Louise Bourgeois: late drawings and prints (artist rooms 2014-19)
The gallery exhibition of minor works from the various collections of 'modern and contemporary art', consisting of the formal display of the otherwise undisplayed contents of that milieu as department, reveals the specific constraints imposed upon formal possibilities which otherwise remain obscured in the presentation of aura-burdened 'major' works. Minor works reveal the workings-out of 'works', which are otherwise buried beneath the mystique of that which has been invested in as important, groundbreaking, era defining, autonomous. The work of art is located outside of the exhibition space. It is not a product but a process belonging to the relations mediated through activities associated with collections: scholarship, acquisitions, curation. By Archimedes's principle, the aura of an exhibited artwork displaces (i.e. the amount of the art hidden from view) an equal mass of total art process. For every 1 m³ of process displaced it takes 1025 kg of aura - which will have a volume of 1025 kg x 1 m³/920 kg = 1.114 m³. In other words, 1m³ of art process is submerged for every 1.114 m³ of art aura (1/1.114 = 0.89756). In these terms, an average of about 90% of art totality is submerged in process.
Or, contrariwise. Minor works of major artists associated with the framing, 'modern and contemporary art' rehearse their es muss sein amongst the rubble of the great extinction event of The Great War. In the unique doubled circumstance where industrialised death was realised and access to the exterior sealed off, art could no longer reflect the Corneillean gloire of its masters but sought to articulate a response to the productive environment. Subjectivity, and its aesthetic representations, have always been constrained by the materials available but after the Great War, art found its content could be elicited only through the practices of an atavistic attack magic - the subject's invoked spirit, summoned from the underworld, refused to appear in any habitus but as that which has been formally tormented, afflicted, convulsed, traumatised.
The point of convergence where the will to distort form, as vector for expressivity, meets grand scale social rupture constitutes the modernist aesthetic as es muss sein. Modernism supposes the re-formalisation of subjectivity as a correlate or sequela of the world's having passed through the bottleneck of crash industrialisation. From the standpoint of its continuation, where its social position has irrevocably passed from that of wardship and patronage to one of dependency upon sponsorship, from fresco to mural, art infers its historic task is to foreground that which art history has assigned to artworks (to unequivocally express the particular moment of its production, then its moment as metonym for its era) and in the shock of the realisation, après le déluge, moi, it submits willingly to the compulsion to recapitulate the bottlenecking of general social relations as its own passage through the narrowed straits of Dada. Happenstance, disconnection, meaninglessness as situated within the totally administered society becomes the whole of its law. Randomness as a behavioural response will increase in line with the growing effectiveness of control systems.
In the minor works of the avant gardists are glimpsed the rites, training manoeuvres and rehearsals of the invented forms of a cultural practice that becomes painfully aware of the necessity to preserve itself against the twofold truth confronting it: the artist is thrown into an endless struggle against kitsch under conditions where industrialisation has already revealed art's obsolescence - art will be defended only where it is already lost. The umwelt-diverticulum inhabited by the 'modern and contemporary art' business model consists of the production of other objects that must take the place of art where art itself has become untenable. In the place of the artwork, the usurper-work presented in continuum.
A bottleneck event may occur where a small group has become existentially separated from the population at large, such as through a ‘founder event’ where members of the community cross a mountain barrier or wash up on a distant island and successfully colonise the newly found territory, establishing for itself a niche where its evolutionary prospects, the combination of reduced gene pool and altered circumstances, cause it to diverge from herd homeostasis. The proliferation of exclusionary small world art 'communities', armed with their manifestos, convinced of their right to inherit the totality, voluntarily replicated the entry point of the bottleneck effect but by means of deliberate self-stranding on uninhabitable islands, they succeeded only in depriving themselves of a sufficiency of reference points and soon died out.
The short lived experimental art communities that actively sought to test themselves by hazard of bottleneck (where art must be realised) could not secure for themselves the niche on the other side that otherwise becomes the domain of all successful island colonies. The 'modern and contemporary art' racket has never established itself in the world as it imagined it should - it has proved itself to be neither a true heir to what went before nor its actual gravedigger, but has remained in a permanent state of dependency upon a transformation in the nature of wealth that it could never bring itself to formally engage. Where it should have been burying surfaces, it was merely exposing depths.
The only route back out of isolation, and the only means by which 'modern and contemporary art' could escape its bottleneck was as a representation of the form of wealth now imagined as an exteriorised luxury free time. Natural selection in the art world requires a constant rate of random mutation in form but also a rigid selective environment which decides upon the fittedness of this or that aesthetic trend. The selective procedures of gallery curation are themselves subjected recursively to selective procedures and must seek to secure sponsorship and funding as they become embedded within the all too familiar nested hierarchies of capitalisation. The small world of art production is constrained by the same law as the production of any other commodity, whatever has drawn investment shall survive until the next funding review.
The paradoxical manufacturing process by which alienated units, and 'modern and contemporary art' is nothing but the idealised representation of this process of alienation, are re-incorporated into a totalising unity that is replicated across social life and becomes its defining motif. The abiding sense of separation within integration becomes the ontology trap of modern existence, which seeks extrication via the inherent problematic of surface tension: the more you struggle, the more you are implicated. Representations of emancipatory overthrowings of 'oppressions' activate unrepresentable control systems that will only operate at the core of the emancipatory project - freedom from repression increases in line with exploitation; the rate of exploitation increases in line with the rate of freedom from repression; the representation of the overthrow of repression is institutionalised (capital murders the white male god over and over) but the apparatus of exploitation, capital as a social relation, cannot be represented.
Art leads the way in formulating new representations for the perpetuation of ritualised and symbolic overthrowings of extinct oppressions which are themselves integrated into the cultural apparatus deployed against consciousness of the actual relations of production. The aesthetics of revolt begin to operate in line with the production of the world. Control systems have always anticipated and sought to channel revolt away from power centres and into the desert. Modern and contemporary power becomes distinct in its channelling of the energy of revolt back into its institutions. Art's attempts to stage a return journey out of its own bottleneck by means of magical acts of creativity, its drawing of maps for setting out from its isolated island for the forgotten home country, its capacity for negation and utopia, has become its main selling point and its mission, as well as its burden. Art is cursed with a sense of an 'otherwise' that it cannot portray even as it falls back into representations of discontinued power relations.
'Modern and contemporary art' is assigned the function of avant garde for the forces overthrowing the past, and describes both the metabolisation of an unprecedentedly shocking and irreversible succession of 'founder' cataclysms that constitute the perpetual reformation of industrial society, as these shocks filtered into and interrupted the mass individual's ability to perceive the nature and scale of such transformatory wounds, and also the paradoxical simultaneous isolation and integration of island populations where 'anything goes' because the individualism associated with creativity has found itself in the position where its efforts are structured to always fail to modify the conditions that they express. Art's products and projects remain unrealisable and irrelevant outside the membrane of the gallery-specific space. Whatever refuses present conditions will succeed only where the wished for change is already in process Or, where it has secured corporate sponsorship and allowed itself to become advertising and propaganda.
Alternatively, invasive groups can undergo subjective bottlenecks through founder events subsequent to their introduction into their invaded territory - the founder community founded upon an act of breaking away becomes the mainland site for further and subsequent breaking's away and a repeating logic of dispersion takes hold. Most of those washed up onto the shore of uncharted isles are lost and leave no record. Just as a beginning lasts for a long time, so does an ending. As a beginning goes on it will shed what made it a beginning, and will become less. But an ending is always moving closer to what it is, and will become more. The beginning is always less itself, the ending is always more itself. The beginning withdraws from what it is and approaches what it is not, the ending withdraws from what it is not and approaches what it is. A beginning, further from. An ending, closer to. Everything not here, everything not found, becomes the gift from another register. Everything leaving the world becomes a gift to what lies outside, which in itself is a reformulation of the iron rule: what is found as already lost will later be found as having already returned. If collage, no glue; if glue, no collage.
Louise Bourgeois's late and desultory drawings, compulsive and reiterative, hung drawn and quartered, bursting out but also abandoned. This map-territory conflation formed from intensified reticulations, an origin-state of tubularity, a dislocated ouroboros, all this now seems to recapitulate both the catastrophc information loss historically fixed by this, our self-identifying, extinction event as well as what emerges from the geosift as the three phenomenological ant-trails of subjectivity that lead from the other side of the Merz bottleneck: surrealism, minimalism, abstract expressionism. At the end, Bourgeois’s art took shape from its repeating, untessellated orientation points: hubs and spokes, routes and sites, compulsive concealments/unintended revelations, the core and its limbs, a head and its serpents, organs plus veins, channels between repositories, womb as seabed, event confronted by tendency, dot after line, flows as breaks, the severed and the knotted, the blots and the drips, a labyrinth and its rose. We make out the great blockages, clottings, berg-forms as they are circulated via silted channels and cholesterol narrowed vessels too narrow to contain them.
This is me as delta, this is the record of my impetuosity, my drift, my congealing, as my work is recapitulated and irrigated through the world’s specialist exhibition sites. Here is the gallery, it's a gut, here is the academy, it's a head. I am a name, it's a betrayal. This is the brand, recognise it. A polar bear in a snowstorm. A white wall swallowing the free floating icefloe. The black hole abyss from which no light escapes will now swallow the pack-ice, smaller than the icefield, smaller than the icefloe. All this, this racket that has developed as art process, appearing after art’s brief moment, becomes a pilgrimage, and like all nomadisms is strictly gridded, binding itself to the veneration of a faked relic presented in a gilded space situated in an otherwise undifferentiated whiteout.
What is this mess of shorted wires fixed to a white surface, this infinitely reticulating mycelium, these interlocking spider stars, this dripping, bleeding, knotting, leaking whorling, circulatory system, this network of junctions, channels, nodes, tunnellings that is ripped from the substrate as if laid out on a white slab, every vessel and tentacle untangled, stretched out and pinned to its furthest reach like spokes from a source, a hub, a brain, a centre. These do not look like actual networks, they are not versions of functional forms. But what is it that this is displaying? What then? A reference to, a gesturing towards, a quotation of, the anonymous, featureless, pumping irrigation apparatus of the lymphatic system? The operating steady state of the things below the skin of things?
But then, surfaces are deeper than depths. And why is it that such depths should be portrayed in this manner, ripped out and writhing like so many worms dug from the earth? Are these really images captured from what lies beneath, the circulatory system of the world, or are they showing what it means to be the one to show such things? The magic trick is always less fascinating than the persona of the magician. Then, here's a compulsive revelation of what is really there, which is also just the quickest route to a showing of the showing, and specifically in this case, a showing of the showing of what it is that is perturbed, in rictus, captured, and laid out.
What has happened here? What has gone wrong that the interior should be shown so disrupted from the surface? The smaller vessels, the capillaries, the mycelium, the root hairs, tributaries, the microvilli, the alveoli, all that detailing, the filigree work of systems, the cellular layer (also a surface) across which the actual work of metabolic transfers between energy source and closed system, the beauty of material process implied by what lies beneath, all this is not caught - it's as if the layer of intricacy and subtlety has rotted away to show only a caricature, and the requisite grotesquerie of zombified materiality. The revelation by which the delusory sterile surface is confronted by the hidden mess of relatedness at its foundation has become in itself another sort of sterility, a truncated ripping off of the veil, a conspiracy theory attaching itself to the noumenal realm, an ontology of the crawling substrate that shouts out the vulgarity, 'this is how the world really is, this is who you really are.' But are Bourgeois's drawings anatomies of the dead or Doppler scans of living systems? Is it that the blood is thickening and clotting or that the vessels are clogged and sclerotic? Is congestion an output of the transport network's incapacity, or an overproduction in traffic? Are we observing a cross-section in time of a necrotising process or witnessing what is implied, at the cellular level, by resurrection?
What drains and what collects - should this be the model by which we may best engage the late works of LB? The Hudson River continues to flow even after it has entered the Atlantic Ocean. The momentum of its waters push back against the waters of the sea but are deflected downwards, becoming heavy, where they advance, grinding glacially, the heavy burdened waters of the seabed, the relentless torrent of the New York art scene's accumulated silts, ancient sewage and refuse - here is the expropriating process behind the exhibition space, the deep work of the collection. The logic of the river continues even into the ocean, its currents resolve all suspended material, icebergs, submarines, corpses, into the abyss. The floor of the Hudson Canyon, a mile beneath the surface of the Atlantic, is cut out by the same process as the Hudson Valley, which it resembles as if reflected in an obsidian mirror; but where the tributaries of the valley feed into the river building its momentum, the tributaries of the canyon leak outward, dispersing the river's energy, and distributing its nutrients across the ocean bed. Gravity-pushed arteries on land are transformed into the abyss-sucked veins of the ocean. The river's surface ice is sucked downwards becoming a bed ice of the ocean's depths.
After all, what cybernetic function did the Great War's trenches perform if not to channel the red hot black lavas of recomposition across, beneath the surface of, the metmorphosing social body under the phase of real domination? What was the war but a great irrigation of trauma, shock and, above all, environmentalising force? If the flowing of an ancient and mighty river into the ocean were to reverse, and the scouring detritus dispersed across the seabed were to return, gushing back upstream under immense hydraulic pressure, then wouldn't it induce a revelatory fountainhead state of nachträglichkeit, wherein the substrate of subjective memory otherwise stuck in the bottleneck of the Great War would suddenly wake to find itself returned to another site, coming home to a place it had never occupied. If the world were to be reconfigured to the plan of Bourgeois's redprints, then... a petrified present inundated by the silt cloud of involuntary recall.
But such is the utopian discourse that parasitises art and creativity, a make believe extracted from browsings upon sequences of scratches and scrawls set at eye level under conditions of sensory constraint. Just as certain musicians weary of both the failure in predictable outcomes of composed music and of the conventionalities in improvisation, and so choose to retreat to an isle of musiclessness, perhaps in the form of an endless practicing of scales, so Bourgeois retreated through her late drawings into cave painted patterns where there is no underlying organisation to be exposed but only an abundance of imprinted surfaces. After all, art is only ever the performance of the separation of art from life, the cosmic trace of a founder event, the distant echo of the Great War, it is neither less nor more than a seismograph of the social violence that separates human beings from the world they have created.
The subject’s potential for autonomy of judgment is now constrained within a single question: does this artwork competently record the forces of separation which constrain its production, or does it merely, and gratuitously, make a performance of that violence, and in so doing, add to it. It is a judgment endlessly revised, itself becoming the condition for the possibility of a continuing phenomenology of complicity under circumstances both banal and horrifying - subjectivity is the endless checking for, and presentation of, new wounds and old infections.
Bourgeois, after ‘Borges’, becomes ‘Bourgeois’, and in her performance of a surplus violence, the gratuitous cruelty of one embodying a recuperated and recuperating virulent exteriority, she nevertheless may open a further attic space, the interior outside, the factory as theatre, the circulatory system as a skin or a mask, and as a site for something that is not representation. If she sets herself up as priestess of the veil draped across what lies beneath and if she proposes that in stripping back the surface she has by magic mastered her role, vanquished her position, then so what? Only the charlatan, as antic-knight jousting against authenticity, has a chance to attain holiness - I believe in magic/why?/because it is so quick. But in the delta region of the uncanny what flows soon dries.
The law of actor-network theory states that the subject can never make out whether there is anything behind the desultory trick of art other than the trick’s own mechanism - necessarily, and this is at the core of apophatic gnosis, knowing has to be nothing but attentiveness to a spiral of tricks that go all the way down. The circulatory system's objective purpose was always to oxygenate the organs of truth with the blood of hoax. The ritual was always ridiculous, that was not a discovery of science, but submitting before its own ridiculing of its own submission to absurdity, the for-itself path of self-humiliation, was thus also always the condition for attaining the magical state for seeing through other eyes. The rite was never solemn, just deadly. Tiresias must laugh at the shaming of 'Tiresias' but will also laugh from within that shaming at Tiresias.
Humiliation in consciousness, humiliation via an act of ritualised attention as it glues to a dried ear, is the royal road to achieving the necessary patina effect upon the inexorable ice sheet of consciousness, its canyons and valleys, islands and bulges, deltas and pittings, all the scarified surfacing that is itself transformed into the very terrain, the orientation points and features, of the self which, in its turn, then almost slips backwards even as its scrambles to emerge over the brim of the black hat of ripped out words. I'm not joking. If Merz, no pattern. If pattern, no Merz. I'm joking.