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Alina Szapocznikow, Sculpture – Lampe VIII (1970)
*This paper was first presented at the World Picture Journal, Property conference, Cambridge University 13–4 December, 2016.*
My paper will consider the open letter, penned by the late-career artist and distributed through social networks, as an ambivalent expression of property ownership. I will consider two letters, written by Adrian Piper (2015) and Yvonne Rainer (2011), which differently intervene into the art world’s dominant conditions, in order to arrive at an understanding of “why property” –– a description that may at first seem counterintuitive, given these letters’ avowed critical function. This will mean thinking about the movement of exceptional goods through civil society, and, in turn, the livelihood of “public opinion” as a historical bourgeoise category, but ultimately I want to reflect on questions of style and rhetoric in two instances of literary culture.
But first, an epigraph from the artist Mary Kelly, whose 1981 essay for Screen journal, “Re-viewing Modernist Criticism,” usefully sets this inquiry’s scene :
The Work of art, filtered through the institutions and discourses that determine its specific conditions of existence, produces artistic authorship in the fundamental form of the bourgeois subject; creative, autonomous and proprietorial. In a sense there is no ‘alternative’ to that passage; for the very moment that the work of art enters into circulation it is sanctioned by law as the property of a creative subject (but not to enter into such contract would be to forfeit even the possibility that the artistic text, in the process of its construction of meaning, could indeed interrogate that form). (46)
The artist is compelled to circulate her person through gallery openings, collectors’ dinners and Instagram, or be circulated retroactively as a personage in history; for the art-historical prestige that attaches to the indestructible form of the work of art springs from the social practice of conversational exchange. The art historian George Kubler understood this perfectly when he wrote in 1962 that ‘The most valuable critic of contemporary work is another artist engaged in the same game’; and hence the determinate vitality, in the mid-60s New York context, of a critic like the Village Voice’s Jill Johnston, whose weekly dance column squared current trends of aesthetic theory in art-making with the latest Downtown loft-party gossip. The artist’s entrance into those beckoning material circuits is better for being well-timed, for unlike other commodities, artworks come alive when they are recognised as the products of, or, in the case of time-based media performances of, an artist, who either maintains a proprietorial connection to the aftermath of production or risks having that aftermath foisted upon her; and like other classes of symbolising goods that uphold social distinction, the artist must as a condition of her entry be seen to lavish that Liberal dictum [Slide: Every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.] which is everywhere else under the Capitalist mode of production, being congealed to a pulp (Gallerte) 24/7.
Of course, artists do attempt in a number of ways to demystify the distinction that is achieved by their artworks. Where one artist mimics the labour contract that accompanies the sale or acquisition of a work, another might test the institutional apparatus that displays or markets those products – and these patterns of recuperation and détournement certainly, and importantly for my purposes, feature in the early practices of both Rainer and Piper. By way of a more recent concretion, note that the artist Maria Eichhorn sent all employees home for the run of her London show at the Chisenhale Gallery, titled 5 Weeks 25 Days 175 Hours. Writing for Kunstkritikk, Josefine Wilkström responded with the valid point that demonstratively “giving back time to the staff” does not equal the suspension of wage labour, nor does it stem the wearisome back-piling of administrative duties. In fact, and this is the crux of the matter, such committed attempts only consolidate the “possessive individualism,” to borrow a term from the political theorist C.B. Macpherson, that emboldens the artist whose person provides quality insurance –– with each renunciation more conversations are galvanised, the valorisation process speeds up.
A paradox materialises – and this is what Kelly and other artists writing for Screen were getting at –; it is more likely that the artwork will be spoken about, its value as proxy to a talking-point enlarged, if the artist treats the aftermath of its life in the workplace as an occasion to publicly comment on the conversion of moral values to market values that sanctions its circulation. For the mingling artwork should be seen to possess a share, however immaterial or remote, of the artist’s “body” and “hands,” comportment and signature; while the artist is encouraged by her representation, to act as an ambassador on its behalf. In this sense the contemporary artist is distantly related to the nineteenth-century bourgeoise, who, as Marx responds to Bruno Bauer in his 1843 article, “On the Jewish Question”, leads ‘a double existence––celestial and terrestrial… liv[ing] in the political community, where he regards himself as a communal being, and in civil society, where he acts simply as a private individual.’ Leveraging some distance from the mechanisms of circulation, the late-career artist emerges as a concerned citizen who challenges the general loss of political obligation that, in Macpherson’s diagnosis of liberal democracy, accompanies the systemic privatisation of individual needs, with the only means available to her; namely, by broadcasting protests over the adulteration of her product at the hands of ‘alien power’. Yet something unexpected results from all of this: abetted by those same institutions and discourses that force the artist’s hand, these protests make their way back, via a ladder of progressively fattening stylistic rungs, to the artwork’s original point of social entry. By saying this I merely point to those contractual benefits that Kelly relegates with good conscience, which profit from the artist choosing not to forfeit the possibility of interrogating the form of the bourgeois subject. And true to form, placards are one day filed alongside programmes and pictures at the Getty Research Institute.
Too quaint an image? Played back, such a conclusion starts to sound as robust as the artist’s protest it sets out to criticise (and here I also have in mind Adam Curtis’s vulgar depiction of the critical artist Martha Rosler as a normalising agent of Neoliberal forces); for my characterisation courts the same charge of “positivist Ideologiekritik”; of a kind that, as Raymond Geuss explains, ‘can have the right effect… but cannot give an account of its own activity in bringing that effect about.’ As an art historian, I covet exactly these spiralling conversations, however wrongful that may be. By seeing in each material thing the ‘reflection’ of a conversation, and by bracketing that material, the artwork, so as to get a little closer to what went on in the wings or behind closed doors, I risk obfuscating what T.J. Clark once called the ‘network of real, complex relations between the two’. [Slide: I want to discover what concrete transactions are hidden behind the mechanical image of ‘reflection’, to know how ‘background’ becomes ‘foreground’; instead of analogy between form and content, to discover the network of real, complex relations between the two.] To address this blind side – my own lover’s disbelief – I want now to focus on a historical genre whose vocal passage from the terrestrial to the celestial interjects some requirement to reflect, and to dwell with these statements as effects of the work of art, by intimating for-us the join between critical theory and literary subjectivity.
And here I’m thinking of the open letter. It is one of those instrumental mediums that, in Habermas’s foundational account of the public sphere – which I read cautiously, with Miriam Hansen, Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge over my shoulder – enables the organ of public opinion to jostle with public power for control over the regulation of social life. The open letter is a vital force for the bourgeoise, because, encoded in its DNA, is the repressed knowledge that the public, what Nina Power christens “the good public”, is the perverse efflorescence of a now-lost ‘sphere of purely human relations’. Encircled by the novel pathos of Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney and Goethe, this sphere crystallised in the eighteenth-century, which Habermas refers to, with some valedictory feeling, as “the century of the letter”. ‘Through letter writing,’ he writes, ‘the individual unfolded himself in his subjectivity… [Understood] as the innermost core of the private, [subjectivity] was always already oriented to an audience’. Now, it is important that the German word Publikum here translates to ‘audience’ and takes in its predicate, ‘the innermost core of the private;’ for this word captures how, as Habermas goes on to write, ‘The sphere of the public arose in the broader strata of the bourgeoise as an expansion and at the same time completion of the intimate sphere of the conjugal family.’ Comically, we might say that the public desires nothing more than to be chided, then caressed, with the tender unconditionality of a good telling-off. Of course, as Negt and Kluge argue in their book Öffentlichkeit und Erfahrung, published in 1972, ten years after Habermas’s Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, such close-knit address immediately negates the experience of the majority class subject’s Lebenszusammenhang, that subject’s “context of living”; in fact, and this the authors simultaneously denigrate and re-imagine as a resource for future proletariat movements, publicness is nourished on the negation of that “context”. Having said that, and here the paradox returns, this utopia does not hold for a phenomenon like the art world, whose token counterpublics horribly parody its promise; through its exceptional status vis-à-vis civil society, the art world subsists in a weird homologous relation to the nineteenth-century bourgeoise public sphere, classically imagined. Its labour, as Marina Vishmidt contends, is speculative; its context, spectral.
From this world-historical view, I now want to read Piper’s and Rainer’s letters against themselves, as anachronic missives; that is, less as artist statements and more as peculiar emissaries of a disenchanted global microcosm.
Why I’m not talking about my artwork is the header of a PDF communication written by the artist Adrian Piper and posted last year on her official website. This statement signals the renunciation of the artist’s engagement with her own work past and present; though to my mind it formally sabotages that same gesture, eliciting the following sort of ambivalence: [Slide: But what is the artist doing, if she is not talking about her artwork?] For within that perlocution [Slide: Why I’m not] lurks the contrary sense that however an artist chooses to sign, or simply “is present” as a minimal condition, something is being ‘oriented to an audience’.
Piper’s letter is interesting because, while it objectively criticises what I take to be a normative conception of the public sphere, its style defaults on that criticism. ‘One of the reasons I am not doing interviews or talks about my artwork for now,’ the letter opens, ‘is that I have already said more on this topic than any sane person could possibly want to read or hear… At the time… I felt the need to add my… concerns to the general discourse.’ Here, Piper evokes art criticism as a shared and enclosed world capable of mediating subject and object; something like Habermas’s ‘rational-critical debate in the world of letters’. As she goes on to say, ‘Circulating those ideas within the shared discourse also had the unwanted side effect of sabotaging those ideas themselves… I in effect mediated that relationship through my discourse about it, thus undermining the ability of viewers to enter into it!’ In this passage, the concentration and transference of discourse from the ‘general’ to the ‘shared’ to ‘my own’ shows Piper to be cognizant and critical of the processes by which an artist’s utterances are fashioned into an intrigue surrounding her life story, around which in turn, artworks link to form an incontestable halo. Piper’s acknowledged sabotage and the intrigue to which this gives rise is not attributable, however; this intrigue does not appear (at least) to possess a “sense of having”, but instead manifests a “being”. By her mere authorial presence, Piper admits, the artist has heretofore excluded viewers from entering into an exchange with her work; yet underlying this, too, is the subjective feeling that it is the artist who is interpolated by the viewer, as a “block” to such an exchange, and never so acutely as when her status as artist is under threat or in question –– a tautology that is painfully and contradictorily expressed by the work of art. Piper thus clarifies a worldly truth about artworks, which is that they often stimulate bad feelings about relationships; the artist, we may infer, sometimes experiences other people as a reflection that is dazzling –– her unshakeable “individualism” harshly exposes what Marx calls ‘the real energy and movement of private property’ that is everywhere transmuted through the division of labour. It is for this reason, I argue, that Piper’s letter can only retreat from such a recognition, by recapitulating the above conversation through an image of her own practice. [Slide] ‘That I had asserted P was taken to be a statement about me, rather than about P.’ Here the artist employs an analytical formulation that summons her early interventions into a set of 1960s art world discourses, propagated in the main by the Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth. The designation “P” functions as a second-order motif, one that signifies the author’s formative practice; the authorial voice is synchronised with the artist’s timeline, and this letter’s renunciation is most succinctly expressed in terms that are, if not self-referential, at least evocative of that self’s reservoir of signs.
The second letter I want to read does foreground ‘the totalising logic of Capitalism,’ as Ellen Meiksins Wood would reassert it; here I see a genuine attempt to muster something like a counterpublic from within the art world. In 2011, Yvonne Rainer wrote an open letter to Jeffrey Deitch, then director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, decrying a performance, orchestrated by Marina Abramović, that was to be held over the course of a donors’ gala dinner. “It has come to my attention,” wrote Rainer, after having been informed of the proceedings by a renegade auditionee, “that a number of young people will be ensconced under the diners’ tables on lazy Susans and also be required to display their nude bodies under fake skeletons.” Rainer’s disgust over a performance situation in which young artists, in search of a break by any means, have been asked to remain immobile for a period of three hours while their protruding heads steadily rotate through an arrangement of dining table glory holes, when it cannot be promised that donors won’t try to touch, feed or insult them, is buttressed by the cool fact that they are prospectively being paid $150 for two days’ work. Rainer’s letter thus treats Abramovic’s entertainment symptomatically, as indicative of the generally exploitative working conditions that undergird the art world’s uppermost tiers, predicated as they are, on a ramping up of absolute surplus value:
This description is reminiscent of “Salo,” Pasolini’s controversial film of 1975 that dealt with sadism and sexual abuse of a group of adolescents at the hands of a bunch of post-war fascists. Reluctant as I am to dignify Abramovic by mentioning Pasolini in the same breath, the latter at least had a socially credible justification tied to the cause of anti-fascism. Abramovic and MOCA have no such credibility, only a flimsy personal rationale about eye contact.
Rainer’s elaboration imbricates the work in a discursive tangle that situates the art world against dominant social conditions: For the mention of Salò invokes, via the figure of the Marquis de Sade, Adorno and Horkheimer’s “culture industry” thesis and their joint analysis of entertainment as a primary site for the extraction of value from bodies under capitalism, which in turn indicts Abramovic and MOCA’s lack of credibility along an axis that renders those schooled in such references somehow complicit too. This is a deliberately refractive gesture, then, which properly points to the social limits of criticism in the process of raising, collectivising and distributing a concern through the art world.
But isn’t this now too overweening? For on the other hand, these sentences are patently representative of Rainer’s idiosyncratic patterns of speech and writing; and the “flimsy rationale about eye contact” which she does concede as a positive remainder of the Abramovic x MOCA spectacle, seems to usher her own performance histories in with the criticism’s punch line, (note that “eye contact” has posed a theoretical problem throughout Rainer’s career.) Descending a few more rungs of the ladder, images of Rainer’s signature work, Trio A, fall behind others of a formative Abramović, immobile, immaculate, touched, fed and insulted, resembling Salò more closely still, perhaps, through their coeval reduction to a body abused by hand and prop –– the person of the artist becomes the pedestal to a banquet.
I have been curious to know how such authority silently reendows the form of the bourgeoise subject; where Piper looks to for redress; why Rainer serves Abramović on a silver platter; and what this says about the artist’s achieved career. I don’t want to say “competition” because that could be construed as a dirty word in this context, but there is something palpably going on in the open letter form, which warrants such reflection.
 Mary Kelly, “Re-viewing Modernist Criticism,” Screen 22:3 (1981), p. 46.
 George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale UP, 1962), p. 23.
 John Locke, The Second Treatise of Government (1689) Section 27.
 Josefine Wilkström, http://www.kunstkritikk.com/kritikk/a-not-radical-enough-gesture/
 Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” (1943) Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, (London: Penguin, 1992), p. 220.
 Raymond Geuss, The Idea of Critical Theory: Habermas & the Frankfurt School (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981), p. 29.
 T.J. Clark, “On the Social History of Art, Image of the People: Courbet and the Revolution of 1848 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1973), p. 22.
 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (London: Polity, 1992), p. 48.
 Ibid., pp. 48-9.
 Ibid., p. 50.
 Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Public Sphere and Experience: Analysis of the Bourgeois and Proletarian Public Sphere (London: Verso, 2016).
 Karl Marx, “1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” (1844), Early Writings, p. 341.
 Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (London: Verso, 2016).
This paper was first presented at Architecture & Feminisms: Ecologies, Technologies, Economies (13th Annual AHRA Conference, KTH School of Architecture, Stockholm, Sweden).
I begin with an epigraph from art historian Griselda Pollock, whose 2007 book Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum, shows how artworks may be read as cultural practice:
‘The virtual feminist museum’ aims… [Pollock writes] to create a feminist space of encounter. [It] is not, like the modernist museum, about mastery, classification, definition. It is about argued responses, grounded speculations, exploratory relations, that tell us new things about femininity, modernity and representation.
The sanctuary, the gym, the proscenium, the lounge; the lecture hall, the campus path, the dorm room, the classroom –– settings that in their dailiness narrate the mise-en-scène of a generational encounter between two performance works. For there are few obvious representational similarities between Yvonne Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965) and Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight) (2014–15). And for the record: Yvonne Rainer is a choreographer and film-maker, who began making work through the Judson Dance Theater, a weekly dance workshop ran out of the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, New York, from 1962 to ’64; while Emma Sulkowicz was up till last year a senior in the Visual Arts undergraduate programme at Columbia University.
What these two works do share in common – apart from the city of New York, that is – is the mattress or, in Rainer’s case, a set of mattresses. In both these works, the mattress is a centre around which differently sexed subjects congregate as if they were at table; it facilitates movement through space; and like the performers or students who assist in carrying the mattress around, this prop tells us something about the boundary between private life and public exposure that is here at the Judson Memorial Church, there on Columbia University campus, policed by the milling of onlookers. Through its sheer bulkiness, the mattress pays witness to the lived experience of those involved in the more-than-one nature of the task of lugging it from a to b. Yet this prop signifies quite differently in these two works, and it is this difference which is the subject of my paper.
Taking my cue from Pollock’s “Virtual Feminist Museum,” I discuss these two works on their own terms before conducting a feminist reading of the interval that separates them. Reading with Hannah Arendt, contemporary feminist political theorists such as Bonnie Honig and Linda Zerilli, as well as Jennifer Doyle’s timely book Campus Sex, Campus Security, and Sara Ahmed’s recent letter of resignation to Goldsmiths University in London, I think through that which is here, there, made visible by the mattress.
To begin with Rainer: the mattresses were primarily a means of choreographing task movement; that is, the quite pedestrian and everyday chore of moving performers around a stage. The mattresses were sometimes stacked in piles, sometimes leant against the wall upstage, or else they were spread in a single layer across the proscenium floor. Often, during rehearsals (as can be seen here), performers were individually thrown onto the pile, or the pile was disassembled and redistributed through the studio. The mattress in Rainer’s performance work of the mid- to late-sixties, so it seems, was divested of its meaningful attachment to the home and treated much like any other kind of prop, to be manipulated by the performer as “neutral doer”.
As art historian Elise Archias has recently claimed: ‘However uncomfortable we might be in the present with the notion of universal address, it is historically accurate to view [Rainer’s] early works as reaching for an understanding of embodiment that could not be… claimed by a single identity category.’ There was, according to this widely held art-historical view on the sixties, no kind of feminist analysis or awareness of sexual difference at stake in these configurations of body and prop; only fun, amusement and moments of staged collectivity. There is, however, an undercurrent to Rainer’s presentation of ‘task movement’ I would like to draw upon; it is one that troubles the way questions of gender and sex are often bracketed in such art-historical analyses.
Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets, otherwise known as “a dance for 10 people and 12 mattresses,” is notable for its strict organisational structure. Every thirty seconds, all performers on stage were obliged to stop what they were doing, and switch to a new task; and all tasks were assigned to the ten performers by Rainer prior to the performance according to a chance procedure that involved the throwing of a pair of dice over a large 2-D chart. This procedure, derived from the teachings of John Cage, determined who did what, and when. As a result, the dance was very hard to learn, involving kinaesthetically discontinuous movement-series that forced each performer to switch like clockwork between apparently arbitrary tasks. Art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty, whose 2008 monograph is wholly answerable to Rainer’s choreography, sees in her presentation of task movement a mediated apprehension of the experience of industrial work, increased automation and the deskilling of labour under Late Capitalism. Reading with the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson’s analysis of the factory’s clock-time, Lambert-Beatty comments on task movement’s entanglement with the rationalisation of “playful activity” along increasingly industrial lines, seeing in Parts of Some Sextets a ‘warning that leisure industries like television were already absorbing nonwork time into industrial logics and economies.’ Accordingly, this dance might be situated alongside attempts in other media to render the experience of work; as, for instance, is achieved by Women and Work 1973–75 –– a collaborative project between feminist artists Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly.
There is, in hindsight, nothing wrong with this kind of symptomatic analysis of the dance’s strict organisational structure – it makes sense of Judson dance’s rejection of narrative against the backdrop of accelerated urban development – yet Rainer told me in interview that such a reading, one that is itself representative of the way sixties dance has been folded into the discipline of art history and welcomed into the museum, fails to capture the actual embodiment, the vertiginous feeling and rush, of being on stage. To give a sense of this, here is a description by Rainer, written in 1966, of an improvisation involving the mattress, that preceded Parts of Some Sextets:
I was excited by a particular piece of business: 2 of us carrying a mattress up an aisle, out the rear exit, around and in again thru a side exit. Something ludicrous and satisfying about lugging that bulky object around, removing it from scene and re-introducing it. No stylisation needed. It seemed to be so self-contained an act as to require no artistic tampering or justification.
There was, as can be garnered, something complete about this mattress movement; it did not point to anything offstage, beyond itself, out there in the “real world” or social life. It was this matter-of-fact quality, and the foregrounding of the ‘actual time it takes the actual weight of the body to go through the prescribed motions,’ so called, that has led to a slightly flattened understanding of task movement.
For as Catherine Wood, curator of performance at Tate Modern, has written: task movement ‘did not literally represent the nature of work in an increasingly industrialised America… [and Rainer’s dance] has much more to do with image and illusion than [her] discussion of work, task and the elimination of stylisation seems to admit.’ Wood’s gesture to ‘image and illusion’ is important, because it suggests that the mattresses did something other than merely corroborate the task-oriented temporality of a dance like Parts of Some Sextets. Indeed, in a miscellaneous note from the mid-sixties, in which Rainer reflects on the process of selecting props for dance works, she concludes that what is needed are (and I quote), ‘Objects that in themselves have a “load” of associations (e.g., the mattress – sleep, dreams, sickness, unconsciousness, sex) but which can be exploited strictly as neutral “objects”.’
Far from the unironic display of disaffected labourers at work, one we are by now familiar with from museum-friendly forms of art-as-social practice, Rainer imagined a situation in which a preliminary reading of task movement could itself be tested, by the inclusion of props that, no matter how unfeelingly they were manipulated, disclose chains of signification that point beyond the task in hand.
What actually happens, then, to the mattress’ “load” of associations, when it is carried up and around the stage? Do sleep, sickness, sex – and by extension sexual difference – simply hover around the dance like a heuristic appendage, one that is ultimately dispensable to the workings of task movement? To give room to these questions, I turn to a second performance context, in which task movement is rematerialised as a daily imperative to negotiate the scene and site of sexual harassment on the University campus.
And here it is worth saying that I’m not speaking from a place of personal experience. The following section is a presentation of the accounts of Emma Sulkowicz and a range of feminist scholars. I also include a trigger warning for sexual violence.
On May 16 2016 Sara Ahmed, feminist killjoy and former Director of the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths University, published a resignation letter on her blog, ‘in protest’ [as she writes] ‘against the failure to address the problem of sexual harassment within universities.’ What this letter addresses, as will surely be obvious to everyone here, is an everyday phenomenon. The imaginative preservation of the University campus as a “safe space” in which students who aren’t read as white, straight and male, are able to progress uninhibited is a neoliberal myth that is upheld by apparently helpful, yet in reality often totally damaging and unhelpful, administrative support systems.
In her far-reaching book, Campus Sex, Campus Security, UC Riverside professor Jessica Doyle considers the real effects of one particular policy, Title IX, on the student population of the American University campus. ‘Title IX,’ the reader is informed, ‘is civil anti-discrimination law designed to bar sex/gender discrimination in education.’ Doyle explains how Title IX produces the campus as a paranoid structure, in which administrators honour its legislation by actively managing “risk” to the point of seeking it out, seeing in each and every encounter the “conditions of possibility” for a violation, a complaint, a complainant, a “young girl”. The language of safe spaces, of “feeling safe” – and the image of the “young girl” that underwrites the recuperation of these terms – become cause for cops on campus, as if police are emotionally equipped to intervene in sexual violence. Doyle writes:
Retaliation, for the university, is a beast; it is often far easier for a victim to demonstrate a case of retaliation than the original complaint. A Title IX complaint, when poorly administered, will take on a mind-numbing fractal complexity––it will grow, and replicate itself in complaints about complaints… And the victim is the engine of this administrative trouble. She (again, always she) is a walking situation. This is her appeal: at risk, she is risk itself.
Crucially, Doyle recognises that risk, taking risks, making oneself vulnerable, feeling exposed, even, at times, threatened, is part of experiencing desire for others; of deepening the ties of friendship. And because of the way this risk, and its individual degrees of situational consent, are mimicked, if horribly distorted by legislative procedure, stories which accompany complaints can take on ‘their own libidinal economy.’ As Doyle writes: ‘The victim reports the rape; she makes people think about things they don’t want to know (about themselves). She is responsible for the jury’s predicament. This is why she, eventually, is the one put on trial.’
Enter Emma Sulkowicz, a practicing artist and former student of Columbia University who has dealt with this situation head-on. In 2013, Sulkowicz filed a complaint to the University, after having been raped in her dorm room by a fellow student, requesting that he be expelled. Though she had initially kept it a secret, informing the University became an imperative after she learned that the same man had subsequently assaulted other women. The complaint was duly rejected. The following year, Sulkowicz went to the NYPD, who responded with the invasive and offensive tactic of asking impertinent questions; querying the terms of her relationship to her rapist – as if to suggest that any prior relationship immediately vitiates the claim (on grounds of what, one might ask, property rights?) – and consistently calling her “sweetheart.” Sulkowicz played a tape recording of her police statement to me, one she made knowing in advance how the police would likely respond. The police’s gross misogyny and race discrimination was indeed shocking to listen to, if wholly unsurprising. For, as Doyle wisely observes, ‘Victims report because they need help; a campus receives reports because it is bound by law to do so. This asymmetry warps their interaction.’ In other words, “learn to expect nothing” is, from enforcement’s standpoint, the most desirable outcome of a risk well-managed.
It is here that Rainer’s and Sulkowicz’s stories converge; when, in 2014, the latter began preparations for Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight) by drafting a set of instructions. For the entirety of her senior year, up to graduation – a period of nine months – Sulkowicz would carry a dorm room mattress with her everywhere she went within the boundaries of Columbia campus. The performance would terminate as or when her rapist was expelled. She was not allowed to ask for help, though offers of assistance were welcome. Sulkowicz did add one amendment, though: the mattress could be stored in a safe location, provided she was in the same campus building at any one time. All professors were to be notified in advance of classes, and if the mattress was not tolerated, her spot in that class would effectively be denied. This never happened. Indeed, she told me that Professor Lydia Goehr began to treat the mattress, propped against the wall, much like a teaching aide.
Sulkowicz kindly shared excerpts with me from a diary she had kept over the course of her senior year. In an entry dated October 14, 2014 she writes: ‘If pillows were an apt metaphor for rape, I would switch to carrying a pillow in a fucking instant! However, I carry a mattress because rape is a big deal. It’s overwhelming, serious, grave, heavy, and hard to deal with. I struggle with my mattress. Pillows are cute, fluffy, light, and easy. You hug a pillow, but you grapple with a mattress.’ This mixture of indignation and self-reflection arose in response to a national day of action that had been called by a group of Sulkowicz’s closest friends and allies, who had taken up the mantle after the mainstreaming of Mattress Performance activated the campus imaginary. What started as an inclusive gesture on the part of the demo’s organisers to those students who wanted to participate but were physically unable to carry a mattress, risked devolving into Sulkowicz’s stated ‘worst fear’: ‘That’ (and I quote) ‘at some colleges 100 people will carry pillows and be taking selfies using the hashtag #carrythatweight or #emmasulkowicz or #carryingtheweighttogether while a few brave souls struggle to carry their mattresses for the day.’
To be clear: Sulkowicz’s worry about the integrity of Mattress Performance is not based on any kind of ableism. Instead, ‘grappling with a mattress’ must here be understood categorically as an action. Indeed, the words themselves convey this weight. For Hannah Arendt, action is not a being but a doing; it is, as Bonnie Honig has written, ‘always unfinished business, committed… to the settlement and unsettlement of identities, both personal and institutional… it is an activist, democratic politics of contest, resistance, and amendment.’ An action cannot be reproduced or ascribed conventions; it is totally unique, a rebirth through the asymmetrical plurality of voices. What Sulkowicz was grappling with, in other words, was, as she reported a few weeks earlier, ‘something larger than me.’ (Oct 15, 2016).
How, then, does Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance bear on the mattresses that are lugged around the stage during Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets? There is no easy answer to be found in what Griselda Pollock calls ‘the modernist museum’; for Sulkowicz was not familiar with Rainer’s performance, nor for that matter did she know about Ana Mendieta’s early interventions on Iowa University campus that also involved the mattress, nor did she know about the landmark exhibition WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, held at MOCA in 2007, nor, indeed, was she clued up on histories of feminist politics, practice and theory. Such precedents only came into view later on.
In fact, Mattress Performance was championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and laterally, Roberta Smith, art critic of the New York Times, both of whom historicized the work, and publicly framed its timeliness in the face of those effects of Title IX described by Doyle. Thinking instead through the Virtual Feminist Museum and its openness to “exploratory relations”, what Sulkowicz did have a clear conception of, was this: a set of instructions that would direct the task in hand; actual experience of the actual weight of the body; the force of good that is having friends around; knowledge of the unreliability of the world, and, finally, a sense of what it means to act in that world.
I end with two receipts of purchase, from 1965 and 2014.
 Griselda Pollock, Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum (London: Routledge, 2007), pp.10-11.
 Jennifer Doyle, Campus Sex, Campus Security (New York: Semiotext(e), 2015) I am grateful to Professor Jason Edwards, University of York, for recommending Doyle’s book.
 Elise Archias, The Concrete Body: Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), p. 27.
 Carrie Lambert-Beatty, Being Watched: Yvonne Rainer and the 1960s (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 95…97.
 Yvonne Rainer, “Some Retrospective Notes on a Dance for 10 people and 12 mattresses Called “Parts of Some Sextets.” Performed at Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, and Judson Memorial Church, New York, in March, 1965”, The Tulane Drama Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Winter, 1965), p. 168.
 Catherine Wood, Yvonne Rainer: The Mind is a Muscle (Afterall, One Work Series), (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), p. 81.
 Yvonne Rainer, Work 1961 – 73 (New York: Nova Scotia Art & Design, 1974), p. 106.
 Doyle, op cit., p. 23.
 Ibid., p. 30.
 Ibid., p. 38.
 Ibid., p. 38.
 Ibid., p. 33.
 Emma Sulkowicz, Private manuscript.
 Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of the Political (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 77.
How to describe the chunky tool that pilots Christopher S. Wood and Alexander Nagel’s Anachronic Renaissance (Zone Books: 2010)? The anachronic’s object, at least, is clear: it is the work of art, and the orientation it extends to the art historian. As the reader is told in the Introduction:
The work of art when it is late, when it repeats, when it hesitates, when it remembers, but also when it projects a future or an ideal, is “anachronic.” We introduce this term as an alternative to “anachronistic,” a judgmental term that carries with it the historicist assumption that every event and every object has its proper location within objective and linear time. (13)
For these authors, who challenge calendrical time as much as those modes of art history that wholly refuse it, a crisscrossing study of the European Renaissance offers the most rewards for a referral to the gregarious artwork. They write:
What was distinctive about the European Renaissance, so called, was its apprehensiveness about the temporal instability of the artwork, and its re-creation of the artwork as an occasion for reflection on its instability. (13)
What I find confusing is this: that artworks do more than create occasions for art-historical reflection on wayward time; but that this experiencing of time as wayward is seen to belong to the work of art, through an array of materials, media, motifs and types that are not merely illustrative, nor representative, but are genetically akin to the anachronic sight lines they disclose. With Michael Baxandall’s placid assertion, “We do not explain pictures; we explain remarks about pictures,” in mind, I question the work of art’s ability to recursively fashion time upon itself, prior to art history’s “remarks”. My paper begins by considering the artwork’s priority, before going on to propose how the anachronic is enabled by a “structural thinking”, one that must be read symptomatically against the backdrop of art-historical method.
As Nagel and Wood’s account elaborates, the anachronic is dependent on two reactants: Originally, there is the artefact’s substitutional economy, in which, as the authors explain, ‘the work d[oes] not merely repeat the prior work… Rather, the work simply is its own predecessor’ (11); and upon this ground there is a figure, authorial performance, whose innovative adjustments of available conventions foreground substitution in a multitude of ways. Together, then, substitution and performance generate a magical interplay that gradually speeds up through the Quattrocento’s shrinking cycles of self-knowing –– and the work of art guards their chronic oscillation like a cipher. Taken as read, Anachronic Renaissance proceeds by zoning in on those episodes in art’s working – up to and including their sources – that are knowingly anachronistic; and it is in the authors’ capture of these episodes, that the anachronic potential of such anachronistic material is leveraged. This is a strong and divisive precis, yet it is perhaps necessary, given time constraints, to exaggerate the book’s historically sensitive and self-reflexive strategy into a blunt, paranoid instrument of itself.
Chapter Four offers a typical example. The authors’ discussion of the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio’s Saint Augustine in his Study (c. 1503), begins by describing (and I quote), ‘The roster of objects and images vibrating anachronistically in the picture’s background… Deliberate anachronisms’, as the authors surmise, that ‘fe[e]d back into the symbolic machinery of the picture.’ Scanning past piles of books, ‘meteorological curiosities’ and other scholarly ‘bric-a-brac’ that fill the shelves of Saint Augustine’s study, the reader’s gaze is led to rest on a freestanding bronze Christ atop an alter, recessed in the rear wall of the painting.
Surrounded by vegetal ornament, and situated near to a statuette of Venus, this Christ figure was weighted by Carpaccio, so the reader is told, because it defied common knowledge of Augustine’s hatred of paganism by consolidating Christianity’s Antique pictorial life for the contemporary Renaissance viewer. To evidence this, the authors track the origins of the Bronze Christ, beginning with a group of biographers who predate Constantine, through Eusebius, a fourth-Century church historian, whose ekphrasis was later elaborated upon by Gregory the Great – note the ‘special glow of the statue’s face’ – to the thirteenth-century hagiographies of the Golden Legend. Having conducted a whistle-stop textual history, in all of half a page, the authors state that
The Bronze Christ cited in the painting was not merely, for Carpaccio, a modern work functioning as an ingenious hypothesis of a lost ancient work. The bronze Christ did not just “stand for” or refer poetically to antiquity. Rather, the statue was for him an antique work. (41)
It cannot be doubted that Carpaccio’s insertion of this Antique Christ was a deliberate choice, a performance, whose token untimeliness served to reflect a “clash of temporalities”, so called, that were otherwise already apparent in the painting’s scene, only awaiting their reactivation. Taking their cue from the bronze Christ’s apostrophe to a substitutional chain, the authors relay a performativity that diagrams what they call ‘the structural condition of artefacts.’ And it is here, in its structural form, that the priority of the work of art lies.
Upon a reflex, one might argue that the authors’ detection of the anachronic within Saint Augustine does more than simply reactivate this particular artwork’s plural and discordant origins; that, as corollary to this, detection effects an opening within the bounds of art history for the performance of a critical prowess, one that mimics the vitality of artistic process itself. This charge is easily made. For on the other hand, what kind of knowledge and method direct the anachronic’s twenty-eight case studies? How can the artefact’s zigzagging passage through time credibly be restated, without the interim work of iconography, albeit a kind of work that is silenced in the finale? “According to the texts…” is only one rhetorical refrain the reader encounters on the wayside, in ways that seem, in the end, to have served an auxiliary purpose.
But iconography is an auxiliary science, meaning that a readiness on the authors’ part to distance themselves from the father figures of art history is besides the point; in fact, Nagel and Wood read more like executors of a misunderstood will than as wilfully disobedient. Though a critical lexicon of referentiality is consistently deployed throughout Anachronic, its workings are still immanent to the humanistic programme of their forebears, one that is rendered plastic and projective through a relicensing of attention to the work of art. They are certainly willing to historicise Aby Warburg’s attachment to pathos and Erwin Panofsky’s transatlantic harnessing of iconology as distinct from post-structuralist over-valuations of this earlier project (as when, for instance, they question the legitimacy of Georges Didi-Huberman’s heralding of the medieval image, after Warburg, as ‘a disruption of the coded operations of the sign.’) Calling the authors out on charges of critical play simply won’t wash, then; it doesn’t square with the sheer historical serendipity of these stories and the pleasure they partake of therein, such that, without the safe house of art history’s symbolic forms, would lose face.
Yet, there must be another way to apprehend the allover buoyancy of the anachronic’s dominant terms, without losing sight of this confusing compact between work of art and art historian. Perhaps reading laterally away from Anachronic Renaissance will lead to some resolution.
Like a line from that fabulous maker, oft-quoted in art-historical monographs, Jorge Luis Borges, the authors sign off on the Introduction to Anachronic in a way that invites the reader to dream whole worlds:
This book [they augur] is not the story of the Renaissance, but nor is it just a story. It imagines the infrastructure of many possible stories. (19)
I query the occurrence of the word “infrastructure” in the context of this promissory ending. To whom or to what do these “possible stories” belong? To the work of art, the reader, or to the authors themselves? For a story of the anachronic to emerge in the first place, the listener is reliant on some triangulation coalescing between points that otherwise have no way of reaching one another. Usually, such a question itself intimates a linguistic field conditioned by a general equivalence that routes all utterances. As I see it, however, the authors’ regular ascription of action verbs to the work of art suggests not only that it originates this whole storytelling process – and, by extension, that the artwork’s position within a substitutional mode of production is more important than the authorial performance that attends to it like a foil – but that the work of art, having presaged these ‘many possible stories’, will eventually survive them, through what must now be understood as its infrastructural primacy within the terms of the anachronic. Thus the work of art traverses this linguistic field with relative ease, exempt from the gravitational magnitudes of maker, style and history alike. Naming this special status is not only a reader’s affective response to the piling up of time lost and found, one that returns on the work of art’s world-making faculty, but it also follows on from the authors’ technical descriptions of the artwork. As noted earlier in the authors’ Introduction to Anachronic:
The work [of art] can represent itself either as a “structural object” or as a relic. It can represent itself either as a magical conduit to other times and places or as an index pointing to its own efficient causes, to the immediate agencies created it and no more.
Here, “structural object” steers the reader away from the historical recognition of magic whose shorthand is substitution, towards a register that is far more reflective of its own procedures as art-historical method. Elsewhere, the work of art is cast as a “message whose sender and destination are constantly shifting,” evoking fields like linguistics and, more distantly, electrodynamics. Such moments of procedural self-reflection, which are enriched by historical detail that is first marshalled, then disengaged, cumulatively distil a synchronic form of structuralism, one that implicitly modulates the ratio of substitution to performance which everywhere frames the anachronic’s “clash of temporalities”. It is finally this synchronic form, and the culinary movement that undulates beneath it, that I query.
An interest in structuralism will come as no surprise to readers of Nagel and Wood. Where Nagel’s Medieval Modern (2012) tracks renewed possibilities for premodern artistic modalities through twentieth-century practice, Wood has written judiciously about the art historian’s experience of war exile through Anglophone, Italian and French contexts. It is worth concentrating briefly on Wood’s twinned introductions, to Panofsky’s early essay, Perspective as Symbolic Form (1924), and The Vienna School Reader (2000); both of which he translated and edited for Zone Books in an effort to acquaint American Humanities with the generational crossfire of Austrian-German Kunstwissenschaft. These two magisterial commentaries serve as a spirit level to the anachronic, in that they are strictly bounded by duties of transmission and reception.
Through a comparative analysis, Wood plots what he calls the ‘awkward chronological coordinations of art history and intellectual history’ (18) that stymy the application of any synchronic account of the artwork. The ideal ‘strategy’ for players ranging from early Formalists like Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl, to proponents of Viennese Strukturanalyse such as Hans Sedlmayr and Otto Pächt, to Panofsky’s own brand of Neo-Kantianism, was (and I quote) ‘to isolate the work [of art] temporarily in order to grasp more clearly its deep structural principles, and then ultimately to reinsert the work into its primordial environment on more legitimate grounds.’ (8). This operation proves tricky, for the requirements of philology mean any divergence from a study of the work’s material circuits necessitates some theoretical compensation (insofar as the artwork’s immediate environment has to be bracketed in order to access its deep structural principles). The lodestar for such cryogenic attempts was, as Wood explains, Riegl’s notion of Kunstwollen, translated here as “artistic will”. His explicative task is thus two-fold: to describe the various refinements on Kunstwollen; and to compare the relative limitations of those refinements.
Kunstwollen, so the reader learns, was a deliberately unacademic, homespun notion, referring to the act of will behind the work of art, as opposed to the work itself. By delving past content and style, past ‘function, materials and technology,’ Riegl’s prose sought to isolate the formal rhythms of the will across large chunks of slow time. Submerged on this value-free plane, beneath the epiphenomenal world, where masterpieces melt into material culture, he implemented a series of oppositional formal criteria – ‘haptic and optic, internal and external unity, coordination and subordination’ and so on – to configure the Wollen of a corresponding Weltanschauung, or ‘world-view’. It was the severance of those particularities that animate the work of art as an aesthetic object, which enabled this worldliness to come into view as a series of formal developments. No doubt, submersion risks a parallactic view of things.
As Wood informs his reader, Panofsky extended Riegl’s artifactual apprehension of the world by refining Kunstwollen into a set of a priori transcendental categories, or “symbolic forms”, that, again, ended a hair’s breadth from the actual materials of the work of art. ‘Perspective made a promising case study,’ Wood explains, ‘because it described the world according to a rational and repeatable procedure… [and because it] encourages a strange kind of identification of the art-object and the world-object.’ (13) By way of example, Wood comments elsewhere that: ‘Panofsky the cultural historian simply absorbed Picasso into the “unified stylistic field” by comparing cubism to Einstein’s theory of relativity.’ (VSR: 50)
Where Panofsky transformed Riegl’s will into a special sort of cognition, the Second Vienna school reprised Kunstwollen by relegating Riegl’s still philologically-sensitive Weltanschauungsphilosophie behind the work of art’s structural principle. Sedlmayr especially credited the vision of the art historian with an ability to “see through” the artwork’s stylistic and representational efflorescence; to alight on that marginal surface detail or effect, the artwork’s macchia, which would reveal its non-visible quality, or Struktur. This paradoxically empathic, as opposed to scientific, form of apprehension, accelerated the strategic period of analytical quarantine – noted earlier – to such a great extent, that the artwork’s immediate environments totally receded from view, to be replaced by a parallel universe, a “Welt im Kleinen”. Thus Struktur led to a kind of solipsism, and it is less surprising to learn that Sedlmayr was a member of the Nazi party. But what does all this portend for Nagel and Wood’s later description of the “structural object”?
In his Introduction to the Panofsky essay, Wood makes the following assessment:
The flaws of Viennese Strukturanalyse were the flaws of any structuralism; it was driven by a certain sentimental faith in the organic integrity of culture, in the mysterious interconnectedness of events; and consequently it tended to leave the crucial link between work and world strangely unexamined. (11)
In spotlighting these conversations and this procedural statement, my intention is not to figure the anachronic as such another act of ‘sentimental faith,’ even if the propensity of “infrastructural” leads in this direction. For the anachronic’s kinship with the work of art’s plural and discordant origins gives rise to an irreconcilable view of things, one that perpetuates an agonistic relaying of world-view and Welt im Kleinen. I do however want to register a feeling of readerly exhaustion that accompanies both the methodical involution of Kunstwissenschaft, and Nagel and Wood’s devolution of method to the work of art. To illustrate the procedural circularity that triggers this exhaustion, here is another quotation from the Anachronic’s Introduction:
A materialist approach to historical art leaves the art trapped within its original symbolic circuits. It tends not even to notice that the artwork functioned as a token of power, in its time, precisely by complicating time, by reactivating prestigious forebears, by comparing events across time, by fabricating memories. (18)
One can see how painless it would be for the social art historian to reverse the term’s of this criticism, by questioning the dubious historical proprioception accorded to the work of art; and how this would in turn lead Nagel and Wood to double back on the artefact’s substitutional economy, in an infinite regress. Michael Ann Holly has written eloquently about the experience of melancholy attached to the perpetual reversibility of the art historian’s endeavour. Yet rather than end with this impasse, I want to make some closing statements about language use.
Nagel and Wood’s chunky tool, the anachronic, is finally a statement about art history; and in this sense, it is an effect of the work of art. After substitution and performance, one can extrapolate an inventory of such terms from the text that demonstrate the work of art’s infrastructural priority. Sometimes these mechanical words accrue massively in clusters, as when the authors describe Jan van Eyck’s Three Marys at the Tomb of Christ (ca 1425–1435) as a painting that ‘coalesces around the modelling operation. The artwork is a metamodel, the model of a model. It mimes the modelling operation.’ (70) Elsewhere, a historical term like spoliation figuratively stands in for the artwork’s inward upheaval (41). At staged intervals throughout the book’s miniature histories, the authors are at pains to reformulate and newly define the “structural object” that gives rise to the anachronic; and it is due to the recursion of such attempts at defining the work of art as a structural object, I argue, that the anachronic ineluctably hardens into the book’s blindspot.
** At some point I will extend this paper by reading the anachronic with George Kubler’s The Shape of Time (1962). Kubler’s short book recognises that the readerly exhaustion one experiences with ‘Anachronic Renaissance’ comes from the historian’s attempt to reconcile meaning and structure. By approaching the problem that sits behind “the anachronic” with a degree of sustained and systematic openness, one that crucially makes space for the artist, Kubler enables the very interconnectedness that, in Nagel and Wood’s later (though less developed) book, reflects only the exchangeability of each object-of-study.
This paper was first presented at Time Immaterial: Studies in Anachronic Art History (York University, 11 November 2016).**
Of the many ways artists have sought to intervene into conversations that surround what they do, the open letter is perhaps the most Janus-faced, in that it is a form of making-public that seeks to call out the machinations of the art world. But how can an artist publish one without inviting suspicion that she or he is also, and perhaps even primarily, using this ostensibly non-artwork, open-access form to air her or his artist-profile by other means?
Follow link to Texte zur Kunst below:
On the night preceding the closing day of his first solo exhibition, I Lost Track of the Swarm, showing at South London Gallery, Paul Maheke performed at a party thrown by @Gaybar at DRAF. In the middle of a circle of gallery-partiers and queers, Maheke modulated his step like a concertina through one continuous phrase, locking eyes with whoever happened to be standing in front of them. The room was into it, into his dancing. With Maheke’s white outfit illuminated by four floor-lying fluorescent purple tubes, everyone’s energy was absorbed by a kinesis that, refusing to perform, was difficult to see. We fell silent.
A few days later I saw Maheke again, this time in conversation with New York-based activist and artist niv Acosta, as part of a programme of events Maheke had coordinated to run alongside his show. During the Q&A an invigilator, who was present in the audience, raised his hand and told the speakers that I Lost Track offered “a space to relax,” in response to which an artist and woman of colour, also sitting in the audience, commented on the acrylic sheets that had hung down from the architraves of the first of two exhibition rooms, suffusing its listening environment with light crystals. “Lavender suits brown skin,” she said.
Those diaphanous sheets represent one of several design modifications that work to subtly rezone the domestic interior of SLG’s upper rooms. In the first room you enter, the warp and weft of the former vestry’s wooden floorboards are covered over with a homely white rug, inviting repose. Two sets of Sennheiser headphones tacked to the wall play a mix produced by London-based artist Nkisi (Melika Ngombe Kolongo), of NON Worldwide, a collective of African and African diasporic artists. Nkisi’s mix, which may or may not accompany the second room’s movement – we don’t know – synthesises West African club beats with minimal electro and traditional songs from the clan of Maheke’s father in Congo (Leele). Two wall-mounted speakers play this collage of sounds at a minimal hum, in response to the neighbours’ complaints. I feel like dancing but instead lie down to listen. “In the midst of lavender rooms we are dancing towards transformation.” These are words that reach the listener from a distance, connecting you to the mother law of a matriarchal lineage, drawing you closer to a history written through the body –– a gesturing that, absent from view, returns you to yourself.
In the second, larger room, three metallic poles are set in triangle formation; they support monitors that rise up from the ground like people. There is a single grey panel sown onto finely netted curtains that are drawn around the window bay, masking the natural light coming in from the North. “The wavering of the swarm as a resilient flicker; a gesture towards transformation,” is digitally printed there. Overhead a light box weighs down like a new sky, eerily containing species of grass insect, clumps of dirt, and wavy strands of hair. Later I learn that these are in fact pieces of scattered plastic, but the effect remains the same. Lavender light is collected from the bare floorboards and held up there, in the light box, where it drops over skin, hair and clothes, softly reckoning movement, a swarm.
Under this subterfuge we see Maheke dance, without audio, via each of the monitors. He holds a light source in hand, intermittently transferring this to his belt, so that a silhouette grows and shrinks over the intersecting white planes of the video backdrop. For periods of time the monitors phase into stillness, reenergising the light of the canopy as we stand below. Movement, when we do see Maheke, starts with the hips, and spreads outwards through slowly twisting limbs, sexily and sombrely, like a fugue without music.
‘A world against you can be experienced as your body turning against you,’ writes Sara Ahmed on her feminist killjoys blog, in a 2014 post comparing racism to an attack on the immune system. Beginning with the epidermis, Maheke’s I Lost Track provides the affective tools and space, without fixing on representation, for audiences to meditate on brownness and blackness in the context of the contemporary art institution.
This text is included as part of the following exhibition: Paul Maheke, In Me Everything is Already Flowing, ROOM E-10 27 at Center, Berlin, 16 December – 12 February 2017.
This statement of intent, which this paper takes as its title, appears at the head of an open letter published in 2015 by the artist Adrian Piper. Discussing the effect of the artist’s critical engagement with her or his own practice, Piper writes: ‘The result was that the artwork itself was often, and usually incorrectly, viewed through the lens of my pronouncements about it, as autobiographical. That I had asserted P was taken to be a statement about me, rather than about P.’ In other words, Piper’s commentary on her production is converted, via the operations of art history, into a proprietorial relation –– the artist’s words become evidence of what the Canadian political theorist C.B. Macpherson, whose writings were circulated through artistic discourse of the eighties by the artist Terry Atkinson, in the UK context at least, has termed “possessive individualism”.
The format of the open letter has been mobilised to different ends, notably by a generation of postwar artists. Often, as with Piper’s letter, or, for instance, with Yvonne Rainer’s 1980 rejection of the critic Arlene Croce’s ‘revisionist sense of history,’ this type of intervention has had the obverse effect of further enshrining the authority of the artist’s author-function. Clearly, the epistolary form is distinct from, say, the conceptual artist’s détournement of the labour contract –– it does not seek to enter the art world via the mechanisms that support it. This paper will therefore consider the open letter, penned by the late-career artist, as a form of expression of property ownership.
* This abstract belongs to a paper that will be presented at World Picture Journal’s “Property” conference, to be held at Cambridge University later this year.