Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Meaning and the Body
Below: Another email, (inevitably improved in the act of posting) which caused me to clarify ideas that had been much more diaphanous.
Glad to hear you got so much out of your Japan trip! Yes, nothing like traveling on your own to broaden the mind. Cliche, but again, something that has enormity when experienced yourself, especially when quite young. When (and I didn't mean to lead up to this) experienced in/by/through the body. :-)
I'm always intrigued by questions about the point or meaning of an art work, as they are markers, not only about what the questioner believes is are valid points for art to make, but sometimes also about his attitude towards play, and the limits of his imagination. It's a class of question that is there all the time. People who are used to seeing nudes, landscapes and icons ask it when seeing say, cubist portraits, color fields and conceptual art. Ringo dismisses abstract video as eye-candy, social realists don't get the point of art about language. In my case I remember it was a revelation for me the first time I saw Gerry Tan's figurative painting of a bunch of things, (it's in Daisy Langenegger's living room, gotta take you to her place some time) --plates, tape measures, doughnuts, etc and was told by him that it was a painting of "round things." I mean, it was sesame-street obvious as soon as he said it, but it shocked me because I realized that I had been unable to see this because I was looking for some other meaning. I was studying linguistic philosophy at the time and so was very prepared to appreciate art about language and classes when I realized that's what it was (or could be) about, but at the same time had been unaware of the possibility that art could treat of it.
It may in fact be the commonest question asked in the face of an art object. Now that I think of it, I realize that most discourses treat the question as a mistake, caused by "a lack of education" or "unfamiliarity with the discourse" or something like that. The question is treated as a local anomaly, and not as a class of inquiry. When I think of the times I've seen this question asked and been asked this question myself (which, as an experimental filmmaker and builder of art machines, I got asked a LOT when I first started in the late 80's) I realize that that when people asked this question, the most difficult encounters were those when it emerged that it was necessary for them to first become convinced that the point I was making was a point worth making/thinking about/ is funny/fun or that the issue I was addressing was in fact an issue. To illuminate this, imagine having to explain the sentence "This image deconstructs gender" to someone who has no idea of what deconstruction is and/or who is unaware of/does not agree with the idea that gender is essentially performative. On the other hand, sometimes the difficulty is the mirror image of the previous case: the questioner must be convinced that not all art has to do or be about what he thinks it should do or be about. Or, in a more extreme case, that what he thinks art should be about is a specific issue that the artist is attacking or abandoning and that there is some justification to this attack/abandonment. That the questioner, as Wittgenstein put it, needs to unask his question.
So the answer to that question is a specific and tactical one, depending on what positions the questioner and the artist/work occupy vis-a-vis art, what art can/should talk about..
As an example of the mechanic/flow/structure of a tactical negotiation, it is the case that I often run into people from what we call developed countries who think (usually unconsciously) that it is the specific mandate of Southeast Asian art to deal with social issues. They like protest art and feel confused when a Southeast Asian artist deals with technological or abstract issues like virtuality or generativity instead of using tools like sound and video to make social/political comments. However, this type of questioner is usually prepared to accept my answer when I assert that in this work blablabla, I have deliberately decided to abandon political/social issues as I feel that a SEAn has as much right to talk about technology as a European/Japanese artist, blablabla and so on. The answer makes a bridge to a familiar position in their minds. It removes a preconceived notion that had been preventing them from accepting the idea that the artwork was commenting/can comment on virtuality or whatever.
Now, Passage is kind of a departure and also a return in that in a way it's a return to non-ironic fictive/narrative film, (even if everted) which has -- for the last half century maybe? -- been positioned as a dominant discourse, to be combated by "real" art. I have the feeling that things are going to get worse/complicated for me (again), now that I find myself compelled to talk about and consider a work's psychosomatic effects. It takes me into places/ideas which people might not easily accept or understand, to which it might be hard to build such tactical bridges.
The reality is, I do what I am compelled to do, or find amusing/interesting, and often find patterns in retrospect. I suspect that some people might find this hard to believe because I'm so articulate once I get going, but the simple truth is that I'm just good at building linguistic houses structures for/around inarticulate suspicions. Also, sometimes the houses change. My own retrospective ideas of what these patterns are change. This aspect could easily be painted as a kind of cynical story-mongering, a creation of justifications to make my work seem more important. Now that I think of it, it is fair to describe it as story-mongering, but I can in all conscience assert that it isn't cynical. In fact, it might be more accurate to call the act hypothesis-mongering.
Well, one possible story/hypothesis you can tell people is that Passage is part of a large, multifaceted attack/commentary on the limits of film -- essentially the story I told in my talk when I introduced my other works. However, aside from the "Film Rebel" idea, one of my pet hypotheses right now is that what I think can be called "traditional gallery art" acts as if it literally believes that works are only significant insofar as they illustrate theory. Or, to put it in my terms, it appears that art discourse is only comfortable with works that speak in words or speak to the mind. It won't be an easy thing to tell people that I want to speak to the body, or that I think the body can hear. That I literally subscribe to Brian Eno's assertion that "the body is the large brain." They are much more prepared for discourses using pollysyllabics like virtuality or deconstruction or simulacra. I suppose I could soothe them by using words like "somatic cognition" or "extraverbal cognition" but that would be going even deeper into exactly the territory I want to get out of. I talk too much and too well, that's my problem. I should have the courage of Zen and just spout non-sequiturs until people get it, but I'm too impatient.
Fuck it. People WILL insist/persist in recasting/translating that sentence about "talking to the body" into the language of manipulation. "You are manipulating people's reactions." Do you manipulate a person when you raise your voice? Sometimes that is in fact the case. But sometimes it is more accurate to say you got angry. And so for example, I wasn't manipulating people by putting slamming doors in the soundtrack. I came up with the conviction that I should project a door on the wall coming out of sleep at something like 2 in the morning. I had no idea what the image/sound meant. I put it on the wall because it seemed right to put it there, and then later made observations and hypotheses about psychosomatic effects, childhood, and the relationship of hearing to the survival instinct.
Now, after a long journey round, I return to your interpellator's question: what is the point of a work about passages? My answer to him would take the form of a series of questions, as I do not believe the audience has a monopoly on questions, still less that all answers take the form of declarative sentences. And so I would ask: Does nothing occur to you in the experience of such a journey? Does it feel completely devoid of connection to anything in the world or perhaps, in your own life? Do your bones feel no response to a garden behind a locked gate? You don't feel referred to, spoken to? Then perhaps what the work is saying is: "you must change your life."
Or at least, perhaps some of your ideas about art.
PS will definitely link to your blog