The Object of Art

Michael Archer looks beyond the readymade in art

To begin with, something that is both new and familiar. In his recent show at the Victoria Miro Gallery, Martin Creed exhibited several works consisting of brief texts printed on A4 sheets of paper. Now information that, to use a word favoured by Lucy Lippard, need only be overlaid by the spectator with an art framework in order to offer the possibility of its meaning something as art is no new thing. It is a form of work we have become accustomed to over the quarter century that has passed since Conceptualism and the zenith of Fluxus with its brief scores and recipes for actions and events.

Creed, of course, is as aware of this history as anyone, as the words ‘oh no’ on one of the sheets (Work No 161, 1997) confirms. The text manages to do at least three things simultaneously: it gestures homage to Yoko Ono and her fellow Fluxus artists, it speaks a mild desperation on behalf of the artist – ‘Oh no, can’t I produce anything more substantial than this?’ – and it pre-emptively criticises itself by putting words in the mouth of any viewer who might think originality to be a useful criterion of judgement – ‘Oh no, not the old short-text-on-a-piece-of-A4-paper thing again’. This multivalence, which constitutes and speaks to/for a variety of subjects reminds us that it is in the return to the art of the late 60s, in its repetition, that the potential for the art work to signify for itself in the present partially resides.

With, one imagines, all due respect to the open proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, another of Creed’s sheets (Work No 143, 1997) carried a rationally impeccable but mathematically impossible equation: ‘the whole world + the work = the whole world’. Given that ‘the world is all that is the case’, what does it take for a work of art to assert itself as an object of attention against the backdrop of its cultural moment, and how quickly, having made its impression, is it reabsorbed as part of the cultural context within which further work might be produced? In another conversation this might be thought of as a figure/ground problem, although it is now a problem of the work and its visibility rather than one of the visibility of relationships within the work. Marcel Duchamp reckoned on something like 50 years having to pass before the shock of a work could transmute into the seemliness of a contribution to the collective sense of art in general, but artists nowadays are already reworking the 60s reappropriation of Duchamp himself, so the process appears to be speeding up.

Michel Serres refers to this sequence of emergence and reassimilation as the ‘Chain of Genesis’: ‘Here then’, he says, ‘is the chain: white sea or white plain, background noise, surge, fluctuation of the surge, bifurcation, repetition, rhythm or cadence, vortex. The great turbulence is constituted, it fades away, it breaks. And disappears as it came’. Notwithstanding the apparent temporality of Serres’ schema, or the historical periodising of Duchamp, the question as to the relationship between emergence from and reabsorption into the greater mix remains. One answer, surely, is that to think in sequential terms at all, to imagine that one thing might simply follow another in chronological time, is inappropriate. Reflective action upon the material of the culture, upon matter in general, is already to be part of that material. And this is true not only at the social, but also at another level. In his essay ‘Matter and Time’, Lyotard considers the implications of quantum theory for our understanding and sense of what matter is. Since matter is now recognised as being essentially energy, no qualitative distinction can be drawn between the stuff of the world and that which thinks upon it. Henceforward we must conceive the difference as one of quantity: ‘Mind is matter which remembers its interactions, its immanence. But there is a continuum from the instantaneous mind of matter to the very gathered matter of minds’. For Lyotard the realisation that such a continuum exists and that it is no longer possible straightforwardly to separate an object in the world from the intelligence that perceives and analyses it, is a further blow to what he calls ‘human narcissism’, following those three famous ones already listed by Freud: ‘man is not the centre of the cosmos (Copernicus), is not the first living creature (Darwin), and is not the master of meaning (Freud himself)’.

I am reminded, apropos ‘the whole world + the work = the whole world’, of a Fluxshoe piece from the early 70s. Once more, it was a text on a piece of paper, and it read: ‘This piece of paper has been given to you by Robin Page. Now tear it up, throw it away and forget about it’. The wording might be incorrect in detail, but the gist is there. One doesn’t forget. One cannot forget. Quite the contrary, of course. One recovers continually – into the present. The whole world to the left of Creed’s equal sign is not identical to but is co-extensive with the whole world to its right.

Recent art has necessarily been working with the legacy of Conceptualism, part of which is an implied insubstantiality. This is most explicitly referred to in the term, worn smooth with overuse, that was coined by Lucy Lippard 30 years ago. We were then witnessing, she said, the dematerialisation of the art object. Even at the time she wrote, however, Lippard was aware of the limitations of the idea that came along with the word. Dematerialisation, she pointed out, referred not to an attenuation of the ‘objectness’ of works of art – for a photograph or a sheet of paper was no less an object than was a welded metal sculpture or a painting – but to ‘a de-emphasis on material aspects such as uniqueness, permanence or decorative attractiveness’. In this Lippard was seeing Process Art, Arte Povera, Conceptualism and so on, not as something wholly new, but as a continuation and development of what had already begun with Minimalism. It was, then, not particularly useful to consider those artists associated with conceptual or idea art as having ‘gone beyond the object’, or to couch negative judgement of their works in terms that condemn it as ‘still being an object’.

In the same vein, Robert Morris suggested in Part 4 of his ‘Notes on Sculpture’ at the end of the 60s that what had been relevant to that decade ‘was the necessity of reconstituting the object as art’, because ‘objects were an obvious first step away from illusionism, allusion and metaphor’. Earlier in the same essay he put it more succinctly by stating that, with Minimalism, ‘sculpture stopped dead and objects began’. If we wished to distinguish here between a three-dimensional work of art being a sculpture, and a three-dimensional work of art being an object, it would be to acknowledge that, while the former might succeed through its ability at some level or another to represent, the latter would be more concerned to present itself as itself. To concentrate on the function of representation places one in thrall to the idea that the question ‘what does this mean?’ is not merely valid, but the one route to the true, originary impetus for the work. Alternatively, in viewing an art object, questions as to how the encounter might generate meaning, and why any such meanings might be relevant here and now, would arise.

This is all too familiar, finding its explication as it does in Foucault’s account of the discursive formation of objects in the Archaeology of Knowledge. The task he outlines there, ‘consists of not – of no longer – treating discourses as groups of signs (signifying elements referring to concepts or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak’. Referring to Foucault in this context accomplishes two things. Firstly, Lippard’s ‘framework’ through which the viewer can ‘see’ an object as art is better defined as the discourse of art, the complex of economic, curatorial, educational, critical and other conventions, routines and procedures that produce art. Secondly, the connection between the art object and the physical object before one’s eyes (if indeed there is one) is rendered fluid. More than ever in this light it becomes difficult to equate the object of art with some product that issues as the outcome of a set of actions. Process – a term which one can extend to embrace not just the decisions and activities of the artist, but additionally those of the viewers – has to be seen as constitutive of the art object.

Implicit in all this is the importance of Marcel Duchamp’s gesture of designating a readymade, mass-produced object as a work of art. Or, rather, the importance that the reappraisal of the signiflcance of that gesture had for the neo-Avant Garde of the 60s. Hal Foster has attempted to explain Duchamp’s initial challenge in the second decade of the century and its reinterpretation in the art of the 60s by analogy with trauma and its repetition. Lacan comments with reference to Freud’s statement: ‘what cannot be remembered is repeated in behaviour’, that ‘This behaviour, in order to reveal what it repeats, is handed over to the analyst’s reconstruction’. The blurring of the boundaries between artistic and critical activities in Conceptualism lends licence to Foster in casting the neo-avant-garde artist/critic as both poles of the analyst/analysand couple in the recovery of meaning from Duchamp’s Dada practice. The question nowadays would be whether or not the object of art as reconfigured in the 60s and early 70s continues to provide sufficiently fruitful grounds for investigation. The practised ease with which artists of all generations now use the signifying potential of the readymade would suggest that, if they have equally not gone beyond the object, they have, at least, gone beyond that object.

One last observation about the effect of time on the status of the work of art as object. As I have said, art of the past 30-35 years has been produced within a critical environment that lays considerable stress on the specific nature of each work, and on the processes of its generation and consumption as much as, if not more than the physical stuff of its residual existence. Successive generations throughout that period have worked within and redrawn the boundaries of this environment. What appears to happen, though, is that a curious kind of sedimentation takes place before the eyes of each new batch of artists. Art as object – as opposed to art as painting/sculpture – must almost always, it seems, be asserted as a reality sui generis, since that which precedes its current manifestation is perceived already to have settled into the forms of artistic tradition. The rhetoric surrounding those starting today would have us believe that sculpture did not stop in the early 60s, it finished around 1992 with some recidivists, God help them, still making the stuff as we speak. It is often as hard for younger artists to recognise that there are connections between what they do and what there is around them (for even antipathies are connections, and how else could there be any possibility of constructing meaning given that work is essentially a repetition) as it is for those who ‘did it first’ to spot that that object is not this one.

A version of this essay was delivered as a paper to the conference, ‘What is an Object?’, organised by the Freud Museum, London, on 14 June 1997.

Michael Archer was the co-curator of ‘Material Culture: The Object in British Art of the 1980s and 90s’, Hayward Gallery, London 3 April to 18 May 1997.

First published in Art Monthly 208: Jul-Aug 1997.

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