Unpacking the conceptual underpinnings of Edward Young's 'Asshole'
Edward Young's 'Asshole' exhibition, which took place on a single night at the Bell-Roberts Gallery recently, has been the subject of much excitement, both in the media and on the streets of Cape Town. The show drew a crowd of nearly 800 people, who upon entering could partake of Kentucky Fried Chicken, drink a Heineken, or watch strippers in tiny denim shorts gyrate in front of a music video played simultaneously on three screens. My intention here is not to explain the exhibition's popularity, but to briefly examine some of its conceptual underpinnings.
Criticizing the concept as unoriginal and citing artists who organized similar events in the 1960s does not suffice. In Postproduction (2001), French theorist Nicholas Bourriaud develops a compelling counter-argument around the thesis that "imitation is subversive" in a world saturated with images and objects. And, the amount of attention 'Asshole' received provides evidence of Young's subversive power. However, we will return to the question of what exactly Young attempted to subvert.
Bourriaud explains that the 'postproduction' phenomenon is partly a response to the increased supply of works produced. Materials are no longer "primary," recycling abounds. Young's work operates firmly within this paradigm. However, arguments supporting this paradigm are not new. Producing autonomous works has long been conceptually impossible. In his essay 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' (1920), T.S. Eliot proposed that each new work slightly alters the shape of the whole, that is, the fluid whole that existed before the new work was produced. He anticipates his postmodernist critics: "[The Artist] must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same."
The introduction of the internet or video editing equipment is simply a change of material. So, when Young appropriates a music video by popular hip-hop duo Outkast, or the concepts of a Minimalist, it does not signal a shift in production, but in the materials of production. The significance of this distinction is that a material shift makes appropriation easier. The danger then, is that sloppiness becomes acceptable, laziness celebrated. If the celebration of laziness is to become an artistic project, then someone needs to justify its significance beyond the scope of Bourriaud's circular arguments about challenging the notion of work and blurring the boundary between production and consumption. These arguments are circular because they ignore the very real socio-economic context in which this production and consumption occurs.
Young, like the American school (Pop) of postproduction artists, focuses on consumption, on re-appropriating iconographic material, objects of desire: a popular hip-hop music video, KFC, Heineken beer, silicon breasts. Here, production requires a clever idea, long-hours of fund-raising and administrative work, and good advertising; consumption requires people at the exhibition, drinking the beer, eating the chicken, watching. Young, of course, consumed these things before he re-appropriated them, but that does not mean that, "the artist consumes the world in place of the viewer," Bourriaud proposes. The blurring-boundaries argument obscures economic reality. There are important differences between Young appropriating Outkast on three plasma screens in a commercial gallery and a graffiti artist appropriating it on the side of the building.
Both, however, reveal that an exhibition, a gallery, is a construct. Yes, okay. Money is a construct too, but nonetheless real. Challenging the notion of a gallery does not carry much political weight, and it certainly does not challenge the structures of Western capitalism in any real way (save the angsty liberal reality). Young, I suspect, does not care about political weight, but because his exhibition raises the issue, we can simply say that this liberal reality is sometimes dangerous. Dangerous, because its arguments obfuscate supply and demand, for example. Real time happenings that cannot be commodified or sold, retain their status as "art" only so long as they retain discursive support. Wherever discursive support exists, we can expect, eventually, to find "art." For now, we can say that the conditions of both economic and discursive support are crucial to any discussion of emerging contemporary artists in South Africa, Young in particular.
Perhaps Young's 'Asshole' aims to critique the angsty liberal reality. After all, the audience in attendance did not encompass many of Cape Town's conservatives. With the lefty community in his clutches, Young played a readymade music video and hired readymade strippers to serve readymade Heineken to readymade exhibition goers who ate readymade KFC. This equation created a jubilant atmosphere, an affirmation, not a criticism of consumption and consumerism. "We are all consumers now!" Young might cackle. A re-appropriation of Barbara Kruger's "I buy, therefore I am." Perhaps even a nod to Wittgenstein's famous thesis: "the meaning is the use."
Okay. The meaning is the use, and meaning, Bourriaud and Eliot tell us, depends upon a chain of signifiers that stretch back to Socrates and further. We've established a few of the images, objects and concepts that Young appropriated. What then, did 'Asshole', mean, what did it subvert, what was its use? Suppose, for a moment, that it had a less political agenda than subverting the convictions of lefty audience members.
In addition to consuming images, music, beer and ostensible chicken, exhibition goers chatted to each other, danced with each other, consumed each other. Bourriaud describes this as "relational aesthetics," which are present when inter-human exchanges become "aesthetic objects in and of themselves." This art, according to Bourriaud, "give[s] shape and weight to the most invisible processes." This, of course, is an exciting idea, but I cannot imagine what that shape might be, and I did not feel the weight of the aesthetic object 'Asshole'.
How was 'Asshole' framed? How was it given weight? Some guesses might include: the green and red colour scheme (opposite ends of the spectrum) speaks to the visceral nature of sustenance and sex, the central objects of consumption; the juxtaposition of real time silicon and digitalized silicon alludes to paradoxes of the male libido, or constructions of the female 'other'; re-appropriating chicken signifies an exploration of the parallels between black American culture and Afrikaans culture, such as problems surrounding hyper-masculinity, or celebratory barbecue rituals.
Heineken, more than KFC, gave shape to 'Asshole's' "inter-human exchanges." But neither seems to give weight to the aesthetic object. The combination of Heineken and Outkast's music provoked dancing. But what made that dancing, those exchanges, different from the birthday party that followed the exhibition? In my mind, very little.
The arrangements, the appropriation, the discernable intentions, correspond to Bourriaud's theories, but the shape of the aesthetic object (in and of itself) remains unsculpted. The "concrete image of commercial exchange" remains undifferentiated. Perhaps, I am unable to differentiate because of my aforementioned bias toward the school of blurring boundaries. One could differentiate by using the logic of cause and effect, justifying how exactly the shape and weight of the aesthetic object was derived from the "invisible processes," the situation, the consumption of readymade objects. If the process cannot be explained in terms of cause and effect, then we will need to seek out an acceptable model. But perhaps the root of this conflict is deeper.
Here, Bourriaud's discussion of John Armleder is particularly illuminating. Armleder explains: "my final choice makes fun of the somewhat rigid systems that I use to start with... my work undermines itself: all the theoretical reasons end up being negated or mocked by the execution of the work". So, perhaps 'Asshole' was just a multi-layered negation, a big, "fuck off, asshole!" to the critics who made the mistake of trying to interpret it. If this is the case, then I should take my cue and stop here. However, there is something important to mention about modernist projects that seek to negate systems of meaning.
In Styles of Radical Will (2002), Susan Sontag develops an argument about "the aesthetics of silence," that provides a useful interpretive lens with which to approach 'Asshole', parts of which relate to postproduction. 'Asshole's' radical critiques of consciousness emerge from an overcrowded landscape and aim to destroy continuity, aim to level "the hierarchies of interest and meaning," as Sontag puts it.
More specifically, Sontag explains that the artist's pursuit of "silence" is provoked by a "perennial discontent with language," where "thought reaches a certain high, excruciating order of complexity and spiritual seriousness." Words become "crude and dysfunctional." According to Sontag, this compels the artists to attempt to demote language to the status of an event; to administer "silence" as a form of cultural shock therapy. This raises several questions (beyond the scope of this review) about Young's relationship to the communities within which he operates, and these communities' response (and lack of response) to the art event that seeks to administer shock therapy.
Sontag makes a useful distinction: "Traditional art invites a look. Art that is silent engenders a stare." Her point is that silence makes an artist opaque, powerful. Here, silence is a "species of sadism (as in Bergman's Persona), a virtually inviolable position of strength from which (the artist) manipulates and confounds (his audience), who is charged with the burden of talking."
Where contemporary artists work towards recasting humanism in post-apartheid South Africa, Young works to affirm a separateness from human concerns. Where lefties seek to advance their agenda, Young emphasizes indifference. I heard one response to 'Asshole' that was especially illuminating: "In a world filled with so much ugliness, why would I want to subscribe to art full of such anti-aesthetic, anti-humanitarian sentiment?"
Perhaps it is not about aesthetics ("relational" or otherwise), perhaps it is not about humanitarianism, not about Wittgenstein or Outkast, nor Bourriaud or silicon (digital or otherwise), not even about subversion or the negation of meaning. Perhaps 'Asshole' simply means to say, "fuck off, asshole." As the possibility of critical engagement hangs in the balance, Young sits at the bar, unvanquished, formulating the next, undoubtedly entertaining, undoubtedly confounding, postproduction for our consumption.
Zachary Yorke is a visiting research scholar from the USA, currently researching contemporary artistic production in South Africa.