DISCREET OBJECTS : ESSAY BY MELISSA LOUGHNAN & HELEN HUGHES

July 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

This essay is published on the occasion of the exhibition Discreet Objects, courtesy of the authors and Utopian Slumps.

DISCREET OBJECTS : UTOPIAN SLUMPS

LAUREN BERKOWITZ
ALEX MARTINIS ROE
ELIZABETH NEWMAN
SRIWHANA SPONG

Curated by Melissa Loughnan and Helen Hughes
Utopian Slumps
Ground Floor
33 Guildford Lane
Melbourne, Australia
www.uptopianslumps.com

9 – 31 July, 2010

Essay by Melissa Loughnan and Helen Hughes

Much like minimalist art, a discreet object is, in algorithmic or topological terms, something wholly autonomous or distinct from its surroundings. Often calling upon prefabricated industrial materials such as steel, glass or lead to eradicate any trace of the artist’s hand, minimalist art sought to defy an expressionist interpretation — thus reflecting the onus of divining meaning back to the viewer. Yet as we know, during the 1960s and 1970s, audiences of minimalism had much difficulty in treating the minimalist object as simply that: an entirely discreet and abstract entity whose meaning was effectively experiential, pivoting around its very autonomy. Faced with these stark objects, critics, curators and other commentators turned to alternative methodological frameworks extrinsic to art in order to theorise the movement.

Almost synchronically with the rise of East-coast American minimalism, in 1962, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (which treated perception as an intertwined bodily experience, not just a visual or optical one) was translated from French into English and was subsequently employed by a number of commentators (such as Rosalind Krauss, Marcia Tucker and Robert Morris) to find meaning in an art form in which it was ostensibly eschewed. By treating the viewing body as a single object in an interconnected space — one star amongst a constellation of influence — the subject of the minimalist object and its shifting point of view became an integral component of the work. This was made explicit in Donald Judd’s shiny brass cubes of 1974 (Untitled [six boxes]), which reflected and refracted the lower part of the viewers’ bodies and the space surrounding them as they walked through the installation.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, the constellation of influence surrounding and supporting the minimalist movement was far from neutral, despite its strippedback materials and simple, conceptual structures. When minimalist art began to be exhibited in alternative and commercial galleries around New York, and in the mid-1960s and later, when this type of work began to receive institutional support via major exhibitions1, the ‘everyday’ inflections that were inscribed onto or reflected in the surfaces of such works were largely distilled by the hegemonic infrastructures governing the spaces in which they were presented.2 Accordingly, a socio-historical reading of the adoption of phenomenology as an interpretative framework for minimalism presents a number of problems.

In the 1970s, for instance, when poststructuralist theories of individuation began to permeate both object making and art criticism, and as the second-wave feminist movement augmented, phenomenology was attacked for assuming the gender-neutrality (therefore implicit masculinity) of the viewing subject. Feminist groups argued that the ‘perceiving body was never an abstract entity but a nexus of social and cultural determinations’, and minimalist art was henceforth viewed as inherently masculine.3

Building upon this intricate relationship and rejecting the Kantian idea of art as a discreet field in lieu of one that is inextricably bound to other social and political spheres, Discreet Objects brings together four female artists from Australia and New Zealand whose practices variously invert, subvert or distort the phenomenological body of minimalism. They do this by imbricating the neutral forms of the minimalist object with numerous layers of personal and collective meaning, and employing readymade objects for their associative qualities rather than for their characteristic autonomy. The title Discreet Objects references another creative sphere that can be seen as loosely intertwined with the legacy of the minimalist movement: Brian Eno’s 1975 album Discreet Music. For this release, Eno experimented with algorithmic tape loops to compose a type of background music or noise — furthering Erik Satie’s explorations into ‘furniture music’. Like his conceptual American predecessor John Cage, Eno recognised the creative potential of everyday or ‘background’ sounds in a similar manner to the way that a number of post-minimalist artists working in the 1990s (such as Felix Gonzales-Torres) recognised the political potential of utilising everyday objects (or subjects, as is the case with Santiago Sierra) in their artworks.4

Discreet Objects has a number of curatorial precursors. In New York in 1994, the Museum of Modern Art presented Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties, curated by Lynn Zelevansky, which exhibited work by Polly Apfelbaum, Mona Hatoum, Rachel Lachowicz, Jac Leirner, Claudia Matzko, Rachel Whiteread and Andrea Zittel to explore the way that international female artists utilized a post-minimalist aesthetic to deploy feminist concerns. Locally, in 1998, a mini-survey of Australian female postminimalist artists was presented at The Ian Potter Museum, University of Melbourne in The Infinite Space: Women, Minimalism and the Sculptural Object, which included Lauren Berkowitz, Mikala Dwyer, Rosalie Gascoigne, Gail Hastings, Janet Laurence, Susan Norrie, Rosslynd Piggot and Kathy Temin. Forming a dialogue with these precursors, Discreet Objects considers the appropriation and re-politicisation of the discreet minimalist object in the 21st century — after it has been thoroughly ingratiated not only into the visual languages of artists and art historians, but of architects, graphic designers and urban planners too. Diametrically opposed to the ‘hermetically sealed and emotionally mute’ minimalist sculptures and paintings of the 1960s and 1970s, Discreet Objects presents a group of works that aim to engender discourse about place, history and the role of the individual within each.5

Lauren Berkowitz’s Installation #4 (1993–2010) reflects the artist’s personal memories of her experiences in New York City while studying there in the early 1990s. Turning to the detritus of the ‘everyday’, Berkowitz collected telephone books that were placed on curbs for recycling. When originally exhibited in 1993, the books formed an interactive V-shaped installation. Berkowitz has written of it: ‘The interior of this work was padded and soft, creating a space of comfort and security, however for some viewers the experience was claustrophobic and anxiety-inducing. The columns spun and swayed with the movement of visitors, creating a chaotic, overwhelming and disorienting experience.’6 The work was visceral; as the telephone book pages yellowed over time, they too became brittle and eventually began to emit an odour of decay. Engaging with viewers’ olfactory senses as well as their visual ones, the work rejected the detached minimalist viewer and opted for utter immersion instead.

Installation #4 is also connected to Berkowitz’s Jewish heritage, where her first engagement with the NYC telephone book stemmed from looking up all the Berkowitzs listed, as well as all the listings of her husband’s family name. Similar to many diasporic Jewish communities, there was a curiosity to locate any possible family descendants who might have been dislocated or dispersed to different parts of the world in the aftermath of the Holocaust. In the work, the pages of telephone books form a type of ephemeral memorial and speak, as Charles Mereweather has written, of ‘a desire to recover a family — if not construct one for [the artist] herself while living away from home’.7 Whilst harnessing the appearance of instability, this exquisite and precarious structure simultaneously evokes absence amongst a latent web of presence. As the artist has noted, it speaks of ‘obsolescence and vulnerability through [its] fragile form, but simultaneously regenerates, mutates and hints at its ability to grow infinitely’.8

White Residue (2010), Berkowitz’s second sculptural component in Discreet Objects, similarly incorporates the recycling of discarded materials; this time, the factory off-cuts of leather cricket balls. When hung en masse, the installation evokes a series of almost biological associations (such as ‘replicated cellular walls’ or a ‘multitude of hairy follicles’9), and simultaneously establishes a dialogue with Zelevansky’s assertion that ‘post-minimalism set a precedent for encoding social and biological concerns into Minimalist-derived forms’.10 White Residue carries with it many layers of alternative meaning, including a feminist reconstruction of traditional ‘women’s business’, as well as more environmental concerns pertaining to industrial and consumer waste.

Constructed from felt fabric on linen, the material nature of Elizabeth Newman’s Untitled (Yellow and Grey Diptych) (2009) and Untitled (Black Cross) (2007−2010) automatically engages in a dialogue with the traditionally female activities of stitching, sewing and mending. Yet it also recalls the shamanistic belief in (and use of) the regenerative qualities of felt by the post-War German artist Joseph Beuys.11 Fittingly, one of Beuys’s major concerns as an artist during Germany’s post-fascist reconstruction era was in battling the impending onslaught of institutional critique that would explode in the wake of the Duchmpian readymade. Being more interested in art’s corrective potentialities than its critical capacity, Beuys warned: Das Schweigen von Marcel Duchamp wird überewertet (‘the silence of Marcel Duchamp is overrated’). Like Berkowitz’s appeal for audiences to recognise the communicative power of everyday objects, such as plastic bags, glass bottles or telephone books, Newman too forces viewers to re-evaluate their relationships with the objects around them — such as the materials that make up their clothes, or other domestic items — by repositioning them in bold and mock iconic configurations.

The bright monochromatic colours of Newman’s diptych, coupled with her insistence on labelling these fabric works as ‘paintings’, also suggest a link to the largely masculine hard-edged abstraction of West-coast American painting in the early-1960s — recalling the shaped and colourful canvases of Ellsworth Kelly in particular. Yet in Newman’s panels, the edges of the colour fields are fraying and the straight lines are subtly subverted. These are qualities that can only be gleaned upon close inspection, and not by the viewer of the hard-edged abstraction who is forced to assume a more distanced position from the art object itself. Rendered in monumental scale, the traditionally quiet sentiment of ‘women’s craft’ in these works is inverted and given an authoritative voice, but it is not completely supplanted.

Similarly employing materials associated with traditionally ‘feminine’ tasks are Sriwhana Spong’s silk wall hangings Pocket (with lyre) (2010) and Pocket (with necklace) (2010), which integrate notions of cultural memory (both personal and collective) with morphological exploration. Like Eno and Cage, Spong has turned to the everyday objects and images in her environment to create these works. The silk pockets have been hand-dyed with Coca-Cola and hang tenuously from the wall, with the corners sewn together to hold a number of found photographic elements. The sense of interiority linked to these giant, folded silk sheaths extend Eva Hesse’s investigations into the inside of the minimalist cube.12 Yet Spong is equally interested in maintaining a level of obscurity.

In many ways these pockets, with their veiled black-andwhite reproductions, evade categorisation: they are not flat like a painting, though barely three-dimensional, yet are not quite collage either.13 They recall the German art historian Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas project, which involved the pinning-up of black-and-white images of art objects, historical tableaux, maps and ethnographic photographs from all moments in time and from all corners of the globe onto black fabric-covered wooden panels.

These panels could, in turn, be arranged in any order to create a fluid history based on the democratic conception of the reproduced image, as opposed to the hierarchy of the written word. Yet where Warburg was interested in the way that simple gestures survived stylisation throughout history, Spong is more concerned with their abstraction — through such stylisation or other unusual techniques of manufacture. Treating the secession of images as a type of choreographed dance, Spong links each image to the next in a rhythmic series of steps and movements.

In contrast to the previous works discussed, Alex Martinis Roe’s 180cm tall sculpture The Scene (2009) employs the traditionally minimalist materials of steel and glass, and, in its structure, draws upon the movement’s predilection for basic geometry. Yet upon scrutinising the sculpture’s surface, it becomes apparent that the production process Martinis Roe has employed diverges drastically from that of the autonomous minimalist object. The Scene has been handcrafted and manufactured through a method of trial and error, which has inevitably left its trace on the sculpture.14  In line with the phenomenological tendency to integrate the position of the embodied subject into the art object itself, the artist has said that she thinks of The Scene as ‘occupying the negative space between two people… mediat[ing] their relationship both physically and optically’.15  In her work, however, it is the rhetoric of experience that is invoked over pure phenomenological embodiment.

Indeed, intersections between the rhetorics of phenomenology and psychoanalysis (especially Lacan) are latent in the reflective qualities of Martinis Roe’s sculpture. Here, glass is not treated as neutral industrial matter, rather as a linear framework for separating the self from the other. Speaking of glass as a socially-loaded medium, the American post-minimalist artist Dan Graham has noted that mirror and glass partitions are often ‘employed to control a person or a group’s social reality… Glass partitions in the customs area of many international airports are acoustically sealed, insulating legal residents of the country from those passengers arrived but not “cleared”.’16 In this way, and as with Judd’s brass cubes before it, The Scene reflects and refracts the hegemonic social and institutional infrastructures in which it is presented: ‘It has none of its own content: it reflects what is seen as outside the artwork’s text within its descriptive framework.’17 This descriptive framework acknowledges the complexity of the contemporary decentred viewing subject as the work reflects — on both a horizontal and vertical axis — the same body twice in a distorted, almost cubist form.

Recognising the manner in which minimalism has now permeated many other creative and social spheres, each of the artists in Discreet Objects interrogates the theoretical neutrality of the minimalist or ‘discreet’ object and the complex and intertwined relationships between the viewer, the artwork and the spaces between. By reasserting the female figure in the presence of what was once largely positioned as a masculine reduction of form, these works can be understood as engaging with a dialectic of minimalism and its subsequent conceptual framing, whilst incorporating a number of contemporary feminist concerns.

Melissa Loughnan and Helen Hughes, June 2010

1 Such as Primary Structures: Work by Younger British and American Sculptors, curated by Kynaston McShine, Jewish Museum, New York, 1966.

2 For instance, the Guerrilla Girls famously asked in posters plastered on buses in New York in 1989: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met.?”

3 Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History, London: Tate Publishing, 2005, p. 69.

4 N.B. We see this as distinct from Lucy Lippard’s feminist maxim, to ‘make the personal political’.

5 Simeon Kronenberg, ‘Strata: Between Geometry and Abstraction’, for Lauren
Berkowitz, Strata, McClelland Gallery, Langwarin, 1999 (exh. cat.).

6 Lauren Berkowitz, artist’s statement, June 2010.

7 Charles Mereweather, Lauren Berkowitz, Sydney: An Art & Australia Monograph, Craftsman House, 2001, p. 11.

8 Berkowitz, artist’s statement, June 2010.

9 Berkowitz, artist’s statement, June 2010.

10 Lynn Zelevansky, Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the
Nineties, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1994, p. 18.

11 This link is further reinforced in Discreet Objects by Newman’s Untitled (Black Cross), a symbol which appeared in many of Beuys’s works in the 1960s, notably in his feltcovered grand piano: Infiltration homogen für Konzertflügel, 1966.

12 Email from Sriwhana Spong to the curators (in reference to Eva Hesse’s Accession sculptures), 29 June 2010.

13 Email from Spong to the curators, 29 June 2010.

14 Email from Alex Martinis Roe to the curators, 29 June 2010.

15 Email from Martinis Roe to the curators, 26 June 2010.

16 Dan Graham, Two-Way Mirror Power, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999,
p. 155-6, cited in Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History, London: Tate
Publishing, 2005, p. 73.

17 Email from Martinis Roe to the curators, 26 June 2010.

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