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Issue 121 March 2009 RSS

Life Work

Working in the field of art makes it very difficult to draw a line between a professional and private life. What’s the best way forward?

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Mary Heilmann, Save the Last Dance for Me (1979)

Life, to start with, is not just about your professional life. There is so much more to it than just work. The trouble is that, when you get into art, that ‘so much more’ is precisely what you want your work to be about. Life is what you want to immerse yourself in through your work. The freedom of the artist and intellectual, Theodor Adorno wrote, lies in the possibility of not having to separate work from pleasure as all those caught up in the system of division of labour do.1 This is our chance for a good life. But this is also why things tend to get messy. Today it’s more difficult than ever to draw a line between our professional and private lives when new communication technologies make it possible for the call of duty to reach you even in the most remote places or intimate moments. For writers, the writing pad used to provide a complete retreat. Now the pad is a laptop, and people Skype you on it.

Not that it ever was easy to draw that line. To be part of an art scene was probably always as emotionally confusing as it is today. With who, and in what guise, do you want to get involved and recognized? As a professional or as a person? How do you mark the difference? How do you draw the line between colleagues and friends? Why even categorize? You may wish to be open to whatever someone who enters your life might become for you. Still, recognizing a real friend seems crucial when everyone around you is professionally friendly. And love is a mess anyway when you happen to be in the same field, in the arts, with all of us being – how shall I put it? – a bit special (beautiful and difficult, grandiose and needy, generous and selfish, seeking and giving intense pleasure). So, rather than draw lines, we may want to invent a new language to commune with the strange phenomena that the people who get under our skin inevitably are and will continue to be.

For no matter how fast the art world grows, we – ‘we’ being those who have become part of each others’ lives through what we do – will continue to inhabit the worlds that we together create for ourselves. How are we to do this? In many ways the question ‘how to continue?’ could well be the most troubling question in a professional art life. To begin with, the very moment of getting started professionally as an artist (writer or curator), after leaving whatever school you may have been to, is notoriously riddled with doubts about how – if at all! – to go on producing work, especially since most people will at this point be steeped in the debts they took on to pay for their education. You know you should tell yourself that things need time to develop. But still, existentially and financially, it’s hard to fight the feeling that you need recognition and money now. And ‘now’ had better be soon, if things are to carry on at all.

Politically, this time is crucial because it is at this point (if not earlier, at art school) that a generational contract is written up between the so-called ‘emerging’ artists and those who are already in professional positions. It is a contract about how – and by whom – art is to be continued. One would assume that the power lies with the members of the older generation here, but that is not necessarily the case, because they in turn need to be redeemed by the appreciation of those who will outlive them. Moreover – at least, this is my experience – the ones who may eventually give you much of what you need are those who currently don’t have it either: they are people of your own generation, who are in a similarly precarious position. Creating the structures that will support you spiritually and economically through building communities, alliances, friendships – anything that is more than just a ‘network’ – is what the contract with your own generation is about. But it may be years in the making.

For anyone who then somehow manages to build a career in art, the question of how to go forward will have other implications. You want that career to continue, but you are afraid it could grind to a halt. With livelihoods built on art being so fragile, for most of us at least, there is a constant awareness that things could come to an end. We just know that, irrespective of our best-laid plans, life may always put an obstacle in our way that changes everything. ‘To put an obstacle in someone’s path’ is the meaning of the Hebrew verb ’stn. It’s also the root of the name ‘Satan’. How to face Satan? Much desperate careerism seems driven by the understandable urge to suppress the fear of uncontrollable turns in life by pushing ahead with eyes wide shut. In contrast, learning to live with your fears probably just means familiarizing yourself with Satan, having him over for drinks once in a while. Not that this would prepare you for anything. But to find some Satanist way of admitting what one cannot control into one’s life seems a better option than careerism.

Perhaps the original ethos of Conceptual art and Fluxus, their way of relating art to life, was actually quite close to this spirit. After all, it was also about realizing that you could just write a sentence on a wall or meet friends and improvise something, and that would be enough: you would be finished with work for the day (!), so you could relax, go out and live your life. Or conversely, if the need to cope with life or make a living was taking up most of your time – and made it impossible to reach what supposedly were the standards of a professional studio practice – you could still create a Conceptual gesture or intervention any time and it would be art: you would be an artist, and you would lack nothing. Whatever happened to this ethos of anti-professionalism? Today, it seems, the concept of Conceptual work has been turned upside down, only to increase the pressure to perform professionally at all times. If ideas come easy, many people seem to think, then surely one can expect a proposal for a project to be presented by the end of the week? No, one can’t. It’s about time we put the concept of Conceptual work back on its feet. It was, and should continue to be, part of an experiment with finding ways in art to live a good life.

Yet anxieties about the continuation of a career don’t manifest themselves only in the fear that things may come to an end. They notoriously also erupt in moments of (mid-life) crisis when, once your career is established, you realize that your life may always carry on exactly the way it is now. For something to bring that way of life to an end may now be what you secretly crave. The traditional options that bourgeois society offers to satisfy this craving and flirt with potential disaster are alcoholism and adultery. In art Modernism provides more heroic terms of surrender: to paint the last picture, your black canvas, and take your leave with a masterpiece that will stun all and thus end art for everyone. Even though this is so obviously just a suicidal fantasy of instant relief, its grand momentum has never quite lost its allure. To counter this faux heroism probably means coming to terms with the fact that the most courageous thing to do may be to face the everyday reality of the life and work you have created for yourself – and continue.

One reason why the works of Mary Heilmann, for instance, are so strong, is that they are radiant with precisely this courage to carry on, to continue painting beyond the Modernist melodrama of last pictures but with the Modernist insistence that painterly form matters – and while being pleasurably Satanist in letting some of the emotional mess that life can involve spill into the work and permeate its form. Take Save the Last Dance for Me (1979).2 It’s black all right. But on the black canvas there are three pink rectangles of different sizes, all upright but ever so slightly askew. The determination in the painterly form lies in its carefully crafted indeterminacy: while their luminescent colour and clear contours make the rectangles look like windows onto a space beyond the wall of black paint, a few pink drippings on the black below them create the impression that they could actually also be on top, moving across the canvas in what, owing to the varying uneven angles of their outlines, looks like a continuous dancing motion. The black canvas here is not the end of but the exit to painting, through which it enters anew, dancing, into a different space, a pink space. The pink feels soft and sexy, while its dark hard edges look restrained and cool. If there was sound to the painting, this emotional tension would probably be best expressed by Motown Soul played New Wave-style: think ‘Tainted Love’.
So in Save the Last Dance for Me, Heilmann admits life into the work, not through rigid heroic gestures but by creating a tension inherent in painterly form that captures precisely what defines certain existential emotional states: their indeterminacy, the way in which in such states nothing is ever clear, all feelings are mixed and one thing always means another, but determinedly so. The work’s title amplifies this tension: if the dance the pink planes perform is the last one, then, paradoxically, this last dance always continues in the painting. It won’t stop, as the painterly illusion keeps setting the planes in motion. But even if it is obviously already happening, the last dance, as the title insists, is always yet to come. It should be saved. By whom, and for whom? By a ‘you’ for a ‘me’. Could this be anyone? No, it would have to be someone special. The title is an open formula for an intimate contract over a future exchange of appreciation.

It seems like the peculiar indeterminable temporality of these contractual terms is exactly what we would need to grasp in order to draft an agreement on the future of art. This is not supposed to sound too morbid – but the generation that opened up crucial possibilities for the present in the 1960s and ’70s is about to reach a critical age. Some of its members are already dead. How are we going to express our indebtedness to them? More artists’ estates will come into circulation, or are already doing so. Who is going to take care of them, and how?
In a highly thoughtful and provocative way this question was raised by a recent exhibition at Cubitt Gallery, London. Together with the artist Tris Vonna-Michell, curators Bart van der Heide and Caterina Riva developed a setting in which to provide access to the private archive of the late poet Henri Chopin. In the semi-intimacy of a half-closed séparée installed in the gallery, visitors would receive an index from which to select works, whereupon the curator, wearing white gloves, would disappear into the gallery office to return with what was requested: pieces of typewriter or sound poetry, rough in the facticity of composition and surreal in their humour, or issues of the magazines Cinquième Saison and OU which Chopin had published. Some issues came as boxes filled with peculiar objects: toys for mind-games. Going through the material, you faced a monitor with a video showing the curator doing the same thing: turning pages, opening boxes. This doubling of the scene further heightened its theatricality. Like a child, you found yourself playing ‘archive’ (like children playing ‘post office’). While this intensified the experience of the situation, it also suspended its reality, the curator becoming a 19th-century copy of himself and the artist-run space an imaginary museum. The terms of the generational contract negotiated in this state of indeterminate identity were thus terms of becoming: becoming a subject of remembrance. The theatricality of Cubitt ‘playing’ the Louvre made you grasp that remembrance must be performed. It’s a performance that needs people to be continued, and for which institutions can only ever set the stage.

Thinking of other such contractual terms of becoming, the title of a collaborative exhibition comes to mind – one that Roman Ondák devised in 2003, together with the late Július Koller, protagonist of first-generation Slovak Conceptualism: they called it ‘Teenagers’. Beautifully, the tongue-in-cheek invocation of a teenage state of disoriented becoming projects a scenario of two generations meeting to share their ongoing confusion and plot some mischief together.

How we approach the generation of artists who worked under conditions imposed by the ideological regimes of Cold War times is in fact crucial for how art history will continue. This applies to artists such as Koller, whose work was marginalized at the time and begs to receive the appreciation it merits. Yet it also concerns artists whose work, for instance, was temporarily celebrated during the heroic Modernist phase of postwar socialism and, with the demise of the system, now too seems destined to disappear.

The work of the Croatian artist Vojin Bakic is a case in point. Bakic designed iconic (surreally energetic) Modernist monuments for postwar Yugoslavia, which are now left to decay. To take another look at Bakic’s art, the curatorial collective WHW and Søren Grammel created a scenario in the Grazer Kunstverein in which small sculptures from the Bakic family estate, including many models for future monuments, were staged next to recent pieces by Marine Hugonnier, Sean Snyder and Luca Frei. This instantly proved that Bakic’s sculptural sketches were no less searching and fragile than the contemporary work. In down-scaling Bakic’s oeuvre, the exhibition made it clear that monumentalism did not have to be its only destiny but that it also had another trajectory: the continuous, sensually intellectual inquiry into the possibilities of abstract form. By performing the staging of the work in a contemporary key, Bakic’s art was thrown back into an open process of becoming.
One of the most crucial sites for negotiating the terms of (inter-) generational politics today, finally, are biennials. For it is here that the systemic pressure for a new artistic generation to be churned out like a fresh product line every two years becomes most painfully apparent. Against this backdrop the 5th Berlin Biennial stood out because its curators, Elena Filipovic and Adam Szymczyk, formulated a determinedly different stance in presenting works by artists of an older generation such as Babette Mangolte, Michel Auder, Susan Hiller or Kohei Yoshiyuki alongside contributions by younger artists. Unlike Documenta’s officious art-historical exercises in comparative viewing, their approach rather conveyed a commitment to very particular people whose work has remained difficult to place, not least because it epitomizes a certain spirit of irreverence. Notably, quite a number of younger artists, such as Nairy Baghramian, Susanne Winterling and Paulina Olowska, articulated in their work a similar desire to summon and channel certain wandering spirits – Janette Laverrière, Eileen Gray and Zofia Stryjenska, respectively – not least to rewrite the generational contract in feminist terms. This practice of artistic channelling was in turn given particular attention as some participating artists, including Baghramian and Olowska, were invited to curate exhibitions of the work of these older artists in a space (the Schinkel Pavilion) that was dedicated exclusively to this purpose. Strikingly, in the show as in individual works, art with a history was treated not primarily as a vehicle of legitimization but primarily as a source of inspiration.

If we assume, then, that life in art, beyond professionalism, is about negotiating ways to continue (our life, work, relationships, history) together, it seems that in and through art certain terms could be proposed for a generational contract that, drafted in an irreverent spirit of determinate indeterminacy, will allow us to keep things in a state of becoming – saving the last dance for each other, for someone special, for quite some time.

1 Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, Verso, London and New York, 2005, pp. 130f.
2 My thoughts here are indebted to Terry R. Myers, Mary Heilmann - Save the Last Dance for Me, Afterall Books, London, 2007

Jan Verwoert

Jan Verwoert is a contributing editor of frieze and teaches at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.


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Issue 121, March 2009

by Jan Verwoert

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