September 27, 2008

Critical Hierarchy


There exists a hierarchy of critical theory in reference to contemporary art; a paradigm of critique, if you will, that once established on a particular artist and their work marshals further consideration and new analyses on the work.

Comprehension of much contemporary art is distinctly fragile because of the hermeneutics of critique and it becomes particularly difficult when essayists overlook previous critical views. Not to say that a critic cannot ignore these previous critical assessments, but when such nuanced “readings” of an artist are laced throughout the Web it becomes apparent that these views may have been omitted not as result of ignorance but possibly in avoidance of critical hierarchy itself.

Rigorously researched critiques on contemporary artists abound in print and electronic media. Moreover, new interpretive views on an artist run the risk of abrupt dismissal or even worse become immediately obsolete if they exhibit such critical omissions, and this is all very troubling for the contemporary art audience that would suffer from the paucity of information presented.

Such is the case in Professor Jonathan Wallis’s otherwise scholarly essay on the photography of Mariko Mori in the Spring /Summer 2008 issue of Woman’s Art Journal. A former fashion model from one of Japan’s wealthiest families, Mori explored a vivid range of identity issues for women through her carefully wrought photographs staged in urban settings. Often Mori inserted herself digitally into these photographs (created in 1994-’95) creating a new media genre within conceptual photography that I would like to call faux tableaux.

There are rather well-documented previous critiques that view Mori’s feminine “aliens” as an “intensified sexualization of abstracted and alienated consumption.”(1) Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, a post-feminist, Marxist treatise of substantial significance to the visual arts, encouraged women to quit trying to erase male “fantasies” but instead take control of men through their libidinous desires and overturn the patriarchal order by taking advantage of their sexuality.

That Prof. Wallis’s ten-page essay fails to even briefly reveal this fact through a footnote is unconscionable. Clearly, he did not miss the evident symbolism in Mori’s images - “...they appear as either cyborgs partially made of machine parts or futuristic aliens with pointy ears.”(2) - but still Prof. Wallis failed to turn up Haraway’s concepts in relation to Mori in his research. Here is a quote from a Mori fan site page devoted to “Cyberfeminism”:

“The office ladies and schoolgirls that appear in Mariko Mori's early work are not ordinary women, that is, they are cybernetic organisms (‘cyborgs’) - a mix between science fiction fantasy and everyday existence. In her influential and ironic work, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1991), Donna Haraway declared that in the twenty-first century, women should begin to take pleasure in mixing the boundaries between the natural and the artificial (Haraway 1991). Women should no longer attempt to change the male fantasy, or indeed eradicate it, instead, they must take control of it and subvert it for their own pleasure.”(3)

And from another excellent essay available on line:

“The first time I saw ‘The Birth of a Star’ [Mori’s 1995 photograph] I thought of Donna Haraway's cyborg as described in her seminal essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto...”(4)

I can see no obvious reason for Prof. Wallis to have avoided this topic. Mori’s imagery from this body of work bears a definite cybernetic cast as she has herself alluded:

“The women appear to be happy because they're cyborgs, not real women.”(5)

Thus, I propose there are two possible explanations for Prof. Wallis's oversight: he was either completely ignorant of this previous critical interpretation of the mid-1990s Mori photographs or he knew and decided not to address these views in his own critical analysis.

If Prof. Wallis was not aware of previous views on Mori that made a connection between her plastic, teenybopper vamps and Haraway’s sexual empowerment through cybernetics, then the least we can say is the research is flawed. This results in a weakening of the critical impact of this particular text and certainly would reflect poorly on Woman’s Art Journal as a reputable resource for contemporary art study.

On the other hand, if Prof. Wallis specifically ignored these critiques that interpret Mori’s sexualization of “technology as a potential source for pleasure”(6) then his paper represents a possible negation of the critical hierarchy. If a critic wishes to attempt a negation of previous critical theory about an artist’s work then we expect there to be specific counter-theories that address the contradiction or refutation of the previous critical position. Regardless of the scope of one’s hermeneutics, an academic or critical investigation is obligated to search for undiscovered knowledge.

Remarkably, there is yet another grave error in Prof. Wallis’s research in his characterization of earlier feminist art. He talks of 1970s feminist artists’ “celebration of the natural body and its functions, sexual liberation” and implies that “young female artists [today] embrace and celebrate attire, attitudes, and roles condemned by their foremothers.”(7) Would not Hannah Wilke clearly refute Prof. Wallis's thesis, given that Wilke’s performances circa 1979-'85 were mostly nude rituals of eroticism? In fact, Wilke’s presentations of the inherent power of female sexuality went so against the grain of “feminist standards” that Lucy Lippard “condemned” Wilke in 1976 for “confusing her roles as beautiful woman and artist.”(8) Thus, Prof. Wallis should not overlook Wilke’s work as a possible inspiration for young women artists today rather than recycling tired and trite pop culture icons like Madonna and Britney Spears.


Image: Still shot from performance So Help Me Hannah; © copyright 1978-1985 by Hannah Wilke.
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1. Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York, 1991, 172.

2. This and all subsequent quotes are from “The Paradox of Mariko Mori’s Women in Post-Bubble Japan: Office Ladies, Schoolgirls and Video-Vixens” published in Woman’s Art Journal, Spring /Summer 2008.

3. Quoted on “Cyberfeminism and Mechanical Sex”.

4. Schreiber, Rachel. “Cyborgs, Avatars, Laa-Laa and Po: Exhibitions of Mariko Mori”, originally published in Afterimage, March /April 1999, 2.

5. Quote from an interview with Dike Blair in Purple Prose, Summer 1995, 98.

6. Schreiber, 13.

7. Wallis, 5.

8. Lippard, Lucy. From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art, New York, 1976, 126. [“Lippard appears to have believed that Wilke’s beauty obscured the issues being raised in her artworks. In other words, Lippard’s argument suggested that only art that did not represent Wilke herself could be considered ‘serious’ art.” - from Julia Skelly’s “Mas(k/t)ectomies: Losing a Breast (and Hair) in Hannah Wilke’s Body Art”, Third Space, Vol. 7, Issue 1, Summer 2007.]

September 18, 2008

Use, Exhibition, Exchange

Plato’s now legendarily odious dismissal of the painter’s “art” as “worthless” issued from his epistemic Grecian conditioning to accept “usefulness” as the mitigating and decisive factor in determining relative “value.” It is clear that a painting of a bed cannot be slept upon and, regardless of the sentiment attached to an aesthetic vision of an “Ideal Form,” it is additionally obvious that a painted “bed” is twice removed from that Ideal Form, i.e., the best bed that money can buy. Which perhaps helps to explain Ikea but that is another post. It is my premise that the migration of “value” through approximately 2000 years of discourse and inquisition about it has allowed a number of cyclical “returns” to both Platonic and Marxist views about the valuable nature of objects for consumption or contemplation.

In 1867, Marx demonstrated “commodity fetishism” as proof that commodity objects were for both use and barter, focusing our comprehension of the relationship of “exchange” to the “usefulness” of an (art) object. From her perspective as a young gallerista, Rebecca Jones enlightens us concerning the impact Marxism and capitalism have had on art and how the “art marketability” of an art object affects the “original intention” of the artist:
“[Marx] discusses the two standards by which a utilitarian product is valued: “use value” and “exchange value”. (Exchange value wins of course). Similarly, any art work is measured against two sets of standards in its existence: artistic intent and salability. When a work of art enters into the realm of the art market, the original intention of the work, against which it was judged in its creation, can become completely irrelevant to the work at that point, while other factors take dominance like status, edition, and its archival quality.”(1)

One of the cornerstones of conceptualist theory relies on Duchamp’s contribution to the discourse about how “things become art by being put into places where one expects to find art, namely museums,” and that this validating “context” of art galleries and museums established a work’s identity as “art” as “entirely a matter of convention.”(2) In doing so, Duchamp tacked a “new value” upon standard-issue urinals, shovels, coat and bottle racks by usurping their intended functions as hardware. His assignation of an “exhibition value” to this use value objects de-contextualized the objects through his avant garde act of dysfunction.

We must also recall that Walter Benjamin was aware of the possible dominance of exhibition value and the implication of its ascendancy:
“By the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental.”(3)

The great Yves Klein marvelously expanded upon Duchampian conceptual logic by demonstrating the possibilities of an “immaterial” transaction to embody both “exchange value” and “exhibition value.” In his “Ritual for the Relinquishment of the Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zones” he specifies that the “transfer” of “ownership” of said “zone” was to authenticate the immaterial “work” as art:
“Every possible buyer of an immaterial pictorial sensitivity zone must realize that the fact that he accepts a receipt for the price which he has payed[sic] takes away all authentic immaterial value from the work, although it is in his possession.”(4)

Double-talk or not, Klein reclaimed his “intention” as an artist within the textual documentation of these transactions, and reaffirmed that both the making and the “ownership” of these “immaterial” works of art were “useful,” much like the earlier use of art within ritual.(5) Because “ownership” of a Klein “Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zone” is both authenticated and negated by the transaction, it yields two insights on art; first, that art need not be “material,” and second, the transaction literalizes the “exchange value.”

The successful postconceptual artist questions the imbued value of “art objects” and explores and defines use, exhibition and exchange values. The intangible nature of value attribution through the cultural validation of an object makes it now impossible to insist that these values are guaranteed within these objects.

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1. Jones, Rebecca. ”Contemporary Art vs. the Contemporary Art Market”, May 2007.

2. Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy. Beyond Piety: Critical Essays on the Visual Arts 1986-1993, Cambridge, 1995, 15.

3. Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935, Section V.

4. Selz, Peter, and Kristine Stiles, ed. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley, 1996, 81.

5. See Benjamin, Section IV.

September 9, 2008

Things Under Erasure


Last Sunday I had the opportunity to discuss my work with my colleague and friend, Dr. Lisa Lipinski. The subject of our talk was my text-bisection practice and my current Song for Europe installation that is in The Athenaeum. Dr. Lipinski’s skillful preparation of her succinct questions and her collegial support allowed our talk to unfold effortlessly. Our conversation ranged from the difficulty in describing my work (neither “drawing” nor “painting” but uses media of the former and inhabits critical positions of the latter) to how it differs from the work of earlier conceptual artists like Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner.

One question that proved fruitful was how I came to this technique of text-bisection. I recounted my discovery of Jacques Derrida’s expansion on Martin Heidegger’s “unique device” for acknowledging a word’s “inaccuracy” by crossing it out.(1) Derrida extends this idea of sous rature - placing the word “under erasure” – to all words. Thus, my text-bisection process is a simple but direct attempt to extend Derrida’s belief to a visual system. Text-bisection literalizes this idea and also incorporates “illegibility” to literalize the “play” of differences in language. I further explained there is both “reading” and “looking” in Song for Europe and the participatory nature of the work conflates both these into an experiential process of the “language” of art.

A small but decidedly interested group of people attended our gallery talk and I have exchanged emails with some audience members in the ensuing two days. One of these emails was from artist and teacher Carol Dupré who posed a “minor” question that introduces a possible continuation of discourse begun earlier and, given the importance and necessity that I attribute to “supplemental materials” on art, I reprint it here for our edification:

“One minor one is the 'erasure' concept that used to be known as 'bracketing,' changing it considerably. In a sense keeping it visual, on the shelf. Has anyone approached that change in usage-imagery?”

I now close this post with my previously emailed reply to Ms. Dupré, re-printed here in its entirety - ampersands and contractions intact - knowing (and expecting) her “follow-up question” that is waiting in the wings and that will perhaps generate further discussion from you gentle and international readers of this site:

“Your thoughts on "bracketing" vs. sous rature brought back fuzzy memories of Heidegger & Husserl. Heidegger said we can't experience the external world apart from our mental constructs of it & that our "pre-reflective" consciousness is a more authentic orientation to the world than our reflective consciousness. Husserl emphasized that "bracketing" was a way to get to Zu den Sachen ("the things themselves")(2) as we post-pone or set aside our "baggage" about the world (our mental constructs of it) to attempt to focus on noumena, or the thing itself.

Is this similar to placing words "under erasure?" I think not, as bracketing requires a total disengagement from the external world whereas sous rature acknowledges the necessity of seeing that word behind the erasure in order to discuss it.”


Song for Europe continues through September 21, 2008 at The Athenaeum. Gallery hours: Thursday-Sunday, 12-4 pm. For information: 1-703-548-0035.

Image: Song for Europe: Signs are not thoughts (English); detail with visitor contributions on 8/20/08; © Copyright 2008.

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1. “Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since the word is necessary, it remains legible.” - Gayatri Spivak in the “Translator’s Preface” to Derrida's Of Grammatology (revised edition), Baltimore, 1998, xiv.

2. Forgive my elimination of selbst from Husserl’s term. More on Husserl and phenomenology at About.com.