03 July 2011

Figure-Ground Relationship

A few peripheral thoughts to crossed my mind while writing that prior post...

Inasmuch as the work of Philip Jeck and Christian Marclay involves specific technology and the products of a particular era, in the end it continues an aesthetic that dates back to the earlier part of the previous century. It can be traced back through a series of artworks made from junk and discarded material -- from Rauschenberg's "combines" to the décollages of Jacques Villeglé -- to a certain aestehetic sensibility that many would peg as distinctly Dadaist in origin.

I'm thinking specifically of Kurt Schwitters' series of Merz collages and assemblages, his paste-ups of detritus gathered from the streets of Hanover in the years after WWI. Tram tickets, old invoices, scraps of newspapers and advert posters, miscellaneous rubbish and bits of smashed or broken furniture -- each element a signifier of the structure and material workings of quotidian modern urban life. Yes, these works connect with Cubist notions of collage as a merging of art (the picture plane, the plasticity of paint, etc.) with items from everyday life, as well as with the Dadaist use of chance, randomness and the arbitrary in the creative process. That they were composed from waste and residuum additionally connotes the exchanges and the political economy that shape that modernity. It's of no small ironic significance that Schwitters' title for this series of work was derived from a random fragment of printed material that he used in an early collage -- Merz, truncated from kommerz (or from Commerzbank, depending on which account you trust).1

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Dadaist ideas have reemerged repeatedly throughout the past sixty years of art history, most notably making a grand re-emergence with the "Neo-Dada" work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns in the years immediately following the Second World War. Rauschenberg's "Erased de Kooning Drawing" of 1953 is widely regarded as a consumate Oedipal coup de grâce, the palimpsest for a new generation of emerging artists turning their backs on Abstract Expression -- saying "no thanks" to its romanticism and subjectivity, its agonistic interiority, its swaggering masculinity, etc.

All of which would make a perfect sense if Rauschenberg had bought the de Kooning drawing at auction before trying to destroy it.2 But instead he approached Willem de Kooning directly, told of him what he was aiming to do, and more or less asked him to collaborate on or contribute to the project. De Kooning agreed, selecting for the young artist a drawing that he guaranteed would require a lot of work to un-do. Several weeks and dozens of erasers later, Rauschenberg emerged with the finished product -- a sheet of paper on which a few smudges and markings from the original artwork remain faintly visible. But perhaps better to let Bob explain his actions for himself...

Some might describe the concept behind the work as being very "zen," but it was also one that firmly hinged on romantic faith in the nature of the creative act and artistic intent.3

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On the American Breakbeat compilation from back around the turn of this century, the short-lived, laptops-are-the-instruments-for-the-new-folk-music duo of Alejandra & Underwood turned up to supply the outing's most incongruous (and rewarding) track, "Erased Aphex Twin, After Rauschenberg." The track was an as-promised affair -- four minutes and fifty-one seconds of silence, occasionally interrupted by murky, fleeting peek-a-boo granules of melodic IDM. (The source material may've been "Xtal," if memory serves). The random, sporadic fragments of sound become more teasingly frequent as the track progresses, coalescing into something graspable or recognizable in the final few seconds -- just in time for the the original tune's denouement, with the fade-out/wind-down remaining more- or less intact.

In some ways, the track is the opposite of the Rauschenberg's from which it takes it premise. Whether it meant as a pugnacious defacement of a widely-hailed (or perhaps overrated, depending on your point of view) artist of the day, I have my doubts. If anything, it was more of an agnostic response to all the inflated talk in the 1990s about "future music" and the supposed fidelity and permanence of digital media. Files get corrupted, data gets lost, and art -- often fueled by the desire to surprise and intrigue -- can't be so easily prescribed.

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1. This is merely one way to read the work. By some accounts, Schwitters was an aesthete to the core. So much so that his efforts to network with the Berlin Dadaists were spurned early on, with (reputedly) Richard Huelsenbeck later commenting that he couldn't stand the sight of Schwitters' "bourgeois face." For Schwitters, the Merz work was as much about liberating the varied fragments from their original context, thus permitting them to transcend their intended purpose/use-value and operate as purely visual elements.

2. In this respect, I'd argue that the work is one of the most commonly misread works of 20th century art, perhaps only second to Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q..

3. Somewhat similar to Rauschenberg's comments about his own ideas behind "Erased de Kooning": During my undergrad days, I had a painting instructor who -- when discussing the presence of "graffiti"-like elements in work I was doing -- said that he'd sometimes entertained the hypothetical question about whether it was possible for an artists to "vandalize his/her own work." I didn't have the heart to point out to him that such a thing begs all sorts of brambly aesthetic questions about the nature of "authorial intention," but that it was theoretically impossible due to the way that it ultimately involves the issue of property.

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