Working the White Cube
by Colin Richards
"Something there badly not wrong" - Samuel Beckett Worstward Ho.
Conceptual art tends to make ironists of us all. A certain knowingness, winking at the work, ourselves; what gets between us, the work, and the world infiltrates our aesthetic experiences. The tone of appreciation - or is it understanding? - in this mode is cool, cosmopolitan, diffident. There is little of that earnest, energetic wrestling with demonic creativity, breaking expressive sweats in the messy, manic and mad doggedness of our more muscular aesthetic desires. But conceptualism is also not entirely free of all this. It has its own romances, gravitas and sense of the game. Its pleasures are indirect.
This review is about how I know this particular performance of 'conceptual' art; that is, through the catalogue. A bad sign for those who like their art less adulterated, or more adulterated with 'expressive' 'traditional' art forms. For these art people, to mistake the cover for the book, to mistake the art for the comment, amounts to an aesthetic atrocity. They really should get out more. At any rate, here, the catalogue, cover, contents, pictures, performances, press, actors, documents, designs, reports and rumours all fall within the frame of 'the work'.
Immediately striking, this little book is literally a flat, white cube. And, as we might recall, the white cube of the ideal modernist gallery was the haunt of visual art's affair with medium purity and 'flatness', the affair which incubated conceptualism all those years ago. So, in a way this book describes a tight circle. It is worth pausing to remember a conservative Tom Wolff practising his faux philistinism in satirising conceptualism in the The Painted Word (my Bantam copy is dated June 16 1976!);
And there, at last, it was! No more realism, no more representational objects, no more lines, colour, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes, no more evocations, no more frames, walls, galleries, museums, no more gnawing at the tortured face of the god Flatness, no more audience required, just a 'receiver'... just 'artist', and in that moment of absolutely dispassionate abdication, of insouciant withering away. Art made it final flight, climbed higher and higher in and ever decreasing tighter-turning spiral until, with one last erg of freedom... it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture... and came out the other side as Art Theory! (pp.108-109).
Nothing is given in art, and to expect more these days is to date disappointment. In situations like these, the work becomes what a viewer will notice, and what we as viewers will make of what we notice. This is an elastic, fluid field, and all of us are drawn into the devils dance of choreographed indirection that conceptualism stages.
The outside of this catalogue-cube is not sheer. Secreted on the front surface is a glossy name "Bruce Gordon", mirrored on the back by "Scan Shop", patron printers of the project. The title page lists the dramatis personae in CAPITALS; BRUCE GORDON AN ART WORK BY ED YOUNG ANDREW LAMPRECHT CAPE TOWN SOUTH AFRICAN NATIONAL GALLERY 2003. The dedication page memorialises a cute canine called Roger in a roundel. Reproductions - surprisingly sensuous - of news posters and cuttings follow. In these the artwork becomes a 'BAR OWNER', a 'Conceptual Husband', 'n Kaapse Kroegbaas [a Cape Barkeeper]... In the second to last cutting we see the artist and artwork pictured together; one unamused, one bemused. The final image is artist and artwork lounging with other artworks. The buyer, one Suzie Bell, is mentioned but not seen, while the white-gloved Teboho Edkins - the auctioneer functionary - is also pictured. The money is also mentioned.
After the essay-text (of which more soon) the book closes with FIFTY YEARS, an autographic text associated with artwork ('BRUCE GORDON') written on the visually exquisite pages of an Ordre Remis in some disorder; p.12, p.9, p.10, p.11. PLATES of 'BRUCE GORDON' follow; the first is blank, then we come upon the artwork in pensive pose, puffing on a cigarette, sans cigarette, drinking, not drinking, on auction, a shot of the dealer, two low intensity interactions in front of blue-lit Lolas, artwork with a red bakkie looking upright, next artwork flashing light and artist squinting, the artwork making the business call, the social call, artwork concealed in a blank page (quoting the first plate), artwork revealed in Italian leather, and, almost finally, a cartoon coupling artwork and art Madame. Then, acknowledgments owned to. All these make up this conceptual gesture, this material spectacle of social and aesthetic deliberation.
What more can we make of this overdetermined spectacle designed by Ed Young (never mind why)? One direct, 'internal' response is offered by the text by Andrew Lamprecht. Setting aside the reproduced newspaper cuttings in the catalogue, the text presents in roughly three interweaving registers. First are the quotes. One, by one Cennino Cennini (Italian leather?), dated 1437, announces the text; with cautionary tales of moderation and the exhaustion occasioned by consorting with women. Then there is the voice of the author. This voice is orthodox, instructive, citing, arguing, quoting. And finally, there is the voice of the artwork; a laconic, confessional, narrative, anecdotal auto-history. These words too are quoted, this time from a birthday speech.
The middle voice - depending on how one does the ordering - is that of Andrew Lamprecht. Lamprecht is given spine by a formidable armature of authority; quotes Jean Baudrillard, Gilles Deluez, Theo Adorno (it requires a generous, even indiscriminate world where the third would even be seen dead with the other two). This voice establishes a quick archaeology and a genealogy. We find mention of "precedents� going back to classical times", with Plotinus and Ernst Gombrich providing art historical collateral. On the side of art, are references to Kostabi and Koons, Rubens and Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Jacques-Louis David, Marcel Duchamp. There is also a report - some sort of last word - from Iziko. A generous, but masculine world. Perhaps Cennini's caution is serious.
These artistic luminaries introduce the aesthetic lynchpin 'Bruce Gordon', "bon vivant, raconteur, and general good chap", once "Mosquito Weight boxing champion of Matebeleland" (shades of Joseph Beuys, Lynda Benglis, Nelson Mandela?), "Chicken fucker" (masculinity again) to "Cape Town's art world". The artwork has clearly been around, is textually politically credentialed, relaxed, social, and has "deep concern for the oppressed, especially women" (Cennini notwithstanding).
What is awkward, is the rather toxic atmosphere of socialite dandyism and artiness around the project. This feels like a clique. And, in a way, this is as it should be, as conceptualism is no more immune than any artistic orthodoxy of recent vintage to a certain disciplined clubbiness. As a performance of this particular kind of cool sociality, this aspect of the work touches on something critical.
But that potential for critique is unevenly sustained in the text and indeed the project. When the author tells us that "Ed Young's Bruce Gordon... has nothing to do with Bruce Gordon's narrative", alongside narratives which take a good deal of space, there are stresses at work. The critical and artistic challenge is to create some vital and dynamic common cause between the peculiarities of a "found-object" as itself, as "the idea of Bruce Gordon", as a 'real' thing, as 'art', within the frame of this extended performance. The kind of common purpose I have in mind would be mindful of the principled disposal of 'declared intentions' expressed early on in the text. It is on the playing out of these entanglements and their infiltration into the wider public world that the promise and power of this work rests.
In a way the discourse of newness, of transgression, questioning, challenging, irreverence, significance are pretty standard for all contemporary art of ambition. It is in precise and unstable the articulation of these conventions, in the invocation of histories - cultural, artistic, institutional - in the citing of key agents in the canon-formation, that the real and very traditional treasure of cultural capital rests. All this in the text operates in a conventional direction, but there are also some unexpected turns. One, touched on by Lamprecht, is a rather sophisticated piece of special pleading for a 'pure' concept, for 'truth', and routing these to - in this context surprising - to an idea of beauty.
This turn to abstraction and beauty clashes harshly with the elaborate set of social and historical symptoms embodied in the performance of this work. Being sold at auction might not be so liberating for a Cape Slave, to state the obvious. Being tattooed with a number invokes an atrocious history within living memory. These darken the spectacle in uncomfortable ways, not least in questioning the bad faith of liberal voluntarism. This clash is also reflected in the counter narratives of social persona as against the phenomenal integrity of a 'found object', or between the intimate personal anecdote, mixed with a dose of local celebrity to end being a social cipher of sorts.
It is also specifically acknowledged in the odd conjunction of the 'sitter' and the 'subject', introduced by Lamprecht. Again, this reference to conventions of portraiture seems a peculiarly precise digression, even if abandoned quite soon. But I want to consider Lamprecht's critical move, of which this digression is part, a little more before ending. This review is already well over its word-limit, and we may as well die for a sheep as for a lamb. The sheep is interesting, even if chickens enjoy a sexier reputation in this world.
Lamprecht's willingness to speak of the "ultimate significance", the "true nature" of the work, all other claims notwithstanding, suggests the direction he would want this instance of conceptualism to move. These statements are symptomatic of a desire for some sort of transcendental 'holism' in the realm of a metaphysical harmony, this last referred to under the rubric 'symmetry'. This desire requires a drastic division of the physical instance from the abstractly 'beautiful', restaging in broad terms a very ancient Platonic discourse, where illusion is delusion, appearance betrays essence, mimesis tricks the true, where material is a crime against form.
Here Lamprecht's ventriloquist is Plotinus, whose history with neo-platonic thought is complex and in some ways antagonistic. But what is surprising here perhaps is that this is one of those relatively rare instances in conceptualism (often so historico-materialistic and 'situationist' in almost every sense) where the mode unabashedly speaks about a beauty beyond history, about spirit. In the early 21st century this is a bloody and fiery road to look back on, and the effort takes some courage.
Looking far back we might recall Plato banished the artists from his Republic, and he was no democrat, civil or otherwise. Yet the words of Joshua Reynolds which close Lamprecht's text pose a challenge to this esoteric. The intelligibility he seeks requires clearing clouds and mists, a resistance to the false magnitude with which the metaphysical attitude covers the object world, and effort to "see things as they really are".
And where all this leaves us is presumably what this work means, and wherein its beauty lies. The aesthetic import bracketed by all these thoughts, these quotes, these ideas, people, institutions... the artworld, is what we presumably need to see and heed. This is a lot for a middle-aged white man to carry, even equipped with the prophylactic of owning a bar called Jo'burg in Cape Town and buttressed by the memories of chickens. But I guess that is what comes from ambition.
Bruce Gordon: An Art work by Ed Young by Andrew Lamprecht. Published by the South African National Gallery Iziko Museums of Cape Town.
Colin Richards is an art critic, curator, academic and practicing artist based in Johannesburg.