As part of the exhibition Toward a Virtual Minimalism, Invert/Extant is running a series of essays and reflections on the idea of Toward a virtual minimalism - Finding and defining honesty in the virtual gallery space. This instalment is an excerpt from Pappas-Kelley's recent book Solvent Form.
Pappas-Kelley questions whether this idea of honesty is even possible, or is there something inherent to art itself, proposing art lies.
Three lies and a truth
In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, high up in the Swiss Alps and sequestered with the invalids in a sanatorium, there resides a device called a silent sister, used for detecting the deceptions (a measureless tool for measuring) of those that wish to remain in storage just a bit longer. This device consists simply of a thermometer for taking one’s temperature that has no lines of measurement, so that the patients cannot present themselves as still ill even when they are not (and thus remain). This happens sometimes, that an inhabitant becomes convinced that they might continue outside of life amid the rarefied atmosphere of the Berghof, perhaps too comfortable, and in spite of being past their time (to linger in its seductive withdrawal and accumulate outside the rot and change below). Settembrini warns Hans Castorp:
There was Fräulein Kneifer, Ottilie Kneifer, last year. She came of a good family—the daughter of an important government official. She was here some year and a half and had grown to feel so much at home that when her health was quite restored—it does happen, up here; people do sometimes get well—she couldn’t bear to leave. She implored the Hofrat to let her stop; she could not and would not go; this was her home, she was happy here. But the place was full, they wanted her room, and so all her prayers were in vain; they stood out for discharging her cured.[i]
Therefore, Ottilie resorts to a deception:
Ottilie was taken with high fever, her curve went well up. But they found her out by exchanging her regular thermometer for a ‘silent sister.’ You aren’t acquainted as yet with the term; it is a thermometer without figures, which the physician measures with a little rule, and plots the curve himself.[ii]
Caught out—she begins bathing in an alpine lake in the hopes of catching ill again. Maybe only a thing might understand what Ottilie is going through in her attempts to stay, “She remained some time in the water, trying to contract some illness or other—alas, she was, and remained, quite sound. She departed in anguish and despair, deaf to all the consolations her parents could give.”[iii]
Yet in spite of the efforts of Ottilie (or the thing, or the art object), who negates and puts herself at risk instead to sojourn in the insulated world of the sanatorium (like the thing). It is through operations such as a silent sister (a thief in the museum, a fire in a warehouse, and Tinguely’s Homage) that a deception is revealed as ultimately not fixed and halted (and ultimately not a thing, but something else entirely). In events wherein we find ourselves in this moment without trace of an inner time-organ, and as Hans Castorp did, “absolutely incapable of fixing it even with an approach to accuracy by ourselves, without any outward fixed points as guides,” (these determinants of things and moments) rendered as shipwreck, these conceptions and markers.[iv] Hans Castorp observes as he comes to see (of time), “…it proved to be nothing more or less than a ‘silent sister,’ a mercury column without degrees, to be used by those who wanted to cheat.”[v]
In this sense, perhaps this book (as well as these actions) is nothing more than a series of silent sisters—a method of shipwrecks for examining the destruction of art—that reveals in the midst of forestalling the interplay between what is lost yet still here in this moment. The accident of the thing is catastrophic in its instantaneity, where the implements for measuring are removed from thermometers. Yet of their allure Castorp muses, “…I could almost wish to keep my fever, and stop up here with you indefinitely. They would have to give me a ‘silent sister’ to measure with.”[vi]
Thomas Hirschhorn’s installations are congested with matters and things, cobbled from cardboard and parcel tape, poor materials littered with constructed rocks, soda cans, forms out of elementary school science projects, magazines (pinned up on wall, in racks, in plastic sleeves), philosophy textbooks, manifestos, mannequins, or cast-off exercise equipment wrapped in aluminum foil. His pieces sprawl in objects, things, and material, gathering surplus into space and from which their logic emerges amid the clutter to which they point. With Crystal of Resistance,[vii] Hirschhorn examines a motif of the crystal as a means for touching something other to form, around which it coalesces. He observes:
As a motif, “crystal” is the dynamic which links and which puts light - a new light - on everything. It sheds light on its own meaning, its own time and its own raison d’être. The “crystal” motif helps me point out one or several facets, because it’s only as facets - as a partial vision - that truth can be touched.[viii]
This is the capacity for crystallization, vitrification, to pass light through these things like a window (vitrine) and make it visible. From this motif Hirschhorn wraps a site in things, cobbling logic as obsession; geometric crystal forms covered in tinfoil and piled in stacks, six-sided wooden frames terminating into pyramids and enfolded with transparent drop-cloth PVC (like quartz crystal formations or some transparent ore), pilasters of outdated television monitors hacked together with scrap palettes and broadcasting what appears as catastrophes of war and human conflict, with fingers swiping through images like low-rent iPads, bordering silver walls inlaid with vaguely spheroid recesses made from packing tape and cotton swabs (geodes of lavatory hygiene); fields of pop and beer cans bent and cut into crystalline structures, matted together; rows of mannequins likewise bundled with these same materials (tape, foil, clear plastic sheets, and suspending images cut from magazines); cardboard light wells and stalactites from ceilings; bales of rolled carpets suspended from above with baskets loaded in assorted crystals and mineral specimens—half punching bag and half hot air balloon in structure, rock crystals parcel taped to walls and mounded, stalagmite heaps of photo cut-outs and media images rising in deposits from floors and terminating in mannequin points, cracked atriums packed with this stuff, glass display cases with books; George Sand: Laura. Voyage dans le Cristal, Les Minéraux, où les trouver, comment les collectionner, Giorgio Agamben: Profanations, and the general books one might likewise acquire stranded at a flea market. From it a resistancewithin contemporary life emerges, is made tangible, as rock formations accruing caverns in which to wander, crystallized and hand hewn in the sediment of cultural castoffs as one gets lost in the accumulation of cranked assemblages that Hirschhorn gathers.
He declares, “There will be many elements to see, there will be ‘too much.’ It has to be ‘too much,’ not because it is important to get to see everything or spend a lot of time looking, but ‘too much’ so that the things do not lie.”[ix]
Moreover, perhaps this is the crux of the matter, this acknowledgment that things lie, yet through these endeavors, might somehow be made or coerced or tricked into speaking (or touching) a truth from amid the surplus. In this, art lays a trap for a deception, so that in gathering together (like the objects in Jones’s museum or Sarah Winchester’s mansion) it might somehow be tricked into revealing a truth, but also an undoing in tempting a Momart or a Tinguely through its actions. Saying (mutely) I am this thing, to which Bataille might reply, “But the past did not lie in the way he believed: in truth, it lied only insofar as, in its ponderousness, it represented as a thing that which in principle could not be one.”[x]
Further, this is the truth of the lie; like a Winchester House, undoing to remake, art attempts to outmaneuver or spend something, to open and leave it shipwrecked amid all this form. Yet of these actions of accumulation and their capacity to undo, Baudrillard retorts:
It’s accumulation, the series, that helps develop the fantasy of infinity, but what you do not see is the threshold of critical mass. At some point, too much is too much. The process is the equivalent of the abolition of all these qualities. It’s a black hole.[xi]
When the nameless character in Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder first begins looking for the precise building from which to reconstruct what he perceived in the crack on a bathroom wall, he starts searching for a method to trick his building into revealing itself from amid all the other buildings in London. Using funds inherited from the accident, he begins scouring the city for the building resembling the one that had appeared as apparition. To this end he hires a team of assistants, all searching and reporting back their findings, dividing London up into grids and analyzing, but what he begins to grasp is that it will not be from these people’s systemizations—although he lets them proceed—that his building will be found. He does not call off their search, but allows them to continue their efforts while pursuing his own clandestine methods. Meanwhile they continue consulting their mobile phones, calling in observations and data, wandering up and down streets across the city, mapping their search and progress, pins placed on maps, marking and calculations, phoning in inquiries, and caught up in this process of looking. He understands:
Their burrowing would get inside the city’s block and loosen it, start chiselling away at surplus matter: it would scare my building out, like beaters scaring pheasants out of bushes for a Lord to shoot – six beaters advancing in formation, beating to the same rhythms, their movements duplicating one another.[xii]
Thus a method is uncovered, as maneuver implemented to loosen something from amid all this surplus matter, trick the thing (the art of it) into revealing the rather that hides amid. Further, this is how he proceeds:
I could start somewhere, anywhere, and walk down the street the yellow van went down, then wait beside a yellow shop front till a woman wearing yellow trousers went by and I’d follow her. It was completely arbitrary – but it might prompt something, get me looking at things in a way I wouldn’t normally, open chinks up in the camouflage behind which my place was hiding.[xiii]
Like the theft of the Mona Lisa that revealed something that had become hidden behind the image itself, its disappearance, these events and devices prompt a narrator to look at things in a different way. Opening chinks in the camouflage of the thing, it resembles the accumulation of things in Hirschhorn, with their ability to expel. Further, placing these objects (with tape, crates, and plastic sheets), like a Jean Tinguely in reversal, a silent sister, or a Momart fire—in such a manner, so that: giving Ottilie a start, she bounds from the lake and reveals her hiding spot among the invalids (or likewise from a mother’s arms and into a canal in the case of art theif Stéphane Breitweiser)—a device to trick the thing from lying through the improvisation it enacts.
And this operation is to understand as Georges Bataille concedes, “…I have tried to say how clumsy (but inevitable) it was to make a thing of it.” Further, “I refer now to the opening of art, which always lies but without deceiving those whom it seduces.”[xiv]
Like a device of Zeuxis and Parrhasios in which an image of grapes or a curtain shows us a thing to reveal something else, likewise Hirschhorn finds art through his gathering of objects into a Crystal of Resistance. He asserts:
Art - because it is art - is resistance. But art is not resistance to something, art is resistance as such. Art is resistant because it resists everything that has already existed and been known. Art, as a resistance, is assertion, movement, belief, intensity, art is “positive.”[xv]
Further, “Resistance is always connected with friction, confrontation, even destruction - but also, always with creativity. Resistance is conflict between creativity and destruction.”[xvi]
Thus we find the site of art, this point of resistance between creativity and destruction, where its solvency dwells. It is in this action of giving form as “an envelope”[xvii] for making it tangible. Hirschhorn notes, “I’m thinking of a skin, a shell or a geode.”[xviii] Thus these things become a skin in which art might dwell beside a resistance to what it fixes.
However, if art resides as thing, enclosed in climate-controlled environments, convalescing in packing crates as a retreat from what changes, a withdrawal racked against the walls, packed, labeled, and kept in a climate-controlled environment (a steady 20C), it is also the opposite of this thing: its resistance. Yet the operation of art might instead be revealed as a device for tricking what passes, from out of the thing, somehow enticing it to reveal itself as an Other of form, here within this moment that counts—and that this thing be essentially the opposite of a thing. For this is the interplay of art, this revealing and obscuring that renders the thing undone, (and through this bit that attempts to linger, likewise, this remainder).
In looking for something amid the destruction of art, among the disarray, we begin gathering together these objects that become lost into sites from which they might be viewed: Rembrandt • Cézanne • Manet • Braque • Vermeer • Serra • Kerouac • Holzer • Apelles • Duchamp • Van Gogh • Rembrandt • (continuing amid an ellipsis of implied future as a rudimentary Morse code of absence)… Suspending into museums of lost art, documented, written about, and when that does not work, simply concentrated into lists as poems or homage to the missing pieces. Additionally, through this we attempt to perceive an absence, to which these destroyed objects point, to understand, as they continue accruing into newspapers, in books, articles, on the news, so that amid the destruction of shipwrecks, we begin to discern survivors within debris, tugging our eyes to remainders that displace. Seized in a compulsion to reenact these accidents of art objects, like Remainder, as an invisible force carrying forward an engine of negative miracles accruing and giving art and poetry form and likewise destroying and undoing, so that life appears as a puzzle endlessly destroying its own solutions. Amid the gradual disappearance and reappearance of Spiral Jetty or Rachel Whiteread’s House as Sid Gale’s front room is destroyed making way for a concrete object—and likewise again in the shipwreck pivot of its pulling down. Yet somehow through this our notion of art is entangled with a propensity to be destroyed or lost (might impossibly become its measure in fact), but also divulging that in the midst of destruction and shipwrecks there is this capacity to find something more of art.
We attempt to accumulate it in a site rendered as art, a resistance concerning content and form in what is lost. Straddling separations that Erased de Kooning and The Unknown Masterpiece of Balzac attempt—in which no painter nor poet nor sculptor may separate the effect from the cause, which are inevitably contained the one in the other, the mystery of form that would shatter external form. In this destruction is revealed as a site grinding, as Agamben notes in The Man without Content, where all meaning has been dissolved, all content has vanished, the one into the other, in the erasing of form as a conflict amid an inexpressible content.[xix] Yet this is perhaps the mystery of form as it becomes permeable. Thus it is collected into virtual exhibitions that haunt our national museums, to see something that has become invisible through a destruction and as a reenactment of its loss.
Further, with it a thief wanders into a museum, stealing moments that we thought safely stowed from the flow of daily life (they even wrote a book about it) and talked about it on the news. Yet in absconding, a loss of intimacy is put on display through disappearance, was hung upon a wall, and crowds gathered to see what lost art might show, and, in the process, we began to look differently through the device of silent sisters, fire, or theft. This looking remains with destruction, as a mother seeking to dispose of evidence of a disappearance, dumps them into a canal and down a sink disposal. It entangles in an improvisation, as an object’s perfectly inverted and simultaneous counter determination resembling a theft as Tinguely nudges a homage that destroys. And yet, to try to stop it, to try to check life in midflight and recapture it in the form of a work of art is a mockery of an intimacy and intensity and likewise a destruction.
Therefore we attempt to employ this destruction, to make of it a thing that might produce. Desiring in art a device, and taking cues from Tinguely or Gustav Metzger, art attempts to harness this destruction to make meaning. Reconsidering with it a relation between creation and destruction, undermining a myth of the creating artist who adds objects to the world to be exhibited. In turn it slows down, is reversed, amplified, viewed from different angles as this moment ossified, like Jonathan Schipper’s The Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle, Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag, Ed Ruscha’s Royal Road Test, or Thomas Demand’s Landing. Yet in the process something continues to become distanced and to disappear like a Warhol Death and Disaster, and we are left to wonder whether this resistance might instead be simply considered as merely an additional color or if it is it still a radical gesture or instead is now a mere vehicle. Moreover, in this act of representing destruction (so that it might disappear into its image, and appear rendered under our control), it emerges as Janus-like figure, a duck/rabbit picture puzzle, where an ambiguity and oscillation is likewise made visible as a solvency within the work.
However, through these destructions, we begin to understand something more of art. Attempting to represent an affinity—to coax or draw it out—it forms a portrait of sorts, extracting and subtracting as Jean-Luc Nancy observes, from a homogeneity that likewise distinguishes it. Like a portrait of a grandfather into which it disappears, it becomes a stand-in through an absence in what it displaces through what remains. Bataille asks: What is the meaning of art, architecture, music, painting or poetry if not the anticipation of a suspended, wonder-struck moment, a miraculous moment with the power to capture and endlessly recapture the moment that counts, the moment of rupture, of fissure? Yet Maurice Blanchot asserts that art requires that he who practices it should be immolated to art, and in this the moment is made permeable, so that one can thus say that it appears as what it is by disappearing, as Nancy observes. Within the image resides a challenge of representation, in that destruction implies the revelation of something thought lost through a clearing away, yet also a tension between what disappears and what is distinct through a permeability between these two capacities.
Art, therefore, relies on both a suspending and an unbinding of the moment in its intimacy, and through it (according to Bataille), an object bears within it the negation of that which defines it as object and in a sense are destroyed as objects. Similarly, Virilio observes, when you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck. Moreover, through this interplay that art presents is this miraculous moment in which conceptions and anticipation are collapsed. Virilio continues: Granted, the accident, in a certain way, is a miracle in reverse. It reveals something absolutely necessary to knowledge.[xx] With a miracle in reverse, and perhaps as an analogue to Bataille’s negative miracle of the shipwreck, something about art (as well as knowledge) emerges in these actions—and yet as there is no precise term for this “artwreck,” we perceive, and instead we refer to these activities by the portmanteau of art, which is likewise the fascination of art and its destruction.
Through this, the art object, like the moment, is rendered permeable. Something capable of being returned to, as well as set apart. Perhaps this is what Scheherazade attempts through a recapturing of the moment that counts, making it permeable, as something that can be returned to and evading the foreclosure of what appears set through an activation of its solvency. Likewise, this is what Sarah Winchester attempts in her method of forestalling that requires endeavoring to build around the clock, hiring crews to construct perpetually on her mansion, tearing down what was nearly constructed to continue erecting: to give form to a haunting but also undo its closure.
Yet what we begin to notice through all these improvisations is instead a destruction perhaps tethered in an impulse to make the art object or thing appear fixed or impervious—like Duchamp’s Large Glass or the practice of storing art away in warehouses. In this, the thing is shown undone or destroyed through a tendency to make things appear fixed, in other words a resistance implied in its permanency and as negation implied in the thing. Bataille observes: The action that produces things is what negates that which is (the natural given), and in this sense, the destruction of this thing is an assertion of an ability to likewise contest and become distinguished from itself as a fixed thing. When Nancy observes of the image that it is a thing that is not the thing and that it distinguishes itself from it, essentially, then the destruction of the thing might present an understanding for considering and proposing a thing that likewise attempts to not be a thing (a negation of that which defines it as object born within).
However, for the thing to appear plausible, it must present an image of continuity—the thing as enduring and attempting to remain self-same through time, like Emin’s tent before the fire or the objects stowed away in Citizen Kane (again before the fire). Yet through the actions of presenting the thing as enduring, it is alienated. The thing attempts to master the moment from without for the sake of continuity and utility and thus, the thing is always conflicted and split between the moment and attempting to be outside—yet the unfolding moment is perpetually catastrophic to the thing and responsible for its destruction and demise. For the thing to be as it is (to reach intimacy), it would require one impossible thing, to be both fixed and fundamentally change with the moment—or in other words the thing that is not a thing.
Thus the thing presents a lie, saying (mutely, perhaps in honor of Louise Bourgeois), I am this thing, so that what we actually perceive in the destruction of art is a device for revealing this moment not as fixed but instead rendered through the shipwreck of this moment. Thus, art presents a trick for revealing an otherness within form, like a silent sister alerting to deceptions by Ottilie as she seeks to remain outside of life’s flow, or Hirschhorn’s installations that through their profusion of things attempt to coerce the thing into divulging, or McCarthy’s method to scare from amid the surplus something that has become hidden as he wanders through the city of things searching for a crack in plaster. Yet, where does all this wandering leave us if not shipwrecked in this very moment?
[Above excerpted from Solvent Form: Art and Destruction, Jared Pappas-Kelley]
[i] Mann, Thomas. The Magic Mountain. London: Penguin Books, 1960. p 87. [ii] Ibid. [iii] Ibid. [iv] Ibid. p 543. [v] Ibid. p 92. [vi] Ibid. p 202. [vii] Crystal of Resistance. Mixed media, dimensions variable. The Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 2011. [viii] Hirschhorn, Thomas. Crystal of Resistance (pamphlet). Swiss Pavilion. Biennale di Venezia, Padiglione Svizzero: Federal Office of Culture, Swiss Confederation, June 1, 2011. p 4. [ix] Hirschhorn, Thomas. Crystal of Resistance (pamphlet). Swiss Pavilion. Biennale di Venezia, Padiglione Svizzero: Federal Office of Culture, Swiss Confederation, June 1, 2011. p 5. [x] Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share. Volume II, the History of Eroticism. Volume III, Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books, 1991. p 255. [xi] Baudrillard, Jean, and Sylvère Lotringer. The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews, Essays. New York: Semiotext(e), 2005. p 168. [xii] McCarthy, Tom. Remainder. London: Alma Books, 2007. p 91. [xiii] Ibid. p 95. [xiv] Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share. Volume II, the History of Eroticism. Volume III, Sovereignty. New York: Zone Books, 1991. p 256. [xv] Hirschhorn, Thomas. Crystal of Resistance (pamphlet). Swiss Pavilion. Biennale di Venezia, Padiglione Svizzero: Federal Office of Culture, Swiss Confederation, June 1, 2011. p 4. [xvi] Hirschhorn, Thomas. Crystal of Resistance (pamphlet). Swiss Pavilion. Biennale di Venezia, Padiglione Svizzero: Federal Office of Culture, Swiss Confederation, June 1, 2011. p 4. [xvii] Ibid. p 6. [xviii] Ibid. [xix] Agamben, Giorgio. “The Man without Content.” Stanford: Stanford University Press (1999). p 8. [xx] Lotringer, Sylvère, and Paul Virilio. The Accident of Art. New York, NY; Cambridge, MA: Semiotext(e); Distributed by the MIT Press, 2005. p 63.
Jared Pappas-Kelley is an artist and writer. His recent book Solvent Form: Art and Destruction was published by Manchester University Press and his forthcoming collection To Build a House that Never Ceased: Writings, Interviews, and Letters on Art was released in late July of 2020. His visual work has exhibited internationally.
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