edited and published by THE ΤΕΛΟΣ SOCIETY
You enter a white-cube gallery space, a room that is pretending to be - or referring to - some form of a white void. It is, in fact, “empty,” at least, insofar as the material space of the room, its walls, windows, light, air, atmosphere and history really can be “empty.” It is empty in the sense that it lacks any “art object” presented as such. No actual objects can be found except for some ordinary looking trash cans, stashed away in the far corner, far from your eyes, away from the light, and therefore clearly
dismissable. And so, still looking for the missing art object, you look around.
Perhaps you are in the wrong room? But it is clearly a white cube gallery. Perhaps as you and your gaze wander around, you are reminded of some of the more frequently cited American minimalist or conceptual artists of the 60s, then creative thinkers like Robert Smithson, Sol Lewitt, John Cage, and Michael Asher, who have made some irrefererential works (or rather constructed performative spaces) so non-referential and abstract that became lost, and in so doing allowed viewers to lose themselves as well, within the gallery space (Kaye 2). The experience might have been something like that of an immaterial art object in relation to the physical and material world of the gallery itself. It thus might suggest a kind of subtly performative site-specificity; the object (and the viewer perhaps) lost and dematerialized in a space or context that itself then became the materialized object of the work. Perhaps the exhibition is an exploratory critique/commentary of the notion of the gallery itself, as an institution with its own aesthetic, and materiality? Or is the viewer him/herself perhaps the real (material) art object of the “empty” exhibition?
Because, after all, as you have been wondering about the space, looking for a missing - or lost - object and reflecting on the material nature of the experience of minimalist art exhibitions, the only material thing taking center stage is in fact, yourself, the viewer [and other visitors if they are around]. And yet, you notice that you are in fact going through some aesthetic (perhaps “transhuman”) bodily (or inter-bodily) experience. You might be paying attention to the sound of your steps on the ground (marble? Creaking wood?), to your position within and size in relation to this largely empty space, to the fabric on your skin, to your breath, or to your very gaze. Speculating, imagining, feeling you begin to relate yourself as a body to the now overwhelming non-empty emptiness of your surroundings, and to your own presence (in addition to the present absence of a missing art object waiting to be found).
Perhaps the idea is that you yourself are the art object? Or subject? Is it then still the case that the aesthetic experience has to come from some material object outside of yourself, the very active, and material visitor? Perhaps the essence of aesthetics lies instead somewhere within the viewer, within his/her own body and the singular material experience.
Having reached a relatively central position within the space, you notice something about the trash cans and garbage bags you had dismissed earlier. Coming closer to take a proper look, it seems to you that they are not in fact “empty,” so to speak. They are filled with what looks from afar like chopped-up limbs: arms, hands, legs, and feet. Up close, however, you notice (recovering) that these are far from “real” human bodies, but actual discarded fragments of sculptures, or, more precisely, sculptures of fragmented bodies. Cracked, a little misshapen, reddish limbs of terracotta clay, put away in trash bags.
The figurative sculpture, with its long and particular art historical conventions and meanings, might thus seem to be discarded or rejected. Or are these fragmented limbs referring to the human body itself as thrown away or otherwise violently disposed of? At last, an object has been found, once lost and discarded but at least located. And yet, its original meaning continues to elude you. It seems to be some subversive art work attempting to be clever, but maybe its just that - some discarded, destroyed art object? Further questions run through your mind, you come closer, and you gaze longer, hoping to “understand” some hidden meaning. You wonder about the meaning of the trash bags, the terracotta air dry clay, the almost forgettable cracks within the figures, and attempt to link it with the coded title of the exhibition that you now remember from the entrance: “ A Crack Is A Sign ... Of A Discarded Body ”. Does this dismissal of bodies, of matter, and of the material art object (something which you had in fact dismissed upon entering) have any particular meaning? Does the work really just carry the one universal, “truth” to be “understood” (through its materiality, its performativity or otherwise)? Or is it a relativist understanding of art? Still searching for some elusive singular “meaning” of this art object, you go back and find an artist or curator’s statement describing the work. Perhaps it confirms some of the self-same experiences and questions you have just had. But more importantly, it begins to allude to the process and concepts that led the artist to “A Crack Is A Sign ... Of A Discarded Body.” It finally explains the work, ends the speculation, and the work - material or not - transforms into yet another dead object in a museum.
Material and Dematerialized Objects
Not yet realized, “A Crack Is A Sign ... Of A Discarded Body” is actually a proposal for a planned installation within a group exhibition concerned with the militarized language of medicine and illness. The work is part of a larger series that is essentially a search for semiotic meaning in eczema that is doomed to fail. It explores the notion of skin as a signifier, with some unattainable indeterminate meaning - specifically eczema, a skin rash that cracks open and sometimes oozes (blood and other fluids). Also known as atopic dermatitis, eczema features dry, itchy, inflamed, cracking, blistering skin. The first in at least a three-part series, “A Crack Is A Sign ... Of A Discarded Body ” explores how these cracks might reflect mildly masochist or self-destructive attitudes towards the self and one’s own material body. It asks what it means to itch, scratch and hack away at our own bodies? Does it reflect on how we value our own bodies? In doing so, however, it also implies a similarly mildly destructive attitude towards the idea of a necessarily material art object, and towards a more subjective, performative and conceptual understanding of art.
The dematerialization of the art object features most prominently, perhaps, in minimalist and conceptual art, as speculated above. Essentially, “conceptual art is not about forms or material, but about ideas and meanings” (Godfrey 4). That does not mean, however, that conceptual art is necessarily non-material in nature: only when materiality becomes essential to its concept, the work might engender some object. If the concept manifests itself in some material object, it then deals with materiality not as a given convention, but as a fundamental element of the aesthetic experience of this particular work and concept. Generally, however, conceptual art tends to reflect back on the concept of art itself. This interest in the self-reflexive, always redefining itself in relation to various concepts, or as a conceptual relation between concepts, resulted in a “dematerialization of the art object.” (Möntmann 32).
Margaret and Chrstine Wertheim’s “Object and Ideal” tells a narrative of how matter came not to matter to a mathematics turned linguistic - only for said imaginary mathematical phenomena to be rediscovered within the “real” physical world: Previously, the Greeks believed that this area of knowledge was mediated by concrete things, the study of quantity and form of “the flat plane of a tabletop” standing for “the Euclidean plane, the surface of the earth approximated a sphere, a circle could be approximated by a compass” (148). And yet, mathematics and geometry had turned immaterial, the story goes, as quantities were studied more closely:
“What are we to make, for instance of the perfectly legitimate mathematical operation ‘one minus one’? For hundreds of years
European mathematicians resisted the notion of ‘zero’, an idea they had encountered in Indian mathematics. How can we signify nothing, which, by definition, doesn’t exit?” (149).
And so, the physical turned out to be semiotic, and symbols prove themselves physically. In mathematics, even as meaning returns to find validity back with objects, it exists outside the object, is independent of it, and overpowers it. In this narrative, material things are thus conceptual, and concepts may be found in material things. Never mind the notions of matter itself as performative, discursive, and intra-active that Karen Barad explores in “Agential Realism”. [Or the unique “sway” of each object, with distinct moments of birth and death determined by the way it interacts with its surroundings].
“A Crack Is A Sign ... Of A Discarded Body,” then, does not reject materiality in-and-of-itself / for its own sake, but rather asks us to take another look at the materiality of objects (of art). In a spirit similar to the American minimalists rejecting the idea of “mimesis as realism” to suggest that realism depends on the materiality itself representing nothing more than itself, it sees dematerialized art as material and object-based in its own way. The materiality is simply translocated from a previously valuable / precious “thing” towards the object and ephemeral materiality of its own performativity, of its visitors and its spaces.
Fusing research and production.
And yet, this translocated art-object still demands a particular experience of the work as already “finished” or completed. Presented after the fact, somehow a “post-production”, the art-object is then only ever able to hint at the creative production - the production’s performativity that is so integral to it is thus only represented, and therefore only indirectly experienced. Visitors get only a mere idea of this creative production process (material or not), are not actively participating in its formulation, and thus rely on the object itself as a map or code that might unveil this artistic production, its aesthetics
and its concepts.
In fact, the process of making “A Crack Is A Sign ... Of A Discarded Body,” is an iterative process that oscillates back and forth between artistic production (itself reflexive) and research (itself creative/productive). Within the performative space of art-production, the artist thus begins with something (a concept, a feeling, an object, an act, an image or an idea of any kind) and begins to attempt to understand it - in this case, eczema. On a personal level, perhaps, this artist began to photograph skin rashes and cracks - if only to understand it, with no end goal in sight. To further understand, this artist began an arbitrary literary review of eczema, its causes and its potential meanings, choosing both sources for fact, and sources that implied links beyond purely medical research. Creatively interpreting these potential links from a perspective informed by previous interests and experiences (eczema as sign, carrying some form of meaning) the artist begins attempting to find this “meaning” there or not, by for example performing it - scratching on surfaces, scratching on the self-same original photographs. In performing this, our artist is reminded of self-destructive emotional states, of a kind of mild masochism of an artist towards his/her own object, an individual towards his/her own body. And so, this artistic production (of a destructive performativity) brings forth a kind of knowledge that draws from experience and experimentation, and is thus itself a kind of thinking.
Returning again to research more about the medical interpretations of eczema, our artist finds unconfirmed speculation of some kinds of eczema as an auto-immune disease (LoBuono), a type of condition wherein the body essentially attacks itself: the immune system abnormally attacks healthy functioning cells for reasons we don’t know. Intrigued by this self-destructive condition of the human body, our artist began to “create” associations with a history of ephemeral dematerialized art experiences, as itself a phenomena similar to it - it seems to attempt to destroy its own body. And thus, the research and the link it provided to the concept of a dematerialized art object is itself creative and productive. The artistic research of aesthetics of classically mimetic and figurative art and its notions of realism, notions which were later critiqued by art movements of the 20th century, (including minimalism and conceptual art), and the temporary disappearance of a conventional art object, nudged our artist back to artistic experimentation with fragmented, somehow defective clay figures. This iterative process continues further, as the artist’s air-dry clay sculptures begin to crack themselves, and our artist goes back to research, drawing connections between commodities, and their temporary, ephemeral value, back to production, experimenting with trash bags, and back to research yet again, formalized in part in this very publication and its notion of “hyperobjects” for an unfixed, relational artistic experience of objects.
This kind of iterative process is itself infinite. It formally and systematically rejects the notion of a final, “completed” artwork, an object that represents some kind of liminal experience that has already passed, and therefore, somehow “died” - as art-objects tend to do in museums-as-mausoleums (unknown source). Instead, it ensures that the production process itself is fused within the experience object, and the object - ephemeral and prone to destruction as it is - fused within its production process. In fact, artistic experience necessarily fuses object and process, and it is this fusing, Julian Klein argues, that separates artistic experience from other forms of knowledge-formation:
Artistic experience is an active, constructive and aesthetic process in which mode and substance are inseparably fused. This differentiates artistic experience from other implicit knowledge, which is generally able to be considered and described separately from its acquisition (Klein).
And so, if the experience of the exhibition relies solely on an art-object separated from their own production process, then it is doomed to only ever refer back to some of the now veiled creative process in code, to represent it symbolically. In contrast, perhaps, a hyperreal approach would define the creative process itself as [an essential first part of] the actual art-object, complemented by (but not ending with) an object that allows its viewers to participate in a second re-production of the work (or reimagination or reinterpretation) that they make their own.
Godfrey, Tony and Thomas Godfrey. Conceptual Art. London, Phaidon Press, 1998.
Kaye, Nick. Site-Specific Art: Performance, Place, and Documentation. London, Routledge, 2000.
Klein, Julian. “What is Artistic Research?” The Journal of Artistic Research: Reflection . 23 April 2017.
LoBuono, Charlotte. “For the First Time, Study Proves Eczema Is an Autoimmune Disease.” Health News. 6 Jan 2015.
Möntmann, Nina. Kunst als Sozialer Raum. Köln, König, 2002.
Wertheim, Margaret and Christine Wertheim. “Object and Ideal” The Quick and The Dead. Minneapolis, Walker Art Center, 2009.