Notes on Imaginary Books

Jorge Luis Borges, Foreword, Fictions, 1944

It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books — serring out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them. That was Carlyle’s procedure in Sartor Resartus, Butler’s in The Fair Haven — though these works suffer under the imperfection that they themselves are books, and not a whit less tautological than the others. A more reasonable, more inept, and more lazy man, I have chosen to write notes on imaginary books.

Unexpected Landscapes

Laura Cumming, “Invisible: Art About the Unseen 1957-2012 — Review,” The Observer 17 June 2012

[Empty promises: Invisible Labyrinth (2005) by Jeppe Hein at the Hayward Gallery. Photograph: Tony Kyriacou / Rex Features]

Invisible, the Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition, has a theme so novel and provocative one cannot help rising to the challenge. What kind of art would be sufficiently invisible (as it were) to appear in this show? Perhaps there will be glowing after-images, or mirages conjured out of nothing by the American light artist James Turrell. Perhaps there will be sound works by Bruce Nauman or the Turner prize-winner Susan Philipsz; or maps to buried treasure such as Robert Smithson’s great Spiral Jetty, long since vanished beneath the waters of Lake Utah.

Perhaps the show will concern itself with lost art, destroyed art, or art that was never made in the first place, such as Leonardo’s colossal bronze horse or Vladimir Tatlin’s stupendous Monument to the Third International, which would have dwarfed the Eiffel Tower had his dreams been achieved. Perhaps the Hayward Gallery will be showing Marcel Duchamp’s nostalgic vial of Paris air, or an evocation of Yves Klein’s 1958 Paris exhibition, empty of everything except (he claimed) the artist’s own spirit.

[…] What is there to see? Quite a lot, as it turns out, otherwise there wouldn’t be much to add to Ralph Rugoff’s excellent catalogue. The paradox is, of course, that an artist can only be represented here through something visible: a film, a photographic record, typed instructions about leaving a blank canvas outside overnight until it’s suffused with pink dawn light. By the time you’ve read Yoko Ono’s prose-poem, the image is in your head.

There is a blacked-out gallery (supposedly haunted by The Ghost of James Lee Byars, to use its title) that makes darkness visible. Visitors to Jeppe Hein’s wall-less labyrinth collide as if their regulation headsets made them blind to the existence of others. The Taiwanese artist Lai Chih-Sheng has made an immense chalk drawing (the largest in the world, he claims) for those who have eyes to see it; which might be the crux of this show.

Even the nod to Klein involves a vivid archive film of the artist striding about his empty gallery contemplating the bare (but curiously glowing) walls as if there really was something to see. Which there was at this stage, of course: namely the artist filling the room with his artistic sensibility, parodying the Romantic tradition, displaying his aura.

Even when Klein wasn’t there, visitors insisted they could still feel his presence. This was a proposition tested by Chris Burden in a 1975 performance. Burden lay on a concealed platform in a New York gallery for 22 days during which he saw nobody, and nobody saw him. Yet visitors became palpably infuriated by the lurking sense of his presence; or so it is claimed.

Invisible is a show replete with claims and assertions — that the artist was present; that this white canvas was primed with mountain snow; that these stones were once inscribed with water: they sound like confidence tricks, and certainly turn upon trust of a sort. You have to believe that the Chinese artist Song Dong was too poor to afford ink and wrote his diary in water instead, otherwise those stones are meaningless, aren’t they? In fact, the stones are irrelevant as visible objects. As soon as the idea of that poignant act begins to grow in one’s mind, it is only the thought that counts.

Some assertions can be tested. I could see no sign of Chih-Sheng’s immense drawing in the central gallery until I ran a finger beneath a balustrade and found the chalk line transferred to me. But there is no way of knowing whether Maurizio Cattelan’s hilarious police report concerning the theft of an invisible artwork from his car is genuine or not. What is the difference between fiction and not-fiction in art? This is art as unreliable evidence.

One room of the Hayward is empty except for an eavesdropping device (according to the wall text). But it’s nowhere to be seen. Uneasiness sets in, which is apt since this is the work of Roman Ondák, born in former communist Czechoslovakia.

Another gallery is devoted to all-white canvases including a sharp send-up of the genre by Tom Friedman entitled 1000 Hours of Staring. But Bruno Jakob’s works are a challenge to cynics, made as they are with not much more than canvas or paper exposed to the elements. There are no images but each bears faint traces of its making that inspire unexpected landscapes in the imagination.

[…] There is, for instance, an immense gap between Jay Chung’s project — a movie entirely shot without telling cast and crew that there was no film in the camera and thus no record of their mutual labour — and Claes Oldenburg’s buried monument to John F Kennedy. Neither work is visible, indeed neither was fully realised. But Oldenburg’s idea was to evoke the sense of loss through a hollow colossus: the space Kennedy occupied in life now sealed beneath the ground. Even the drawing for the proposal is poignant. Chung, by comparison, is working at the dead end of conceptualism.

This show puts its faith in the audience, in our willingness to think and our openness to ideas. But it cannot quite escape the trap of its own theme for not one of these works achieves total invisibility. Even in the black room there are discernible figures, pinpricks of light and visible forms. As long as our eyes are open, we continue to make pictures of the world.

[Invisible: Art About the Unseen in pictures.]

The Pathos of Things

Oliver Burkeman, “Happiness is a Glass Half Empty,” The Guardian 16 June 2012

In an unremarkable business park outside the city of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, stands a poignant memorial to humanity’s shattered dreams. It doesn’t look like that from the outside, though. Even when you get inside – which members of the public rarely do – it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to what you’re seeing. It appears to be a vast and haphazardly organised supermarket; along every aisle, grey metal shelves are crammed with thousands of packages of food and household products. There is something unusually cacophonous about the displays, and soon enough you work out the reason: unlike in a real supermarket, there is only one of each item. And you won’t find many of them in a real supermarket anyway: they are failures, products withdrawn from sale after a few weeks or months, because almost nobody wanted to buy them. In the product-design business, the storehouse — operated by a company called GfK Custom Research North America — has acquired a nickname: the Museum of Failed Products.

This is consumer capitalism’s graveyard — the shadow side to the relentlessly upbeat, success-focused culture of modern marketing. […]

There is a Japanese term, mono no aware, that translates roughly as “the pathos of things”: it captures a kind of bittersweet melancholy at life’s impermanence — that additional beauty imparted to cherry blossoms, say, or human features, as a result of their inevitably fleeting time on Earth.

[…] Behind all of the most popular modern approaches to happiness and success is the simple philosophy of focusing on things going right. But ever since the first philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome, a dissenting perspective has proposed the opposite: that it’s our relentless effort to feel happy, or to achieve certain goals, that is precisely what makes us miserable and sabotages our plans. And that it is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative — insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness — that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.

Yet this conclusion does not have to be depressing. Instead, it points to an alternative approach: a “negative path” to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions — or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them. […]

[Photograph: Kelly K Jones]

Future Anterior

Brian Dillon, “Present Future,” Art Review 18 June 2012

[…] ‘The future’, writes Nabokov, ‘is but the obsolete in reverse’.

Isn’t that essentially the would-be paradox that animates a good deal of the future-oriented art of the last decade or two? To the extent, in truth, that it has become a cliché on a par with the popular claim that science-fiction futures are only ever versions of the present in which they are imagined. Contemporary art seems to go further — further back, that is — and assert that the only futures we can conjure today are in fact those that belong to the past: a past in which technology, ideology and avant-garde brio meant that things to come were palpable, vivid, almost present, for much or most of the last century. To speak in terms of tense, the only future that seems to have mattered in the recent past has been the future anterior: what will have been, or more accurately what might have been. […]