Strange Art for Strange Times: Metaphors for Subobjectivity

41d1X53hEKLI had an inspiring couple of hours in Modern Art Oxford last week. First of all there was the Documenting Cadere show, which throws up some interesting art-historical questions regarding the documentation of performance art and the significance of Cadere’s practice to contemporary discourse on art and the politics of space. But what was most satisfying about the visit for me was the sale on old art catalogues that was happening in the shop.

Amongst the piles was Registration Marks: Metaphors for Subobjectivity, a catalogue from 1992 that accompanied an exhibition of paintings by Adam Lowe at the Pomeroy Purdy Gallery. It includes essays from Adrian Cussins, Brian Cantwell Smith and Bruno Latour and is a product of intense discussions between these diverse adademic writers and Lowe regarding “how we register a world…where we can no longer assume as given edges, boundaries, objects and truth.” Marina Warner cites this catalogue in the bibliography for her book Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media in the Twenty-First Century. This is the earliest publication I have come across that documents such interdisciplinary conversations regarding new approaches to objectivity from the end of modernity.

As for the “Metaphors for Subobjectivity”, I found the majority of the metaphors used to describe such abstract ideas a little far-fetched, awkward or tenuous (or sometimes just corny). The collection of paintings entitled  The Verso Paintings are the result of a process whereby the artist used a technique of relief printing to add and expose different layers in the canvas. These are the various “registration marks” referred to in the first half of the catalogue’s title. It is also difficult to ascertain to what extent Lowe’s paintings are in fact a parallel investigation, in a physical and visual language, to the concerns of these theorists from looking at these catalogue reproductions of the paintings alone.

When the metaphors do deliver the goods however it makes for exciting reading. What I found makes this catalogue so interesting is the degree of enthusiasm from all the contributors, working together in a still-emerging field of research. “This catalogue represents an opening move, not an end-game,” writes Lowe. Freed up from the burden of academic qualifications in their individual disciplines, the writers are permitted to pursue more experimental, rhetorical language that makes this an enjoyable read. “We sediment out as individuals and communities,” writes Cantwell Smith, “in virtue of the blends of connection and disconnection that endlessly well up and subside.”

Here we see Bruno Latour setting out his ideas of “irreduction” and the “non-modern” that would be published in more detail in his essay We Have Never Been Modern in the same year.

We might have another choice between moderns and antimoderns. Time might have never flowed in an orderly manner after all. Radical revolutions demoting for ever the past might never have occurred at all. We live in a strange time. Everything seems worn out, everywhere commanded by the jaded. But still there exist many people who have the fresh feeling of living in a renaissance. The world is so old that there is nothing new to paint, to write or to sing, and it is so young crisp that we seem not to have even started. After having fought the tyranny of religion, that of science, that of academicism, that of patronage and than that of their own free wills, the completely autonomised and completely emptied arts suddenly grasp again at the most forbidden of all fruits, reality.

How should this new non-modern reality appear? Latour offers an oblique manifesto for the non-modern by way of conclusion:

Is it possible to paint without imitating the apparent synthesis of the past, without fighting against the supposed tyrany of scientific representation, without reproducing in a nostalgic or symbolic way the re-presentation of religion? Such a painting would not fight for autonomy – since autonomisation has ended its historical course into nothingness – but it would not be subservient either – since the patronage of the pious had disappeared along with the dictats of the cognoscente. Such a painting would not evade objectivity but would attempt at grasping the many other ways in which objects are slowly produced – and the classic representation so beautifully illustrated by Velasquez’s Meninas (as commented Foucault) would become only one of the many degrees of subobjectivity. It would be realist but the shape of reality would appear strange since, once the tyranny of the philosophy of science was removed, many other intermediary stages would become visible. It would be religious but none of the traditional characters of past religion would be visible since new mediators would appear that would recreate here and now the re-presentation of presence – and not by alluding to the figuration of angels, virgins and Christs. Strange painting indeed since it would regrasp and retackle all the things that artists have learned in schools and in studios to despise and hate: reality, science, religion, tradition, heteronomy! And nevertheless it would have no direct affiliation with the figuration of the past. Non-modern would that painting be.

Strange art for strange times; the idea is confusing and yet somewhat confirming. It registers an impetus to look at the world again, to mix things up and look at it differently.