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Voices of Fire

Bruce Barber, Serge Guilbaut and John O’Brian, eds., Voices of Fire: Art, Rage, Power and the State, Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1996, 212 pp., ill. b. & w. & col.

This volume brings primary sources from the Voice of Fire controversy (cartoons, press clippings, radio and television transcripts) together with essays on the altercation and Barnett Newman’s work. In doing so, it shows how the sound bite that initiated the controversy (Felix Holtman’s “two cans of paint and two rollers and about ten minutes would do the trick”), while rather banal, instigated a series of provocative questions: Is fiscal restraint as important as the independence of cultural experts? Would the National Gallery best galvanize Canadian identity by promoting Canadian culture, or by collecting the world’s best art? How do we feel about having national identity moulded by an institution that operates independently of public opinion? What do we think of the claim that there is a “best” in art?

These queries are particularly interesting because they came, often with subtlety and insight, from an extraordinarily wide public. Voice of Fire is a costly work of American “modern art,” and its purchase provoked outpourings of anxiety regarding government spending, mandarinism and national identity. But these outpourings came from very distinct constituencies. Holtman and the Canadian Artists’ Representation (CARFAC) both had concerns: the MP thought the acquisition was an extravagance, CARFAC that it downplayed the importance of Canadian art.

The salient point is that opposition to the purchase was not exclusively the province of boorish, anti-government xenophobes. This book’s usefulness, then, is that it invites us to think about the responses as heterogeneous, and to resist the temptation — a strong one, as one editor notes — to dismiss all of the antagonism as ill-informed, uncultured buffoonery.

the everyday

As performance and improvisation form a basis for resistance to representation, for Fernandes so also does the alternation of everyday life with art. As Henri Lefebvre noted, “the everyday” constitutes the platform upon which the bureaucratic society of controlled consumerism is erected. It is precisely there that Fernandes intervenes with a work like Is That You Dick? Is That You Jane? (1982), a piece which used large photographs of the aisles and shelves in a typical drugstore. The usefulness of “everyday life” for Fernandes lies in its banality, a quality which brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived. (What counts as banality must of course be culturally relative; for Fernandes, mangos may be more banal than potatoes.) Incorporating aspects of the everyday into works or integrating aspects of the work into the environment of the everyday allows the work to escape specialized formulation, at least in the moment when, lived, it resists all coherence, all regularity.

This reliance on the concepts of everyday life and improvisation links Fernandes’ work to aspects of Fluxus and of Situationist art, especially in regard to the work’s resistances to institutional mediation. Pursuing this connection would, however, overly Europeanize this work which is more effectively related to “post-colonial discourse,” through its affinity with the practice and thought of artists such as Jimmie Durham, Trinh T. Minh-ha, David Medalla and David Hammons. Hammons, for example, has explored similar sites in his performances and installations. His Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983) in the East Village during which he set up a vendor’s “stand” where he sold snowballs during a winter day, or his Doll Shoe Salesman (1985), in which he sold rubber doll shoes arranged in patterns on the street, fifty cents per foot and, although useless, reportedly sold almost immediately.

Fernandes typically works with low-tech, banal materials and situations, ignoring the sensuous pleasures of hand-made art and the look of refinement, preferring to leave his materials connected with their sources in environments of the everyday, whether of the cold industrial north or the warm earthy south. These materials are frequently lifted from the media or commercial sites, again relating to agit/prop devices. In fact those works of Fernandes which resemble agit/prop may be his least interesting even though they have incorporated aspects of the local artistic milieu in Halifax, Nova Scotia where Fernandes works. The production techniques involved in these more reactive works are often variations on photo-text and so lack the sensuousness of many of his other more “musical” pieces. When a work falls short it is where the voice of moral authority sneaks back in, usually with a reactive impulse and, in spite of the artist’s best attempts at self-undermining, something almost like a conventional agit/prop statement is communicated. Again, as was often the case with Fluxus and Situationist art, “non-art” sites figure frequently in his work: music, poetry, stories, rhythm and secrets are layered into store fronts, billboards, banners or radio. Like Hammons, Fernandes carries out his work with certain irreverences, telling stories as he goes. These frequently consist of anti-aesthetic strategies such as impermanence, ridiculous or awkward humour and form a basis for his refusal of refinement.

Aspects of Fernandes’ works

Aspects of Fernandes’ works which are immediately apparent are its particularly spare aesthetic, bringing it into a proximity with agit/prop, its use of everyday materials and locations, its use of improvisation as a form within installation that brings it close to performance art. Fernandes’ concern with the relationship between place and improvisation can be observed in the majority of his works over the last twenty years. Fernandes often incorporates contingent aspects of the exhibition situation, invoking the history and terms of site-related art, and making it important to find the locus of Fernandes’ art.

Fernandes himself has described the site of his works as being “like a market. . .where we brush up against [the crowd].” In White Bread (1990), a large and ordered display of bread lay on a table or base, arranged slice by overlapping slice (as if) available to the gallery visitor. This scene is of an excess, of a private property guarded on each of its four sides by officious declarations: no gathering, no soliciting, no standing, and, no pets. The inclusion of this last in the series of four signs refuses, by its out of place humour, the possibility of authoritative style. A hybrid site transposed from both the traditional village marketplace and the contemporary supermarket, this site gathers public and private, intertwining them in the memory of a familiar everydayness. Any tendency toward romanticism or exoticism is undermined by the artist’s choice of bread; an urban version, well preserved against the decay its village counterpart would likely suffer through the duration of the exhibition. Through this process or temporal dimension the “mortality” of the body is metonymically present. The stacking of this bread as an art material in an art gallery has another more oblique and more political reference to the administrated availability of food resources within technological society with its automated production and reduction of entities to a supply of bland accessibility without genuine nurturance.

These works incorporate the two practices of resistance which most characterize Fernandes’ works; the integration (which is also always a metonymic displacement) of the art with everyday life, and his pushing of improvisation to the point where the work becomes performative in so far as in its mode of existing it is resistant to any reproduction or repetition. Where these two paths intersect is in the theme of resistance to representation. American critic Peggy Phelan, writing on performance says:

Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. Performance’s being, like the ontology of subjectivity proposed here, becomes itself through disappearance.

This ontology of subjectivity is manifested in impermanence and is related to the gap that might be thought of as the being of time itself, impermanence and emptiness then being strategies of resistance with respect to any claim to a full or substantive present, a present which could actually only have its being outside time.

The works of Michael Fernandes

It may be cold up here today, but it’s very hot down there. Where I come from palm trees sway and men with frilly sleeves sing calypso under trees, where the tourists are always dropping in . . . and out. And then, when it’s all done, they disappear in a big plane. — Michael Fernandes.

Characterized by elusiveness, the works of Michael Fernandes never cease to insist on the unstable nature of the world. In considering his works of the past twenty years I have formed the view that this elusiveness is purposeful, culturally specific and belongs to a general strategy of resistance which includes the emergence of cultural difference as an enunciative strategy. The potential for a displaced authorship to function as a place from which to speak is acknowledged in a text piece of 1992: I have lost my parrot. If you find it I am not responsible for what it says. This work raises the question of speaking and its positionality, multiplying and displacing authorship in complex and often paradoxical stratagems.

Critically locating an artist’s work suggests a framing which secures it with respect to issues and discourses. By its very nature, Fernandes’ work persistently resists this securing, and we need not assume that the apparently inarticulable nature of the work, its resistance to language itself, will be lost to the unifying tendency of description and interpretation. Those strategies of resistance which identify Fernandes’ works often rely on practices which correspond to certain aspects of postmodern and feminist disruptions of authority and this can help to critically situate his work. But even where it is possible in a text such as this one to attribute some coherence and regularity to a body of work, the work itself resists reductions such as “authorship.” Of the many means by which this work does this, two aspects are here foregrounded; that of the work’s relationship to the environment of everyday life and that of its emphasis on improvisation, especially through a performance of language shifts.

Fernandes’ works abound with regionally specific motifs (such as parrots, bamboo, clothing, music and accents) which provoke questions of place, origin and belonging. These three terms are conventionally understood in unifying and homogenizing terms. For example, place is typically conceived as location, a fixed point in a measurable, uniform space. Similarly, origin is considered roughly synonymous to “cause,” a single point. Following these notions of place and origin, belonging is then typically understood by way of identity, that is as a self-same, enclosed “core.” The discussion of identity has taken many directions within postmodernism. The critique of the identity principle has its roots in Heidegger, then Derrida. Heidegger showed how origin and identity depend on difference, on the relatedness of the two, of “the between.” The relation is what is stressed and from which a “gathering” proceeds that brings about “belonging.” This critique of identity, but in the form adapted by way of Derrida, has often been incorporated into feminist and post-colonial theory. This particular adaptation has tended to undermine “belonging” by understanding the “gathering” by way of Derrida’s “gathering of radical alterity endlessly displacing its closure,”  a notion which disperses rather than truly gathering what is differentiating itself. This emphasis on deferral has been read (by Stuart Hall) as a politics of infinite dispersal, a politics of no action at all. (3) A perspective on these issues of belonging and difference, gathering and differentiation, formulated with this reading in mind, contributes to a conception of place as a site of resistance, as a living place incorporating difference while refusing “the politics of infinite dispersal” which is merely the flip side of modernist unity and homogeneity. This conception of place as site of resistance suggests a post-colonial response to what Rosalind Krauss has described as universal placelessness.

These terms, identity and origin, are important in Fernandes’ works in so far as they are, from the outset, problematized and relativized by the work’s very nature. They have become culturally provisional and individually improvisational in his work, engaging in a performance of “diasporan subjectivity,” a subjectivity intertwining belongingness with multiplicity. Frequently, elusive references occur to the impact of displacement within his personal history and while we might attempt to ascribe autobiographical intent to Fernandes’ involvement with the themes of home and place, it is necessary to recognize that in undermining unities he also undermines conventional notions of the autobiographical self. That is, those conceptions of authorship which rely on the centrality of the author as a fixed point of origin, of meaning.

Nan Goldin’s first provocative photo-series

Nan Goldin’s first provocative photo-series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, unleashed obsessive desire and pathos with such ferocity that many were stunned. The tragic and beautiful Ballad finds a life-affirming companion in Tokyo Love. Tokyo Love began in the spring of 1994 as a collaboration between Goldin and Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Although worlds apart, they were doing similar things, with similar people. In this book they come together. Tokyo Love is arranged so we see Goldin’s and Araki’s photographs indiscriminately.

One common thread between Goldin and Araki is their love for the people they photograph. Araki’s portraits are straight-on, studio-style photography. His subjects are not all beautiful, some are shown with acne and a combination of cockiness and teenage awkwardness. They love to model for him, to smoke and to camp it up. Goldin treats her subjects with a striking familiarity. These teenage victims of punkkitsch confabulation are photographed candidly in transient hotels, at parties and in public spaces. Her subjects are almost ambivalent to her lens, caught in acts of defiant sexuality and unself-conscious bruiting. These kids are tough and compulsive, part of Goldin’s self-described “tribe.”

Tokyo Love is a book dedicated to the principle of “joy in living.” Though they are surrounded by friends dying of AIDS-related illnesses, addiction, suicide, the people in these photographs persevere. Their enjoyment in life is not sacrificed. Tokyo Love is a breather, a party. T. M.

Circus americanus

Circus Americanus is a curious, insightful collection of essays by American art critic Ralph Rugoff. The bulk of the essays, written between 1990 and 1995, first appeared on the arts pages of the LA Weekly where Rugoff is a featured writer. The essays are predominantly about the social trends and visual culture in Southern California, with a few excursions into the rest of the United States and Canada. The collection’s title refers to a growing spectator culture that finds its locus in Los Angeles, megalopolis of a near-future America.

The topics Rugoff covers range from photographs of nudists to tours of waste treatment plants, but he is at his best when writing about museums and theme parks. Rugoff is fascinated with the proliferation of museums in and around Los Angeles. He argues that the museum vitrine has had a more profound effect than the automobile or the mass media in deciding the visual landscape of Southern California. Circus Americanus includes descriptions of visits to the Beit Hashoah Museum of Tolerance, the L. Ron Hubbard Life Exhibition Hall, and many other institutions — including a strange, wonderful place called the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Although Rugoff is quick to point out the shortcomings of museums, he can recognize the quirky, magical properties that some do possess, like the grotesquely beautiful exhibits of pathological anatomy at Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum. Rugoff’s keen, ironic prose is complemented with fitting illustrations by photographers Mark Lipson and Debra DiPaolo.

In the introduction, Rugoff cautions us about reaching a point where our environment is so mediated that reality can no longer be experienced. Consequently, Los Angeles’ “culture of distraction” may well be the shape of things to come in North America and Circus Americanus provides a thoughtful look at this trend, with the humour and wisdom necessary to cope with these transformations.