TOWARDS A SOCIAL TRUTH (OR DARE)?
By JAMES MERRIGAN | MAY 10, 2018
HOLY SHIT THE SIZE OF THE GASH THE WING TIP HAD TO BE AT LEAST 150 TO 200 FEET WIDE – OH MY GOD THE NEXT TOWER JUST BLEW UP – THERE'S ANOTHER ONE – OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD – ANOTHER PLANE JUST FLEW IN – I FEEL THE HEAT THE EXPLOSION IS INCREDIBLE OH MY GOD OH MY GOD – ANOTHER PLANE AS WE WERE WATCHING – I DON'T BELIEVE THIS THE SECOND TOWER HAS EXPLODED – THE WORLD TRADE CENTER HAS BEEN HIT BY AIRCRAFT BOTH ARE IN FLAMES BOTH TOWERS OF THE TRADE CENTER ON FIRE…..THOSE PEOPLE JUMPING OUT OF WINDOWS I SEEN AT LEAST 14 PEOPLE JUMPING OUT OF WINDOWS PEOPLE JUMPING OUT PEOPLE JUST KEPT JUMPING JUMPING AND JUMPING AND YOU COULD STILL SEE THEY WERE ALIVE BECAUSE THEY WERE FLAILING AROUND…..WE SHOULD HIT EVERY COUNTRY THAT HARBOURS TERRORISTS AND NOT ONLY THE TERRORIST CAMPS I WANT THE FATHERS TO BE HIT I WANT THE MOTHERS TO BE HIT I WANT THE CHILDREN TO BE HIT…..Honey are you there, Jack, pick up sweety. Okay, well, I just wanted to tell you that I love you, we are having a little problem on the plane I just love you more than anything just know that it's a little problem so I just love you please tell them my family that I love them too Bye honey.
Transcribed audio from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s montage of recorded newscasts, witness and victim accounts from his short film 11’09”01 SEPTEMBER 11 (2002).
WE LIVE IN AN EX-CENTRA (EX-SHOP). According to Google Maps we still live in a Centra. Friends on first visits always drive past. When we first moved in it possessed deep-green lacquered walls and clouds of black mould; shop counters that, when we shifted them, cities of gooey jellies and pennies sprung forth. We gutted Centra, we magnolia'd Centra in what became one big room divided with furniture rather than walls. Our kids cycle laps and throw hoops in it; we run laps of it every second day. It is a territory that we have made into the image of our lives. Sometimes it proffers new images. It's social. It's home.
I run to unpack my writing. Writing is a physical act, like making and experiencing art is a physical act. This physically confined territory in which I run helps me to elbow and knee dumb and circular arguments into submission so I can begin to write. Like Zooey and Franny in J.D.Salinger's Franny and Zooey the arguments can become bigger than the room that contains them. The bigger the argument the smaller the room the sweatier the run becomes. This week EVA International was my big argument. I sweated; a lot. Especially when I began to consider the curator, ‘something’ or ‘someone’ (depending on your social mobility) we all consider first when deliberating the pros and cons of a curated exhibition on the scale of EVA.
Towards the Curator
PERSONALLY I have always struggled with the role of the curator. I think all artists do. In the naïve days curators are distant and professional. Then you discover some are freelance, amateur, human, potential friends, before they are promoted to professionally distant. Artists whom I broach the subject of cold-calling curators usually squirm. It's a blind date with a therapist that knows your motives and desires before you do because you are an artist and as an artist have no clue how it socially or professionally works and the curator does because their job is to be social and professional and you don't have a job. The artist is the desperate salesperson on commission to the consummate consumer, the curator. It's a squirmy relationship on both ends so targets and apologies are misjudged, like receiving a handshake to the stomach when you have already committed to the hug. But curators are here to stay. They are more real than you or me.
Very early on as an artist I knew that it was through curators that I would get the opportunities I needed to exhibit my work. Knowing this fact got me exhibitions. I do not know how it came to be this way but as an artist I did not ask questions. Those artists that questioned the status quo and did not acknowledge the power of curators were just drowning themselves in self-righteousness. Thing is (‘Thing’ being the operative word which I will discuss later) curators are always on the frontline: galleries, panel interviews, open submissions, residences, awards, over the phone, under-the-counter-ready with the sweetest jellies and shiniest coinage. They are the mediators of gossip and reputation at exhibition openings; they are easier to approach than galleries; they are more socially mobile than any of us. They are agents of agency.
As an exhibiting artist I never looked for a curator's response to the work; they picked the work and that was always enough. And I never subscribed to the curator's taste or judgment about art. For the artist it is their peers, the ones that know the medium, your medium, on an intimate level, that count in terms of judgment and respect. Being an ‘artist's artist’ is the One and only accolade for the artist. Curators, dealers, collectors, critics are a means to some vague end. The curator was both the way and in my way of exhibiting. They were an obstacle that I embraced. I would not go as far as calling them a necessary evil because I still hug some of the devils.
The curator's role conditions if not exactly subjugates my role as an art critic. Curators make value judgments via the artists they select and the stable of artists they grow and nurture into the future. They provide the tableau, the themes, the research and the writing to support their artists and projects. They form strong bonds with artists and institutions, something the true art critic avoids if s/he wants to experience the illusion of true freedom as a writer on art. The most ambitious curators ultimately move on to bigger things, but we cannot blame them for that.
Like a marriage, this relationship between artist and curator sometimes works out brilliantly, especially when you get to see an artist in a different light; other times the artist's work is abused by the curator's overwhelming theme or context, like the way painting is sometimes trampled on by the socio-political jig of big biennials. From the perspective of this critic not everyone turns out to be a winner in the relationship between curator and artist; if ‘winning’ is just getting to exhibit the work, the one social privilege the artist has outside the isolation of the studio. If the artist is the vertiginous pimple on the Caspar David Friedrich landscape, blushing and immobile, curators are on their backs making territorial snow angels, far and wide.
Artists, curators, critics and dealers, we are all dealing in territories one way or another in our explorations of the marvellous and unmapped. Big curators curating big exhibitions will encompass the globe in one fell swoop; artists will dig deep to explore an undiscovered country to athwart convention; art critics will write their ‘theories’ – theory being another word for territory. We are all wrapped in maps. EVA International is wrapped in maps. This has never been as evident (to my mind) as in the current instalment, where territory is redistributed unequally among the 56 artists, albeit for the good of art at Cleeve's Milk Factory, but perhaps not for the good of art at Limerick City Gallery where the contested and the coy (or coyly contested) crowd surf in a socio-political free for all. Maybe it has always been the case with EVA and I have been ignoring the land grabbing. Come to think of it I used the phrase “land grabbing” in one of my first published articles to describe the hogging of territories in third level art education. While in another review I propagandised an equal opportunity pissing contest in the territorial title ‘Cock a Leg or Squat?’ So it's always been there, on my mind, territory and art. Obviously so. So obvious in fact that to think about it, to give it the time of day, never mind write about it would be a ridiculous pursuit. So here I am.
THIS SOMETIMES HAPPENS. You are in the middle of writing something and you read something related but ultimately irrelevant to what you are trying to do but you cannot let go of the emotion that you feel after reading this related but irrelevant thing. You realise that the thing you were writing must not be that all consuming if such a thing, such an irrelevant thing (but increasingly relevant thing) could throw you off your game even when the game is 2000 words and counting. This is one of the reasons why I stopped reading most local art writing some time ago. Art critic Peter Schjeldahl advised such a recourse at some art school lecture in New York; and an observation from English philosopher Geoffrey Bennington to French philosopher Jacques Derrida, in one of their many beautiful conversations, that there is not enough time to read [or re-read for that matter] is always in the back of my mind when I commit to a piece of writing like I am asking you to commit to my writing here – if you've got this far.
The piece of writing I committed to the other day was on Artforum online. It was not a piece of writing that took itself very seriously as the context was the opening of EVA International, so all was signposted before I began to read. But bear with me while I take it more seriously than the author, the editor or the context allowed, as it will be – considering it's Artforum – one of the most read pieces on EVA International in the coming months.
Like most art writing that flies in and flies out this piece of writing was in essence a travelogue wherein the writer is over or underwhelmed by the new environment they find themselves in to write on an exhibition as a welcomed outsider having an out-of-body experience. (Remember Centra? – good writing on art is a physical argument!) In this instance, like all instances like this, the disembodied writer ends up unpacking the Real environment against the unreal artworks so the border between the Real and the unreal gets a little muddy with neither the feel or smell of mud left on the writing. It was my fault entirely. I wasn't lured in with anything substantial. Artforum maybe, and curiosity regarding the subject of EVA International which my 2000 words was going towards.
On a productive note, what this piece forced me to think about afterwards was, how do we as writers on art approach an exhibition like EVA International? Should we at all? Reportage on art exhibitions this size is an empty vehicle for both artist and writer unless the vehicle is mere self-promotion. If artists are happy with just the mention of their name in Artforum, if that's the standard, then what of art writing, art writers that want to do more? Do such empty vehicles free us up to write something more substantial and experimental? Seriously. I am just trying to consider something good, some essence of celebratory or ecstatic spirit in art that transforms the ghost of art criticism into something more corporeal and meets the artist half way – as Martin Amis invokes via Henry de Montherlant: “Happiness writes white. It doesn't show up on the page.”
I do not care if the writer's written response to art is dripping with sincerity or irony or art speak or pretension or diffidence or all of the above. These things are a measure of the writer's insecurities and those insecurities reflect the society (and art scene) in which s/he fails and succeeds to divine some personal truth in art. Again, Martin Amis advises his students to not identify with the female or male counterparts in Pride and Prejudice as a male or female reader, identify with the author, Jane Austen. I think something can be learned from reading into the biases and blind spots, pretensions and posturing, and especially tones of the writer. Don't kid yourself – it's always personal.
If art just proliferates conventional responses then the art is not doing its job or the writer is just doing his job. At a time when we have to subscribe to newspapers online to read beyond the taster fragment; when verbal exchange on social media is comprised of poetry excerpts and short quotation; when we are overly conscious and determined by character limits and first sentences, speed and serial production, or highlighting fragments within fragments, this is the perfect time to write without constraints or obligation.
Towards a Mention Economy
WE MENTION. WE GET MENTIONED. WE SHARE THAT WE GOT MENTIONED. WE LIVE IN A ‘MENTION ECONOMY’ (A PUN THAT HAS MORE WORTH THAT ITS TWO WORDS FIRST SUPPLY – THINK ABOUT IT). Too many words beyond GREAT or AMAZING on social media and we might end up slipping on the Truth; a yellow banana skin that we’d rather keep wrapped around our bellies. What I am colourfully referring to here is art reviews that mention artworks in offhand and ‘positive’ ways in their negotiation of big curated exhibitions like EVA International. Some artists get a half-sentence interrupted by a semi-colon; others get a whole paragraph. Either way, both are ‘mentions’.
There's been lots of ‘mentioning’ recently in the local and International art press concerning EVA. Sadly I've read some if not all of it, for no other reason than for the words I am typing here in response. A sadder fact is that the artists ‘mentioned’ share them, proliferating and facilitating the mention economy with a desperate economy. When did artists get so desperate? Where did artists get validation before the Internet? These questions are not rhetorical or performed, I really mean it; When and Where? Artists crib about the mainstream art critics being mediocre, and then as soon as they are reviewed in the ubiquitous 4**** review or CRITIC’S PICK in the Irish Times all is forgiven. A bit of self-respect PLEASE! Sometimes I think artists would prefer a ‘mention’ over a deep-seated verbal enema that trudges through all the bullshit that others throw with milky brown abandon against the virtual wall of Instagram, et al.
Susan Sontag ‘apocryphally’ stated “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing,” doubling up on her “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” thesis from her brilliant essay ‘Against Interpretation’, 1966. This little doozy by Sontag about a ‘thing being a thing’ is dealt a second time on a makeup mirror in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014). The same way Iñárritu sneaks in Borges and Barthes into his Oscar winning box office hit, I have snuck in Iñárritu and his Birdman here because the Mexican director’s short film, 11'09"01 SEPTEMBER 11 (2002), is – while we are talking about ‘things’ – a thing that I could not shift from my mind, my skin, my bones, after experiencing it at Limerick City Gallery. It's got a mention somewhere – something about it being more a painting than a film: Heil Greenberg. While trying to forget that blinkered insight, Iñárritu's 11'09"01 SEPTEMBER 11 – among other films that I will not do the disservice of ‘mentioning’ – but groan their way rather than babble through the Biennial in Cleeve's Milk Factory – are the real ‘spine tinglers’ in this exhibition: spine tingling being the true sensory difference – à la Sontag – between uncovering the sunny Truth and living with a cloudy compromise.
Iñárritu's 11'09"01 SEPTEMBER 11 is a film that does much with very little. 11 minutes 9 seconds long (for obvious reasons) the short is a telescopic trip through a starless tunnel – like the one that Don DeLillo said he lived and internalised Ulysses before he penned Americana – a place where electric light jabs the concussive dark. The overhand right is, this is 9/11, a number combination that, since its abusive inception, defines Americana the same way 7-Eleven did before 9/11. The Light here is anything but the Light we equate with goodness or holiness. This is a dark light, a light you want to close your eyes to but it comes up on you too fast – abusively fast. Iñárritu gives us slit-eyed glimpses of people falling to their deaths after ‘choosing’ to jump from the Horror above – way way way above. What were the jumpers faced with above to choose this godless leap of faith? It must have been a fate worse than certain death. Imagine: that's what Iñárritu proffers in the dark. Maybe the jumpers grew up on Superman clasping Lois Lane at the last minute from a similar cloud borne height. Considering Iñárritu’s recent declaration that superhero movies are “cultural genocide”, you would not be blamed for seeing these falling people as the director's cynical proof that superheroes are dangerous idols to worship in times of catastrophe.
Like a falling miner and his jettisoned helmet that catches his terror in flashes and streaks of spiralling torch-light, Iñárritu leaves us in the dark for 99.9% of the 11 minutes and 9 seconds with the tremulous and calm voices of witnesses and victims. In the dark where superheroes were once possible and hard memories were forged when Knight or Soldier or God or Superman did not come to the rescue I revisited my mediated experience of 9/11. (This film will make you do that.) I was an art student living in a bedsit in Dublin with dollhouse furniture and mod cons relative to my 6 foot 6 frame when I switched on the tiny portable TV with the rotary tuner. CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK our 3 stations showed the same view of the Twin Towers up in smoke. I slouched onto the floor with my back against the dinky couch and stayed there stitched to the beer stained and beer fragrant carpet for hours like Gulliver and watched the scene unfold with yawning anxiety as I misread black dots on the screen for flies.
Towards a Social Truth (or Dare)?
Breathless and on again
Beside me today
Around broken in two
Till your eyes shed
Like two strangers
Turning into dust
Till my hand shook
With the way I fear
Mazzy Star – Into Dust – 1993
THE GAME OF TRUTH OR DARE is a game of TRUST that will either end up forging relationships or breaking them. Choose TRUTH and you DARE to answer some TRUTH about yourself that is revelatory and impacts all concerned in the game; choose DARE and you perform some physical act that the darer defines, unconsciously or not, as the TRUTH, in both your acceptance or refusal to do the DARE. The DARE says as much about the darer as the TRUTH reveals about you. It's a vicious confession; a vicious concession.
It was a social space, a classroom, a place where trust had been built over a year with some challenging content by artists, where I dared to screen Iñárritu's 11'09"01 SEPTEMBER 11 to a group of students. When the 11 minutes 9 seconds was up one student said: “I feel I have been inappropriately touched.” It was a visceral and honest response, one that took me by surprise at first, but it wasn't a surprise. The wariness I felt showing this work to a group of students was a symptom of the terrifyingly pleasurable catharsis that touched some primitive centre of my being when I first experienced it at Limerick City Gallery – what the late film critic Robert Ebert described as “unbearable empathy”. Further into the post-mortem discussion a student questioned the anti-Middle East sentiment in the bookended choir of voices – presumably Arabic – that is layered to mimic a prayer or chant; while another discussion unpacked the sentimental music injected into the last third of the film, where you find yourself emotionally stranded between Western victimhood and Eastern martyrdom.
In 1967 Bruce Nauman stated in spiralling cursive neon that The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths. I believe, if faith has any say in defining the Truth, that the true artist is searching for some form of truth, ‘mystic’ or otherwise. True artists don't always get to the Truth, however – if ever. Just because the true artist gives the artwork a name does not mean they have found the Truth. The true artist's journey maybe one of mediocrity, of middle grounds, of searching for the Truth while actively or unconsciously avoiding it. THAT’S THE TRUTH. Indeed, the true artist might land upon the Truth without knowing it, and paint on. Or maybe painting on is a way of avoiding the Truth's finality. What does the true artist do next when s/he expresses or expels the Truth? Go on compromising? Go on lying? Or maybe, just maybe, the Truth the true artist is searching for is not their Truth at all, it is the reader's Truth, and the reader's responsibility to see, to hear, to feel, to experience the Truth right in front of them. Your Truth is perhaps for other readers to behold, the Future to behold. In which case the Truth is reciprocal, it's social, it's timely, it's all the above.