Friday, 3 October 2008

And rewind again...

I want to return now to Mark Granier's discussion at Lightbox following my original post on Damien Hirst.

Mark begins with a degree of qualified agreement, saying:

Hirst’s shark may have been startling once upon a time, though it has always seemed rather old hat to me, a sad little echo of Duchamp, Warhol, Beuys, 'International Yves Klein Blue'... Perhaps it is apt to compare it to Goya’s dog (or a demon from Bosch or Michelangelo) in terms of “psychological location” as “a process of reorientation within the world”, though I have my doubts. Certainly the dog and the demons (many of them fish-demons by the way) instill a strong sense of dislocation, and perhaps the shark does this too.

He acknowledges the value of confrontation, suggesting, however, that you can get confrontation in a waxwork museum as much as in an art gallery, which is true, and I myself have, in the past, written about the development, role and function of gallery space. There is indeed much that is questionable about the reverence due to gallery space - that is to say a dedicated, churchly space, often institutional or at least possessing, one way or another, a certain authority. There is much to question there, but I don't really doubt that it produces a specialised form of attention, in which context re-orientates object.

That doesn't, of course, guarantee that anything in gallery space is bound to be seen as art, let alone great art. It still leaves a lot for the object to do, as any trawl through an exhibition, where we we prefer one exhibit over another, will demonstrate. If gallery space were all, everything on exhibition would have equal value. But it doesn't. In other words, we respond as though value were not entirely determined by the context of conferred authority.

My quarrel was with the collusion between 'conferred authority' and cash investment.

Context, which includes 'conferred authority' and a great many other things, is an essential part of Mark's argument. He correctly points out that Goya's dog is part of a series of murals, not an independent object.

It is almost inevitable that we will read too much into such an image. We are approaching it post Beckett, with the existential floodlights blazing. What is remarkable to me is how much expression Goya (or whoever) was able to put into such a tiny profile, almost a silhouette: a dog’s dark head, its one (bewildered? terrified?) eye.

Yes, of course, that is true. It's just that we cannot help bringing our baggage - cultural, personal, political - to anything we are invited to contemplate.

What Goya's dog, as well as the demons pictured by Bosch, have in common, is:

..engagement with the human predicament. They are in it, along with us, up to their eyes. Far from merely being ironic/confrontational displacements or quasi-surreal gestures, they are, in their own contexts, utterly real. And a measure of this reality, this engagement, is something necessary to all works of art, minor, good or great
And he goes on to say that he does not think Hirt's shark possess such reality.

What Hirst’s dead animal installations say to me, overwhelmingly, is: Look at the one that didn’t get away! Look at what I’ve imprisoned! Look at my acquisitions! Is it really likely that Hirst was challenged or confronted (much less scandalised) by whatever inspired his tanked shark? I strongly suspect that the idea of the shark, Hirst’s overwhelming desire to make a big splash, looms far larger than the thing’s mere physical presence, startling though this may be. It’s the audacity of it, the bigness and the brashness. And behind this is Hirst’s complacent voice, somewhat distracted, already moving the punters on to the next sensational exhibit.

Well, that may be true or it may not. That is in the realm of the subjective. That's just your opinion, man, to quote the Dude again. None of us can argue with what another finds to be 'overwhelmingly' so nor do I quarrel with Mark when he goes on to suspect something. I am generally in favour of suspecting. Suspecting is good.

I suspect all of that, but still find the shark, which I have seen - and I seem to remember Mark saying he had not - a powerful and proper confrontation, laced with irony, complete with a sort of sharkly, MacHeathian strut. Unlike Mark, I was persuaded on seeing it, that the confrontation was not only an ironic gesture directed at me and the cash register, but one the artist himself experienced, that is to say, quoting Mark, "an engagement with the human predicament." You cannot have an engagement with the human predicament unless you, the artist, are also a human being, engaging with said predicament.

Yes it is part freak show, part wax museum, part science lesson, part mortality fable and part dark humour. And there's even a touch of gravity there, a graveness experienced something like the still on top from The Werckmeister Harmonies - the Béla Tarr film from the novel I translated by László Krasznahorkai, The Melancholy of Resistance.

Very like a whale...


Stephen Foster said...

I saw the shark too, a long time ago, in the Natural History Museum. It killed space, it killed the space all around it, like Rothko's canvases do, in exactly the same way. For me, they are both great art. I don't understand the 'debate' around Hirst: he is clearly a great artist - what does his interest in making money have to do with it? Who uses the cost of Bacons as a complaint against him: no one. But he's dead, so it's different, or okay. Or what?

Mark Granier said...

Touché George. And you are right of course; I have not actually visited the shark in its proper, unnatural habitat. I have, though, seen many images of it, from many angles, in documentaries, in photographs etc. But I will reserve further judgment (within the sphere of this particular argument) till I & shark have our close encounter, if we ever do. Thank you again for raising it, along with Goya's wonderful dog, Bosch etc. Always good to try to figure these things out.

Stephen, I am not sure I understand. I wasn't aware Hirst's shark was exhibited in the natural history museum? In Dublin? London?
Not sure what you mean by killing space either, though I can hazard a guess or three. I have been in the Rothko room in The Tate, though it was quite awhile ago. I will have to wait for my shark-encounter to compare experiences.

Not sure why you bring Bacon into this. Not my favourite artist. I have mixed feelings about his work, though I he certainly has a unique and very powerful vision. I am afraid I don't think Hirst is an artist at all, yet alone "clearly a great" one, but that's just my opinion of course. If I am not alone with this opinion neither are you with yours.

Anyway, if you do not understand why there is a debate about Hirst I cannot help you. You can bet that Hirst understands it. He would not exist as a famous "artist" in the absence of this debate: controversy is what he works towards, the light at the end of his tunnel-vision.

And now, I have said more than enough on this. Time I was moving on.

Poet in Residence said...

So what else isn't new? As a child I used to visit Mme Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors, even managed to sneak into the famous medical waxworks where all kinds of grizzly bodyparts were on show. At the circus we had the bearded lady, the boxing kangaroo, the sheep with two heads. Yeserday on the TV news security video from an Australian zoo showed a small boy throwing live animals to crocodiles. In our kitchen cupboards we have cans of tuna fish body parts.
Hirst's shark? Let's go to Seaworld and walk through the underwater tunnel and see the real ones, we may even get to stroke the rays.

George S said...

'Clearly' is a big word, Stephen. How do you get to be 'clearly'? There is a fair amount of subjectivity there, I think. I beg to differ and strive to explain why.

And I resent that 'clearly', which implies that everyone who disagrees is 'clearly' an idiot.

Carry on and explain why Hirst is up there with Goya, Rembrandt, Poussin, Picasso, and the rest. Or, if you think that is mere history, go on to compare Hirst with the major contemporary land artists. Or with Kapoor. Or with... well, you name them. Not that I think any of our contemporaries can be thought to be 'clearly' great. That takes time. As for Bacon he had done marvelous work. He became rather repetitive later.

The properly great artists continued to develop. They were forever dissatisfied with themselves because they kept seeing more. Late Goya is different from early Goya (I prefer middle period, as it happens), early and late Rembrandt ditto (in his case I go for late Rembrandt), the late Yeats from the early Yeats (go for late), the late Eliot from the early Eliot (go for early).

Greatness is too close to a hype term at any time, especially in a time like ours, where 'greatness' is much confused with celebrity.

And think about the statement, 'clearly great'. Is that true if anyone says so? Is anyone who is called 'clearly great' clearly, great? That is the big institutional gambit. Why is X good? Because we say he is. Who are you? We are authority. Who says you are? We say we are.

I have tried to explain the shark. It isn't much, but I think an attempt should be made.

George S said...

I am being a bit unfair on Stephen, above. It was the 'clearly' bit that annoyed me. The explaining element in his comment is in the phrase, 'killed the space all around it'. I think that is on to something, though Mark is right to ask him what he means by that. We can and should push these things hard.

It occurs to me that the post I wrote on image begetting image in a poem a few days ago may be related to this. One could propose judging both work and criticism on the quality of response produced. Or if not judging, at least giving the object talked about a little more thinking time.

But Mark is dead right, I think, where he suggests that Hirst's success is predicated in terms of debate around his work. That to me is a deeply suspicious process. It seems to me a vitiating factor in that it bypasses the object, making the debate the object instead.

Poet in Residence said...

Stephen's phrase 'killed the space around it' is so good. Erwin Worm does this 'killing of space' so well in his 'Keep a Cool Head' Exhibition. I remember his small white house perched at a crazy angle as if it was about to fall off the Mumok roof in Vienna's MQ at any moment. That 'it killed the space around it' is exactly the right terminology.
It's our initial reaction to the piece that we mustn't forget. Maybe it's the same with poetry. If a poem jolts the old grey cells into action on first reading it then it's clearly a poem that works. It does its job. You may analyse it to death later, even kill it.
One of the problems of going to contemporary exhibitions is that you've often seen images of what it is you're going to see before you go to see it. So your initial reaction when you get there and see the main attraction is probably not what it should be. With me, it's often some minor piece, the so-called space-filler, that surprises and stays with me.

Stephen Foster said...

There's a bit to deal with there, then. Firstly, Mark, it was on display at the Natural History Museum in London, some time in 93/94, it was an exhibit in some kind of thematic exhibition. I went in off the street with my very young son: I didn't even know it was there. My response is subjective in the sense that anybody has a subjective response, but if you haven't seen it then you haven't experienced it. I think 'not thinking Hirst is an artist at all' is like thinking Eliot is not a serious writer. Plenty of people hate The Wasteland, but they are wrong to dismiss it as 'not literature.' So I can't help you either.

George, I say 'clearly' as a response to the Mark Grainer position. The 'debate' I meant was the one that questions whether Hirst is an artist or not. To me that's as bizarre as questioning what Goya did for a living.

What do I mean by kills the space all around it? Something like ‘stops you in your tracks,’ but beyond than that, that it creates an atmosphere and has a presence, a different atmosphere and presence to a billboard or a car, one provokes haha (metaphysical) thought. The shark's title is actually: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. And that is part of the work of art too.

George S said...

See new post.