TOWARDS THE UNDERGROUND
An address to the artist......
By JAMES MERRIGAN | Christmas Eve, 2017
In conclusion, I hope that this mediocrity, conditioned by too many factors foreign to art per se, will this time bring a revolution on the ascetic level, of which the general public will not even be aware and which only a few initiates will develop on the fringe of a world blinded by economic fireworks.
The great artist of tomorrow will go underground.
From 'Where Do We Go From Here?', Marcel Duchamp's address to a symposium at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, March 1961.
If I can't bend those above I'll stir the lower regions.
From Virgil’s Aeneid, and epigraph from Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, 1899.
33 West 67th Street.
New York, New York.
A blind alligator emerges from an open manhole like a terrible turd. First sweaty and dirty from the sewers below, the New York winter night turns the piss and shit into crystallised trinkets to form the most perfect of Christmas trees. After a spell of gaging and wheezing, the reptilian conifer coughs up some human flesh and bone porcelain – birth and death wrapped in a lizard loogie. The flesh is titled Marcel Duchamp; the porcelain, R. Mutt.
This is not a letter. I wish it was.
A letter is something private between friends or family. A letter is something like, let's say, the artist’s studio, where, as Gerhard Richter once awkwardly confessed in front of the camera, you can let all your vulnerabilities and mistakes “hang out”. But if we take Richter's confession to the next conclusion, then all that follows is artifice.
A letter is not an email either. A letter takes physical effort – the muscles of the hand making cursive sense of the awkward emotions and logic of the brain. A letter is an intimacy between friends and family. A letter is an admonishment of friendship and fellowship, something we have lost lately to the distancing artifice of technology.
This thing I'm writing here is none of those things, though I am asking for the same platonic consideration. This is not a letter because I am making my feelings public to friend and stranger alike, feelings that are as ill-distinguished as a fetish, ill-distinguished as that metaphor used to describe them.
Ill-distinguished because these stirred feelings are full of instinct rather than the intellect; they are incomplete because I'm in the throes of their becoming (that's where the whole 'Towards' thing is coming from). But, like a letter, I want the addressee – the artist in this case – to take what I am about to write here, not as a criticism of the artist per se, but of the context in which the artist has become accustomed to, and the predicament I find myself in, as I look at the official art scene with increased detachment.
This letter, that is not a letter, is written on the backs of conversations I've had with hunched over artists in their studios about the current state of affairs in the Dublin art scene. When you mistakenly start, or unfortunately enter a conversation about how to get an exhibition in Dublin, you start and end with questions about the curator.
Curators are named, dissected and blamed in a conversation like this. This is because curators are now more visible than the artist, they represent 'visibility' for the artist, a visibility that the artist envies and wants for herself, while disavowing the fact that visibility generates exactly what she is feeling right now, envy. Same artists! Same curators! Same! Same! Same! The rage turns to resignation. Change subject.
This is nothing new – the power of the curator. What is new is the outright acceptance of the curator’s power by the artist at the expense of all alternatives. The DIY culture of artist-run spaces is dead and gone, as Dublin becomes economically unliveable and unviable for artists who can't write a letter home to Mammy and Daddy.
What happened that curators now rule everything and artists rule nothing? I have always viewed artists as saints and (mainly) sinners of the underground – "aristocratic" as Diane Arbus might describe them. Because they have always represented for me the possibility of risk, revolution and liberation. While the artworks in the gallery only give us a hint at the risk-taking that takes place in their studios, in their lives. This might be overselling it, or being overly romantic, but only if the definition of the artist has changed, in the artist's mind, and ours. And I think it might have...
Roles change but, like at the Christmas dinner table, they stay the same, especially where identities have been forged in high emotion and passion. I have been trying to consider what are the motivations behind the artist’s work if the curator is the only modus operandi left. During my short watch there have been memorable instances when artists have come together to curate each other's work and make exhibitions that are critically self-aware and cohesive. These are rare occurrences, and usually come under the torn banner of 'recent-graduate-show', where a mix of naiveté, rebellion and institutional cabin fever – incubated in the art college that has sheltered them from the politics and algebra of the Dublin art scene – collide to form ground-breaking exhibitions, like 'Underground' (2011) by – now shadow of its former self – Basic Space Dublin. 'Underground' created anticipation. And even though the followups never lived up to that anticipation, 'Underground' offered hope that artists had discovered their own volition. But unfortunately, artists mature.
Lots of things have contributed to the changing position and institutional conditioning of the artist, including the boom-bust-boom economy over the last decade, and the professionalisation of the artist in art schools. Now artists are fabricated over a period of time through an accumulation of official plaudits. Artists grind out their visibility through residences and curated projects and, not to forget, Instagram, where artists become passive consumers and aggressive creators of curated lives. It's not all about the work anymore, it's about the artist's visibility, and sometimes an image will do just fine. It's business as usual.
Recently I've been reading a lot about death. The shadow of death hangs in the air, especially this time of year, in ironical counterpoint to the celebrations of the Christian birth. I'm in the middle of Adam Phillip's Darwin's Worms, Simon Critchely's Notes on Suicide, and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis' Life & Death in Psychoanalysis. All books deal with death, from its nobility to its nature, transience to legacy. But the slow death of the art scene, or at least my view of it, or my maturing relationship with it as an art critic, is perhaps the real reason why my interest in the subject of death has overflowed from the sewer of consciousness.
Like a religion or addiction, every Wednesday for the past five years I have made time to see at least one exhibition in Dublin. If a gallery isn't open on Wednesdays, which is generally the case, I make an appointment. Last week I broke the habit and spent the time wandering and thinking why I had broke the habit. I felt religiously guilty, but not the withdrawal of an addict.
I started to think about what it is I want from art? Am I asking for too much? Am I too invested in history, where artist radicals are everywhere if you count in decades? What I think I am looking for from artists is to fuck things up, to dictate their terms, to be radical, or as radical as artists can get in this conservative culture. To do that artists have to stop falling in line, waiting to get a nod and wink from the curator of the moment. This is not about setting up a space in Dublin, painting the floor grey and walls white. That's been done, is being done. This is not about artist-friends headlessly pooling resources together. It's about peers who believe in and bounce off of each other's work. It's about mutual respect and mutual ends. It's about rage not resources.
The most radical thing the current Basic Space Dublin have recently done, is organise a talk with the curator double-team RGKSKSRG (Rachael Gilbourne and Kate Strain) at the Hugh Lane Gallery – their institutional shadow. I thought this was big. But once again I maybe seeing drama where there is none. For me this was a real pass-the-torch moment between artist and curator, between legacy and future. RGKSKSRG have radicalised how the curator is perceived, and by default, radicalise the artists they curate. It's not a case of obligation or amnesia that I have responded to their projects in writing more than most, because they represent the radical mobility that the artist has somehow lost to a deepening dependency on officialdom.
What has happened that curators like Gilbourne and Strain are showing artists what artists can do? What happened that I look forward to what they do with artists more than what artists do on their own volition? What happened that artists now lineup for speed-curating? WTF. Or form an embarrassed queue for annual open exhibitions? [ And STOP apologising for 'cross-posting'! You know it's bullshit! ] Where is the artist that drew on their school textbooks to receive the ire of their short-sighted teachers? Where is the artist that was met by fear when they confessed to their parents they wanted to go to art school? Where is Basquiat's Crown? Where are the rejected, Courbet, Manet, Cézanne?
In Marcel Duchamp's 'Where Do We Go From Here?' address to a symposium at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art in 1961, he proposed that the future artist will have to go deeper than the Surrealist sub-conscious to mine new values for art, values that are removed from the exclusive retinal and economic concerns of the artist of the day. He was wrong... so far. But maybe, just maybe, the "future artist" has already gone underground. Like the New York sewer alligator, the future artist is a fiction, an idea, a myth.