In January, Mona Foma came to Launceston. The town was equally suspicious and excited by the possibilities it might bring. The centrepiece was a huge sculpture floating in the town’s Cataract Gorge. Amanda Parer’s ‘Man’ is an homage to Auguste Rodin's ‘The Thinker’, but bloated, huge and white, propped up on a pontoon with guy ropes, twelve-metres high and doubled over in either thought or gut-pain. It is a kind of cruel look at an unfit man attempting deep thought but instead just managing to float on the surface of it. Then some local teenagers got to swinging on the ropes and a strong wind came along, and the whole thing came down. ‘Man’ was deflated.
The community Facebook group Chit Chat Launceston was furious. “The bogans wrecked it,” they said. “This is why we can’t have nice things,” etc.
I looked out over the flailing, deflating gut of Contemporary Art and felt a powerful sense of what César Aira would call whatever. If anything I was more interested now. When an artwork exists in the real world it accepts the consequences, and those consequences become part of the life of the work. “From the moment the work doesn’t close itself up as a product, it can incorporate everything around it,” Aira says in this slim book, On Contemporary Art. Can and should.
On Contemporary Art by the Argentine novelist and essayist is a single essay in book form, the kind bookstores sell from a display on the counter. Inside is a tight little maze of ideas and mental drawings around the amorphous idea of contemporary art. It’s called On Contemporary Art but really it’s about writing about contemporary art. Capturing it. Reproducing it.
Aira is an avid reader of art magazines like Artforum, and is concerned that the increasingly experiential nature of contemporary art makes for some drab pictures. Contemporary art isn’t like the old art, which you could comfortably photograph, put in a book, and pack away in a box called something like Cubism or Impressionism. Try to photograph it and you get “screens that show blurry images, empty galleries, a woman sitting at a table…a cocktail, an office”.
Aira casts around for a glib definition of whatever ‘contemporary art’ might be, and finds a few: “The not-done”, that is to say, art in which the essence remains conceptual rather than physical; the aforementioned ‘whatever’, by which anything goes; and my favourite “A smooth and flat realisation of the present”.
The ‘Man’ incident happened before I read this book, so the sense of whatever I felt remained unnamed at the time. I was in Launceston to review it for Broadsheet. My job as an arts journalist is to look at art, talk about it and then share my thoughts, alongside some photos, in a magazine mostly known for coffee reviews. I've got no formal training in art. I was brought up to be sceptical of it, if anything. So it’s a personal experience for me, between me and the art and the reader and, often, in a roundabout way, the artist. My phone is full of the reproductions Aira mentions: blurry photographs of rooms, framed paintings, a sculpture; videos of videos; and notes describing in simple terms what I’m looking at. “A fine polythene sheet, light refracting through it. Gently rippling,” says one. “A mirror-ball motor spins a kind of mobile with LEDs on it. Through a one-way mirror the brain mixes green and magenta into off-white.”
This is my experience of contemporary art. What does it look like, feel like? “You can not photograph a concept,” Aira writes, “but the text that explains it would also lack something, and something fundamental: it would lack that constellation of possible stories that glides over the naked photo. And the combination of photo and text, in a paradoxical downshifting, would be even more lacking.”
In this understanding, the text beside a work, or the text describing it, is intrinsic. Literature, Aira thinks aloud a few times, might be the answer. Critics and curators are the “seasoned ventriloquists” capable of drawing something tangible out of the works. I’m hardly a seasoned ventriloquist. Like a lot of art writers I want to be an artist myself—the words kind—and I’m occasionally slightly resentful that so much of what I write exists just on the periphery of other people’s art, barely jottings in the margins.
This hand-wringing, this inability to cut myself out of where I sit with the work, is part of ‘contemporary art’. Aira talks about being in the room with contemporary art, and how intrinsic that is. Once you’re out of the room; and the work is out of the room, it may as well not have existed. The art books (catalogues are never to be reprinted, as he mentions a few times) and the art magazines are now inadequate at capturing the now of contemporary art, and it worries him.
For a writer concerned with keeping up with the present, Aira certainly talks about the past a lot. His points of reference are consistently conservative ones. Aira consistently uses the pronoun ‘she’ for the hypothetical artist, yet he never once refers to an actual woman. Though “historical perspective has vanished and values are in permanent gestation” and “the installation of the contemporary implies a negation of History, at least history as a provider of biographical myths,” the only specific artists he discusses are long-dead – whether he’s recalling a great witty thing Magritte once did, or the mutual admiration between Dali and Duchamp, or the practice of nineteenth-century Baroque painter Nicolas Poussin, the past is everywhere. In Aira’s smooth flat present, yesterday’s art is ploughing through, with a dead European man at the wheel.
A few weeks ago I covered Christian Marclay’s ‘The Clock’, a twenty-four-hour looping film assembled from clips of hundreds of existing films. It’s contemporary art, and it’s intrinsically about ‘now’, but also about ‘then’, and several other abstract spots in time. Each clip directly references the time, and is synced to the actual time. It’s Aira’s “document, written in code, of a story of experience, nostalgia, hallucination”. Marclay offers us cinema as a vast, mad machine, and posits that it’s all happening NOW. Back to the Future, The Bride Wore Black, Office Space, are all are happening now, and we’re invited to peer in at this long, flat present, built from scraps of the past. It makes the present feel like a place. Photographing that is futile, and impossible.
After describing the detailed working process of Poussin, Aira adds: “The painted picture at the end is merely the visible testament to the mad solitary machine that moves around inside artistic activity.” But an obsession with reproduction is inherently contradictory.
Last year, the NGV restaged the 1968 colour field painting and abstract sculpture show The Field for its fiftieth anniversary. The promotion focused on how controversial it had been at the time, and how faithful this replica would be. Battered artworks were pulled from storage and restored. Destroyed artworks were recreated, or represented by black and white prints. Similar silver foil adorned the walls. The catalogue was reprinted, complete with inadequate, black-and-white reproductions of the work. A famous photo of the empty gallery space with a pair of feet poking out from behind a wall was recreated, with my feet, because I was there at the time. It was an oddly futile gesture, a strange step backwards to a time when a show consisting of almost exclusively male artists wasn’t a deeply weird and uncomfortable fit in the Melbourne art landscape. This was a replica, as perfect a replica as possible, all but for the now. The now had passed, and the work had lived on, or hadn’t, in the case of one destroyed in an incinerator and another couple lost to house fires, and this was an attempt to roll back the whatever.
I ask simple questions when I talk to artists. Hopefully it means I get simple answers. One contemporary artist I interviewed, a popular one who’s exhibited all over the world and whose work has a kind of whatever energy to it, refused to be drawn on any discussion of their work. Why, I asked, does your own face appear repeatedly? “Because I have easy access to the model,” they told me. Why this shoddy construction, this scrappy rejection of technique? “I’m not very good at it, and I don’t care all that much,” they said. “The physical quality of the work is irrelevant to what I’m doing.” But, I said, it won’t last. “That doesn’t bother me at all. Once it’s out of the studio, it’s out.”
(Ping Aira: “It’s not necessary to do art well – and making an effort to do so is a lamentable waste of time.”)
Months later, I saw the artist again. I told I’d just seen one of their mannequin-like sculptures in the home of an eccentric private collector in Auckland. It was in the basement, by the wine cellar, propped up in a deck chair, one arm detached and discarded on the dirt floor. “This is the infirmary,” the collector’s assistant joked. The artist looked crestfallen. I thought that this was the total realisation of whatever. The artwork was continuing to exist in the ongoing present, living on outside of the white-walled gallery. That the artist was upset revealed a sentimental relationship with the work, one in which the artist wanted it preserved as a still monument to the moment of creation.
Aira never makes it particularly clear why reproduction is a concern to him. Today, art which actively invites photography and reproduction draws suspicion – how often are visually striking shows at major galleries criticised as Instagram-fodder? It’s the act of reproduction itself that ties an artwork to the past, to the sentimental.
I got a pretty severe sunburn that afternoon in the Launceston Gorge, looking out over Amanda Parer’s ‘Man’, watching it exist now, as technicians slowly reinflated it. Later, I swam out to the pontoon where ‘Man’ sat. There was a sign: “please don’t climb on the pontoon or the man.”
As Aira says, “everything should be allowed so that what arises out of that everything has the liberating value we should demand of art”. Early in the book, Aira presents an image, or a daydream, of burning down the Prado and MoMA, being “finally released from the burden of that grab bag full of trinkets”. But the burden is one of attempting to hold the contemporary in place long enough to shake a truth from it. If we take away that insistence on recording the present faithfully, we can merely look at it. We can be in the contemporary, and be complicit in constructing the next now, or the next.
But at the same time, if MoMA burns, I’ll be taking notes, and I’ll probably take a few blurry photos too.
Will Cox writes about art and film in Broadsheet every week, and various other places occasionally, including Big Issue, The Saturday Paper and Vault. His first novel is on the way. He tweets: @dazzleships.