Endless Problems


When screens, avatars, and digital networks become a significant part of one’s authentic daily experience, the digital version of a work of art experienced through these tools is capable of existing as an authentic experience of the work.  The jpeg of the sculpture is different, but just as legitimate as the physical object for people spending as much time focusing on screens as they do on the natural world.

An art object may, therefore, have a physical version which you see here in Amsterdam as well as an equally-representative virtual version which exists in a spoken description, written description, photograph, re-blog, or anything else which disperses through culture. For a trained sculptor with this idea in mind, it may become intriguing to explore their work in virtual space; likewise, an artist working in the virtual space of the Internet may explore a physical version of a work whose earliest manifestations were virtual/conceptual.  In both cases, this trans-dimensional border crossing does not dilute the purity of the work, but opens it up, liberating new potentialities.     

In regard to these points, Harm van den Dorpel, an artist and the curator of this exhibition, writes:

Objects have lost exclusive singular spatial properties. They exist and manifest in fluid forms through different media.  In this, there is no moral hierarchy or pure differentiation in authenticity.  

A work of art in this situation is thus never exhausted or truly authentically experienced because it’s endlessly in motion—existing in a permanent state of passage—one manifestation no more authentic or complete than another. As the artists Seth Price, Oliver Laric, and the art historian David Joselit, amongst others, have pointed out, art in a networked culture is neither here nor there, but rather endlessly dispersed in an evolving multiplicity of media. 

The artists van den Dorpel asked to participate in this exhibition take this premise into account and spider out from there, creating a network of non-hierarchical versions which constitute the same individual work of art.  What is worth noting, though, is that, as mentioned above, many of these artists began working strictly in virtual forms and are now intrigued by the idea of creating physical manifestations of the work.  Virtual forms are often overly conceptual—they can box an artist’s vision into something a bit too cerebral and referential.  Beginning with the idea of a work being an endless network of versions, it becomes liberating to work in space on physical objects—not better, but different.  The point here, though, is that there is no one single entity which can speak for the work—the work is endless. 

For some, though, the endlessness of an art work would be a problematic idea.  For instance, in the 1960s, the art critic and historian Michael Fried actively fought against art works which seem to exist in a state of endless, inexhaustible time and, instead, fought for art works which seemed to exist in a state of “presentness” as if they were reborn anew every moment.  In his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood,” Fried describes how, while, on the one hand, the modernist art of the sculptor Anthony Caro or the painter Jules Olitski catalyzes this sense of “presentness,” the Minimalist art of the sculptors Donald Judd and Tony Smith catalyzes, on the other hand, a sense of what Fried terms “presence” or endless “interest” inside of endured time.  A Caro sculpture, for Fried, transcends its limitations as a mere object and becomes a work of art by composing its parts in such a way, with such demanding exactitude on the part of the artist, as to defeat the sense of its persistence through the profanity of endured time.  In the right mood, one can stand in front of a Caro sculpture and glimpse something with a certain instantaneous fullness—a momentary halt of time’s otherwise endless grip on experience. This is the promise of Fried’s modernism: the defeat of time’s endlessness and a peek into what he refers to as “grace.”  

By giving up this admittedly lofty ideal, though, Minimalist art succumbs, for Fried, to the succubus of “theatricality.”  Theatricality is a sort of parody of art in which art objects are pared down to their most simple forms, activating the viewer’s awareness of--not the “presentness” of the object--but rather their own physical relationship or “presence” to it.  The result is that the viewer is transported out of this momentary state of grace and to the world of everyday time which the viewer normally experiences, anyway.  This is not a whimsical prejudice, but, for Fried, a dire problem.  If art exists in a state of endless inexhaustibility as opposed to the sort of Platonic purity of timeless grace which he finds in true modernism, art is, therefore, doing a disservice to its viewers on an existential, perhaps even spiritual level.  Endless “interest” is--like Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence”--an endless, circular nightmare.  

Fried writes:

Like Judd's Specific Objects and Morris's gestalts or unitary forms, Smith’s cube is always of further interest; one never feels that one has come to the end of it; it is inexhaustible. It is inexhaustible, however, not because of any fullness--that is the inexhaustibility of art--but because there is nothing there to exhaust. It is endless the way a road might be: if it were circular, for example.

A problem with Fried’s understanding of modernism, though, is that even the modernist works which he defends exist in endless versions including, quite prominently, Fried’s own theory of how it is that these works function.  For example, if I was to stand in front of a sculpture by Caro, I may be able to catch a phenomenological whiff of what he is thinking about, but I’m also experiencing his reading of the work hovering over it like an “ornamental halo” or a “shell.”  My experience of the work is neither “presentness’ nor “presence” but rather an endless circulation between the two.  Photographs and appropriations of these works function in a similar way--there is always a different “turn of the kaleidoscope” through which to view them. Fried critiques Minimalist sculpture for being “nothing,” but fails to see that the modernism he prefers is wound up in the same nothingness—the same endless maze of versions speaking to one another at cross-purposes, hovering around zero.   

Perhaps the deeper point, though, is that this endlessness need not necessarily be thought of as something to defeat or transcend in the first place.  On the contrary, an acceptance of a work’s inability to ever truly complete itself may open up new forms of pleasure and self-knowledge.  A work need not be just tastefully serious Art, but tastefully serious Art as well as naïve, funny, in poor taste, and on and on.  It’s modernism and post-modernism and pre-modernism—all are equally there in a network—endlessly shuttling from one node to another.    

As Robert Smithson put it in his “Letter to the Editor” response to Fried’s essay in Artforum:

…Eternity brings about the dissolution of belief in temporal histories, empires, revolutions, and counter-revolutions—all becomes ephemeral and in a sense unreal, even the universe loses its reality.  Nature gives way to the incalculable cycles of nonduration. Eternal time is the result of skepticism, not belief. Every refutation is a mirror of the thing it refutes—ad infinitum. Every war is a battle with reflections. What Michael Fried attacks is what he is. He is a naturalist who attacks natural time. Could it be there is a double Michael Fried—the atemporal Fried and the temporal Fried? Consider a subdivided progression of "Frieds" on millions of stages.

As mentioned above, new technologies including the Internet make an object’s multiplicity more obvious.  Google “Michael Fried” and witness first-hand the “subdivided progression of ‘Frieds’ on millions of stages.”  Furthermore, if one learns anything from Wikipedia, it’s that no definition is concrete; anything fundamental will mutate.  One can watch this happen live on Wikipedia itself.  This is not a lofty philosophical observation, but a fact of life which the Internet rubs in one’s face.  

The work in this exibition is part of a recent turning point in art which responds to these transformations.  In the work of van den Dorpel, Juliette Bonneviot, Charles Broskoski, Martijn Hendriks, Joel Holmberg, Timur Si-Qin, (fill in others artists in alphabetical order) one views a point of view which accepts its endless stages and illuminates them as endless.