PRINT September 2005

The Curse of Empire

INSTEAD OF TAKING “ALWAYS A LITTLE FURTHER” AS THE TITLE for one section of the 51st Venice Biennale (a phrase as inane as it is abstract in its blind progressivism), this year’s organizers would have done better to adopt Samuel Beckett’s monosyllabic monologue “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” as a voice-over for the grand exhibition’s display of contemporary art in 2005.

Under the conditions of globalization, the founding contradictions of the Biennale—on the one hand, the propagandistic interests of the nation-state; on the other, the critical projects of the avant-garde—have clearly shifted from latency to manifest urgency at every turn.

In the Giardini pavilions, experts appointed by governments still execute the national will to cultural power, sampling what they take to be the best of their respective artistic contemporaneity in the manner of an exposition universelle. And for general exhibitions at the Italian pavilion and Arsenale, internationally recognized experts (on this occasion, female for the first time in the Biennale’s history, Spanish curators María de Corral and Rosa Martínez) are invited to affirm art’s universal legibility by giving an overview of global visual production.

By now it is dawning on most, however, that the dreams of national identity constructed by culture, as well as visions of the avant-garde’s internationalism dismantling the ideology of the nation-state and of bourgeois privilege, are shattered, or have become simply irrelevant, in the age of (corporate) Empire. Indeed, among the socio-ideological spheres that have traditionally determined the formation of identity but are currently undergoing accelerated erosion—politics, economics, nationality, class, religion, ethics, law—cultural production seems to have reached the brink of disintegration first, bringing out the droves eager to amass the economic spoils of its final days. (The exchange-value of art seems to increase proportionally to the probability of its extinction.) Clearly, collectors are driven by greed and impatience, and curators and critics by despair, to find the “new” and the “contemporary”—without ever posing the question whether they themselves, by privileging the speculator’s casino mentality, may not have fundamentally changed the conditions of cultural production to such an extent that its continuation is almost impossible.

The catastrophic consequences that corporate Empire entails for traditional conceptions of culture would seem to be still largely unfathomable, going by the hapless displays and helpless declamations in the Biennale’s national and international exhibitions, where both the inertia of cultural producers, as well as the tardiness of curators and critics, fail to work on a diagnosis of those consequences. Yet the loss of traditional elements of artistic identity formation (e.g., artisanal skills; local, regional, and national conventions; exceptional access to experiences of autonomy derived from privileges of power, and, more rarely, the violent courage to contest power), simultaneously deplorable and felicitous, may explain one of the schisms governing most of the practices on view in this Biennale, which hovers between the desire for a renewed validity of aesthetic convention and a fully conventionalized radicality of the anti-aesthetic.

This dialectic manifests itself most painfully, it has to be said, in the German pavilion’s exhibition of Thomas Scheibitz and Tino Sehgal, where desperate conventionalization, on the one hand, and an almost frenetic anti-aesthetic on the other, embody this schism as though it were a program. Clearly, pavilion curator Julian Heynen’s strategy—motivated first and foremost by a provincial impulse to position oneself at the forefront of international visibility—is to occupy two mutually exclusive positions simultaneously without having a real commitment to either. One side of the schism represents a conservative craving to deliver the goods to museums and collectors, and therefore is in need of the kind of retardataire painterly clutter and sculptural bulk that Scheibitz shipped in from the increasingly mythified former East Germany. Its opposite side reflects the desire to pose as an adult inheritor of that once-revolutionary critique of institutions, from Marcel Duchamp to Marcel Broodthaers and Michael Asher. Their practices, it should be noted, never really took hold anywhere in Germany (in spite of their early and enthusiastic reception by museums) due to the almost theocratic status with which that country endowed contemporary art in the postwar period (e.g., the reception of Joseph Beuys)—a status that has been exchanged more recently for a plutocratic approach to the sacred.

There is of course a great exception in Germany, and that would be the work of Maria Eichhorn. She has actually performed the work of mediation necessary to integrate the various legacies of institutional critique and has delivered the labor of actual intervention that it takes to address the specific issues of institutions and contexts at this moment. By contrast, Sehgal is the kind of artist who—had he encountered Duchamp’s urinal in 1917—would have proposed to exhibit a kitchen sink the next year, fully convinced that he had become a radical artist overnight. A particularly telling aspect of Sehgal’s pointless radicality are the actual conditions of experience imposed by the work on its participants. As had been the case when Daniel Buren clad museum guards in striped vests in Eindhoven in 1981, a work that clearly served as a point of departure for Sehgal’s Venetian farce, the artist employs the guards of the German pavilion to perform inane gesticulations and to enunciate debilities such as “This is so contemporary.” (And this while the personnel are not even being paid more for their forced “performances” than they would normally have received in their roles as mute guards.) When a work turns its lowest common participants into mere subalterns for the strategies of authorial exposure, one can generally diagnose a case of derailed artistic narcissism whose demands for the blind exertion of power try to compensate for the aesthetic debacle (the late James Lee Byars had always held the title in that genre until now). And this power play extends to Sehgal’s rigorously enforced prohibition of all photographic records of his work. With the shrewdness of a post-Conceptualist advertising coup, he withholds all visual documentation—as though we did not know ever since Yves Klein’s Void, 1958, that an aesthetic of total withdrawal has always generated instant spectacularization. Thus, in the total reduction of a work to a mere strategy (that of a pseudo-counterspectacle), his intervention paradoxically reveals its essential character as pure spectacle.

One can only wonder what made Heynen think that a productive contribution at this moment would be the concurrent resuscitation of postwar European and pre-Minimalist abstraction, and its refurbished remnants. Scheibitz’s shambles, paraded like the spoils of the former utopian aspirations of abstraction, shift uneasily between décor for a Dresden disco and the window display of a cutting-edge Swiss department store in 1959. Ranging in its pictorial vocabulary from Auguste Herbin and Victor Vasarely to Klein, the installation amounts to a sum of the worst efforts of German and English painters of the ’60s (some kind of fusion between Winfried Gaul and Georg Karl Pfahler, for example, or Robin Denny and Harold Cohen), all of whom tried to preserve the dilapidated remnants of European abstraction while buttressing their work against an onslaught of logic and lucidity from American Minimalism. It is not clear whether Scheibitz is an amnesiac who—in a gesture of regionalist triumphalism—reconfigures these ruins in an attempt to defy the standards established by Minimalism, or whether he is a naïf who celebrates the belated East German conquest of the continent of world abstraction (a tragicomical breakthrough that A. R. Penck had actually quite conspicuously achieved in the ’70s). Either way, it does not serve us well to indulge a retrospective of these deceptions and delusions—as if all of that had not already been sufficiently gaudy and involuntarily cruel in its first instantiation during the mid-’60s. Scheibitz does not seem to understand that works of art are complex formal interventions within discursive traditions and their myriad filiations. These interventions are defined precisely by their incomparable capacity to trace the dynamics of historical process in paradoxical gestures of simultaneously prognostic and mnemonic temporalities—or, as Barnett Newman once famously argued, crucial works close the doors on painterly or sculptural paradigms rather than open them to some kind of new proliferation and plenitude. Minimalism was in fact one such decisive closure on world abstraction, and it takes more than juvenile delinquency or provincial naïveté to subvert those verdicts. (For evidence that work in and on the history of abstract painting remains one of many options for contemporary artists, consider Gabriel Orozco’s hermetic painterly explorations in the Italian pavilion, which seemingly probe whether a fusion of the legacies of Mondrian and John Cage could be viable today.)

In more ways than one, the German exhibition’s exact opposite can be found in Annette Messager’s French entry (curated by Suzanne Pagé and Béatrice Parent), which was awarded a Golden Lion. The graven letters on her pavilion’s architrave, identifying the structure as “France,” are all but effaced by a neon inscription reading “Casino”—effectively reclassifying the French pavilion as a topical hybrid between the European haute bourgeoisie’s classical site of compulsive gambling and, more contemporaneously, an outpost of one of France’s more powerful supermarket chains. Inside, however, the artist presents three haunting sets that seem to form theaters without drama, stages without actors.

In the first gallery, we witness a small wooden figure lying on its back, tied to an odd sledlike structure being dragged like a mad toy train through a landscape of tunnels and mountains, all of it made from the same material—gray and white striped mattress ticking uncannily reminiscent of the clothing of the camps. While the figure is said to invoke Pinocchio in a curatorial statement (as though a local reference was a patent lure), in this context its upright, mastlike nose looks more like a grotesque figure of perseverance rather than an excretion of fibs. In a second space, spectators are confronted with billowing waves of red silk and their pneumatic inflations: It is difficult not to think instantly of the floods of blood that have once again become a common (yet totally repressed) feature of our daily life. Messager’s addition of submarine organisms, illuminated from within, made her theatrical display of calamity as a quasi-natural condition appear perfectly plausible. And the masklike silhouettes descending from and returning to the darkened ceiling space at regular intervals make the billowing waves of this theatrical bloodbath an all-the-more-paradoxical sepulchral scenario.

That sense of history as never-ending catastrophe, a rather precise articulation of present-day conditions, also permeates the last of Messager’s installations. Here, a large mesh mat reminiscent of a trampoline or safety net in a circus contains parts of puppets, dolls’ hands and legs, the occasional plastic shopping bag (courtesy of Thomas Hirschhorn, no doubt), debris of consumption, and, most strikingly, three giant stuffed dice. Reminiscent of a child throwing its toys out of the crib during a tantrum, the pneumatically pumped net erupts at irregular intervals as if in random fits of rage, throwing arms and legs and dice up in the air: a spectacle somewhere between cancan and coup de dés, a grotesque demonstration of how rampages of irrational power are presented to us as fate, posed as the inevitable principles that govern seemingly cyclical movements of calamitous history.

Messager’s installation—the best work by this artist that I have seen—is haunting precisely because of the despair with which the artist tries to confront the suffocating intensity of our historical moment, when economic power has effaced all bonds through which art had traditionally been operating (desire, critique, subversion, transgression, opposition, communicative action). Inevitably, her work generates a sense of tragic discomfort and unsettling ambiguity. Its innate proximity to theatrical sets, or worse yet, to the obsolete spook-houses of funfairs, however, points to one of the fundamental questions at this moment: Can complex historical meaning only be conceived in traditional representational forms, which inevitably disqualify the work as nostalgic, if not obsolete, with regard to the culture industry’s demands for utter newness and the imperatives of advanced technological standards? The question arises on occasion throughout the Biennale, as in the work of William Kentridge, whose Italian pavilion installation similarly mobilizes traditional techniques and obsolete genres (from figurative drawing to theater and primitive animation) to insist on the communicative potential of representation. Like Messager, he takes recourse to a prelapsarian world where both traditional artistry and cultural production at large could still be trusted as being institutionally and discursively “meaningful.”

The problem of theatricality nowadays is, of course, different from the moment of its orthodox prohibition by Michael Fried after his unfortunate 1967 encounter with Minimalism, since the project of a neopositivist plasticity was a rather limited American aspiration, erroneously called modernism. Now that this specific plasticity has universally vanished, however—and with it the implicit promise of a perceptual autonomy—one has to question the strategies of seduction and challenge the functions of narrative, figurative representation, and theatricality all the more.

The first problem with theatricality today is its deep-seated conventionality (in the best and the worst sense of the word), as it somehow still anticipates a traditional humanist subject as its primary spectator—someone willing to be enlightened, desiring to be provoked, wishing to remember, for example. That kind of subjectivity is now more alien to the reality of contemporary spectatorial behavior than it has ever been in the postwar period. Undoubtedly, therefore, Messager needs the seductive obsolescence of her fairy-tale sideshow so that these images of horror and trauma will be contemplated at all by an art-world audience that is incessantly racing from spectacle to investment opportunity.

But this may point to a second problematic aspect of theatricality, since one wonders whether it is not precisely this dimension of traditional narrative (the very capacity to represent and communicate) that brings this approach close to a dysfunctional aesthetic. To the degree that this strategy attempts to maintain spaces of refuge or withdrawal from those regimes currently determining the registers of the perceptual and scopic, the strategy simultaneously proves to be unable to confront the actual conditions of collective experience. By contrast, works that shun those spaces of refuge and withdrawal and make the ruling conditions of outright subjection and control the very parameters of their strategies, like Bruce Nauman’s arresting video in the Italian pavilion, force an unwavering anomic opacity onto the spectator.

One might wonder, lastly, whether the deployment of traditional strategies of narrative, figuration, and theatricality would not inevitably generate a sense of history as closed and cyclical, rather than as a process of incessant transformation. As it stands, all three rooms of Messager’s Casino are defined by a deep sense of history as cataclysm and trauma, resulting in a melancholic, not to say fatalistic, passivity in essentializing that condition. (The fact that machinic or hydraulic movements propel all of Messager’s sets—an extremely precarious device for sculpture, since it carries an immediate association with the sideshow dynamic—almost exacerbates that condition.) Messager’s meditation on history as a cycle of interminable violence is all the more striking because it articulates an even more important insight, namely that—under the conditions of what Lacan once called the “univers concentrationnaire,” or what Adorno once called our camplike existence under the proto-totalitarian rule of consumer and leisure culture—neither the aesthetic nor the infantile imaginary can be situated outside of the registers of history as an incessant repetition of trauma.

Given the current European relation to American politics, it would have been hard for any Biennale jury to publicly acknowledge the eminence of Ed Ruscha (in the United States pavilion, curated by Linda Norden with Donna De Salvo). But Ruscha’s exhibition, ominously and appropriately titled “Course of Empire,” citing the title of Thomas Cole’s famous 1836 cycle of five paintings about the erosion of freedom and the destruction of nature concomitant with the rise of imperialist power, amounts to an extraordinary summa. The word “elegiac” is neither too grand, nor too European, for both the lucidity of Ruscha’s dual series of five canvases each and for the extreme precision with which he conceived their symmetrical installation in the two wings of the pavilion, separated by an empty rotunda in the neo-Jeffersonian architecture. Together, these works and the conception of their display mark Ruscha’s definitive ascension to the status of one of the truly great artists of his generation.

On first consideration, the artist seems to sum up his lifelong preoccupations (architecture, public space, design) by returning to his “Blue Collar Paintings” from 1992 in a retrospective contemplation, matching them with painted sequels that depict the originals’ imaginary settings as they would appear some ten years later. Yet Ruscha has clearly also tabulated the tasks of an artist representing his country’s culture at a moment of the incessant deterioration of its liberal-democratic public sphere. Hardly anyone else might have been as prepared for such an immensely difficult task. Since its inception, Ruscha’s work has confronted the challenges of a reductivist pictorial modernism—both that of the historical avant-garde and of its American successors in the 1950s, culminating in the work of the Minimalists. And he is nearly alone (with the noteworthy exceptions of Roy Lichtenstein and Gerhard Richter) in tracing the erosion of any and all promise that abstraction once held as one of the most heroic breakthroughs of those avant-gardes. Like the work of those artists, Ruscha’s occupies a central place in the artistic formations from Pop art to Minimalism and Conceptual art. And now we can see that Ruscha’s earliest paintings of architecture, such as his Twentieth-Century Fox sign or Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas, 1963, had already suggested a cunning allegorical sublation of the presumed radicality of abstraction and avant-garde art. Those works’ diagonal compositional divisions, as much as their glamorously illuminated textuality, may at first have appeared as citations of Futurist and Constructivist devices that celebrated a universal dynamism and heralded a techno-scientific utopia promising to subject even the production and perception of painting to the same hyper-rationalized order. Better yet, from the heights of a triumphant design culture of the late ’50s and early ’60s in Los Angeles, it may have appeared as though painterly abstraction itself had mimetically internalized if not enacted the dynamics of techno-scientific progress. And it may have seemed, if only for a moment—during the delusionary optimism of American Pop art—that the first steps toward the realization of a progressive, emancipatory mass culture had already been taken by assimilating both the language of painting and the painting of language to the strategies of advertising itself.

Soon enough Ruscha’s arch travesties made it evident, however, that these iconographic and epistemic elements were recoded in his recitations and fusions in exactly the opposite terms. In his paintings, dynamic diagonals had become the power lines of a corporate ordering of space as spectacle; the inflated and illuminated lettering demarcated the subjection of language to advanced forms of near-total instrumentalization in advertisement. Accordingly, the ordering of pictorial space in Ruscha’s painting was not the triumph of a technological culture over an obsolete artisanal one, but rather a melancholic and allegorical act of resistance within the totality of industrial sign systems.

At the same time, his work has from the publication of his very first book in 1963 focused on the conditions of public space and by implication probed the place and function of the public sphere (or what might pass for it these days) within contemporary culture. Indeed, who else has traced the public sphere’s tragic demise with such precision in the negative dialectics of figurative painting? Figuration, for Ruscha, has always performed at least two functions: first, to oppose the formalist optimism of the modernists and Minimalists with a cool and sometimes callous reminder of the ramifications of abstraction in a world of advanced forms of consumer culture and its proto-totalitarian administrative corporate order; second, to signal that the triumph of an “abstraction” derived from instrumental reason had culminated in advanced forms of corporate or utilitarian architecture, whose primary consequences had always been the crass destruction of public space and social relations, and which had inevitably resulted in the negative sublime of ecological disaster.

Ruscha’s installation at the Biennale—which records changes both minute and drastic to his fictitious sites of nondescript anomic architecture—represents a culmination of this project. (In a statement for the pavilion catalogue, Ruscha emphasizes the fictitiousness of these sites, saying, “You know, I never visit industrial parks, but my mind lives in one. When it comes to conjecture and accuracy and all that, my paintings are still imaginary, because that’s the way I live with them.”) In his “Blue Collar Paintings,” as well as in his corresponding paintings for this Biennale, Ruscha singles out a type of architectural readymade, the cast-concrete industrial shed whose purpose frequently changes—its current signage inevitably surrounded by an infinite variety of inscriptions left from the building’s previous incarnations—so that the artist depicts, in his words, “an accelerated, aged version of the same urban landscapes, possibly to the point of deterioration.” Occasionally these paintings display Ruscha’s linguistic genius (in addition to his artistic one), as when a structure bears the name FAT BOY, triggering a chain of associations that ranges from fast-food franchises (Big Boy, obviously) and collective obesity to America’s atomic bombs dropped on Japan (Little Boy and Fat Man). All are ominously present in both the aging industrial inscriptions and the apocalyptic skies weighing down on these bunkers of everyday life in Los Angeles, or, as Ruscha calls them, the “boxes with names on them.”

The two series also differ as Ruscha shifts from the photographic black-and-white palette of the earlier paintings to a chroma of airbrushed colors ranging from saccharine pastels to the acrid pulp of sci-fi culture. The artist’s by-now-almost-standard technique of airbrushing in these more-recent canvases—retooling a Dada device from the days of Man Ray—conveys not merely the sense of an immaculate surface, almost suffocating in its sealed perfection (evident, for example, in the prefab sun rays and clouds). In the near-total elimination of hand, facture, and gesture—in the sheer mechanicity of execution—Ruscha seems to reduce painting itself to the original status of its ingredients, to an allegory of particles and dust. Thus, in his latest series, the epistemic sites where Ruscha locates his pictorial interventions are more compelling than ever: the intersections between modernist painting, anomic architecture, and textuality. Or in simpler terms: utopian abstraction, collective public space, and communicative action.

It seems that we had to wait until this late moment in corporate culture to recognize the extent to which the artist’s preoccupation with these issues has, in fact, been a focus of his artistic projects of the last forty years. But more important, Ruscha’s current work makes the centrality of these questions to any cultural reflection on the present strikingly evident. It is only logical, then, that Ruscha’s paintings in this Biennale are truly magisterial first and foremost for their entropic intensity. If any changes occur at all from one series to the next, more often than not they signal a development for the worse: a change of signage and ownership, the addition of chain-link fences, the boarding up of windows to transform functional buildings prematurely into ruins (even while Ruscha twists the tonal modulations in the covered windows to appear as monochrome squares in an almost delirious permutation of an anodyne abstract design).

More subtly than ever, Ruscha insinuates in these paintings the demise of any aspiration that had equated abstract pictorial or spatial orders with a teleology of progressive thought. The minute painterly rectangles of doorways or exits, for example, are almost imperceptibly rotated into a position paralleling the picture plane, slyly disrupting any perspectival perfection in puns on flatness that remind spectators of pictorial support and medium specificity in the manner of modernist painting. Yet the buildings’ mechanically produced perspectival recessions do not make them appear as monuments merely to the doom of modernism: They also suggest—even if inadvertently—Minimalist boxes from Artschwager to Judd, extending Ruscha’s epistemic doubts to the very last neopositivist gasp of that utopian project.

Such spatial entropy finds its climax in the last of the paintings, titled Site of a Former Telephone Booth, 2005, which depicts the void left behind after the vertical box of Blue Collar Telephone (depicted in 1992) has been removed (the telephone booth being a strange analogue to the other buildings’ “boxes with words”). The resulting central void, comprising more than a third of the painting, is now framed on the left by a thin concrete signpost cropped at top and bottom (its sign turning its edge to us in the tantalizing “inframince” position, i.e., withholding its textual information), and on the right by an equally fragmented trunk of a sycamore tree whose patchy patterns look more like a recently added layer of military camouflage than flaking bark (the patterns and color can only remind me of Desert Storm and its sequel, Operation Iraqi Freedom). Ruscha’s sublime irony makes us realize that even the loss of an old telephone booth can induce melancholia and critical reflection on the shift from the conditions of privacy and communication to the terror of a world universally permeated by microwaves and cell-phone patter.

These entropic conditions of the experience of space are perfectly matched by an equally entropic sense of time. The paintings convey painfully that—in spite of the evidence of some ten years’ passage—a horizon of change and transformation is no longer accessible, either to painter or spectator. Rather, Ruscha’s paintings are defined by a sense of suffocating immutability, a temporality without a telos, not even showing a directional flow but instead propounding a sense of the temporal as inextricably cyclical, of repetition, and if not of utter stasis, then of deterioration. That is to say, the course of Empire.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh is the newly appointed Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of Post-War Art History at Harvard University.