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The Perfect Metaphor: Jennifer Pastor

Jennifer Pastor’s The Perfect Ride, 2003, is an installation consisting of three parts, two sculptures and an animated film. Frankly, when confronted with the work one is baffled. We are presented with fascinating sculptural configurations but it is impossible to fathom their interrelationship with each other on the basis of their visual-corporeal presence.

What follows is an account based on a conversation between myself and Pastor in which she told me the story behind the work. I was impressed by her story because it was an especially lucid account of a creative process. Learning the background to The Perfect Ride most certainly enhanced my appreciation of the work. But it is worth noting that there remains a prejudice in the world of fine art that too much information about a work will detract from its mysterious force. This particular aesthetic ideology seems designed to mystify the creative process in order to make the artist appear more extraordinary and therefore more valuable.

The only sense in which mystery is aesthetically valid is when the artist is playing a deliberate game of revealing and concealing, as in narrative play. But in literature such narrative games take the reader into consideration, for example by providing clues. In contemporary fine art there are no conventions governing consideration for the reader; although there used to be, prior to the advent of modernism, when art possessed a distinctly narrative dimension. And because the viewer does not usually purchase the work of art there is no economics of supply and demand connecting the viewer to the work of art as is the case in the other arts. In fact fine art is unique in this respect. Even collectors gain most of their knowledge of art from galleries, art museums and books.

The problems created by the apparent absence of narrative in contemporary deconstructive art is highlighted by the puzzle posed by The Perfect Ride because this puzzle cannot be solved by simply looking at the parts of the work; instead, we need to be told a story that unlocks the puzzle. When the work was exhibited at the Whitney in New York in 2004 a book was published to accompany the work (Pastor 2004), but what is significant for the argument I am presenting here is that the story that unlocks The Perfect Ride was not revealed in that book. It is touched upon in the most delicate and abstruse manner possible in Jan Tumlir’s text as if it were something to be avoided in case it might spoil the aesthetic experience. According to this curious logic we might contemplate the degree to which knowledge of the Bible might spoil viewers' appreciation of Renaissance art.

The main feature of The Perfect Ride consists of a surreal sculptural configuration that looks like a cross between a machine and a bodily organ. This sculptural aspect of The Perfect Ride installation is a puzzle in itself due to its abstraction and distortion but it possesses a pictorial character that can lead the reader to determine that it is a somewhat surreal representation of a dam. A second aspect of the installation takes the form of an animated film constructed out of line drawings of a rodeo rider. There was no problem regarding recognition here.

The problem arises when the viewer tries to seek a relationship between these two aspects of this installation. The Perfect Ride becomes a prime instance of the way in which the expansion of visual language beyond the integral object leads the viewer into the condition of the puzzle. It also reveals the problems that this entails in the absence of any clues regarding the narrative informing the work. There is also a third part of the installation which is a sculpture of the inner ear, but this takes the chain of associations beyond breaking point and I will not deal with it here. Pondering the possible connections between the animated film of the rodeo rider and the surreal sculptural depiction of a dam is sufficient challenge.

The problem with the puzzle presented to the viewer in The Perfect Ride is that it is extremely difficult to intuit the connection between the two main features of this work, and the third feature actually makes matters worse. If the artist was schooled in literary practice then she might have made the third term a clue as to how the main features interrelate; but we are not dealing with literature here we are dealing with a fine artist playing with nonlinear narrative in the absence of any conventions regarding how to take the viewer-reader into consideration. What is most remarkable is that the institutional and ideological framework that supports the production of fine art actually encourages the artist to create such insoluble puzzles due to an institutionalised lack of concern for the reader. This is not only the fault of deconstructive aesthetics it is endemic to modern art as a whole and stems from an emphasis on the total freedom of individual creative genius. This is paradoxically an effect of democracy but it often leads to undemocratic art and the effect that Marxist aestheticians have referred to as the ‘autonomy’ of fine art, which is to say its separation from everyday life.

The focus on total artistic freedom; and nonlinearity in deconstructive art actually detracts from the key goal of bringing art into life. Literature and film, in contrast, have much less of a problem in this respect due to their focus on the reader, which is why they are so much more popular and have a more pronounced social impact.[36]

The Perfect Ride is a perfect instance for the current discussion because it typifies problems that affect fine art in general. Specifically, it is often the case that crucial information is left out of the presentation of works of art, and sometimes deliberately so as to increase the mystery of the piece; although the omission was not deliberate in the case of The Perfect Ride. When we learn the story behind The Perfect Ride the relationship between the dam and the rodeo bull become revealed.

Those who subscribe to a romantic position claim that revealing the story spoils the work. An instance such as The Perfect Ride  indicates that this is not the case, it actually assists the reader in his or her creative engagement as I will demonstrate.

The background to The Perfect Ride lies in another, discarded, project which was to be inspired by the structures built by craftspersons for State trade fairs in the US. Pastor attended many such fairs and spoke to the people concerned but became increasingly depressed about the validity of the project, the subject seemed so unremittingly functional. And as we know, fine art is not concerned with function. Her frustration built to fever pitch until one night in her hotel she watched a rodeo on cable TV and was struck by the bull’s movements. She reports that in her imagination the ‘bull became a single moving point like a spirograph’ (Pastor 2005). She also noted that the blurrily moving bulk of the bull dissolved any clear delineation between its body and the ground upon and over which it was so frenetically moving.

This observation led Pastor to a remarkable demonstration of the capacity of the imagination for cognitive quantum leaps that connect one idea with another in a manner the Surrealists referred to as ‘a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities’.[37] The movement-image of the bull-ground reminded Pastor of an experience of seeing the Hoover Dam in which she was struck by the way in which the gushing water seemed to merge into the dam’s structural-mechanical configuration. Which is to say, in metaphorical terms, the force of nature that is the flux of water inundated the human-made apparatus. In her imagination the fusion of the moving figure and its static ground evident in her experience of the dam became comparable with the fusion of figure and ground evident in the rodeo bull. In our conversation Pastor observed that the ‘relation of the bull to the ground is like the relationship of the dam to its surroundings’ (Pastor 2005); both are in movement, both are ‘alive’ and interconnected.

We now have enough information to appreciate the core of The Perfect Ride and explaining it did not take a great deal of words. We are in possession of the key that unlocks the core of the work and can pose the question as to whether The Perfect Ride is the kind of puzzle that can facilitate a creative engagement of the viewer. In order to answer this question I deliberately made the account of Pastor’s story as close to her version as possible extracting any creative additions of my own.

From my experience of coming to grips with the nonlinear narrative puzzle that is The Perfect Ride I would suggest that it is only when the reader is in possession of the background story that any kind of creative interpretation can be made. After hearing her speak about ‘fluid embedment’ and her description of an earlier sculpture in terms of a burgeoning fecundity I began to see the dam apparatus as strangely sexual. That is not especially creative because Pastor provided such a big hint. But I went on to connect this sexual fluid-dam with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘desiring machine’ that derives in turn from Freud’s association between machinery and genitalia.[38] I also brought Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, 1915–1923 into the chain of creative associations because it, like Pastor’s dam, is a metaphorical apparatus of desire. Pastor’s description of the blurring of figure and ground as she watched the rodeo bull’s movements led me to recall Henri Bergson’s suggestion that the movement of an object in time cannot be grasped by rational cognition but only by intuition, due to the fact that it could not be cut up into analysable segments. Then I noted that photographers, most notably Jules-Etienne Marey were able to capture what Deleuze has referred to as the movement-image (image-mouvement).[39] Finally, thinking back to Pastor’s description of the movement of the rodeo bull in terms of a moving point, I noted that Marey pioneered the motion capture technique of applying dots and lines to the joints and limbs of his subjects before photographing them.  

Normally in art writing one would intertwine one’s own thoughts with those of the artist and significant features of the work and create a more or less coherent interpretive narrative. I have deliberately separated the two here, and left my chain of thoughts as a patchwork rather than forming them into a more coherent narrative-like structure. This was done in order to better answer the question as to whether The Perfect Ride is a ‘writerly’ text. And on the basis that it stimulated a creative train of thought on the part of this reader I think that The Perfect Ride can be called ‘writerly’, which is to say the reading is active and creative. But what is important to note is that the creative engagement was triggered by the narrative behind the work more than by the work on its own; which emphasises the conceptual, as opposed to the purely sensory, nature of nonlinear narrative sculptural installation.[40]

The next issue I would like to address is whether my creative engagement with The Perfect Ride constitutes ‘co-authorship’. I would not go so far as to say that. It took Pastor several years to create The Perfect Ride. ‘Co-authorship’ is too strong a term; a better way of describing the creative-interpretive process would be to suggest that the reader contributes to the work of art. What is most important, however, is that such creative engagement is possible. And if that requires additional information being made available then that should not be understood as ‘spoiling’ the work. Otherwise we fall back into a romantic mystification of the creative process, and assign the artist the status of genius that leads us to forget about the viewer-reader.


Associationism and Creativity: Hume and Freud

It is notable that the chain of associations made by Pastor concerning The Perfect Ride were visual whereas the connections made by myself were verbal. She works with visual materials I work with words, but one is no better, or worse, than the other, especially in Hume’s scheme of things. For Hume both verbal and visual and indeed any mode of what he calls ‘ideas’ are grist for the mill of autonomous association that is, in his view, the fundamental mechanism of mind. For Hume the principal faculty of mind is imagination which makes his approach especially appropriate for  aesthetics.

In my account of The Perfect Ride I mentioned the Surrealist dictum concerning the ‘juxtaposition of distant realities’ and in this chapter I will also address the work of Simon Starling who has described his work in terms of ‘connecting the previously unconnected’. The reference to Surrealism is apt here on two grounds: firstly, because the reference to juxtaposition and connection are similar to what Hume termed association; and, secondly, because of the relationship between Surrealism and Freudian psychoanalysis.

Considerations of creativity within the world of contemporary art remain predominantly informed by the intersection of Freudian psychoanalysis and Surrealism’s development of techniques such as automatic writing and painting and montage. But there are problems with using Freud as a basis for a theory of creativity because he believed that imagination was inherently driven by primal and potentially ‘savage’ desires. This leads Freud to posit a clear dichotomy between the ‘primitive’ unconscious and ‘civilised’ reason. Robert Bocock observes:

Freud assumes that there has been some progress in rational thinking which has been made by Western peoples, and shares with Max Weber an interest in this unique form of rationality. He does not assume that it is easily achieved or maintained by either individuals or in whole societies, but he does assume that there is a significant qualitative difference between primitive thought (la pensée sauvage) and rational thought. (Bocock 2002: 82)

For Freud the autonomous association of emotionally charged image-ideas in dream points to the primal nature of the unconscious mind. In contradistinction to this savage mind stands language with its capacity to classify the world, promote social intercourse and weave cultural discursive formations. Thinking with images, epitomised for Freud by dreaming, becomes understood as less evolved than language. One might extrapolate on this premise and suggest that higher beings than ourselves may think entirely in mathematics; but it is also possible to observe that many mathematicians think with images. Take, for example, Albert Einstein’s thoughts on the topic:

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Jennifer Pastor, The Perfect Ride, 2003.

Jennifer Pastor, The Perfect Ride, 2003.


Jennifer Pastor, The Perfect Ride, 2003. Animation consisting of drawings of a rodeo. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Jennifer Pastor, The Perfect Ride, 2003. Animation consisting of drawings of a rodeo. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904), Chronophotograph of a bird in flight.

Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904), Chronophotograph of a bird in flight.