21 September 2011

...but I know what I like

teleco-soup, Tabaimo
Japanese Pavilion, Venice Bienalle 2011
And so on to the Biennale.

The trouble I have with writing about art is that (to be somewhat disappointingly predictable) as the San Franciscan critic Gelett Burgess apparently said, 'I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like". If you were to ask me to explain a painting I would stare blankly at you and mumble something about it having colours and stuff, sculpture intrigues me in the same way as bubble-wrap (it cries out to be touched or chewed on, much to the dismay of gallery attendants), and video installations just leave me so cold that I need to be pulled away from their creators before I can ask, "so, couldn't make it as a painter then?".

In public galleries I am drawn to modern and post-modern works of Impressionism, Pointillism, Futurism, Surrealism, Cubism and other -isms of abstraction, but Realism does very little for me despite my professed distaste for the UnReal around me. I could walk through room after room of Renaissance masters (and have) and barely stop to glance, but have been stopped dead in my tracks by a fur-covered cup and saucer or a wooden mechanical head. And if you were to ask me what arrested my movement so suddenly I would be unable to tell you. That's just the way it is.

Despite this handicap I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time at exhibitions, have amassed a collection of paintings and prints far larger than my walls will accomodate, have been asked to join the Board of a gallery or two, and count one too many tortured artists amongst my friends, and thus I live in constant fear of being asked by someone when looking at an installation, "so what do you think of it?", and replying, "um, its got shiny stuff and string".

From Frogtopia, Kwok Mang-Ho (Frog King)
Hong Kong Pavilion, Venice Bienalle 2011
Now, Art Criticism also leaves me cold (as does most Criticism), explanations of the deeper meaning behind a work often reveal more about the neuroses of the critic than the motivations of the artist, and language used by critics often seems deliberately obfuscating, as if the function of criticism is to close the work away to be appreciated only be a small elite rather than to open it up to enjoyment by the masses.

However I find Walter Benjamin's description of the transition of art from objects of cultic value (wherein the main function of art is as an object of, or in assistance to, worship/devotion/remembrance) to objects with display value (wherein an object's own intrinsic beauty/effect is of primary importance, not its role as part of a conduit to the Other) useful here, because it goes part way to justifying my own mumbled response of "...but I know what I like". For me art often needs to work in isolation, if I need a detailed explanation of what the artist was trying to do in order to appreciate the work, then the artist has failed; a work should stand on its own visual merits and impact upon the viewer without recourse to an external Other outside the work itself as justification.

The challenge for Contemporary artists in the Information Age, it seems, is to express themselves sufficiently in a way both independent of external context and to an audience whose exposure to the works of other artists has never been greater. How does the artist ensure they are understood in a environment where the audience believes, rightly or wrongly, that they have seen it all before? Herein lies my second fail-point with Contemporary Art, the gratuitous and graphic approach taken by some artists who seem to confuse a viewer reaction caused by shock with one of comprehension, and if their intent is purely to shock without an underlining desire for communication, then I have even less time for them (this is also why I find little value in horror as a cinematic genre, with some notable exceptions). I have seen one too many video installation of naked folk hula-hooping with barbed wire (or maybe it was the same installation seen in multiple locations*) to have any energy or desire left to work beyond my initial revulsion and attempt an understanding.

from Art is Not Cosa Nostra
Italian Pavilion, Venice Bienalle 2011
A few years ago Alain Badiou delivered a list of Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art, well worth reading in their entirety (with the above caveat on what they say about Badiou more than Art), but his first is on this very subject, that "Art is not the sublime descent of the infinite into the finite abjection of the body and sexuality. It is the production of an infinite subjective series through the finite means of a material subtraction." He explains this further in a lecture given in 2003:
"Subtraction: the word subtraction has two meanings. First, not to be obsessed with formal novelty. I think it’s a great question today because the desire for novelty is the desire of new forms, an infinite desire for new form. The obsession of new forms, the artistic obsession with novelty, of critique, of representation and so on, is really not a critical position about capitalism because capitalism itself is the obsession of novelty and the perpetual renovation of forms. You have a computer, but the following year it’s not the true computer, you need a new one. You have a car, but the coming year it’s an old car, something like an old thing and so on. So, it’s a necessity for us to see that the complete obsession with new forms is not really a critical position about the world as it is. It’s a possibility that the real desire, which is subversive desire, is the desire of eternity. The desire for something which is a stability, something which is art, something which is closed in-itself. I don’t think it’s quite like that, but it’s a possibility because the perpetual modification of forms is not really a critical position, so the desire of new forms is certainly something important in art, but the desire for the stability of forms is also something important. And, I think we have to examine the question today.

The second meaning of subtraction is not to be obsessed with finitude, with cruelty, body, suffering, with sex and death, because it’s only the reversal of the ideology of happiness. In our world there is something like an ideology of happiness. Be happy and enjoy your life and so on. In artistic creation we often have the reversal of that sort of ideology in the obsession with suffering bodies, the difficulty of sexuality, and so on. We need not be in that sort of obsession. Naturally a critical position about the ideology of happiness is an artistic necessity, but it’s also an artistic necessity to see it as a new vision, a new light, something like a positive new world. And so, the question of art is also the question of life and not always the question of death. It is a signification of the first thesis; we have to search for an artistic creation which is not obsessed with formal novelty, with cruelty, death, body, and sexuality."
Solaris, Yoshi
Venezuela Pavilion, Venice Bienalle 2011
While not quite saying, "Can ye not just paint pretty pictures of unicorns and sparkles instead?", his points are well taken. "I know what I like..." and what I like are works that elicit a positive response. I don't mean that I am drawn solely to works of joy or whimsy, I am more than happy to be challenged by an artist, but there are many ways to do so that do not involve shock for shock's sake, to me that smacks of laziness.

True communication, comprehension in isolation, sparkles and unicorns. It was with these prejudices that I approached the 54th International Art Exhibition in Venice, the Biennale...

* Sigalit Landau, who curated the [REDACTED] pavilion at this year's Bienalle. I saw her video Barbed Hula at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and while it definitely wasn't my cup of tea some of her other works, like DeadSee, are really quite beautiful.

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