09 Sep

Engagement II – Marclay’s Media Metonymy

It is indeed rare for three major venues of art in one city to exhibit the work of a single artist simultaneously. Even in New York City, that metropolis whose many art spaces might accommodate such a possibility – and recently has – there is more to read into this confluence than assertive artistic promotion, but rather, this triple action must be taken as a more or less full embrace of something about what the artist’s work represents, as a compass on curatorial and art sensibility at large. More poignant still is that the protagonist of this interest, Christian Marclay, is not a visual artist by conventional definition; while he has created photographic and video documentation; his chosen medium is not visual at all, and perhaps it is not even a medium as much as a practice, which is perhaps where the crux of city’s aesthetic attention lies and points to what we might briefly consider in this extraordinary co-optation.

If a work of art functions best when it allows us to engage it with the dual galvanism of uniqueness and familiarity, it is because what its aesthetic frame excludes is what cues the viewer on what is to be read back into the work. More relevant to Marclay’s practice, what is included within the frame of an art object is the work’s content; what is excluded is often determined by limitations inherent in the chosen medium. This terminus enables an experience of crucial duality between what is perceived and what is felt, what is sensed and what is imagined. It is a boundary that Marclay, as maven of the phonograph more than any other mechanism, navigates. His principal strategy could be called the metonymic filibuster, designed as it consistently seems to be, to take part of a work for the whole, thereby suspending the full performance of what an expressive medium provides. The tactical act is twofold, first involving a partial or incomplete selection of aural or visual work amenable to sensory reception via the photograph or phonograph and then impeding its reception by perturbing or hindering its some of its playback or display.

First in this exhibition trifecta is photography at the Paula Cooper Gallery, where the recent Marclay solo show named Fourth of July featured large-format torn color photographs of an eponymous parade in New York City that the artist photographed in 2005. The set chosen for display comprised seven portraits – if we could call them that, for we never see any of them in entirety – of members of a marching band, for the photos were torn into various shapes, each of which prevents us from seeing more than a fragment of the action. In the photographic medium, the image is always the site of reception, but when its physical reduction by tearing is so severe that its function as a representamen of the world is negated, we are impelled to lay equal focus on the boundary, the frame, such that the shape of the image whose fragmentation enters its formal dialogue with what is captured photographically. Denying the holism of a scene upon which the eye depends, these works, operate as anti-portraits, or at best, as scenes of scenes, which is to say, as subsamples, a term whose exploitation Marclay’s musical vocabulary also understands.

Thus to imagine that this collection is a photographic show is to misread the larger aesthetic operating here; it is one in whose structure the medium is presented in staged engagement with something outside of it, and this engagement – here, both physical and retinal – identifies the locus of the reading bridging two distinct phenomenal worlds. The fact that this engagement aesthetic – this selection of, bridging across, and playing through media – is now a prevalent artistic practice for a wide swath of artists, a kind of first class object itself as a logical step after collage, marks it as a historical point of departure from legacies of art making that precede it.

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Figure 1. Christian Marclay, Untitled (from the series Fourth of July), 2005. c-print, 32 x 31 1/2 inches.
Image courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery.

Similarly, there is Festival, a Marclay mid-career retrospective literally and figuratively staged at the Whitney Museum, where form and genre are subject to a prodigal variety of treatments. Looking as much as art school classroom as rehearsal space at an experimental theater company, the Whitney show is a textbook case of how to structure the engagement aesthetic between form and frame. Enclosed video and exhibition spaces meld into a larger common area that is itself reconfigurable into quarters by the enormous black curtains that are selectively drawn closed during live performances by musicians playing some of Marclay’s instruments. In this open plan, inscribed through the entire span of one wall painted as a massive blackboard is an array of musical staff lines with chalk holders allowing visitors to “compose” what the performers might wish to read. That it is a pyrrhic gesture, since the wall is not positioned so that any player could easily see it, is no less crucial to the engagement aesthetic that the exhibition pursues, since the symbolic overlay of players using Marclay’s instruments, performing to the visitors, ostensibly interpreting their ‘compositional cues’ crosses several worlds of language, music inscription, and reader response to the exhibit, which in turn feeds back to the potential of live performance – each line of engagement speaks through its own language, frame, medium, and form.

The third deployment of Marclay work in New York City, part of the Haunted exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, is in the company of a larger undertaking organized around the theme, increasingly topical, of part-whole relations investigating how a medium that captures only a portion of experience – itself modulated through artistic voice – can reconstitute larger memory and meaning. While the principal medium for Haunted is photographic, space was made at the top floors of the museum for three video works whose identity as well as implicit partnership impels greater reminiscential allure than the rest of the show’s static constituents.

The thematic concern around the Haunted show, which I would term the notion of a “conceptual afterimage” where photographic media resuscitate in their engagement with memory as an aesthetic function (rather than just one of information retrieval), is very much Marclay’s, as when, in his contribution to the show, the single-channel video work entitled Looking for Love, he creates juxtapositions of memory in the LP records and similar analog media, juxtapositions that are immediately set off to destroy memory or undermine the conventional aesthetic experience for which they were created. And this, he accomplishes by literally going against the grain of the medium’s own structure and materials of reproduction.

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Figure 2. Christian Marclay, Looking for Love, 2008.
Single channel video.  Image courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery.

One reading for both shows, the Marclay festival at the Whitney and the Guggenheim’s Haunted, could circle around the interface between the potentials of aesthetic perception and the production of sensory triggers for them. In the case of the Haunted exhibition, the production is photographic; with Marclay it is aural. Each form of production is thus anchored to departures from the particular character of specific media – the camera and the phonograph, respectively. But this interface reading between reception and production – the notion of memory woven as  the target of media production, whose sounds or images evoke references to the problematic past and our inability to reproduce it objectively – is only a cursory possibility for the total phenomenon of this larger relationship between self and media, a relationship that has come to dictate the preponderant conditions of art today in which new media choices – Serra’s cor-ten steel ellipses, Jessica Stockholder’s retail plastics, Thomas Hirschhorn’s low-grade material enclosures, Ilya Kabakov’s dreamy closet-like rooms, Rachel Whiteread’s blocks of architectural forms without faces, Tracy Emin’s domestic squalor installations, Damien Hirst’s taxidermy of the grotesque, Matthew Barney’s post-pagan carnival performances – all reflect an engagement between the status of art and the presence of the self, each contingent and seeming separate but with an ineffable connection to the other. More germane to the phenomenon is a different departure from the convention whose historical reliance on the figurative and representational became tied to production practices that both artist and audience understood. That aesthetics until the late 19th century, therefore, was decided on singular qualitative bases of taste meant that subjective and objective – that the experience of art and the quality of art – were codetermined, decided together and simultaneously. It meant that art was a signifier of society because it was a matter of universal consensus, although this naïve sheen occluded an asymmetry that has augmented out toward all of contemporary art, for, like two circles that never overlap, the production of the work was entirely dependent on the artist, while the production of interpretation lay completely with the viewer, and today, this equation is no longer stable.

This change has not merely affected art; it has become by and large the principal mode of experiencing of it, both via artistic production and the assumptions of viewerly reception. The hermetic uniqueness of these phenomenal spheres is gone; they are no longer distinct or even sequential, now instead emerging together in single larger readings of artmaking, whose execution and context become dependent no less on audience than artist. One now self-evident factor here is that interpretation is no longer a matter of consensus – since the earliest Cubist work, or the subsequent articulations of abstraction variously adonized from Picasso to Rauschenberg, such work challenges the academic categorization of genres like landscape, still life, or portraiture. That these historically elaborated categories have lost ontological weight is evident in how both the schooled and unschooled eye become equally confounded. Another factor emerges from the problems of boundary in works whose space, or time can no longer be determined. And a third factor, which should be called aesthetic nominalism, points to the new practice of built-in measures against reproducibility of the work, which is uniquely performative. These are frequently present in a dual mode of existence, as indications, templates, or instructions for execution on one hand, and as specific but ever-unique instantiations in distinct occasions on the other. The results of these divagations from the cogency of convention have been given simple names, perhaps “pluralism” being the most common, if least informative. If, as we know, it is clear that, in this variety, a century of art has gradually increased its proclivity to challenge sensory expectations against conventional modes of experience and historical categorization, it must be equally obvious that, in concert, the many varieties of this challenge reposition the act of reception from something passively convenient to that which, in order to complete the work, must engage it in new ways. Artistic sensibility knew that in order for this to happen, for the viewer to enter the space of production, standards of aesthetic convention had to be sacrificed. To be sure, it is not that aesthetics has been purged from modern and contemporary art, but rather that it has become redefined, such that the familiar mode of its experience, which might be summarized as judgment from perception, is now less crucial to the experience of a work than the sense of, and commitment to, activating its world as constructed, as presented, and as possible at this moment more or less independent of any other, so that in order for the work to exist, it must exist now, that is, without necessarily any reference either to a history or a future. To the extent that this now is constructed by the overlap of the two circles of artistic possibility signified by the act of production or construction and reception or interpretation, artist and audience are led to collude in the contract of artmaking, and the final outcome forms a new experience connected less to disembodied universals like beauty or truth than to the immediate confirmation of one’s own being by injection of a participatory co-articulation with the artist of the work’s statement that, replacing the old universals, becomes that new form of artistic value that can be called the engagement aesthetic.

As it is no longer possible to manage memory without managing media, we must consider anew the critical question of where memory operates. With the revived age of enlightenment that accompanies the Freudian psychological model, the idea of repressed energy has moved from its earlier center in narratives of religion, and later even fluid dynamics, to ones based on a reliance on the function of the mind itself. In this, the problems of memory have been exposed; operating in the mind, its original repository creates a character of memory that is meaning-laden but flawed in structure. In this place, memory is, for example, woven into other memory, and these associations are not accidental, instead being motivated by a subconscious process where incompleteness must be augmented by imagination, such that recall is not merely informational but reflective and serves as description of the thinker. An aesthetic line connects this phenomenon – Freud’s principal insight – with the one that Marclay evokes in an unrelenting part-whole engagement within and against emotive associations with the media of memory and recollection.