Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sight - Site - Zeit, part 1

“How do you form it? It doesn’t form like clay where you form it with the hand. It doesn’t form like hot wax. You don’t carve it away like wood or with stone. So, Getting to work with it is almost like making the instrument that helps you form it. So it’s almost like sound, like music.”


· July 4 - Stood on a balcony and watched what is reputed to be the largest fireworks display in the U.S., over 40,000 individual explosions over the Hudson River.

· July 5 - Visited the James Turrell exhibition at the Guggenheim.

· July 7 - From the same balcony, watched heat lighting caroming across the sky to the north.

· July 8 - Visited the exhibition, “ambient,” (lower case a), at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Chelsea.

Neatly, these events create four axes for this next installment of thinking about recent tendencies in the art world. All four events involved looking at light as a discrete object, as opposed to light as illumination for looking at other things. It is from this similarity, this common condition, that I’ll begin. Two of these four events, as you’ll notice, are art exhibitions. Two are not. Of the two that are not, one is a natural phenomenon, one is not. (Of the two that are art, one makes more of an effort than the other to cloak its unnaturalness. More on this later.)

In my previous posts on these topics, I suggested that there might be a link between the recent embrace of sound in the art world, and the resurgence of what I called “ambient conceptualism,” as exemplified, most notably, by Turrell and Robert Irwin, both of whom have shows in New York right now. I further suggested that these tendencies might be related to new work in philosophy, known as “Speculative Realism,” or in a related, but not identical formulation, “Object-Oriented Ontology.” How much evidence (and what kind of evidence) does one need before concluding that what might have been a coincidence is, in fact, a quorum?

I chose the adjective “ambient,” before I was aware of the show at Tanya Bonakdar. Discovering that such a show is presently on view, concurrent with the Turrell victory lap, and closing only two weeks before the opening of “Soundings,” the sound art show at MoMA, only further tingled my spidey-sense. Furthermore, “ambient” is curated by Tim Griffin, former Editor-in-Chief of Artforum, and current Executive Director and Chief Curator at the Kitchen. This solidifies my belief that this confluence of interest in, and employment of, the ambience (to use the noun) of light, sound, immersion, and atmosphere is indicative of something afoot. On July 1st, on Charlie Rose, Turrell himself, compared working with light to working with sound (see the epigraph at the top of this post). All in all, I’m persuaded that there is reason enough to continue connecting the dots.

The chain of posts of which this is the latest link are collectively titled “Percepts - Concepts - Precepts.” This is meant to suggest a set of relations/divisions/differences between a set of terms/methodologies/values.

· Percepts are objects of perception. I use the term bluntly, but not in an attempt to suggest a lack of sophistication regarding the status of such objects or of perception. For our purposes, this suggests artworks concerned primarily with sensory phenomena and their apprehension via the organs of perception.

· Concepts are abstract ideas that create connections between objects or other concepts. I use the term as an allusion to capital C conceptualism in visual art, without mapping, 1:1, to that category. I will insist on small c conceptualisms, plural.

· Precepts are general rules that regulate behavior or thought. I take it for granted that all behaviors ascribe to precepts, sometimes ex post facto, à la Kant.

What I’m attempting to diagnose is a turn, in some recent museological and curatorial practices, toward an art concerned foremost with percepts. This is noteworthy because for the past 45 years, art has pursued an agenda pointed decidedly in the direction of concepts and precepts (most often in the form of a critique of institutional, political, and ideological precepts). I see this happening in quite apparent ways in Turrell’s coordinated, three-institution retrospective in L.A., Houston, and New York. The consensus represented by this west-middle-east span, in three of the four most populous cities in America, with press coverage up and out the proverbial wazoo, should not go unnoticed or uninterrogated. As I’ve alluded to in previous posts, I suspect a good deal of this has to do with the winds of fashion that pass through the museum world with the same breezy nonchalance that they pass through everything else, from burgers to bands to beards. I know the market cannot be bracketed. Eventually, I need to account for it and hold myself accountable for my complicity in its machinations. I know. But, for the moment, I want to think about different motivations; other causes, other effects.

Back to the four things I did on my summer vacation. In what ways is the experience of the Turrell exhibition - specifically, the central installation, “Aten Reign” (2013), in the main, spiral, atrium space of the Guggenheim - different from the experience of the 4th of July fireworks on the Hudson or the heat lightning flashing above the suburbs?

I don’t actually think they are that different at all. Does that mean that the tawdry exhibition of nationalistic explosions rises to the level of esteemed art? Or does it mean that Turrell’s effects sink to the status of populist pageantry? I’m not interested in either of these questions. To equate Turrell and lightning and fireworks is not to make a high-to-low comparison (or vice versa). Instead, I do so to initiate an inquiry into the nature of this type of experience and then to ask whether this is the best use of art’s time in this particular moment, in 2013.


“It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so.”
- Frank O’Hara

In her review of Turrell’s show in the New York Times, critic Roberta Smith writes, “The latest site-specific effort from Mr. Turrell, 'Aten Reign' is close to oxymoronic: a meditative spectacle.” I take this up because I think there are two assertions here that are widely held and that both demand further consideration. I’ll take the second assertion first: the “oxymoronic” idea of a “meditative spectacle.” This is only oxymoronic at first glance. Thinking about it and about both meditative experiences and contemporary spectacle, it reverses valence so as to actually seem tautological. It is precisely the function and, dare I say it, the desire, of spectacle to achieve a sort of meditative equilibrium. I mean “spectacle” here in both the everyday and the Situationist senses (realizing that, ultimately, the former is merely a normalized version of the latter). Spectacle can’t remain spectacular. That would attract too much attention. If there is a flash of the spectacular it must immediately subdue. It must level off and settle into a coy suggestiveness that feels to the spectator (already etymologically and ideologically complicit) as if it couldn’t be otherwise. Spectacle embeds itself parasitically, such that the host doesn’t recognize itself as host; doesn’t recognize the parasite as other. It embeds in the naturalism of objects, in the inevitability of images, and in the therefore-I-am-ness of the self. We can describe the spectator’s relationship to this embededness variously: opiative (thinking of Marx), epistemic (thinking of Foucault); but it is also in some sense meditative. It faces both inward and outward. It recommends itself as being for the good of the spectator. It appears self-motivated, even self-generated. Likewise, and by a similar logic, I think the formula could be reversed. Much meditational practice presents a spectacle front: a claim for naturalness and states of inevitability that are unlikely to be any more (or less) natural or inevitable than their alternatives.

I have tactically forestalled applying this description to the 4th of July fireworks or the lightning storm. In the case of the fireworks, I don’t think there’s a lot more work to do. Fireworks, too, are meditative spectacles. They may, in fact, be the paradigmatic example of the category. A fireworks show, as a whole, but also in its individual blasts, offers an initial burst of spectacularity. But, almost instantly, the experience lulls into a complacency of expectation that easily accepts the adjective “meditative.” Craned upward to the sky, heads bob like buoys, eyes glaze, while mantric “ooohs” emit from the self as “column of air” (in Allen Ginsberg’s parlance). The meditative-spectacular experience, equally optic and cultural, ignores that these are thousands of violent explosions, the redirected force of guns and bombs, and accepts a gradual diminishment of expectation - a kind of meditative boredom - as the repetition dulls each climax on its way to the never-quite-as-grand-as-hoped-for finale. After the show, we are left a little bit ho-hummed.

[As for lightning storms, I’ll return to these in more detail in a subsequent post. For now, suffice it to say - but don’t take my word for it (yet) - that I think the same argument can pretty much obtain.]

So, when I say that “Aten Reign” is not so different from fireworks or lightning I mean that these experiences are both spectacular and meditative. Like kaleidoscopes, they offer a visual treat - eye candy as it is known - that is momentarily sweet, easily swallowed, but which offers little of substance. Most of us like these sorts of things. Heck, there’s nothing in the experience, qua experience, that’s not to like. But those who display genuine devotion to these sorts of encounters are mostly either toddlers or tripping. (As a father of a two and a half year-old, I can confirm that the mindsets of these two groups have more than a little in common.)

On a Guggenheim wall, vinyl lettering presents a quote from Turrell: “My art deals with light itself. It’s not the bearer of the revelation—it is the revelation.” It’s impossible to avoid the biblical implications of this statement. Turrell with his equally-unavoidably-biblical beard, casts himself in the role of god, dispensing light, and seeing that it is good. I don’t really care about his (or anyone else’s) delusions of divinity. What strikes me as more problematic, artistically and philosophically, are the word “itself” and the phase “it is the revelation.” The implication of the itself and of that it being, not bearing, revelation, is that this it is something essential, something without precedent, without cause. The quote suggests that Turrell’s light is self-evident. It depends on no physical or conceptual substrate, because it emerges ex nihilo. It requires no preconditions. It neither requires nor offers explanations. It simply is.

But this “simply” is not so. Elsewhere, leaning on Derrida’s critique of what he calls “the metaphysics of presence,” I’ve argued that this “simply is,” this self-evidence, is a fantasy. With Turrell, I’ll stick to the local and say that Turrell’s work, as it arrives, in museums, in the press, in interviews, is anything but self-evident. It relies on a finely-crafted and well-practiced set of creation myths. If one reads a few articles about Turrell, if one reads or listens to or watches a few interviews, if one ingests the catalogue copy and the wall text and the web blurbs, one hears the same explanatory tropes again and again. My favorite is the one about how he studied perceptual psychology as an undergraduate. Is this supposed to establish his credentials as an expert? I’ve eaten Coq au Vin, but that doesn’t make me a French chef. Then there’s the stories about the young Turrell piloting about the U.S. in his own plane, looking for he knew not what; that same Turrell discovering the Roden Crater in Arizona and negotiating to purchase it and the land around it, despite his wife’s threats to leave him and take the children. (He bought the crater. She left.) There’s Turrell cutting gaps into the walls and ceiling of a Santa Monica hotel to experiment with letting light into the darkened spaces. And his year in jail for coaching men to avoid the Vietnam-era draft. This all amounts to a story about Turrell’s light that is far from “simply is.” His light is not the revelation. It’s not even a revelation. It is the documentation of one man’s quest for revelations; for something to be revealed to him. Some might find it disappointing that this quest isn’t more inventive, more original. Like so many previous quests, Turrell’s looks to light as its source and its destination. If light isn’t illuminating other things, if it insists on being the thing itself, then it requires that we look it straight in the eye. But, as we’re warned during solar eclipses - yet another Turrellian meditative spectacle - the directness of such encounters runs the risk of damaging our vision. Turrell’s light is a kind of illustration: of his single-mindedness, the purity of his vision (in both senses of the term), of the trajectories of his pilgrimage, of his status as both a seeker and a seer. Ultimately, his installations are the illustrations for a long personal interest story (or a short Bildungsroman).

I don’t point any of this out to disparage Turrell or his relation to light. That’s all his. I don’t pretend to know more about him or light than he himself knows. What I’m zeroing in on is that this work that claims to be so singularly about a given object of perception and the perception of that object, relies heavily on back story to generate interest and meaning. There is more to Turrell’s light than meets the eye.

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