Our Life in Stasis
Opening 6pm, Thursday 11 February, 2016
12 February - 11 March
Tuesday - Friday, 9am - 5pm
Looking at things
Even though we live in an ever-changing world of things, the amount of genuine attention that we give to them, and the value that we place on them, is usually insignificant and in a state of constant flux. Beyond that which is new and novel, most of us tend to take the presence of the everyday objects that surround us for granted. Sometimes we don’t really see things at all. They operate just outside of our peripheral vision until something happens to either them or us, and the relationship that we have with them changes. We notice them again, and they acquire meaning. For the author Bill Brown, this is the point at which a ‘thing’ becomes an ‘object’ — an object being subject to our attention, and placed within a hierarchy of value.[i]
Much has been written on this topic of materiality (things, objects, their presence/absence, and the relational spaces in between them/us) over the last twenty years, or so. Earlier discussions concerning the materiality of objects were dominated by two seemingly oppositional narratives. On the one hand; a mid-19th century Marxist critique of exchange value — the relationship between the labour that produced the object and its subsequent value within a market place as a commodity. On the other; an early to mid-20th century modernist/essentialist view of materiality that asserted the inner life of the object — removed and detached from its context and relations of meaning. As useful as they have been over the last 160 odd years, both of these dominant narratives concerning materiality wore themselves out at the end of the 20th century. More recent writing on the topic of materiality borrow from a much broader base — from sociology, philosophy, science, art, education, and anthropology — though the two earlier narrative forms still lurk in the corner, just outside of our peripheral vision.[ii]
This recent discourse that surrounds the concepts of materiality, which some have generically termed ‘The Material Turn’, necessarily includes the voices of artists and educators. The reason for their inclusion is quite simple — we all learn about the world through a tactile experience of the objects that surround us. This is a form of learning that artists of various kinds seem to be particularly seduced by. In addition to this, the teaching practices that have developed within art schools over the last decade or so, make use of what is termed ‘practice led research’ which consists of making, thinking, writing, making, thinking, writing… etc. This has resulted in a generation of artists who possess a language set which is closely linked to that of these other discourse.[iii] It’s historically rare that the voices of artists can exist within such philosophical discourse.
The broad transversal (discursive and fluid) discussion surrounding the shifting relationship that we have with the objects around us often centres on a hand full of concepts; materiality, affect, relationships, power, space, time, performativity, language. Other concepts concerning stillness and movement are also present. It could be argued that one particular element that many of these concepts share is that of ‘attention’. In respect to what is referred to as affect theory — the non-linguistic qualities and associations that we give to materialities and other phenomena, inspired by the writings of Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guatarri (via Brian Massumi) — our attention is either absent or deferred.[iv]
The motif of ‘attention’ is also very much present at the beginning of Jane Bennett’s influential text The Force of Things: Steps towards an Ecology of Matter.[v] Bennett commences her article with a brief introduction concerning her interest in the writings of Henry Thoreau and Michel Foucault, and relationship between the body and materiality within the context of ecologies (relationships), before shifting her discussion to an analogy of a pile of rubbish in a gutter. Bennett gives us the place and the time of day of her observation of the rubbish, then lists the objects that grabbed her attention. She then writes;
‘As I looked at these items, they shimmied back and forth between trash and thing — between, on one hand, stuff to ignore (notably only as a residue of human action and inaction: the litterer’s incivility, the neighbour’s failure to keep the storm drain clear. Sam’s vermin-eradication efforts, the Department of Public Works’ road maintenance schedule) and, on the other hand, stuff that commands attention as vital and alive in its own right, as and existant in excess of its reference to human flaws or projects. This second kind of stuff has thing-power: it commands attention, exudes a kind of dignity, provokes poetry, or inspires fear.’[vi]
Bennett comes back to this simple analogy of rubbish in a gutter a number of times in her article, setting up in the process an interesting relationship between the stillness of the objects (and the analogy as an object) and the fluid movement of her narrative filled with elaboration. The materiality and structure of her writing thus performs something of what it describes — attention given to objects and the relational/ecological (narrative and contextualising) space that surrounds them.
The motif of the stillness of an object within the fluidity of the narrative movement that surrounds it, is a key rationale — both method and methodology (process and overarching intention) behind this exhibition by Jordan Gower. In a fashion that more than does justice to the transversal (fluid) nature of the current discourse surrounding materialities, and to the well-worn but always profoundly significant arts practice of finding meaning in the (still) objects of the everyday, Gower takes a sideways glance to stillness and movement via the cinema of 20th century film maker Yasujiro Ozu. Gower writes;
‘Even though there’s no video work in the exhibition, I find Ozu’s film sequences quite interesting in the way they’re spliced up. Dialogue is interjected and full sequences are made up of inconsequential still life and landscape scenes. For example, a conversation between father and daughter might suddenly cut to a cast-iron kettle boiling over a small flame. The still is not necessarily context driven or reliant, yet we’re forced to understand the characters in the scene through this action. Content of the dialogue is displaced by the object, which we then must scan for information and construct an entirely separate idea about. This I think is an apt analogy for one way in which we go about the world, always shuffling and rearranging our perceptions and intuitions of things.’[vii]
Notions of stillness and movement — the stillness of the material object in relation to the moving mobile gaze of the viewer — are present in a range of discourse concerning materiality. Within cinema in particular, Laura Mulvey’s text Death 24x a Second: stillness and the Moving Image[viii] and Victor Burgin’s The Remembered Film[ix] have paid attention to the materiality of cinema (film) in the digital age, and it’s relation to memory, which is a fundamental element in the production of narrative construction. Burgin in particular is interested in how cinematic narrative is formed through an exposure to the elements of a film (an understanding of genre, filmic technique, stills and advertisements, and their engagement with memory) rather than through a viewing of the film in its entirety.
Quite some time ago, when I was in the first year of my visual arts degree, I was confronted by the wave of isms that have flooded the art world — in particular, post-structuralism. I somewhat simultaneously chanced across a pair of quotes defining both post-structuralism and ‘dependent origination’ (a concept at the heart of Buddhist thought that refers to the interrelatedness of all things), and somehow managed to get them stuck together in my head. The outcome was a definition for post-structuralism that ran something along the lines that the meaning/definition/value that we give to a thing (whatever that thing might be) is formed by the context in which we experience it. In other words, that meaning and identity are contextual and discursive — they change, depending on the context.[x] There’s something of that concept operating at the heart of the relationship between scene and narrative dialogue present within the films by Ozu; and the object and intentionality of Gower.
Gower is quite conscious of the fact that he is making use of material practices and concepts derived from a culture that isn’t his, but which has been incredibly influential on him. He writes in relation to this exhibition;
‘The undercurrent of the work (…) is this obvious Japanese cultural reference, which is most likely a consequence of social climate. It holds course in the fact that access to cultures, or at least aspects of cultures, other than your own has become so vast. It allows me, for example, to look towards another nationality and period, and find something within that cultural sphere that I can make contemporary objects with. It’s not an historical context-based response that gives the objects meaning, rather it’s a dynamic and highly individualised contemporary context that favours ontological exchange. For me it means that finding ideas and objects that resonate with your sense of identity becomes much easier, however it also becomes more difficult as restrictions on circumstantial national and cultural identity broaden.’[xi]
The problem of what might have (rightly) been seen as cultural appropriation by earlier generations of western artists, has become more complex and altered in recent decades through a heightened awareness of the complexity of the process of identity construction. This has come about through a greater acknowledgement of the problematic of appropriation itself on the one hand, and a genuine search for meaning in a world where the material fragments, dispersed like the cinematic elements that Burgin describes, and chanced upon in the unexpected circumstances that Bennett describe, coalesce into hybrid forms of meaning. Things presented to us, like a curious still within a film by Ozu, or a work in an exhibition by Gower, become objects, and alert us to these broader narratives. At the end of the day it is we, the viewer/participant of the object, which gives it its value and significance.
[i] Bill Brown, Thing Theory, Critical Inquiry, vol. 28, no. 1. Things, (Autumn, 2001), pp. 1–22.
[ii] Recent authors of note associated with the discourse of New Materialism are;
· Karen Barad, Posthumanist Performativity: Toward and understanding of how matter comes to matter, Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3
· Estelle Barrett & Barbara Bolt, Carnal Knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ through the Arts, I.B. Tauris, London & New York, 2013
· Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, Durham, 2010
· Tim Ingold, Being Alive; Essays on Movement Knowledge and Description, Routledge, London & New York 2011.
· Bruno Latour, We have never been Modern, Catherine Porter (trans.) Harvard University Press, Cambridge & Massachusetts, 1993.
· John Law, Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics, version of 25th April, 2007, http://www.heterogeneities.net/publications/Law2007ANTandMaterialSemiotics.pdf
[iii] Barrett and Bolt, 2013. See also, Barbara Bolt, Materializing pedagogies. Working Papers in Art and Design 4, (2006)
[iv] Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guatarri, 1000 Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Brian Massumi (trans), Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London, 1987.
See also; Brian Massumi, The Autonomy of Affect, Cultural Critique, no. 31. The Politics of Systems of Environments, Part II (Autumn, 1995). pp.3–109.
For an interesting critique of Affect Theory, see; Claire Hemmings, Invoking Affect Cultural Theory and the Ontological Turn in Cultural Studies, Vol. 19, No. 5, September 2005, Routledge. https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/politicalfeeling/files/2007/12/hemmings-invoking-affect.pdf
[v] Jane Bennett. The Force of Things: Steps towards an Ecology of Matter, Political Theory, vol. 32, no. 3, 2004, pp. 347–372. See also Tim Ingold, 2011.
[vi] Jane Bennett, 2004. p.350
[vii] Jordan Gower, email conversation with the author, 11 January, 2016
[viii] Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a second: Stillness and the Moving Image, Reaktion, London, 2006
[ix] Victor Burgin, The Remembered Film, Reaktion, London, 2004
[x] For a useful definition of Poststructuralism, see; John Lechte, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers; From structuralism to postmodernity, Routledge, London & New York, 1994. See also, Chris Weedon, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory, Blackwell, Oxford & Cambridge (Mass.), 1987.
My understanding of the concept of ‘dependent origination’ is derived from Thomas J. Hopkins, The Hindu Religious Tradition, Dickenson, Encino, California and Belmont, 1971. p.57. ‘…all entities are transient, void of self-existence, dependent on other phenomena that are themselves in flux. This the Buddhists called “dependent origination,” the origination of all phenomena from other transient phenomena and not from a single independent entity…’
It’s worth considering the similarity/difference of this definition of the interrelationship of phenomena, and the contextualised definitions of materiality that Barrett and Bolt use in Carnal Knowledge; Towards a ‘New Materialism’ through the Arts, pp.1–2. Here the authors make use of the physics of Epicurus (341–270 BC), who held that all entities were made up of atoms falling through a void. As the atoms fall, they bump into each other, producing the vibrancy of matter. Quoting George Stack (1998) the author write; Epicurus offers the possibility of active or agential matter. This thread runs from the ancient thought of Democritus thought, through the scientifically based materialist theories of the eighteen and nineteenth century to what is now being called the “material turn” or new materialism. What draws all these theories under the same umbrella “materialism” is an understanding or theory of the world asserting that: all entities and processes, including human beings, “are composed of — or are reducible to — matter, material forces, or processes”.’
Unless I’m mistaken, Barrett and Bolt don’t seem to have provided a complete reference for this quote. I assume however that it comes from;
George J. Stack, (1998), “Materialism”, in Craig, E., Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Luther to Nifo (v. 6), Routledge, 1998. pp.171–172.
[xi] Jordan Gower, email conversation with the author, 11 January, 2016