Art works that reference art history are in danger of ingesting themselves from the arse outwards – it takes a lightness of touch to avoid the ‘nod-nod, wink-wink’ of knowingness. But self-referential, historiographical practice is important in an era when the origin and provenance of ideas are as mutable as their application; and works that are aware of their own status as artefact adopt, by default, a critical position. Ward Shelley’s graphic wall charts of art history and biography, while perhaps not entirely self-reflexive, do flag up some core concerns of historiography.
Historiography, the study of the writing of history, is a scrutiny not of events but of the way in which events have been interpreted. It operates at a meta-level of analysis – an understanding of understanding – yet its very name contains an oxymoron. History and writing have, by their nature, opposing properties of fluidity and fixity; it is consensus of meaning that enables language to communicate, while history is notoriously gaseous, beyond our grasp and even our eye.
Shelley notes this paradox in a disclaimer: ‘It is important to realize that when you understand something, you have AN understanding of it. There are others, and they are likely to function quite well too.’ Unlike disclaimers in cinema that differentiate fact from fiction, Shelley’s emphasizes subjectivity over objectivity. Although on paper this may seem the same, in practice it is quite another matter. Despite our understanding of liberalism’s need for subjectivity, or Post-structuralism’s insistence on it, we still often find it difficult to swallow a negation of objective history. We cling to the idea of the absolute truth of past events.
Shelley’s pseudo-statistical representations of the influences on and importance of artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Pat Oleszko and Chris Burden rely predominantly on the causal model of art history, relating a narrative that adheres to a linear chronology. A Cartesian understanding of the universe is very much in evidence, only marginally breached by consequent literary and scientific developments, such as the merging of fact and fiction or the gravitational pull of the counter-intuitive. Twentieth-century metafiction – writing that is aware of its own status as fiction – has long been exploring such matters as the unknowable inner life of historical subjects, and Shelley, although committed to the exteriority of his subjects, does allow vestiges of this to suffuse through the empirical information. The main thrust of a diagrammatic representation of musician/producer/songwriter Arto Lindsay, for instance, is a yellow horizontal shaft that dilates and contracts to reflect quantitative values, such as longevity and prominence, of the bands he has been a member of. Concurrent with this are colour-coded flow charts that swell to convey pools of activity, collaboration and relationships with other performers, who may one day be at the centre of a wall chart of their own. Running alongside, bubbles of psychological, social and cultural causes are labelled, from ‘New York pulls’ to ‘envy’ to ‘Neo-Geo’. There is a sense, however, that such interior information is fairly cursory, neither researched with the rigour of literary biography nor invented with the brio of meta-fiction.
It is interesting that Shelley has concentrated mainly on artists involved with performance, a form entirely bound up with the problematics of historiography, favouring the subjectivity of the viewer to the point of the disappearance of the art work. The pressures of art history have often overridden this, objectifying performance as ‘factual’ accounts and photographs, and Shelley too sticks to textbook accounts, even reproducing iconic photographs as drawings: Schneeman straddles a portion of her own flow chart, reading from the infamous scroll that issued from her vagina.
Theoretical misgivings aside, these drawings are feats of spatial organization and the aestheticization of data. And the ludicrous attempt to represent the chaos of 20th-century cultural production as statistics must appeal to the perverse – nine out of ten people love statistics, after all. Also, the work has political side-effects: the classification of the unclassifiable critiques the hubris of rationalism, while the enumeration of art-historical influences shrinks all practitioners down to size. Bearing this in mind, and the statistical forms that Shelley cites as influential – including a 19th-century wall chart of world history, quantitative graphics and the flow chart on the cover of Alfred Barr’s Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), which Shelley has extrapolated to the sandbank of Postmodernism – the unique art work seems incongruous. To suggest that mass-produced forms such as posters or tea towels or duvet covers might be preferable is not to denigrate the work but to acknowledge its subversive potential.