I would like to begin by addressing the title Intensive Surfaces, which is borrowed from the British author Lewis Carroll.
In The Logic of Sense the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze focuses on the concept of sense – especially the place where sense and non-sense collide. Sense is not a given but rather an effect. It is produced, and it is produced out of rudiments, which in themselves may not possess a sense. Sense is always bound to the possibility of entering the realm of non-sense and in this way the two are inevitably intertwined. According to Deleuze, Lewis Carroll is situated on the surface between sense and non-sense. Especially in the stories Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, this surface becomes evident, for example in non-signifying elements of language and games as well as disorderly time constructions.
In which way does Intensive Surfaces mediate this surface on the verge between sense and non-sense?
I would say it is more about the dual signifier than non-signifying elephants. If we quote Carroll directly, where Humpty Dumpty is explaining ‘Jabberwocky’ to Alice, we get straight to the heart of it:
‘Well, “slithy” means “lithe and slimy”. “Lithe” is the same as “active”. You see it’s like a portmanteau – there are two meanings packed up into one word.’
It then takes nearly a hundred years for Deleuze to attempt to make sense of this in relation to cultural theory, where he speaks of a fragmentation, in relation to a previously dominant or imagined arch-narrative. So you see, we are already in fictional or perhaps fictive territory. And this is the point: the battleground of the political, the radical, the subversive lies here.
The slippages inherent in language are the points for insertion and recontextualization of meaning – the mother-lode if you will. I would add to the mix an understanding of Creolization (as opposed to the colourless binary of ‘globalization’). Sadly hybrid spaces quickly got assimilated as hybrid engines, but the original potential remains untapped. In the current crisis, which is less to do with economics (although that is the public face), but more to do with representation (of peoples, communities and marginals), it is no surprise that we are seeing a move towards nationalism and outmoded ideologies – by the art market as part of the broader movement of global capital (and to be read as sense or non-sense?).
So what I am interested in is the incrementally increased potential of the anterior space of resistance, multiplicity and a new non-alignment (i.e. both/and), not as a movement, more of a refusal to see one meaning or one narrative as dominant in a reading of the world. It is perhaps time to take all of the half-completed tasks of the world and cause some trouble – Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique, Hassan al Sabbah’s radically esoteric, re-envisioning of Islam, Hilma af Klint’s visionary abstraction and Patrice Lumumba’s remapping of the colonial imperative, and this is where I stake my claim – to a heterogeneous & more serious & more humorous & simultaneously more and less relevant staking of a claim that tears up the sanctity of authenticity and authorship & says it’s all still up for grabs: that perhaps goes some way to explain the title of ‘Intensive Surfaces’. Although I’m still curious on how you translate ‘slithy’ into Danish?
Slithy is translated to ‘slidigt’ in Danish, which is a contraction of ‘slimet’ and ‘smidigt. It is actually quite close to the English version.
There exist a number of translations, especially of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the first one, from 1875, Alice was named Marie and Wonderland was named ‘Vidunderland’, ‘vidunder’ being something wonderful. In a later edition Alice kept her name, and Wonderland was translated as Eventyrland (originally Æventyrland) – ‘Eventyr’ being fairy-tale. Another version translates Wonderland as ‘Undreland’, which is land of wonders basically, however in Danish you mostly refer to the story as Alice i Eventyrland.
Fairy-tale, wonderful or just wonder – three very different things. Or are they? I guess they all at least indicate a movement away from the sanctuary of reality. However, as I understand you, more is at stake.
Many of your works have mythological and/or religious references. The installation Sister Kali’s Soul Temple takes its name from the Indian goddess of death, Kali, and the movie Feature recasts the figure of Krishna in the Hindu mythology as a cowboy – played in the movie by you.
Now that you mention Hilma af Klint, I get a little curious in this regard. I actually thought of the Swedish painter and spiritualist when you first brought your new work The Black Sun to my attention – a white circle of neon light on a black surface – which is a more abstract piece, especially compared with the complex settings and narratives in works such as Feature and Sister Kali’s Soul Temple.
Hilma af Klint did a series of black and white circles on canvas. Her abstract paintings are said to derive from mystical beliefs and to be part of a more complex metaphysical project with roots in Theosophy and Anthroposophy (Rudolf Steiner). A peculiar thing is that she is one of the first abstract painters – without knowing it herself, since she’d led a quite isolated life in Sweden. Furthermore, her metaphysical or occult paintings and drawings actually progressed from purely (automative) abstractions towards something more representational.
Which finally leads me to my question: I wonder whether your new work The Black Sun then ultimately seems to indicate a movement in the exact opposite direction?
Thinking about it, there is some truth in what you say. My use of mythic archetype or genre is really about trying to get under the skin of something – about trying to see ‘structure(s)’. So yes, perhaps there is some crazy logic at work in my referencing Hilma af Klint.
I actually used to be a member of the Theosophical Society, and used to use their library in London a great deal. I have always loved this idea that, underlying the baroque tapestry of life, lie a set of interlocking geometric relationships – a world of pure forms that runs behind romantic comedies, zombie films and the historical epic...
Carrying on from this, I guess I am less bothered about the distinction between fairytale, wonderful or wonder. I don’t really believe in the sanctuary of reality (for me Carroll, like Jonathan Swift or Francois Rabelais, is a great satirist) as much as in the real, as in a belief that there exists such a thing as the real. And this perhaps points back to my choice of title for the show. That art should be a mercurial mirror that both reflects the world and distorts it, revealing its cracks, and this is what is at stake: an understanding that might underpin true political praxis and ultimately wisdom.
What do you mean by ‘true political praxis’?
The Free Online Dictionary lists 2 meanings for ‘praxis’, which kind of sums up what I mean:
1. Practical application or exercise of a branch of learning.
2. Habitual or established practice; custom.
So by true political praxis, what I mean is a pragmatic application of politics as a methodology: i.e. utilizing an understanding of the structures that any context is contingent upon, to both deconstruct the given power-image relations in that context, and to embody the subversion of a given world-view or ‘established practice’ as a creative process rather than ‘in’ a responsive way. Rather than appropriating the sign of the political (a more emotive, superficial and less engaged form of approach).
Equally it would be unfortunate to see a particular deconstruction or subversion as the goal in itself, as each movement runs the risk of becoming in turn habitual or ‘custom’. Perhaps this would account for my belief in nomadism, of medium, of place, of fetish...the danger is to put down roots, or to see from one view-point. Hence I prefer praxis to practice, it says something about a kind of healthy detachment I try and cultivate.
I see. I was actually wondering more about the word true. I mean true indicates some kind of authenticity for me; but I guess in your case it is more about being true to the dynamics of the praxis?
Talking about nomadism and dynamics, it is easy to see how avoiding fixation is important especially if one wants to alter anything in the current society of fixation, power and violence. However dealing with art, which in your case mimics popular culture and mythology, the work inevitably ends up rubbing against representation. In the end one can question whether it is possible at all to make art works and ultimately be true to dynamics.
The philosopher and feminist theoretician Rosi Braidotti argues in her book Nomadic Subjects, as the title indicates, for the nomad as ‘a form of political resistance to hegemonic and exclusionary views of subjectivity’ She advocates alternative representations by means of “mimetic repetition” (building on Luce Irigaray) – a textual and political strategy with the purpose of actively subverting established modes of representation and experiences (in Braidotti’s case of women).
I wonder if this “mimetic repetition” applies to your work in Intensive Surfaces? I mean presuming you understand the signifier as something that must be consumed and reappraised from within?
I would say being true beyond the particular dynamics of the praxis, to a larger awareness of fiction as an evolving philosophical & political space. Something about creating not just one’s own reality, but a series of interlocking realities. So that contingency is both cause and effect. In this way rather than consuming the signifier and reappraising it, you are equally aware of the non-existence of the signifier, while utilizing it as a device to shake understanding from – almost like a child’s toy that is the signifier of a hammer, but even the ‘echt’ hammer is a signifier of itself (or of nothing).
So yes, I guess I agree with Braidoitti, in terms of nomadism as a form of political resistance, but I am less interested in mimetic repetition as subversion (although it is that too), but more as a revealing of structural incompleteness, or the incommensurateness of what is.
For me the political action in mimesis is the simultaneous revealing of the system of belief, and the hilarious and a priori failure of it to live up to its own hype, or hypothetical basis.....so this is how I begin to outline my relationship to Intensive Surfaces – as a kind of excess, the potlatch that undermines its own social hierarchy.
A potlatch is a kind of feast in the Native American culture, characterized by the sharing of foods and receiving of gifts for the guest. A ritual also performed to secure the social status and wealth of the host, right? The show then seeks to reveal ancient archetypes by exposing cracks in popular culture and hereby destabilizing the order of the two?
Something like that, although perhaps more open.
I hope when I do a show to reveal something of the terms of generosity (or even trust) extended by an institution, while at the same time looking at the terms of the institution – hence staging ‘Sister Kali’s Soul Temple’, ostensibly a nightclub, within the institution.
For me it is also important to dialogue with other collaborators, and to break down the formal hierarchies or ‘critical’ distance between curator, artist, writer, which seems a very outmoded paradigm of ‘non-collaboration’. So that is why it feels more generative to invite Peter Lewis to both write a text for the catalogue and collaborate on one of the installations within the show – to incorporate the wealth of one dialogue in and through my work, with my evolving dialogue with you and the team at Aarhus.
Rather than a series of hermetic, fragmentary dialogues, a practice can then extend into the practice of others, as part of a larger text of ideas and interactions. Maybe a ‘post-praxis’, where one is no longer operating from a centre, but within a social and shared network, so the ritual, rather than just exposing cracks, opens up new ways of thinking myth, value (social or otherwise) and popular culture. ■
1. Lewis Carroll: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Bloomsbury 2010, p.299.
2. Rosi Braidotti: Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist theory, Columbia University Press, 1994 p. 23.