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Volume 6, Issue 3

What is it about Vancouver Art?
Tales of Narrative Entanglement From Up North

By Shep Steiner

It’s always a mistake to speak about a number of artists in the same essay. Grouping different art practices together under a theoretical umbrella or geographical rubric falls victim to the same trap. Simply put, the singularity of a particular practice is lost to the abstract calculus of the whole. With the examples of Documenta 11 and the Venice Biennale still fresh in our minds it should be a familiar enough curatorial problem, and no doubt as the impact of theory and philosophy mounts within curatorial circles we will be witness to as many ethical lapses as one comes across today in art criticism. Whether the interest and buzz is around globalism, a regionalism stretching from Baja to Vancouver, or the kind of localism I apparently favor here that is stuck on a neighborhood of practices from the city of Vancouver alone, intelligent discussion and well-informed dialogue invariably comes at the cost of singularity.1

Thus my humble corrective: I bring tales of narrative entanglement and exchange with the work of Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Stan Douglas, Ken Lum, and Roy Arden: art that is vastly different, at odds and in tension; a neighborhood of idiosyncratic practices which I imagine have benefited (at one time or another) from their proximity; by which I mean have opened up vast distances from one another.2 What one comes away with from each of these practices is a deep felt sense that though theory (of different emphases, of varied schools, of makeshift/make do constructions, or gleaned from peculiar practical application) occupies a foundational role in each practice, it does so only to open up a space of possibility unique to each and which would not otherwise exist. In as much theoretically oriented criticism on and understandings of these artists has failed to grasp what is crucial to each. Thus my performative approach to these practices: one that emphasizes the peculiar nature of dialogue that specific works invoke. These are incredibly idiosyncratic approaches to making art, and if we are to escape the instrumentality of current thinking on art, we will need above all else to be sensitive to this in our account.

This said, if theory is the main obstacle, it is not something we want to throw away. In our dialogues with contemporary art from Vancouver theory remains the best tool we have to theoretically determine what lies beyond its pale or limit. To be clear, what goes on under the name of critical thinking – I mean the substitution of transparent understandings [whether interdisciplinary, ontological, psychoanalytic, etc.] for the fugitive experience art provides – has a leftover, and it’s not of that species widely known as extrinsic reference. No matter how much the institution of art history or the sociological current in contemporary art criticism sways us, the international success of Vancouver artists cannot be simply reduced to allegories of place, landscape and character, city, social history, geneaological ties to the conceptual art of the N.E. Thing Company, or the parenthetical set of practices known as photo-conceptual art (what ever that is). Easy answers just don’t count when one is reaching for ethical singularity – an exterior to the interior of the system one enters when in dialogue with art.

And so with hesitations, worries galore, non-sequiturs curbed and glaring omission’s already made, we enter as usual into the horribly flawed field of art criticism, and begin as always in face-to-face conversation with art that seems to matter.

Rodney Graham
Take Rodney Graham’s earliest video performance “Halcion Sleep,” 1994. The work will be featured in Los Angeles MOCA’s upcoming Rodney Graham exhibition.3 The video documents the artist’s slumber in the back of a van traveling from an undisclosed motel room on the outskirts of Vancouver to his home near the city center while under the influence of what Graham describes in an artist note as a “double dose of the sedative/hypnotic (Halcion) chosen for the pleasant thoughts of the past evoked by its name.” Prostrate, clad in striped pajamas, with face scrunched into his hand, the continuous 26-minute single-take adds up to a rather intimate, slightly unflattering and even boyish portrait of the artist as a young man. It is a humorous piece: a contemplation on memory, time, self-portraiture, hypochondriac pleasures, the language of film, as well as the artist’s own extant body of work. What is crucial is that even if Graham is featured as an unthinking big lump of a thing, there is a kind of knowingness here that crystallizes a type of Romantic irony that is implicit to much of this artist’s work. In the glance of an eye one laughs at Graham’s mystified self shown deep in the clutches of illusion and the dream; and one laughs at this portrait, along with Graham’s awakened or enlightened self – a distanced and unmoving authorial presence that seems to observe the whole performance from the driver’s seat.

Laughing at Graham, as one laughs along with Graham, this is the narrative crux of interpretation on Graham’s work. In “Halcion Sleep” a kind of simple mode of self-portraiture exists in tension with a far more complex and self-conscious authorial presence. I take the work to be a watershed in Graham’s practice. In its double narrative line, or two-fold presence, it is exemplary of the way we typically let Graham’s critical eye guide our entrance to his work, all the while we let the little mimic in him to do its act. Coming at the work cold, the demands placed upon self-portraiture by the language of film noir vie for attention with what Graham describes as his earliest childhood recollection: “that of briefly, only briefly, awakening from a luxurious and secure sleep in the back of my parents car on the way home from some family road trip.” The thought of actually having to endure the entire 26 minutes of this video, only to see Graham briefly awaken, is a lot to ask of even the most conscientious viewer. It is a facetious ploy that the viewer implicitly accepts as such. This diversion noted, what one comes away with is that the fiction of autobiography is blended with a masterful eye for the fictive language at hand. Through these two avenues Graham is able to plumb the truth claims of each, pit the one against the other, and moreover, get a laugh out of his audience in the process.

 
 
 

Rodney Graham, "Oxfordshire Oak, Banford," 1990. Monochrome color print. 231 x 183cm. Courtesy of the artist.

 

The split personality or two-fold persona that regularly appears in Graham’s practice, though not an uncommon trope in the art world is definitely unique. Out from this two-fold structure Graham cultivates a peculiar hermeneutic that can hinge on either a smart reading or a dumb reading: two versions of what we can call an inside joke that everyone is let in on by virtue of an identification with Graham’s authorial presence, or Graham’s anecdotal and autobiographical presence. A complex reading of Graham’s work demands that we respond to both. In other words, we don’t want to respond to this work as merely high-minded critics, and if we do we only catch half of what’s going on.4 This mode of dialogue is crucial to keep tabs on, especially when faced by the lack of apparent rigor in many of the newer works that deal with contemporary music and involve Graham performing solo acts or fronting his band. As a general rule of thumb, as Graham’s work becomes more obsessed with popular music there is also the sense that he is moving in this orbit precisely because the genre and conventions of the contemporary pop song are so intensely personal. Add to this that Graham’s body of work as a whole is such a self-referential system – that each works orbits in harmony with the other – and further, that each work is underwritten by the entire corpus to such an extent that reading any one work seems to mean reading it off or against the body of work as a whole, one begins to see how a unique approach to the question of critical distance is built into even the performances. Given the presence-intensive nature of these performances it is worth remembering that over the course of thirty years Graham has continually pushed the limits of a practice that blends autobiographical details with the technical mastery of a fairly dazzling variety of languages (from photography and his early text works, to video, film, sculpture, painting and music). His ear for music or attunes to pop music – what in “Halcion Sleep” emerges as an attentiveness to language which lends the medium of video a rare purchase on authenticity – should in some sense be seen as simply one more feather in this dilettante’s hat.

Within Graham’s musical works specifically, and in the corpus of works as a whole, one comes away with a real feeling of ease to this practice. It is as if Graham’s works are not thought out or labored over, but rather slip effortlessly from a life lived, or are the result of a natural facility with the language employed. Ultimately, I think this sense of ease is a result of the very close connection his practice maintains between art and life, a connection framed by the trope of autobiography rather than the discourses of the avant-garde which are so important to the other artists I will now discuss.

Ken Lum
Now take the work of Ken Lum. The kind of dialogues one finds oneself falling into with Lum’s work touch upon the tropes of self-portraiture and irony, but do so in a far more public and political way. That they contain a political resonance at all is because one brushes up against them in the same motion as one comes in contact with – largely anonymous, but specific enough to be dubious – ethnographic concerns and the question of provenance itself. Take Lum’s so-called business sign entitled “Amir,” (2000) currently touring in the Baja to Vancouver exhibition.5 This a large very slick looking plexiglass panel, that has a depth of about 10 inches and that might very well be a real sign.

Though the work is a carefully crafted object, one’s first question of it is whether or not it is a found object. Even if it has the crisp clean lines of conceptual art Lum’s work is saturated with the everyday. After all, one comes across this kind of signage all the time in ethnically diverse neighborhoods. Michael Turner, one of Vancouver’s literary lights, has written a good essay on Lum’s work that employs this as a motor. Turner rightly argues that Lum’s business signs can be read as narratives. He says, in a spirit of openness, that he wants to approach these works as a “flâneur… someone who has driven past these signs then decided to look again – this time from the median strip.” He describes “Amir:”

“THRIFT SHOP in biggest letters, then NEW & USED. Also: WATCH, JEWELRY & SHOE REPAIRS. A number of permanent services. Did Amir start out in THRIFT then expand to include NEW items, additional services likes REPAIRS? If so, he or she must have been doing well enough to buy new signage. But times, like adjustable-type, change. Now AMIR’s CLOSING OUT. EVERYTHING MUST GO. And what? AMIR is MOVING BACK 2 ERITREA? (my question mark). ERITREA: perhaps the most dangerous place on earth. Could things really be that bad? Could ERITREA be any worse than what AMIR was experiencing in Vancouver, the very place where this province, under the auspices of Expo 86, “Invite[d] the World” not so long ago?”6

 
 
 

Ken Lum, "McGill and Son," 2001. Plexiglass, powder coated aluminum, plastic lettering, enamel paint. 214 x 190 x 11cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Wolfgang Gunzel.

 

I like Turner’s reading, but what I think it crucially misses is that one does not simply interact with this sign as one assumes a flâneur on a car tour of a multicultural neighborhood would – reference to an outside is far more delayed, indeed sent scuttling on an infinite detour. In a strange sense the initial question of provenance gives one’s private interpretation an exaggerated public life, something that places the pleasurable look and easy response of the flâneur in far too volatile a forum to be at all comfortable. It is as if one’s response is put under the spotlight of public scrutiny. Certainly narrative possibilities are entertained – one speculates on Amir’s fictional circumstances here in the English-speaking First World, and the crisis or possibilities Amir will return to back there in the Third World (it could be beach-front property in Eritrea, a hand in the rebuilding of his country, as much as the impact of famine, pestilence and civil war on his family) – so narratives are entertained, but to my ear they are raised at the behest of an authorial voice who one assumes has the right to speak of such things in the first place, and in a joking manner. It seems that the very unartistic nature of Lum’s works are balanced by a very palpable sense that he, the “artist,” has had a clear hand in the making. “Red Circle,” 1986 is a good early example: If one ignores the obvious references to minimalism all this work betrays is the trace of intention. In looking at the work, the figure of the “artist” looms up as someone who has placed the couches in such a way that no one can use them. The question of the “artist” betrays a certain interest in subjectivity (and hence identity politics) that may be taken as a weakness, but which nevertheless has turned into the fiction of an authorial persona. Let me put it another way in face of “Amir.” In trying to grasp the reasons for my laughter (more like a snicker) in front of “Amir,” I become very conscious of my identity, and seem to reflect upon it (gain a certain distance from it) by virtue of imaginatively inhabiting the “artist’s” place in front of his own work. In effect, I try on for size the role of what I assume to be this “artist’s” status as a visible minority. After all, in a Democracy or pluralist society the dictates of taste, good faith, and better judgment forbid all but the marginalized voice from making such jokes about other minority groups

Unlike Graham’s buffoonery, Lum’s humor is not at his own expense, it is at the expense of a less assimilated cultural minority. One’s prejudicial narration (read: the usual wandering of one’s discriminatory faculties in the context of the gallery and in the encounter with art) becomes a reason to jump for higher ground. That is – and I’m being critical of Turner here – Turner’s impulse to read the signs as a flâneur might, is not sensitive enough to the distance from this prejudicial narration one also has to posit. What is interesting is that in reaching for the decidedly centrist or assimilated perspective of the authorial voice an operational form of irony is put into action. Bad faith or liberal guilt turns one’s empathy into an uncomfortable identity that is not perhaps as centered as it could be.

What is palpable in Lum’s business signs is the way that fictive solutions and personal comprehensions of an ever-changing world are insinuated into, or are saturated by a larger system of tropological exchange that is driven, we can only assume, by the abstract measure of finance capital. The scale of Amir’s business, the type of ventures Amir has undertaken, and the radical change in direction that his personal anecdote punctuates, all breathe – both for better or for worse – the air of globalization, mass migrations, and the intensification and continuous colonization of new markets by capitalism. It is difficult to tell from only one of Lum’s signs, but if one sees a selection of them one begins to discern a sensitivity to what can only be called modernity’s of unequal development. In each case an impersonal, diachronic narrative reaches its saturation point or synchronic moment of synthesis in peculiar, hopeful, frightening, naïve, acerbic, sweet, and usually humorous revelations of the most personal kind. The site of Lum’s practice takes place between an imaginative ordering of the world seen through the eyes of the global migrant, and an assimilated perspective on this comprehension by a superior, though equally fictive, authorial “I.”

Roy Arden
If the quintessential act of reportage photography is to document those events (no matter how insignificant) that strike a chord or jump-start a process of wonder on the spot then, in the photography of Roy Arden, this document becomes a site of intervention. In a sense, the moment in which the particular echoes through with the world-historical is made to waffle; that is, made to admit its facticity as language.

Take “Tree Stump Nanaimo, B.C.,” (1991) a photograph from Arden’s “Landscapes of the Economy” series that shows an overturned and sawed off stump against a backdrop of urban sprawl. It is all too common to entertain interpretations of this work that take it as simply newsworthy: thus one discusses the ever-spreading suburb, expounds against deforestation, or mounts a further critique of modernization and capitalist development. A certain fascination with the stump as figure – the way it is isolated, set in relief, squared up front and center to the picture plane – is read off or against the cool eye of documentary photography in order to produce high-minded gossip. And yet, even if the rigid frontality of “Tree Stump” sets up the structure of a particularly charged specular relation, one that shudders with the muscular recoil of a double take, there is also an aspect of the gaze that petrifies this object, as well as the mise-en-scene of which it is only one part. One might argue for a depth and pathos here, as confidently as one may describe this picture as flat, apathetic, even instrumental. But then if the viewer is confronted by a flat depiction of contemporary life – one stupidly opposed to meaning as realism ought to be – it is hard to deny that "Tree Stump" is not making a spectacle of meaning something.

 
 
 

Roy Arden, "Tree Stump, Nanaimo, B.C.," 1991. Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Dee Galery, NYC.

 

Functioning as a powerful visual hook, the stump’s value relative to the twigs, gravel, and bits and pieces of the everyday that surround it, is striking. To these discrete objects it assigns the role of “realistic filler” and they, the undifferentiated field, confirm its status as a salient figure. It looms forward as a world of recalcitrant details pulls back. But here’s the catch! The viewer that settles upon the stump as figure does not do so without a certain effort at making other details figure as well. In fact, one is always going to ground in Arden’s work: what I mean is that the viewer is thrown into the thick of a dynamic that constantly recruits the literal to confirm the figural. Given the medium’s propensity for differencing, which Arden exploits to the utmost, the eye is continually skipping between potential figures and grounds, testing each in turn for significance, only to confirm with each glance that the penultimate detail out of which the picture unfolds – where its secret necessity will finally emerge (that small scrap of white paper in the foreground, the mounding up of wood chips, the anthropomorphic like finger of a root, or the sawed-off end of the stump itself that stares back at one like an eye) – is never exactly the object-at-hand. Being lost in a thicket of details – eye darting here and there like a bird watcher – looking for anything to finally answer the call of the peculiarly powerful gaze, is all part of the Arden effect. In looking at this photography one is continually compensating for the perverse feeling of occupying another’s body; of being complicit in an act of looking alien to one’s own perspective; of rationalizing the eroticism, violence, or intensity of another’s gaze by giving it an object.

Highlighting a figure without repressing the ground upon which it stands is a difficult task; showing up the instability of this relation so as to forefront the process of assigning literal and figural value in the first place, even more so. In “Tree Stump,” this surplus effect – something that Arden equates with realism – emerges out of a circuitry that governs the figure/ground relation. The anxious dialectic within which this dyad exists is no accident. This work, and Arden’s photographic works as a whole, is subject to a sustained process of judging and re-judging documents collected in an archive of raw photographs which over time (sometimes up to 10 years) are cropped and sized precisely for the tenuousness of their dialectic. In each and every one of Arden’s photographs the viewer is trapped into making meaning, all the while a certain impassibilité makes any ascription of meaning gratuitous. As a result one is always bordering on the vicinity of the informe, and as in the case of “Hastings Street Sidewalk,” 1995, it all adds up to a kind of swelling or tumescence of the picture surface itself. With linear perspective pushed to a breaking point – horizon line gone, gaze directed earthward, vanishing points torn between the gloomy recess at left and the fuzziness at right – the surface of this diminutive photograph itself embodies the pressure of something like watery eyes in a convulsive fit. So small that one is compelled to move in close in order to make sense of a brown bag and smear on the sidewalk, and with a kind of wariness of a protruding overhang not quite cropped out above, one inhabits a kind of hunchback glance. In so doing, the spate of social and economic problems in this region of Vancouver becomes all too familiar. With all manner of development and regentrification going on elsewhere, this two or three block area of the city has become a last resort for the dispossessed. A history of the street rises like a sickening lump in one’s throat. Tastes like bile in the morning to me!

Whether this heaving is an effect of existential urgency or a careful teasing out of questions the medium raises after the fact, and inevitably leaves unanswered, is difficult to tell. Always uncertain in the work of this inveterate master of the hunch is that one can never be sure of what initially struck him and/or if it all was planned. Why? Because Arden’s reportage-type photography is not one that simply depends on an immediacy given expression by shooting from the hip. It is derived from the medium; specifically, a dialogue with the medium after the fact of photography – a dialogue that the viewer continues and extends because the dynamic around which any one picture will turn is ultimately unpredictable.

Stan Douglas
The crucial first step to understanding the work of Stan Douglas is acknowledging the primacy of disorientation. In spite of technological complexities, the specificities of historical circumstance, specialized language far too unique to be at all familiar, and the seamlessness of the finished products themselves, I find that a very sympathetic and human sounding “I want to know you,” drives my engagement with Douglas’ work.

Why our generosity in the face of this demanding art is a difficult question to answer. In part it is due to the way Douglas conceives of durational art in distinction to static art. In “Suspiria,” 2002, which Douglas exhibited at Documenta 11, what is at stake is how the durational art work folds literal and figural meanings together in a single narrative present, and in effect parlays memory into creating a total art work that behaves as if it were alive; as if it were a sentient being. In “Suspiria” wht draws one in, is both a kind of technical wizardry that is slightly off-putting, as well as the absolute lack of purchase one’s own experience has on the task of interpreting what is at hand. One’s own memory simply fails in face of the structure it confronts, and in face of this lack one borrows the experience of memory that is already encoded in the work.

Thus the world “Suspiria” has on offer is quite foreign, a moment specific to the genre of the Italian horror film, in fact, the last hailing of Technicolor. But also, it is shot-through by the cinematic idiom of the surveillance camera – what the viewer sees is a live video feed from Kassel’s infamous Herkules Oktagon in the Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe. Laid over top of these already complex sources is a semi-repetitious narrative that employs the characters and devices of the fairy tale. At the time I thought it the strange world of a computer gaming cult: the kind that a new player can never really comprehend with any total certainty, but nevertheless one that a viewer can watch and which over time learns. This said, for a good few minutes one just stands or sits there blankly trying to figure things out, for the rules of engagement are explicit. One is spoken to in a decidedly didactic way until experience and the accumulation of it (in the viewer) in sufficient amounts, adds up to memory and what (in my case) feels like a rather mechanical talk-back function – an initial response to the work.

In effect, prerecorded blocks of narrative action, the very stuff of experience, unfold or linearize (with the intervention of a computer program) in random patterns of near repetition. These ghostly echoes of a narrative past inhabiting a present lie latent in the work; wait for a viewer to make them over into experience, memory and knowledge. In other words, if one is at first schooled by Douglas’ work, there always comes a point at which one turns against the educational predicament with the knowledge accumulated. Patient viewer that I am, I watch and learn as the work slowly gives itself over to me, only to use these borrowed experiences in a snapping exchange that can only be at the expense of the work. For the most part, dialogue between the viewer and the work ends here: one can get up and leave content in the knowledge that one knows what is going on. But if one continues after the fashion, if one allows the responses to keep coming from both sides as it were, “Suspiria” seems to point to experience and memory as the principal commodities up for exchange. Beyond this, it points to the hollow shell of a hegemonic system that the viewer has unknowingly entered into a contractual obligation with – in order to come into being in the first place through the gift of language.

 
 
 

 
 
 
 

Stan Douglas, stills from "Suspiria," 2002, video projection, infinite duration, dimensions variable. Courtesy of Stan Douglas and David Zwirner Gallery.

 

These “interactive” processes described, it is difficult to discern the lineaments of a practice in Douglas’ work. Firstly, because one jacks into the salience conditions provided by the work instead of drawing upon one’s own body of experiences, one’s own faculty of judgment is curiously prohibited from leading a life outside that of the artist’s own site-specific and process oriented method. Secondly, because the structure of intention is so seamlessly encoded into the artificial intelligence of the work’s computational system, narrative circularities and imperfect repetitions that might otherwise serve as a cue to practice can be read as easily as the dead-end symbols of an instrumental programming.

Like “Nutka,” 1996 and “Win, Place, or Show,” 1998, “Suspiria” works hard to position the viewer somewhere between the obsessions and repetitions of a particular site’s history on one hand, and on the other, the instrumental and abstract calculus of the whole.7 A local truth, which is identified as the meaning effect of a low form of sentient life, is played off a global truth, which in turn is complicit in the fiction of the all-knowing and controlling artist that Douglas’ work, like Samuel Beckett’s, wonders in. Though grounded in site-specific details and language specific histories, the viewer of Douglas’ work can only be on the way to the absolute comprehension of these discourses that one supposes the artist possesses – one of two fictional poles around which the work revolves. In closing, it is worth noting that these two narrative circuitries enjoy a very unequal existence. By and large criticism only becomes entangled in the historically engaged meanings that the work takes as its departure. Usually, this comes at the cost of a blindness to the game one is in fact playing, and almost invariably results in criticism that can only parrot Douglas’ own explanation of the work.

Jeff Wall
Some people say they like it, some people say they don’t. Thus, the run-of-the-mill responses of a Documenta going public to Jeff Wall’s “After ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, the Preface,” 1999-2001, and curiously, the line of questioning in face of Wall’s work that penetrates the deepest. How so? Ultimately, because this is the very stuff of aesthetic judgment. Principally because one engages with each and every one of Wall’s works just as one would any critical argument. When an example is put forth (say, of the beautiful) one either agrees or takes exception to the argument it (the example) so strikingly articulates.

Allow me to briefly outline the crucial aspects of an argument for Walls’ work through recourse to “Diagonal Composition, no. 2,” 1998. This is a relatively small, bare and seemingly uncomplicated picture of the corner of a sink, some sort of rough wooden shelve next to it, and a pale green wall. A sense of the forgotten, the contingent, and the everyday permeates the work. On the extreme right a small finger of 1/4” plywood lays on top of a white rubber glove. It may or may not have been placed at a purposely acute angle to the main thrust of the sink. I mention this because I find myself sliding into conversation with the picture from just left of center trending right along the dark side of the sink. The beige linoleum above, with traces of glue around it, focuses my attention. A pine molding, the diagonal trend of the worktop, and finally the plywood stick I just mentioned, points by example. To be sure it is a mumbled argument, but I think it is the void on the right half of the picture that is doing the talking. Like its earlier counterpart “Diagonal Composition” (1993) this is an alienating picture. Unlike the latter, which seems to look up and over right for a shadow (further than the frame allows) at the same time as it looks precipitously down into the basin as if from the same vantage point, “Diagonal Composition no. 2” displaces the point of the gaze itself. While the diagonals seem to accommodate one’s perspective in facing the picture, there is an uncomfortable lack of fit as well. Indeed, there is a distinct feeling that one is looking as if from a position outside of one’s own perspective; that is, as if one is beside oneself looking into the picture from the extreme right. In the context of Wall’s work, I take this to be one instancing of what I would call a pictorial imagining of beispiel (the German for example or “by-play”).8 The work examples or performs what it means to look at a subject or argument from a perspective wholly different from – that is, even the inversion or complete negation of – one’s own perspective.

With this early articulation of beispiel in mind we can return to the arguments for and against “Invisible Man.” Notwithstanding the protestations of a few Documenta goers, it is what I would call a beautiful work, a quality not unrelated to the way one engages or enters into dialogue with the work. Thus, in spite of the importance of subject matter, I lay the question to rest at the very onset of looking. There is just too much of it to comprehend in a global manner. Not only this, but as a motif that is specifically referenced in the title, I take it for granted that the subject matter on hand stands in place for something else. This said, the relative positioning of specific objects in space – the “this is next to that and not that other thing” – is decisive to narrative. On the micro-textual level at any rate! And with so much point-by-point, object-by-object analysis to do, one wonders if it is to be trusted anyway. So, as in the case of “Diagonal Composition, no. 2,” I find my way in this picture, not through the apprehension of subject matter, but through spatial questions that the objects on show – the lack of objects in the one, the plenitude of objects in the other -- betray in spite of themselves.

Position is everything in “Invisible Man:” perspectives open up in spite of/because of the positioning of the million and one objects. In spite of its incredibly cluttered and overcrowded nature – a kind of claustrophobic sense that the whole place is caving in on one -- it is oddly expansive. One feels all the openness of an outdoor picture. Stranger still is that in looking at the picture one wants to believe that its spaciousness is due primarily to its quality of packed-fullness. Thus, in spite of my tenuous identification with the hunched over and slightly oversized figure in the midst of this horror vacuii, it feels to me as if vistas open up, that there is room -- empty room -- to move about in. Why? Embarrassing though it is to admit, I am convinced it has two vanishing points, one lying beside the other. I say embarrassing because firstly, this is virtually impossible to prove, and secondly, because when one is at the Documenta salon it is always in one’s best interest to stay cool and together, i.e., keep one’s composure. With everyone crowding for the king’s perspective at front and center it is unnerving, to say the least, to find oneself jostling for a spot on the margin in order to confirm one’s view of what Wall has raised elsewhere as Hegel’s example of "pure culture:" “The absolute and universal inversion of reality and thought, their entire estrangement the one from the other.” A feeling reserved for Hegel’s "distraught and disintegrated soul" is here made palpable in face of Wall’s photograph as the dim sensation of being beside oneself (i.e., mad, or out of one’s head).9

Take the left-hand corner: one looks into it at an angle running roughly parallel to the left hand wall of the room. It seems like a pocket that recedes into depth. But if one zeroes in on the record player and the small dresser that fill it, the niche flattens out. Similarly, the grey blanket to the right has all the makings of a ninety-degree fold if, that is, one uses the fireplace (?) and balustrade as a cue, for it tends to tow the line if one looks for confirmation of this in the brick work behind or by using the jumble of the left-hand wall. What’s more, because the picture plane and the fictive plane of the right hand rear wall are slightly askew, while the left hand side of the rear wall (i. e., the corner in question) sits as if parallel to the surface, it is tempting to say that the expansiveness of this little corner turns on a vertical line that falls plumb from the lit, solitary light bulb just left of center above. It falls through the drooping concretion of spent bulbs, gets zapped through the bird cage-like contraption, arcs to the blanketed corner, jumps for the diagonal slice down the back of the armchair, and finally angles out through the plywood positioned on the floor. Two independent perspectives seem to fall on either side of this articulated front. Desire is, of course, to possess both points of view at once: but the one (grandly opening up toward the right), even if just beside the other, presents itself as an inexhaustible beyond.

This said, one’s viewing position or perspective vis-à-vis the picture, is structured upon an asymmetrical chiasmic reversal. Since both the left and right rear corners extend out beyond any possible point of logical vanishing, depending on whether one looks from the right or left respectively, the deep recession of the one is underwritten by, or contingent upon the absolute negation of the other. In this sense “Invisible Man” forefronts the dialectical resources of good argument through a non-dialectizable tension. It provides an example to substantiate one perspective and predicts a response, a counter perspective that will refute that argument, indeed turn the former on its head. Though for some members of the salon public this may raise the level of argument to an anxious Hegelian pitch, for others – those in the vast majority – the impulse to look both ways merely serves as a pretext to check the part in one’s hair!

Here, as elsewhere, reflection gets in the way of reading: a reading that if not yet in complete contact with singularity has in fact brushed up against the dynamics of reading by virtue of rehearsing the dynamics of narrative. One must be careful not to essentialize this matter. Strange, strange allegories of reading abound in these Northern climes and grouping together a neighborhood of idiosyncratic practices, like that of the Vancouver art scene inevitably suffers cruel and unusual punishment at the hand of interpretation. The positive answers of a transparent criticism are as ethically corrupt (vis-à-vis the singularity of the other) as the universal reason upon which equality before the law is grounded.10

Notes:

1. My use of the notion of singularity derives from a number of sources, all of which hinge upon the rethinking of ethics as responsibility to the other. Emmanuel Levinas frames the problem thusly: “Anarchically, proximity is a relationship with a singularity, without the mediation of any principle or ideality. In the concrete, it describes my relationship with the neighbor, a relationship whose signifyingness is prior to the celebrated “sense bestowing”… It is the summoning of myself by the other (autrui), it is a responsibility toward those whom we do not even know.” Emmanuel Levinas, “Substitution,” Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings, A. Peperzak, S. Critchley, R. Bernasconi, eds. (Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1996), 81. See also Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. A. Smock, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995); and Jacques Derrida, “Secrets of European Responsibility,” The Gift of Death, trans. D. Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 1-34. My particular take on this literature is filtered through Paul de Man’s notion of reading. In his excellent introduction to the work of Paul de Man Rodolphe Gasché defines the “absolutely singular” as a “singularity so singular as to defy all relationality – a singularity, hence, that would be idiosyncratic in the absolute sense … this emphatic notion of the singular represents the foundation of de Man’s understanding of language.” Rodolphe Gasché, “Introduction,” The Wild Card of Reading: On Paul de Man (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 5. In her “Translators Preface” to the work of Mahasweta Devi, Gayatri Spivaks writes of “ethical singularity:” “We all know that when we engage profoundly with one person, the responses come from both sides: this is responsibility and accountability. We also know that in such engagements we want to reveal and reveal, conceal nothing. Yet on both sides there is always a sense that something has not got across. This we call the ‘secret,’ not something that one wants to conceal, but something that one wants to reveal. In this sense the effort of ‘ethical singularity’ may be called a ‘secret encounter.’ Please note that I am not speaking of meeting in secret. In this secret singularity, the object of ethical action is not an object of benevolence, for here responses flow from both sides…This is why ethics is the experience of the impossible. Please note that I am not saying that ethics are impossible, but rather that ethics is the experience of the impossible.” See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Translators Preface,” Imaginary Maps: Three Stories by Mahasweta Devi, G. Spivak trans. (New York: Routledge, 1995), xxv.

2. This grouping of artists is what is most alive in Vancouver’s contemporary art-scene. I say “most alive” to flag the paradigmatic impact that the practices of each have had on a younger generation of artists, critics, and curators in the city. By virtue of specific allergies to language, reading, and rhetoricity, in fact all the makings of the aesthetic save ideology itself, the art historians have remained largely immune to this influence.

3. Rodney Graham: A Little Thought, will be featured at the Art Gallery of Ontario from March 31 – June 27, 2004, followed by engagements at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (July 25 – November 29, 2004) and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

4. For more on laughter and the place of the joke in Graham’s work see my “Anomalies of the Phenomenal: A ‘Close’ Reading of Rodney Graham’s Joke-Works,” Rodney Graham: A Little Thought (Los Angeles: MOCA, 2004), pp. 109-125.

5. Baja to Vancouver: The West Coast and Contemporary Art, Seattle Art Museum (Oct. 9, 2003 – Jan. 4, 2004), Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (January 2004 –), Vancouver Art Gallery (June 2004 –), CCAC Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco (October 2004 –).

6. Michael Turner, “Untitled (Ken),” Ken Lum, Vancouver: Contemporary Art Gallery, 2001. p. 13.

7. Douglas points to this in a didactic panel as the language of Italian director Dario Argento’s Technicolor horror film Suspiria as well as Walt Disney’s adaptation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that Argento references and which seems to have provided a site specific thematic that set Douglas’ mind a working in the first place. See Carlos Basualdo, “Stan Douglas,” Documenta 11_Plattform 5: Austellung/ Exhibition, Kurzfuhrer/ Short Guide, (Kassel: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2002), 62.

8. See Andrzej Warminski’s translations of the German word beispiel. In the context of his discussion of the status of the example in Hegel’s Phenomenology he translates beispiel as something “beside,” or “to the side of;” A “by-play” that is similar, though distinct from, the otherness of allegory. Andrzej Warminski, Readings in Interpretation: Hölderlin, Hegel, Heidegger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 97-98.

9. G.W.F. Hegel, quoted by Jeff Wall, “Unity and Fragmentation in Manet,” Jeff Wall (London: Phaidon, 1996), pp. 86, 89.

10. This essay is a slightly revised version of an essay originally published in X-TRA, Volume 6, Issue 3 (Spring 2004).


Shep Steiner is an art critic currently living in Toronto, Canada. He wrote the present essay while in Los Angeles (thus the reference to an up North and not an out West).
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
       
   

 

 

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