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Art

After Eternity. Art, Death and What’s in Between

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Zuzanna Czebatul, Their New Power (Head), 2020. Polystyrene, acrylic and sand, 160×110 x 120 cm. From the exhibition 'The Singing Dunes’, CAC-La synagogue de Delme

Zuzanna Czebatul, Their New Power (Head), 2020. Polystyrene, acrylic and sand, 160×110 x 120 cm. From the exhibition 'The Singing Dunes’, CAC-La synagogue de Delme

As a rule, it is much easier to speak and write about any events or phenomena when we are already beyond some formal boundary. This is probably one of the reasons why it is so often tempting to declare the decisive end of something or something’s great beginning. A situation that is unprecedented for the present; a regime that has arisen and which is drawing a line between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’; a unique epoch in which we all happen to live. These and similar formulations, by giving a clear horizon and drawing a clear map of what is happening, serve those who wish to reason about the present moment. This approach makes it possible to delimit the data that belong to the delimited domain, to specify precise criteria for analyzing this data, to build narrative connections with other domains, and to give an unambiguous forecast. Art, if it is a part of such an approach, in its impact on the viewer and, more broadly, on a certain ‘current situation’, appears also to start functioning within a given, finite number of parameters, deviation from which is no more than an error in the reception of art by the viewer or the institution. In turn, a different approach assumes a principled openness and incompleteness of the event horizon, a gradual mutation of areas rather than a qualitative change or delimitation, the impossibility of drawing a clear border and, consequently, the ambiguity and constant refinement of descriptive criteria. Ends and beginnings, ‘never-before’ and painfully recognizable epochs, the excruciatingly old and the unprecedentedly new begin to converge in one place. Art begins to combine these dualities while abandoning them, and describing art requires inventing new (but perhaps incredibly similar) ways of writing. What might this art become, existing simultaneously after the end of yet another epoch and in the described perspective of eternal incompletenesses, how might its reception be transformed, and what might art, while in this duality, be able to show us?

To begin with, we should mention why it seems relevant to describe events from the perspective of principled openness. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here, as the entire project of speculative realism of which we are in a sense already heirs, despite its internal disagreements and differences in the choice of strategies, is ultimately aimed at overcoming and removing structural, symbolic, conceptual, stylistic and other limitations. The principle possibility of anything has become one of the mottos of the anti-correlationist line of thought, transforming itself into one or another method. In our case, the key premises of the speculative method became a way of answering the questions of how contemporary art behaves in the current situation, and also what the new aesthetics may be and where contemporary knowledge is situated. The questions that require long-term work and field research are: what are the criteria for this aesthetics (while keeping in mind their constant fluidity); what are the connections between the new aesthetics and political action; and what are the prospects for its further mutation. The renewed present requires renewed ways of talking about it, and, just as the empty cell of structuralism, which in its time provided the latter as such functioning as a conceptual structure, each time capable of new actualisations, in our case the most vital is the most difficult to grasp, and, in the limit, perhaps even the most empty within itself.

The texts of the speculative realists are filled with all kinds of metaphors of the elusive and its immediate examples. By tearing off the tails of metaphysical comets under the names of eternity, time or matter, these authors aim to create novel metaphysics on quite realistic foundations. They leave us a theoretically grounded possibility not just to mix any mixtures in principle, but to do it with confidence that from this mixing it is possible to produce positive knowledge, new stable structures (whose stability will seem to be in direct proportion to their ability to change—in the best traditions of weak Taoist trees, Zen Buddhist clapping with a single palm or Christian ignorant knowledge). No one else can specify a correct amount of ingredients in the mixture—the important thing is that, as in alchemical making, there is always enough of them. Such alchemical enough will create double tense of non-random accidents, which will have to be described each time in near-mystical terms. Like alchemists, we will all have to learn to distinguish the Yellow Rooster from the Red Bull and be able not to overdo the Green Dragon. The curious thing is that we can make quite edible mixtures out of roosters and dragons (of course, with jewelry proportions of ingredients), but the question of their effect on the body when taken internally will remain open for a long time to come. Question of the new aesthetics remains open as well, but probably the final clarification of it in our case being equal to hardening of the Taoist tree, and in case of the mixture—to its transition into the category of stale.

Zuzanna Czebatul, Their New Power (Chest), 2020. Polystyrene, acrylic and sand, 150×50 x 150 cm. From the exhibition 'The Singing Dunes’, CAC-La synagogue de Delme

Zuzanna Czebatul, Their New Power (Chest), 2020. Polystyrene, acrylic and sand, 150×50 x 150 cm. From the exhibition 'The Singing Dunes’, CAC-La synagogue de Delme

However, building the bridge between theory and practice seems necessary because philosophy always deals, one way or another, with concrete things, whereas any art is, in the final analysis, nothing but a mixture of well familiar ingredients. Art, just as philosophy, despite the difference in their methodological approaches, is doomed to oscillate between two registers—its presence in the present moment (next to all chocolate bar wrappers, clipped fingernails and spontaneous political decisions discussed in social networks) and its belonging to a timeless duration cutting through time and reaching beyond the horizon, to the place where time loses its force and where only immortality and eternity are found. No irony or pathos is implied: philosophy and art are co-equal to eternity as phenomena of dubious practical use, and thus unable to boast of full and final spatio-temporal appropriateness. Once included in a particular spatio-temporal horizon, there inevitably always remains something else, a surplus with which, strictly speaking, it is never clear what to do. Ultimately, ‘it is not clear what to do’ means that anything can be done with this surplus—the surplus will not suffer from it. In particular, it is this surplus that provides an irreducible gap between theory and practice and thus opens the way for any speculation. And it is precisely in this surplus that the very ‘truth’ of art and philosophy is stored, a truth that no one critical theory of the XXth century was ever able to surgically excise from them, probably partly because the truth is found in this external appendix of both practices.

No one else can specify a correct amount of ingredients in the mixture—the important thing is that, as in alchemical making, there is always enough of them

Indeed, proving the absence of this surplus is no more likely than proving the non-existence of God or any other supernatural entity, or putting an end to metaphysics for the very last time [1]. This does not mean that our hands are now untied and that any mixture will now work itself out. In a sense, it is even the opposite. In a situation where ‘all is permitted,’ any restrictions are all the more effective because they no longer need any rational justification. Contemporary political decisions, which governments adopt or promote as potentially necessary, are no longer based on the one or the other obvious advantages they are capable of producing. Instead, these decisions appear to the public consciousness as reactions to what is least possible to fully and visibly represent, be it a new, hitherto unknown virus, the official statistics associated with it, or the projected future risks. The theoretically provable possibility of anything becomes fertile ground for any repressive strategy, henceforth accepted as a bitter but necessary medicine. However, the situation can hardly be reversed or we can pretend not to notice these new set parameters. Rather, a workable strategy might be to create our own mixtures with the same inherent permissiveness, and the more refined the selection of their ingredients the more vital such a mixture can become.

In this vein, the word permissiveness loses its negative connotations and is transformed into a part of the method that assumes the possibility of a constantly expanding horizon. It is not only measures labelled as repressive, and not only external and self-imposed restrictions, but also the acceptance of everything as something that goes without saying. In other words, we could argue that the word permissiveness neutrally describes the conceptual framework within which today’s world moves, whether we like it or not. In this sense philosophy and art possess a certain handicap precisely because of the existence in them this implicitly always inherent surplus of meaninglessness and dysfunctionality, no matter how much some authors or artists might want to convince us otherwise [2]. In turn, these meaninglessness and dysfunctionality start possessing a constructive, critical, radical or other potential (depending on the aims and tasks within each case) not as a marginal, overcoming, revolutionary gesture, as it was suggested and described by so-called postmodernist authors in the second half of the XXth century, but as a gesture as habitual as the one we use to open the tube of toothpaste in the morning. Thus, permissiveness, conceptually penetrating into the world and rooted in the latest logical assumption of any metaphysics (or rather, interwoven with it by reciprocal causal links), extends this surplus once elitistically belonging only to philosophy and art, in a necessary way, and spreads it everywhere else. Thanks to this, today we can speak of a movement towards the universal democratization of meaninglessness and dysfunctionality, and the results of this democratization we have yet to understand.

In this regard, philosophy and art are democratized in the expected way, each field according to its own specificity. The philosophy of speculative realism tends in one way or another to transcend the narrow confines of academia. This philosophy has in a comparatively short period of time become ubiquitous not because of its lack of theoretical depth, as some of its critics tend to think. Foucault once said that the very untypical situation in which French philosophers of his generation became national superstars required the breeding ground of the post-war context, with its boom of student activism, the general growth of literacy and, as a consequence, the acute desire for political action and concrete change. The current situation was not shaped by the great war or by a dramatic rise in the percentage of literate people; even less can we say that there is a demand for intellectual knowledge everywhere. Rather, we might propose that the dysfunctional surplus of philosophy that is spreading throughout the world today, draws philosophy (especially that which is occupied with describing this very situation) into a much broader orbit than the narrowly specialized, most often conservative-minded academic milieu.

Zuzanna Czebatul, Their New Power (Paws), 2020. Polystyrene, acrylic and sand, 140×140 x 50 cm. From the exhibition 'The Singing Dunes’, CAC-La synagogue de Delme

Zuzanna Czebatul, Their New Power (Paws), 2020. Polystyrene, acrylic and sand, 140×140 x 50 cm. From the exhibition 'The Singing Dunes’, CAC-La synagogue de Delme

It is no coincidence that speculative realists' books resonate most strongly everywhere in art communities—twin communities where, along with the philosophical community, the overflow of meaninglessness and dysfunctionality in all directions beyond their borders is most acutely felt. This intuition of artists manifests itself at all levels of their artistic practices. Thus, art today, often intuitively, absorbs absolutely everything that comes its way. There is no more inappropriate material, no more inappropriate mode or theme of expression, no more unsuccessful assemblage of this or that object—everything fits and everything can potentially become part of the mix. It was as if the artists felt they had the full right to absolutely anything their eyes can see and their hands could get. Denying it on anyone else’s part causes them to protest or at the very least, to be confused. Artists have found themselves in a situation where the entire world has become one big playground for them, and the difference with previous decades regarding this is that this state of affairs is no longer (just as in the case of meaninglessness and dysfunctionality of the surplus) a special method for artists, nor a strategy that demands thrust and overcoming. It is simply a situation, a backdrop for a work in which entirely different tasks are undertaken.

We can observe a democratizing wave also in relation to the institutional position of philosophical and artistic practices (with specific features of this process in each of these fields). Institutional legitimation is still an important criterion for recognition by the professional community, but the very formats of legitimizing institutions are becoming more and more diverse. This process of increasing diversity has lasted for more than half a century (if we, for example, decide to count backwards from the French events of 1968, even in spite of the conservative backlash of the decades that followed) and probably will not end anytime soon. But the trend continues to manifest itself actively and suggests a proliferation of extra-institutional sites that legitimize themselves not through permission from a higher authority, but rather through the size of the audience that is loyal to this or that site or to an individual author. For instance, a blog that gains popularity can give its author a real professional advantage, while an online project on contemporary art grown from someone’s personal initiative can become a trendsetter and distributor of large budgets. In one form or another such things have been seen before, but today they are gradually passing into the category of broadly valid, well-known strategies, not the exceptions that confirm the rules, but the well-known, mainstream way of working.

What, then, is to be said of the actual reception of art in this situation of widespread democratization of the surplus? Before offering a variant answer to this question, let us say a few words about the effects of the surplus. As we said above, the surplus, by virtue of its meaninglessness and dysfunctionality, has no firm relations to either temporal durations or spatial contexts. Having doubtful relations with time and space, it is situated in some other, timeless and non-spatial realms, like an appendix floating in eternity, but always in one way or another capable of being actualized in a given moment. Its expansion, its widespread dissemination in the situation of anything conceptually admissible, brings not only mutations on the level of the configurations of meaning, but also renewed types of the production and reception of narrations. In this sense, history in its former sense, as Fukuyama wrote about it, is probably really over, but not because humanity has come to the successful end of its civilizing efforts, but rather because the mutations of narratives are becoming more and more tangible. Along with this, however, the notion of the end itself loses its former influence: where the surplus poorly matched with the temporal durations, pervades, it becomes difficult to draw a dotted line from the beginning point A to the end point B. What we get instead is the irreducible pressing presence of something else: the sustained strangeness of the object and of what lies behind it; the constant expansion of networks with their infinitely multiplying actors; or non-human entities offering destructive surprises. Added to this is the game of ambiguities and contradictions clashing with one another and fed by these clashes. All of this at the same time begins to possess a truth of its own, a truth of surplus that recycles it all into active, operative, vital mixtures that are as meaningless and dysfunctional as they are self-evident and necessary. In this sense, the widely criticized neoliberal maxim that everyone today is obliged to be a bit of a philosopher or artist in order to think ‘creatively’ in the necessary degree, can be reformulated: today everyone is already both a philosopher and an artist, since each of us is already immersed in the constant production of these alchemical mixtures and their constant consumption.

In this vision of the situation, art is no more and no less than a condensed phenomenon, sometimes slightly ahead of events, sometimes synchronized with them, moving among other phenomena. Putting aside the discussion of the above-mentioned gradual blurring of its intra- and extra-institutional positions, we may say that individual objects of art today are conceptually in no way qualitatively different from any other artificially created objects that populate our world. On this basis, we should take into account the situation described above when talking about art objects. Thus we will be able to adjust our optics more precisely and clarify, on the one hand, the ways of assembling today’s art objects as such, and, on the other hand, the ways of talking about these assemblages. And if we insist on the surplus of meaninglessness and dysfunctionality contained within the art object, in the question of the reception of this surplus, we need to recall the synchronic approach as opposed to the diachronic approach, which, in turn, is better suited to the reception of everything in the object that can already boast an explicit possession of meaning and concrete function.

Zuzanna Czebatul, Their New Power (Back), 2020. Polystyrene, acrylic and sand, 60×150 x 105 cm. From the exhibition 'The Singing Dunes’, CAC-La synagogue de Delme

Zuzanna Czebatul, Their New Power (Back), 2020. Polystyrene, acrylic and sand, 60×150 x 105 cm. From the exhibition 'The Singing Dunes’, CAC-La synagogue de Delme

The synchronic approach appears in the foreground whenever the functionality of the developed narrative chains and the ability to reach the object of interest with an approach-structuring narrativity as such, are called into question. In particular, almost all of the most striking features that the object of art possesses today turn out to be, in one way or another, connected precisely with the synchronic way of interacting with this object. Being placed on the Internet in its representation, the art object breaks its once strong ties with its immediate offline context, which had previously been almost the main element for its understanding. We encounter the object of art depicted in a photograph found on the Internet, and even the images that precede it or follow it do not improve the situation. The phenomenological epoché, the formalistic defamiliarization, the tension of the inquisitive viewer’s attention—all this is now done for us and essentially costs us no effort at all. The white cube of the gallery has never quite managed to cope with this task before—there has always remained an institutional narrative which the exhibition space (or the deliberate absence of it) has constructed and contained. By contrast, we can never be sure of the narrative that might lie behind an Internet image, at least because all possible durations and chains of micro-narratives on the Internet mercilessly coexist and intertwine, leaving us no chance of constructing a satisfactory picture of sequences. This is only a formal framework, but it is closely related to other peculiarities of art that require a synchronic approach for its analysis.

Today we can speak of a movement towards the universal democratization of meaninglessness and dysfunctionality, and the results of this democratization we have yet to understand

The object becomes more difficult to interpret, it resists its own incorporation into a coherent and meaningful narrative. However, this object ultimately is resistant not to the discovery of this or that meaning within it, but to the very distinction between the object itself and the meaning it is supposed to have. The object of art, just like Austin“s performative utterance, does not stand up to the test by instances of truth and falsity; instead, all it claims to is the degree of success of its own functioning, defined in its own way for each individual case. The brevity of the performative”s action collapses the duration, becoming an instantaneous revelation of a different order of things determined by the performative. Just as with the use of performative, the object is only effective at each concrete point of its action, becoming the meaning itself, accumulating meaning at the very core of its own assembly. This meaning can no longer be explicated from the object, a surplus of meaninglessness is dancing on its surface and winking hostilely at the observer. In turn, by synchronistically grasping the actions of such an object, we become complicit in a performative act and can no longer expect the object to contain a story within itself, which, if we are diligent enough, it will be able to tell us.

In order to be able to act in this way and be an effective performative object, the object of art must follow a synchronic logic on all levels of its own assembly, and this can indeed be seen. The object is assembled in such a way that it contributes in every possible way to read itself as a performative, which means that it is able to entangle the traces of its own interpretations and to stop one’s gaze. Such objects only need a cursory glance at them in order to become efficacious, which is exactly what an object in most cases can claim to be under conditions of online representation. In order for this to happen, the object has to be really special—attractive or repulsive, recognizable or strange, frightening or amusing, confusing or naive (the list of formal approaches in this case could go on and on). In turn, such an object of art no longer cares about communicating this or that truth, which a zealous interpreter may still try to unearth. The possession of truth is wholly and easily left to surplus, which expands it out of temporal durations and spatial contexts, transporting it into the realm of simultaneous, performative micro-events happening in a new place every time. The object of art no longer requires long, silent gaze into itself, nor knowledge of its cultural context—something that was previously expected of the viewer. At the same time, it seems to demand something else: trust in itself from the viewer, their readiness in principle or at least their ability to believe in the non-accidental assemblage, in the functional consistency of the object, in other words, in its performative consistency. Thus, the object, seized by the surplus of dysfunctionality, begins to respond sensitively to the recognition of its functionality, for the very reason of the democratization of art which also brings its self-denial.

However, we cannot say that art, in spite of the demands on its part described above, inevitably constructs new hierarchies of experience in place of its predecessors. Whether or not the viewer is willing to trust anything, the object of art will keep the upper hand and be able to act: either as a successfully functioning performative object in an already badly functioning world (in which case we can say that art has once again outpaced its time), or as a meaningless and dysfunctional object in a world with a surplus of dysfunctionality spreading out inside it (in which case we can speak of art ‘sensitively catching processes going on around us’). In either of these two scenarios, nothing will be damaged, nothing except the hitherto considered successful configurations of meaning and functionality, whether for objects of art or any other object. For this reason, we cannot assert with certainty what exactly the successful performative action of the object of art will change, but the situation of successful performative functionality itself will only be possible if the viewer is fundamentally open to the experience of conceptual permissiveness, which, in turn, necessarily means their openness to mutations as such.

Zuzanna Czebatul, Their New Power (Head), 2020. Polystyrene, acrylic and sand, 160×110 x 120 cm. From the exhibition 'The Singing Dunes’, CAC-La synagogue de Delme

Zuzanna Czebatul, Their New Power (Head), 2020. Polystyrene, acrylic and sand, 160×110 x 120 cm. From the exhibition 'The Singing Dunes’, CAC-La synagogue de Delme

Synchrony, which guides not only the way of reception of art, but also the way it is constructed, reveals itself in another feature of the objects of art: all contrasts between old and new, topical and irrelevant, appropriate and inappropriate, are ignored within their assemblages. It has already been noted that absolutely everything can be used to assemble objects; however, what is interesting here is not so much the involvement of anything in the construction of the objects as the effect it produces. On one hand, thanks to the synchronous collapse of durations within the constructions of the object itself, and on the other, thanks to fundamentally possible simultaneous performative action, an object of art is capable of actualising everything that falls within its assembly. Everything that becomes part of the object, in other words, becomes part of the performative action: pulled from anywhere, detached from the diachronic flow of narratives, it begins to operate with the same rights as its neighbours in the assembly. Perhaps this is also the reason why some objects of art today are able to make the viewer feel anxious: it is indeed unsettling when something that seemed long buried under layers of time, irrelevance, insignificance or organic decay suddenly appears absolutely alive and active. By abolishing durations, synchrony abolishes death, bringing to life what seemed long dead. However, can we say with certainty that the unsettling sensation of looking at the reanimated dead only occurs to us when we look at objects of contemporary art?

In this sense, it can once again be argued that objects of art have no qualitative difference from other objects. And in particular for this reason a successful performative object does not produce a precisely graspable, instantaneous qualitative change. Rather, it could be said that synchronously captured objects remain clumps of surplus dangling in eternity, and the viewer may experience the miracle of metanoia when looking at them… or may not. At the same time, the object of art, like the object-text, no longer reveals to us a sacral, alternative or unique reality which requires a special skill of reading and looking. Art today is absolutely inside the world in the most disgusting way, and by looking at such art we are looking at the surface of the most banal things. This is because art can no longer boast of its unique possession of the surplus that once communicated its transcendent truth. The transcendent truth is spilling over everywhere, paradoxically allowing us to speak of the new immanence as something that we can (and should) now have enough of.

Ultimately, for successful operations with the beyond, we become adept at handling the chaos of eternity, the alchemical enough and mixtures into which everything seems to have been added. In turn, permissiveness, which opens the door to a diffusion of meaninglessness and dysfunctionality, lifts to the surface and connects on the same plane the living, the dead and everything that oscillates between these two states. We have the conceptual right to reach out with our hand to any point on this plane, but to carry out such a procedure successfully our hands must be able to pass both through any duration and through the fans of narrations that nest in these durations and block our way. Objects of art that explicitly carry out this procedure within their own assemblages, actualize this conceptual right we have, and allow us to speak of extending the possibility of such actualization, if we continue to hold the view of them as objects among other objects of the world. Perhaps this is where their performative role is concealed—in passing on the baton of actualizing that which the surplus turned towards eternity possesses. One could argue that eternity is unpleasant and painful, but what does it matter if eternity ceases to be different from the tube of toothpaste that we open in the morning.


Notes

1. After Quentin Meillassoux the question can in principle no longer be posed in this way. The struggle against metaphysics is transformed into a struggle with metaphysics, and perhaps we have yet to address the questions of the place and function of this or that universalia anew, raising it to the shield of our methodological strategies.

2. Perhaps this is particularly the reason why leftist thought finds itself in crisis, as leftist intellectuals themselves admit. Struggling with dysfunctional surplus throughout its history, leftist theory ultimately finds itself confronted with a situation in which the skillful appropriation of this surplus becomes one of the decisive advantages not only in theoretical discourse but also in practical action.


The essay was first published in Moscow Art Magazine №113 (2020) and translated in 2021 for O Fluxo


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