Marking time in a culture of amnesia

It is a paradox of our times that amnesia should be considered a dominant characteristic of post-modern media culture, a culture which is nonetheless obsessed with the past. This apparent contradiction is the theoretical interest of Twilight Memories, a collection of essays by Andreas Huyssen. Focusing on a temporal shift of the utopian imagination from a future-oriented anticipation to memory and remembrance, Huyssen posits a gap between modernity and postmodernity in which the past becomes the object of desire.

Memory, in fact, is the element which destabilizes the frozen binary positions of modern and postmodern. Re-reading Rilke and Junger, Huyssen presents a divided literary modernism, one which questions the fast and ready collapsing of modernity with all that is totalizing. Essays on Kluge, Sloterdijk, Fluxus and Kiefer, challenge some of the received ideas of critical theory as well as poststructuralism. These subjects are tied in with the question of German national identity and the debates concerning unification.

Huyssen emphasizes throughout that it is necessary to forget in order to remember and that amnesia, far from being all-encompassing, also creates the desire for reconstruction. The strength of memory, then, is that it can be contested. With this insight the author provides an optimistic interpretation of postmodernism’s museal sensibility, the current predilection toward building museums and monuments, which might, surprisingly, reveal the utopian side of contemporary culture. Active remembrance, as process and representation, is never complete and as such, holds promise for the future. M. J. L.

McGee Wall Drawing

McGee has said in conversation that this figure has been a part of his work for some time, and as an anonymous and seemingly aimless as the figure appears, the viewer senses an unusual mix of symbolism and sharp satire. Reduced to the literal, as well as the metaphorical, bare facts of existence, this representative man looks like he is searching for solace. But comfort of any sort seems to have remained beyong his reach. Certainly nothing in the overall composition feels capable of alleviating the central figure’s dubious condition. The other faces, often emerging from inchoate, amoeba-like background frames, manifest a relentless idiotic expression, and the only slightly decorative brushwork occurs with the graffiti tags punctuating the large space.

The expressions on McGee’s faces are not only unintelligent but deeply unhappy, as if somehow they intuitively knew the spiritual squalor of their existence. In one grouping, a cartoon face, wearing what looks like a tonsure, stares off to the side – in any direction but that of the viewer. His tongue hangs out and his eyes are glazed, as if he were suffering the torments of an extreme hangover. Next to him is drawn an equally unprepossessing thug – with a nearly pointed head and white hair. With his closed eyes and an imbecilic grin, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Mad Magazine’s smirking antihero Alfred E. Neumann. But McGee’s more recent avatar of visionary stupidity looks far more worried than his inspired forbear.

And that’s the point. Writ large, McGee’s message looks ahead to a time when even his weird imaginings have lost their power to shock, and he, like the viewer and the village idiots populating his art, struggle to make some (any!) sense of their lives. The small installation of drawings at the corner of the mural’s right edge suggested how hard he is trying to work out an iconography of spiritual exhaustion. Consisting of scores of small drawings, this composite piece is wonderfully eloquent on the pleasures of scavenging – in both a material and metaphysical sense. Often his background is made of found materials: music sheets, Chinese newspapers, advertisements, etc. As with the wall work, here McGee is obsessed with finding a face for our time, an expression that will symbolize a certain kind of futility. Yet over time, the viewer senses something different. Even allowing for the enervation his work implies, the artist’s technical skills infuse exuberance into his Sad Sack imagery, and this energy amounts to an implied refutation of the very values his art seems to embrace.

Like McGee’s work, Veca’s Canto III might be considered a young American Caucasian male’s vision of the Apocalypse, very, very late in the second millennium. Taking the cartoon characters Popeye and Brutus as symbolic icons, he has reduced their by-now mythic enmity to a few graphically salient characteristics. Popeye has been reduced to symbolic status, and the viewer encountered only a huge, heavily muscled bicep, complete with anchor tattoos and topped off with a sailor’s cap. Brutus literally became a big mouth – row after row of mouths of clenched teeth, circumscribed with black fringed beards and intensified by a few elongated, tendril-like pink tongues, rush out at the Popeye arms. In Veca’s deliberately heavyhanded repetition, the two icons march up and down as if they were armies on a hill, off to fight an abstract, populist Armageddon.

Veca doesn’t make it clear who would win such a battle, nor perhaps is either camp meant to, for despite the broadly comic overtones of the composition, the artist is describing a battlefield that can read as a serious metaphor. Like the images in McGee’s art, the Popeye arm and Brutus mouth are rooted in the not-so-innocent iconography of America – the hardheaded stuff of cartoons and advertising. It’s clear that Veca is just as disaffected as McGee but more abstract in his presentation: his anger is implied more than it is expressed.

As a title, Canto III suggests a certain high-mindedness, even lyricism, in Veca’s vision of the world, even when the spirit of the work is as close to buffoonery. But the artist knows his own mind, indicating his dual stance with a one-sentence statement in the exhibition brochure: “Saturday morning cartoons were my catechism.” It’s the mix of high and low that makes the work affecting. Veca signs off with a quite funny smaller work. Entitled Year of the Tuna (1996), the piece is of a very happy tuna, anthropomorphically outfitted with cap and eyeglasses. His civilized manner seems in no small way due to the cigar he is smoking and the martini, complete with olive and toothpick, he has in his hand. This is a Star-Kist Charlie who has made perfect amends with the material world.

Finally, Mouraud presented a stark piece in black and white that worked in another direction – one more cerebral, intellectually elegant. At first, the extreme elongation of the letters “WYSIWYG” – the initial letters of each word in the phrase “What you see is what you get” – rendered the work nearly illegible (this viewer first took the piece as a gargantuan version of a bar code). Once explained, however, the individual letters are easy enough to read. Mouraud’s play on a cliche argues for intellectual cognition as a motivating force and, indeed, as an actual material factor (the moment when one understands this piece feels like a key turning in the head) in the construction of art. Her conceptual bias contrasted nicely with the comic-book baroque of her colleagues, but one nonetheless wondered about the baldness of the statement – in this artist’s case, what you see is what you get, indeed.

Mouraud means to correct our penchant for overinterpreting the image – a nicely Cartesian goal – and so she fills the wall with the symbolic remains of a conundrum. Yet instinctively many of us want art to solve intellectual problems visually – that’s what art is supposed to do. For all her subversiveness and sly wit, the artist has deliberately limited her expression, and the result is somewhat attenuated, even as a corrective for passion and pretension. Sometimes the solution does away with the answer.

Annette Messager’s work

Annette Messager’s work is characterized by perceptual discontinuities of imagery and language which explore issues of identity at collective and individual levels. An exemplary product of the polemical May 1968 generation, her work maps out the evolution of a period still in need of discussion. This first North American retrospective comprises approximately thirty works, and includes books and collections of objects which inquire into the nature of women’s roles, constructions made of hundreds of body parts reflecting an ongoing interest in fragmentation, and installations which investigate the various meanings conveyed by objects placed in new contexts.

At the core of Messager’s art is a concern for issues of decentralization, a constant questioning of the roles of object and subject engendered by power relations. Through consistent investigation into the nature of representation, Messager creates dialectical oppositions, permitting the reevaluation of traditional constructs and exposing both their arbitrariness and potential for change.

Identity plays an important role in Messager’s production. As early as the beginning of the 1970s, she pursues two identities that mimic the spatial compartmentalization of her small Parisian apartment. In the bedroom, “Annette Messager Collector” obsessively collects and classifies found objects and imagery. In the atelier, “Annette Messager Artist” juxtaposes these materials to codify her identity in relation to images of women. This separation, a literal critique of the separation between art and life and the delineation of social hierarchy, will become the precedent for such further guises as Annette Messager “practical woman,” “trickster” and “lover.” Messager sees these various guises as a way to protect herself against the external world, against passing time and against herself. The play of identity becomes evident in Collection to Find My Best Signature: Album Collection No. 24 (1972), a series of ten different signatures all bearing the name of the artist. This work has an effect of dispossessing the self by refusing the adoption of any one identity. It also addresses the difficulty to maintain a coherent identity and an integrated sense of self under the pressures of social normalcy and morality.

This sense of vulnerability is also clearly expressed in those works which emphasize the technique of fragmentation. Borrowing from photomontage, Messager literally represents the body in pieces, constructing a site for the investigation of power relations, including sexism, sexual oppression and physical violence. In other words, psychological, social and political assaults which prevent individuals from forming a whole and complete identity. Using this approach in My Vows (1988), Messager constructs a non-hierarchical circular arrangement of photographs of body parts. Her disruptive, yet formal approach of juxtaposing photographs in a concentric circle stages a confrontation between notions of heterogeneity and those of order. The spatial arrangements achieved here are ones which create spatial and perceptual discontinuities and convey a loss of unity, a lack of focus and a centre. In My Works (1987), a desire to rationalize and order the fragmented body becomes evident as well. Scattered photographs of body parts are mounted onto a wall and connected by strings and paragraphs of words, thus creating a diagram making viewers aware of their distance from the object. This critical distance explores the constructed nature of human relationships.

Voyeurism also pervades these works. Using photography as a critical tool, Messager produces a symbiosis between the technique and the message. She points out that “when you look through the lens [of a camera] you are peeping through a keyhole . . . photography implies a voyeuristic and in a way a sadistic relation with the subject.” By virtue of their small scale, the photographic images in My Vows and My Warks invite our gaze, invite us to explore within. We are encouraged to look closely, making us aware of our own voyeurism.

The point of view within which the photograph is taken is also very important. Suggesting the appropriation of the other through the photographic process, “Prise de vue” is a term loaded with power-related connotations. As a result of a specific prise de vue there ensues an objectification process of the subject portrayed, which leads to its dissolution. Voyeurism and its consequences on the objectification of the female body is very much present in Messager’s art as early as 1972. In Voluntary Tortures, Messager groups and collects illustrations of women submitting to beauty treatments ranging from facial peels to mud baths to more painful plastic surgeries. Here the artist comments on the subjugation of the self to socially defined standards of beauty and on the restrictions imposed on the female gender role in the eyes of socially pre-defined structures.

Messager uses photography to re-frame and re-present the subject in new contexts. To counter the seriality of photography’s mechanistic processes, Messager often paints and draws over the images. My Trophies (1984), which presents photographs of the underside of two feet, are drawn with a decorative technique resembling that of tattoo art or what has been referred to as medieval manuscript illumination. Again, through plays of scale and fragmentation, the body is abstracted and estranged from the rules of conformity and normalcy.

Taxidermic impulses are omnipresent in Messager’s work. Using mostly small animals such as birds and squirrels which are assembled into playful processions, the artist conveys the fragility of being and the importance of maintaining one’s full identity. Taxidermy, as a critical technique, is closely related to photography. Messager points out that both freeze motion and extend presence: “For me, taxidermy and photography are the same thing. Taxidermy takes an animal and freezes it, dead, yet alive forever. Photography also freezes, 1/60 of a second forever.” While the reproducibility inherent in photography tends to dispel the auratic traces left upon art, taxidermy may be said to retrieve and preserve this aura. One may understand Messager’s use of taxidermy as a challenge to art based in reproduction, which destroys the sense of uniqueness, approachability, authenticity and rootedness in life.

One of the more recent installations, Penetration (1993-4), presents a room filled with anatomical organs of various colours and scales, made of hand-sewn fabric recalling stuffed toys, hanging by strings of delicate yarn. A sense of authenticity pervades this work by virtue of the fact that the objects are crafted by hand, and not precisely reproducible. While these handmade objects are abstract and diagrammatic, thus maintaining a perceptual distance with the subject, the aura of the work is regained by collapsing the gap which separates us from the unique. Viewers are subjected to a state of complete absorption and empathy, precisely because they are now situated within the body, and not just outside of it. There is a taxonomic process of rationalization exposed in Penetration which involves seeing what can normally not be seen. By cutting into the space of the body, Messager penetrates it and starts re-ordering it, re-organizing it.

Messager refuses representations of humanity based on a notion of a universal subject in a totalizing history. Her art is situated within a field of discursive investigations which explore subject/object relations. While most of the techniques used by the artist are inherited poststructuralist strategies, such as fragmentation, perceptual estrangement, discontinuity and structural differentiation of the subject, her discourse is one which is very much in tune with the de-centralized body of the late twentieth century.

Late imperial culture

Late Imperial Culture puts stress on the term “late” to pose questions of the time and space of the culture of European imperialism. To the extent that it attempts to bring periodization to the imperial imaginary and to determine the processes at work in colonialist discourse, the project of this book is ambitious. Ranging from theatre to body art, fiction to film, its essays define culture widely as political theory and discursivity both. Except for the final chapter, the essays are consistently thoughtful and erudite.

The sense of a unified but not cohesive or deterministic voice in this collection is provided by the writers’ joint commitment to radically alter the empire’s legacy and the oppression it vests upon its subjects. From this commitment, Aijaz Ahmad speaks eloquently to metropolitan criticism, Karen Caplan expresses reservations about travel discourse and literary sisterhood, and, still playing with the fact/fiction slide (in relation to sexual ethnology), David Glover analyzes Bram Stoker and Irish national identity. Roman de la Campa contributes a provocative reading of revolution through the modalities afforded by, among others, Argentina-born Jorge Luis Borges.

In what pertains to the given-to-be-seen, Steven Cagan’s essay on activist photography cautions that even if somewhat antithetical to postmodernism’s non-referential discursivity, all practice is subject to political contextualization. The debate and subsequent critiques are taken up in Ella Shohat’s deliberations on representation, appropriation and cinematic spectatorship. Together, these essays afford a necessary aesthetic, political and theoretical space from which to begin to undo and reformulate the intertwining of intention, identification and (dis)affiliation that mobilizes the imperial. S. D.

Michel Saulnier Art Show

Les recentes series d’oeuvres de Michel Saulnier, intitulees Vita Sexualis, offrent une etonnante hybridite d’esprits, d’espaces et de techniques. Entre le japonisme et la <<quebecitude>> (l’atelier de sculpture de Saint-Jean-Port-Joli), les oeuvres brisent l’habitude des enchainements logiques pour faire place a de surprenantes series de decompositions tenant a la fois du jeu et du reve et provoquant chez certains, un choc, chez d’autres, un sourire.

L’accrochage de mini-sculptures, espece de bibelots places au mur de la galerie, aligne cote a cote des structures verticales qui divisent des series d’objets par une tablette de verre-miroir. Au haut de cet axe de verre, on retrouve des tetes d’animaux, seules ou disposees en petit groupe, celle de l’ourson et celle du lapin, des jouets de l’enfance. Au bas, des parties du corps humain dont la langue, le sein, la fesse, le penis, la vulve, comme suspendues, coupees du reste du corps, sont associees aux figures animales disposees au-dessus des tablettes. En s’approchant de ces dispositifs visuels, le spectateur constate qu’il ne peut voir les tetes d’animaux que sous leur forme spectrale presque totalement effacees par le reflet de la vitre-miroir. L’axe de la tablette fait miroiter l’image des parties sexualisees. Devant ces deux oeuvres placees au mur, la position du voyeur se voit, en quelque sorte, a la fois renforcee et questionnee dans sa fonction critique, ce dernier devant respecter une exacte distance devant l’oeuvre de sorte que l’objet, ici, domine le sujet. Les systemes mis en oeuvre par Saulnier obligent le spectateur a se deplacer s’il veut tout voir. La vitre, comme axe, agit en guise de rupture entre les objets et les fait deraper de leur fondement de sens habituel. Les jouets, lies aux parties erogenes, fonctionnent sur les modes associatif et emotif. La decomposition de l’enchainement classique des choses place irremediablement le spectateur en etat d’alerte devant des sequences d’images illogiques. Les oreilles du lapin, par exemple, sculptees dans le bois de camphre (qui degage une odeur aimee de l’enfance), prennent une allure extremement flexible et manipulable. Saulnier leur donne la forme d’une lettre japonaise signifiant Centre de la foret. Ce signe japonais, juxtapose aux parties genitales masculines en detumescence, scinde le sens de l’oeuvre: d’une part, il prend l’equivalence du sens habituellement donne au Phallus dans la psychanalyse traditionnelle. Les parties genitales masculines, en tandem avec la tete de lapin, s’accordent avec ce <<Centre>> pour ne plus faire qu’un; d’autre part, ces objets places en duo deviennent une brillante critique de cette falsification voulant que le Phallus represente le metacentre de l’univers, ou encore, le constat du decentrement des sexualites en train de s’operer. Aussi, chaque tablette-oeuvre est a prendre comme une sorte de conte.

La tete de l’ourson, presque toujours associee au sexe feminin dans les dernieres oeuvres de Saulnier, se trouve parfois couplee avec la vulve ou le sein. Dans Vita Sexualis, sculpture en deux parties, elle metaphorise l’espace uterin. Le spectateur, ne voyant pas immediatement l’ouverture de la tete, n’en ressent l’effet de surprise qu’en la contournant. Le choc provoque par le contraste entre la rondeur laquee de l’exterieur de la tete et la rectitude rudement equarrie de son interieur s’apparente a la dissolution d’un masque sur un visage. L’interieur de la tete, d’abord preservee du regard, offre au spectateur une suite de cadres de bois formant a la fois l’armature de la forme spherique composant la tete d’ourson et l’armature architecturale des habitats de l’Amerique du Nord. Couplee a un immense nez de cuivre phalloforme, la tete trouve ici le corps de l’entite fracturee. Comme pour quelques-unes de ses oeuvres precedentes (par exemple Marine de 1986), Saulnier pratique, ici, la condensation d’images formant l’association <<tetemaison>> ou <<etre-lieu>>. Les deux parties relevees a la verticale, mises l’une sur l’autre, fonctionneraient comme un bilboquet. Le nez dans sa forme phallique et la tete d’ourson, dont l’ouverture rappellant l’espace <<uterin>> devient habitable, permettent l’emboitement de l’un a l’interieur de l’autre en toute complementarite.

Les bois magnifiquement lustres au vernis Urushi, laque provenant de l’arbre chinois du meme nom, releve des nombreux emprunts de l’art japonais au peuple chinois. Sur papier, le resultat de cette sorte de vernis demeure unique et peut se situer visuellement entre la transparence de l’aquarelle et l’opacite de l’huile. En effet, cette matiere glisse et adhere au papier mais jamais de maniere parfaitement egale, de sorte qu’en se solidifiant, la laque prend l’aspect formel d’une coagulation. Deux tableaux representent des zones erogenes des corps masculin et feminin, l’un compose des parties genitales males et l’autre portant l’effigie du sein maternel. Des tetes d’ourson entourent les parties sexuelles masculines demontrant, par leur voisinage, comment elles demeurent toujours a l’exterieur de l’homme comme il en va de la gestation. Tandis que le meme embleme, dans l’autre dessin, en superposition avec le sein, y apparait en parfaite osmose.

Les qualites de l’estampe japonaise, le fond blanc, la perspective desorientee, l’usage absolu de la dissymetrie, la rupture de l’equilibre et de la ponderation des masses, la forme tronquee par le cadre, sont devenues des tactiques reprises par les artistes modernes cherchant a fonder l’aspect visuel d’une certaine instabilite. Certains de ces attributs se retrouvent dans l’oeuvre de Saulnier mais laissent dominer les points de vue inattendus qui ordonnent les oeuvres et qui gerent leur sens critique. En effet, bien que naives au premier abord, ces combinaisons des parties du corps humain, tant de fois vues, avec celles des animaux, jouets banals de tous les enfants, prennent, dans la conscience alertee du spectateur, un sens critique revolutionnant les formules toutes faites en matiere de sexualite. En employant certaines manoeuvres du japonisme, Vita Sexualis redonne a l’objet toute son importance face au sujet. Purifie de son contexte habituel, il passe d’un statut familier a celui d’etranger. Le dispositif des oeuvres se trouve a prescrire au spectateur un indice de leur condition sans en obliger leur signifie. Aussi, le desequilibre existant entre les formes superposees s’amortit encore dans la naissance de nouvelles strategies, celles de tout un chacun, questionnant la vie sexuelle en cette periode regeneratrice d’instabilite.