According to the publicity material, the touring exhibition ‘A Secret Service’ addresses ‘numerous aspects of secrecy: magic, alchemy, sexuality, dreams, religion, political conspiracy, assumed identity and the covert workings of the State’. This is a rather extravagant claim, even for an exhibition containing 15 artists and artists’ groups, many of them of international renown. Richard Grayson, the show’s curator, observes in the catalogue that the potentially multiple relationships that can operate between art works and viewers have today largely become ‘no more than a mercantile exchange’. To focus on the secret and the discreet is, he implies, to attempt some kind of return to critical, anti-consumerist values, moving away from the over-simplistic model of commercial success so prevalent within the art world today.
One way of stepping back from the fray is to display material that was originally produced in a clandestine manner, both by artists with substantial reputations and by those who were, until relatively recent times, unheard of. It is, for example, now well known that Kurt Schwitters built several large and multi-layered interior structures termed Merzbau, the original one of which filled three floors of his house in Hanover until its accidental destruction in 1943. Although Schwitters was an able publicist, the Hanover construction, also referred to by the artist as his ‘cathedral of erotic misery’, was a private affair, seen by only a few close friends. These Merzbau structures were represented in the exhibition by a series of photographs, some of which are extremely rare, giving the viewer a welcome glimpse into Schwitters’ mesmerizing interiors. Schwitters is acknowledged in the catalogue as the major point of departure for the show (although Clare Carolin’s text on the artist contains several factual errors such as incorrect dates).
A rather different kind of obscure practice is that of Henry Darger, whose extensive body of works on paper remained unknown until discovered after the artist’s death in 1973 by his landlord. The paintings accompany his 15,000-page novel The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion (c.1911–73), taking the form of detailed illustrations of the exploits of the curiously androgynous Vivian Girls as they fight the evil adult armies of Glandelinia. Here a second layer of secrecy is unveiled as a whole imagined world is unfurled, the work of an artist who himself occupied the ultra-private sphere of his own practice as an isolated amateur.
Tehching Hsieh’s performances (One Year Performance (1978-79) (1979) and several other time-based works carried out over the following 20 years), presented here through documentary material, frequently manifest themselves as privately enacted durational pieces (living in a cage for an entire year, for example, or clocking in on the hour, every hour, again for a whole 12 months). These studio-based actions go largely unwitnessed even by Hsieh’s assistants, and their meanings for, or direct effect on, the artist remain unrecorded. What is eventually disseminated is documentary proof of disciplined repetition, a record of self-imposed strictures given to an audience whose responses will in turn remain private, introspective conceits.
Paul Etienne Lincoln’s Passage to Purification (2001) and related pieces included documentary photographs of a performance, a film and various objects placed within vitrines, all relating to the site of the oldest weeping beech tree in America, introduced from Belgium to New York in 1847. Lincoln’s approach melds together alchemical and shamanistic incunabula, artistic performance and considerable technical manipulation of found and manufactured materials; the result is an impressively integrated gathering of elements that operate at a level that is simultaneously public and private. Susan Hiller’s Dream Mapping (1974) could also be seen as straddling distinct categories, its focus being on investigating
commonplace features of dreams within a group of people gathered together in a specific place. The participants were asked to draw and describe their dreams, and these nocturnal images were then forwarded as pseudo-scientific evidence. Raising the question of the boundary between private and collective experience, as well as that of the public role of the artist, Dream Mapping shows that humble everyday materials (pens and notebooks) are sometimes more than adequate resources for the preservation and transmission of subtle states.
The detailed charts of Mark Lombardi (for example, George W. Bush and Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens (5th version), 1999) are both beautiful and utilitarian, the latter aspect exemplified by the way these works trace hitherto hidden links between major political figures and international corporations. In this respect one is reminded of the dizzying interconnectivities found in the writings of Thomas Pynchon, wherein the rather suspicious things you already knew about are aligned with those you half-suspected but could never quite believe. Lombardi is one of several artists in ‘A Secret Service’ who directly examines the conspiratorial foundations on which rests much of what nowadays passes for legitimate political activity.
Among the other contributors to ‘A Secret Service’ were Sophie Calle, Roberto Cuoghi, Adrian Dannatt, Katarzyna Józefowicz and Mike Nelson, providing a concomitantly broad range of approaches to the exhibition’s core themes. Indeed, a somewhat catholic conception of the secret and the repressed was brought into play in this very provocative and thoughtful show. Richard Grayson suggests in his essay that the work included may be seen as a series of tools for thinking about the politics of that which is obscured and marginalized, and in this respect he is certainly correct.