L.A. Raeven

I’ve often been bored looking at art in a gallery, but I don’t remember ever before experiencing a work that seemed bored with me. This was the possibly dubious accomplishment of L.A. Raeven, a pair of artists from Amsterdam who seem to have found in their own twinhood the perfect metaphor and mechanism for the modernist ideal of self-referentiality: a closed communicative circuit in which no viewer need be addressed. Their work here consisted of a pair of pairs, or perhaps even a pair of pairs of pairs. The overarching pairing was of two video installations, Wild Zone I, 2001, and Wild Zone 2, 2002, each a double projection. Both video diptychs were about pairs of twins-in the earlier work two enormously thin young women; in the latter, two merely normally slender young men. But this insistent doubleness always seemed about to collapse into unity or fracture into multiplicity. The works were displayed in two rooms but not one per room; one part of Wild Zone 2 was alone in the first room while the other was projected in the second room along with both parts of Wild Zone I; as a result, the whole thing seemed to comprise a single work-signed, moreover, with a single name, L.A. Raeven, that stands for two people, Liesbeth and Angelique. And within each work the same figure could appear on more than one screen simultaneously, as though propagating identically through something like cellular division.

The two women do very little over the course of the videos. They sip from wine glasses, they move around a bit, but basically they just hang out, sitting on the floor of a nearly empty room: white wall, concrete floor—your basic white-box gallery space, echoing those in which the piece is likely to be shown. That is, the women—the artists themselves, as it turns out—are shown as art objects, not unlike those “living sculptures,” the young Gilbert & George. Gazing out impassively at the viewer, disaffected and sullen-looking, the artists/subjects seem to share that deep rapport often attributed to twins. Through its very wordlessness, this implicit communication excludes any third party. In a strange way the pair represents the stance of the paradigmatic works of the modernist avant-gardes—of Duchamp, of course, but also of artists like Barnett Newman or Carl Andre, which the public still tends to find infuriatingly incommunicative; works in which, as Boris Groys once said, “it is not the observer who judges the artwork” (as Diderot or Kant presumed during the age of Enlightenment) but rather “the artwork that judges—and often condemns—its public.” Here before these life-size figures in all their indifference to the world, one had the feeling of being excluded from a club one hadn’t even aspired to join.

And yet there is a potential role for viewers in L.A. Raeven’s work (how else could it be art?), as Wild Zone 2 made clear. The two boys lack the near-complete self-containment exhibited by the artists; they dawdle nervously around their space (that of the ICA itself) reading aloud from a series of rules the artists have supplied them so that the boys can become a perfectly matched pair like themselves. These rules primarily govern the intake of nourishment, that is, how the self assimilates what is other: “I WANT to become like HIM. I want and I NEED to eat EXACTLY THE SAME as HIM, both in HOW MUCH and in WHAT I eat. . . . If he tries to cheat I am angry and I have to PUNISH HIM. We CAN NOT and DO NOT WANT TO CHOOSE which portion of food we have, neither one of us can have CONTROL, so we have to flip a coin.” And so on. The point is that one begins to accede to art not by direct imitation (L.A. Raeven’s rules make no reference to themselves) but by following the rules that art—that is, L.A. Raeven as its living embodiment—follows. The logical fulfillment of their project could only be the impossible instauration of a new academy in which judgment would once again—contra Kant—become subordinate to rules.

At a time when the supposed erasure of boundaries between art and life has given rise to so many casual and perfunctory efforts simply to reproduce the real, L.A. Raeven go to the opposite extreme, insisting that art’s role may be the fundamentally paranoid or at least compulsive one of impressing some order on the real, however arbitrary, by not only insisting on one’s difference but positing it as universal. They are not the only ones to do so (Andrea Zittel’s mundane and rule-bound utopia comes to mind as a comparable enterprise). But how many others insist so implacably on their own idiosyncratic absolute? Commentators on L.A. Raeven’s work tend to interpret it in terms of a medical condition, anorexia. While this diagnosis-from-a-distance may be accurate, the artists are quite correct in their strict refusal to address what they do in those terms. One’s reaction to them as repulsive—or for that matter alluring—is secondary to one’s recognition of their proposal to establish their own bodies, of a type normally considered pathological, as a standard in place of any other we might have brought to bear. The viewer is not there to diagnose the artwork but, if capable, to emulate it, to be transformed in its emaciated image. One can only feel inadequate in the face of this unpleasant and unlikely demand, but it shows that idiosyncrasy or inadequacy itself can become exemplary.

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.