Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Let us Declare the End of All Ends

I may take flight, but all the while I am fleeing, I will be looking for a weapon! -Ludwig Fischer

Ryan Trecartin's rise within the art market has been ballistic. His practice has been enthusiastically framed, or perhaps I should say marketed, like MTV, as the voice of a generation--a principle dear to our institutions of higher curating. I am referring of course to Younger than Jesus. Trecartin's ambitious installation functioned as the exhibition's battle cry--the exuberant and idiomatic scream of a generation.

The embrace of Trecartin has been nearly universal. There has been no true criticism, but much written about his work. It certainly elicits the awe of those joyous technicians of excoriating prose that rest content tracing the surface and contours of a practice without assessing its stakes or its inner logic. Yes, I know. It is altogether untimely, even unfashionable--dare I say unzeitgemäß in my father's tongue--to insist on the persistent necessity of taking a position. For one might legitimately ask what does a position mean in a world more post than any post.
Yet, if one stubbornly persists in searching for his artistic position, one need not go further than his current curatorial effort at Vox Populi, entitled VOX V. True to his practice and to his credit, Trecartin approaches the show with utmost seriousness, which within the logic of his practice necessitates a certain requisite lack of sincerity. If Trecartin's work and the world it powerfully evokes and indisputably engenders does indeed place itself under the sign of being post all posts, the end of all ends--post-post-modern, post-gender, post-castration--in playing the role of curator he by no means disappoints, joyously affirming the end of all sincerity, a world in which mockery is akin to the highest praise.

The logic that is here laid bare for all to see and to consume is simply put the death drive--a tendency to regression, to homeostasis, that is the plight of all organic life. The orchestration and monstrous pairings that result whether through ingenuity or happenstance systematically and incisively demolish the claim to value, to seriousness, to integrity, and in the last instance, to art. All distinctions and pretension to critique here fade away into oblivion, indifference. He weaves an obscene context in which each individual work through no fault of its own devalues itself, declaring its headlong drive to annihilation by simply being a part of the collection.
We have an instance here where the whole, the organon, destroys the autonomy of the parts by mixing them all in an hermaphrodictic bog. The individual works are reduced to their bare and pathetic desire to simply be in the show. A work adequate to the monstrosity of the spectacle would no doubt have to insist on its self-effacement, simply and adeptly enunciating its own death...2 + 3 + times, its own desire to be consumed.

But for all its virtues there is too little thought for my taste. Yes, thought is sacrificed to the joys of consumption. I at the very least wonder why in Trecartin's truly abject future the only determinant of identity clearly not purportedly overcome is capital. For those who invest his characters and the virtual world they inhabit with what at times appears to be a utopian joy should be reminded that their blissful identitilessness may be little else than the effect of the grotesque machinations of a world stripped bare by the ruthlessly abstract potency of the universal equivalent. The promise of virtual equality may be nothing more than the freedom extorted by the solicitation to consume.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


That malignant beast called man always standing on Cape Thought, stretching his eyes beyond the limits either of things, or of sights... - Herr Fischer and Monsieur Teste

At the still tender age of thirty, and at the critical point in a strange and profound intellectual transformation, I suffered the shock of Herr Krebber’s work; I felt surprise and intimate, instantaneous dismay; and astonishment; and the breaking of the bonds that tied me to the idols of my age.  I felt myself become a fanatic; I experienced the crushing advance of a decisive spiritual conquest. 

But I shall not rehearse the narrative of my own brute awakening, which may remind some of that fateful encounter between Valèry and Mallarmé and which roused me from a certain dogmatic slumber.  Confession and biographical nicety are unbecoming of my vocation.  Let it suffice to say that one must learn to welcome, even court, such shocks to the cerebral apparatus.  

Nor shall I take the time to trace the spare and demanding trajectory of Krebber’s prolonged and unscrupulous intervention into the leviathan of the art world, his willingness to play the dandy.  Yet such study will certainly reward the artist who views her practice less in terms of an ongoing process of creation and more as a series of strategic decisions that produce the artist—more precisely the dastardly proper name—as much as the artwork.  For Krebber, the artist is not chiefly an inventor of works, but a tactician; the gallery less an exhibition space than a field of operations; the art world a battlefield.  A battle into which one must enter, I should add, as one enters into the self: armed to the teeth.     

Yet Krebber is not one for direct confrontation.  He has little taste for grand spectacles.  His tactics are more oblique, paradoxical, senseless, clever.  At times, perhaps too clever.  No matter.  More to the point, the problem that guides his practice is not how to win, but how to free oneself from this imperative.  Not to invent, but how to appropriate the impossibility of invention.  Success is defined here less by victory over as by neutralization of one’s enemy.

Such is the task that Krebber sets for himself in general and which is pursued with supreme pedagogical rigour in Puberty in Teaching, his recent show at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, 17.4-8.6, 2008, whose essential trope was repeated at his show at Greene Naftali, 9.17-10.18, 2008.  In both shows, one encounters secondhand windsurfing boards sliced into equal segments and hung on the wall like Donald Judd’s, to adopt Krebber’s own simile, or occasionally placed on the floor like Carl Andre’s.  As is oft the case with Krebber, the show is framed by a catalogue of the same title, forcing upon the viewer a new level of mediation that compels her to recast the exhibition in light of the trajectory of Krebber’s better known incursions into drawing and painting.  The exhibition in Cologne also includes an open air sculpture spelling in block letters HERR KREBBER on the lawn in front of the Kunstverein, alluding no doubt to the HOLLYWOOD sign. 

Krebber is here playing at being a bit of a fool, flamboyantly scoffing no doubt at all and sundry pretensions to artistic mastery.  Nothing could be more adolescent, yet he knows it is never enough, however, to denounce, to jab the finger.   Krebber is after all a strict pedagogue.  He is aware that to truly teach one must teach nothing at all.  Except perhaps the taste for the precision of refusal.  An obscure objective indeed!  This means neither ignoring nor opposing, but playing with mastery: with its pretensions, its goals, ends and objectives.  How to neutralize the figure of mastery, to reassume today the grand legacy of refusal that the avant-garde once captured?  This is the question that the exhibition joyously poses.

The show, in that case, alludes less to the quintessential Duchampian gesture (despite presenting us with a series of ready-mades, all coming with ready-made titles) and more to his failed ambition to develop a strategy for playing roulette that would allow him to neither win nor lose.  Such a strategy neither plays to win nor against losing, but plays with not playing.  And one of course must play in order to not play.  Only then can one play in such a way that fails to get the point of playing.  It is here that one plays the fool – but with astonishing and acute precision.

What then is the point?  Let me be precise, for we find in this selection of these ready-mades a most subtle dialectic.

A Krebber exhibition cannot be read in isolation, but must be placed in the context of his incessant struggle to stage himself as artist.  And this most recent exhibition is nothing if not didactic.  The name gives it away: HERR KREBBER. The artist’s name functions as that vanishing mediator which both precedes and proceeds from the work.  Both the place where meaning, and thus mastery, is so often sought (the artist as conveyor of mystical truths) and the place where nothing strictly speaking takes place, the name becomes the empty place holder that occasions the work: an interval preceding the work but only apparent after the work.  The work produces the name, and the self (that tissue of obscurity) vanishes behind this protuberance.  This is a necessity no doubt that allows the name to circulate in the market as the arch figure of artistic value, that master figure that crowns the work like a halo.  By explicitly staging the name, Krebber appropriates this process as the condition of his critical practice.  

The work itself next to the name is almost beside the point.  And we can now perhaps glimpse the supreme delicacy of Krebber’s dialectical interrogation of the name.  In addition to the name there is always the work: the more substantial the better.  It gives buyers more to grip onto.  What pray I ask could be more substantial than a surfboard?  What could be more beautiful? Let me be blunt so that the point is not missed.  These diced windsurf boards make a mockery of sculpture’s claim to immediacy, that illustrious bodily presence that Judd exhaustively sought.   And yet we know full well that there is nothing more laughable than a formal analysis of a ready-made.  But this is precisely what this work demands: analysis fore-grounded with an acute but laughable intensity.  

Krebber’s point, however, is not to extract chuckles from the diaphragms of the cultivated.  As he has written, this is not humour, but well presented humour – what he calls “artificial camp ‘with a twist.’”  By being forced to acknowledge the work’s materiality and weight (“required by object-based practice, requirements that can be avoided in teaching, philosophy and in other forms of mediation”), we must acknowledge precisely through this very acknowledgement (and here’s the twist) that its materiality is beside the point.  The work is rather an occasion—an occasion to play the artist, to stage the name, to play at being a self.  And thus to play at undoing the mastery of the name 

For Krebber such play is the most refined of critical gestures.  To be a bit crude, we could say that the selection of the ready-made and the decision to slice it up introduces an interval into the work that diverts us away from its shear presence to the cut, which introduce an interval, a bit of absence, into the object.  There is nothing original about this kind of critical negation, this dramatic assertion that nothing takes place but the place.  But originality is beside the point.  

It is the name goddamn it.  Yes, the name must be invented.  The work functions as a detour towards the name.  If the project, as Krebber himself tells us in the press release, is to adapt Valery’s Monsieur Teste, it is certainly because Krebber assumes as the cruel and pitiless axiom of his practice the following of Teste’s affirmations: “ ‘What do I do all day?’  I invent myself.”

How are we to square this with Krebber’s well known statement?  “I do not believe I can invent something new in art or painting because whatever I would want to invent already exists.” The answer is as crushing as it is simple.  Under such conditions of total exhaustion, where the name becomes the value of the work, the stuff of press releases, the task is not to invent works but to labour against the name for the sake of the self.  If Krebber’s last intervention can indeed be read as an attempt (perhaps condemned to failure) to play with and against the name, it is because the self can only be pursued through the dissolution of the fragmentary identity the name serves to assemble Such an artistic consciousness would be worthy of M. Teste. 

But names can never be dissolved.  And there’s the rub. 

Krebber has learned from Teste something that cannot in turn be taught.  For the self can neither be known, nor encountered.  Glimpsed only in the gaps in presence that the artist must do her best to construct, to stage and elaborate.  One can only become a self by refusing to be anything whatever, by becoming indefinite, in short, unnameable.    

This has little to do with the Germanic heft of the labour of the negative.  Krebber’s struggle with the name is neither epic nor tragic.  It is perhaps comic.  And Krebber, you should know, is the least ironic of artists.  Comedy has always been concerned with proper names. 

To resist the centrifugal force of identification, the assumption of a rule, a style, a cadence one must stumble, produce bad ideas, unfinished ideas; one must slip on bananas and be crushed by pianos.  This is what it means for Herr Krebber to become a sign, an impossible proper name, an empty signifier.  So that one can let in that gust of air that separates the self and the name.  One may then approximate that impossible objective of constructing a name that divests itself in its simple enunciation….H-E-R-R-K-R-E-B-B-E-R.  Letters like planks across an abyss.  

Then, perhaps, we find thought behaving as a man: strange and inscrutable.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Visions of Excess

I doubt, in fact, that it is possible to give a serious definition of art unless we examine the question in terms of one constant—namely the transformation of art into merchandise.  In our time this process has accelerated to the point at which artistic and commercial values are superimposed.  And if we are concerned with the phenomenon of reification then art will be a particular instance of that phenomenon—a form of tautology. -Marcel Broodthaers

Nick Paparone’s recent installation, Bacchanal-Tootsie Roll Whip, soon coming to a close at Vox Populi, reopens a wound in that body which still, through graphic habitus, bears the name modernity. The wound was inflicted long ago.  But like a cut administered by the most precise of samurais, the living corpse remains standing until a gentle breeze separates head from body.  My Belgian master—Marcel Broodthaers—was the gentle breeze, the most uncanny of messengers that announced the art works’ decapitation—the end of its illustrious exception from market forces.  This one constant, this stellar axiom, remains our condition of artistic labour.

Despite the fetid air that today cloaks such announcements, bellowed chiefly from the stuffy corridors of academe, we should not shy away from committing this axiom to memory, digesting it, as Marcel digested Mallarmé’s poems.  

As Paparone shows indelicately, with pomp, fist pound, and bombast, its grip on our artistic present tightens all the more that it is dismissed as the concern of theoretical curmudgeons who frown fustily on aesthetic delights.

Of course Paparone's Bacchanal does not follow the path of my dear Marcel.  Such a grand spectacle of our hopelessness is not to the latter’s taste.  The spectacle is hopeless not because it exposes us to our miserable condition, to our incessant infantalization.  Rather it is hopeless because the feelings it rouses in us are the very affects that keep us subjected.  We remain enthralled to the very thing that menaces us. 

Being forced now and then to bath in one’s own vomit, to consume one’s own abscesses, has its virtues.  But if we are to slurp up our own phantasmagoric mess, we must not cloak its taste with sweetener, disguise it with candy coating. There is no more cynical a gesture than reinforcing the confusion that leads us to think we are eating chocolate while all along we are swallowing shit.

But before the thread is lost let me return to the wound swollen with puss, for like all infections they fester with neglect. So it is a great thing indeed that Paparone has exposed the wound to Philly’s fresh air, restaging the empty ritual of the art market, its continual and desperate attempt to resuscitate the fallen idol, ART, by injecting a little 'life,' i.e., capital, into its veins, comically rendered through the serial sacrifice of a little Mountain Dew before an altar erected to Brancusi’s The Kiss. 

But the sacrifice could not be more delusional, the scene more pathetic, the maenads less feminine, reduced as they are to cruel and pitiless embodiments of the most adolescent of male gazes.  Faceless and exhausted, they pour libation after libation, drained of joy, unable to summon the god.  As lifeless as a gangbang.  There is no Dionysian revelry in this bacchanal, in this simulation of the orgiastic, that seeks through its wasteful and senseless consumption, this ultra mundane bloodletting, to breathe life back into art, into the modernist monument. 

So hopeless is the attempt at revitalization that all we devotees of the market can offer it are gift’s in the form of small framed abstractions that give back to the idol, works composed of its own excretions (the pictures resemble shit or chocolate smears). Blood and shit to soda and chocolate: an abject transubstantiation.  A sardonic parody of high art’s fetishization, of its deification and destruction at the hands of the market’s unrelenting law.  This is all too cleverly conveyed by the equivalence of sign established between Brancusi’s The Kiss, updated in gold, and Pennsylvania’s own, Hershey’s Kiss, establishing at the center of the altar the symbolic relation between gold and shit, the high (the Museum) and the low (the Market Place), as if signed by John Miller himself.  The lovers’ embrace sullied by the Hershey turds they excrete, surrounded by images that reflect back to the idol its own filth.  Reification indeed dear Marcel.  The strategy no doubt is to rouse the corpse with its own deadly evacuations.

And indeed such a vision of excess is worth pursuit.  One would hardly be astonished if one found a well worn copy of the selected writings of that grandiloquent terrorist of the concept, George Bataille, upon Paparone’s bedside table, so innocently and naively does he move through a whole litany of Bataille’s favorite tropes: the grand equation that links high and low culture, porn and art, the sacred and the profane, the ecstatic and the abominable, shit and gold, sex and death, expulsion and consumption through the restriction and unrestriction, build up and release, of this cosmic economy. 

But to write large the spectacle of the art market’s reification hardly disturbs the spectacle.  Too little does it transgress its law, too little does it thirst for its annihilation. 

What it does do, however, is trample on the nostalgia, drifting toxically through our present, for that utopian spring that once gushed naturally from the pores of the artist-militant.  I agree.  Nostalgic fits for adolescence must be crushed.  Good riddance. 

But if in fact we are left only with the cynical pleasure of enunciating the obsolescence of the utopian dream, I want none of this dilemma.  Nostalgia or cynicism is a false choice, fit for a night on the town and its promise of good fun, but not the artist’s vocation.  This is not la promesse de Bonheur.  We have simply leapt from the horn of nostalgia to be impaled upon that of cynicism.  

We artists must dissolve this dilemma upon which Bacchanal—Tootsie Roll Whip divides.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Smelling Salts

Who's to say that I can't talk about medicine (art???) if I'm not a doctor (an artist???),  if I talk about it like a dog (god???)?

-Gilles Deleuze and Ludwig Fischer

Let this be my preface to the reader—a reader drunk not on the blows of critical wit but on the slow and dreary pummeling that passes today for critical acumen.  Punch drunk and dim is what we’ve become, engulfed as it were in a northern fog that has drifted in unawares.  For who, pray I ask, even after a cursory glance at that demented beast we call criticism, has not been struck dumb, left puzzled, by the shear asininity of the spectacle?

“Asinine” you say.  “Is that not a tad hyperbolic?”  But I say to you, lipstick on a beast is still a filthy beast. Let us agree to call a beast a beast and refuse all word mincing or tongue chomping.  The time has come for a roast.  There is more than a little dissatisfaction with the gruel that’s been served up.  

We are in the presence of a major symptom.  An obscure disaster.  And we artists should be worried by the absence of our corrosive colleagues, our daemonic partners and the battleground that they engender.  Yes, the clamour of critique has fallen silent.  Yet, this silence, which blows eardrums in our city, has not gone unnoticed. 

The time is nigh then to plunge my boot into the bog, to sharpen my knives and to commit myself to the patient labour of critical incision.  The time has come.  The boil must be lanced.

I, Ludwig Fischer, am no gangrenous fob, and I care little for the wretched accoutrements of taste or the platitudes of the market. We can no longer settle for the critic as purveyor of urbane opinion.  What artist who stakes a claim with their work can invest in such a rubber stamp?  Please don’t misunderstand. This is not a finger wagging, nor a grotesque lamentation of the glory days in which the critic reigned supreme.  Such fictions hardly amuse.  Rather it is a call to combat. 

True critique succeeds only when it enriches with each blow, illuminates as it razes to the ground. A critic must have just a little thirst for annihilation.  Yes, just enough to keep him and his patrons honest.  Critique is not for the brittle backed and succeeds only when it buckles spines and explodes kneecaps. 

“A theatre of cruelty,” you say.  “You are offering us one long unreadable bit of pain.  A thumbscrew.  And the tone.  So cynical, so scathing.  You bastard, you low-down filthy bastard."

I cannot promise readability.  Nor the critical euthanasia that solemnly bears the name today of sound judgment.  However, I must insist.  The tone is neither scathing nor cynical.  I take the vocation too, too seriously for that.

And if you require a confession, I am indeed a bastard.  But I come from a long line of bastards.  Too long to rehearse the now hackneyed self-pity that is the bastard’s stock and trade.  We have grown weary of that.  As my father use to say, “Rather the spittle that clung to the great Wissenschaftler’s lip than the sewer water that spills from the lips of the talking heads.”  I have learned from my lineage.  To be truly against, one must first be for. 

"For what?"  My allegiances shall become clear.  For the moment let the following affirmation suffice.  If the avant-garde is nothing but a carcass—a commonplace uttered by those in the know—let there be no shame in those of us who find more vitality in specters than the pallid hew of the living.  There is certainly more integrity in open fidelity to an embalmed corpse than the embrace of a living present that takes pleasure in spreading napalm over the living.  We’ve become too tolerant of such cruelties. 

Yes, we have become too dull, too accommodating, saps for fellow feeling, masters of consensus.  In short, our nostrils have become too accustomed to the funk.  If indeed the diagnosis is correct.  If we are reeling from the blows, drifting punch drunk, nauseous from our own ill-humour, then what we need today is a little smelling salt. 

Let us then unscrew the cap and take one long, deep breath.