Below are two short texts written in conjunction with the group exhibition Coated in Pre-existence. The exhibition was curated by Giulia Damiani for the art platform Elizabeth Xi Bauer in September 2016. The show was held at The Cob Gallery and was accompanied by a publication. The texts below were read at a gallery tour event alongside texts by Damiani and Jessie Bond.
The first is a reflection on the exhibitions intriguing theme of pre-existence and the idea of material memory. The second follows on from these ideas with a personal account of the rediscovery of two forgotten sculptures of my own.
Coated in Pre-existence
Art was once seen to transcend time. It was not coated in pre-existence as the title of this exhibition attests. That the work here today may be ‘coated’ with pre-existence suggests that the temporality of the work adheres to its materiality, to a surface of some kind that can be met.
As such, this exhibition highlights the prominence of the encounter within our approach to works of art as an experience, which is necessarily temporal. Pre-existence is suggestive of material memory, which also gives the work we are encountering a sense of slippage or flux, a kind of curious indeterminacy in which they refuse to be contained neatly within our conception of them. This seems to underscore a historical shift from the autonomous, self-sufficient art object to something that allows a physical experience to reverberate through artistic conception and reception. This is what Theo Ereira-Guyer has called the ‘feedback’ loop between the past and the present, in that pre-existence is not simply what preceded something for the present affects the past as much as the past informs the present.
The idea that artwork exists in time and space with us, that it forms an experiential encounter, echoes a shift in language or expectations that can be exemplified by the approach of minimalist artists to their work, particularly in regards to sculpture and the terms they used to describe them. Donald Judd talked about ‘specific objects’, that is, things that have a certain scale, are made of certain materials, and have a particular placement in the immediate environment, all of which creates a specific encounter. Other artists avoided the word ‘object’ altogether as too closed, too suggestive of something self-contained. So they called them things. We co-exist with things, relate to and with things, whereas the object may be too distant or self-important. Things manifest, physically intruding into our space. They lay on the floor. They gather, repeat, take up space and time, they suggest their making. They require different perspectives. They hang bodily; they may stand up, but they are not self-supporting because they are in a relationship with us. Our experience of them could actually be of a site or ‘place’, the word that Carl Andre specifically proposed to describe his work.
To ground the artwork in place with us is to open it up to space and time, to pre-existence. And in becoming temporal, an encounter or experience, the work escapes a certain sense of graspable wholeness – that which perhaps would make it static, atemporal, autonomous, dead even. In its ‘thingness’, it’s made up of stuff-ness, it is less complete, fracturing into the collection of shifting perspectives or viewpoints that occur when textures and vivid modulations of light and colour momentarily loom into view and obliterate any sense one might have of the work’s overall shape and form. The works in this exhibition, together and separately, engage the viewer with their curious shifts in surface and depth; intricacies and ambiguities that negate something closed, becoming instead open and extended, dispersing into an array and splitting perspectives.
As such pre-existence seems to suggest a kind of permeability; that in becoming things, places, encounters, temporal and material, the work and we ourselves are fractured, less separate materially and temporally.
In 1929, the surrealist Michel Leiris wrote a critical essay on Giacometti’s work in which he made a point of saying that Giacometti’s art objects were not ‘dead’ like other sculptures were. The work that he was writing about was, in fact, yet to be decisively cast by intention; it was made up of studio experiments, informal sketches in plaster, and Leiris was fixated by his visceral sense of the fragmentary, loamy substance from which they were formed. The plaster suggested as much the solid object as its becoming dust, easily dispersed in air or water and merging into a cycle of matter that might also manifest as the stuff of us. This particular experience of commune with the art object, suggested also by Dali, goes beyond looking or even beholding, to something suggestive of merging with or consuming.
Beyond the debate over the ways in which we interact with art and thereby the intention with which it is presented to us, the drawing of the object to the eye, the body or the hand that Leiris expresses and is present in the encounter with the work, connects our consideration of the art, and thereby how it may be refigured by our consideration of it, to its artistic conception as and through material – that feedback loop again. It manifests as something in flux both materially and as something non-material, whether we are speaking of sculpture, paint, print, language, sound, image, text, or bodies in space. That the work is coated in pre-existence suggests that that which we encounter is also the artist’s encounter with material or some relation to it. Coated brings us back to surface, to a reaching out towards material memory that gives form to the depth of the artist’s pre-existent encounter, the uniting of material with a concept, volumising how that working or process is manifested; how intention and material are continually responding to each other.
But the encounter with pre-existence is not a clear one – that billowing dust of fractured stuff, memory and intention that Leiris described. Permeability is that bouncing back and forth between past and present, overlapping memory and different experiences that modify each other. And perhaps it is so entrancing because while the work may not be a clearly delineated, it is nonetheless both fixed fact and contingent phenomenon. It’s that interesting thing where conceptualisation doesn’t dematerialise the artwork, it just informs a different kind of relational materialisation.
In the words of the artist Lee Ufam, we cannot entirely objectify things in the world any more than we can securely find an echo of our subjectivity in them, so we should conceive of people and things as neither antithetical nor comparable. We cannot be at one with things anymore than we can detach ourselves from them; a conundrum that seems integral to the art making process. The sculptor David Smith talked of a physical expansiveness in the act of assembling and making while Ufam compares the function of the artwork to that of the Buddha: “The world is the world acting as the world with or without the presence of the Buddha, but it is by the Buddha’s presence that the world is revealed.” The Buddha being a person who, in Ufams words “shows that the world penetrates him and is simultaneously of the world of reality and the world of cognition”.
“Is art for the living or the dead?” Perhaps we might suggest that it is made up from the bones of both.
The moulds are solid, heavy and inert. Dragged from a dark corner, the blocks are cracked open to reveal the flesh of two strange creatures, one blue and one black, both with the same puckered rubbery skin. Removing the things turns out to be tricky as they have suckered to the inside of their casing. Slowly, and as gingerly as can be achieved with a weighty object, the top half is peeled back. Once detached, the dirty white mass of plaster lies next to the nested objects, still snugly sat in the lower half of the mould. The surface of the exposed inner casing is mottled with a fossil-like imprint the shape of a clot of burst bubbles. Its negative space echoes the flabbily geometric form of the thing that once took its imprint.
The objects were once exhibited with others similar to them. They rested differently with one another then; at table height though not to be touched. Now only two remain. Cumbersome objects shifted between flats and cities, lingering under beds as they were too heavy to lift elsewhere. Separated from their plaster exoskeletons, somehow, they now become makeshift door stops. They are weighty enough, filled as they are with the same plaster that entombed them. One rests on fading carpet, the other on sea green tiles.
Taken out of their bone coloured caskets, the things degrade, dirtying themselves and everything around them. They appear to possess a kind of static attraction, pulling other material to them, so that their surface is collecting dust and other unidentified crumbs. Long strands of hair begin to coat their failing bodies. As this stuff of life gathers, their own surface appears to be thinning, shedding almost invisible particles of silicon. These seem to gravitate towards me, blue and black specs nesting in the hairs on my upper arms and clinging to certain fabrics of my clothes. After a while, delicate wounds form in their taut skin; curious splittings emanate breaths of white plaster which settle airily on the carpet.
They had to be filled with plaster as the silicone turned out to be too thin and flimsy. It’s possible that I had been cheap with materials. Laid back into the moulds and filled with white goop, their halves were bonded together with a little more silicone to hold some semblance of the original objects volume. Yet they still morphed, twisted and collapsed into something other, something that wasn’t entirely a failure: bruised objects in blue and black rubber.
That in being uncased, the objects appear to be unwrapping and dispersing is interesting in retrospect of the materials that informed their intended shape. The plaster moulds were created from a series of textured boxes, containing nothing. They were pieced together from cardboard, paper, plastic and bubble wrap that had been shed from other objects, layered, built out and unfolded to become irregular constructions. They were hollow, light and airy. Those casings inverted themselves into heavy, hollow footprints; the moulds that allowed another, different skin to emerge; one that was impossibly fragile until given bones of its own; a density that now seems to be both expanding and evaporating.
I enjoy these odd things more now that they are making a mess on my floor, rather than waiting to be dealt with in storage as ‘sculptures’. I didn’t know what to do with them, wasn’t sure why I had kept them, but now I can see that they are directional; their very presence is a point of reference, like books on the shelf, that bring thoughts to mind by being to hand and help to navigate a new course. You put down one volume and pick up another. Their rediscovery morphs my memory of making them, their original place. They have become more familiar, more bodily than I had allowed them to be previously, possibly through their ageing. They are objects that have expanded, unfolded out of their different layers from my original intention and their own material bounds. Eventually, they become too compromised and are discarded.
For a while, I am left with their weighty shells, molar-like and grinding themselves down where they now fail to fit together, bereft of their fleshy insides. At some point, these too are thrown out or broken, lost in a move. What remains is a final imprint, two photographs taken at ground level alongside the objects. The blue object takes its place in the bathroom, its surface a wrinkling of deflated bubble wrap. Part if its base lifts up away from the floor casting an irregular shadow in the harsh light; a rectangular overhang that is dog-eared and slightly twisted. Knobbly seams curve out like badly formed cornice where the rubber slopes down to the tiles. I think some sellotape is stuck to the top face, near to a balding patch of white. Its rubberiness suits and badly emulates the tiled surfaces around it. The door is closed behind it. The other, a black shape, looks mostly square from the angle of the picture, but I suspect the irregular side is nested against the door it keeps open and is partly in shadow. A crooked grin of a seam runs diagonally across the two sides facing the camera, the point at which these two faces meet is evidently deflating and sloping downwards. A sliver of silicon springs outwards like a shoot from one side, reaching for the adjacent room, while a wavy hair stuck near the base catches the light. It looks ugly and sort of pleased with itself. The carpet shows flecks of black and white and it’s possible that a cat is hiding in the shadow behind the propped open door, the flash catching a blurry, luminous eye.