PRINT December 2009

Hal Foster

Jon Kessler, The Palace at 4 AM, 2005, mixed media. Installation view, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, New York. Photo: Rick Haylor.

NO CONCEPT COMPREHENDS THE ART OF THE PAST DECADE, but there is a condition that this art has shared, and it is a precarious one. Almost any litany of the machinations of the last ten years will evoke this state of uncertainty: a stolen presidential election; the attacks of 9/11 and the war on terror; the deception of the Iraq war and the debacle of the occupation; Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and rendition to torture camps; another problematic presidential election; Katrina; the scapegoating of immigrants; the health-care crisis; the ecological disaster; the financial house of cards . . . For all the discussion of “failed states” elsewhere, our own government came to operate, routinely and destructively, out of bounds. It is little wonder that the concept of the “state of exception” (developed by Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt) was revived, that this state once again appeared to be (as Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940) “not the exception but the rule,” and that, as a consequence, the camp seems to have become (as Giorgio Agamben asserted in 1994) “the new biopolitical nomos [principle] of the planet.”¹

Perhaps our political bond—whether we call it the social contract or the symbolic order—is always more tenuous than we think; certainly it was precarious long before 2000. Prior to Bush and Blair, Reagan and Thatcher led the charge of neoliberalism with the battle cry “There is no such thing as society,” targeting the most vulnerable (the underclass, gays and lesbians, immigrants) in ways that made their lives even more precarious. Over the past decade, this condition became all but pervasive, and it is this heightened insecurity that much art has attempted to manifest, even to exacerbate. This social instability is redoubled by an artistic instability, as the work at issue here foregrounds its own schismatic condition, its own lack of shared meanings, methods, or motivations. Paradoxically, then, precariousness seems almost constitutive of much art, yet sometimes in a manner that transforms this debilitating affliction into a compelling appeal.²

Again, this situation is not entirely new. “The true and most important function of the avant-garde,” Clement Greenberg wrote seventy years ago in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” was “to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence.” In his view, the proper path was to push the media of art to “the expression of an absolute in which all relativities and contradictions would be either resolved or beside the point,” a project now long since abandoned.³ However, in a revision of Greenberg nearly thirty years ago, T. J. Clark argued that such “self-definition” was in fact inseparable from “practices of negation” produced precisely out of “relativities and contradictions,” with negation understood here as “an attempt to capture the lack of consistent and repeatable meanings in the culture—to capture the lack and make it over into form.”⁴ In the art I have in mind, negation is still wrested from relativities and contradictions, but not as a making over of formlessness into form. On the contrary, it is concerned with letting this formlessness be, as it were, so that it might evoke, as directly as possible, both the “confusion” of ruling elites and the “violence” of global capital. As might be expected, this mimesis of the precarious is often staged in performative installations, and among recent projects the following have remained most vivid for me.⁵

In early 2005, Robert Gober presented an untitled installation at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York in which we were ushered into the aftermath of 9/11 as though into a dream made up equally of forlorn objects of everyday life and nasty bits of American kitsch. The orderly presentation of handmade readymades here—a priestly frock neatly folded on a bare plywood board, pristine pieces of beeswax fruit in a crystal bowl, faux-petrified planks of wood produced in bronze, beeswax body parts perversely conjoined, and so on—was at once forensic, like so much evidence laid out in a police warehouse–cum-morgue, and ritualistic, for the rows of these sea-changed tokens also evoked the aisles of a church. And, in fact, on a far wall hung a headless Christ on the cross (made of cement and bronze), an acephalic apparition that condensed the beheaded hostages in Iraq of the time with the figure of America as Jesus the sacrificial victim turned righteous aggressor, the one who kills in order to redeem.

Late that same year, at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, Jon Kessler staged The Palace at 4 AM, a babel of Rube Goldberg gadgets, screens, cables, and wires that was engineered to evoke, all at once, a convulsive White House, the trashed palace of Saddam Hussein, and our own harried minds wired wide open to the obscenity of the twenty-four-hour news cycle. With small surveillance cameras relaying the bizarre actions of little makeshift automatons on nearby monitors, Kessler responded, directly and indirectly, to the chaotic image-world of the Bush era, reworking TV bulletins, military reports, touristic postcards, seductive ads, and franchised toys into delirious dramas that played on the deadly obsessions of the period.

Paul Chan, The 5th Light, 2007, digital video projection, 14 minutes. Installation view, New Museum, New York, 2008. From the series “The 7 Lights,” 2005–2007. Photo: Jean Vong.

For the first eight months of 2007, Mark Wallinger presented State Britain in the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain, where, instead of the usual sculpture, there appeared a reconstruction of the six-hundred-plus weathered photographs, placards, banners, flags, and well-wisher notes that a British subject named Brian Haw had assembled, since June 2001, opposite the Palace of Westminster in a lived protest against Anglo-American aggressions in Iraq. Only days before this one-man retort was removed by police, on May 23, 2006 (on the remit of a new law, prompted by this display, forbidding such demonstrations within a one-kilometer radius of Parliament Square), Wallinger photographed its manifold pieces and on that basis produced his painstaking replica. (The galleries happen to be one kilometer from the square, so he also inscribed a section of this perimeter on the floor.) According to the artist, the “extreme verisimilitude” of the reconstruction was necessary both to underscore the authenticity of the original and to insist on its value, but it also confronted viewers with documents of violence (including images of Iraqi children maimed by American bombs) that the official media had suppressed, and suggested that, at least in this instance, the museum had provided a last resort for oppositional speech.⁶

That same summer, for Skulptur Projekte Münster, Isa Genzken scattered, on the square beside the Catholic Überwasserkirche (also known as Liebfrauen-Überwasser, or Our Lady Above the Waters), twelve casual assemblages made up of cheap dolls and toys, little chairs and tricycles, plastic flowers and umbrellas. Quickly blown apart, the tacky umbrellas signaled the opposite of shelter, and everything else also appeared utterly abandoned. (In this case, Our Lady offered no sanctuary, turning her grim Gothic back on these miserable leavings.) In fact, with some of the doll parts painted silver or otherwise molested, the entire piece seemed, like State Britain, a staging of the Massacre of the Innocents and thus an indirect rebuke to the church (one of the oldest in Münster), to the city, and to the nation at large.⁷

Finally, in several venues in 2007 and 2008, including the Serpentine Gallery in London and the New Museum in New York, Paul Chan presented the series "The 7 Lights,” 2005–2007, consisting primarily of six digital animations projected on floor and wall. Evoking the passing of a single day, each projection begins benignly enough, with telephone cables bending along the sky, say, or sunlight filtering through a canopy of leaves. But the mood quickly darkens as silhouetted images begin to pass by—objects that range from the mundane (e.g., cell phones) to the portentous (e.g., a flock of birds). Human figures also float past, and the memory of victims plummeting from the World Trade Center towers is difficult to suppress. Sometimes these images seem to descend, as if to a private hell, and sometimes to ascend, as if in a collective rapture. “The 7 Lights” thus suggests an apocalypse that is equally catastrophic and beatific; at the same time, it evokes our everyday world as a precarious Plato’s Cave of flitting shadows without enlightenment.

I came to the term precarious via Thomas Hirschhorn, and many of his projects, such as Musée Précaire Albinet, staged in the Aubervilliers banlieue of Paris in 2004, are very much to the point here; his sometime collaborator the French poet Manuel Joseph has also used the term, in a short text on la précarité “as a political and aesthetic apparatus.”⁸ Yet what I want to underscore in the word is already present in the OED: “Precarious: from the Latin precarius, obtained by entreaty, depending on the favor of another, hence uncertain, precarious, from precem, prayer.” This implies that this state of insecurity is not natural but constructed—a political condition produced by a power on whose favor we depend and which we can only petition. To act out the precarious, then, is not only to evoke its perilous and privative effects but also to intimate how and why they are produced—and thus to implicate the authority that imposes this antisocial contract of “revocable tolerance” (as Joseph puts it). The note of entreaty is largely lost in the English word, yet it is strong in the installations I mentioned above.⁹ Sometimes it is mournful (as in Gober and Chan), sometimes desperate (as in Kessler, Wallinger, and Genzken), but in all instances this importunate quality implies that the entreaty carries the force of accusation as well—an attesting to the violence done to basic principles of human responsibility.

“In some way we come to exist in the moment of being addressed,” Judith Butler writes, “and something about our existence proves precarious when that address fails.” In “Precarious Life” (2004), her brief essay on Emmanuel Levinas, Butler explores the notion of “the face,” which the French philosopher poses as the very image of “the extreme precariousness of the other.” “To respond to the face, to understand its meaning,” Butler argues, “means to be awake to what is precarious in another life or, rather, the precariousness of life itself.”¹⁰ This is the face put forward by the art of the past decade that has most affected me.

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin ’17 Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University.

1. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 257; Giorgio Agamben, “What Is a Camp?,” in Means Without End, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 45.

2. In response to a questionnaire on this condition, the curator Kelly Baum writes: “What if art’s heterogeneity signals possibility instead of dysfunction? What if heterogeneity is art’s pursuit instead of its affliction? What if, in its very heterogeneity, art were to productively engage current socio-political conditions. . . . I think what we are seeing today is art miming its context. I think we are witnessing art performing ‘agonism,’ ‘disaggregation,’ and ‘particularization.’ Heterogeneity isn’t just contemporary art’s condition, in other words; it is its subject as well” (October 130 [Fall 2009]: 91–96; 91, 93).

3. Clement Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 5.

4. T. J. Clark, “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art,” Critical Inquiry 9, no. 1 (September 1982): 139–56; 153, 154.

5. My sampling is arbitrary, based on semiaccidental encounters, and I can only point to the works here, but they are well documented elsewhere. The precarious has many other registers than the ones noted, ranging from the outlandish (e.g., Mike Kelley) to the poetic (e.g., Gabriel Orozco).

6. See Yve-Alain Bois et al., “An Interview with Mark Wallinger,” October 123 (Winter 2008): 185–204; 188.

7. Elsewhere I have written about this strategy of mimetic exacerbation in relation to Dada. “What we call Dada is a farce of nothingness in which all higher questions are involved,” Hugo Ball writes on June 12, 1916, in his great diary of Zurich Dada, Flight out of Time; it is “a gladiator’s gesture, a play with shabby leftovers.” However, for all that the world of Dada is a chaos of fragments, Ball suggests, the Dadaist does not give up on totality; on the contrary, “he is still so convinced of the unity of all beings, of the totality of all things, that he suffers from the dissonances to the point of self-disintegration” (Flight out of Time, trans. Ann Raimes [New York: Viking, 1974], 65–66). This is a crucial dialectic, and it is active in much of the art discussed here, but amid “the dissonances” it is very difficult to maintain. For example, at times in her work Genzken appears perilously close to the “point of self-disintegration.” See my “Dada Mime,” October 105 (Summer 2003): 166–76.

8. See Thomas Hirschhorn, Musée Précaire Albinet(Aubervilliers: Éditions Xavier Barral, 2005). In “L’infâme et la Tolérance révocable: La précarité comme dispositif politique et esthétique,” Joseph writes: “Precariousness, by right, is put into practice by means of a provisional authorization, that is, by a ‘revocable tolerance’ accorded by the Letter of the Law—law as conceived, invented, written by man. It concerns a ‘condition’ whose duration is not guaranteed, except for the men who have drawn up, decreed, and imposed this contract.” Thanks to Hirschhorn for sharing this unpublished text with me.

9. “The word précaire,” the late-eighteenth-century French satirist Antoine de Rivarol wrote (as if in anticipation of Kafka), “proves how little we obtain from prayer, seeing that this word derives from it” (as quoted by Joseph).

10. Judith Butler, “Precarious Life,” in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 128–51; 130, 134.