April 21, 2008

Monkey Business: Curatorial Practice, Pt. 4

A vague sense of disquiet came over me when I first learned of Zwirner & Wirth’s “recreation” of an important mid-1960s exhibition by Dan Flavin. The 1964 Green Gallery Show was purportedly the first time Flavin exhibited fluorescent lights alone as art. Flavin’s seven pieces were installed at Richard Bellamy’s space and as originally conceived dealt with the “formal and chromatic relationships that were engendered by his fluorescent light works when they were shown together.”(1) Thus, we are encouraged by the curators of this new “recreation” to accept that Flavin was also first engaging the consideration of his sculptures as a whole to be perceived within an architectural site.

This is heady discourse within the Minimalist canon and if we agree on the chronology then 1964 might very well be the beginning of site specific sculpture, i.e., sculpture created for a particular space. Further distinctions in site specific work later evolved into two explorations: assimilative work integrating harmoniously within the environment /architecture, and interruptive work that “functions as a critical intervention into the existing order of a site.”(2) Certainly this would cast Flavin’s 1964 Green Gallery Show, in its dual incarnations at the original site (Bellamy’s Green Gallery) and the 21st Century site (Zwirner & Wirth) as both assimilative and interruptive.

In the 1964 space, Flavin is said to have integrated the colored fluorescent lights within the space, which speaks to his concern with the harmony of the “whole.”(3) However, in the 2008 Zwirner & Wirth 1964 Green Gallery we have a theoretical attempt at a “recreation” that results in an interruptive intervention. It is first and foremost a simulation of a show that found its true harmony in a different space and, in all sincerity, in a different time. This retrospective adulation over a long-ago-and-faraway art experience is a nostalgic longing for an interaction that is impossible now. We know too much about minimalism, site specific sculpture, phenomenology and art history to perceive these seven sculptures in their current site as nothing but art market positioning disguised as “curatorial practice.”

On a more practical level, one may learn from Flavin’s conservator that General Electric’s chemical formulation of the fluorescent lights changed in the 1980’s, resulting in Flavin’s estate having to special order fabricated bulbs from GE as needed.(4) It is mere wishful thinking for an exact replication of a “1964” color in a 2008 fluorescent bulb. Furthermore, Flavin himself acknowledged the transitory nature of his art in a 1982 interview:

“One has no choice but to accept the fact of temporary art. Permanence just defies everything. . . I would like to leave a will and testament to declare everything void at my death, and it's not unrealistic. I mean it, because only I know the work as it ought to be. All posthumous interpretations are less. I know this.”(5)

On one issue, at least for the time being, it appears that Stephen Flavin, the artist’s son, has agreed to limit “posthumous interpretations” of any new work; Dan Flavin, Ltd. has announced to the Dia Foundation that no new work will be issued that was not certified by Dan Flavin during his lifetime.(6)

So what are we to make of the Zwirner & Wirth Green Gallery? Dia’s director Michael Govan has said that Flavin sought “to implicate the entirety of the architecture that contained his work in a three-dimensional environment” and that Flavin's fluorescent light sculptures are “especially sensitive to arrangement and context.”(7) No matter how much of a “resemblance” Zwirner & Wirth bears to Bellamy’s 1964 gallery space, it is a different three-dimensional architectural environment. The current Green Gallery uses existing photographs, eye witness accounts and sketches to recreate a 44-year-old exhibition. Thereby, an epistemic critique of this 2008 “environment” must acknowledge its failure. In yearning for the distant “1964 art context” conditions, Zwirner & Wirth negatively influence whatever perceptual art experience might occur in their visitors by attempting a simulation of a unique site specific work that no longer exists.

As “recreation” of an art experience the 2008 Green Gallery is destined to fail; as simulation it is an unqualified success. It seduces with the desirable frisson of time travel (Weren’t there in ’64? See it in '08!) and the gee-whiz wonder of Disneyland. It is an institutionally sanctioned art marketing strategy: position a deceased (yet still “blue-chip”) artist in a high-visibility commercial gallery or art fair to boost speculation in the work and sales at auction. Inevitably these kinds of "historic events" become little more than vapid experiences emptied of the original intent of the artist. Yet they are a hard-and-fast component of the “monkey business” continually afoot in the art world.

Image: Dan Flavin's 1964 installation at Green Gallery; © Copyright Artists Rights Society /Dan Flavin, Ltd.


1. From Zwirner & Wirth press release.

2. Kwon, Miwon. “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, (Zoya Kocur, Simon Leung, Eds.) Oxford, 2005, 50. [See Rosalyn Deutsche’s “Tilted Arc and the Uses of Public Space,” Design Book Review 23 (Winter 1992): 22-27.]

3. “Flavin changed the colors of some of the lamps that he had planned to use once he saw the actual interaction of the colored light in space.” - From Zwirner & Wirth press release.

4. greg.org.

5. Allen, Greg. “Lights Out: The Dark Side of Success,” The New York Times, January 2, 2005.

6. “Perhaps the most important decision made for the estate was to close Flavin's editions and not posthumously produce over 1,700 that the artist had declared, but which remained unsold at his death. Instead, only work that was certified by the artist in his lifetime would be declared authentic.
Stephen Flavin: I felt that it would have left things open to what Dan called monkey business. I just could see, you know, a lot of potential for forgery, with people not really knowing what to be looking for as far as an official estate certificate. Even over the years, there are variations in the certificates, so I thought it best to keep it limited to things that had his signature. It'd make things simpler.” - From “Re-inventing the Light Bulb: Stephen Flavin” at greg.org.

7. Govan, Michael. “Irony and Light,” Dan Flavin: The Complete Lights 1961-1996, New York, 2004, 56.

April 10, 2008

Postnarrative Structure

Film has been wedded to narrative from its inception. The essence of film, a succession of still images in sequence, implies linearity and the progression of a narrative. The elements of film involve both duration (time spent) and perception. Our perceptions of the sequential images of individual frames of film transform it imperceptibly into a “story” whether we recognize a “plot” or simply observe a succession of abstract images.

Stan Douglas expands the narrative structure of film through his use of repetition to create variance within sequential imagery and sound. His Overture (1986) is simplicity itself, with archival (yet far from pristine) 16mm footage of a railway trip through a mountainous landscape viewed from the locomotive’s perspective. Frequent tunnels interrupt the flow of imagery as the train enters the darkness within, eventually to emerge and continue wending its way down the tracks. Coupled with this black-and-white footage is a “narrative voice-over” which speaks of the moments before sleep and waking in darkness:

“When I awoke in the middle of the night, I could not even be sure at first who I was; for it always happened when I awoke like this, and my mind struggled in an unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was, everything revolved around me through the darkness: things, places, years. These shifting and confused gusts of memory never lasted more than a few seconds; it often happened that in my brief spell of uncertainty as to where I was, I did not distinguish the various suppositions of which it was composed any more than when we watch a horse running we isolate the successive positions of its body as they appear upon a bioscope.”

The words are from the opening pages, or “overture,” of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.(1) Douglas has referred to Proust’s ideas about memory, both voluntary and involuntary, and habit as presenting an “opposition between human time and mechanical time.”(2) It is significant that two of the most influential machines of the 19th Century dominate Douglas’s Overture and the audience “witnesses one machine’s view of another machine’s trip through a landscape.” The first machine is the film projector (which is in visible proximity to the audience) that illuminates the filmed journey through the Canadian Rocky Mountains from the second machine’s POV (the locomotive).

I would say there is a third “machine” present, that being Douglas’s conceptual “idea” which becomes a “machine that makes the art.”(3) For it is the happenstance of simultaneity that provides this deceptively simple artwork with its resonance of memory and time. Our memory is tested as we visually observe and finally recognize that the film is indeed a “loop” of the train’s multiple entrances and exits from mountain tunnels, just as we audibly begin to discern certain phrases in the narrator’s intonation that have become repetitive. This eventual recognition and “discovery” enables us to both ascertain our perceptual connection to art and to reflect on the questionable nature of “consciousness.”

There are three different film segments of the locomotive’s trip, interspersed with black film leader as the train enters the tunnels, and Douglas references the “uncertainties” of the original Proustian text:

“We hear his uncertainties as to whether he’s asleep or awake, dreaming or actually witnessing what he thinks he’s witnessing. And this, of course, has a relation to viewing the work because the images are very large and very consuming, you’re drawn into its linear single-point perspective which is constantly moving forward, however, when the screen goes black it’s as if you return to yourself, your body.”

Douglas’s statement presents us with at least two more distinct ideas. First, the linearity of a single-point perspective that is “constantly moving forward” reinforces my original theory that Douglas’s work is a new interpretation of what narrative can be and how it is “depicted” in screen practice. The film documents a literal “narrative,” a journey, and its most essential element is those sequential individual frames of celluloid that I mentioned earlier. It is also relevant (and somewhat ironic) that the Proust passage quoted above mentions the “successive positions” of a horse running “as they appear upon a bioscope.” This undoubtedly concern’s Muybridge’s 1878 photographs of a galloping horse, a “clue” within the narration, and makes a subtle connection to the idea of sequential photographs as “narrative.”

Secondly, Douglas’s use of blackness as a “return” to self relates to Proust’s text that describes the narrator’s “unsuccessful attempt to discover where I was.” 21st Century audiences are well-acquainted with the anticipatory ambiance of the “cinema experience.” Douglas’s diversion of this experience to incorporate our memory (“We’ve been through this tunnel before.”) succeeds in making us keenly aware that we engaging the narrative in a new way. We “watch” our own conscious perceptions (voluntary memory) of the “cinema experience” as basic narrative - a journey taken, a story read aloud - yet also discover we have unconscious associations (involuntary memory) with the experience through the out-of-sync randomness of simultaneous repetitions of both film and audio loop sequencing.

Douglas’s approach to film is rich with possibility and he has continued to work with postnarrative structure through the use of computer controlled repetitions of video projections, works that can run 20,000 hours before repeating sections.(4) This expansion and dissolution of screen practice as a durational narrative suggests that our perception of time can be both altered and beyond our grasp. Within the darkness of the Overture installation we find ourselves both remembering and forgetting that “it’s only art” as we become truly unhinged from time and our minds in the “cinema effect.”

[Overture is part of The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality, and the Moving Image - Part I: Dreams at the Hirshhorn Museum through May 11, 2008.]

Image: Overture (1986); 16mm film, black-and-white, sound, 7 min., loop; © Copyright by Stan Douglas.


1. “In 1995, Penguin undertook a fresh translation of the book by editor Christopher Prendergast and seven translators in three countries, based on the latest and most authoritative French text. Subsequently, the title of the novel was more accurately translated as In Search of Lost Time and is now often referred to as such.” – From wikipedia.org.

2. This and all quotes from Douglas are taken from an Italian lecture he gave in 1996. The lecture is reproduced here.

3. My use of this phrase is borrowed from Sol Lewitt's Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.

4. His Win, Place or Show (1998) generates “204,023 variations with an average duration of six minutes each.” Source: David Zwirner Gallery.

April 5, 2008

Lee Weng Chat

Administrator’s Note: Singapore art critic Lee Weng Choy recently engaged in an on-line chat with my 'Postconceptualism' class about his essay, “Authenticity, Reflexivity and Spectacle or, the Rise of New Asia is not the End of the World”. This is my edit of our text-only discussion (thanks to Brock Boyts for technical assistance and his iChat transcription) with two brief bracketed interruptions for clarification. I especially want to thank Weng for waking up at 5AM to talk with us.

Weng: So, shall we start with a question?

Corey Cochran: I am most interested in the idea of Singapore as an entity and its cultural philosophy about art history/history itself. The complication of the philosophies “the best of the East and West” versus “Asian essentialism” are of particular interest. Yet, ironically I feel the disconnection of these ideas is irrelevant in today’s times. I question the need for the separation of the two. In today’s modern art market and current trends, art institutions such as art fairs and international biennials disprove the need for this division in thought. In addition, technologies, such as the Internet have all expanded the cultural boundaries of our nations and cities; therefore our understanding /influences of different environments has emerged to an all time high. To me, I see the important signifier of Singapore art as a reflection of the location itself, focusing on the economical, historical, social ideas, etc. relevant to exclusively Singapore are its distinguishing qualifiers despite the style in which art appropriates. That is it for now at least, sorry for the large amount of text

Weng: The idea of Singapore ... I need to qualify what I mean by this. You raise many issues. Let me see how I can tackle your multi-part question. You raise questions of difference, distance and identity. And also connectivity. Perhaps I can start by addressing “distance.” Let me respond by telling an anecdote, which is a detour. I was recently at a conference in Mexico. I don't speak Spanish, but was participating in workshops that were held in Spanish, and for some reason, my high school Spanish didn't entirely fail me, and I could follow the discussions. So when it was my turn to speak, I said that, on the surface of things, it would seem that what was an obvious sign of difference in the room was my person. I had traveled from half way around the world, I did not speak Spanish, and I am an Asian. But of course, my presence in the workshop also signified that the most interesting distances in the room were not the largest ones. Or, that the most interesting differences where not the most obvious ones of Asian versus Mexican. Rather, it was the distances represented by the diversity of Mexican participants that were most interesting. And my role as an outsider was perhaps to regularly interject in the discussions to facilitate the recognition of those distances and differences. So I didn't see my role as speaking FROM Asia, so much as, because I was from Asia, I was in a certain place to speak about difference at a theoretical level. So, to get back to my use of Singapore in the essay. I was addressing Singapore specifically. But I was also using Singapore as a symptom of many global desires.

Rachel Fick: What kind of global desires? Can you give examples? Or clarify?

Weng: Yes, what I mean is that while I don't tackle the question of the biennale directly -- at least not in that essay -- I do imply that it's problematic to desire art from a place to represent that place. Let me explain. I discuss Ong Keng Sen's production of Lear. Singapore wants to represent Asia to the world. Singapore sees itself as this agent of both bringing the "West" to the "East", and bridging/bringing the "East" to the "West". Now, on the one hand, that's what we all want to do. To bridge difference.

Brock Boyts: Are we speaking in terms of art or globally?

Weng: For me, as an art critic, what I want to do is speak TO art. That entails listening TO it in the first place, but then trying to speak TO it. The work of writing is an attempt to bridge. That's what's entailed in the preposition TO.

MCB: Do you mean speaking of art theoretically?

Weng: I mean both in the specific instance, and in the general. So in writing about a particular work, say, by Amanda Heng. I want to speak TO that work. But also in speaking to any single work, one also speaks to art discourses and histories. To Art, with the capital A. But let me continue with a point I was trying to make ... (but may have forgotten). Where was I ... ah yes ... However, what institutions like the Singapore government, or if one judges biennales and art fairs rather critically, then these institutions take this genuine desire to bridge, and turn it into spectacle. What I was trying to discuss what the spectacularization of art, difference, identity the biennale system, as a spectacle, takes social, cultural difference, and makes it into image for global consumption. Art from Singapore is desired as a sign of Singapore, a sign of difference (and in Singapore's case specifically, it's different, somewhat exotic, but also comfortably familiar.) Singapore is modern, but “Asian.” Now, I don't what to just diss biennales.

MCB: On page 249, you say what is most revealing about “New Asia” is that it “exhibits no indebtedness to history, no commitment to the task of critically reworking inheritances, but is content to authenticate itself through its own spectacular reflection.” How can Singapore avoid a “spectacular reflection” of itself in the 21st Century?

Weng: Yes, I was talking about Ong's production of Lear as emblematic of a larger Singapore desire (and by 'Singapore,' not just the State, but also a prevailing cultural sensibility). Well, I don't think art can save the world. (laughs) But I do want to offer, very modestly, other stories.

ALL: Please! Please do!

Weng: It's a certain attention to these other stories that helps us not lapse into the knee-jerk reflex of always reducing the complexity of the world this self authentication through spectacular reflection is a smugness. It's the images of Asia like those I mentioned in the beginning of the essay, from the Channel News Asia advertisements news by Asians for Asians but of course Asia is very hard to pin down, there isn't just one Asia, but many Asias and sometimes it's easier for a person in India to relate to, say, the US, than for that person to relate to China. But this self-authentication of Asia as a unity, wants to per formatively assume that Asia is much more consistent internally. The anecdote -- whether told about art, or culture -- is an attempt to tell stories with some resistance to these grand “narrativizing” tendencies that project such internal consistencies. Not sure how much sense I'm making, but shall we move to another question?

[In this essay, Weng had begun his “critique of the spectacle” by quoting Debord: “The spectacle, being the reigning social organization of a paralyzed history, of a paralyzed memory . . . is in effect a false consciousness of time.”(1) Weng suggests that Singapore’s epistemic condition manifests an “eternal” present that envisions itself (architecture, media, art) as “history’s last word.”]

MCB: On page 246 you say that Singapore “exemplifies the spectacle.” Debord suggests that art becomes another facet of the spectacle, whose function is “to bury history in culture.” If Singapore’s epistemic condition manifests an “eternal” present that envisions itself (architecture, media, art) as “history’s last word” can it also “bury history in culture?”

Weng: History's last word is always a spectacular image (reduction) of history as complex process of loose ends that can't be neatly tied. So to assume to speak history's last word, is to reduce history to that image. The image of choice is a fetish: cultural identity, for global consumption. The beat-up on the biennale system a little bit more. So what you get at these spectacular shows is a parade of cultural differences. But it's not as if these events are really intended to generate in their audiences a profound engagement with the complexities of the diverse contexts and histories of the art on display. Rather, it's as if we're at this great supermarket.

Brock: What are your thoughts on Japan in relation to Hong Kong looking at South East Asia?

Weng: Okay. Japan, HK, and SEA. There's this intense consumption of J-culture in HK and Taiwan and Korea. SEA to a lesser extent is getting into J-pop and so on. That's on the pop culture front. On the art and history front, Japan like China, doesn't really see itself as part of Asia … and least not in the same way as smaller places like Singapore, Malaysia, need to feel part of Asia. HK is interesting, because in many ways it's a very Cantonese society, even though it's also very cosmopolitan and international, and outward looking (both to the West, and to China).

[In his essay, Weng introduces the idea of “anecdote” as an alternative to the traditional conception of history as a “narrative” based on progress, an position elaborated on by Michel Foucault, among others. Amazingly, Walter Benjamin foresaw this as early as the mid-1930s and Weng quotes from Benjamin’s unfinished 'Arcades Project': “Anecdote represents the extreme opposite of history – which demands an ‘empathy’ that renders everything abstract. Empathy amounts to the same thing as reading newspapers. The true method of making things present is: to imagine them in our space (and not to imagine ourselves in their space).”(2) In contradistinction, Weng elaborates on Benjamin’s critique of the “prevailing view of history … a cumulative and progressive narrative, where time flows continuously from past to future.”(3)]

MCB: On page 243 you wrote: “To empathize, that is, to imagine ourselves in an Other’s space, is, at some level, to colonize that other space."(4) Regardless of the disqualifying “at some level,” are you saying that empathy is a form of power? As in, “I empathize with you in order to colonize/control you.”

Weng: I think Benjamin wants to remind us that a certain form of empathy is about assuming the other's place. As if I recognize you, and I have a power to say that I feel your pain. But rather than assuming I can speak for the other, I have to accept a radical difference. I have to open myself to the other, and let the other inhabit my space.

MCB: “In a perfect world.”

Weng: Yeah, where we can all hold hands and levitate the pentagon.


1. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle, New York, 1994, 114.

2. Walter Benjamin, quoted in Richard Sieburth, “Benjamin the Scrivener,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, (Gary Smith, ed.), Chicago, 1989, 23. See also Joel Fineman’s “The History of the Anecdote: Fiction and Fiction,” in The New Historicism (H. Aram Vesser, ed.), New York, 1989, 57-61.

3. Lee, Weng Choy. “Authenticity, Reflexivity and Spectacle or, the Rise of New Asia is not the End of the World,” Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Oxford, 2005, 243.

4. Ibid., 243.