DECONSTRUCTING INSTALLATION ART © 2006 Graham Coulter-Smith CASIAD PUBLISHING ISBN 978-0-9548334-4-2

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Beyond the name of the artist

There have been attempts, albeit at the level of theory, to empower the reader. One can cite Barthes’ ‘The Death of the Author’(1977) and Foucault’s ‘What is an Author’(1979). In ‘Death of the Author’ Barthes argues that interpretation can transcend an author’s intention. Indeed, for Barthes interpretation can be more productive than the author’s intention; and the revolutionary nature of this proposal has scarcely been realised. One way of understanding such a notion is to conceive the creation of cultural objects in terms of a contribution to a transpersonal, discursive cultural fabric. Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ and Foucault’s ‘What is an Author?’ both force attention away from the ‘name’ towards an intertextual, discursive matrix.  

In Foucauldian terms the individual creator is inescapably informed by the weave of a collective, discursive fabric. Creativity becomes understood as a contribution to this fabric. In the wake of Foucault, discourse theory can be understood as a sociological complement to  the psychological theories of creativity propounded by Hume and Freud and addressed in chapter four. A Foucauldian perspective offers some hope that the splendid isolation of fine art will not flourish forever but will become slowly but surely assimilated into the increasingly complex and powerful fabric of mass culture. The increased accessibility of information on contemporary art via the internet is one symptom of such a process of assimilation.

The Artist as Viewer-Reader

It is also the case that every artist is also a viewer-reader. In chapter four it was suggested that a work of art is the result of an accumulation of micro-creative acts that build up into a more or less coherent construction. It is often the case that when the one who created the text returns to it, she or he is surprised that they could assemble something so complex. The individual creator reads his or her own text as consciousness that exists in the now with a relatively limited sphere of memory and cognition. They are not the ‘author-God’ that institutional mythologizing of the name of the artist would have us suppose. Artists are merely human like the rest of us. In contrast, the text is an accumulation of a manifold of ‘nows’ and their accompanying envelopes of memory and cognition. The text-construct or composition could be described as a concentration of consciousness—such is the wonder of inscription (or ‘writing’) that Derrida has pointed to (1976; 1967). When confronted with his or her own texts the artist-author becomes transposed onto the level of the reader, onto a level where it is the text that is extraordinary, not the artist per se.  It is also the case that the process of reading becomes magnified when we zoom out from our examination of an individual work and position that work in its discursive, intertextual context. Then the manifold of micro-creative acts is significantly multiplied.

Collective Creativity: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

Take as an instance Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, which is a prime instance of creative originality being the first work of art of the twentieth century to announce a shift beyond the nineteenth century Symbolist aesthetics that informed the first twentieth-century ‘ism’: Fauvism. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon epitomises originality but it cannot be reduced to a single author because we have to add the influence of Paul Cézanne, Georges Braque, African art, the then marginalised art of El Greco, classical art, and nineteenth-century harem paintings. In a very real sense Les Demoiselles d'Avignon is a collective enterprise; as is an academic text, such as the one you are reading, with its infrastructure of references to published sources supporting, indeed constructing, the authority of the authorial voice. The text is, accordingly, mapped into a distributed system of authority, a distributed system of power, that contrasts with the patriarchal, hierarchical notion of the ‘great man’ that informs conservative concepts of artistic identity.

Anyone who has sufficient knowledge of the discursive context in which they work, a capacity for self-criticism and time to focus on a creative activity ought to be able to produce something of value. There is no necessity for that person to be considered a genius. If we understand and acknowledge Roland Barthes’ thesis in ‘The Death of the Author’ (1977) and Foucault’s position in ‘What is an Author?’ (1979) then we can accept that artists are quite simply people who are knowledgeable and skilful within a certain field of activity and focus a great deal of time on that activity. Some, of course, are better than others in the same way that some plumbers are better than others.[54]

In the final analysis it is the work, the text, and not the individual artist that is of critical importance. Focusing on the artist leads attention away from that which is socially relevant, namely, the discursive context. If art is to be of value to the reader then it should encourage the viewer to think critically within the matrix of the discursive context rather than simply focusing on the name. Foucault was informative when he described the name as an index to a particular contribution to the discursive fabric. Art only becomes challenging when we try to understand its products by locating them in discursive frames of reference. Which is to say art only extends its network of power beyond the confines of the art system when it encourages and facilitates the interaction of the mass of viewer-readers.

Misrecognition: Renèe Green, Partially Buried in Three Parts

In the rest of this chapter I will select instances of works of installation art that relate to the concept of artistic identity. My first instance concerns Renée Green’s Partially Buried in Three Parts. But instead of addressing this work directly I would like to address the conceptual framework that Green applies to this work in her essay ‘Site-Specificity Unbound: Considering Participatory Mobility’ (1999).

The framework Green employs is based on Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s Arts of Impoverishment: Beckett, Rothko, Resnais  (1993) and Green  begins by noting that Bersani and Dutoit perceive a common factor in the work of Beckett, Rothko and Resnais which is a lack of authorial responsibility to society. She cites Bersani and Dutoit’s description of this condition:

My work is without authority. You will learn nothing from it; you will gain no moral profit from it; no superior pleasure which, you have been led to believe, artists have the obligation to provide you (in Green 1999: 1; Bersani & Dutoit 1993: 3)

This passage provides a variation on the Barthesian theme of the ‘death of the author’ by focusing on a lack of concern for social relevance, which the introduction to this chapter indicates is of particular significance for fine art. Bersani and Dutoit are explicit in their suggestion that leading modernist artists refuse to provide ethical (social) guidance for their audience. This is in stark contrast, for example, to the social propaganda woven into Hollywood film and American soap operas. Green’s essay provides an explanation of why artists might avoid taking up the freedom of political expression that is their prerogative within democratic society. She notes, after Bersani and Dutoit, that an ethical orientation can function as a social anodyne compensating for, ‘patching up’ and ‘explaining’ the failings of social reality (Green 1999: 2).

Examining the social role of art gets to the nub of the difference between a narrative designed to program public opinion  and one that is not; one that supports the status quo and one that questions it. Hollywood stands as an exemplar of the social patch, the zone of wish fulfilment wherein politicians can be good people, families can support each other and the crux of evil can always lie outside of one’s own nation. Obviously, even Hollywood does not always take the road of ethical whitewashing but it does so enough times to deserve a reputation for social stereotyping, mythology and cultural colonisation.

If we turn to the filmmaker singled out by Bersani and Dutoit—Resnais—we find an entirely different approach. It is also significant to note that Green’s attraction to Bersani and Dutoit’s writing stems, in part, from her admiration of the work of Resnais. In her essay she admits that she is ‘particularly fond’ of Resnais’ work. And we will see that there is an element of Resnais’ approach evident in the installation that Green’s essay is a preface to: Partially Buried in Three Parts.

Resnais began as a documentary filmmaker and in his early Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog), 1955, he mixed black and white documentary film of Nazi concentration camps with contemporary colour footage of the same sites. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith notes that Resnais ‘suggests that the horror has become distant, difficult to recall vividly, and sometimes even covered over.  … The narration, written by Jean Cayrol, a survivor of the camps, suggests that the horror has not ended but simply moved elsewhere, taking on a different form.’ (1997: 332). The key point is that Nuit et brouillard implies rather than explains, and it certainly does not patch up the failings of modern civilization.

Hiroshima mon amour, 1959, written by Marguerite Duras, is one of Resnais’ most famous films. It is even less explicit than Nuit et brouillard. In this later film Resnais intercuts a story about a love affair in contemporary Hiroshima with footage from wartime France in a temporally disjointed nonlinear narrative.

Resnais is an interesting choice for Bersani and Dutoit’s thesis because of the three artists he is the one whose work comes closest to taking up the option for socio-political commentary. Rothko, in contrast, falls into the psychological domain of self-exploration typical of expressionism. Beckett is a pioneer of existentialist absurdism, and as such an important figure in terms of understanding the absurdist vein in modern/postmodern art from Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism through to absurdism at the turn of the millennium (Maurizio Cattelan, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, the Chapman Brothers, Jason Rhoades, Martin Creed, Malachi Farrell, Andreas Slominski etc.).

But we have to thank Green for pointing our attention in the direction of Resnais because his work can be understood as offering a paradigm for artists, like Green, who wish to make their work socially relevant without descending to the level of cliché and/or propaganda.

The core of Resnais’ approach lies in the author relinquishing the position of authority. But, even from the short account of Resnais’ work given here, it is obviously mistaken to suggest that the viewer will ‘learn nothing from it … gain no moral profit from it’ (Bersani & Dutoit 1993: 3). What is evident instead is that the viewer is provided with a deictic narrative, a narrative that points to a situation without offering the pre-packaged ethical message typical of Hollywood. It is also the case that at the heart of Resnais’ approach lies a significant elaboration on the technique of montage pioneered by Eisenstein. Whereas Eisenstein used montage in order to communicate an ideologically informed ethical message, Resnais uses montage to dislocate and dissociate the authority of the narrative. Whereas Eisenstein was flushed with the utopian optimism inspired by nascent Soviet communism,  Resnais was working in the aftermath the Nazi invasion of France and the horror of Auschwitz: the photographs and films of which depicted an extremely unheroic aspect of human behaviour.

Although she lacks the force of the historical context that formed Resnais’ important contribution to postmodern political art Green applies a similar use of montage in Partially Buried in Three Parts when she intercuts the present into the past. Part Three of Partially Buried in Three Parts, for example, was made for the Qwangju Biennale in Korea, 1997. Part of the work consisted of photographs Green took while visiting Qwangju and Seoul intermixed with images of the Korean War, 1950–1953, that she had come into contact with some eighteen years previously, presumably in America, as her country played such a key role in what the US refers to as the ‘Korean conflict’. There is no narrative structure in the interconnection of Green’s images other than what the viewer brings to it. But the images of the war would have similar impact for both Americans and Koreans, as it was principally their war, or conflict. One can assume that the images of contemporary Seoul and Qwangju would for many South Koreans underscore the advantages of not having lost that war and not being taken over by North Korean communist forces. But the narrative is far from clear or closed with North Korea having been thrust into a dangerous seclusion by the same war.

 

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Pablo Picasso, Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907.

Pablo Picasso, Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907. Picasso could not have created this work without knowing the work of Paul Cézanne, Georges Braque, African art, and El Greco.

Renée Green, Partially Buried, 1999. Installation view.

Renée Green, Partially Buried, 1999. Installation view. Courtesy CEPA Gallery

Renée Green, Partially Buried, 1999. Installation view.

Renée Green, Partially Buried, 1999. Installation view. Courtesy CEPA Gallery

Renée Green, Detail  from Partially Buried in Three Parts.
Renée Green's Partially Buried in Three Parts began with a reflection upon Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970, Kent State University, Ohio. As Green was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1959 the work begins within the general geographical locus of her childhood. Like many earthworks Partially Buried Woodshed is no longer physically extant and is available solely through the collective memory that is photo-documentation. Green points out that Partially Buried Woodshed is also sustained in the social consciousness of America because a few months after Smithson constructed the earthwork students at Kent State demonstrated against the bombing of Cambodia. The National Guard were called in to quell the demonstration resulting in the shooting of thirteen students four of whom died. No legal action was taken against the Guardsmen involved. Since then Partially Buried Woodshed has become indissolubly interlinked with that infamous event. And Green notes that shortly after the massacre the date of the event ‘“May 4, 1970” was painted on the “Partially Buried Woodshed”’ (Green 1999: 4). Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed can never be alluded to without evoking the Kent State massacre. And even if we try to exclude the massacre on the basis that there is no direct relationship of cause and effect between the two events we still have to refer to the massacre in order to exclude it. In a sense the Kent State massacre both unearths and, in terms of relative significance, erases Partially Buried Woodshed.

Part One of Partially Buried in Three Parts includes photographs of the building of Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed. But in the process of copying these photographs, one supposes from a book, Green has included her black hand pressing the page down. She therefore maps herself not only onto the construction of a work by a famous American land artist—a member of a male-dominated discourse—but she also maps her African American identity into a period not only of artistic struggle and experiment but also social struggle and experiment.