned, and man is at last com­pelled to face with sober senses, his real con­di­tions of life, and his rela­tions with his kind.”   He saw this destruc­tive power as serv­ing the cause of com­mu­nism by clear­ing away the foun­da­tions of false con­scious­ness that stood in its way.  I think we know now that Cap­i­tal­ism, and the forces it com­mands, serves only Cap­i­tal­ism, and far from clear­ing the grounds of knowl­edge and belief for the lay­ing of the firm foun­da­tion of a truly social­ist state, it must con­tinue to pro­duce value only to pro­fane it, estab­lish laws only to trans­gress them, achieve solid­ity only to dis­solve it.  From the sta­tic model of tra­di­tional soci­ety with its eter­nal val­ues, vouch­safed and trans­mit­ted by tra­di­tion, moder­nity gives way to a dynamic model of mean­ing that is caught in a con­tin­u­ous process of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion, a con­tin­u­ous state of com­ing into being and pass­ing out of being, described by Deleuze and Guatarri as anal­o­gous to schiz­o­phre­nia, and for which they claimed that cap­i­tal­ism is the night­mare of every soci­ety that came before it.

What role, what posi­tion has Car­pen­ter assumed in this process?  Is he the van­guard artist, trans­gress­ing the lim­its estab­lished by the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, gen­er­at­ing new mean­ings and pro­vid­ing new poten­tials, or is he the cyn­i­cal oppor­tunist, pro­fan­ing the essen­tial val­ues, the authen­tic out­rage his can­vases carry by the price tag they demand?  What­ever the answer, he’s not ask­ing enough.

NO PEOPLE – Curatorial Statement

by Alex Wisser

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artists: Damian Dillon, Ella Dreyfus, Georgia Blackie, Georgina Koureas, Goran Tomic, Hayley Hill, jason White, Jenny Evans, Jon Reid, Kurt Sorenson, Lena Obergfell, Marcela Vilaplana, Marieka Walsh, Melissa Howe, Melissa Verschelde, Polly Thornton, Alex Papasavvas and Clare Devlin-Mahoney, Rachael Everitt, Sarah Versitano, Sue Storry, Thomas C. Chung, Yvette Hamilton, Zachary Handley-Garben

The idea for a show of pho­to­me­dia that excluded the human form came out of two related frus­tra­tions I have with this medium.  The first is the dom­i­nance of the human fig­ure within the com­mer­cial and pop­u­lar pho­to­graphic indus­try and the sec­ond is the self-congratulations with which much con­tem­po­rary the­ory and some of the art based in it reach unthink­ing, almost absolute con­clu­sions on the anthro­po­mor­phic nature of pho­to­me­dia.  The two issues are related in that the for­mer insists within a mate­r­ial eco­nomic and cul­tural con­text upon the impor­tance of the human fig­ure while the lat­ter insists within a the­o­ret­i­cal and dis­cur­sive con­text that the human fig­ure is not essen­tial as every instance of pho­to­me­dia is itself an expres­sion of anthro­po­mor­phic pro­jec­tion and con­cern.  I find myself trapped between two posi­tions, nei­ther of which ade­quately describes my own rela­tion­ship to the pho­to­graphic — a rela­tion­ship I find to be pro­foundly ambiva­lent, uncer­tain and paradoxical.

On the one side I wanted to mount a show that explored and cel­e­brated the scope of poten­tial within con­tem­po­rary pho­to­me­dia for mak­ing mean­ing in the absence of a human sub­ject and on the other hand I wanted to exam­ine the capac­ity of the pho­to­graph to sus­tain the deci­sion, desire, or will of its maker as well as to resist and defy the human motives and invest­ments that went into its mak­ing.  The ques­tion I sup­pose I am ask­ing is “How human is a pho­to­graph?”  Is it as human as a paint­ing say?  To what extent is a pho­to­graph no more than the sum of the deci­sions, invest­ments, pro­jec­tions and sub­jec­tions of the human being either mak­ing or view­ing it?  And if it is more than a trace of the will and desire of its maker or viewer, what is the nature of that “more”?  Is it any­thing so unspeak­able as the “world”, or “real­ity”, or “truth” or is it just another means of weav­ing fic­tions?  If the cam­era is not, as we have dis­cov­ered, “the pen­cil of nature”, does that auto­mat­i­cally mean that it is the pen­cil of man?

The para­dox of the pho­to­graph, and by exten­sion pho­to­me­dia at large is that the image pro­duced is ulti­mately an index, a phys­i­cal trace of sur­faces reflect­ing light in the world pro­duced through the func­tion­ing of a machine.  At the same time, this machine sits in the hands of a human being, guided by the human eye, manip­u­lated by human intel­li­gence, and finally inserted within a con­text of con­ven­tional sig­ni­fy­ing prac­tices.   Ulti­mately, the cam­era is a por­tal device, exist­ing some­where between the sub­ject and the world.  Its prod­uct is derived from both, but in what mea­sure can­not be deter­mined.  This, for me, is its essen­tial mys­tery and its tran­scen­dent value as a medium for art: it belongs to the unknow­able bor­der between our selves and the world and in rare instances can speak pow­er­fully on this rela­tion­ship, if only to make us expe­ri­ence our own inabil­ity to dis­cern one from the other, fact from fic­tion, idea from man­i­fes­ta­tion. The fact that the premise for NO PEOPLE is neg­a­tive meant that the show would hang together on what it was not rather than what it was, and left it open to a wide field of sub­mis­sions.  I attempted to rep­re­sent this scope by cre­at­ing as broad a sur­vey as pos­si­ble, includ­ing works that I felt var­i­ously sup­ported or chal­lenged the ideas behind the show.  And yet, despite the broad field, there was also a fas­ci­nat­ing cohe­sion (with notable excep­tions) to much of the work that seemed to cen­tre around the fig­ure of the house in a con­tin­uum that pro­gressed from the domes­tic, and inte­rior toward the indus­trial or urban and nat­ural exterior.

The fact is that you can’t take a pho­to­graph of a gen­er­al­ity: you can’t take a pho­to­graph of the gen­eral con­cept: house, you must take a pho­to­graph of an actual, par­tic­u­lar house (how­ever that might later become gen­er­al­ized). Most of these works are of a sin­gle city, and beyond that a sin­gle coun­try.  I like the nec­es­sary nature of this con­stric­tion because it is par­tic­u­lar to pho­to­me­dia.  No mat­ter how an artist may ren­der their work imag­i­nary, the nature of this medium means they must traf­fic with the actual, the par­tic­u­lar, the real.  While this dia­logue is to be found in all art, the index­i­cal nature of the pho­to­graphic ren­ders it par­tic­u­larly acute — dra­ma­tiz­ing the con­flict that rages between the imag­i­nary and the real and con­fronting us with our need or desire to know one from the other.  For me, to reach one con­clu­sion is the same as reach­ing the other — I much pre­fer to wit­ness the para­dox­i­cal com­merce that passes between the two sides.

I would like to thank the par­tic­i­pat­ing artists for all that they have taught me through the gen­er­ous pur­suit of their prac­tice, and for the oppor­tu­nity they have given me to indulge my obses­sions and explore the objects of my fas­ci­na­tion on a field far larger than I could pro­vide for myself.