New York

Gareth James

Elizabeth Dee

Gareth James’s recent exhibition took as its starting point the iconic photograph of Louis Althusser in front of an inscrutable diagram and the phrase that would become the title of the Marxist philosopher’s autobiography, L’Avenir dure longtemps (The Future Lasts a Long Time). Framed by a bicycle inner tube, a modified print of this image, punningly titled Lui (all works 2009), was paired in the first gallery with Poor neon. Rubber behaves like a one-dimensional gas. (The flower absent from all bouquets), which uses a series of conjoined inner tubes to spell out the Mallarmé quotation in its title. Between these two works were five empty rectangular frames, also constructed from rubber tubing, suspended from the ceiling and theoretically able to rotate freely so as to turn a screw at the bottom of each (hence their title, The screwunscrew).

Given that the show was supposedly about absence and indecipherability, it is not entirely mean-spirited to think of these frames as the hoops one had to jump through to get from the one reference to the other. An artist’s statement provided as a press release posits Althusser’s diagram as “the unknown that generates all operations” in the exhibition. This dense text opens with two caps-locked declamations: WHEN A FINANCIAL INSTITUTION COLLAPSES THERE IS NO SPECTACULAR OUTPOURING OF GOLD and GLASS TRANSITION TEMPERATURE, which lead, via quotations from Althusser and André Gide, to musings around the question, “Is it possible . . . for art to operate at the level of the real, to materially write in a manual space, a space of heterogeneity prior to the attainment of forms of expression or content?” Some of the works’ titles, meanwhile, suggest a critical engagement with the status of art in the context of the financial crisis—e.g., Money stands for limitlessness. Art will too if it lasts too long; and Hot wheels, cold metal. New problems with deflation.

Curiously, the objects themselves were at odds with the proffered discursive infrastructure. In the black-on-white directness of their spare and elegant forms, the inner tubes seemed ready enough to acknowledge aesthetic and communicative potential. It was surely unintentional, but the wall-mounted bicycle-tube rendition of Althusser’s diagram on the far wall of the front gallery looked strikingly like a man (his gender apparent from a protruding bicycle valve) riding a computer-equipped exercise bike. A holistic (if fallacious) interpretation of the show dangled into reach here: L’Avenir dure longtemps indeed, if one’s not moving. The subtext of the financial crisis would fit, too: Far from their intended function, the hollow petrochemical-derived tubes would be an allegory for running on empty.

This contrasts almost absurdly with the inchoate open-endedness apparently hoped for by the artist. In the rear gallery, along with a Perspex and wood structure and a newspaper page slotted into the wall, there were three more inner-tube works, again notable for their lo-fi, hi-def stylishness. In The Greeks had no name for numbers above ten thousand, the Romans had no name for quantities over one hundred thousand. (treasury for future meanings), several tubes were slung up on nails as if to signal their own redundancy. Back to the exercise bicycle: This could be read as art, too, at a standstill, forever mired in the consequences of the readymade.

Do the actual objects on view matter in this version of art’s end-game? Although the rubber tubes in this show (like the origami-derived pieces in James’s 2005 exhibition at Elizabeth Dee) stand out for their formal and material properties, the accompanying text instead suggests that art’s most important role is to offer a few triggers—Althusser, the financial bubble, Mallarmé, the transition temperature of glass, etc.—then off you go to figure out how they relate to one another, and, secondarily, to whatever objects might be at hand. Such a conception of art runs so directly counter to Susan Sontag’s cri de coeur in Against Interpretation that it is tempting to quote her, if only as a foil: “Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” In James’s work, this turns out to be an impossible task. A single unmodified bicycle inner tube hanging on nails, titled The fourth of three things, instead proposes we welcome the surfeit of content that is now our inevitable lot.

Alexander Scrimgeour