Lying somewhere near the graveyard of art criticism is Madder Lake Editions, where twisted tales from the artworld are told. This week JAMES MERRIGAN takes the plunge into the murky depths kissed red-red at the shore with his 'Towards Sameness & Difference' review of sameness and difference in art and CoisCéim's 'Body Language' at Dublin's Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) 💀
Towards Sameness & Difference
Sameness means more of the same.
Contemporary art proposes something different. But the thing about difference is, it becomes more of the same. We desire difference because we want to get lost. But there is real risk in getting lost. There is real danger in losing oneself.
For one thing, there's the prospect of solitude. Solitude is something we desire when we can't distinguish ourselves from the crowd. Solitude is also something we fear because of the real potential for discovering who we really are, far, far away from the clamour of technology and relationships. Noise is a community and commodity of distraction. Whereas solitude, can get lonely.
But being different is something artists desire but cannot fathom, once they are schooled. The canon of art sets a benchmark and presents a vetted image of what art is and what art is not. The schooled have an idea of what contemporary art is, and what it is not. But the schooled are never really surprised by their definition of art; our biases and blindspots are just confirmed in our definitions. And the schooled are okay with that, while the unschooled are confused and frustrated by that. Even though the unschooled have achieved difference out of what the schooled might call naïveté, or ignorance, the unschooled still want to know the ingredients for how to be the same as those in the know.
Contemporary art is a variation on the same theme, that theme being, limits and limitations. Art appreciation is a nominal sensibility, teased out and hinted at through our art schooling, art making and appropriation of history and each other: art begets art, artists beget artists. If you don't go to art school you are an outsider because your image making hasn't been schooled. And we schooled can tell an outsider when we see them. You could say the unschooled threaten our sameness because they are different, that's why they're called outsiders. And this difference between the schooled and unschooled is not a discrepancy, it's a disparity. It's an ocean for those in the know. But there are more unschooled out there than schooled. We see their paintings in restaurants and gift shops on Sunday afternoons. But we don't really look at them. We view them as pathetically different. The pathetic is never elevated to the tragic, especially over Sunday dinner.
Sameness persists in our art scene. We anticipate it in the two to five year cycles of the count-on-your-one-hand gallery represented solo shows and Arts Council funded artists, curators and institutions. When a gallery artist hasn't shown in over two years we begin to miss them. Habits are all about embracing sameness, for the sake of compromise or comfort. Sometimes I think we aspire to sameness. Other times I think we are just speaking the same language of difference in an environment that fosters sameness.
The RHA Gallery reaches out to the world of schooled and unschooled once a year in their Annual Open exhibition. Some of the schooled view this as a calamity, while the unschooled see it as an opportunity to be recognised as the same. But the schooled are doing the selecting, so a sameness prevails, more or less. But in the end it's an open submission, so a little leeway is allowed in the calamity of sameness and difference that is the The RHA Annual.
In recent years either CoisCéim dance company reached out to the RHA Gallery, or the RHA reached out to CoisCéim. I don't know the ins and outs. But what I do feel after experiencing their collaboration 'Body Language' the other night is, this is different. Not multidisciplinary different which ends up theoretically the same. But Different.
My journey towards difference was, ironically, predicated on sameness. I arrived at the RHA on a Monday to learn that there was no live performance on Mondays; and on a Wednesday to learn the live performance had been pushed back from 1.30pm to 6pm. But these uncanny repetitions gave me first and second impressions, experienced through the recorded live performances that play out on skyscraper projections in the main gallery when the dancers have left the building.
Press release in hand and surrounded by 360º projections, I began to make sense of what is a cumulative approach to CoisCéims's live performance. I learnt that an interview takes place with a selected participant. The willing participant is then led to the main gallery space. Here, with a bit of poking and prodding, the participant's responsive body language supplements the choreography for the troop of white-clad dancers, CoisCéim. The to and fro between dancers and participant is simultaneously recorded and projected live to form a pixel-perfect landscape where, this individual portrait of the ebb and flow of human fear, exaltation and joy plays out in front of the jittery participant who is feeling all this fear, exaltation and joy, and the live audience, who also become part of the spectacle.
On the night of experiencing the live performance, however, the cast of dancers and onlookers portrayed in the recorded images and film began to shuffle in prominence. The cameraman, whom I register first on entering the gallery, but didn't register at all in the documentation – obviously so because he is the man behind the camera – becomes the focus of my attention. Entering the gallery before the show begins, I find him pacing beneath a lightbox rig hanging from the ceiling, the kind of lightbox you might find hovering over a boxing ring in some New York arena in the 1950s. (There's beads of sweat in the air here too). There's an immediate shift in perspective. The cameraman becomes the gimbal from which everyone and every perspective is tethered.
We don't like to see ourselves mediated. It's us but, not us. The camera informs us that our objectivity is a bare-faced lie. The German artist Hans Belmer once claimed that the first instinct is to escape the outline of the self. I want to believe the dancer gets lost in the dance not in the gravity of the audience or the situation. I don't dance, so you'll have to ask a dancer.
But I initially judge there are too many eyes between the machines and humans to get lost here. Perhaps we get lost in the habitual nature of an action, what we refer to in passing as 'becoming second nature'. There are too many things tethered here to technology and choreography. The participant is not generously neglected. There's an 'eyes-on-me' attachment between the participant and the cameraman; a don't-look-down tightrope act, just in case the floor disappears and the woman loses herself in the audience or herself.
The camera never stops moving and recording either. You are left with a big WHAT IF? What if the cameraman puts down the camera; turns off the projections; gets rid of the seats and turns on the lights? What then? Over? Lisette Model, who was Diane Arbus' teacher at a critical point in her development as a photographer, "taught Arbus to walk around with no film in her camera, just so she could practise seeing." What potential 'seeing' might take place if a spectacle like this was abruptly unplugged mid-show, mid-narrative, mid-entertainment? It might lead us away from our anxious dependence on the mediated image to ground us. But the absence of the camera, of the lights, of the action, in the age of the digitally dependent self could be more terrifying for us than a child's fear of the dark.
But if the cameraman is the necessary panopticon in all this, the dancers are the criminals that lead us astray. I felt lost at times; drunk even. Not during the naked puppetry of the anxious and submissive participant, as she was whipped and gagged by the cyclopic ring master. But when the dance became more about the dancer. When each dancer contained themselves in their idiosyncratic gestures and compressed articulations of bone and muscle and skin, I imagined gyrating black arrows circling their bodies targeting them in time and space.
Two schools clash at the RHA Galley, both unschooled in the other's school. The only recent example I have from the artworld that comes close to this meeting of body language and art on this scale, is Anne Imhof's FAUST, presented in the German Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. I felt drunk there too, confronted by difference, even though the art language of apathy and nominal effect was at play. I drank up what I described in a previous Edition as
the trendy and unique and dangerous and dramatic and dazzlingly masturbatory wallowness in a soulless and songless and colourless Emerald City fortress of glass and metal and fashion and posturing and voyeuristic consumerism by an audience who are the ones doing all the consuming without really realising it.
CoisCéim's 'Body Language' is more dance world than artworld, and their 'Body Language' has a warmth to it that might even melt the cold glares in Imhof's FAUST. But their body language was something I wasn't equipped for, wasn't school in, where risk is regimental but the line they walk and dance made me falter, and at times, fly.