Jong Holland no. 4, 2006: Theory and the Sphinx

This issue of the Dutch art history journal jong Holland (vol. 22, no. 4, December 2006) contains my essay “Theory and the Sphinx” (in English, pp. 54-59). The starting point is the apparent logocentrism of much project-based contemporary art practice and art discourse, which is discussed in the context of Jacques Rancière’s concept of the “aesthetic regime”, which he sees as shaping the discourse on art since the years around 1800, and in which the work of art is regarded as an objet de pensée marked by a perpetual tension between logos and pathos, between conscious and unconscious elements – reason and its non-identical other. However:

“The current use of theory in the art world, in which every artistic practice must be grounded in some sort of discourse, suggests that we may be witnessing the birth of still another regime, in which art becomes disturbingly transparent ­– at least to modern ‘traditionalists’. Is the complex modern relationship between art and theory well and truly history, now that the logocentric tendency seems to triumph? […] Is Rancière’s philosophical formalization of the ‘aesthetic regime’ de facto an obituary for a bygone period, or is the modern dialectic of conscious and unconscious elements still operative in contemporary art, even when it seems to have purified itself into fully conscious ‘research’?" This question is addressed through an analysis of the motif of the sphinx, a signifier of obscure otherness from Hegel to Freud, from Ingres to Dalí and beyond.

More information on this issue of jong Holland:

Image: Illustration selected by Joseph Cornell for Gilbert Seldes’ book The Movies Come from America (1937).

HTV no. 66: The Holy Grail

I served as guest editor of issue no. 66 (November / December 2006) of the bimonthly free Dutch art newspaper HTV. The issue is dedicated to the Holy Grail. Textual and visual contributions by Sven Augustijnen, Bik Van der Pol, Karin Bos, Matti Braun, Jan Dietvorst, Mischa Rakier, Martha Rosler, Aurora Sierraponte, Berend Strik.

From the editorial: “Asking people to contribute to an issue on the Holy Grail may appear like editorial whimsicality at its worst. After all, why should serious writers and artists care about this piece of cultural junk, the property of mass-cultural hacks and marginal loons? The gambit of this edition of the HTV is that the Grail, in spite of its fall from cultural grace, is a privileged sign. Probably invented by Chrétien de Troyes in the late twelfth century, it remained a questionable and tantalizing signifier in search of a fixed meaning; was it a stone, Christ’s cup, or something else? Things only became more muddled when modern authors and Grail seekers attempted to find a material or immaterial referent that would finally provide the sign with a clear identity. In this issue of the HTV, by contrast, writers and artists aim to exploit the latent instability of the Grail sign. The Grail and its legends are excessively vague and formless, endlessly shape-shifting precisely because of incessant attempts to pin it down. […]

"Perhaps Martha Rosler’s appropriated text on “copyleft” might stand for this HTV as a whole. Earlier this year, two of the inventors of the theory that the Grail is really a bloodline sued Da Vinci Code-author Dan Brown for copyright infringement; although Brown won, the policing of “intellectual property” is quickly escalating into a reign of intellectual terror. As important as it is to oppose this regime by advocating and facilitating the free use of texts and images, “copylefting” a charged sign such as the Grail can only be successful when it is turned against its dominant usage and put to a new use. We encourage you to read between the lines.”

My essay for this publication, “Grail for Sale: The Holy Grail in Modern Cultyure, Time and Again” can be found on Go to “current”, then to issue 66 in the archive. The text is part of my research into modern artistic and theoretical approaches to myth and mythology (which will hopefully occupy more of my time in the future); the essay analyses the Grail in the context of Romantic dreams of a “new mythology’, as well as of critical analyses of commodified culture as constituting a relapse into myth.

Top image: Untitled by Matti Braun.

New Left Review No. 40: Suspense and Surprise

My essay “Suspense and…Surprise” in New Left Review no. 40 (July-August 2006, pp. 95-109) takes cues from filmmakers such as Hitchcock, Malle and Buñuel to analyse the temporality of the “War on Terror”. Revisiting Joseph Conrad’s tale of anarchist terrorism, The Secret Agent, as well as Hitchcock’s 1936 film version, Sabotage, the text investigates the complicity of mass media and terrorism, both feeding off each other in their attempts to shape time through supense and suspense. The text is part of a continuing series of texts called “Interesting Times”, which investigates the ways in which the media - especially the visual media – shape the production of contemporary time, making history precisely by containing and curtailing the potential(s) of history.

From the introduction:

“Comparisons of 9.11 with digital disasters in blockbuster films abound. The collapse of the Twin Towers was quickly linked to film scenes such as the destruction of the White House by aliens in Independence Day. In staging such sensational acts of destruction for the media, Al Qaeda terrorists also participate, of course, in the Western capitalist spectacle they profess to abhor. Terrorism’s role within the spectacle has been imaginatively conceptualized in Retort’s Afflicted Powers. But as Guy Debord argued, this ‘inconceivable foe’ is also constructed by the West itself: ‘the story of terrorism is written by the state’. What remains underdeveloped is the analysis of the ‘perpetual present’ of the contemporary spectacle through which that tale is told, and the temporal politics which constitute it. This present is ruled by media events, structured in turn by a dialectic of suspense and surprise; it is through their manipulation of time that the larger historical picture is obscured. Under threat of terrorism, bloody surprises are accompanied by a sustained—or sometimes nagging, low-key—suspense, that can be perpetuated for weeks, months or even years on end. Historically, twentieth-century filmmakers took cues from terrorism when perfecting their production of suspense and surprise. Today those engaged in the production and mediation of ‘terror’ and ‘war on terror’ appear as savvy manipulators of people’s experience of time, masters of the bad infinity of that present in which nothing ever happens.”

Image: Lobby card for Hitchcock's Sabotage (1936).

A Prior: Erik van Lieshout

Issue no. 12 of the magazine A-Prior, which was published in March 2006, contains my short text “Erik Van Lieshout’s Video Shacks” (pp. 6-9) discusses the installations in which Van Lieshout screens his videos. An extract:

“In the 1960s, the rise of Minimalism led to increasing references to 'the beholder', or sometimes the 'the viewer' or 'the spectator', in writings on contemporary art. Since the physical experience of the work was an essential part of Minimal art, art critics created a disembodied and universalized spectator to represent the 'typical' response to Minimalist works. An artist who not only participated in but also reflected on the emergence of art that demanded a physical response was Dan Graham: with his use of video cameras and monitors, glass, and one-way and two-way mirrors, Graham subjected the viewers to a series of tests, both making them aware of the other viewers and suggesting that (post-)Minimalist art strives to create precisely the sort of homogenous, abstract and universal beholder referenced in art criticism.

Van Lieshout's video installation Happiness (2004) recalls some of Grahams work, especially his 1981 Cinema project and his pavilion structures. Van Lieshout's construction looks like a cheap knock-off combining elements lifted from Graham and Frank Gehry: it consists of a wooden structure supporting an undulating skin which is transparent from the inside but mirroring from the outside. Standing inside the structure, watching the video, one can also watch the surrounding area and see if anyone is approaching. The video focuses again on Van Lieshout and his brother; this time, the siblings are not on Rotterdam's mean streets but in the countryside, in the sylvan surroundings of a psychiatric institution, where they - especially the brother - are grappling with their dysfunctional behaviour. Standing inside, watching both the behaviour in the video and the highly codified and disciplined art space and art-world people surrounding it, one is in a strange limbo - Happiness is an impossible panopticon that shows two incompatible spaces at the same time. Like most of Dan Graham's works, and like most Expanded Cinema pieces, Erik van Lieshout's video pavilions are in fact seen by a relatively homogenous group of art-world denizens, but they also point towards the possibility a more inclusive audience.”

The complete text can be found here:

Image: Erik van Lieshout, Happiness (2004)

Secret Publicity

My book Secret Publicity: Essays on Contemporary Art, a selection of texts from the preceding years, was published by NAi publishers in February 2006 (the book purports to be from 2005, but publication was delayed for a few months) . Through a variety of artists and theorists ranging from Broodthaers to Jeff Wall, Bik Van der Pol and Tino Sehgal and from Bataille to Debord, as well as more obscure and less canonical artists and non-artists (David Thomas, Wilhelm Reich), Secret Publicity seeks to investigate the art world’s possibilities for creating forms of publicness beside and beyond the spectacle.

From the introduction:

“With Duchamp’s readymades, art began to admit that the spectacle is the more successful avant-garde, and that the commodity is the ultimate work of art, an endlessly fascinating mix of logos and mythos. A redefinition of art thus took place: no longer the production of totally independent highbrow goods, art became spectacle-consumption – or meta-consumption, as Boris Groys terms it. This particular form of consumption decodes and recodes the irrational rationality of the spectacle, thereby producing deviant commodities, which are more thought-provoking and productive compounds of logos and mythos.

"The problem is that such characterizations of the possibilities of art tend to degenerate into – or are confused with – an ideologization of art as intrinsically good and noble: the meta-spectacle as the good, critical spectacle. The modern ideology of the aesthetic, according to which art is a privileged domain distinguished in a positive sense from other sectors of modern civilization, has long deteriorated into a kind of good cop / bad cop routine: the ‘big’ culture industry is bad, but its artistic version is good for people, refined, complex – and critical. Just as the critical character of modernism served as a sales argument for medium-specific commodities, the same now applies to the generic commodities of contemporary art. Art may today absorb all the world’s garbage, but it rescues and ennobles the materials it consumes. It is clear that institutions like the Tate and the Guggenheim reduce such pretensions to hypocrisy. In comparison to these satanic mills of the artistic culture industry, Time Warner at least has a refreshing lack of pretensions. Yet the ideology of art, dulling and hypocritical though it may be, also enables practices that could not exist elsewhere. A truth may sometimes manifest itself under the cover of a lie – even if its existence is only ephemeral and marginal. The ideology of art has to be deployed tactically, and if necessary turned against itself [….]. ”

A review of Secret Publicity by Zoë Gray can be found here:

A review by Andre Rottmann (in German) is here:

Particularly interesting feedback came from Jan Verwoert, in Open, but that review is not online.

Although the publisher no longer has the book in stock, there are still copies available from amazon and other retailers.

Julika Rudelius

Julika Rudelius: Looking at the Other is the catalogue of the artist’s solo show at De Hallen in Haarlem, The Netherlands (December 2005-February 2006). It contains my essay “Cinema’s Doppelgänger: Remarks on Two Works by Julika Rudelius” (pp. 5-19), which analyses her work in the context of different forms of multiple projection, in art and film history:

Tagged (2003) and Economic Primacy (2005) are two closely related works by Julika Rudelius. Economic Primacy is a double projection in which Dutch businessmen expound their convictions and prejudices, whereas Tagged focuses on young men, mainly of Moroccan descent, and all living in Amsterdam. Tagged consists not of two but of three aligned and immediately adjacent projections, but the general structure of the works is the same. Both show members of a group who share certain values and a habitus, and in both cases the members of this group are shown in an abstract, generic space: a bare hotel room in Tagged, and a bland office in Economic Primacy. In both works, a shot usually shows only one person in this interior (in Tagged there are brief shots of two boys together). Double or triple projection enables Rudelius to practise a kind of synchronic montage that establishes connections between the various protagonists, between two or more images – in addition to the diachronic montage between two shots within one and the same projection. While the coexistence of these two forms of montage is by now rather common, as multiple projection is ubiquitous in contemporary video art, the way in which Rudelius deploys double and triple projection is specific to her practice.”

The catalogue is available from amazon:

Image on the right: Economic Primacy (2005), detail.