'Esse Quam Videri'
In February 2007 Conal McStravick is researching the Scottish architect William Henry Playfair in Edinburgh University Library, when he happens upon an image of a drawing that features a motto derived from the Roman orator Cicero's Treatise on Friendship; 'esse quam videri,' translating as 'to be, rather than to seem.' That summer he visits the building where the drawing was realised, Brownlow House in his home town of Lurgan, Northern Ireland. The motto is found as a motif housed within an archway.
Cicero's letters on Friendship describes a foundation for a conception of being as that it is possible to intuit wisdom and virtue from experience of what we are- from the 'natural,' as a source for reasoning and acting, and that from this we can attain a kind of self-autonomy. It states that by recognising and attending to this in others we achieve the highest form of friendship and a self-perpetuating but fragile sociality. Machiavelli inverts the motto as a practice for political expediency -'to seem to be.'
The motto is used as a construct for temporarily grouping five artists' practices based in Glasgow and presenting them in an exhibition at Fabio Tiboni Gallery, Bologna. The phrase is re-presented at a point geographically closer to its origin.
The artists put out an invitation card with a photocopied drawing of the architectural feature that housed the motto. It is a sort of pastel pink that seems vaguely Tuscan. The lines of the depicted architectural moulding do not run parallel to the edge of the card but rather are slightly skewed, giving the impression of a space existing beyond the cards frame. Running down the centre of the card is a dark shadow that is perhaps created by the separation of pages by a books binding. This creates a rift, on the other side of which the lines of the drawing splay off completely. I fold up the invitation card covering up the photocopy trompe l'oeil. Its misshapen now, jagged edges replace neat rectangular ones, but the pictorial space makes some sense. A false whole. Only it unfolds and the shadow escapes the metaphor of its broken surface. Breaks it, becomes monstrous.
If there is a history of a phrase to deal with
There is an obvious gulf between Cicero's treatise for a practice of living based on integrity and the relativist, analytical space of contemporary art. The American artist and writer Walead Beshty succinctly describes the condition of the exhibition, the representational and productive space of contemporary art, as it has been historically formed:
'(...) in functional terms making an exhibition is to work by analogy, to work via a model. Extricated from the world of use, exhibitions operate allegorically, no matter how one defines the parameters. To confuse this is to fall through the looking glass.'
Under these conditions, the exhibition is a space of alluded to relationships with and of the world. Actuality and the literal never emerge as fully present but always as descriptive or metonymical of something partly elsewhere, once removed. If we wish to make forays into this realm, either as producers or as viewers, it seems it is on these terms and this history that we must necessarily accept or negotiate a path through.
If the story of a history of a phrase can attest to the complexity of atomisation and alienation within Western thought, then an exhibition that might address this history is still governed by the parameters set out by that history within the present. That is to say, that acts within the exhibition space take place within the condition of 'exhibitionality'- they form symbolic languages and processes of signification. This is art's paradigmatic quality. It is not enough to simply 'mean it' in this context. When dealing with the representation and manipulation of physical form, an ill considered address to 'being' rather than seeming runs the risk of naturalising a relationship between presentation of physicality with integrity and a sense of inherent or latent morality. However, it might also be possible to symbolically reconfigure relationship to terms within the present. Art's condition as a discourse is that it stages a relationship to its own historical terms. It is here that a ground for an affirmative practice might begin, not by casting aside doubt but through thorough engagement with the complexities of art's languages and what relationships they might embody, a strategising of a relationship to form.
These languages may also embody, in themselves, relations of power and separation from any conception of the natural found in antiquity. Laura Aldridge's work seems to mirror this suspicion in its approach, forming an ambiguous relationship to these languages and the allegorical and actual space of the exhibition. The possibility of sharing with a viewer a hopeful and direct communication is clung to, while simultaneously being frustrated by complexity. In this vein Plants will Grow to Please 2008 plays with the hope of literal association. Bits of once living plants are stuck into clay to form islands, small oases. Little gatherings of 'raw life.' The washiness of the paint job on the supporting shelf might symbolically define a casual longed for difference to the White Cube, but only a playful and slight differentiation. This is not an oppositional outside or transcendence, just dreaminess or fading, or a haphazard devil may care attitude to the formality of the professional (false) neutrality of the gallery space. The oases of plant life become taxidemied pets, tenderly presented to be kept close and dear.
Settings II 2008, a large terracotta pink curtain that occupies the entire height of the gallery wall, similarly, if more dramatically, performs this separation. Through a series of complications and playings out of literal and allegorical invitations we are drawn into the rhetoric of the work. By way of its grand presence, the work self-consciously pushes forward onto the viewer, whilst simultaneously literalising itself as theatrical by self-evident allusion to a theatre curtain. The implied didacticism of its size is humorously shot through by a large whole cut out of its centre, causing the material to sag. The hole complicates our perceptual register, the void made present as an actual space. The appeal to direct bodily experience of an imposing and sensuously coloured presence combined with the space of the hole generates a pull of physical participation. We might plug into it, fall through into the work.
But on the other side there is only a wall, and enough space to stand between it and the hanging material, a space also seen from its side. This liminal space between two dimensions and three dimensions is one that is heavily inscribed by the explorations and conflicts of transitions made from High Modernism into Minimalism and beyond. One line of opposition that most obviously marks out this conflict and historical point of departure is Michael Fried's negative terming of the 'theatrical' as the nature of Minimalist work. Settings II inhabits and re-iterates this art historical space and blows its language up into rhetoric- that we are drawn into.
Where as Aldridge treads this line between hopeful engagement and melancholy performance of art's boundaries, Lynn Hynd's work accepts these boundaries as symbolic limits, and instead re-arranges structural elements within them. These elements are again found within the border of two dimensional and three dimensional form. The site is re-inhabited, but here is split open from within. The line as indicator of volume mediates the perceptual organisation or division between wall as support and the volumetric space of the room. Hynd draws out this structural grammar and re-deploys its fragments, in an attempt to symbolically re-structure subjectivity.
Outline 2008 is a curving gestural linear form made out of paper pulp. Its colour is that of the paper itself but for a rusty orange that seems to have invaded its surface in certain areas. It is immediately object like rather than pictorial, yet is suggestive of referent points beyond itself. It is fragmentary, full of irresolution. These are the characteristics of the indexical mark; a curious presence of itself while intrinsically referring to something removed and past. However Outline carries a more troubling difference, it is more activated and opposed to the viewer than a simple and familiar performance of dis-embodied indexical referent.
In the field of linguistics Benveniste has referred to personal pronouns as 'shifters.' 'I', 'you' and 'we' are terms which define a relation to a subject, words that specify a particular subject speaking at a certain time. As such they are empty until filled in a moment of annunciation. Hynd's fragments might perform a similar relationship, being specifically of themselves but maintaining a relationship to an absence. If these operational fragments of inter-subjective relationships can be annunciated beyond a contingent relationship they become monstrous, unstable, extending out beyond themselves and disallowing our projection on to them.
Feeling into being 2007 sets out this practice in panorama. The folded photocopy of an image of Man Ray's photograph Kiki with African Mask 1926 co-opts the compositional space and cognitive pairings within the original and reworks them. Man Ray's oppositions of white and black (as both inherent within the mechanical process of the photograph and the juxtaposition of white face and ebony African mask), object and shadow embody the Surrealist interest in transforming the normative into the 'other.' By placing this work as the ground for her structural framework, Hynd borrows the photograph's representative associations and adheres them to her philosophical/ perceptual oppositions. In this re-working she covers the 'other' of the original cognitive pair- the African mask and its shadow- with a flat vertical wooden block that simultaneously holds the corner of the folded photocopy in shape. From behind it and encased in the flat photocopied surface is a black gestural paint mark that arcs over and surrounds the figure of the female subject (kiki). The shadow appears to have partially escaped but caught as fragment in a strange space between the surface of the photocopy, the blank face of the wooden block and the raw wooden surface of the supporting plinth. It is the indeterminacy of this gestural fragment that is arresting and seems to place the other elements of the work, drawing them in to it.
If Hynd employs a strategic process of identifying and performing fragments of the grammar of our normative perceptual arrangements, Barker treads the line of different allusive registers of form and their implications. Her works at first seem deceptively poetic in approach but reveal a similarly strategic approach. Their impression is of subtle and poetic relation to individual and specific forms. However, this implied subjective communion with form partially gives way to an invocation of a more alienating experience of something external to the subjective.
Barker's works often shift between the dual devices of the model and the plan as ciphers for the organisation of space, whilst also emphasising the actual here and now spaces created by the sculptures as present in the room in their own right. The blue woman 2008 suggests itself as both a model for, and a realisation in itself, of a temporary lean-to structure. Its simple rectangular linear form both structures a framing device for a negative space within the gallery and is also suggestive of a schematic for the base level of architecture- two walls, a ceiling and a floor, portrayed in section. The work is both a seemingly matter of fact basic structure and a referent for an abstraction of form that creates space. A double allusion is manifested by the actual negative space of the work and that space as an abstraction reminiscent of the space produced by the ordering of form within architecture.
This abstract quality of space as held and produced by its demarcation can be made to posses the inter-subjective quality of language parts mobilised in Hynd's fragments. As space becomes embodied by its delineation it opens out as oppressive, it is felt as 'other' both by its monstrous presence and by its enactment as multiply produced beyond our own individuality. To put it differently, we are all always already over-contingent with space, on the precipice. This condition is hinted at in Introduction 2008, a gentle bracket shaped form that protrudes from the wall. If we stand facing the wall it is attached to, we see its fragile form extending into the room. From the side the negative space of the room is implied, held briefly in segment and then extends out in open-ended fashion. Multitudinous space is pictured for a moment and then becomes extensive, all encompassing. This relationship between an inter-subjective and extra-subjective quality might also be found in the Nouveau Romain writing of Paul Valery. In Valery's The Evening with Monsieur Teste the alienation of possibility is manifested within the character of a man who is 'never vague,' who perceives the process and physical impulse of his every thought and emotion. Upon watching the reactions of an audience to the opera he remarks-
"One is handsome or extraordinary only to others. They are eaten by others!"
Here subjectivity takes on the form of Benveniste's 'shifters,' our qualities are not inherently are own but appear only in the act of annunication of others. The subject as whole is displaced, consumed by its interrelation with others.
This estrangement comes in and out of focus in Barker's works. There is a push and pull between the abstracted as multiple and our identification or ownership of the particular. Her fragile structures in scale and by reference are also reminiscent of remembered and intimate spaces, personal experiences of form and order that surround us. This is perhaps anthropomorphised in Hanging as a way of dressing 2008, it hangs and droops like a limp spatial plan but also evinces the poetic allusion of a melancholy figure.
Over all it is form that we return to as malleable in quality, in both the immediate apprehension of the delicately tangible nature of the works in themselves and by way of their manifesting of dualities. In this sense, the relation to literature perhaps becomes more pertinent than the more paranoic analytic spaces of enquiry like that of linguistics or similar disciplines. There is no jarring juxtaposition of oppositions, rather multiplicities are experienced as inherent to, and produced by the form of the work. Regulation of structural form within literature produces experience as it is read, as intertwined, drawn out within a whole. However here this synesthetic quality is undermined by the suggestion of the temporality of its embodiment, these forms, as implied by their unlikely materials of concrete applied to the surface of cardboard, may fail and fall.
This opposition between form and disintegration, degradation and collapse is literalised within Tim Facey's paintings and assemblages, sculptures and stretched plastic pieces. Discarded and unwanted materials, most likely of the construction processes of building exhibition walls that go on around art practice, of broken pieces of wood and chipboard are reused to form compositions of formal spaces. The broken edges of board become fissures and cracks within the surface of the work or ordering principles for the arrangements of fragments. These surfaces are imaginative topographical spaces or landscape imbued with a pregnant history of indexical marks from their past lives as functional material.
Materials freed up from industrial function are re-presented to assert their matter of fact physicality. They are literally themselves yet rearranged to embody a dialectic of structuring form and its disintegration. This opposition is held up for the viewer, the temporary constraints of purposeful function are both present yet broken and re-arranged. Collapse and the presence of waste material plays the role of the dangerous term within the pairing, the excluded from the logic of ordered urban experience. Standing Wood Collage 2008 monumentalises this in Frankenstein form, looming over the viewer and dominating the space of the room.
In the stretched pieces physicality of materials can be enjoyed in a more bodily way. Through the creation of expansive walls of stretched plastic, patch-worked into formal compositions, the experience of the work becomes more spatially oriented. Corridor 2008 turns the display area of the gallery's windows into a space to be ventured into behind the walls of the conventional exhibition area. From outside you primarily experience the work as pattern, partly reminiscent by way of its context of commercial fashion. It is also only seen as fragments of something larger than the framing of the window allows you to see. However, once you are inside its presence invites you into this narrow space between the window and the false wall of the gallery- a marginal space not normally occupied by the visitor to the gallery. In this way we are forced into a very close physical experience of the work that re-orients our initial more primarily visual and distanced perspective of it.
The work pairs this primacy of physicality with a constant possibility of actual self-destruction, as the plastic is tightly stretched over the space it occupies. This tensioning will eventually culminate in the work pulling itself apart, visual signs of which are evident in the taught lines of the works surface. This active element is combined with the conceit of the work only being its constitutive material elements, it is only sheets of coloured plastic and the tape that arranges and holds its surface together. As a result the materials, although part of a composition, perform themselves as foremost the sum of their inherent material qualities. This is partly an echo of a line from Gustave Metzger's Auto Destructive Art Machine Art Auto Creative Art from 1961; 'each visible fact absolutely expresses its reality.' We are left with an aggregated alchemical expression that is almost iconoclastic in nature. Physical qualities of modern fabricated materials allied with symbolic representations of the chaotic and the de-compositional and delivered through the experiential as a mode of address, produce a summoning of the displaced and subordinated within post-industrial society.
A formational relation between function and an oppositional other is also instructive within Conal McStravick's practice. However, here this opposition is co-opted from its normative position to be inhabited within a series of representational codes. This opposition as subject is most obviously apparent within architecture, a discourse which has at times aestheticised function to the exclusion of the decorative, most notably with the functionalism of form within Modernism. In the purified and idealised conception of Modernist architecture the decorative becomes superfluous and worse, demonised as waste energy. Architecture is a powerful producer of codified behaviour, of predicating values that become adherent. McStravick co-opts these representational codes of architecture through a re-imagining of drawing's instrumentalised role within its design process. The result is the suggestion of drawing as an imaginative and speculative space that may be a producer of complex representational moments.
The drawing Fake Bake 2008 evidently forefronts codes of aestheticised function. A series of imaginative moments are spread across a number of pieces of paper, holding the space of a wall like architectural motif. The heavily worked surface of the paper means that each maintains sculptural presence in itself, asserting its own separate instance. Expanding from one paper to the next, fragments of functional form are portrayed in stasis- a circle pinioned on a solid arm, a vertical chain hanging in the centre of a picture plane. Function seems to be broken in the centre of the drawing, the solid arm is in a moment of break with a decorative green triangle and a shard of chain hovering over it. Elsewhere function is opposed by the exaggerated pose of the decorative in the stylised form of camp. An assortment of painted biscuits forms a Constructivist composition beneath the circular form, the corner of one piece of paper peels back to reveal a gaudy gold painted surface. The very method of the works hanging is by cheap gold chains, literalising self-conscious artifice.
But rather than displaying a simple dialectic, the work channels the structured modes of address of these mutually aestheticised codes. Camp's self-conscious opposition to the normative is an immediately familiar stance. The temporal moments held within the drawings' structure are attendant to the meditative mode of viewership of Modernist works. As a series of presences they are strangely timeless and timefull, time is present in the conception of the specific moment and displaced by their stasis, moments out of time. These modes are held in relative terms and in ambiguous tones- enjoyed for their qualities but divested of inherent or sublimated value.
The temporality formed by Modernist or Classical modes of address is positively explored within Tempus Temple 2008, an installation of projected slides. Projected drawn forms make up shallow planar spaces (as if mirroring the physical depth of the slide), some solid iconographic motifs, others broken fragments. They are reminiscent of architectural decoration or feature, of sculpted wall mouldings but are also saturated with light, almost solarised. The result is a series of presences, appearing and then being evaporated by the presence of the next image. The title muses on this production of temporal spaces through reference to the relationship of the Latin words for time and the point on our forehead where we can feel the pulse of a vein, a kind of ancient lingual migration. When revisited through the presentation of meditative sculptural images we are unsure whether to embrace this conception of the temporal or view it as just another naturalised formation of experience. The diastolic pulse of our heart beat forms series of instances that are eradicated by the next and endlessly relativised when considered in thought and articulated within language.
This continual production of temporal moments of the slide projector might also be thought of in terms of historiography, of the writing and closing down of histories. It is through this process that instances of formation and expression can become codified and re-couped, possessed by normative structures of experience. The moments that McStravick produces perform a temporary imaginative re-alignment of these forms that is metaphorical for the reinhabiting of the spaces that they allude to.
It is possible to see this re-inhabiting, re-aligning and re-structuring as common threads in these artists' practices. Symbolic spaces are formed as allegorical or parallel to theoretical spaces drawn out within normative or conventional descriptions and practices of living, or the language of these symbolic spaces are themselves made troubling, problematised. In this way Esse Quam Videri is a dialogue of fragments, of partial forms and constructions, affirmative in their manipulation of art historical elements. Unified and autonomous self is not re-visited but the lines of its complications and unravellings may be walked and explored, remade for the present.
On the journey home from Bologna there is a conversation about an artist's cousin who is studying the development and distribution of marginalised ancient languages of the British isles. Their thesis is that the development of languages within a specific territory could be the result of far reaching and dispersed trade relationships as much as stable physical inhabitation. Languages, phrases, assemblages of behaviour and practices jump, re-associate. Gaps open up.
One thing slides over the other.
- Walead Beshty, Air Made Solid, Dot Dot Dot, issue 15, pp 57-63.
- Emile Benveniste cited in Vivian Bobka's review Eye, Gaze, Screen, on Anthony McCall at the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, in Texte Zur Kunst, December 2007. The original Benveniste reference is from Problems in General Linguistics, Coral Cables, Fl., 1971, p.226.
- Paul Valery, The Evening with Monsieur Teste, Monsieur Teste, Princeton University Press 1973, p 15.
By Darren Rhymes