Deborah Meadows:
Phantom Geography

  Deborah Meadows

  Phantom Geography

  (What I’m Reading)


Paragraph 1 follows:

The mysterious ninth planet, artist's impression, courtesy
The mysterious ninth planet, artist’s impression, courtesy
Hal Foster’s MOCA talk on October 1, 2015 led me to his newest book and encouraged me to pick up the much older collected essays by Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood (The University of Chicago Press, 1998). Hal Foster mentioned Fried as a marker of his generation of art critics. Although I have read both authors over the years in October, and though I have read Foster’s earlier books, these two works gave me a new take on ideas I am exploring now. One of the earliest, smart explicators of Stella, Olitski, Noland, and others of that moment, Fried interests me, as does the passage of time since the late 90s publication.



Fried’s title essay explores the presence, even somatic obstacle, of art’s objecthood as theatrical, asserting ‘art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theater’ (he references Brecht and Artaud), a feature he sees as bringing together Judd, Morris, Sol LeWitt, Cornell, Smithson, Kienholz, Flavin, etc., as a turn in consciousness, in what art had been and can be.


There’s more, including Tony Smith’s on ‘we continue to read it [sculpted cube],’ and Smith’s account of driving the unfinished NJ Turnpike extended by Fried here, really wonderful, as ‘…empty’, or ‘abandoned,’ situations? —And what was Smith’s experience if not the experience of what I have been calling theater?… only without the object, that is, without the art itself — as though the object is needed only within a room…’ I could be wrong, but it seems Fried does not use the word melancholy nor does Foster until he approaches the ‘emergency’ of our neoliberal present.

Michael Fried, photograph by Tiffany Oelfke
Michael Fried, photograph by Tiffany Oelfke



Fried’s long introductory autobiographical essay is positioned from a later time, a backward weighing out of: childhood initiation into painting, friendship with classmate Frank Stella, influence and meeting with the older Clement Greenberg, and deflections from Fried’s university program parameters, location, and narrow categories, his naming his most productive years, and his knowing affection for complexities, intellectual encounter over time. His ideas on theatricality vs. absorption as an approach to painting, his thrill with Caro’s sculpture, and his study of perception have more facets than a person might expect, yes.


‘Art and Objecthood’ first appeared in Artforum 5 (June 1967), and by the 2015 publication date of Hal Foster’s Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, and Emergency, Foster would like us not to lose sense of agon, historic moment in art production and reception, not to forget and slip to mere technique (that may be unearned if not forgetful of what the historic struggle scraped against?), insufficient to our neoliberal emergency. He writes, ‘Thomas Hirschhorn builds not from the good old days but from the bad new ones, as Brecht urged us all to do.’ I am reminded of experimental poets from a similar stretch of time as well as the more recent work of Kaia Sand and Jules Boykoff in their Landscapes and Dissent: Guerilla Poetry and Public Space.


Some works, including recent museum replays of 60s and 70s performance art, Foster critiques as ‘zombie’ time, disconnected holograms. His book sets out practices of recent art: abject, archival, mimetic, precarious, and he advances heterogeneity of art as lively practices (not divergence that is so problematic it defeats historic analysis), and at times, heterogeneity of art is the subject of today’s art. His ideas interest me, and he makes a generative claim for ‘a making over of formlessness into form’ anew, and for ‘surviving the conservative critics’ take-over, their “troubling” of critique as well as some artists’, perhaps misapplied, attempts at democratic inclusion, or authorial participation through incompletion, to write:


Why take up the bedraggled banner of critique now? … criticism is essential to the public sphere, at least how this notion was articulated by Jürgen Habermas in 1962 and developed thereafter. In some ways criticism is this sphere in operation. … social integration is not required if system integration is achieved, and with routine surveillance and big data that goal seems all but met.


In exploring Foster’s proposed ‘formal resistance,’ I question what happens when artists might take a path where they are not alternately dismissed as sociological or aestheticist; a path, Foster writes, that is other than where ‘the anticipated resolution of “social” and “art” breaks down almost before it is posed.’

The poet Reina Maria Rodriguez. La Habane 1996. Courtesy © Francesco Gattoni
The poet Reina Maria Rodriguez. La Habane 1996. Courtesy © Francesco Gattoni


With special fondness for Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez (whom I was able to visit four times in her azotea in Havana) I come to the translations by Kristin Dykstra of Reina’s book Other Letters to Milena with those visits and conversations in mind. As an intended echo of Kafka’s letters, Reina María Rodríguez addresses her daughter she named ‘Milena’ in a cross-genre work that includes book reviews that slip into elegies for the dead: her father, brother, cat, youth, the exiled Cuban poet Padilla, and dead Russian poets. (Note: Heberto Padilla, Cuba’s foremost poet, an early supporter of Fidel Castro and later one of his fiercest critics, died in September 2000 in Alabama, where he was a visiting professor at Auburn University. He was 68. J.T. 2015)


From Akhmatova she quotes in her culminating grip on remaining in a place when so many depart to form the larger diaspora: ‘We have not deflected from ourselves / One single stroke. …there is no people on earth more tearless / More simple and more full of pride.’ Poems explore her daughter’s childhood fears of entering an ocean’s mysterious and possibly sinister depths, and these fears flicker with those of spies in Kafka’s Vienna, in this poet’s Havana, or in St. Petersburg where it was impossible to bury Akhmatova without bureaucratic delay, a darkness that ripples beneath a solemn sunny place of a particular sensibility and moment. In the extraordinary, philosophic piece entitled ‘The Girl’s Story,’ we read:


… But that stillness, and the austerity of misery which cuts metaphysics out of everything: will I be able to bear them? I want to flee my memory and leap out of my human impossibility, until I’m worn down by this fact that everything can happen without transcendence (because I wanted to give this hardware store of words called ‘literature’ a purpose for existing, and it deceived me too.) And among tunnels I put on other identities. I flee through the black hole of simulacrum, sweeten the word, discourse, passion.


Simon Critchley’s The Book of Dead Philosophers approaches finitude and lives, he writes, in echo of ‘lives of saints’ — some philosophers are saintly, others sinister. Does how one dies fail to explain the life, or does it express a reasoned, philosophic extension? He notes there are too few women in the history of philosophy, and finds that lives of some of the Continental philosophers fascinate us in ways that perhaps the lives of Analytic philosophers might not. Yes, and I think of exceptions even so. A field distribution across centuries: philosophic pursuit, desire, and critique of political order find a way — working class thinkers, too, not only the reserve of aristocrats.


Wikipedia: 1967 U.S. postage stamp honoring Thoreau, designed by Leonard Baskin
Wikipedia: 1967 U.S. postage stamp honoring Thoreau, designed by Leonard Baskin
Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, in part, honors a dead brother by crossing fiction and life-writing to create a portrait of a particular sensibility and political moment on the cusp of the First World War constellated through an unusually beautiful young man. Somehow, I wonder how this impossible literature — for a missing brother — is taken up (failed?) by Henry David Thoreau’s intentions with A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, then later in Walden, where he lived while revising Week, a tribute to his recently deceased brother. Then again, by Jack Kerouac in On the Road — not Jacob’s tour to Rome and other continental cities but wide-awake displacement that travel offers.


I attended Philippe Quesne’s performance of ‘La Mélancolie des Dragons’ on September 24, 2015 at RedCat and thoroughly enjoyed this absurdist parody of culture making: the romantic landscape tradition of Humboldt, Caspar David Friedrich, etc. in a vacant but ladder-mounted view offered a ‘panorama,’ then a spoof on a ‘library’ of influences, the enormous inflatable rectangular black pillows as dragons, or their portable melancholy? While Isabelle, an interloper to the scene of a broken down car that belongs to a crew of hard rock enthusiasts (are we to think of CalArts faculty and students, a spoof on their curriculum throughout?) who are determined to open an amusement park from a collapsible set of trashy props, is invited to the seemingly empty traveling caravan and shown a sparse collection of, was it four or five?, books of theory.


From the Stage Show by Phillipe Quesne
From the Stage Show by Phillipe Quesne
After a quick glance she (like the average student-reader?) flees the library for sports, skiing. Skiing is soon followed a satirical rendering of so-called dance choreography. Here, the performers need her, they say, for ‘feedback’. Then there are other degraded takes on stale culture-speak (elements of water, air, bubbles as ‘both air and water’, fire, earth), that visual art has requisite ‘image and text’ that here reads on the laptop projector screen as ‘Amusement Park: Coming Soon,’ followed by a Renaissance-era recorder version of a Scorpions song.


Here is play between vacancy and arrows that point to missing abundance, plus the entire set was sprayed with artificial snow. Would that car ever be able to run? Isabelle can fit completely into and disappear under the hood. The Vivarium / terrarium aspect of their theatre wagon reminded me of those old Shakespearean wagons that travelled outside London when the Plague was at its height that, in this performance, houses the ‘invisible man’ in an artificial environment suitable for plant growth, or maybe for Pierre Huyghe’s post-apocalyptic insects climbing beneath an aquarium-sized Levitated Mass? Would Hal Foster perhaps see ‘La Mélancolie des Dragons’ as an example of ‘mimetic exacerbation’? That is, as a practice about which he writes: ‘If any avant-garde is relevant to our time, it is this one.’ Yes and I’m not sure.

A still from the Meadows play "Some Cars"... the bear tableau.
A still from the Meadows play “Some Cars”… the bear tableau.



I encountered ‘Notes on Metamodernism’ by Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker that I found sympathetic to ideas in my play ‘Some Cars’ produced at MorYork Gallery, Los Angeles, (October 29, 2015) and expressive of how it was directed by Juli Crockett. I excerpt it here:


Ontologically, metamodernism oscillates between the modern and the postmodern. It oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naïveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity. Indeed, by oscillating to and fro or back and forth, the metamodern negotiates between the modern and the postmodern. One should be careful not to think of this oscillation as a balance however; rather, it is a pendulum swinging between 2, 3, 5, 10, innumerable poles. Each time the metamodern enthusiasm swings toward fanaticism, gravity pulls it back toward irony; the moment its irony sways toward apathy, gravity pulls it back toward enthusiasm.

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