PRINT September 2008


Mirror Image

Opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing, August 8, 2008. Photo: Doug Mills/New York Times/Redux.

A COROLLARY of Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage that art is a “radar environment” uniquely suited for making clear the effects of media in culture is his lesser known analogy between those effects and the sound waves that become visible along an airplane’s wings just before it breaks the sound barrier. “The sudden visibility of sound just as sound ends,” McLuhan writes in Understanding Media (1964), “is an apt instance of that great pattern of being that reveals new and opposite forms just as earlier forms reach their peak performance.” And so, he argues, the fragmentary quality of mechanization is never so apparent as when movies are first invented—which, in turn, prompts the holistic mode of perception that would find itself articulated in Cubism.

McLuhan’s examples, of course, hail from the last century, and yet they might usefully be recalled when seeking a place for art in our age of high spectacle. For what hidden effects are to be detected in the wake of events that seek to renegotiate the very definition of media today? Consider, for proximity’s sake, an occasion that took place only last month: the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in Beijing. In reaching an estimated television audience of more than two billion viewers worldwide—and scripted by Chinese film director Zhang Yimou—the four-hour-long event transformed an entire metropolis into an iconic image. Footsteps of fireworks crossed the ancient city’s skyline to settle on Herzog & de Meuron’s “Bird’s Nest” stadium, where some fifteen thousand performers (half drawn from the Chinese military) were marshalled in pixel-like formations, creating pictures through mass choreography before giving way, on occasion, to videos appearing on one of the largest LED screens in the world. Seen through the eye of the television camera, it was a sphere where image assumed dimensionality, and where bodies achieved miragelike weightlessness, and yet the sheer scale (and epic telling of five thousand years of Chinese history) still forced some awareness of its root source—of its production and purpose being possible only at the grandest intersection of government and global capital. Indeed, even the weather was at service of this image. During the ceremony, 1,104 “rain dispersal rockets” were fired into the sky to move a storm front away from the stadium and toward the city’s southern sections, which prompts the question: For art, what are the waves along a plane’s wings when there is now not merely the desire, but also the ability, to orchestrate the very clouds above?

Certainly, the question is more than rhetorical, and an answer is, perhaps, arrived at most immediately by considering the infrastructure around art rather than by analyzing any individual artwork or artistic approach. In the current issue alone, one might look to curator Okwui Enwezor’s comments about his upcoming biennial in South Korea. Recalling the Gwangju Biennale’s inception, he surmises the links between political and cultural capital in the staging of exhibitions today. (Insofar as specific political developments were responsible for the biennial’s very creation, he suggests, its framing of art harbors potential for shaping cultural mind-sets in turn.) As significant, however, is an entire network of such large-scale exhibitions appearing in Asia this autumn, including ones in Shanghai, Singapore, and Yokohama. In terms of reflecting collective perceptions, they suggest a McLuhanesque limit case if ever there were one. “It was very striking,” Enwezor comments, “that last summer we saw the Grand Tour in Europe, which was a kind of nostalgic rehearsal, going in a simple path from Venice to Basel to Kassel to Münster. But here we have what is being called Art Compass, which instead of progressing in one linear fashion, traverses time zones, regions, and continents, and points in many different directions.” In 2008, it seems, the context for contemporary art might finally be substantively restructured, with a genuinely different relationship to history denoted in the abstract language of a global stage.

And yet on this count—and in the specific context of this issue of Artforum—it is intriguing to consider the work of cover artist Michael Clark, which, on the one hand, is symptomatic of this restructuring and yet, on the other, resists disavowal of the past. Recently appearing at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York (his first performance in the United States in twenty-two years), the choreographer presented three dances based on canonical works by Stravinsky. His treatments, however, are hardly steeped in a bygone era. Rather, here and throughout his oeuvre he regularly overlays the formal techniques of classical ballet with, say, the punk moves of an Iggy Pop—presenting at once diverging strains of culture, each of which has persisted even as the fabric of culture at large has been radically rewoven over the years. Significantly, this recasting has everything to do with Clark’s personal history—indeed, his performances at Lincoln Center revisited works from throughout his life, reaching back to his original postpunk milieu in Thatcher’s London—and allows for a sense of agency in his audience as well. Viewers are bound to recall their own individual memories of his pop-cultural sources, suggesting that these compositions comprise Clark’s history and yet also, in a minor mode, a collective one. They deploy a kind of minispectacle to provide a finer grain of cultural time, marking a distance between yesterday and today (replete, one might add in the context of Beijing, with bodies still revealing their weight). It is, in other words, by turning to the past that some perspective on the future is found. To paraphrase another McLuhan adage: “We go forward looking in the rearview mirror.”