Gravity is no longer a problem
“The situation I think was that this show was a student show and that it was at the University of Canterbury Gallery, the old Annex, in Christchurch. It was one student’s work. On entering the space there is a kind of a narrow corridor and screwed to the wall is a crappy wooden model of the space that you are in and about to go into. It has a window cut out of it. There is a box in the actual space like a small building that also had a window cut out of it. You can only see black through it. Maybe the model window is just painted black. The actual space is painted up in oil paint to give the texture of the crappy chipboard that the model is made out of. The whole thing is shonky but has a sort of minimal-conceptual thing going through it. When you go down the corridor and go around facing the direction you came in there is just a huge collection of very badly done crappy expressionist abstraction. The content and the form of them are like conceptual art paintings. I remember seeing crappy paintings of rulers and that have parts of the painting labelled frame, subject, plane. It is like a huge jumbled mess. The paintings are leaning against the wall and are piled up to the ceiling. The ceiling is kind of dark and lighting becomes more theatrical. The model was just an architectural model of the first area you were going to see, making the space look smaller than it really was so it was a sort of a trick. It seems to proceed in the same direction you enter. It all continues but the paintings give way to fluorescent tubes, plasticky tables and chairs. It all seems to be tied together with wire and string and the overall effect is that they seem to be stacked up more against the ceiling. Then I noticed that there are people running about the space still working on the show. The arrangements seem to be continually changing. For example large areas of material will be pulled up on a pulley. Then I noticed that it actually becomes a roof and that the space keeps going past false walls made up of rubbish and the ceiling is made in the same way. The space is huge and just keeps going. Around the comer from one of the false walls is a big stuffed dummy model of the artist which seems to be made of cheap stretch fabric that has been painted with house pint like a Claes Oldenburg or something that has pink skin and is wearing a bright green t-shirt with the words “My own pitfalls are my own business”. And after that the work in the space becomes more figurative. There are big figures and faces painted everywhere. Here and there are groups of 20 or so people working together to get more work up and to paint them. It seemed to be just spewing. Then the artist walks past saying what he calls each part and giving direction to the whole thing (“This is what I call this” and “this is what I call that” … ) I keep looking up at the ceiling and notice that it is really starting to bow down in the middle. Then there is a low wall that is like a barrier that is keeping you away from the area which is being painted on. And there is a wall then a low wall and it is all being painted in greens and yellows and there is a group of old ladies telling me to get away. Think of Phil Clairmont as an installation artist. After this, in the low wall, stacked up against the hessian are these brightly coloured monochromatic paintings that are covered in black fluffy soot and there is a text painting there which is in a background of creamy brown that has runny black and gold paint that I think says ‘Hamish Pettengil sucks cock’ I think. I chuckled to myself. Then after that there is a garage-sized back door and light is streaming in. And I walk outside and that is really about it. The overall effect of the people changing things was that as it got more finished it got more figurative and representational and dumber and I liked it less. I think the joke was that it was about to fall into a pit.”
While at art school, our subject, Dan Arps, trained himself to dream in installations. In his dreams his projects are often huge, warehouse-scale piles. It is believable enough that one can train oneself to dream such things, but it is it possible to train others to do so too? Last year, an artist friend turned up to Dan’s studio and upon seeing a new arrangement of modelled objects on a white table froze in his tracks and exclaimed, “I dreamed that you had made that work a few nights ago! Except the table was on a lean. And there were more dots of fluoro Fimo.”
A perma-temporary solution: on a white portable table, in his studio, sit a group of sculptures made from Das Pronto. Well that is what it used to be called. Nowadays it is just known as Das – no time to speak of how rapidly it dries any more it would seem. They form an odd science fiction-like landscape, and are biomorphic – not without life themselves, rather than being just inanimate, mineral crags or outcrops. Fragile (but not anxious, post-anxious maybe) brain-like geodesic structures protrude from them on balsa wood struts. They are made laboriously from modeller’s plastic sheeting. They are vaguely bulbous, and the whole thing has an organic, vegetable-sex tension amplified by the addition of the odd simplified vaguely droopy plant form. There are phallic, aspirational forms and recesses too, imaginary and otherwise.
The colourway the “clay” is painted in is reminiscent of a temperate beach camouflage – blue, biscuit, grey … Camouflage in tum, like the geodesic structures, is reminiscent of cubism in that – a little-known fact – the cubists invented military camouflage patterns and practice. In 1916 the writer Apollinaire lamented that his uniform was plain, and thought that if it was, like Picasso’s figures, “harlequinised”, he would be rendered invisible, melting into the surroundings. And that was camouflage’s invention. The army employed teams of cubists (the numbers swelled from 30 to eleven thousand) to make volumes disappear from war, to play with dimensions and perform evasive disintegrations. It has even been suggested that formally cubism anticipated the war.
A box of New Zealand-made self-help tapes sits nearby, white cassettes in clear cases and neatly encased in cellophane. They have weird titles: “On building bridges,” ‘‘A puddle of wax,” “There’s a wave coming,” “Get your hopes up”. They are possibly there to be used as armature for sculptural constructions, possibly not. Self-help material has such strange spell-potential for change merely by virtue of stringing assertions together and disseminating them. Have you ever read anything that completely ruins everything? (Or, conversely, effects a positive displacement?) For example, when neurosis was put forward as incurable in Anti-Oedipus, my despair telescoped. A similar telescoping takes place, from absurdity to unbearableness, when one senses that one is part of, or subject to, or desiring to be part of a multitude, but is still “oneself’ with a home to go to. What crazy tension between the universal and the singular we live with. Elias Canetti was attuned to such paradoxes – he described his book Crowds and Power as a treatise on “the complexity of selfishness”.
So, what sort of world is this, this sculptural presentation on its temporary folding table? (There is a plan afoot to exchange it for a long mirrored perspex plinth that sits atop keyboard stands spotted in junkmail from a chain of music stores. On the front, a family’s heads are photoshopped onto the body of musical instruments, a chilling depiction of compulsory family activities such as music lessons, tramping, or inescapable sport. Depressed? What you need to do is join the table-tennis team etc.)
According to the artist, one way to look at it, this presentation, is in terms of the fourth dimension. Not just as time in the popular physics sense of the fourth dimension, but using a European/surrealist conception of the term. In this sense, the fourth dimension denotes the supernatural, or at least pertains to the unconscious.
Jung, in his late 1950s book Flying Saucers: a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, wrote of the fourth dimension in a chapter entitled “UFOs in Modern Painting”: “a fourth dimension can be regarded only as a mathematical fiction, an intellectual sophistry, or a revelation of the unconscious, for we have no direct experience of it.” (p.88)
There is also a theory in physics, expounded in the Brian Greene book The Elegant Universe, whereby the fourth dimension is not time; rather that there is a tiny curling fourth spatial dimension. To explain this, he gives his “ants living on a garden hose” analogy: “The upshot is that from a quarter of a mile away, a long piece of garden hose appears to be a one-dimensional object… From [a] magnified position, you can see that a little ant living on the hose has two different directions in which it can walk.” (p.187)
This is no recent idea – it was originally conceived of by a Theodor Kaluza, a little known Polish mathematician. In 1919 he excitedly sent it to Einstein who was sceptical of Kaluza’s suggestion that it also solved an ongoing problem in physics: in the fourth dimension, gravity and light are united. The Swede, Oskar Klein, developed the idea further in the 1920s, but the theory languished, unlauded, until the 1980s and the popularisation of quantum theory. This was the era of magazine-entities like Omni - science fiction that bugged out at the enormity and tiny multi-dimensional complexity of everything had hit the mainstream. Along with the drive to discover unitary theories for everything – as Lefebvre describes in his book The Production of Space (1991):
The theory we need, which fails to come together because the necessary critical moment does not occur, and which therefore falls back into the mere bits and pieces of knowledge, might well be called, by analogy, ‘a unitary theory’: the aim is to discover or construct a theoretical unity between ‘fields’ which are apprehended separately, just as molecular, electromagnetic and gravitational forces are in physics. The fields we are concerned with are, first, the physical – nature, the Cosmos; secondly, the mental, including logical and formal abstractions; and thirdly, the social. In other words, we are concerned with logico-epistemological space, the space of social practice, the space occupied by sensory phenomena, including the products of the imagination such as projects and projections, symbols and utopias. (p.11)
Come to think of it, in retrospect, the fem seems to be trying to tell us something. And Kaluza’s fourth dimension does make a good deal of sense to a reader: indeed there is a lot of curled up space bound up in books. So, too, to a maker of polyhedra. To build a polyhedron, one goes from 2D to 3D. Sometimes the tessellation, the way the patterns join up, doesn’t work and the curling-up thing goes from 2D to 4D – extra space is mapped out in the plan which can’t be realised in 3D form.
Europe of the 1920s was certainly very fertile times in terms of dimensional imaginings. The trauma of the WWI may have sensitised the surface of the landscape, tweaking into production Kaluza, the camouflaging cubists, the machine-desiring futurists, Picabia, the Surrealists, Celine, the master of the ellipses, and Cendrars with his “geometric progression of progress.” (Moravagine, p.155).
I think Cendrars’ achievement on that page was to reveal that what art history says are two distinct streams of cubism – analytical and synthetic – is poop. The desire to show the multifaceted nature of things, and to involve the utilitarian found object cannot be separated - they are of course conflated, simultaneous.
And of course there was Duchamp, who had an almost sinister conception of the fourth dimension. He talked about how if the second dimension is a shadow of the third, then it follows that the third dimension might be a shadow of the fourth. (Pierre Cabanne’s Dialogues with Duchamp, 1967.)
Judge Paul Schreber in his Memoirs of my Nervous Illness, provided some useful terms and ways of thinking with which one might approach these sculptures-as-interdimensional shadows. In the last decade of the 19th century Schreber “suffered” a mental breakdown, and amazingly chronicled his psychosis as it unfolded. It was published, and although apparently his family tried to buy up all the books, became a key text to Freud, and to the academic industry that existed in his psychoanalytic wake. Schreber wrote that people around him in the asylum began not to appear to him as people, but rather as “fleeting-improvised-men” and “fleeting-improvised-women”. Even his own wife appeared to him as a third-dimensional embodiment of something from the fourth. Voices were at him constantly, at some stages each sound affected him like a blow to the head. The amount of pain depended on how near of far god was from him. In mid-June 1894 he wrote of his fellow patients “The voices called some of those present the shapes in which ‘with regard to the Determining fourth and fifth’ (to be supplemented by a word like ‘dimension’ which I did not clearly understand) and his subterranean antipodes (the fellows in linen overalls) covered in soot were ‘set down’ (embodied)…” (p.106)
Although, when considering the existence of different dimensions, it is important to recognise that these are theories about as yet imperceptible things, and, as such, are the constructions of experimental model-makers; in this case topologists, or, in plainer language, spatial mathematicians.
Furthermore, as a learned friend pointed out, another thing to consider is that some of these geometries, of which there are many, trade in distinctions that may be over-simplifications. For example, Euclidean geometry proposes a nice orderly progression from line to plane to volume in the transition from ID to 2D to 3D. Fractal geometry, on the other hand, describes spaces between these dimensions akin to coastlines and sponges. I venture that such indistinctions are far more “now” and sensible.
In a photocopied chapter of Jung’s Flying Saucers book, “UFOs in Modern Painting”, sitting on another table in the studio, the beginning of the text is circled. Curiously forward thinking given present day installation practices that ape, or are in fact themselves, scattered workspaces, it reads:
Whilst I was collecting material for this essay, I happened to come across the work of a painter who, profoundly disturbed by the way things are going in the world today, has given expression to the fundamental fear of our age – the catastrophic outbreak of destructive forces which everyone dreads. It is, indeed, a law of painting to give visible shape to the dominant trends of the age, and for some time now painters have taken as their subject the disintegration of forms and the ‘breaking of tables,’ creating pictures which, abstractly detached from meaning and feeling alike, are distinguished by their ‘meaninglessness’ as much as by their deliberate aloofness from the spectator. These painters have immersed themselves in the destructive element and have created a new conception of beauty, one that delights in the alienation of meaning and of feeling. Everything consists of debris, unorganised fragments, holes, distortions, overlappings, infantilisms, and crudities which outdo the clumsiest attempts of primitive art and belie the traditional idea of skill. Just as women’s fashions find every innovation, however absurd and repellent, ‘beautiful,’ so too does modern art of this kind. It is the ‘beauty’ of chaos. That is what this art heralds and eulogizes: this gorgeous rubbish heap of our civilization. It must be admitted that such an undertaking is productive of fear, especially when allied to political possibilities of our catastrophic age. One can well imagine that in an epoch of the ‘great destroyers’ it is a particular satisfaction to be at least the broom that sweeps the rubbish into the comer. (p.77)
To Jung, the figure of the UFO was an entirely natural archetypal response to dark forces mustering. I think it is interesting, too, that Jung notices a kinship between contemporary art and primitivism. This is still/again very current. Why? I think it has something to do with how the realm of hallucination presses hard on the psyche of the cheap acid generation of the 90s.
The space of hallucinogenics is very primitivist, and none more so than that pertaining to Datura. People take it, a brave or crazy few, and it has been noticed that they often take off their clothes and end up at the bottom of a garden ferreting around for roots and berries. Although a Dunedin artist once described it like this: you go on a long and terrible trip, and then come around about six feet from when you took it having shat yourself.
An artist who shares a penthouse shack studio with Arps recounted a story he had heard about a young man who took Datura. His mother was asleep in bed. The young man came into the room and crawled up from the foot of the bed under the bedclothes. He then proceeded to try and fuck his mother.
I always thought it was the hanging trumpet flowers that were boiled up. Apparently it is the leaves that contain the “taint”.
Spaces are established, and somehow retained, by the brain pertaining to each drug taken. These may be revisited “straight” (whatever that means).
The plant forms on the table are drooping, a little melted, some suggesting the pendulous flowers of a powerful plant. There is also a tall fake plant, a very life-like one if you don’t know much about the natural habit of the peace lily (it does not grow like a rubber plant). This artificial botanical has encrustations of polystyrene beads and there are tinfoil Datura flowers hanging from it. I am told this flower has a lovely fragrance. Imagine it distilled to a perfume. Enough to drive an aesthete like Huysman’s Due Jean Floressas des Esseintes to distraction. (This chap was the protagonist of Against Nature (1884). Arps likes to annoy people by saying that nature does not exist.)
The plant sits on the floor in proximity to a group of other things (fluoro pink drinking tumbler constructions, textured glass cylinder light shades, illuminated energy-saving bulbs carefully selected to not produce yellow light, a vinyl mat that changes colour as one walks around it, a shoddy – or, rather, casual – formalist pink perspex sculpture, pink Fimo fine sausages in licky lines) in a pool-shaped fashion as thought it could continue endlessly. Or maybe it resembles a little public garden. About it, beyond this clearing on the wooden floor (which annoys him – why are there so many polished wooden floors in art galleries? It’s like having to wear tan-beige pants with everything) are drifts of matter – raw materials, works-in-progress, discards, drawings, tools, packaging- piled into comers and on tables about the large room’s edges. There are also things in the way in the middle of the space. Barriers cropped up in some of his previous works. In these there is an oscillation at play between controlling the viewer with barrier and wall constructions, and letting go – trying to present open sculptural objects that also impart the feeling of “you are not being controlled”. There is an enjoyable libidinous tension here for those who are willing to play. And there is a joke here too referencing a small rebellion, a fit of contrariness, in art school, where sculpture students opted for an open space, refusing partitions, with the lame spoken motto “Build bridges not walls.”
But back to the collection of objects that comprises Arps’ Model for a Commune, it is as though they were made by someone in delirium. Are they representations of a fourth-dimensional situation with an attendant character, a modeller, implied? Are they third dimensional embodiments of fourth-dimensional space? That is, are they a fiction, or are they… (What is the alternate of that?) Just sculpture? Fictionalised sculpture? The tension created is yearn-making, desirous and lacking. Or are we looking at a tautology?: i.e. tabled sculpture is tabled sculpture; home sweet home; no means no; Pavement singing “I’m on the stereo, ster-e-o-o,” etc…
(Aside: is psychoanalysis just inherently allegorical? Where the little dinosaur is like a kitten in the dream. Can we just have tautologies?)
“It is an architectural model of a commune, not sculpture, but still meta.”
Looking at the crowd that comprises the Model for a Commune, I thought again of that marvellous book, Crowds and Power (1962). In it, Canetti distinguished between the open crowd and the closed crowd:
“The natural crowd is the open crowd; there are no limits whatsoever to its growth; it does not recognise houses, doors or locks and those who shut themselves in are suspect. ‘Open’ is to be understood here in the fullest sense of the word; it means open everywhere and in any direction. The open crowd exists so long as it grows; it disintegrates as soon as it stops growing. ( … ) It disintegrates as soon as it stops growing.” To him, the open crowd needs shared goals. As soon as they are attained, it disperses. Yet the true crowd has no plan. (p.16)
“The closed crowd renounces growth and puts the stress on permanence. The first thing to be noticed about it is that it has a boundary. It establishes itself by accepting its limitation. It creates a space for itself which it will fill.” (p.17) It is these sorts of principles that guided the design of the new University of Canterbury’s Ilam campus. The architects drew on American studies that had been conducted into student protest movement in an effort to deter the formation of crowds. There are no big spaces to gather, and small paths between hillocks connect the various departments. It has a lonely sort of abandoned, disparate feel.
At art school, Arps made work that vaguely indicated the limiting design of the campus. This artist’s work always spills over allowed space. He disdains the pragmatic approach of working backwards from allowed space, or from other factors. He photographs the work like it is extending in all directions.
Canetti uses an odd term that seems to speak to the geodesic nature of Arps’ recent output. “Crowd crystals” are groups of characters that serve as catalysts in the formation of crowds. They are the hard-core. Where open crowds can disperse, and members go back to their own homes, “only true conversion leads men to give up their old associations and form new ones.”
(If he had the money, and if it could be a risk-free operation, I think he would, for curiosity-sake, try to work out what heroin and cocaine crystals would look like. Or maybe consider making magic crystal meth gardens…)
To me the greatest tension created by this Model for a Commune is that between the crowd form (not just the group of geodesic structures, but also the crowd symbols there - river, heap, collected treasure, sand/granules) and the architectural aspect of the work. And it was Canetti that put his finger on it, if that is what one does with words and writing them down. He wrote that the open crowd “does not recognise houses” (p.16). But that is not to say that crowds are the opposite of architecture. Such oppositions are not the business of work like this that is more immersed in indistinctions – inside-outside, space-body, open-closed, erupting-disintegrating, language-not, nature-culture, made-found. The crowd is, in a way, a natural form for art, as a crowd, like a work is a becoming, a line of flight, a rolling plaster rock…
In 1962, Janet Frame wrote that there are too many dimensions. In so doing she could be seen as a precursor, or at least part of the global preconditions for Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of multiplicity. She wrote about fantasy, freedom, yearning, abjection, and gutted critique of the mental institution at around the time of the anti-psychiatry movement that was certainly the precursor to Anti-Oedipus.
The laughing academy forbade outbursts.
Institutional critique of psychiatry ought to be extended, in a more sustained manner, to the psychoanalysis of art, i.e. the idea that its meaning can be ‘diagnosed’.
In his childhood, in suburban Christchurch of the late 70s, “a hotbed of understatement”, Arps noticed communes and self-sufficiency – his mother was peripherally involved in a few of the many communities living experimentally in the garden city. Fairly normal mainstream parents were experimenting with divorce, massage, pottery, pot, cul-de-sac radical feminism and ideas like “why does everyone have to own their own lawn mower?” He also noticed similarities between these communities and the as SF “pods” he watched on the TV.
But what of the plastic polygons that are strutted out of the crowd of modelling clay forms? What might lie behind a fascination for polygons? For geodesia? They appear to be a manifestation of multiplicity; explosions of some sort of plural/communist truth – like Negri’s fireworks. Gilles Deleuze, in ‘‘A conversation: what is it for?” (Dialogues, 1987), said that “One must multiply the sides, break every circle in favour of the polygons.” (p.19)
Jung, in his writing on Flying Saucers, raised an idea of the basis of faceted productions: “The plurality of UFOs, then, is a projection of a number of psychic images of wholeness which appear in the sky because on the one hand they represent archetypes charges with energy and on the other hand they are not recognizes as psychic factors. The reason for this is that our present day consciousness possesses no conceptual categories by means of which it could apprehend the nature of psychic totality.” (p.29)
In a clothbound school textbook from the same year as the Flying Saucers book was published, 1959, called Aspects of Science Fiction, there is a H.G. Wells story called “The Crystal Egg”. But as the story was established and developed, there seemed to be something wrong with the idea of a perfectly rounded crystal egg. It would be a far more powerful objet by today’s standards if it were a faceted thing. But then maybe everything i11 the eyes of some is faceted. Deleuze and Guattari par example wrote in Anti-Oedipus that “the body without organs is an egg: it is criss-crossed with axes and thresholds, with latitudes and longitudes and geodesic lines, traversed by gradients marking transitions and the becomings, the destinations of the subject developing along these particular vectors. Nothing here is representative; rather it is all life and lived experience.” (p.19)
Sometimes, in certain lights, from certain angles, artists seem a bit like psychopaths. [“Or those in weird infantile treehuts.”] On a TV forensic programme recently there was the character, a serial killer, whose terrible obsession ruled him. However, he had to eat, so he worked as a security guard. Seeing a person trying to tear themselves away from the world they wish to live in, and having to work in the ‘normal’ way, and fail as a security guard, was gut wrenching to watch. And in this day and age, artists are expected to sell work, earn money and be their own PR machines. Excruciating.
In video documentation of a performance carried out at the Linwood Community Centre, the artist could be seen, bound and gagged, lying on the floor, suspended from the ceiling by his feet, wearing nothing but a pair of novelty fake buttocks boxer shorts, Nike running shoes and a Donald Duck mask. Children at the centre banded together of their own volition and started whipping him with strings from their popped balloons. The other part of the work was a hut that had been set up out of furniture and sheets that had inside pillows and a Super Nintendo. To the artist, “The performance was like a really endlessly prolonged escape act where I never tried to get out. The hut was a place to escape to.”
Perhaps a key to glimpsing the fourth dimension is to consider the difference between real estate and architecture. Interspersed between the clay-entities with their geodesic ‘blobs’ are architectural structures, blocks. The whole thing-scheme could be viewed as an architectural model. But one that snuggles up to Walter Benjamin’s term “the architectural unconscious.” In his famous Arcades Project he quoted Sigfried Giedion’s assertion that “Construction plays the role of the subconscious.” In doing so he sought to show the oft-unnoticed fourth dimensionality of buildings, to share re-introduce to us the ghosts that only animals and very small children can see. (Studies have shown that infants can tell the differences between faces of individual primates. In a few short years this ability is lost, along with other kinaesthetic and fourth dimensional ones, because the electrical connections in the brain we are born with peter out from disuse – another tragic bi-product of our mundane society).
He could be said to have a penchant for 80s office blocks. While still living in Christchurch, he found a framed architect’s impression of an office block in a Memphisy neo-classical style. It had been discarded in a skip next to the building that it depicted. This picture was then laid on the floor atop a plastic pan-and-brush pan in which an energy-saving bulb had been implanted. When displayed in a gallery that had its house lights turned off, the pan-light shone through the image, making a spectral shape loom above the building.
On the subject of the ghosts of the 80s, he also told a story about a building he was exploring that accommodated an office suite - he has a long-standing interest in abandoned spaces – that hadn’t been occupied for years. It had been left as it was when its occupants walked out post-crash; frozen like a Narnia dead world of the sort that is accessed through pond portals. The point of departure could be plotted from an examination of things left behind – the era of the computers (UNIX work stations) and a 1990 copy of the National Business Review were firm indicators. There were rooms full of computer print-outs. All in all, it would seem that it had been unoccupied for ten years. He wondered had there been a death?
The dominant feature of the space was a wall-sized chart. Its graph shows rapid growth over quite a sustained period of time, so much so in fact that several extra sheets of paper had been attached where the graph went over the top of the page. At the point of the crash the graph fell to about the bottom of the lowest page in almost no time like an executive jumping out of the window of a high-rise. Such spaces, and plummeting productivity graphs, are possibly behind the ‘no loafing’-type motivational posters in frames he favours and incorporates into the present work.
“Many abstract expressionist paintings adopted from surrealism the notion that visual space is analogous to bodily space. The amorphous space occupied by the abstract shapes and painterly gestures is the inner space of the human body: the dark cavity of the more mysterious space of the unconscious mind. With the demise of abstract expressionism and the rise of less psychologically oriented (and more concrete) painting, such as colour field, this idea of painted space slowly waned, and then itself became concretized. Gerome Kamrowski, a painting teacher of mine and an automatist of the Pollock generation, once described this as a shift from ‘inner space’ to ‘science fiction space’. The black void is now not the domain of the psyche, but of ‘outer space’.” John Wechman (ed), Mike Kelley: Foul Perfection - Essays and Criticism, 2002,
This was written about painting, but it applies to art generally in the post-media sense of the word. Installation, according to Brian O’Doherty in his benchmark book Inside the White Cube (1986), is really painting rendered in three-dimensional space. But that is splitting hairs I suppose. There is, one might say, a necessary relation of contemporary art and science fiction in that the question of space is something particular to both their projects.
Perhaps it is this utopian suicidal” spirit that is behind the ongoing appeal of science fiction. But what else? The spaceships are great, the clothes are cool, it is set “not here”… Maybe it is SF’s promise to escape this plane, to start anew, to be involved in one enormous video-game scenario for now and all time (where reality is created in a sphere about the moving protagonist) wandering about on the surface of the body without organs? The glossary at the back of the SF school text includes an entry that is ticked in pencil on “escape velocity”. But there is something more than mere escapist to SF -it has a definite erotic/biological charge which is interesting to speculate about. Uhuru fantasies aside, Susan Sontag, in an essay called ‘‘The pornographic imagination” (1967), pointed out that ‘‘The ahistorical dreamlike landscape where action is situated, the peculiarly congealed time in which acts are performed -these occur almost as often in science fiction as they do in pornography. … Pornography is one of the branches of literature – science fiction is another - aiming at disorientation, at psychic dislocation.” (p.46-7)
There is another form of eroticism at stake here it would seem. There are phallic forms, and openings, certainly, but it is something deeper, more fundamentally suggestive. Perhaps there is a clue in this: there on the workbench is a copy of Walter Benjamin’s One Way Street (1928). The only passage marked is done so by a blue post-it arrow. It is a fragment headed “Betting Office”. In it the author extols the virtues of a “feudal eroticism” by glowering at its reverse: Mundane life proclaims the total subjugation of eroticism to privacy…” (p.100-1)
Male lies on floor. He is building an asymmetrical Lego spaceship. The television is on, but it was not turned on by him. A daytime soap opera is playing, a litany of waiting, delays, miscommunications, withheld information, codependence, triangles, irresolution, summary, narcotic space. Today, John Black, a man who was a priest in another amnesia life, is tied to a tree in a “jungle”. It is so obviously a set-the sawdust “ground”, the dense “foliage”, the tropical “light”. He was tied up by the evil Stefano, to prevent him from getting the rare plant that is the only antidote to “jungle fever’’ which brings on powerful deliriums in those who contract it, as John had himself. This jungle setting is certainly some sort of advance, as the people on this soap never used to go outside at all, except to go to the “dock”, a place for certain kinds of rendezvous (romance, conspiracy, private exchanges…). The plots are also getting very supernatural -is it some sort of zeitgeist thing? John’s love interest, Marlena, perpetual holder of the moral high ground, was some four years ago possessed by the devil, at the behest of the terrible Stefano. You could tell when she was not “herself’ and under Satan’s control as her eye irises would tum yellow. But this was just one of this ‘‘bad” character’s evil ploys -he is always up to something that holds combinations of the various characters back. John strains against his ropes, weakened by his ordeal, smeared with “dirt”. If only he can reach his kitbag with his foot, and draw out his trusty knife, he could maybe grasp it with his foot and fling it upward and catch it behind his back with his bound-together hands. And sure enough he does just manage to cut the cords and break free, free to continue his search and save the day, again… Through the living room wall bickering can be heard. A small cat walks up his legs and lies down to sleep on the small of his back. A few feet away is a pile of his things that have been tidied up into a pile by someone else in the hope that they will be relocated to his studio space, out of the house. There is balsawood, a model kit, drawings of spaces, structures and sculptures, an 1980s Architectural Digest containing an article about a man who purports to “collect castles”, a copy of Howard Hughes’ biography, photographs, his precious junk mail, chenille pipe cleaners and a packet of plastic vegetables, soon to be used as armature in a sculptural science fiction.
“Utopia today is to believe that current societies will be able to continue along their merry way without major upheavals. Social modes of organisation that prevail today are not holding up, literally and figuratively.” (Felix Guattari, “Utopia Today” in Soft Subversions, 1986, p.85)
Soap operas bear certain resemblances to science fiction. They both operate with saga formats, and like the porn industry, soaps and sci fi have their own award ceremonies –like Hugo and Nebula Award for example (which always seemed to suggest “nubile” to me) As TV genres, they are share artifice, escape, obviously constructed sets, hardly porous fictional worlds with their own rules. In S/F there is the force (anti-gravity); in S/0 there is the supernatural (the farce, antigravity). Both rely on “types’ for characters. Both are Herculean epics.
There is also an argument that soap operas – in the classic sense of Days of our Lives and The Young and the Restless – and science fiction, too, employ characters akin to Judge Schreber’s fleeting-improvised male/poorly-improvised female (bad acting in both genres)…
Howard Hughes was a man driven, compelled, uninhibited by conventional limitations such as good sense or small-time bank balances. From huge film projects, and being a baron of industry generally, he went on to his “Spruce Goose” plane project. Hughes’ design and fabrication of an enormous balsa wood aeroplane bears a certain formal relation to our protagonist’s desire to build “the most enormous model”.
The way the Hughes story ended up- long fingernails, collecting his urine in jars, pharmaceutical obliteration, mail-delivery pornography, germ-phobia, a general insect-like “vibe” – implies the importance of taking breaks from introversion. In other words, social contact is necessary, but one must be very careful to strike the right balance for production’s sake; and to avoid counterproductive exterior and interior irritants; or let the solution drop below the saturated or the crystal one is trying to grow on a string will dissolve.
Social contact also requires wakefulness – i.e. “you have to get up to get out”. But this is no simple matter. It has been discovered that we are never really entirely asleep or awake, just more or less awake than asleep or conversely more asleep than awake. It is all to do with different levels of co-existent hormones in the brain. It would seem that our times are characterised to some extent by the discovery of more and more indistinction.
Lego may have been invented in the 20th Century in Scandinavia, but research has turned up a connection between it and the building practices of Ancient Greece and Rome. The basic eight-block with its two rows of four raised circular stipples was discovered “replicated” on the foundations of a temple where a column had once stood. Such new knowledge reveals again how time can subtly stretch, contracts and expands; another (reverse) example would be how it feels to write down a dream: somehow the events of the night before often seem to have taken place longer ago, several days at least. Some think it archaic to study the Classics, but there are still many new matters to be considered. For example, a student of pre-Socratic philosophy recently told me that all thought since Socrates has enforced a literary form on aesthetics. I am surprised by the efficacy of So-crates’ discussion groups. Maybe it is a case of the philosopher’s (biographer’s/ art writer’s/ essayist’s) reality forming about him like video game space about the player’s character.
“I think you have made a mistake here. Raising Lego is good, but philosophically it is not so classicist – it lends itself less to order and beauty than to chaos and entropy. Lego is interesting because it has a classical system but is able to produce highly complex entropic forms – the corrupted/corruptible system that is Lego…” Viz. “Corruption is simply the sign of the absence of any ontology [ … ] Corruption names the perpetual process of alteration and metamorphosis, the anti-foundational foundation, the deontological mode of being.” (Hardt and Negri, Empire, 2000.)
“Are you still high?”
Reading Schreber again, his expression “heaven’s fore-court” seems strange. He may have been referring to how he believed God is a huge nervous system, of which each of us is a microcosm, but he ends up putting across a proletarian, a sexualised petrol station vibe. But Schreber is not the only one who has “met God”. (He also believed his every thought and move was being recorded by an entity external to him, a ‘‘writing-down-system”.) Many people do see God on hallucinogenics – magic mushrooms often afford those who have taken them a view of the structure behind universal reality, or God if you will. So many secretly have (we live awake but also we live in the realm of dreams and know of the lands of hallucination, and we are supposed to be “professional adults”). The maker of this sculptural scenario at one point saw god while tripping in Hagley Park in Christchurch.
‘‘This excited me and I felt that it was important that I communicated what I saw to the people around me, but whenever I tried it just came out as incoherent babble. It was disappearing and changing as I was trying to explain. I was sitting on a park bench watching the model yachts go around on this little artificial lake and then it appeared out of the negative space between the trees on the other side and joined up with its own reflection like Dali’s Leda and the Swan. Then I looked down and noticed that all the blades of grass were sort of twitching slowly and they all bent over and stuck their tips back in the ground. They moved as if they were one long ribbon of grass. After this we went to visit a friend as we were way to helpless to be in public but there was a short film being made at his flat that reinacted a dream he had had. Cruelly we were made to wear Nazi costumes and be extras. We had to eat cold spaghetti, and then they brought in the guy who was “the Jew” and they humiliated him. We were too out of it to be scared or to realise it was being filmed in an organised way with takes and such, and it just seemed like time was repeating.”
It seems strange that in Janet Frame’s The Edge of the Alphabet, it is swans that fascinate the Pat character as perfect, entrancing. His, however, is the character that thought artists destabilise things too much, and all ought to be made to work on the buses like him. To talk about this work in such bookish terms may seem at odd, out of place even, but what is our looking if it not tossing words at things out of our eyes, talking to each other hopefully, trying to find a way in? This mute work, trying doggedly to communicate, sits “at the edge of the alphabet where words like plants either grow poisonous tall and hollow about the rusted knives and empty drums of meaning…” (p.13), perched as it is, on the line between asleep and awakeness.
Frame’s female protagonist left no suicide note in words. She did, however, leave behind a small sculpture-doodle she had made from silver cigarette paper, a souvenir of the afternoon preceding her death. An artist had asked her out, a strange occurrence for one who had never been kissed, and he and his bohemian friends had much admired it. She went home and killed herself in a patent misreading of the suicidal impulse, which is almost certainly a desire for a clean-slate recalibration.
It does seem clear that sometimes talking, writing, is absurd, even though we have no choice – if we want to avoid liminal collapse. Words may only exist as approximations for experience, but useful blocks they are, one of many types (solid, breeze, fired bricks, clay–straw etc.) used in the trans-construction of semi-Omni-ish fictional spaces.
“Is it some other way of organising the world? If so, gravity is no longer a problem.”