Where’s This Going?
Text for Paul O’Neill exhibition
Goethe Instituted, Dublin
Where’s This Going?
Around about now is an exhibition of displacements. These displacements are, amongst other things, physical, geographical, historical, temporal, conceptual and ideological. As much as around about now is interested in these things themselves, the process of dislocation is a way of making the work open, in the sense that nothing is stable, settled nor resolved. This openness is not ambiguity: ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake is the refuge of scoundrels. This openness is, rather, an attempt to displace the habits and expectations of a spectator who thinks he or she knows what he or she is doing and looking at, in favour of a spectator who is willing to entertain expanded possibilities of what art might be and do.
The first way in which around about now is committed to openness, is in the way the works work together. There are four works in the exhibition: three in the small gallery and the private view card, which has been requisitioned as a site for a fourth work. The boundaries of each work are more or less distinct. Nevertheless, they are conceived and installed in such a way that they not only relate to each other but that meanings seems to escape from individual pieces of work: the exhibition is something more than a collection of discrete pieces. The spectator, in the intimate gallery space, is presented with the exhibition all at once, rather than as a series of separate incidents. The works coalesce into an exhibition that is more than a collection of individual works. By refusing certain kinds of spectatorship and interpretation, these works favour an open and transformatory idea of art, in both its practice and interpretation.
Around about now constructs a kind of openness out of irresolvability. The individual works do this by refusing to give one much to look at: there is very little to see in this exhibition. The works are not expansive: there are no superfluous details, decorative flourishes nor other excessive embellishments. The works are stark. This starkness, though, is not a kind of Occam’s razor: the cutting away of superfluous detail to leave what is essential. It is not an attempt at epistemological clarity – of easy understanding. This simple refusal of resolution brings a structured and differentiated ontology to the fore. Physically simple, they are real in other, more dynamic and unaccountable ways. These works are made from such aesthetically intangible things as ideology, historical processes and social relationships.
By making the private view card a piece of the work, and therefore part of the exhibition in a way that it routinely is not, the exhibition expands beyond the confines of the gallery. Routinely and ideologically, the private view card is separated from the exhibition. It is ephemeral and secondary: an invitation to something, and somewhere, else. Normatively a marginal product in the economy of art, the private view card is produced within and by the social relations of art: it is always inscribed by these social divisions. This is to say, that within the division of art world labour, the private view card is not intended to be attended to in the same way as art.
By explicitly claiming the private view card as an artwork, monolith exists not just as an image (which it is) but as a network of social relationships. Looking at the artwork is not the same thing as looking at the card. By making the invitation a piece of work, and making work out of the invitation, not only does the marginal come up for the count but the process of marginalisation is itself made central. To take seriously the potential of the private view card qua artwork is to entertain an expanded, non-trivial, ontology for art: to open up possibilities as to what has been excluded from art but might interestingly be included.
The photographic image on the invitation shows an urban road junction: a crossroads in Peckham, London. The site of the production of the work is pictured at the site of display and consumption of the work in Ireland. This specificity pictures the social relations in the production of the work: the displacement of work made in London to be shown in Dublin.
At the same time, the picture shows an everyday urban location: there are a few persons in the background; buildings; cars; roadworks. It is familiar to anyone who is familiar with Western cities. It is a site where traffic, on the whole, has priority over pedestrians. Its signage is designed to be seen by persons in cars. In the centre of the picture is a free standing advertising panel. This very modern monolith faces out of the picture, parallel to the picture plane. But where one would expect to see an advertisement there is an illuminated, blank space. An advertisement is absent. It is dusk and this absence shines out in the twilight. It disrupts the scene. The blank advertising image is an unexpected and unplanned absence. There is nothing much to look at except the nothingness itself. This absence is a refusal of meaning: an interruption.
The written invitation, the details of the exhibition, are printed on the reverse of the card. They are centred to occupy the same space as the blank space in the image on the other side. The written invitation is displaced from the image.
Paul O’Neill has described monolith as a sort of ‘clue’ to the exhibition, adding that the clue might turn out to be a red herring. A clue is always second order: it is always a sign that things are not as they seem, not to be taken at face value. A red herring is a clue that leads somewhere but not to a conclusion. Rather it doesn’t get one any closer to a resolution and in that sense takes one back to where one started. A red herring is the revenge of first order meaning on the pretensions of the second order clue.
The claim for this card, qua art, is a kind of speculation. The thing about speculation is that one doesn’t know where one is liable to end up: whether the lead one is following is a red herring, or not. If the private view card is a clue to the exhibition, this clue might be to look out for other clues rather than for a solution: it might be a synecdoche rather than a key. All clues can turn out to be red herrings, of course. But a clue, amongst other things, is a sign that things are not as they seem.
The gallery is a small room. The far wall of the room is painted black, with a large circle of white text occupying the centre of the wall. The writing is difficult to read in every way: it is in a gothic script; there is no punctuation nor gaps between words: and there is no beginning nor end to the circle of text. It might read “…today is the tomorrow you were promised yesterday…” or, perhaps, “…is the tomorrow you were promised yesterday today…” or “…yesterday, today, is the tomorrow you were promised…” or “…you were promised yesterday, today is the tomorrow…”
The rhetorical force of any tentative sentence one might construct is unclear. In promise, there is a clear suggestion that there has been a promise made but not what that promise might be. The conjunction “you were promised” avoids any agency doing the promising. The reader is addressed, “you”, but only by abstractions. Any sentence floats free of any further linguistic context that might help favour a literal over a metaphorical reading, or vice versa; an ironic over an unironic reading, or vice versa; or etc. “You” are the addressee of a declarative sentence but that declaration is irresolvable. The only other linguistic certainty is the past tense of “you were promised.” Together with all the yesterdays, todays and tomorrows there is a sense of something passed, something either fulfilled or unfulfilled. But any speculation as to potential linguistic meaning just goes round in circles.
This writing on the wall is difficult to read in every sense. The gothic script is notoriously difficult to read. It was the script of the first mass produced book, the Gutenberg bible of 1455. In the 1930’s it was appropriated by the Nazis as a sign of German heritage. The typeface used in promise is a hybrid of the two. It collapses the historical distance between the two authoritarian cultures. This typeface is haunted by its associations with power and exploitation.
This exhibition is at the Goethe Institute in Dublin: a German institution in Ireland. The historical association of the gothic script might haunt this foreign institution but more recent history has dampened this significance. Nowadays, such gothic typefaces are not so much dramatic as melodramatic. The historical associations of gothic script have been appropriated by the culture industry: by kitsch romanticism; horror films; and the designers of heavy metal album covers. They are, for the time being, bathetic and impotent. This script seems awkward rather than authoritarian: embarrassed rather than embarrassing.
The wall is an erstwhile site of political invective and authoritarian commands; the wall is the historical ground for the declaration of authority and challenges to that authority: a site for, amongst other things, advertising, political slogans and graffiti. Promise is a refusal of such confidence in the wall as a stable ground for meaning. The white text on the black ground reverses the normal relations of figure and ground (which would be black text on a white ground). The black is a symbolic erasure of the wall: a cancellation of ground with too much figure. Whatever else promise promises, it is not answers.
Decathlon, also plays on circularity and irresolution. There is a monitor low down on the wall, so that rather than looking straight on, one must either look down or crouch down. The viewer is displaced a little, as if looking for clues. Playing on the monitor is a digital video shot out of the windscreen of a car, on the passengers side. A flat landscape is passing by. It soon becomes apparent that one is going round in circles. The car drives round and round a roundabout. The roundabout is in France. The traffic circulates anticlockwise. It is slightly disorientating for an Irish viewer used to clockwise roundabouts. And the unsettled picture, the relentless movement, makes one feel giddy. Every nine minutes the car momentarily leaves before the loop starts again and one instantly re-enters the roundabout. One could come to start watching decathlon at any point: it is a work without any proper place at which to start watching or at which to stop.
One sees the view out along the tangent at the edge of the circle of the roundabout. The same views come round again and again, altered only by incidental comings and goings. There is not much here. The landscape lacks distinguishing features, apart from an out of town sports superstore, called ‘Decathlon.’ Sometimes there is more traffic than others: a couple of times the view is blocked by a lorry. The weather slowly brightens up. There is no sound and nothing to see except the lack of things to see.
This is an anti-journey, which itself has no beginning, no teleology and no arrival. It is a ludicrous, heterodox appropriation of the roundabout. Its repetitive action echoes and parodies the exertions of sports: activity implied by the immobile sporting superstore. A previous video, blue danube, also shot through a car windscreen, showed a journey traversing a huge, empty carpark in sinuous movements, accompanied by the music the “Blue Danube”. Blue danube was more of a dance than a sport: a joy ride of transgression, a journey for journey’s sake. Decathlon is a subversion of utilitarian rationality rather than a transgression of it. Rather than a free transgression of place, the car silently sticks to a resolute, prescribed circle. Decathlon is a refusal of the economy of road traffic.
The roundabout, as is the current fashion in France, is a gateway from the national road network into a provisional town. The centre of each such roundabout is a site of public aesthetic display: of gardening, landscape and art. These roundabouts displace a site of civic identity from old town centre to a new road junction in a field: a site for traffic but hostile to pedestrians. The only thing to visit here is Decathlon: a utilitarian, consumerist shed. The tangential view of the video avoids the officially sanctioned aesthetic site of the centre of the roundabout. The video looks awry from this sight. But this object of sight is not replaced with another; it is replaced with the absence of an object for sight. The video is constructed upon the relationship between what one can see and what one cannot see: what has been made absent and is made to be seen to be absent. There is no seeing where one is going; no centre; no arriving. There is just the erasure of a settled and stable view.
In the face of all this circularity a de Manian question can be asked: ‘Where’s this going?’ Writing on the difference between literal and non-literal meaning in writing, Paul de Man, the literary critic, wrote that the question one has to ask is ‘What’s the difference?’ But the trouble is, this question itself could be either literal or non-literal: a literal pursuit of difference or an ironic denial of significant difference. The question is unanswerable because any answer must presuppose itself in how the question is read: if one takes the question literally, one has already assumed the priority of the literal before the question has been asked; and if one takes the question non-literally, one has already assumed the priority of the non-literal. Whether meaning is literal or non-literal is undecidable: it is always already caught in this dilemma. The question ‘Where’s this going?’ is similarly caught between literal and non-literal meaning: between a genuine request or desire for an outcome and an ironic denial that a conclusion might be possible. It is impossible to ask the question without having already assumed whether one is looking for a destination, or not. The question could be asked of this text, of interpretation, as much as of the exhibition. ‘Where’s this going?’ holds a tension between the imminence and deferral of answers: it is a question that cannot be answered without loss.
The final work in the show is a fluorescent, white, neon light. In about now, the neon tube spells out the word “about” in lower case helvetica with letters about an inch and a half to two inches high. Helvetica was a radical modern typeface, of the Swiss school, designed in the middle of the twentieth century. Subsequently, since Hewlett Packard made it their default font, it has colonised the western world. What was designed to be revolutionary has been historically displaced: it is now unremarkable because it is so familiar. The neon word is displayed above head height. It alternates between being off and being on: it is off for three seconds or so before becoming illuminated briefly. It is off long enough to be surprised by its sudden change of state.
The word “about” is both an adverb and a preposition. It applies literally to both position and motion, although its meaning has stretched to embrace time and quantity and almost anything relational. “About” is an elusive word. Not only does it have many uses but these uses tend to be about things that are immeasurable. Literally, it means something near but a nearness that is undefined: that is, the tolerances introduced by “about” are, by definition, indefinable. Moreover, “about” is a prelude both to meaning and to vagueness. To “go about” something can be to go straight to the point or to avoid the point. Isolated, by itself, the word means nothing. It is the promise of connections without things to connect.
The neon light is never fully on and never fully off. It staggers between being on and being off. Even when it is on, the neon is white: more of an indication of the absence of more vivid neon colours, than a presence in itself. The blinking of the word further confuses and cancels the potential for meaning. When it is off, is this a cancellation of when it is on, an erasure; or is it flashing for emphasis, in order to grab attention; or is just on the blink?
The history of neon words in art probably begins with Joseph Kosuth’s tautological pieces which said, for example, “four blue neon words” when that was exactly what they were. About now empties out all such certainty. In a previous neon piece, no, the word ‘no’ flashed on and off in white in front of the word ‘vacancies’, which remained permanently lit in red. The blinking of the word ‘no’ had similar ambiguities as ‘about’ does here. But the coloured neon and the phrase ‘no vacancies’ carried other, no less irresolvable, associations of display and travel. No was in a perspex box, a mode of display appropriate to commercial signs; in contrast the unboxed, uncoloured neon of about now fits in with the history of neon text in artworks. But within that context, about now is a cancellation of the associations of commercial display and conceptual propositions alike.
in place of a conclusion
The works in around about now are connected by temporality. Not only are they made of various temporal and spatial displacements but they each require their own temporality of spectatorship. The works are made to be seen over time, with anticipation and memory. The works unfold or disclose themselves but not in moving towards a state of resolution or emphaticness. It is the temporalities within the constitution of the works themselves which is apparent. But the temporalities of each work are different. The exhibition is made up of these different temporalities in a way that individual works could not be. About now has the immediacy of a changed state: first one thing then the other. It only needs a few seconds to be seen. Promise has to be deciphered, read and re-read. It might take a few minutes to read various possible sentences or fragments of text. Decathlon takes nine minutes to watch all the way through, although it might not be obvious at what point one has watched it all the way through. It is the viewer’s decision when he or she has seen enough. And monolith stretches the temporality of the exhibition itself: it can be seen in anticipation of the exhibition and subsequent to it. This play of temporalities is another kind of openness: the uncertainty not only about what one has seen but whether one has seen all there is to see.
D.W. Winnicott, the psychoanalyst, said that what the neurotic fears is the disintegration of a coherent self. And the role of the psychoanalyst is to reassure the neurotic that it is always too late: that the catastrophe that he or she fears has already happened, that the process has already begun. The neurosis is, in fact, the idea that a coherent and stable self might be possible. For Winnicott it is always already too late because the self is nothing but the catastrophe of contradiction, fragmentation and irresolvable desires. In order to help the patient, the analyst has to refuse the patient the comfort of his or her delusion: deny the disabling fantasy of coherence and wholeness. The neurotic is always asking too much of the world: for guarantees against the unknown. In order to live at all, the neurotic must learn to live with openness.
The analyst’s refusal to give the neurotic patient reassurance is an act of generosity. The refusal to give something can be generous. Orders and ultimatums are things that are given, as well as gifts and advice. And it is not only the former two that can be coercive and authoritarian. The refusal to give an audience what it expects, can be generous when what it expects is for its prejudice to be confirmed and its own disempowerment. Art can make neurotics of its audience as well as of its makers: it can inculcate the idea that a coherent and stable art might be possible. For art and for its spectators, as for the neurotic, it is always already too late. The exhibition around about now refuses the neurotic desire for resolution and in so doing is being generous to those who would ask too much of art.