Re: A temporary structure of interdependence
Guy Bovyn (or is it GB?)
Dear Peter Morrens,
I have been asked to write about your one-man show in Netwerk Gallery (Aalst), En retard – On time – Over tijd (5 March – 9 April 2005). To come straight to the point: I regret I cannot comply with that request. Please allow me to explain this well-considered refusal, at least to some extent.
The first problem is that I did not actually see the exhibition myself. I have seen work of yours, and I have read the documents accompanying the exhibition, and I was even given a copy of the book with the same title that was published on the occasion. Consequently, these images were the starting point for my reflections on your work. My first finding was that performance plays a major part in your work. Mind you, the way I understand your work, I would want to extend this term ‘performance’ – which usually describes a particular artistic action of an artist, shall we say an art form – and turn it into a broader ‘concept’, a kind of analytical instrument, on the basis of which your entire oeuvre, or at least a considerable part of it, can be explained or ‘interpreted’. That is just to make the point that I reflected on the performance of your work (or is this a collection of work by PM, Herman Smit and Point Blank Press?): what does this work ‘do’ and, more specifically, what does it make the viewer do (or should I say: what does it do to the viewer)? These questions are not unimportant. After all, the characteristics of the performance are ‘presence and the present’: a performance takes place in the here and now, and, as you know, they are rather volatile things. Consequently, a performance (both in the strict and in the broad sense of the word) cannot be preserved. If a performance were to be preserved in some way or another, it would encroach upon the field of representation and reproduction, and therefore deny its own existence. My question is then: how can I write about an exhibition in which the performance of the work, and even of the whole exhibition, is so important, if I myself have no more to go on than a representation, documents and statements?
Another thing that struck me is that you keep on presenting your works in new arrangements. When you exhibit a work repeatedly, you explicitly place that work in a new ‘environment’, a collection (rearranged) of other works, supplemented with more recent work. Am I wrong in thinking that you tend to see a show as a kind of design space? If so, that means that the individual artworks, if I may call them that, each time they are shown in a new exhibition, are ‘placed’ in a different way and are therefore given a new identity, although I doubt I can use that word in this context. As far as I am concerned, this is also connected to the theatrical performance, in the sense that it is made very hard for the viewer to return to a particular work, to see the same work several times. Perhaps I can say that your works function rather like actors in a broader performance that is enacted over time. Which is not to say that the individual works do not (or cannot) exist autonomously. In fact, I believe that the works in themselves already contain a performative element, independently from their subservient role in a broader project. Whatever the case, the idea of ‘essence’ is undermined here, and its descendants, the essences, are made into bastards. Ever heard of schizophrenia?
Under these circumstances, of course, it is difficult for me to find my bearings in your work and well-nigh impossible to give any direction to the text I have been asked to write (which I have already told you I cannot write). But perhaps that was exactly what you hoped to achieve? Take, for instance, that ‘exhibited’ Herman Smit – WAARnemer (translator’s note: literally, ‘observer’; but ‘waar’ also translates as ‘truth’, hence, the word can also be read as ‘truth-taker’). In my opinion, observation presupposes a positioning and orientation: an observer observes from a particular position in which he orientates himself with the aid of references. And from that position – at least, if it is solid – the truth is there for the taking. The drawings made by Herman Smit indeed clearly indicate a standpoint, and therefore an orientation. In this process, he follows the rules; he uses a tried and tested system (of representation). But Herman Smit, I suspect, is not really a person, or not a real person. Herman Smit –WAARnemer is a construction, or the result of a performance. “Am I truthful?” Says one of the textual works by the Point Blank Press (office for direct language)...
I ‘feel’ I am being given a choice: Truth or Vision? (But do I have any choice?) I ‘feel’ I am being asked a question: What is the role of the system (of representation) in all this? Can we approach the truth via the system (of representation)? That is certainly what many among us believe. Take perspective, for instance. A perspective presumes a positioning, a viewpoint: it places the viewer in a well-defined spot, from where he gets an overview, a truth. Then there is also the frame. Even the most banal example can be used in this context: a frame always makes a distinction, draws a line between inside and outside, and, by extension, the self and the other, that to which we have access (or believe we do) and that which we reject and exclude (deliberately or otherwise), against which we may even want to protect ourselves, or over which we at least want to gain a measure of control. In short, our ‘viewpoint’ places us, the viewer, ‘opposite’ something. The viewpoint has the potential to objectify; the system, whether it is a system of representation or of interpretation (insofar as the two can be distinguished) testifies to a will to power, or something like that.
Via representation and interpretation, we give ourselves and the world surrounding us a ‘place’. In this context, the Dutch word ‘duiden’ (translator’s note: which means ‘to interpret, to read’, but also ‘to point at’) actually speaks volumes. However, at the same time, this creates a boundary between subject and object, a space, or a distance: the representation displaces the nation, if I am not mistaken, whereas process suggests motion, and therefore time. From a certain point of view, process can be set against the object, against consolidation, objectification, systematisation and therefore encapsulation and confinement. The process takes place in time, whereas the object has withdrawn represented. The World: a fold in a painter’s canvas? Is that perhaps why there are so many ‘breakthroughs’ in your work, culminating (for the time being) in the exhibition at the Netwerk Gallery? But do they actually show us any ‘more’? According to me, you deliberately disorient the viewer; you dig away at the solid ground beneath his/her feet; you place the viewer/reader/explorer in an irrational labyrinth, with many entrances but without an exit – or many exits, which comes down to the same thing – in other words, in a simultaneity. (I would therefore prefer to describe your work, as far as its action is concerned, as diagonal, in contrast to the horizontals and verticals of the grid that objectifies, rationalises and brings under control.) But how am I to link this simultaneity with that other concept that crops us frequently in your work, the ‘process’? Because simultaneity evokes stagfrom time. Do I get you wrong when I state that, although a process suggests motion, no goal is set or presumed here? If so, I can only conclude that the process is ‘untimely’, that, being a process, it is permanently in an intermediate state, or to phrase it in even stronger terms, that the process ‘consists’ precisely of this intermediate state, always too early or too late. Emphasising the process means that the linear course towards a result, or objectification, is less important. Just like the process, the concept of simultaneity constitutes a kind of negation – in this case, a negation of the linear course of time. Simultaneity presupposes existence-alongside-each-other: lack of direction, disorientation, juxtaposition and a negation of hierarchy.
A Standpoint, a well-founded standpoint that affords an overview, consequently appears to be impossible. The quantity of works, the diversity of media and the lack of an (explicit) unifying logic (the non-linear and non-hierarchical qualities of its presentation, their diagonal existence) make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the viewer to assimilate all these works and into a larger meaningful whole. The viewer gets to see a kind of montage, or an assemblage, a conglomerate of various movements, rhythms and speeds. Individual works for a brief time operate independently (?), then engage in a relationship with another work, and subsequently with yet another work. And this applies to each ‘individual’ work. The result is a kind of ‘primordial soup’ in which the different distinguishable (?) images are continually in flux, engage in complex relationships, grow and shrink, appear and disappear. Motion and change, lines of perspective. An exhibition-as-a-design-space in which perhaps not anything goes, but at least a great deal is possible. That way, the work starts to mutate and vary, combine, move, Live. In short, what you show us are movements, movements of which we realise we are a part. Different time lines become entangled: your observations from the past, if they were in fact made at all, intersect with ‘our own’ current perception; remembered observations and new gazes are reduced to two-dimensional transparencies that can only be pieced together to make a sketchy view of reality. Let us be honest: it is made practically impossible for me to give what lies before me here any significant, pure order, that is to say, in terms of meaning.
In very concrete terms, therefore, the work makes itself felt as anti-representational. However strongly it invites interpretation, it is clear that a final representation, one that has come to a standstill, is unfeasible. And if we do come to a standstill, we are immediately reminded that it can only be temporary. Admittedly, there are references to the world, or rather, ‘a’ world. Perhaps we should say that you refer to an ‘outside’, a world (possibly virtual) that lies beyond our grasp and is therefore incomprehensible, an ‘other’ whom we are ourselves? In other words, the process you set in motion is a process in which we come to occupy the same level, or the same (design) space, as the artwork, or are drawn there and drawn into the company of Herman Smit and PM. Or do you mean, perhaps, that we have never left that design space, that we were merely labouring under a delusion, that we ‘thought’ we could leave that World behind us, or place it before us, that we could represent that World? (Translator’s note: ‘voor-stellen’ can be read as ‘imagine, represent’ and as ‘put forward’.) I am spontaneously reminded of one of those techniques you like to use so much, the index. An index is generally used, in combination with other visual means, to map something out and thereby gain a better understanding of ‘the environment’, an understanding that is traditionally based on coordinates and points of reference. But just as your vantage points, where we position ourselves in the hope of seeing a bit more, also make us expose ourselves (Starring me!) and thereby – if not in actual fact, then at least in the imagination, viewed from another angle – make us become environment ourselves, and just as your ‘breakthroughs’ tend to make us aware of our fragmentary gaze, including the impossibility of breaking through to the other side using language, you take the productive potential of the index and the map and push it to its extreme, inducing a reflective moment in the viewer. Whereas the index, as it is generally used, pretends to visualise, or to ‘reproduce’ a ‘reality’, it turns out – at least, if we follow you – that what it really does is ‘produce’ relief. Stability reverses into mobility and instability. Virtuality actualising itself? Wrinkles on a forehead.
Our systems of representation and interpretation become unsettled, essences are dismantled, the image and ourselves become de-territorialised, interchangeable. “The arena of fragmentation and repetition” (Point Blank Press). Do you make the artwork or does the artwork make you into an artist? Do I, with my gaze, make the artwork, or does the artwork make me into a viewer? Life drawn by the pencil? The other end of the line stays deafeningly quiet, I believe. “I am what is around me” (Point Blank Press). That’s right, ‘that’ is what we get to hear, or rather, read. The artist, the artwork, the viewer and the world, all fused into one large machine, that is what I see in your work, parts that form a ‘temporary’ structure of interdependence for a while. ‘Becoming’ ... The one cannot exist without the other; process and great simultaneity (which are both, it seems now, to be understood as ‘untimeliness’)... Unsettlement turns out to be my fate, when I take your index as my guide... “Sortir de l’histoire, Always starting again” (Point Blank Press)? Small chance of that. I’m staying here.
I think you have understood it by now: your stammer gets me stammering, your stutter begets my stutter. If I were to impart meaning to your work, to re-territorialise it as it is known in comknown. Wasted effort. Peter Morrens, “Damn your eyes” (mon parlance, then I make myself into representation, over and over again. And we have seen above the status representation has in your view... Perhaps it may by now even be too late itself – go ahead and laugh – but if it is, I will in future be happy to replace – because at that time I shall be writing the text – the word ‘breakthrough’ by ‘infringement’. No? Anyhow, my text would only have a brief existence. I already know that, if I were to comply with the request and write that text, it would be rewritten, and therefore erased, in future, on the occasion of a new exhibition, by someone else, probably you, or by another ‘author’, as they are Point Blank Press).