2. Extensiveness in Wael Shawky, Helen Cammock, Miljohn Ruperto and Paul Noble
One of the most pleasing aspects of mining my notebooks in the name of these two pear-shaped pieces was the light this process shone on certain key thematics which have more-or-less unconsciously united some of my most notable encounters with artworks across the last few years. One of these broadly pulls together the work of artists as diverse as Paul Noble, Wael Shawky, Miljohn Ruperto and Helen Cammock. It’s difficult to strike the right balance between restrictively specific and excessively abstract in naming this thematic, but I’m going to settle for “extension”. Extension through size, duration and multiplicity of media – each of these artists seemed to me to offer interesting feedback onto an issue which has historically been at the heart of debates concerning the communicative force of the artwork.
For example, in the introduction to her 1993 book The Optical Unconscious Rosalind Krauss recounts a conversation with Michael Fried, a fellow critic of Modernist painting, who was advocating the work of Frank Stella. As Krauss remarks, Fried explained Stella’s talent through analogy with the great Boston Red Sox hitter Ted Williams : “Ted Williams sees faster than any other living human. He sees so fast that when the ball comes over the plate – 90 miles an hour – he can see the stitches. So he hits the ball right out of the park. That’s why Frank thinks he’s a genius.”
Krauss parses the implied association between Williams and Stella in the following terms:
To see so fast that the blur of that white smudge could be exploded into pure contact, pure simultaneity, pure optical pattern: vision in touch with its own resources. And fast, so fast. In that speed was gathered the idea of an abstracted and heightened visuality, one in which the eye and its object made contact with such amazing rapidity that neither one seemed any longer to be attached to its merely carnal support – neither to the body of the hitter nor to the spherical substrate of the ball. Vision had, as it were, been pared away into a dazzle of pure instantaneity, into an abstract condition with no before and no after. But in that very motionless explosion of pure presentness was contained as well vision’s connection to its objects, also represented here in its abstract form – as a moment of pure release, of pure transparency, of pure self-knowledge.
The apotheosis of visual instantaneity – meaning communicative self-sufficiency and unequivocality – was central to Fried’s critical project. In Art and Objecthood (1967), he famously rejected the work of Minimalist sculptors like Donald Judd on the basis that their work opened itself excessively to the contingencies of its viewing situation, thus failing to deliver any sense of “conviction” to the viewer. Even in Krauss’s work, which broadly takes a stance against Fried’s criticism without ever really abandoning its classically Modernist dedication to the question of the medium, there is a sense that in order to be meaningful an artwork must be “convinced” of its own material specificity. Krauss’s diatribe against the proliferaiton of multi-media work in her 1999 lecture ‘A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition’ is predicated on the idea that there is a greater weight of critical potential in work which picks a single medium and focuses its energies on interrogating the dialectical relationships proper to that medium.
Here is one way then in which “extension” might be viewed as a troublesome issue for art criticism. In both Krauss and Fried there is a sense that the sprawling artwork is the diluted artwork, one whose potential for meaning is reduced through hesitancy or divided focus. All five of the artists I mentioned above – Noble, Shawky, Cammock and Ruperto – carry on as if this critique had never been an issue. Perhaps this is a non-issue in itself: neither Krauss nor Fried ever really owned a critical moment, and two of the writings mentioned above – Krauss’s ‘Voyage on the North Sea’ and Fried’s ‘Art and Objecthood’ – are designed to argue against practices which had in the first place diverged from their own understanding of the basis of advanced art quite substantially. The reason for evoking their arguments is simple: extension through scale, duration and multiplicity of media might not have otherwise seemed like issues worthy of investigating in a 2014 artworld which is avowedly pluralist.
It is however increasingly difficult to pass over the tendency of shows to incorporate at least one feature-length film or video piece. Sometimes these are narrative, or documentary, or neither, but all of them pose logistical problems: there are numerous works I didn’t even approach on my recent visit to the Whitney Biennial, on the basis that I simply wouldn’t have time to digest them properly. Wael Shawky is perhaps the artist that brought this matter most clearly to my attention. His recent exhibition at the Serpentine didn’t just present films that were long, but literally epic. Each of the films on show at the Serpentine – Al Araba Al Madfuna II and the two parts of the Cabaret Crusades series, respectively titled The Horror Show File and The Path to Cairo – concerned themselves with sprawling, historical narratives, delivered in more-or-less quirky fashion. In the former, children in false moustaches recounted Arabic folk tales and in the latter, marionette puppets were employed in a history of the Crusades. There was something of Ernst Gombrich’s Little History of the World about all this, although Shawky’s effort to excavate and represent an more Eastern-focused history of Medieval Christian-Muslim relations clearly stands somewhat at odds with Gombrich’s narrowly European perspective. It is evident that postcolonial theory is the intellectual arena in which the most compelling readings of this work are to be made, but the very form of these films – the appearance in a leading London institution of a series of feature-length historical animations – should give us pause if just for a moment.
I don’t have any answers as to what kind of cultural moment Shawky’s formal choices might gesture towards, only more examples (in addition, I don’t have any fully-formed ideas as to why animation crops up so frequently in this year’s Whitney Biennial, but its a phenomenon that warrants exploration). On the same trip to London that took me to Shawky’s show at the Serpentine, I also visited Hollybush Gardens’ group exhibition ‘You Don’t Need a Weather Man to Know Which Way the Wind Blows’, and was struck by the work of Helen Cammock. Cammock’s 9-minute video The Singing Will Never Be Done demanded less of the viewer than Shawky’s did, but the meaning of the piece was equally sprawling and deferred. Crucially, neither of these artists seem dedicated to the infinite deferral of meaning we associate with postmodern critiques of the “metaphysics of presence”. Cammock’s work, rather, communicates meaning through a gradual accrual of references across time: footage of parakeets in an English park is mixed in with a voiceover narrating family anecdotes, and reflections on Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. Cammock’s work employs techniques which can be found in any number of contemporary artists working with film, video, text and installation, and which seem to me to owe a great deal to the writings of W.G. Sebald. It is not accidental that Sebald is namechecked in the catalogue to ‘Altermodern’, Nicolas Bourriaud’s wide-ranging survey of contemporary practice which was put on show for the 2009 Tate Triennial. Sebald’s books, which weave together narratives from an extensive and heterochronic network of textual sources and personal reminiscences, have clearly been a guiding light for a large number of artists across the last decade. Once again, we should pause – before considering how Cammock’s work ‘speaks of the politics of race through the prism of family experience’ (press release) – to briefly consider the very “extensiveness” of this work, the way that it scopes around widely and offers us meaning in drip-feed.
Finally, two artists whose work could theoretically be appreciated in a Ted Williams instant, but which seem equally reliant upon some conception of “extensiveness”. Like Shawky, Miljohn Ruperto has worked in animation – his Janus (produced in collaboration with Aimée de Jongh) was an uncannily cutesy depiction of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s well-known “duck-rabbit” illustration. The most “extensive” works on show by Ruperto in this exhibition were however a series of cool minimal prints depicting botanical specimens, calling strongly to mind the studies of early 20th-century photographer Karl Blossfeldt. But where Blossfeldt’s plant studies were dedicated to a process of revelation, drawing out the inherent alterity of familiar natural forms (Georges Bataille beautifully remarked that Blossfeldt’s images gave expression to ‘an obscure vegetal resolution’), Ruperto’s are openly fictitious. Look closely at the images and it becomes clear that they are computer-generated simulations, drawing on a Renaissance codex known as the Voynich manuscript. The work itself, though visually compelling, reaches out beyond itself to a longer-duration variety of reading. Once again, we are not looking at an endless spread of meaning here, and neither does this work rely on text in the same way that, say, Conceptual art did. Ruperto’s images “convince”, but they also defer and extend. Much the same can be said of Paul Noble’s “Nobson Newtown” drawings. These pictures of a fictional “excremental city”, which featured in the 2012 Turner Prize show, offer up an immediate compositional integrity, in parts reminiscent of Yves Tanguy’s melancholy Surrealist no-places. But through both an extended narrative framework – Nobson Newtown is a fictional town of Noble’s invention some 18 years in the making – and through the level of detail inherent in the drawings themselves, we are pulled into duration, into narrative, into some notion of liveability. This last term is pointed. For Michael Fried, the very reason to aim for a fully self-sufficient, self-evident “presence” in one’s art is that ‘presentness is grace’: our everyday lives are so steeped in narrative, in long-duration forms of unfolding, in ambivalence and deferral, that some notion of escape is desirable. Fried’s principle has long fallen out of favour, however, and it could be fascinating to construct a history of artists working in negation to this axiom, one which would lead us up to the kinds of contemporary practices I have described in this piece.
by Luke Healey