By Gavin Keeney
The messiah comes for our desires. He separates them from images in order to fulfill them. Or rather, in order to show they have already been fulfilled. Whatever we have imagined, we already had. There remain the (unfulfillable) images of what is already fulfilled. With fulfilled desires, he constructs hell; with unfulfillable images, limbo. And with imagined desire, with the pure word, the beatitude of paradise.(1)Giorgio Agamben
This is not Pop … This was not included in the 2007 Gagosian London show or catalogue Pop Art is […]. That said, it is important to qualify the statement. It is not because Gagosian did not recognize or even know about the work of Gaialight, it is instead that the spurious and specious assimilation of artists as diverse as Richard Prince, Damien Hirst, and Gerhard Richter by Gagosian makes no real sense.(2) Obviously, the definition of Pop today is without critical merit; or, more likely, it is an exercise in attempting to circumvent criticality itself. Such is the post-critical posture of contemporary art.
But the historical definition of Pop is also vague and indeterminate. It goes without saying, regarding Pop Art, that most art-historically challenged consumers of Art would think first of Andy Warhol, while Pop extends as far back as the post-war British art scene of the early 1950s (the Independent Group) and has a dubious connection to Futurism, the early 1900s avant-garde movement that glorified the technological hubris of the early modern (but only ‘early modern’ in the short sighted art-historical sense, as modernity by any other standard is pushed back several centuries, if not to the Renaissance than to the French Revolution). Modern art history as a discourse has often seemed, strangely, half blind — yet, today, contemporary art history may be totally blind (intentionally and blissfully so).
The problem nonetheless, in the present case, is, simply, ‘What is collage?’ — and the problem persists insofar as the so-called ‘invention’ of collage is invariably attributed to Futurism, c.1909-1913, and its agit-prop provocations (see Marjorie Perloff’s The Futurist Moment, 1986). This troubled history of collage, which at times conflates montage, assemblage, and collage, and which in the post-modern implicates, further, the pathetic artistic agency of pastiche and gross insincerity (or, at best, irony), is a very slippery slope. Suffice to say, once again, Gaialight’s work is not Pop (or not-Pop). It is easy to say why.
The Pop sensibility is totally, or at least primarily, non-critical — it is celebratory. It is hard to find anything Warhol did that is against the proliferation of the popular as precious spectacle (spectaculum), that is against the essentially anti-modern vacuousness of celebrity- and image-driven culture.(3) (His car crashes are perhaps an exception.) If the 1960s delivered Pop, as antidote to high modern art, it did so with the full collusion of then-emergent visual media, of which we live with the full implications of today. The avalanche of Pop coincided with the explosion of post-war media. The anti-modern and the minimalist and conceptualist insurrections of this time were aimed at both modernist hegemony and a public with a voracious appetite to indulge voyeuristic art practices and everyday bric-a-brac (advertising, high commodity culture, and momentary sensation). The hedonism of the 60s spawned Pop Art. It was an anti-establishment, anti-elitist art that became the establishment by appropriation.
There is, then, the additional problem of what not-Pop actually is. Not-Pop is intentionally predicated on Pop, while it is strenuously NOT Pop. This is not merely a semantic game, while it is a ‘structuralist’ (art-grammatical) game. One only need pass through the surface of not-Pop to find that the actual intent is to destroy Pop from within. Richard Prince might be said to think this, or to pretend such, while he has settled instead for an uneasy accord with Pop and neo-Pop for reasons we can only assume have to do with marketability and sustained irony. In his case Pop is a fence-sitting exercise. Holzer and Kruger have sold themselves to the same devil, insofar as their works are essentially ‘vulgar’ or generally ludicrous (meaning they are aimed at the lowest common denominator — i.e., the art public and its endless appetite for information and spectacle, whether sardonic, whimsical, pseudo-erudite, or otherwise). The common purpose is détournement, Debord’s and the Situationist’s idea that one might use the imagery of spectacle to critique the same. What matters, however, is whether that ‘turning of spectacle upon itself’ connotes anything other than the cancelation or mere negation of the contagion.(4)
Thus, the work of Gaialight is placed in the difficult in-between that represents what Pop acclaimed and what Pop failed to deliver — i.e., a future free from all forms of economic-political constraint, and a future free of all forms of modernist cant and moralism. Yet, one almost misses that cant and moralism as a result of the utter artistic poverty (apparent rote nihilism) of Pop. If Pop, based on re-formulated Futurism plus Dada and Surrealism, was meant to validate a brave new world of image-driven cultural agitation, a world of endless and marvellous innovation and mechanization, unparalleled freedom to race very fast cars over very slick roads (Marinetti), i.e., to celebrate technological, eidetic, and virtual triumphalism, or, in a word, to indulge every self-indulgent, candy-colored fantasy, it clearly failed. What the collaged works of Gaialight deliver, instead of a reprisal of all of that, is a vast, unrelenting critique of that very failure and the fact that we live with that failure as the ‘given’ of our current cultural condition.
It is necessary to say why, and it is necessary to instruct those who might fall for the insanely dynamic and optically-charged surface of the work (its preliminary ‘beauty’) as to the depths into which one must fall, willingly, to access the singular critique at the heart of this work. One must bracket the apparent Pop sensibility, and one must ask oneself why this imagery is so utterly unrelenting (devastating), until the obvious question appears through this preliminary questioning — or, ‘What is the prevailing sentiment, and is this not a vision of horror, after all?’.
Once this sentiment is recognized and engaged, once one falls not for the surface but for the depths, the moral depths, there is no other conclusion to be reached but that ‘here’ is a type of hellishness pictured in a savagely repetitive, highly-allusive, and largely elusive collage technique that also, importantly, relies as much on its base (its support) as on the imagery itself. It is, after all, a type of painting (as collage was said to have killed off painting, or at least rendered it obsolete). As a result, neither can such be reduced to the frisson of contemporary assemblage art (post-conceptual installation art), as this is, clearly, modernist collage, not post-modernist assemblage or pastiche. And, if modernist montage was cinematic or photographic (Rodchenko, Malevich, Eisenstein, Man Ray), we have no choice but to admit that here collage does miraculously what montage and assemblage also do. Gaialight’s collage launches a singular subject (object) of/for art, rigorously, and it integrates through repetition fragments that appear as sparks that rise from a fire that burns from somewhere and some place we have no chance of locating, till we arrive there through reflection (a negative-dialectical, apophatic form of ‘seeing’ and ‘not-seeing’). It is this very eliding of collage, montage, and assemblage that makes Gaialight’s work impossible to classify. It is all of these things, and it is none of these things, at once.
Therefore, one must return to the source (one must make the journey), to the principled place of production, the mind’s eye (the artist’s soul), and see that the intent is strenuously moral and strenuously the opposite of Pop per se (or apposite of not-Pop). One can only weigh such things in golden scales, and golden scales no longer exist in the art world proper because art is currently made of mostly thin air, or smoke and mirrors. They (such scales) remain only in the imaginary of the perceiver and in the furtive conscience of ‘Art as such’.
1 – Giorgio Agamben, “Desiring”, pp. 53-54, in Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007), p. 54; Vast mysteries are contained in this highly condensed statement, part of a highly-charged, extremely short (two-page) essay; Agamben’s summary is in essence an intensely iconoclastic enunciation of what ‘messianic time’ portends; The deliverance of ‘what remains’ is the deliverance of what always already was fulfilled, and the fact that the paradisiacal is image-less is slightly misleading; Instead, what is elliptically stated is that ‘paradise’ is the ‘time’ when the image strictly corresponds with the thing and there is no division (therefore there is no image per se, and no unfulfilled desire as a result); This was the supposed (mythical) condition of ‘Eden’, and such is also the supposed condition or outcome of ‘Redemptive’ time, the time of the messiah, the time that arrives to end time (or experience mediated by imagery and desire); Agamben’s recent work on ‘redemptive time’ comes by way of Walter Benjamin, both Benjamin’s appropriations of Lurianic, East European Jewish mysticism and his interest in St. Paul (a figure Agamben shows to be buried in Benjamin’s famous “Theses on a Philosophy of History”); See Giorgio Agamben, The Time that Remains, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), first published as Il tempo che resta (Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2000); Agamben is the editor of the Italian edition of Benjamin’s complete works.
2 – Agamben points out elsewhere in Profanations (in the essay “Special Being”, as below) that “specious first meant ‘beautiful’ and only later came to mean ‘untrue, apparent.'” (p. 58); His main gesture here is to show that the schism (rupture) between things and ideas is the tragic dimension of modernity exemplified, and that all transcendent signifieds must, therefore, remain empty — or, that all signs must remain broken signs; Gerhard Richter is included in the Gagosian show solely based on his appropriations of photography and media (newspaper imagery), while his work certainly underscores the ’empire of broken signs’ given to post-modern nihilism; That said, his work is also an extraordinary critique of the same.
3 – “The Latin term species, which means ‘appearance,’ ‘aspect,’ or ‘vision,’ derives from a root signifying ‘to look, to see.’ This root is also found in speculum (mirror), spectrum (image, ghost), perspicuus (transparent, clearly seen), specimen (example, sign), and spectaculum (spectacle). In philosophical terminology, species was used to translate the Greek eidos (as genus was used to translate genos); hence the sense the term takes on in natural science (animal or plant species) and in the language of commerce, where the term signifies ‘commodities’ (particularly in the sense of drugs and spices) and, later, money (espÃ¨ces).” See Giorgio Agamben, “Special Being”, pp. 55-60, in Ibid., pp. 56-57; Importantly, the ‘making precious of spectacle’ is a doubling of desire and consistent with the rarified nature of commodity production; Warhol raised the stakes for Art, doubling what Walter Benjamin called its “exhibition value”, and, in so doing, Warhol and Pop placed so-called ‘contemporary’ art in line for endless appropriation by the very mechanisms of production and circulation out of which it (Pop) arrived; The term ‘contemporary’ is used art-historically, or art-critically, to distinguish what came after modernism (typically a transition that encompasses the 1950s and early 1960s) from modernism proper; Lost in the transition, so-to-speak, are artists such as Yves Klein and Tony Smith; This gap has been problematized by Hal Foster especially in the context of the diachronic nature of MoMA’s curatorial program.
4 – It is not Pop per se (as paradigm or anti-paradigm) that is given to endless accommodation of the Capitalist market economy and its unbridled demand for always new forms of spectacle, but the presence of Pop as corollary or handmaiden to the same, either Pop in retrospect, and, therefore, most forms of neo-Pop, or Pop Art proper as a period phenomenon co-terminous with the post-war expansion of Western consumerist fantasies; Hal Foster has indicated, in terms of Pop architecture, that often the ‘spectacular’ nature of the presentation (the unbuildable architectural project) concealed a secret agenda in the form of fomenting or picturing class warfare, or that which would bring the entire (un)edifying complex, the project itself, into eventual ruin; This is consistent with Guy Debord’s brief flirtation with the fantastic agenda of Pop architecture, i.e., Constant’s New Babylon, before he saw that such projects were nothing other than a manifestation of an ill-conceived colonization of the margins of that which he and the Situationist International sought to totally demolish; See Hal Foster, “Image Building”, Artforum, Vol. 43, No. 2 (October 2004), as below; The unqualified assimilation of neo-Dada and neo-Surrealism (the 1960s versions) to Pop and neo-Pop should not go unquestioned, as Dada was a highly critical and mordant (deadly) affair, as Surrealism was an apocalyptic venture situated at the intersection of art (visual art and literature) and psychoanalysis; Both Dada and Surrealism were perched at the ‘edge of the abyss’, meaning Dada emerged out of utter revulsion with World War I and Surrealism was born in the inter-War years as pure aesthetic rebellion; Zurich Dada, in particular, was an absurdist moment in the agit-prop tendency of the European avant-garde, and its agenda (at the Cabaret Voltaire), under careful analysis, proves to have been highly moral (not moralistic); Lastly, it is necessary to say that Marcel Duchamp cannot be blamed nor credited for everything that came afterward, i.e., after Dada, in the form of anti-art, as his own position within the art world is not so much that of satyr-saint, but ultra-critical logician and unorthodox semiotician or shaman, a figure, if not genius, of vast significance and a figure grossly misunderstood to this day.
Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007); The premise of this collection of exceptional essays is to return actually-existing things to ‘use’ (actual use), from ultra-rarified and ultra-reified states that produce horizon-less anomie and endless disenfranchisement — arguably the very intention of advanced Capitalism.
Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003); See “Andy Warhol’s One-Dimensional Art: 1956-1966”, pp. 461-529.
Germano Celant, et alia, 1900-1919: The Avant-Garde Movements (Milan: Skira, 2006); See “The End of the Artistic Object”, pp. 387-412. Christophe Domino (ed.), Les Années Pop (Paris: Gallimard/Pompidou, 2001).
Hal Foster, “Image Building”, Artforum, Vol. 43, No. 2 (October 2004), pp. 270-273, 310-311; The special issue is entitled “This is Today: Pop after Pop”; Foster shows the links between Pop Art and Pop architecture, the latter of which was exemplified by Peter and Alison Smithson, Archigram, Archizoom, and Superstudio; The issue reprints Lawrence Alloway’s 1962 essay “Pop Since 1949” (pp. 57-58, 61, 274, 276), in which Alloway states, “Pop Art begins in London about 1949 with work by Francis Bacon […]”, referring to Bacon’s appropriations of cinematic and photographic images in his paintings of the period.
Mark Francis, Stefan Ratibor (eds.), Pop Art is […] (London: Gagosian, 2007); Exhibition catalogue, September 27 through November 10, 2007; The full title of the exhibition (and the catalogue) is “Pop Art is: Popular, Transient, Expendable, Low Cost, Mass Produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business”; This title is taken from a letter written by Richard Hamilton to Peter and Alison Smithson dated “16th January, 1957” and reproduced in the catalogue; Importantly, Hamilton qualifies several of the terms in his “table of characteristics” for Pop, including “Popular (designed for a mass audience)”, “Transient (Short term solution)”, “Expendable (easily forgotten)”, and “Young (aimed at Youth)”, and the odd capitalization is his; Additionally, Hamilton writes, “I find I am not yet sure about the ‘sincerity’ of Pop Art — it is not a characteristic of all but it is of some, at least a pseudo sincerity is.” Barbara Haskell (ed.), Blam! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism, and Performance, 1958-1964 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art/W. W. Norton, 1984); Exhibition catalogue, September 20 through December 2, 1984.
Edward Leftingwell, Karen Marta (eds.), Modern Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Pop (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988); Exhibition catalogue, ICA (New York), October 22, 1987 through June 12, 1988.
David McCarthy, Pop Art (London: Tate Gallery, 2000).
Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Regarding collage, see “The Invention of Collage”, pp. 44-79; A new edition in 2003 includes a new “Preface” citing resurgent ‘Futurist’ agendas in late-modern art and architecture; See especially, “The Word Set Free: Text and Image in the Russian Futurist Book”, pp. 116-160, regarding Malevich, Mayakovsky, Kruchenykh, Khlebnikov, Larionov, and Goncharova; Perloff performs the usual dance around the issues of the “politicization of art” (Communism) and the “aestheticization of politics” (Fascism), citing, as well, Robert Tucker regarding Marx’s “conception of ultimate communism”, that is, “Human self-realization means much more to Marx than the return of man to himself out of his alienated labor. … The ending of economic alienation will mean the end of the state, the family, law, morality, etc., as subordinate spheres of alienation. … What will remain is the life of art and science in a special and vastly enlarged sense of these two terms. Marx’s conception of ultimate communism is fundamentally aesthetic in character. … The alienated world will give way to the aesthetic world.” Robert C. Tucker, Philosophy and Myth in Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), pp. 157-158, cited in Perloff, p. 34.