There is no ‘trick’ to understanding the work of Joseph Kosuth. The search for meaning itself is the narrative of his practice. It is play; playing with meaning. And as a ‘play’ it is also theatrical, thematically and spatially. Kosuth may be anti aesthetics, but the form of his presented works is decidedly attractive. The immersive quality of his most recent piece, ‘(Waiting for-) Texts for Nothing’ Samuel Beckett in play displayed at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, is a case in point.
The darkness is initially disorientating. A one line ribbon of neon words runs along the top edge of the four walls. The words are illuminated from their side edges only, their front face having been painted black. Consequently they can only be read clearly from an angle; an angle which alternately leads you forever onwards, whilst previous words continue to catch the corner of one’s eye, constantly referring backwards. This tangles the reader into an already self-reflexive string of prose.
The circulatory nature of the text borrows from the repetitive nature of Beckett’s writing and his stylistic build up of uneasy suspense. The reader, searching the text for the plot, becomes aware that they are a player on a dark stage; a ‘Long narrow grey rectangle between grey walls’. Nearing the exit, they are urged back round the circle of text by the characters from ‘Waiting for Godot’ who declare the need to ‘come back tomorrow’. Why? They don’t know. ‘In the silence, you don’t know’. The text- the work itself- mirrors the readers ‘increasing anxiety’ in their failure to discover meaning, yet it constantly urges them to ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ The player has found no answer except their own search. In this way Kosuth’s work re-frames the nihilistic texts with a sneaking positivism; ‘You must go on.’
Whilst Kosuth appropriates from literature, his art is not inaccessible to those unfamiliar with his sources. This said, it does require time and investigative thought. The barrier to the audience participating with the work to this level is two- fold. This is art about ideas, predominantly the relationship between ideas presented as words and those framed by art. Not only this, but Kosuth’s source material is appropriated from giants; Freud, Joyce and Beckett. In distancing himself from aesthetics, Kosuth presents himself as an almost dogmatic conceptualist. However, his recent piece is more of a compromise than the older, contextual pieces also displayed within the exhibition. Visually the viewer is drawn in, yet nothing is gained too easily.
Perhaps nothing tangible is gained at all. Yet Kosuth succeeds in conveying the philosophy that the failure to communicate ‘meaning’ is entirely appropriate, but the endeavor to look for it, to mould it in the mind, is all important; ‘his experience shall be the menace, the miracle, the memory, of unspeakable trajectory.’