Affectless Minimalism (part two)
Poly / Autonomy
“Correspondingly, the structuralist reliance on symbolization through binary pairings of elements, defined in a diacritical relation to one another and no more than arbitrarily associated with things symbolized, has not only survived the structuralist moment, but, if anything, has propagated ever more broadly through varied and unresting critique-critique that reproduces and popularizes the structure, even as it may complicate an understanding of the workings, of the binarisms mentioned above along with such others as presence/absence, lack/plentitude, nature/culture, repression/liberation and subversive/hegemonic.
-Eve Sedgwick, Shame In The Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins
Can an artwork be polyamorous? Polyamory, the practice and desire of intimate relationships involving more than two people, is a site of transgression against conventionalities and places distinct pressure on normalized ideals. Can an object play a role in visualizing a definition of relation and intimacy, even if it desires polyamory and autonomy at once? The Perfect Kiss (QQ)* Questioning Queer was a two person show of James Lee Byars and Matt Morris at the Contemporary Art Center of Cincinnati (CAC). For the project, Morris acted as both artist and curator as he selected works from James Lee Byars to accompany his own investigations in object generating.
Matt Morris’ work, Festoon Drape (for James, Robert, Zaha, Steven, and Eric) is a greyish-periwinkle fabric work that extends across the wide entrance to the gallery where the exhibition takes place. The singular object is made up of five distinct sections sewn together, each individual section with wallowing fabric forms from vertical ruching lines. It cascades elegantly to the floor, catching institutional light and shadow. The piece’s physical function is to actively separate Byars and Morris work from other parts of the museum. In other words, if one desires to view the exhibition, you must cross this lacey barrier.
As the work asserts itself as this separation, there are two elements I would like to consider. Firstly, separation gives the other works on display a more erotically charged vitality. Literally, it dramatizes and sets the mood for how we encounter the relation between Morris’ and Byars’ works. The relationship between artists appears intimate and the viewer becomes a voyeur who locates the sexual innuendos, flirtations, and overlaps between Morris’ and Byars’ work. Secondly, Festoon Drape’s materials exemplify the ability of the decorative or ornate to participate in separation. A festoon as a noun is a chain or garland of flowers, leaves, or ribbons, hung in a curve as a decoration and as a verb it is to adorn (a place) with ribbons, garlands, or other decorations. Decoration and adornment aren’t treated as passive or celebratory, but rather as active devices that can cast ambiance in one direction while keeping the rest of the museum at a distance.
Throughout the exhibition, multiple tiny nuances reward the viewer/voyeur. For example, performances occurred where an individuals were asked to open and parse their lips (as if for a kiss) and then leave the space. Another element of the exhibition was the security guards who were asked to wear a specific perfume, making proximity part of the piece. The closer you are, the more strongly you sense the work, literally, which prompts a closer read of all elements of the exhibition. With this in mind, I would like to return for a close read of the second half of his title, Festoon Drape (for James, Robert, Zaha, Steven, and Eric). The museum text with the piece states, ‘installed for public viewing’ setting in motion the question, who this artwork is for? Is it those listed or the viewer/voyeur? We can interpret the piece as an object made for those listed, however, it is was presented to the public for view (voyeurism) which gives the piece a slightly antagonistic relationship with the viewer/voyeur. This antagonism is where autonomy enters, since the piece isn’t actually for us, but it also raises questions. For example, what does it mean if the piece is for those listed? First, the production of the physical object is a gesture that is made for those listed – which is the labor of the artwork, a labor-of-love, a playfully romantic aspiration. Secondly, the five sections of fabric loosely mirror the five names listed and each are rendered equal through the formal qualities in the piece. We can assume that the James listed is for James Lee Byars, and the Zaha is for the architect of the museum, Zaha Hadid. The others who are listed are perhaps more difficult to know, but we know that they range across time, space, and types of direct contact. Regardless, what we know is that each fifth of the piece is made the same, and as such value isn’t presented; or, perhaps, value isn’t considered, and is never the question.
While this labor-of-love moves towards openness and polyamory, it is also and always a physical plane of separation and autonomy. It seeks to control its attachments, keep others at the distance of looking, and is always aware of the necessity to carve out and frame a given space. Consistently, I’ve tried to keep in mind that this work is invested in theoretical and physical separation, towards the space and to the viewer/voyeur. Kathi Weeks states:
“Separation is conceived as something different from dialectical conflict; resistance born of separation is imagined more along lines of flight than lines of opposition. It’s task is to organize struggles that neither take form nor mirror the logic of what they contest. Separation is the path of difference-not an antithesis to be subsumed in synthesis, but a singularity that might invent something new.”1
On what grounds does this piece seek separation from the viewer/voyeur, and what does it mean that a work isn’t for us? Why does it maintain its distance? These questions are endlessly unclear, and perhaps that is one of its points. It is a thread binding others, with the face of separation. It acknowledges and expands upon one’s attachments (James, Robert, Zaha, Steven, and Eric) while simultaneously with admitting to the desire to remain unattached.
“I’m done trying to win over people’s hearts”
-Claire Underwood, House of Cards: S4 e13 chapter 52
“The time for conversation is over, no matter the consequences”
-Frank Underwood, House of Cards: S4 e13 chapter 52
What good is conversation, anyway? Increasingly, doesn’t it seem that conversation is a useless response? Whenever there is gun violence, for example, politicians will remind us it is time to have a “national conversation.” At the same time I can remember, during art school, countless examples of overtly politically-minded artworks with the artists saying something along the lines of, “I just want to start conversation.” or suggesting, “Isn’t it good that we are talking about it?” In an episode of South Park, Cartman sarcastically and deadpandly says, “at least we showed him that sometimes joking about un-p.c. things can actually be important because it starts a dialogue. What’s wrong Kyle? You have your cake, eat it too.”2 Jokingly, conversation is exposed as a catchword that merely suggests growth.
I’m being a bit over the top here. Of course conversation can matter. It shapes language and movement that has physical ramifications. At the same time, however, I want to account for the inverse. How many conversations have you had that are wholly unrewarding, where positions don’t adjust and nothing feels different? – an unjust waste of words, time, and space that ends where it started. I think we must account for assertions and gestures as physical claims towards unwavering, uncompromising desire. Conversation is only one option.
Koeblinger’s Luck Like Lead started me thinking about what it could mean if an artwork refused my relationship to it, and that has continued through my readings of Hewitt’s and Morris’ artworks by assuming that the artwork doesn’t necessarily need me. They operate as assertions and gestures that don’t look for affirmation or conversation. Rather, they show up and provide sets of relations, statements, and embody their politics. Through the use of minimalist forms, they become unwavering. My use of the term Affectless Minimalism refers to this unwavering quality.
I opened the discussion of Morris’ work with an excerpt from Eve Sedgwick noting a problem within critical theory – it’s unfortunate production of binarisms that popularize the same concerns it hopes to defeat. While writing and thinking through these artworks, I was struck by how linguistically I can pull out binarisms (within Hewitt’s work, for example, Minimalist History/Civil Rights History or flat shape/volume, and within Morris’ work, poly/autonomy or for-them/not-for-them), but the presence of the work defies them. Despite their minimalist clarity, they bare what is linguistically messy. For this reason I find approaching these artworks useful, as they assert what might be difficult to comprehend; embodying how relation, influence, attachment and their inverses bare what could linguistically be contradiction.
The ways these artworks bare linguistic binarisms is one reason that I have consistently placed these artworks alongside theorists in affect theory and feminism. Another reason may be found in its materiality, which makes the ideas embedded in the work present, without which the artists ideation would be, to borrow language from Robin Adele Greeley, “untethered to the experiential world, a fruitless reiteration of what is already known”.3 Artwork, in tandem with theory, can act as a shadow, grounding language, through visualizing how ideas occupy and alter space.
By allowing autonomy and assertion to work at once, ideas are presented while they resist being coopted or subsumed. For example, Hewitt shows how bodies and histories can (or cannot) overlap, while simultaneously interrogating, participating, and repurposing past movements. Morris places the decorative into the separative stance, exhibiting the potential of passive materials to become passive-aggressive. Rather than beginning a conversation on any of these assertions, the enactment of autonomy endlessly keeps input at a distance. I’ve wondered if this might be the case for art in general: can it be approached with similar ideas of assertion, autonomy, and theory intertwined? It may be so, however, Minimalism is an insistence on autonomy as noted with these artworks, as well as its own legacy. This gives the artwork a particular stance that is confident and defiant, even if the content is messy.
So to begin again, what use is conversation anyway? It is precisely the lack of conversation that allow the relations within these works to flourish, refusing to open ideas up for debate, and creating aspirational assertions toward the viewer. All the while, with its cool-minimalist detachment, the works are endlessly unwavering and uncompromising, confident with what they want to do. In On the Desire for the Political, Lauren Berlant writes a perfectly short and sweet sentence: “silence, too, can protect antinomies.”4 If we start from silence as opposed to conversation when approaching art, we can consider new forms of relating, one’s that (sometimes antagonistically) repurpose histories and locate new forms of relating beyond what is already known, and utilizing autonomous separation to maintain it’s integrity. We can witness and inhabit what would otherwise be thought of as internal tensions, and see how those tensions exist with one another. Minimalism, as it synthesizes and focuses attention on disparate content, bares contradictions on the surface, and exhibits that, after all, it probably isn’t exactly a contradiction.