K B Goel Archives

Speaking of the formal difference, installations are of two types: one is holistic and the other hierarchic. Vivan Sundaram’s approach to his work (seen at Buddha Jayanti complex some time ago) can be described schematically as holistic: which is to say, it is relational. Rimzon’s, on the other hand, is hierarchic; it is non-relational. Non-relational refers to completely symmetrical, totally unaccented parts. In Vivan’s the whole structure is conceived as a single unit: each part stands in relation to other parts. The whole is marked by economy of form and neatness of relationship: even when each unit defines itself by the effect of contrast and the interplay of accented, historical remainders of sculptural form-worlds. Vivan’s work is significant for its drive to simplify sculptural means. There are no traces of extraneous elements: the sculptural experience by itself is enough. Rimzon’s is a conscience- stirring attempt and implies historical experience. It is illuminating when the content of the work is read phenomenologically with an implied assertion that what is exhibited is true history, including the material used. The concept of literalness goes beyond that which “appeals to the eye alone”. What is significant is that literalness is suggestive of an art made possible via self-criticism. Historical experience is constitutive of its formal elements. This is in marked contrast to Michael Fried’s concept of literalness; for Fried defines the literal as one that “appeals to the eye alone”.

“Self-criticism” with Rimzon is only a method - the same method which Merleau-Ponty and others call phenomenological. Such self-criticism, in Merleau-Ponty’s view, is subjective, because it is specific to an individual and thus takes place inside a person. Greenberg thinks that though art can have a self, art per se is an objective thing which stands outside man, thereby committing himself to the idea that there are objective standards because of which art has history. Rimzon, I can imagine, will surely take Merleau-Ponty’s side, and would deny that there can ever be objective standards in judging art, primarily because art is a metaphysical construct. Self-criticism with Rimzon is a mode of phenomenologically oriented self-reflection.

As with most Minimalists formalist considerations are real with Vivan, but they are subordinated to a holistic vision; they become a consequence of the combination of materials used: they call attention to their arbitrariness. Arbitrariness because we are made aware of the fusion of the process and the image-oriented surface: the results are art-like.

While Rimzon’s work demands an etiquette of response, Vivan’s does not, for Vivan consciously subverts any singular reading. He is concerned with the relational logic of the integers that went into the common denominator. What his work demands is silent contemplation of surfaces. And these surfaces project a kind of mental furniture: this aesthetic furniture may mean all things to all men.

Most installations offer something for the eye to hold on to, but Vivan’s and Rimzon’s raise important questions and thus invest themselves in multiplying paradoxes. Yet admittedly there is hardly any aesthetic surprise. Darby Bannart has written (Art Forum, December, 1966) a long time ago that signals are understood for what they want to mean phenomenologically: “As with Pop and Op, the meaning of a Minimal work exists outside of the work itself. It is part of the nature of these works to act as triggers for thought and emotion pre-existing in the viewer…. It may be fair to say that these styles have been nourished by the ubiquitous question: but what does it mean?”…

The question: “but what does it mean?” comes to mind naturally to those who treat meaning in art as context-dependent. The Minimalists are teasers in a manner that brings to mind Duchampian subverting tactics. Greenberg wrote (American Sculpture of the Sixties, 1967): “The Minimalists appears to have realised, finally, that the far-out in itself has to be far-out as an end in itself, and that this means the farthest- out and nothing short of that. They appear to have realised that the most original and farthest-out art of the last hundred years always arrived looking at first as though it had parted company with everything previously known as art”. The farthest-out in art, Greenberg argues, “lay on the borderline between art and non-art”. He adds: “What seems definite is that they (the Minimalists) commit themselves to the third dimension because it is, among other things, a coordinate that art has to share with non-art (as Dada, Duchamp, and others already saw). The ostensible aim of the Minimalists is to “project” objects and an ensemble of objects that are just nudgeable into art.

(Of course painting could never acquire the look of non-art, because the borderline between art and non-art has to be sought in the third dimension where sculpture is, and where everything material that is not art also is. In sculpture, where everything is material, the borderline between art and non-art is very thin, while in painting, the unpainted canvas now states itself as a picture.)

The objects that are just nudgeable into art are readable “as almost anything is today - including a door, a table, or a blank sheet of paper,” writes Greenberg. Readable in terms of Hegelian phenomenology: the independence of an object Hegel argues, “can achieve satisfaction only when the object itself affects the negation within itself.” All this has a Derridean cast of mind. “If I write, “says Derrida, “for example: the water without water, what happens? Or again, a response without a response? The same word and same thing seem withdrawn from themselves, delivered from their reference and their identity, even as they continue to let them pass, in their old bodies, towards something entirely other hidden in them.”…

In Rimzon’s 108 pots, history (of a period) forms the trace of its negation: as objects, they have meaning without meaning, for the negation of Indian history’s wholly other is at work there. In the art historical context of Minimalism, Rimzon’s pots, that are just nudgeable into art, have hidden underneath the apparent richness of image. The meaning of these seemingly (non-art looking) ordinary pots can be grasped only by a detour, not by a Hegelian path but something other than that. Consider Brahmanical nationalism: its offerings are covered by thick “forest paths” that a Heidegger might like to talk about. Their truth without truth, they being art-objects without any traces of artifactuality, offers a moment of retreat from Hegel’s “direct” road to the Absolute: the retreat, however, is no less tortuous, no less prone to pass beyond the terms of the world.

Rimzon’s “non-art” acknowledges as much its explicit dependence on the state-run art apparatus and culture’s rupture and continuity with its tradition. Ifsculpturetodayisdefinedby its place, Rimzon’s seemed out of place, yet his being there was an event - “event” in the negative sense; for it was a show he sought to subvert. It was a “sensible” gesture because it sought to free itself from the very grammar into which all other participants seem to have been caught up. Grammar is essential to the art of installations, because they run the risk of being taken to be tokens of non-art; if they fail, it is the failure of grammatology, because their success is to be understood on basis of their openness to non-art.

The openness to non-art is not abstract; it is too subtle and too dispersed in its ramifications. It has been there with a select brand of Pop artists in America, though they are not a group. In Pop art objectified subject matter is embraced in its banality (comic strips, hamburgers, movie stars). Not without logic or reason, the elements of non-art are incorporated as if these have grown naturally in an impersonal non-aesthetic way. Perhaps because Pop artists depended on the “idea”, the sources of motivation were sought outside art, for the objectified image demanded that it retain its memory of original referent. When the referent is singled out by description in the initiating event it is convenient to represent it: such works embrace infallibility, for nothing in them is false.

The objectified image has a built-in obsolescence, not very different from geometric forms and of the grid, circular or squared organisation. It requires a style characterised by the anonymity which is at the heart of the camera’s candid image. Maximum control is demanded; for as a style, it has to satisfy all its pretensions.

The dream of the heart of Rimzon’s use of pots is to bring into focus an ancient hope - the hope for a language which can receive no gloss, requires no interpretation, cannot be distanced, since the historical event associated with the work cannot be sneered at by his detractors. It is the hope for a vocabulary which is by its very definition self-evidently final.

Rimzon and Vivan bring out the contrast between the way of truth and the way of opinion; between one proper vocabulary and many pseudo-vocabularies. While Rimzon strives for an honest, non-nonsense, unadulterated experience of his art and seeks some sort of intentional anonymity, Vivan is restlessly involved with structuralist aspects of the material that are not blind to cultural information. The assumption is that information lends meaning to structures and concepts lend meaning to information.

For this reason a set of associated descriptions make demands on substantive concepts; he seemed to be plunged into what may inaccurately but for reasons of over simplification be described as “difficulties” of translation. (Translation is not the word: it oversimplifies to the point of absurdity; it is wrong because the structural units and other pieces that go into making his holistic vision are easily conceptualized - that is, understood. But looking at them denies rather than confirms this concept. Since they are to be understood as a dialogue between a whole and its parts, or as a system of relationships, or as a perceptual proposition, the work is not a translation.)

The set of associated descriptions does not mean that they are sculptural objects defined, as all objects are defined, by the third dimension. If they are objects, they are of the kind phenomenologist talk about. Objects in Vivan’s sculpture attempt to turn their visual grammar (which is very akin to what philosophers since Husserl have been saying verbally) into phenomenology as the basis of aesthetic experience of these objects. Criticism can say nothing except to play one against the other. What is possible is a detour, not the fantasy-effect of leading the viewer to a clearer view of the path; rather, in most cases, it blocks the view. Criticism, in relation to constructing Vivan’s phenomenological intention governing his work, functions precisely as it’s unthought, as the condition of possibility and the self-subversive psychological bind. The viewer may justifiably ask: why is there criticism rather than silent admiration?

The answer is simple: that criticism, or the activity of criticism, comes too late. In fact, from the beginning it is gratuitous because the condition of its origin is temporal, which means the priority of the work over the critic. The truth that criticism obtains is but the measure of its failure. It means its own self-dismantling: the dismantling “frame of reference” is similar to that of phenomenology.

We imagine that we have perceptions in much the same way we image that we “have” a body. Perception, we forget, is a metaphysical construct, a form of metaphysics of presence, a particular mode of “looking” at a thing. That is implicit in the Derridean style of doing philosophy.

We tend to believe that perception is an activity that goes on inside a “cognizing subject.” The next step is that we confuse this with an epistemological subject. Being directly conscious of its own inner states, this subject tends to form a mental picture. A representation of what exists outside itself comes to mind and we form a mental copy of the so-called external world. Perception in phenomenology is the name for a non-concept because, for empiricism, perception is an objective event in nature: it is the causal action of a physical thing, and as sensation it is the internal registering of this action. And those who believe that there is no ”subject” who perceives, that perception is an objective event occurring within empirical reality itself, look for a naturalistic account: and when they fail they invent a robot-like duplicate within its subjectless self for “ external world”. A long-held, agreed on view of perception is that it is essentially a subjective activity -an activity of the transcendental ego.

Vivan’s world is purged of “inessentials”: because of it closer scrutiny is required to “see” it. As with painting when it is purged of all of its representational elements, it becomes the wall, so it is with Vivan’s sculpture: it becomes in its totality mere exterior space. The elaboration of vitality affects. Sensations and aesthetic surfaces retain, however, the systematic relational paradigm. The relational paradigm is indispensable because the ambivalence of the subject and the ambiguity of the object are not structured in a way that is capable of serving a communicable thought. There is another reason why it is so: the Postmodern is committed to, has rather a penchant for desacralization of the object in the name of pure exteriority; and in Vivan it re-emerges from analysis. It is without substance, for the experience of the sculpted surface is diluted into the literality (which Michael Fried calls theatricality) of decentred space: as space, it demands projection onto a relational screen. As parts, as experience of the self (or subject) andtheobject,acognitivecorrelation is a necessary condition to bring the two together.

With Rimzon, there is a historical divide between process and product: the “superstructure” works in another non-relational way, for the relational can always be substitute by both presence and absence; by shifting fields of discourse, by “verbal artifacts”, one kind of discourse is substituted by another with totally different effect. The effect is mediated by language-like structure, in the same way as the individual is held to be “socialised” by language. Rimzon mirrors the dilemma of relativism.

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