…and the rebellion against the straight line
Exhibition curated by Alistair Hicks, Axel Vervoordt Gallery, Antwerp, 16 March – 25 May 2019
The idea of the exhibition is particularly interesting, and to some degree provocative as the title suggests. The well-know 1908 essay of Adolf Loos, “Ornament and crime”, identified simplicity, “purity”, as the key tenet of modern art, and therefore by implication the straight line, the right angle, plain colours, as the vocabulary of forms to be used modern, progressive art. There was no use for any ornament that does not serve a functional purpose, emotion was a pointless relic. Ornament was just a lie. There are clear neo-platonic undertones in this view: what matters is light, proportion, which lead to a form of evidence, of peace and of mental exhilaration not unlike some form of revelation. There is also an implicit rejection of History: ornament is representative of style, itself a concretion of history into form, a reminder perhaps of a period of human infancy, which had become useless now that progress in the sciences, in organization, in education, had made all this hodgepodge of forms mere obstacles to enlightened thought and vision. « Via cartesii est simpicissima…ce que je vois m’aveugle…Otez toute chose, que j’y voie » (what I see blinds me…Take away all things that I may see), says Monsieur Teste in Valéry’s masterwork, written in 1927, precisely on the topic of the separation of emotion from reality. This view informs “Western” art history for most of the 20th century, from l’Esprit nouveau to Arts & Crafts, from the Novecento of Giovanni Muzio to the International style until postmodernism. You could add De Stijl, OpArt, Arte Povera, Minimalism, the works of contemporary icons such as Anish Kapoor, and many more to the list.
This attitude is certainly not an isolated case in history, if we consider for instance the deliberate simplicity of Cistercian architecture, which has – in the spiritual dimension – similar tenets and objectives. And it is indisputable that this view has produced immensely important artworks in architecture and design; only the inevitably dominant number of failures are perhaps more striking to us today. So that this “crime” was probably worth the victim. It is a metaphor of a period when the western mind generally knew what it was striving for, which utopia it was set to build. Just as in the case of Cistercians, light, simplicity, transparency, neat perspectives are all indices of a utopian quest, and also of a liberation. Let us read Mondrian: “Art is the aesthetic establishment of complete life – unity and equilibrium – free from all oppression. For this reason it can reveal the evil of oppression and show the way to combat it” (in Liberation from oppression in art and life). And Carl Andre also expresses an ideal of liberation when he writes of his flat, horizontal pieces so exemplary of Minimalism : “They’re like roads but certainly not fixed point vistas. I think sculpture should have infinite points of view.” This is if you like a dangerous illusion, but it certainly has been the obsession of modernity to get rid of fixed points.
But beauty also had its place, and an eminent one, though detached from ornament. The motto of Arts & Crafts, after all, was ”only have that which is beautiful and useful in your home”…
In the material dimension of our civilization, the potential of new material in architecture, the computing power which allows to calculate complex structures, among other factors, and in the “mental” dimension the greater intimacy with other thoughts and societies, the falling apart of the “platonic view” of the world, the many cracks in the religion of progress, the acute “crisis of the meaning” in many lives after the demise of Christianity, Socialism, Nationalism and even the belief in the singularity of humans, leaving man alone in front of a void now progressively filled by a return to a pantheistic of Nature, all contributed to the waning of the influence of the Loos injunction. Interestingly, although the formal implications of this injunction are much less widespread that they used to be except in the realm of architecture, the idea of “ornament” is probably still anathema. The word itself seems to have vanished. But there could be a confusion between beauty, which is definitely all the more out in art as it is has become an imperative of the body, and simplicity which belongs to a different semantic category. Beauty in art is now equivalent to a lack of sincerity, and sincerity is a new God in the ocean of fake. The high point is perhaps reached by Damian Hirst, when he exhibits fake archeologic remains, transmuting the ultimate fake into a form of sincerity: the counterfeiter exhibits his own work as a fake.
The exhibition takes a subtle detour to denounce the crime, by exploring the approach of non-western artists who all belong to traditions where the “Loos injunction” was either irrelevant or less powerful, though this could of course not be said, for instance, of Turkey between the world wars where the influence of Italian fascist architecture is obvious (the mausoleum of Atatürk is a clear case) or of Russia in the 1920s: the Soviet ideology of narodnost implies “organicity and uniformity, the existence of an ideal beyond time, simplicity and clarity (opposed to the complexity valued by the elites), fight against decadent morbidity…” (Gjunter, in The totalitarian government and its origins, 2000).
To make his point, the curator has brought together in the extraordinary space of the Vervoordt gallery the works of four Turkish artists, Fahrelnissa Zeid, Nilbar Güres, Asli Cavusoğlu and Cansu Cakar, of Senkichiro Nasaka, a member of the Japanese avant-garde movement Gutai, of the Chinese Zheng Guogu, of Kamrooz Aram, an American/Iranian artist, of Waqas Khan from Pakistan, and of Nikita Alexeev, who can be said to be part of the Russian conceptualist movement.
I would like to dwell a little further on two or three works of very different origins and significance.
The first one is the video by Nilbar Güres, a Turkish artist born in 1977 and who lives and works in Vienna. The work, called “Open phone booth”, is typical of what an effective political art work should be. It shows mountains whitened by the snow. A man appears in the distance with his dog, walking up the mountain. In this desolate landscape, the walk seems endless and pointless… Once he reaches the top, he starts a conversation on his mobile phone, a conversation of a great banality, probably with a relative, on the “how are you ? Here all is fine” mode. This effort for these words. Until one understands that these are Alevis living in a remote region of Anatolia, where the regime refuses to invest in telecommunications because Alevis are considered heretics, and virtual enemies. Alevism is a branch of Shi’a Islam that is practiced in Turkey and the Balkans, and represents between 15 and 20% of the Turkish population. Alevism incorporates is a syncretic tradition, which combines elements of Turkish beliefs such as shamanism and animism with Shiism and Sufi spirituality. Their practices differ from that of Sunni Muslims who are dominant in Turkey insofar as they meet in cemevi halls rather than mosques for prayer, their ceremonies feature music and dancing where both women and men participate, and they do not observe the five daily prayers; they consider the true pilgrimage to be interior rather than participate in the Hajj. This spirituality is abhorred by orthodox Hanafi Sunni Muslims who are literalists and view themselves as the only true face of their religion.
The work of Nilbar Güres exposes indirectly this lamentable divide, without engaging into any political diatribe, or discussing religious views, or siding with any such view. It plays on time and contrast to reveal an absurdity, just as in some dances a barely perceptible change in balance by one partner will provide an indication of movement to the other.
A second work I would like to briefly discuss is Horticultural Iconostasis by Nikita Alexeev, dated 2018, and Unthought Thoughts which are placed exactly back-to-back to Horticultural Iconostasis thus establishing an inevitable link between the two works. Nikita Alexeev was born in Moscow in 1953; in 1972, he graduated from the Moscow Art College, then studied at the Department of Artistic and Technical Design of Printed Matter of the Moscow Polygraphic Institute. He worked for a long period as a book illustrator for a publishing house. In the 1970s and 1980s, he was a protagonist of informal art in Moscow, and a founder and participant of the Collective Actions group (1975 – 1980). He housed an equally informal gallery, the Apt Art Gallery, in his own apartment, while participating in many of the most notable exhibitions of that era. Lone can mention in particular La Nuova Arte Sovetica – Una Prospettiva Non Ufficiale in Venice (1977). In 1987 he moved to France for a few years, then returned to Moscow. Nikita Alexeev can be related to the Moscow Conceptualism movement, although perhaps in a less obvious manner than such emblematic figures as Ilya and Kabakov. He was quite aptly qualified as an “impressionist conceptualist” by Stella Kesaeva when presenting the « Much-Little-Little-Much » exhibition at the Stella Art Foundation in 2010.
There is a moving remembrance by the artist while on a stay in Crimea, which I cannot resist quoting: “Clouds were a bore for me. They were beautiful, but how long could one observe this amorphous, silent beauty without getting bored, especially when you are young? So I went down to the shore where waves were surrendering their last effervescent bubbles to pebbles and sand. And I found a piece of wood brought by the sea – the silvery thing covered with salt crystals. I don’t think that I was thinking about art at the moment. And I don’t know why I had the idea to ask my friend George Kiesewalter to pick up his Zenith camera and to make photos of me while flagellating the sea. Later, our art historians and critics came to the conclusion that this act, made out of happy boredom, was a very important art piece of early Moscow conceptualism. Perhaps it is, maybe it’s not. In any case, it’s not my business: my occupation is cloud watching and, later on, producing things, which I consider as something close to art. But moreover, some of those who are writing about art in Russia came to the strongly-held belief that I necessarily had in mind, when swaying the sea, the famous flagellation of the Dardanelles performed by Xerxes.”
Now, as we know, an iconostasis is a wall of icons usually visually separating, but symbolically uniting the nave and the sanctuary in early Christian churches, a form continued in the orthodox tradition. Although iconostases are usually comprised of five tiers of icons, we have four layers here. The iconostasis, in particular the icons of Christ and the Theotokos who are the path to divinity, or rather by which human achieve divinisation, is a window onto heaven. Here the saints are replaced by fruits and vegetables, each one of them seeming to come out a hole in the wall, or perhaps to be attracted into a hole and about to leave to the other side. So that we do have the fundamental idea of passage which characterizes iconostases. And as if to enhance the idea, the curator has had the excellent idea to install this piece at the centre of the passage which allows to penetrate in the larger space of the gallery. Generally speaking, the installation of this Crime is absolutely impeccable.
Of course, one could read the fruits and vegetables which replace the saints and characters of the Holy Scriptures as symbols of life, as Nature itself intermediating between man and heaven, and that would not be odd as, in Medieval thought, the Creation is indeed a book in which one can read, by reflection as much as by deduction, the unrepresentable mysteries of the divine. Nature is in a way the hypostasis of the divine. But one could also point out the slight oddity of this catalogue of fruits and vegetables, and it could be said that these are but emblems of the many forms of life, just as the animals that were embarked on the Arch of Noe were emblems of the many aspects of Creation. And, as I refer to the Arch, is this Horticultural Iconostasis not precisely the Arch of Anthropocene, the surviving samples of the nature which we have damaged and continue to harm in the name of comfort, prosperity, or even the mere decency of life for billions of people ? Formally, the order of the sixteen squares is partly negated by the strangeness of these vegetables, none of which is identical to the other, in a grouping deprived of any ranking or symmetry.
The Unthought Thoughts which constitute the back of the Iconostasis is itself a kind of iconostasis made of nine squares of pale colour ranging from the yellow to the green and pink, each with subtle variations in tone, with imperceptible changes of tonality occurring as you move around the work. It is a very meditative piece which, like its “twin”, draws great power from the semi-darkness in which it is exposed, and its position of “detachment” from any opaque support. Meditation is by nature a state of conscience detached from the awareness of any particular object, even if it is mediated by an image. It is therefore a thought, as it occurs in the mind, which remains unthought to the extent that you cannot formulate them in actual words or representations of recognizable objects. Unquestionably, you could stand in front of this work – this opus rather – for quite a long time, feeling attracted and slightly hypnotized perhaps, not knowing really why, or what you are thinking about. It creates a state which discourages and defies analysis. In that very sense, it undermines the premises of Adolf Loos’s Essay. But at the same time, this work made of nine perfect squares arranged so as to form a larger square are an image of simplicity, and an apparent rejection of ornament; it is in a dialectical position with respect to the tenets of the Essay, which again fully justifies its being visible when exiting the main space.
A last word perhaps on the work of Zheng Guogu, which consists of eleven columns of Chinese characters painted in red, black, green, yellow and blue, but where the artist has let the paint, not yet dried, blobbed and smudged vertically to some limited extent so that the characters are made unreadable, incomprehensible. Their meaning is concealed by the spontaneous smudge of the paint, as if they had self-destroyed with the passage of time. The idea that meaning blurs, wanes, or becomes ambiguous or distorted with the passage of time is of course not a particularly new one, and archeology is all about civilizations or cultures which have become mute, and from which we strive to extract words from the few material traces which they have left. It is perhaps speed which has changed. The not-so-educated person used to have a direct, unmediated access to his own heritage over a period of several centuries, and thus to be able to build on it, or even to reject it. No more.
Although everyone can still read the words, most people belonging to younger generations fail to grasp the strata of their meanings, or to feel, to have an intuition of their meanings. It is true in general of the metaphysical dimension of texts or images, but also of many behavioural attitudes, or social rituals, perhaps even of feelings, which become the domain of specialists. Words and images are sometimes re-cycled as if meaningless but useful objects just as people re-used Roman columns in early Medieval churches, because they found them grand, or just easy to use, and had lost the knowledge required to carve and polish them. The question might then become, do we have anything upon which we wish or need to build, other of course than mathematical or scientific knowledge that will endure because of the universality of their signs.
Is the dripping of Zheng Guogu an observation, an insight, or a deliberate blurring ? It would be easy to say, of course, that by introducing non-determination in these writings, of which we do not know the initial meaning, the artist destroys clarity itself, and reduces meaning to, precisely, ornament: what is a text that no one can read, but the trace, or the index of a text ? Just as a parchment damaged by water: you wish you could read them, you vaguely hope and regret at the same time that there might have been some exciting message, or mystery, in that text. Only form remains, and useless form is what Mr Loos most probably considered as ornament. But useless does not signify purposeless or meaningless. As a matter of fact, ornament is eminently telling of the times and conditions of its formation, and as ornament serves a clear social purpose. It is just that society at that time and in that place had no use for the rethorics of ornament. The engine, the electronic chip, are not designed to please the eye, their beauty lies in their perfect functionality, in the economy of means employed to achieve a given performance. Society as a machine has little use for ornament, but the individual within that society may find a way to exist as an individual through ornament, as the amazing diffusion of tattoos in contemporary European and American societies seems to express. Ornament moved from the walls to the bodies.
The most exciting part of Zheng Guogu’s work is that he points at a erasure as force, perhaps a necessity, of our times. In order for society to mutate at the velocity required by technologies which man did not fully think through, could not fully think through due to the speed of the mutation, he has to resort to erasure, and oblivion. And transform the past into ornament.