in Features | 01 JUN 10
Featured in
Issue 132

Exploring Object Relations

Looking into the myriad ways in which contemporary artists have been dealing with their ambivalent relationship to the ready-made

in Features | 01 JUN 10

When it comes to matters of art, few things are as ubiquitous and as resistant to simplification as the object. The art world has an enduring relationship with objects that vacillates between approval of their inescapable commodification and antagonism toward their fetishistic potential. While the field of artistic production has expanded far beyond the material confines of art objects, they continue to be made and circulated. Their use and status in recent art practice, however, is unstable: some artists embrace them wholeheartedly; others avoid their production altogether. The most constructive approaches are those that keep a critical and contextualizing eye on the aesthetic and historical matrices in which the object is, and has been, situated.

It would be tempting, but historically imprecise, to keep blaming Marcel Duchamp for the present state of affairs. After all, his ready-made – defined in the Abridged Dictionary of Surrealism (1938) as ‘an ordinary object elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of the object’ – divested everyday items of their basic utility and invested them with an unprecedented symbolic and discursive complexity. The ready-made stripped the art work of its certificate of aesthetic mastery, dismantling the artist’s authorial pedestal, erasing distinctions between ‘banal’ things and ‘special’ art works, and shifting the focus toward their contextual frameworks.

Dahn Vo, Oma Totem (Grandmother Totem), 2009, television, refrigerator, washing machine, wooden crucifix and card, 220 × 60 × 60 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin

Admittedly, this is a simplification of that story and its broader implications. Historians, critics and artists still wrestle with the impact of the ready-made paradigm. Artists who refuse to participate in the fabrication and dissemination of new objects and images – whether for aesthetic, practical or ideological reasons – may have the critical legacy of the ready-made at the back of their minds, but it is arguably the effects of the ‘dematerialization of the art object’ accomplished by the Conceptual art movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and assessed by Lucy Lippard in her 1973 book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, as well as the influence of institutional critique, that resonate most strongly today.

This is perhaps most obvious in relational art projects that promote social interaction and downplay the centrality of material production. Such initiatives include the rapidly flourishing ‘pedagogical turn’ in art and curating, which substitutes the traditional visual entity with critical pedagogy and educational activism in order to obtain so-called knowledge production. This shift, which harks back to the ‘pictorial turn’ of the 1990s and the ‘linguistic turn’ of the 1970s, provides content (in the form of learning) where it had supposedly been evacuated in Relational Aesthetics of the 1990s. Its material objectlessness can be related to the suspension of the art work’s autonomy, effected by the ready-made, and its subsequent dematerialization into text, space, time and performance, as well as to institutional critique.

By the 1960s, Duchamp foresaw that our world would be governed by the consumption of a ‘whole galaxy of objects’ that could become ready-mades and artists continue to struggle against this inevitability. Today, Raphaël Zarka, Mario Garcia Torres and Danh Vo are seeking meaningful ways to deal with their ambivalent relationships to objects by simultaneously exploring the legacies of the ready-made, Conceptualism and institutional critique.

Zarka has built up a collection of prefabricated items that he claims, paradoxically, not to own. He creates replicas of these objects and integrates them into his photographs, films and slide shows. Zarka selects objects and researches their histories or discloses their makers, showcasing his works’ sources and influences, as well as their indebtedness to images, artefacts and projects already in circulation. He also relies heavily on found objects as raw materials – although these are not usually the kind that can be relocated for display. For example, Zarka’s photographic series ‘Les formes du repos’ (Forms of Rest, 2001–6) consists of carefully framed shots of inanimate geometric fragments of built or partially finished structures, primarily made out of concrete, in a variety of landscapes. Such remains have frequently appeared throughout art history (the nod to Robert Smithson’s 1967 A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic is obvious) and are still prevalent. However, Zarka does not just depict these found fragments in photographs; in certain cases, he reactivates them for use.

Does researching, reconstructing and re-interpreting objects amount to an aesthetic revolution? Surely not.

Les formes du repos no. 3 (rails), (Forms of Rest no. 3 [tracks] 2001) is a striking colour photograph of an elevated road passing through the middle of farmland near Orléans, France, which appears to recede far into the distance, where it reaches the faintest blur of a town. The road seems to have sprouted from the earth, segregated from its surroundings. In fact, the structure is actually a long stretch of track for the Aérotrain, an innovative means of high-speed transportation on air cushions designed by French engineer Jean Bertin in the early 1960s that was never realized; the test track was left in situ. In addition to photographing it, Zarka built two working vehicles for this stretch: Pentacycle (2002), a hybrid five-wheeled velocipede he designed with Vincent Lamouroux, and La draisine (Draisine, 2009), a replica of the rather absurd-looking original service vehicle for the Aérotrain, composed of two Jawa motorbikes that face opposing directions and are separated by a galvanized iron structure housing the wheels that hug the central spine of the track.

Zarka’s most ambitious project to date concerns a geometric figure called the rhombicuboctahedron, which he first encountered in the form of cement breakwaters off a coastal road in the South of France. Zarka researched its origins and built his own wooden replica of this semi-regular polyhedron, which appears in a 16th-century treatise called Divina Proportione (also known as the ‘Golden Ratio’), illustrated by Leonardo da Vinci, as well as in the architecture of the National Library in Minsk, Belarus. Zarka conducted extensive research into the migration of this form over centuries and across cultures, which he recorded in a dual slide projection, Catalogue raisonné des Rhombicuboctaèdres: 1495–2009 (Catalogue Raisonné of Rhombicuboctahedra: 1495–2009, 2009), and as a poster entitled Catalogue des rhombis [1], (Rhombi Catalogue [1], 2009). These works make that form tangible and intelligible via a contextualization that relies more on the accumulation of representations, replicas and associations than on strict scientific method. Nevertheless, in deploying the objects of his research, Zarka claims he has adopted the mode of ‘ratiocination’, or the application of rational thought. Edgar Allen Poe, not the most rational of fellows, apparently used this mode to develop detective fiction, and Zarka paid homage to it in the title of his solo show ‘Ratiocination’, at Galerie Michel Rein, Paris in 2008.

Mario Garcia Torres, What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax (in 36 slides), 2004–6. Courtesy: the artist.

Zarka’s insistence on rational method may be likened to Duchamp’s assertion that an object’s physical appearance should not motivate its selection as a ready-made; the ready-made should remain an object of ‘visual indifference’, impervious to ‘aesthetic emotion’ and judgments of ‘good or bad taste’. As with many of Duchamp’s statements, one shouldn’t take this too literally – in the same breath, he recognized the near-impossibility of sticking to these rules. In fact, far from demonstrating scientific objectivity or disinterestedness, the time devoted and the care (dressed in rational guise or not) with which artists display their mental processes and extensive research indicates quite the contrary: a total lack of indifference that imbues their objects with intellectual depth and, in some cases, with plenty of affect.

Given that our cultural and physical landscape is manifestly littered with objects – and there is no indication that this accretion is sliding to a halt – a restored intellectual depth and emotional charge, even if it is constructed, could be the necessary condition for objects to survive in our imaginations. Garcia Torres admits as much about his interest in the legacies of Conceptual art, which he has revisited in research projects such as What Happens in Halifax Stays in Halifax (in 36 slides) (2004–6). Here, he sought to unearth the secret that had been entrusted by Robert Barry, via teacher David Askevold, to a group of students at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, Canada, more than 30 years earlier, during the heyday of instruction-based art. Garcia Torres spent years tracking down the original participants in the experiment and arranging a class reunion. The physical traces of his research comprise documentation of email and letter exchanges, project descriptions, transcripts of interviews with the former students and the subtitled slide work mentioned above. But the apparent materialization (and title) of the work – slide projections of images of the reunion participants and views of Halifax overlain with text – is a minor element in this networked entanglement of professional relationships, friendships, memories and accounts generated by Garcia Torres.

The artist’s discursive context reconstructs a narrative that gives form to ephemeral or forgotten things, although whether or not we can assimilate it into the production of an object or its objectification is debatable. Missing artefacts inspire and appear in other works by Garcia Torres as well. Je ne sais pas si c’en est la cause (I Don’t Know if That is Why it Happened, 2009), a dual slide projection, unveils colourful murals Daniel Buren created between 1960 and 1965 for the Grapetree Bay Hotel on the Caribbean island of Saint Croix, which was ravaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Garcia Torres’ project reveals a little-known figurative aspect of the pre-history of Buren’s signature stripes. Similarly, in 2009, Garcia Torres unearthed and reconstructed the legendary 1968 exhibition ‘9 at Leo Castelli’, which Robert Morris curated based on his principles of anti-form. Garcia Torres meticulously gathered the scarce documentation of that event, supplementing it with his own deliberately inexact replicas of works in the original show, by artists including Rafael Ferrer, Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra.

The impulse behind Vo’s historicization and contextualization of found or inherited objects is more autobiographical. His cryptically titled 16:32:15-26.05.2009 –shown in Paris on the occasion of his residency with the Kadist Art Foundation in Spring 2009 – comprises two of three chandeliers the artist obtained from the Hôtel Majestic in Paris, the site of the 1973 peace negotiations between the USA and the governments of Vietnam (the third chandelier was displayed at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin several months later). Vo’s discovery of the sale and renovation of the hotel led him to write a letter to the building’s new owners, describing how he had stumbled across a photograph of the ballroom where the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 were signed. Soon after an agreement was reached, the accords were violated, so the chandeliers, as Vo wrote, appeared to him as ‘mute witnesses’ of events that were decisive for his life: after the fall of Saigon, Vo’s family was brought to the island of Phu Quoc in 1975, fled in a boat his father built, and were eventually rescued by a Danish freighter. Vo’s account emphasizes how his biography and his artistic production are as much determined by historical events as they are by chance encounters.

Hanging ponderously from an industrial metal rack, the gleaming chandeliers strain with the weight of collective history. In one fell swoop, their displacement from their original site, where their historical significance would have certainly been overlooked, to a Paris exhibition space not only brings to light aspects of Vo’s own life story, it raises questions about France’s colonial past in Vietnam. Likewise, Vo’s Oma Totem (Grandmother Totem, 2009), which serves as a memorial tombstone for the artist’s grandmother, Nguyen Thi Ty, reinforces deep-seated feelings of filiation and cultural memory. This totem is a vertical stack of items his grandmother received from the Danish immigration service and the Catholic Church upon her arrival in the West: a 26-inch Phillips television is stacked atop an apartment-sized Bomann refrigerator emblazoned with a wooden crucifix, which in turn sits on a Gorenje front-loading washing machine. Although in form and function these objects remain appliances, Vo’s addition of documents, notes and descriptive wall labels contaminates the initial impetus behind the ready-made.

Despite any critical feelings these artists might have about the role and function of objects within art’s symbolic and financial economies, their works explore the core ambivalence at the heart of our relationship to artefacts and demonstrate an increasingly sophisticated understanding of their art-historical heritage. Does researching, reconstructing and re-interpreting objects amount to an aesthetic revolution? Surely not. What these (and countless other) artists achieve by drawing our attention to the hidden lives of objects is much more discreet but no less important. They show that the object’s permeability to such artistic manipulations means we have far from exhausted its aesthetic and mediating potential.