30 November 2011

'Under the Weight of Its Own Success'

Gail Day, writing about the exhibition "Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990" at the Victoria & Albert Museum (London) over at MetaMute...

"Sure, I found plenty of pleasures to revel in – vicarious and otherwise. Tapping toes to Talking Heads, snippets from Blade Runner and The Last of England, issues of The Face, a Buzzcock’s single, and reminders of the Hacienda: it was a retro fairground of an earlier life. Lots of stuff I'd thrown away. My own petty possessions and experiences of the '80s were raised to a second power under the museological gaze named 'postmodernism'. At least I had enjoyed using the commodities back then; with their fetish nature transmuted, they looked back at me from their cultic vitrines and display monitors. Interestingly, the temporal economies invoked by the items of popular culture (the mags, the films, the sounds, the looks) didn’t accord with those of the furniture and household objects. If coming across the former felt like rummaging at a jumble sale, the later was more like window shopping in one of today’s emporia, with their Alessi franchises, devoted to designer products. Not all commodities are equal. Of course, for anyone of my generation, the show inevitably had a melancholic underpinning. But, irrespective of when we were born, Postmodernism treated the reminder of death as a deliberate leitmotif. [Charles] Jencks' words, stencilled on the wall, set the scene from the outset: if modernism is dead, 'we might as well enjoy picking over the corpse'. Later, Derek Jarman's voice-over was used to echo the sense of historical caesura and closure: 'Even our protests were hopeless'."

Though I haven't seen it, I was dubious about the exhibition when I saw it announced some months ago, and Day's review gets to the why of those misgivings. It was always a slippery matter, postmodernism -- meaning one thing in literature, another with architecture, and yet another in visual art; with a limited number of overlapping critical concepts to connect them all. A problem that Day addresses quite squarely, especially with:

"'Style and Subversion' was posed as the overarching 'ambiguity' – the all round refusal to be categorised – that was (allegedly) postmodernism. Postmodernism, we were told, was 'a new self-awareness about style itself'. But it transpired that Postmodernism, the show, reduced 'style' to an unreflexive, art-historical category which was used to pin down a period of 20 years: strange to see because, if the debates over postmodernity did one thing, it was to distinguish 'ism' from 'ity'."

But outside the realms of critical discourse and theory, one generally felt at the time that it -- "postmodern" -- amounted to little more than a buzzword. And admittedly trying to curatorially corral much of it into a coherent exhibit would be no easy task. Since you can't exhibit a novel, and seeing how so much of the art of the 1980s carries a tainted stink that continues to repel canonization, why not just shovel in fashion and jewelry and music videos instead? And really, as far as the 1980s are concerned, that seems the most appropriate thing to do. In which case, perhaps the most fitting name for such an exhibition would be: "Postmodernism -- It Was All Just a Bunch of Stuff."

29 November 2011

Beyond the Shock Box

Over at his own 555 Enterprises blog Timh recently had some thoughts about the Chris Burden piece I posted at the 1970s venue and cross-posted here. And he did an astute job of fleshing out some of the subtext, one of the implied underlying themes, of the piece -- connecting it to Stanley Milgram's famed social experiments concerning obedience to authority figures.

Since Timh doesn't have comments enabled on his blog, I e-mailed him directly with some additional thoughts and elaborations, which in turned prompted another response by way of a blog-post. With this second post, Timh incorporates my remarks and continues with his original line of thinking, making some very sharp observations in the process. I especially liked where it arrives in its final stretch, with its "If there is a deity in the art world, it is autonomy" extrapolation.

28 November 2011

As Nature Allows



I.       Place name: from the ancient Persian, home of fires. The Zoratsrian plume,
          the eruptive arcs of conflagrant fountains, the flame having burned for centuries,
          if not millenia, if not from the beginning of time. For an eternity.

          An eternity having ended soon enough, with its source siphoned out. Drawn off
          'to light, to lubricate, and paint all the world.' The blaze dwindling, dissipated,
          the Brahmins abandoning the temple. The temple then renovated, and left to the
          tourists, for whom the flame had to be piped back in, artificially. A domestic import,
          a diverted diversion, viewable each day between the hours of 9 and 6.

II.       While on the horizon the ever thickening, man-made forest burns — brighter and
           monumentally, daily darkening the sky.

III.      The sky darkened. Dark: the color (as such) of that (more or less) which is
           (so to speak) not there. That not spoken of, left unquantified. Reification in reverse.
           The world now fully lit and lubed and painted. Permeated and suffused at every level.
           The subtext  ungirding all narratives, the presence that can only be inferred. Energy:
           an agent of acceleration and expansion. Nothing, essentially, being the biggest part of
           everything — how the totality operates, and also how it ends. The essence unknown and
           unknowable, unseen and unseeable. Its presence only inferred, the light from distant bodies
           bending as it passes through.

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images: From "Oil Wells at Baku, Close View,"commonly
attributed to Auguste and Louis Lumière, c. 1898  { # }

26 November 2011

Three-Minute Zeroes

Over at his scratchpad blog, Simon's recently been doing a series about "shite bands that filled up the pages in Melody Maker" back in the late 1980s; MM being a publication Simon was at in his early days, and the late '80s being -- by his and others' reckoning -- "the era of bad (British) music."

All of which prompts me to recall a series I'd sort-of been thinking of doing for a while. A series that'll most likely be infrequent and probably very short-lived. A series that'll constitute me breaking my own format; but as I've already established, seeing how I'm the sole proprietor of this here thing I can do whatever I want. So, here we go. A series that for lack of any proper title is about Absolutely Inessential/Forgettable Artists Who Had Exactly One Perfect Song. And here's our first candidate...

As I recall, it was 1979 when this tune crept up the charts in the U.S.. Which was an interesting time to be listening to the radio. Y'see, it was wake of the Big Disco Crash -- with the hegemonic reign of disco being officially and finally OVER, and a backlash following in its wake. As a result, the pop charts got a bit eclectic for a while as people were definitely hungry to hear something other than disco and radio programmers were scrambling around cluelessly trying to come up with things to fill the void and scratch that itch. That's about the time that when Cheap Trick belatedly scored their first nationwide big radio hit, and that The Knack's "My Sharona" effectively became the certified Fuck-Disco-I-Wanna-Rock backlash anthem. D.C. Go-go had its first (and practically only) early moment in the sun as Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers' "Bustin' Loose" topped the Soul charts at around the same time. And how else to explain M's "Pop Muzik" rapidly becoming a number 1 hit on this side of the pond? An odd assortment of sounds and style floating around in the mainstream for a brief time, without any predicatbilty or apparent logic.

And then there was this song, which did a good job of Passing For Normal. Of course, it sounded like it'd had a lot of help, in terms of studio production -- lots of embellishments that help reassure the listener that everything was okay. There's the feigned muscularity of the electric guitar riffing, which sounded very much like an gratuitous afterthought or late addition. And the warmth of the organ, being played in a way that blandly reeked of West-Coast '70s Sophistication, which when combined with the strumming of the acoustic guitar might've almost made you think you were hearing a new Gerry Rafferty record. There were other added features, as well -- like the punctuating blips between bracketing the verses; as well as those backing vocals, which at times ("What can I dooooooooo?") threatened to go all histrionic on you.

But there was something about the song, it seemed to me then and it strikes me as I revisit the things decades later, that seemed odd. Something about the song that, despite all the aforementioned baubles, struck me as surprisingly bleak. Part of that impression probably stem from the minimalism that makes up the better part of the song -- the steady, stark rhythmic being hammered out by the drums, the organ and the acoustic guitar that are almost motorik in their persistence and monotony. The vaguely raspy grain of the vocals add to the effect. And then there's the lyrics, which might have struck people as being celebratory, but if so they're only beguilingly so. Or self-delusional, more like, because it seems whatever comforts the narrator offers are little more than empty assurances. As a song, it has clammy-handed, foggy-headed cocaine comedown written all over it -- one in which maybe you can't regret what you don't remember, but still you find you have to climb behind the wheel and hit a winding road late at night, perpetually focused on whatever presents itself in the narrow cameo of the headlight, not driving to get anywhere in particular but just to put some physical distance between yourself and all the things you Simply Can't Cope With Anymore. (And whatever you do, avoid getting pulled over by the police, because you know that'll only end badly, making everything worse, given the state you're in.)

Or that's how it sounds to me now, and I recall intuiting that same impression when I first heard it. But I was only about 12 years old at the time, so a lot this -- especially the part about cocaine -- wouldn't have crossed my mind at that age.

At any rate: The outfit, if memory serves, was fronted by an artist -- a photorealist painter whose artworks graced the covers of their albums, albums which almost nobody bought and which had a brisk walk to the cut-out bins, because as it turned out the band was actually quite boring and unremarkable, thus making them definitive One-hit Wonders. And something about that one hit seems to me now like something that would've turned up on a movie soundtrack at some point, since it seems like it'd be perfect for a scene in a certain kind of film. But checking IMDB, it appears that it's so far only been used once in that respect, making a fleeting appearance in Boogie Nights; which, if true, I totally don't remember.

25 November 2011

Enter the Epiphanator

"The argument is well posed inside the larger one that the mediasphere demands such 'spikes' of dramatic witnessing, or otherwise it will turn away and move on to The Next Kitten In A Tree. This short-attention-span afflicted dynamic is contrasted with the old-media paradigm they call The Epiphanator [...] The still image moves. But does it still have the power to move?"

"The Atomization of the Image," over at the WFMU blog. (Via)

What We Do is Secret

Untitled (Reaper Drone), 2010

Chemical and Biological Proving Ground No 2, Dugway, UT, 2006

Detachment 3, Air Force Flight Test Center #2, 2008

PARCAE Spacecraft Over the Yosemite Valley (Naval Ocean
Surveillance System Satellite;  1983-056G), 2010

"We have this idea that secrecy is this perfectly oiled machine but the secrecy system is not all that organized. Also we imagine that there is one single brain orchestrating secrecy behind the whole State but this is not the case. Lots of things are contradicting each other. The secrecy system is internally inconsistent but also incoherent."
. . . . .
"I can only talk from an American perspective. The Black World is a State that is inside the State and it works differently. It's monarchic in the sense that it's not a democracy. It is run by generals and ultimately by the President. There's very little overview of it by other parts of the government and obviously by the people. It has a tendency to change everything around it to its own image."

Excerpts from an interview with Trevor Paglen over at We Make Money Not Art, concerning his recent series of photographs Limit Telephotography and The Other Night Sky, which are currently included in the Architecture of Fear exhibition at the Z33 House for Contemporary Art Center in Hasselt, Belgium. Paglen has also recently published Invisible: Covert Operations and Classified Landscapes, the first monograph collection of his work.

24 November 2011

That damned bird

The Thanksgiving I'll most remember is the one where my grandfather wound up in the Emergency Room. It happened while he made his initial attempt at carving the turkey, having already had about ten beers over the course of the afternoon. The cutting of the hand, and the trip to the hospital that followed. The meal delayed by four hours. Then him returning and everything resuming where it'd left off, but with someone else wielding of the knife. And my grandfather, with his hand all bandaged and having to be held in the air above heart-level to prevent further gushing; bound up so that the injured digit extended outward from the fold. With him sitting there at the head of the table, his arm raised aloft, looking for the better part of the world like Ernest Hemingway endlessly giving everyone in attendance The Finger.*

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* A bit of holiday "flash fiction," if fiction involves 92% fact.

21 November 2011

The well-calibrated microphone

Thanks to the Root Strata blog for the heads-up.

20 November 2011

Music for Filmstrips, Vol. 1

Back when I used to do radio, not too many years ago, I often wound up wearing a variety of hats as far as the whole hosting & DJing biz was concerned. Aside from spinning the standard allotment of breaks, beats & bleeps, for a while I was co-host of a show devoted to experimental music, with a Chicago-based noisician and myself acting as the DJs on alterating weeks. The show's format usually provided an extra hour (midnight!) for doing some extended, uninterrupted, multilayered live mixing. Multiple components all going at once, including locked-groove records and homemade loops -- shaping it all via the station's mixing board. I quite enjoyed it, frequently came up with good results, and it's something that I miss doing.

So it's been a while since I've done anything like that. But this (below) isn't quite one of those things. It started out the other way way, intent-wise; But instead it took its own direction as I worked on it, and turned into something else. Far less abstract, nothing too complex. Plus with a fair share of vaguely rhythmic and musical elements for those who absolutely insist on such things, and maybe a little bit 'hypnagogic' in parts. (Maybe I'm 'mellowing' as I get older. Shrug.) At any rate, give it a try if you're so inclined.

::: here :::

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◼  steve young / 'michael jordan' / arbor / 2008
◼  sky stadium / 'peace guide' / goldtimers tapes / 2011
◼  motion sickness of time travel / 'the walls were dripping with stars' / digitalis / 2011
◼  lee noble / 'retreat, abandon' / bathetic / 2011
◼  niggas with guitars / 'e.f.o.' / digitalis / 2011
◼  ekoplekz / 'rebus un' / mordant music / 2011
◼  konx-om-pax / 'II' / display copy / 2010
◼  call back the giants / 'the rising|the lizard' / kye / 2011
◼  pulse emitter / 'longing thresholds, pt. 2' / nna tapes / 2010
◼  rambutan / 'immaterial' / deep tapes / 2011
◼  andy stott / 'execution' / modern love / 2011
◼  tidal / 'double death' / 2:00AM tapes / 2010
◼  chapels / 'mantra u.f.o.' / 905 tapes / 2011
◼  nonhorse / 'subtle revenge' / nna tapes / 2010
◼  imaginary softwoods / 'untitled, no. 4' / wagon / 2008
◼  1958-2009 / 'untitled, no. 1' / ekhein / 2009
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17 November 2011

O, but to stab the heavens; if only to bring glory spilling earthward; raining on redeemed and lost alike

During the last few months that I lived in Baltimore, I happened into some work that often involved having to travel down to job sites in the D.C. 'burbs. I had a foreman who was from Boston, and he designated me to drive the van because he claimed I made better time in traffic than anyone else on the crew. And about that traffic -- it meant having to navigate the Beltway during rush hours each day. It was a pain in the ass, because the Beltway's always mad congested, and for whatever reason people in the D.C./Baltimore area drive like morons.

At any rate, our various routes often had us traveling counterclockwise along the northern stretch of the Beltway during the morning leg. There's a point roughly around Silver Spring where you come upon the enormous Mormon temple in Kensington, MD. It's situated a short distance from the expressway, and as you round the bend the thing suddenly comes into view, looming over the trees like some massive doom fortress. Its broad sprawling blockiness and sweeping verticality, its stark white facade and rigid fenestration, and the tall, thin spires severely piercing upwards in the morning sun like massive gleaming icepicks.

A coworker told me that the thing inspired a routine act of vandalism. Strategically placed across a railway overpass that you drive under just as the temple comes into view, someone repeatedly spray-painted the words, "SURRENDER, DOROTHY."

No matter how many times the graffiti got scrubbed away, it would always reappear shortly thereafter, over and over again throughout the years. Here's an Associated Press photo of that juncture of road circa sometime in the 1980s, graffiti intact...

This article on the thing purports to tell the story of the origin of the graffito in question. Supposedly the thing reminded someone of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. I'm more inclined to say it possesses some of the qualities of the witch's castle, perhaps because I kept expecting to see winged monkeys come flying out of the thing. Hulkingly oppressive to the point of being ghastly -- very much a textbook example of authoritarian/fascist architecture. More specifically, at first sight it struck me as distinctly Stalinist in style.*  Wasn't sure why where that impression came from, perhaps because it reminded me of some other building of that type that I'd seen before. 

Yeah, turns out it did. Here we go, got it...

Lomonosov Moscow State University -- the main building, built circa 1949. Tsk.

Incidentally, there's an elaborate Bahá'í temple in the North Shore 'burbs of Chicago that's honkingly spectacular. When we happened across it years ago, the ground view level prompted wifey to comment that it reminded her of a gigantic wedding cake. The building makes an appearance in Henry Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, during the Chicago portion of the travelogue, when Miller's guide leads him to the site late one night when the temple was still under construction.

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* Or, as Eddie Izzard might have it, it's a bluechip epitome of the Big Fuck-Off Stalinist School of Architecture.

15 November 2011

Internal Exiles

The new edition of e-flux journal is up, offering a thumpingly nice theme issue devoted to Moscow Conceptionalism. The issue is primed to coincide with a current exhibition of work by Andrei Monastyrski and Collective Actions that's being held at the e-flux NYC space, which was curated by Boris Groys.

Broadly, the contributors aim to situate Soviet conceptual art of the 1970s and '80s in relation to to its counterparts in the U.S. and Europe. There's also a common argument for a more context-specific historicizing of the work, a reading that diverges from the perennial critical account of framing the work in an over-simplified "dissident" reading.*  As far as specifics are concerned: Groys addresses Soviet conceptualism from an anti-aesthetic angle, contributor Keti Chukhrov offers a materialist parsing of Soviet conceptualism in relation to the anti-libidinal nature of socialist economies, while Claire Wilson delves into the collaborative and participatory nature of many of Collective Action Group's projects. Plenty there for the interested, as well as copious references to other recent literature on the topic for the curious.

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*  This was the common account for the work back in the 1980s, when the work of various artists connected with the "Sots Arts" network, received any press in the U.S. and elsewhere. So yes, the Iron Curtain having long since fallen and perestroika having since become an historically remote rubric to filter all such stuff through, perhaps this sort of re-framing is long overdue.

13 November 2011

From the Rubble of the Chancellery / Leben mit Pop

Reading Andreas Huyssen's Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia, I come across the following in the author's essay on the art of Anselm Kiefer, here writing about the artist's Occupations photo series of 1969:

"There is another dimension, however, to this work, a dimension of self-conscious mise-en-scène that is at its conceptual core. ...But why ten the Sieg Heil gesture? would suggest that it is to be read as a conceptual gesture reminding us that indeed Nazi culture had almost effectively occupied, exploited, and abused the power of the visual, especially the power of massive monumentalism and of a confining, even disciplining, central-point perspective. Fascism had furthermore perverted, abused, and sucked up whole territories of a German image-world, turning national iconic and literary traditions into mere ornaments of power and thereby leaving post-1945 culture with a tabula rasa that was bound to cause a smoldering crisis of identity. After twelve years of an image orgy without precedent in the modern world, which included everything from torch marches to political mass specatcles, from the mammoth staging of the 1936 Olympics to the ceaseless productions of the Nazi film industry deep into the war years, from Albert Speer's floodlight operas in the night sky to the fireworks of antiaircraft flak over burning cities, the country's need for images was exhausted. Apart from importing American films and the cult of foreign royalty in illustrated magazines, postwar Germany was a country without images, a landscape of rubble and ruins that quickly and efficiently turned itself into the gray of concrete reconstruction, lightened up only by the iconography of commercial advertising and the fake imagery of the Heimatfilm. The country that had produced the Weimar cinema and a wealth of avant-grade art in the 1920s and that would produce the new German cinema beginning in the late 1960s was by and large image-dead for about twenty years: hardly any new departures in film, no painting worth talking about, a kind of enforced minimalism, ground zero of a visual amnesia."

The essay in question was originally published in the journal October in 1988. That being the case, Huyssen is talking about the work that the Kiefer did over the first 15 years of his career. By the late 1980s, the artist's work had already shifted to include a broader array of cultural references and iconography. After Kiefer moved off to France in the early 1990s, critics wrote him off for a stretch, the verdict being that a more "romantic" (supposed French) sensibility had seeped into his work, softening it to some degree. Admittedly, the artist's style did evolve. Yes, he still works on the same large, almost monumental, scale. But there's an elegance to the look of the stuff -- mainly in the handling of materials -- that was absent during his first 20 years of work.1  The rough-hewn quality that was so much a part of the character of the early work always seemed to be inextricably bound up with the content -- the thick and deeply textured crust of paint denoting the scarred and haunted landscape of the Heimat, while simultaneously implying a throwing-mud-at-the-wall effort of trying to give voice to the unspeakable (or at least the unspoken).2

* * * * * * * * * * *

Huyssen continues in the next paragraph...

"I am reminded here of of something Werner Herzog once stated...'We live in a society that has no adequate images anymore, and if we we do not find adequate images and an adequate language for our civilization with which to express them, we will die out like the dinosaurs. It's as simple as that.' The absence of adequate images in postwar Germany and the need to invent, to create images to go on living also seems to propel Kiefer's project. He insists that the burden of fascism on images has to be reflected and worked through by any postwar German artist worth his or her salt. From that perspective indeed most postwar German art has to be seen as so much evasion. During the 1950s, it mainly offered derivations from abstract expressionism, tachism, informel, and other internationally sanctioned movements. As opposed to literature and film, media in which the confrontation with the fascist past had become an overriding concern during the 1960s, the art scene in West Germany was dominated by the light experiments of Gruppe Zero, the situationist-related Fluxus movement, and a number of experiments with figuration in the work of Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. The focus of most of these artists, whether or not they wanted their art to be socially critical, was the present: consumer capitalism in the age of America and television. In this context Kiefer's occupations of the fascist image-space and of other nationalist iconography were as much a new departure for German art as they were a political provocation, except, of course, that this provocation was not widely recognized during the 1970s."

Which addresses what I was writing about, albeit by a much more circuitous route, in that bit I wrote about Bowie's "Berlin years" for the '70s-themed outboard venue earlier this year. This matter of historical and cultural limbo that followed the Nullpunkt of 1945, the artistic conundrum of the how to proceed when when a society is anxious about its own past and ambivalent about its present.

This ambivalence is what prompts the reading of the early work of Gerhard Richter as so emblematic of its milieu. Richter generally always had the habit of working in a variety of disparate styles simultaneously. A painterly polyglot, with no style taking any sort of aesthetic pre/eminence over any of the others, since -- by dent of their lack of historical/lineal moorings -- there is no developmental artistic lineage or tradition for them to adhere to. But it's the blurred, semi- photorealist works of the 1960s that are most associated with his "Capitalist Realism" phase, that are exemplary of the early leg of his career. There are the numerous paintings modeled from images taken from various magazines, newspapers, school yearbooks and whatnot, all of which seem to be at once both voguish and utterly mundane.

And then there's a much more problematic painting like Onkel Rudi...

It being an old photograph of a family member dressed up in his S.S. uniform. This one occurs in another series of images Richter produced during those years, derived from anonymous found snapshots taken from family albums. As one critic has pointed out, Onkel Rudi is at once both transgressive and innocuous – transgressive in the way it references a suppressed and sordid past, innocuous because of the fact that almost every German household might have had a snapshot of this sort tucked away somewhere. Yet there it is, appearing amid a large body of work that featured an array of images drawn from modern life – of cars, fashion models sporting evening wear, family portraits, a depiction of a cow from a children's book, etc. All of them blurred and distorted by way of painterly manipulation, all of them blurring together as free-floating signifiers in a cultural landscape. A sort of entropic blankness sets in, as if all these images are -- in the realm of an ahistoric moment in time -- equally meaningless and interchangeable. The selection of images is arbitrary -- with no single image meaning anything more than any of the others, all of them ultimately cancelling each other out. There is, one suspects, a critical disinterest on the part of the painter that borders on nihilism.3

Capitalist Realism, the name that Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Konrad Lueg chose as their collective artistic banner when they first began exhibiting. The fact that they abandoned it shortly thereafter and went their separate creative directions suggest that the sobriquet may've been little more than a nonce marketing move in the first place. Still, it was clearly at the time a German response to the Pop Art sensibility that had already emerged in the U.K. and the U.S. some several years previously. But in Britain and the States, this sensibility had emerged out of a different social context -- with the arrival of "pop" modernity having been a state that these western countries had transitioned into during the postwar period -- a cultural situation that had evolved (as it were) organically. Whereas in Germany there was more the sense that it was – to some degree – being imposed from elsewhere, flooding in to fill a cultural void.4

Still, it could be added that this issue or impasse about there being a lack of "adequate images" of the age, and of artists striving to find or create such images wasn't limited to Germany during those years. Among the generation of American artists that started their studies and careers during the 1950s, there was a similar dilemma: What to paint? Abstract Expressionism seemed exhausted and epitomized a type of romanticism that no longer fit the times. It's critical successor, post-painterly abstraction, seemed too digressively formalistic and too decorative. It was, by many accounts, a common question. The question would be answered in a variety of ways -- from Pop, to John and Rauschenberg and the American associates of what would become Fluxus raiding the contemporary common culture for materials and imagery, to someone like Philip Pearlstein playing about with pop subjects before settling into a clinically sterile mode of figure painting. This "crisis of representation" arose from an entirely different context, one that was comparatively unburdened by traditions or the weigh of history. In each instance, however, this aesthetic nullpunkt would prove a pivotal juncture -- strongly dividing the first half of the century from the second.

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1.  No need to construe that this is a necessarily negative thing. Far from it.

2.  Add to this the fragments from the poems of Paul Celan scrawled across some of the paintings, which -- as Huyssen also points out -- in itself echoes Adorno's remark that epic poetry was impossible in the wake of the Holocaust.

3.  Much of this emerging modern consumer culture was leveraged and subsidized by the Marshall Plan, by the U.S. economic assistance that was directed to assist Germany (et al) in the project of rebuilding in the postwar era -- therefore, regarded by some Germans of being of external origins. Some accounts suggest that some Germans of the era were wary of this sudden slam-dunk into this new way of life, resulting in vague sense of malaise and occasional anti-American sentiment. Hence the remark that later appeared in Wim Wender's Im Lauf der Zeit, "The Americans have colonized our subconscious."

4.  The work of Sigmar Polke, however, often proves much more difficult to parse. One detects, especially in his work of the 1970s and '80s, a sense of deliberate irony fueling the work -- the artist's selection of images and the choice of appropriated materials, as well as from the sometimes willful ugliness of the work.

03 November 2011


A few strangling thoughts about the previous...

[ 1. ] I'm not altogether certain about how to sum up my thoughts about the work of Chris Burden. It's a varied body of work he's done over the years -- in terms of themes, but especially in terms of quality. Despite the stronger work (a fair amount of which falls within the first decade of his career), there's also been a high ratio of misfires or under-realized pieces, as well as a good number of works that were just plain weak. In fact, there's e enough of the latter to make me sometimes wonder if the early great pieces were -- in each instance -- just some sort of fluke.

As far as those strong early works are concerned: If anything, I mostly focused on works that I always felt had a strong social dimension -- "topical," as some have labeled them. Despite some critics having argued to the contrary, I think it's quite clear that Burden was feeding off of the world around him, being prompted by the cultural climate of the time.

[ 2. ] And it's that matter of topicality that gave the work some traction back then. In some ways, some of his more famously daring or severe pieces (Shoot, of course, and Trans-fixed) still have the same sensationalist reputation these days as they did back then. He was -- at times, and ironically -- perfect tabloid fodder. With people freaking out and getting anxious about the direction the country was heading at the time, they tended to look to the news for things that validated that perception -- "confirmational bias" being some a common impulse. Since, y'know, as the media has known for a long, long time: You'll never go broke pandering to people's prejudices, phobias, etc.. Far from it.

[ 3. ] Another reason for the canonical status is that a number of Burden's works have a remarkable degree of metaphorical resonance. One piece I didn't address in the post was Velvet Water, which Burden did in 1974. The work consisted of him repeatedly dunking his head in a sink filled with water, doing so again and again until he finally collapsed on the floor sputtering and gasping for breath. The entire time, there was a camera fixed on him, relaying a live video feed of the action to an attended audience which sat in adjoining space. At the start of the piece, Burden addressed the cameras, telling the audience: "Today I am going to breathe water, which is the opposite of drowning, because when you breathe water, you believe water to be a richer, thicker oxygen capable of sustaining life."

The audience, meanwhile, was aware that Burden was carrying out this action on the other side of a partition; because they were reputedly still within earshot of the artist's splashing and choking. It's another one of those works where the audience is put in a complicated situation -- in which their passivity and spectatorship becomes (in theory) problematic by way of their culpability in watching someone endanger himself. The whole bit about being party or witness to someone else's delusional undertakings -- it's a scenario that's bound to translate any number of ways. Like say if you ever knew anyone who joined a cult or got involved in some get-rich-quick scheme. Personally, the whole delusional/"transformational thinking" angle reminds me very much of something we all witnessed just this past decade.

[ 4. ] The Delillo bit's a little odd, innit. I suppose I'll always associate Delillo's Mao II with airline hijacks if only because of Johan Grimonprez's DIAL H-I-S-T-O-R-Y; which, when I saw it nearly 15 years ago, reminded me of a replay of my early childhood -- an endless montage of footage from various airports playing out the evening news night after night.

But what gets me is the sentiment expressed about the craft of writing, of being a novelist. Such a quaintly Romantic notion (it seems) to find still circulating in this day and age, with the cultural landscape having been transformed so completely my a variety of electronic media. But you still see that from time to time, the whole business about some writers regarding themselves or what they do as something akin to the "shaping of reality." Odder still, since -- chronologically speaking -- full-fledged po-mo irony emerged in the literary realm some years before it became common in the visual arts. But I think visual artists disabused themselves of thinking in any similar terms -- about seeking after or expressing any sort of cap-t Truth -- somewhere about the time that Clement Greenberg slagged off Jackson Pollock because of the latter's post-"drip" return to figuration.

[ 5. ] Ralph and Wayne each posted some interesting comments on Part 1 of the piece. Still, I've never been terribly convinced by the reading that attributed something akin to a "will to power" to the works. Assessments of that sort always struck me as a bit too much of a surface reading, a little too reductive (and in a way, little more than a cousin far-removed from more sensationalistic/tabloid-ish accounts). While the work frequently does often have to with power and social dynamics and such, I believe its far trickier and more slippery than that -- not so easily or squarely nailed down. Which is probably why I find it intriguing.

Please Stand By (An Inventory of Effects)

Note: I wrote the below for the outboard 1970s-themed venue. It took a while to write,   wrestling with the thing over the span of many weeks -- a good bit of which involved  pruning and closing off various tangents and trying to get the thing down to a semi-reasonable length. Given all that, and the fact that working on the thing meant a lack of posting here, I decided to do what I otherwise wouldn't, and reprint the piece here.

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Here we have the American artist Chris Burden, looking like a professional and presenting himself to the world. The above photos come from his 1971 performance art piece I Became a Secret Hippy. It was one of Burden's earliest works, executed about the time he was completing his graduate studies at the University of California, Irvine. For the piece, Burden stripped naked and laid down on the floor while a friend hammered a star-shaped stud into his chest. He then sat in a chair while another friend shaved his head with electric shears. Burden then donned the suit of an FBI agent and presented himself to the event's few attendees.

The real-world incidents that inspired I Became a Secret Hippy are so obvious that they don't warrant an explanation. In that respect, it was far from being a subtle work. But considering that it was done at the time that Burden was leaving the cloistered confines of academia and making his transition into the world of professional artmaking, no doubt its ritualistic, rite-of-passage mimicry held some ironic personal meaning for the artist.

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By many accounts, the early Seventies were considered turbulent years -- a time of political, social, and economic upheaval. Most Americans had entered the 1960s with an optimistic vision of the future that awaited them. But a decade later, it all looked uncertain and many people were getting anxious and doubtful, not daring to guess what might happen next. A common, knee-jerk opinion on the street had it that the world was going to hell. "Shootin' rockets to the moon / Kids growing up too soon… Ball of confusion!"

Soldiers returning home after numerous tours of Vietnam reputedly experienced something akin to culture shock, finding things at home much different from when they'd departed. The rapid pace of technological change, and the societal shifts that resulted, had some in the pop-sociology realm talking of "future shock."

So when people read that somewhere a young man had someone shoot him with a rifle and then called the whole thing art, a number of people were shocked, but probably not all that surprised. This is what passes for art these days. The way things were heading, why not?

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The incident in question -- the one that would become Burden's notorious "greatest hit" -- was Shoot, which followed I Became a Secret Hippy by a mere three weeks. On the evening of November 19, 1971, Burden and a few associates and a small number of attendees met in a low-rent art space in Santa Ana. It was, by most accounts, a pretty modest and casual affair, up to the point when -- at an "Okay, let's do this" moment in the evening -- Burden positioned himself against one of the gallery walls. A friend then raised a .22-calibre rifle, took aim at Burden, and fired a single shot.

The plan was a have a handful of spectators witness a William Tell-styled act of trust, with the designated shooter aiming at the wall just to the left of Burden's shoulder. At the most, Burden later claimed, the rifle slug was only supposed to graze him. But due to poor marksmanship the bullet instead hit Burden in the bicep of his left arm. Not having anticipating such an outcome, no one had thought to bring a first-aid kit, so a bandage had to be improvised.

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Before we go any further, a brief overview might be in order...

Selected Works, 1971 - 1976

Chris crams himself into a small metal locker for five days.
Chris gets shot.
Chris lies in a bed for 22 days.
Chris lies down under a tarp in traffic along a busy boulevard.
Chris nearly immolates himself.
Chris dangles naked tied by a rope around his ankles.
Chris crawls over broken glass.
Chris pushes live electrical wires into his bare chest.
Chris has people use him as a human pin cushion.
Chris runs the risk of immolating himself again.
Chris gets crucified to a Volkswagen.
Chris nearly drowns himself.
Chris gets kicked down two flights of stairs.
Chris nearly sets himself on fire. (Yes, again.)
Chris lies on a shelf, just out of sight, for 22 days.
Chris lies, unmoving, under a sheet of glass for 45 hours straight.
Chris bicycles through Death Valley.

Chris does a bunch of other things during these years, but it's the more violent and alarming and supposedly masochistic things he does that everyone talks about. Thereby making him a bit infamous in the process, saddling him a reputation as the "Evel Knievel of the art world" that he grew to resent.

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Chris Burden didn't consider himself a "performance artist," nor did he ever aspire to be one. He'd originally set out to be a sculptor. In the latter years of his studies, he became preoccupied with the task of creating interactive sculptures -- works that invited the audience to become a part of the piece, that were meant to be engaged and manipulated by the viewer. But he quickly became frustrated and deemed many of his works to be unsuccessful, because each time the audience balked at the invitation, choosing instead to maintain the role of distant and passive spectators.

To remedy this impasse, Burden decided to physically make himself a part of the "sculpture," if not the primary component of the work itself. He did this for his senior thesis project, which involved cramming himself into a 2' x 2' x 3' steel locker for the duration of five days. As word of the Burden's project circulated around campus, the curiosity factor brought a steady flow of visitors. People sat outside the locker, inquiring into his well-being and asking him why he was doing what he was doing. A few people sat for extended periods and -- perhaps confused by the dynamic -- treated him like a Father Confessor and divulged all sorts of personal details about themselves. During the final day of the piece, university administration were debating whether to have the locker cut open, fearing for their own liability in connection with Burden's project.

So, problem solved. But noted for future reference: How to calculate for the vagaries of interpersonal psychology? 1

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Performance art was, of course, something of a big deal in the artworld of the 1970s, and Chris Burden was regarded as one of its leading and most controversial pioneers. But performance art wasn't such an entirely new thing. It'd first been kicked around by the Futurists and the Dadaists in the early part of the century, then gone dormant for many years before being reanimated in the 1950s and 1960s, primarily by way of the "happenings" staged by John Cage and his disciples in the Fluxus movement.

If there was any recent historical precedence for the type of work Chris Burden was executing in the early '70s, it was probably Yoko Ono's 1962 Cut Piece, which involved the artist sitting silently on a stage and inviting the audience to cut of here clothing piece by piece with a pair of communal scissors. On the three occasions that Ono staged Cut Piece during the mid-1960s, the audience obliged her each time, in the end leaving the artist sitting on stage wearing little more than scraps and tatters.

Cut Piece is an often-cited work in its own right. Critics often speak of how the piece addresses gender dynamics and how these dynamics play out in terms of social power and status. But in a broader context, one could argue that it ultimately points to an interrogation of the codes of conduct in a supposedly polite society, one which eventually (or hopefully) leads to a critique of the nature of socialization itself. 2

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On the morning of January 5, 1973, Chris Burden walked out onto a beach near the runways of LAX and fired several shots from a revolver at a 747 as it flew overheard. Burden later explained that the piece was about "impotence," since he knew in advance that the bullets would fall short of their target. Impotence in this case meaning bold but futile gestures, the inadequacy of human agency in the face of the grander scheme of things.

Still, unsurprising to learn that the FBI showed up on his doorstep with some questions about the incident a few days afterwards.

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