Mimesis; Narrative; Against hegemony!

Against Justifiable Selection

A catalogue essay for Mimesis; Narrative; Against hegemony! at and published by APT Gallery London 2019. Part of APTShots programme. A celebration of 10 years of Peer Sessions.

Over the last decade Peer Sessions has worked with an impressive roster of artists from all over the world. Based mainly in London, the ‘session’, normally involves one or two artists presenting work-in-progress or new work in exhibition format to a group of their peers. Having taken part in several sessions myself, both as presenter and as audience participant, I am delighted to have been invited to select work for the exhibition Mimesis; Narrative; Against hegemony! as part of the annual APTShots programme.

Audience is perhaps not the best way to describe the group of individuals who assemble for each meeting. Audience seems to imply a certain passivity; it implies that these events are a performance to be absorbed without reaction. That is of course not the case. The group of artist and academic peers that assemble are there, of course, to see new work, often produced by friends and colleagues. But they are also there to generate critical discussion, to float thoughts and ideas, to debate in good nature and of course to respond both objectively and subjectively to the works of art that are presented.

The structure that Warne Thomas and Pickering have developed to probe and moderate discussions is based on VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) originally developed by educational psychologist Abigail Housen and veteran museum educator at MOMA, Philip Yenawine. There are many such formats for the discussion of art and the teaching of visual literacy, including the Feldman method that I have used in my teaching for many years. What these formats share is a visual probing, via language, of the object on display.

By encouraging participants to ‘say what is seen’ and reserving or slowing down the urge to pronounce judgement, each session is a rich experience of examining signifier, signified and index in the work of art.

The Peer Session is by no means a straight forward proposition. It is not simply an opportunity for an artist to gain feedback on new work. What the session offers is a multitude of semiotic analyses and interpretative viewpoints from a dynamic range of perspectives. Dynamic, in part because they are provided by artists and often lay outside the hegemonic viewpoint. A key to the session is the collectivist approach to sharing interpretation, anecdotes and intuitive responses to a work of art, that stem from the varying viewpoints and individual realities of a range of makers. The fracturing, and opening up, of a range of artistic paradigm approaches – in the sense of making and doing – are the true value in the exchange. Not all interpretation broadly is either good or useful. The last thing an artist needs when producing works of art is the echo of diverging opinion bouncing around the mind. My feeling however, is that going against hegemony, through an open discourse on the differing experience of things, is the true gift of the collective in this case.

When Susan Sontag wrote the text Against Interpretation in 1966, she decried a culture intent on unpicking the components of the work of art in order to unwrap content. Sontag taught us to avoid the questions – what is it about? what is it for? and where does it come from? The post-structural proposition, that semiotic forms of interpretation were flawed and only provide a bad or simplistic reading (and in fact those very interpretation- or deconstruction-based techniques themselves ought to be interpreted) have bounced around art schools and big name theory ever since. Perhaps the desire of Against Interpretation and the way in which it sought to suspend the need for analysis, in favour of awe or even a sublime response to art, was merely a response to a world rapidly filling with over-politicised conjecture. Sontag was however lucky enough to have experienced several decades in which abstraction was the dominant paradigm, and its accompanying discourse one solely of ‘subjective expression’. What she is really decrying  perhaps, is that art becomes political allegory or parody. The thing we must remember in these pressing times, half a century later, is that human action deserves a reaction. We can’t ignore the sign of the times or the clues to others’ experience of our multi-layered existence, can we?

Sontag’s thoughts on the mimetic work of art, i.e. a thing that has a direct relationship with the external world and how that Greek notion (via Plato and Aristotle) pervades the production of art (Sontag 1966), is called into question nearly fifty years later by theorist Boris Groys in the 2008 text Art Power. Groys responds to the notion of mimesis, as a thing we cannot escape, by laying out a simple distinction between the propositions that describe the ‘new’ and the ‘different’ (Groys 2008). Anything that we experience, whether in the gallery or on the street, is only ever an equivalent differential, from or of the thing that came before. The painting produced in 2019 is only slightly different from paintings produced in 1940. Its constituents are still exactly the same, only the configuration, context and conjecture changes. They are not necessarily new. The new, according to Groys is, by its very nature a thing we could not recognise without a mimetic point of reference. The new would go by unnoticed, invisible. Sontag and her contemporaries may have argued that something new, something unknowable, lurked in the drips of a Pollock or Krasner painting, or the performances of Nauman. That particular notion of new, may have lain in the closure of overt and readable content, readily or easily interpreted and assigned mimetic origin or other.  The new way of looking may also have been a desire for art and artists to evade hegemonic control of free thought and action.

Art never really directly responded to the old grand narratives, those perhaps ongoing at the time Sontag wrote her text. Art directly about the cold war, de-industrialisation or the emergence of global capital wasn’t de rigueur in the 1960s. However, as Sontag rightly says, interpretation can pervert the sum of the work of art, to any and many causes. Retroactively, we can easily reduce and assign the thing in question to the context in which it was made and move forward from there to assign content to index and signifier.

The selection of work for this exhibition then, acutely aware of this problematised historic discourse, perhaps offers a little of both positions, in which the work in question is and can be discussed. For me, the most exciting outcome of any discourse on contemporary art is the revelation of a range of differing realities of each participant.

When Jean-François Lyotard discussed the end of the grand narrative or metanarrative in The Post Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge in 1979, in favour of the local, the personal or petits récits, he began to hint that what happens in the ether above us affects us all very differently on the street. Although arguably we still live under the shroud of grand narratives or directive structures, such as anthropocene, capitalist bureaucracy etc., the fracturing of the overarching ideology – in our case neoliberal capitalism – is represented by a myriad of economic, educational and experiential differences, and therefore differing realities and interpellations of the real or immanent. These differences, these multitudinal realities, are briefly examined again more recently by Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative (2009). Here notions of individual reality are explored and set against the current economic regime. Fisher outlines a notion that reality is whatever is possible for the individual, and that the real (via Jaques Lacan), is what is suppressed by that reality (Fisher 2009). When we think about being against the hegemonic, which of course most artists are, we have to take into account the mass of differing realities of every individual on the planet and wonder how any dominant mass opinion is formed; I only have to think about Brexit in order to be flummoxed by hegemony. Our focus for now, thankfully, are a handful of realities belonging to a handful of artists.

We could start to unpick the mechanics of these hegemonic control systems, by trying to unpick contemporary art from the perspective of the individuals making it. If we were to think about contemporary art and apply the notion of multitudinal reality, we might say that the individual reality of the artist is expressed in potential and possibility via the work. We might also say that what is suppressed by the artist is a criticality of the systems outside of the art ie, the real or big narrative. In a bit more detail, I might suggest that the artist, at the point of creation of the work of art has a multitude of options in terms of content, style genre etc. If we accept that the artist mediates the flow of information around them at the time of creation of the work, invoking a temporally specific context personal to themselves, then the reality locked in the finished work, is the mediated, indexical spirit of the times. We might also say that this is a varying or varied series of representations of the current pervading real; neo-liberal capitalism, global warming etc. Individual realities held in stasis via the work of art then, become the resonant objects of the time or epoch. The art work, becomes an individual expression of a personal struggle with individual reality within the system. Art may have no correlation to the real or the system, but rather skirts its edges. There are many ways we could discuss this further. We should also consider that criticality in the current economic model is arguably an empty gesture, especially in art works that sell and get flipped for thousands of dollars or pounds, or that are never seen. This may be the post-structural legacy at play.

This exhibition then, a selection of Peer Sessions participants over the years, is broadly grouped into three sections, in order that any direct secondary or even tertiary interpretation is kept to a minimum. It would seem silly to launch into a description of each work in the show according to a solitary interpretation (my own), bearing in mind the discourse above.

The sections are grouped into corresponding sets, in order that the experience of the work selected remains pre-interpretation rather than post-. That said, readers will still have to contend with suggestive denotation, connotation and context. The sets are drawn from the polemics briefly outlined so far:

Art as Fetish (mimesis), Art as Condition (narrative) and Art as Weapon (against hegemony).

Because contemporary art today is most likely ‘real’ neutral as mentioned, and instead a mediated individual reality, it rests at odds with the dominant control sentiment and conjecture (hegemony). It might therefore appear to be intuitive to mix up any soft hegemonic and real signifiers latent in any work, with open statements à la VTS and Feldman etc. But still, allocation to a set that may imply agency beyond the work is of course a dangerous game. This however seems like a fitting format to engender further discourse. So what follows is an attempt to part- liberate and at the same time part- assign the works selected from what I might call ‘the justification of selection’ by withholding any overt analysis. Against justifiable selection after Sontag, is therefore what follows:

  • Fisher, M. 2009. Capitalist realism: Is There No Alternative? O Books, Winchester UK.
  • Groys, B. 2008. Art Power. MIT Press. Cambridge MA
  • Lyotard, JF. 1984.The Post Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester University Press
  • Sontag, S. 2009. Against Interpretation and Other Stories. Penguin Classics London

Art as Fetish

Merike Estna, Trevor Kiernander, Alia Pathan, Emily Rosamond, Ross Taylor, Madalina Zaharia

millennia object imbued

                        resemble instead things          

                                                                        post-analogue colour

                                                ritual, softly recast

                        burning of the mimetic

                                                                                    possessions, left behind

            the odour, still fresh

            it might bring luck

                                                earthly currencies

detritus and paraphernalia                                what the uninitiated may see

                                                                                                welcome to the                                                                                                pleasure

                        this case is to re-cast the environment

                                                                        the resonant object

                        personification              very long and twisting

                                                                                                            blue,                            with humanist precision                        a small simple token                                                                                                            juxtaposition

            hard and soft together                                     aestheticized post                                                                                                                                digital

                                                with snakes

                                                                                    lumpy but smoothed over

                        a clear tropical  shackled                                                                                               sacrifice

                                                            allow the other to softly emerge…

Art as Condition

Ben Cove, Justin Gainan, Katie Goodwin, Monica Ursina Jäger, Annabel Tilley, Poppy Whatmore

taking the piss out of girls

                        fetishise

            the grammar of ornament                    edge of frame             

work-a-day       they always invite artists                       

                                    she stares at it, un-knowing

                                                                                    we all understand the                                                                                                   issues, we all

                                                            vacant now, like the Marie Celeste                  

                        delicious selection of  

palm tree or bones,                              sets itself against all the          

                                                                        a lot of irony perhaps

repeating palindrome,

                                    invisible but visible

                                                we are all in this together

                                                                                                laughing about                                    the end of socialism

                                    does he really enjoy that                      of course that is quite trendy right now

                                                it might be possible for them, but for most     

            very democratic, careful contextualisation without

                        how dare they have taken all

Art as Weapon

Dave Charlesworth, Systems House, Catherine Hughes, Lisa Selby/bluebaglife, Will Webster

smashed and broken, but loaded

     images parade upwards

            elucidate a theoretical link      

            use guilt by association as a method                                        sentinel

                                                scared for us

be more open ended

                                    goes without saying and instead, think

            they shift to also include the face of

                        ‘everything in between’ occurs in a series

                                                                    spanning childhood to adulthood

            Hard to read, dark and often cheerless

                                                                        but rather a copy of a copy of thing called

                                    into visions of drunken dance                                      

a distance from the grave but allowed a precious moment

                        that would probably have given René Magritte

                                                            something to laugh about.                              

on the roadside by a lone figure

                                                            that said thing that looks like the original but isn’t                   on average will earn 14% less in the workplace

the absurdity inherent in this image

Ian Gonczarow 2019