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One can contrast Green’s Resnaisian lack of a definite political message with political art of the previous generation. A key instance would be the work of Barbara Kruger where the message of her combinations of image and text during the 1980s maps squarely onto the discourse of second wave feminism. There is little ambiguity in Kruger’s 1980s work apart from her use of pronouns—a deliberate device intended to make her message less apparently propagandistic. Mapped onto second wave feminism her otherwise cryptic use of terms such as ‘I’ and ‘your’ are decoded into very explicit messages concerning masculine hegemony. A similar mapping onto an external ideological framework is evident in the political art of Hans Haacke.

Green’s more distanced approach, and less defined ethical position, seems more ‘poetic’. Does it, therefore, possess more aesthetic value than Kruger’s and Haacke’s work? I would suggest not. Both Kruger and Haacke’s work possesses great force of both conviction and visual impact. And with regard to Kruger’s work this forcefulness is informed by the extraordinary social revolution effected by second wave feminism of the 1960s and ‘70s. We have to be extremely respectful of second wave feminism because without it there would not be so many female artists, like Green, to talk about today.

Kruger took a definite position in her work of the 1980s, Green avoids taking a position and this has a direct relationship to the issue of identity. Taking a position, mapping oneself onto a social discourse provides identity. One can say ‘I am a feminist’, ‘I am a lesbian’ etc., but in the 1990s and early 2000s taking such positions has been criticised on the basis of their propensity to become authoritarian social configurations (see Judith Butler's writings).

One of the most interesting features of works of art such as Nuit et brouillard and Hiroshima mon amour is that they appear to avoid mapping onto an extant, external ideology. What is even more interesting, for the discussion of artistic identity in this chapter, is that this decision leads to a problematising of authorial authority. Metaphorically, Nuit et brouillard and Hiroshima mon amour can be described as ‘dissociated’ or ‘autistic’. One can also describe Rothko’s abstract expressionism in terms of an inward, as opposed to outward, gaze. Similarly, Beckett’s absurdism can be understood in terms of a representation of modern society as autistic; or as an autistic representation of modern society. Such observations are supported in Green’s exegesis of Bersani and Dutoit’s Arts of Impoverishment when she notes that Bersani and Dutoit see a ‘narcissistic concentration on themselves’ in the work of Beckett, Rothko and Resnais. But, crucially, this is the narcissism of one who looks into a broken mirror to discover a dissociated personality: a personality out of sync with its culture, a fragmented personality.

With respect to fragmentation, Resnais’ films are not coherent wholes in the classical narrative sense; they exhibit, instead,  narrative dissociation, a breaking into pieces. Kent Jones reports that ‘Anatole Dauman, one of the  producers, of Hiroshima mon amour told Resnais, “I’ve seen all this before, in Citizen Kane, a film which breaks chronology and reverses the flow of time.” To which Resnais replied, “Yes, but in my film time is shattered.”’ (Jones 2006: 1). One recalls the shattering of space by an implied interpenetration with time in Analytical Cubism, and one also recalls the remarkable portraits of the Analytical Cubist period, because they did not display a classical integrated individual but rather an image of the other reflected in a shattered mirror.

In the Lacanian mirror stage we see ourselves as others see us, as constructed by the social gaze, but that gaze is manifold: think of the pervasive and ceaseless bombardment of mass media images. In such postmodern circumstances misrecognition becomes the most appropriate term, because it suggests a subject who is not integrated because she sees herself as multiple others see her.

Part of the beauty of the Lacanian mirror stage is that it projects a psychological concept of self into a sociological dimension, into the sphere Foucault described using the metaphor of the panopticon, which maps onto our society of surveillance and mass media.

Hopefully, such metaphors helps understand Green when she points to Bersani and Dutoit’s observation that via the dissociated text (an elaboration on the nonlinear text) individuals might ‘“find themselves” through a process of misrecognition’ (CEPA, 1999). In other words, fixed identity becomes an encumbrance in a dynamic late capitalist environment that requires continual adaptation to constantly changing circumstances.

Modernity can be read as a label for the historical moment when society became too massive for any individual gaze to encompass.[55] So the mirror had to be adjusted as is evident in the case of the Cubist implosion/explosion of  Renaissance perspective. Metaphorically, Cubism passes through the simple mirror to show the universe of mirrors that lies beyond. But this does not make the modern world clearer, instead it reveals paradox and equivocation. And with regard to the metaphors of the mirror and the maze we can also add the multiplicity of photographic and cinematic points of view. The single eye of the panopticon is replaced in our everyday urban life by a manifold of surveillance cameras. Each point of view affords not a better picture of the whole but, instead, the dissolution of any concept of totality into multiple perspectives. The more points of view that become available the less we can reduce the ‘whole’ to a simple, static (classical) interpretation. It is quite possible that the explosion of social imaging and reflection that accompanies mass media can be understood as augmenting the biological evolution of social consciousness evident in the emergence of mirror neurones.

Reading art, imploding  social reflection

Green’s exegesis of Bersani and Dutoit reveals that the ‘narcissism’ (‘autism’ might be a better word) evident in the work of Beckett, Rothko and Resnais is ultimately ‘self-explosive’, which is to say dissociative, the self is not reflected back as a whole, but as fragments refracted by many ‘others’. Green describes this process in terms of a scenario where a work of art is ‘continually finding itself in other parts of itself—although what it finds is also different from itself’ (Green 1999: 3). Obviously, a work of art is an inanimate object that cannot reflect upon itself. What Green is referring to, metaphorically, is the intimately interrelated and inseparable processes of creating and reading the work of art. She quotes Bersani and Dutoit:

The work connects to the world outside by initiating within itself the uncertain tracing (the appearing and the disappearing) of boundaries. It provides a formal model of how human beings ‘find them­selves’ through a process of misrecognition.
(in Green 1993: 3; Bersani & Dutoit 1993: 7)

The ‘uncertain tracing’ and the ‘appearing and disappearing’ of boundaries both suggest a hall of mirrors. And the notion that we ‘find ourselves’ in such a situation can be understood in terms of the Lacanian mirror stage wherein we find ourselves in the intersection of others’ gazes. Which is to say the social construction of identity–which Marxism criticised in terms of capitalist conspiracy (hegemony) and feminism critiqued in terms of the dominance of the masculine discourse–is not a stable system because there can never be a single reference point, or centre, akin to the vanishing point in Renaissance perspective.

Attempts to impose a single viewpoint can be seen in the neat and tidy answers provided by mass media, consumerism and Hollywood narratives. These are the social ‘patches’ that are brought online on a regular basis to mollify us on our bumpy ride through our postmodern existences. Social reality is much more equivocal, relativistic and—most importantly—evolutionary.[56]

Green’s speculations on the ‘autism’ of Beckett and the anomie of Resnais lead to a generic conclusion which is that instead of socio-political art transmitting a ‘correct’ ideological message, each viewer should be left to draw their own conclusion. Green points to Bersani and Dutoit’s discussion of the:

political potential of … “participatory mobility,” which is the process by which the viewer works to piece together the various parts of the work, rather than attempting to absorb and master it (Green 1999: 3).

Whereas the political art of Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger and Victor Burgin in the late 1970s and 1980s was concerned with transmitting a fairly explicit political message, a message mapped onto an external ideological discourse, Green outlines an alternative. And this alternative seems best described by referring to the work of Resnais. For example, discussing Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour Kent Jones observes that when Resnais set off for Japan to shoot the film he ‘was convinced that his film was going to fall apart’, but Kent continues:

What they created [Resnais and Duras], with the greatest delicacy and emotional and physical precision, was an anxious aesthetic object, as unsettled over its own identity and sense of direction as the world was unsettled over how to go about its business after the cataclysmic horror of World War II. … Hiroshima [mon amour] never locates a fixed point toward which emotion, morality and ethics gravitate. (Jones 2006: 3)

One might propose Hiroshima mon amour as a paradigm for Bersani and Dutoit’s ‘participatory mobility’ where the ethical problem is distributed amongst the manifold of viewer-readers, into a manifold of points of view. This sounds positive but it is not especially effective because the viewers have no voice; which is to say they cannot feed back into the art system because that system remains closed to the viewer unlike mass culture where the viewer possesses the power not to consume particular offerings.

What we are left with then is an awareness of the academic status of deconstructive art. It goes through the motions of involving the viewer without following through. Most especially, the technique of nonlinear narrative which is a key defining feature of deconstructive art is not especially effective without viewer involvement. As Green notes, after Bersani and Dutoit, the aim of the game is to engender a multiplicity of points of view but we have little way of knowing whether this has occurred.

We would know if the product was a film or a book because people would either purchase it or not. It is certainly the case that one has to pay to see major survey exhibitions of particular contemporary artists, and it is the case that people do crowd into such shows. There is certainly scope for a serious sociological study of the reception of contemporary art comparable to Pierre Bourdieu’s approach (1991). Rather than the continual focus of art writing on the artist-individual one would welcome a sociological assessment of the reception of nonlinear narrative installation by gallery visitors. I am sure there would be a disparity between the considerable theoretical enthusiasm for this strategy and its actual effect. My intuition is that most gallery visitors accept nonlinear narrative in the way that we accept the latest fashion, without any of the critical dimension supposed by theorists such as Bersani and Dutoit or artists such as Renée Green. And that observation is not a slight on gallery visitors it is much more a criticism of the fact that nonlinear narrative has become dogma in the context of deconstructive art, without any concern for how it might work. We know narrative works as a powerful mode of social representation and reflection, but we really don’t know if nonlinear narrative actually functions in the way in which we think it might.

Identity in the Cutting Room: Candice Breitz

The next work I will examine, Candice Breitz’s Becoming, 2003,  is of interest because it combines an intense application of deconstructive nonlinear narrative with a mapping of fine art onto the field of mass media. What results is interesting, because it shifts away from the resolute rejection of mass media evident in the work of artists such as Barbara Kruger and Hans Haacke and points instead to a more fruitful interaction between the deconstructive dogma of nonlinear narrative that is a defining feature of contemporary fine art and the everyday culture of the postmodern world permeated with mass media and consumerism.

In Breitz’s Becoming the notion of multiple points of view comes to the fore, as does the idea that the viewer is presented with so many viewpoints that taking any definitive point of view is made very difficult. Becoming is also of interest because it is almost a nonlinear narrative, creative game that viewer-readers could play.


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Alain Resnais, Hiroshima mon amour, 1959. Screenplay Marguerite Duras.
Still from DVD © Concorde Home Entertainment.

Alain Resnais, from Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog), 1955.

Alain Resnais, from Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog), 1955.

Candice Breitz, Becoming, 2003. Video installation.

Candice Breitz, Becoming, 2003. Video installation.