PRINT September 2011


Nicolás Guagnini’s The Panel Discussion, the Tennis Match, and a Bodegón

Nicolás Guagnini, The Panel Discussion, the Tennis Match, and a Bodegón, 2011, oil on shaped aluminum composite panel, carved wooden figures, miniature easel with facsimile catalogue, plywood table, twenty-second audio loop. Installation views, Andrew Roth, New York.

NICOLÁS GUAGNINI’S The Panel Discussion, the Tennis Match, and a Bodegón, 2011, centers on a long plywood table that holds two groups of miniature wooden figures, one at either end. The back row, commissioned from a professional caricature wood-carver, represents a panel discussion that, according to the press release, features “an American publisher and art dealer, . . . a well known German artist, . . . and a well known German professor of Art History,” who are flanked by a facsimile catalogue from the Nazis’ 1937 “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) show propped on a miniature easel. It takes relatively little effort for insiders to identify these characters more precisely as Andrew Roth, at whose gallery Guagnini’s installation was recently shown (and who has worked with the artist on several projects in the past); the artist Jutta Koether; and the art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh. The front row, commissioned from a different wood-carver, is made up of seven military officers in Nazi attire, one in the process of lifting his arm for a Nazi salute, and another pointing forward, as though drawing the viewer’s attention to—or more likely, given the identity of the figure and the catalogue behind him, launching an anachronistic accusation at—a relief painting on the facing wall. This crisply turned and geometrically arresting work (reminiscent of Argentinean Concrete art from the 1940s) is composed of the overlapping covers of books by the likes of César Aira, Jorge Luis Borges, and Octavio Paz, representing what Guagnini calls the “canon of Latin American culture/literature circa 1975.” It was commissioned from yet another artist, Greg Parma Smith—a graduate of Columbia University’s art school who, unlike the others engaged to contribute to the installation, has begun a promising career in the same sector of the art world as Guagnini himself. The third major element of the installation is a twenty-second sound track that is tripped by an electric eye in the course of the viewer’s peregrinations. This audio segment was adapted from a recording of a tennis match at the 2009 French Open by an undergraduate student supervised by Guagnini. Far from delivering the satisfying back-and-forth thwack of a tennis ball, however, the track—a compilation of the grunts and screams of Brazilian player Michelle Larcher de Brito—resembles an extended unholy moan, an unsettling avian cry.

The table in Guagnini’s installation is much more than a pedestal: It is a principle of organization that tabulates, presents tableaux, and functions as a gaming table. First, it tabulates discourse by mapping aesthetic positions that pivot on negation, albeit from opposing perspectives—namely, the far-right attempt to annihilate avant-garde experimentation through suppression and persecution versus Theodor Adorno–inspired leftist forms of anti-art, where the artwork purposely withholds aesthetic gratification in order to provoke deep questioning about the nature of objects, pleasure, and consumption. (Here I should disclose that in 2009 Guagnini and I organized a panel discussion at Yale University titled “NO,” which included Buchloh and Koether. Perhaps too ambitiously, we aimed to map negation in art since World War II). Second, Guagnini’s table establishes a tragicomic scene in which the caricatured figures create a tableau mort: a kind of still life, which is one meaning of the Spanish word bodegón. The postures of the ten figures on the table constitute a veritable catalogue of rhetorical gestures, ranging from the expressive wave of a hand associated with intellectual persuasion to the fascist salute that forecloses open interchange. This is a lexicon of body language, of discourse encoded in flesh. And third, the table functions as a gaming surface for a lopsided ping-pong match between the representatives of the fascist and leftist modes of negation who occupy its opposite ends. And yet these antagonists are united in facing a third interlocutor on the wall beyond the table—the fanned-out library of covers in Parma Smith’s painting, which represents a more affirmative or liberationist type of social revolution. Thus Guagnini makes the incendiary implication that in fact both sorts of negation, regardless of their contradictory strategies, share a conceptual (as well as a literal) platform. They belong to what Michel Foucault would see as the same set of discursive rules. Here, both of these “teams” face off against a Latin American alternative—albeit a utopian and never fully realized one—of Surrealist-inspired alternate realities and social revolution.

When all three of the table’s “functions” are superimposed, its modest plywood surface begins to perform like a social space in miniature, triply colonized by discourse (as tabulation), by body language (as tableau), and by competition (as a game table). But all of these meanings—these language games, both textual and bodily—are in turn unraveled by the unclassifiable orality of the tennis-match recording.

Guagnini’s plywood table represents a complex social field, but the way its various elements were produced brings into play a further register of relationships—ones centered on art itself. The Panel Discussion, the Tennis Match, and a Bodegón explicitly manipulates the art world’s two basic creative currencies: authorship and style. To dwell on modes of aesthetic de-skilling or the death of the author is clichéd by now, but Guagnini presses these nearly exhausted debates further by exploiting an explicit hierarchy of authorship in his commissioning of four different artists who occupy widely divergent ranks in the art world: the two wood-carvers, commercial producers of quaint (or kitsch) souvenirs; the student who edited the sound track, over whom Guagnini holds the power of a mentor; and a fellow artist at an earlier stage of his career, the only producer acknowledged by name. In other words, the installation unapologetically maps the differing quantities of cultural capital controlled by different sorts of authorship (rather than glibly proclaiming its obsolescence altogether). In a recently published conversation with Guagnini in the A.R.T. Press series Between Artists, John Kelsey comments, “Style is how you get past yourself, the way to get around obstacles.” And indeed, by commissioning several artists with their own “styles” pegged to different positions in an art world stratified by money and cultural prestige, Guagnini uses style to get beyond himself. But he also demonstrates the political instability of style by introducing two divergent aesthetic tendencies whose ideological valence tends to drift: Expressionism, whose attenuated or reified form persists in the caricatural wood carvings (which rhyme perversely with the “primitive” sculpture by the Jewish artist Otto Freundlich illustrated on the cover of Entartete Kunst), versus the cool look of geometric abstraction in Parma Smith’s painting. The “degenerate” Expressionist work of art returns as the folksy surface of a hand-carved Nazi figurine, and the utopian promise of nonobjectivity is filtered through a painting based on commercial book design. In each instance, the correlation between style and a stable ideological position is undermined.

Discourse is everywhere in The Panel Discussion, the Tennis Match, and a Bodegón—in the publications whose covers we see (whether Entartete Kunst or the 1972 anthology Cristianismo: Doctrina social y revolución), in physical gestures (whether the raised hand making a point or the raised hand saluting Hitler), in the press release that laconically catalogues the work’s complex dimensions, and in the range of styles it includes. I’m sure my description of the installation makes it sound extremely smart and knowing—and it is. But being smart and knowing isn’t enough when it comes to art. What is moving and memorable to me in this work—what fuses all of its elements and brings them to a head—is a powerful effect of desublimation related to that which I remember from Guagnini and Jeff Preiss’s 2005–2006 work Discharge, for which Preiss filmed Guagnini practicing Reichian exercises that led to a profound emotional catharsis marked by moans, cries, and involuntary body movements. When we trigger the sound track by walking around The Panel Discussion, the Tennis Match, and a Bodegón, all of the discourse, all of the debate, all of the struggle collapses into a regressive scream, a sound that is like a voice but also more than a voice. It’s as if Guagnini were claiming that in order to navigate discourse, one must risk straying from its cultivated pathways into something atavistic and horrible, something not quite human.

Guagnini is one of a group of what might be called “post-Conceptual” artists who have carried the fascination with information pioneered in Conceptual art to a broader range of themes, encompassing gender identities, postcolonial politics, and global cultural economies. Central to such practices has been the notion of constructed subjectivities, which are performed and positioned. But in the process, I think the very concept of subjectivity has become perilously inflated: The term is habitually deployed as though a “subject” were something easy to delineate, something verging on caricature, just like the kitsch wooden sculptures that here represent powerful figures in the art world and fascist soldiers alike. The tennis player’s screams give the lie to these subjective epiphenomena—far from being “constructed,” this sound has the power to dissolve the complex, multilayered set of oppositions that Guagnini has so carefully staged. His real field of operations is the struggle over representations—of selves, of political demands, of history, and of art. We encounter the historical struggle evidenced in The Panel Discussion, the Tennis Match, and a Bodegón in a series of conceptual layers formed by distinct but related semiotic reversals that render the table a plateau. This formation includes the historical negation of avant-garde art by the Nazis, the theoretical negation of aesthetics in progressive American art history, the humorous recoding of contemporary figures through caricature, the intellectual claim for revolutionary consciousness in Latin America, and the balkanization of art production ranging from kitsch to high art. Below this uneven discursive topography, a haunting, excruciating scream percolates: a kind of bubbling magma with the power to disrupt its landscape, to trip the very notion of the subject by shifting the ground under its feet.

David Joselit is Carnegie Professor of the history of art at Yale University.