Minimalism: on things and objects…

“What if I were a UFOnaut”, asks an enthusiastic voice, “and I want to just leave something here on this planet that those people call earth?” The voice is that of Californian Minimalist artist John McCracken in a video accompanying the first ever solo showing of his work in the United Kingdom. Though it might at first seem like a ‘far-out’ question that should be attributed to McCracken’s own eccentricity, it actually makes a lot of sense in relation to Minimalism. Let me explain.

John McCracken (2009) From Hauser & Worth

In the 1960s when Minimalism emerged as a movement it seemed to threaten a long standing conviction that artworks were a special type of ‘object’ that possessed something distinct from the physical world of ‘things’. And here, let me illustrate the difference between an ‘object’ and a ‘thing’. On one hand the pencil on your desk is an ‘object’ in the sense that it has a specific function, it is an object that makes marks, but on the other hand it could be considered to be a ‘thing’ because it is also a small physical form that might both physically assert itself (you may accidently prick your finger on it) and also be unexpectedly suggestive to the imagination in lots of ways at once (is it a dart, it looks like a space rocket, something to chew for comfort, perhaps a sign of times past, of letter writing – a connection to home?) . Here I’m being careful to use the terms ‘object’ and ‘thing’ accurately in a contemporary sense, but confusingly the quality of what I have here described as a ‘thing’ (ambiguity and possibility) was termed ‘objecthood’ at the time. The sense of play evoked by a ‘thing’ was termed ‘theatricality’. Those who considered Minimalism to be a threat to Modern Art thought that a work of Art should subsume its ‘objecthood’ and that it should be opposed to ‘theatricality’. So, although Modern Art placed an emphasis upon a self-criticism of any particular medium, the paint on the canvas was intended to engage the viewer in a particularly prescribed fashion. Aesthetic experience was protected where possible against the thing’s other possible resonances.

John McCracken (2009) Inverlieth House Installation View.  From left to right:  Guardian (detail) (1995); Emissary (2002);  Ray (2002)

Compare that attitude to McCracken’s. He says that he likes the idea of timelessness in his work, that he likes his work to seem as if it’s come from a far off place or time. He likes people to imagine “a strangeness” and he likes it because “that’s someone’s perception”. He continues, “The word ‘being’ for me characterises what I try to get. ‘Being’. Something has being.” Another term he likes is ‘Presence’. ‘Strangeness’, ‘Being’ and ‘Presence’ all seem so evocative of ‘things’, which are so hard to grasp. It is the difficult material reality of things, which really underwrites our ideas and ‘objects’, that McCracken was connecting with. Here I’d like to take two short detours.

In 1966 the artist Tony Smith famously recounted a road trip to the New Jersey Turnpike with three of his students. In an awestruck statement, reminiscent of some of the Beat writers’ reverie and wonder at the ‘strangeness’ of the world, Smith found himself moved by the manufactured landscape. Driving through the darkness, the vastness of this ‘monument’ seemed to suggest a kind of reality “which had not had any expression in art”. This vision (though sensation might be a better word) would inspire the artists connected to Minimalism: Expansive, timeless and uncontainable…

Picture now a number of apes sleeping. One awakes and alerts its companions. They discover and then become mesmerised and yet aggravated by a black geometric form. There is a swell of sound, a sense of the thing’s ‘otherness’. Choral voices emanate as if from some timeless plane. Then later the same Geometric form is dug up on the moon. We encounter it with a group of spacemen who intend having their photograph taken in front it, but it somehow resists and the omnipresent sound-scape reaches a nauseating climax. This is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Oddessy (1968) including György Ligeti’s astonishing ‘music’. And the Monolith: eternally black and smooth. How else could we describe its riveting function in this film? Doesn’t it exude a ‘Strangeness’, a ‘Being’, a ‘Presence’? Is this more than coincidence?

Stanley Kubrick (1968) 2001: A Space Odyssey

Walking around McCracken’s work in Edinburgh’s Inverleith House, including pieces entitled Spaceway (1991), Ray (2002) and Stardust (2006), I can’t help but hum in a Ligeti kind of way. McCracken mentions 2001: A Space Odyssey on the video just before asking the question about UFOnauts – he speculates that his work might have influenced the Monolith, but who knows. Walking around I could describe McCracken’s work as if it were a group of objects, “there’s a shiny black cuboid, there’s a beautifully rich cherry red cuboid mounted horizontally above head height with a corner cut off”. I could also tell you that his work is handmade with layers and layers of resin on plywood, polished to perfection, but I hope you’re starting to realise that none of this would be enough. McCracken’s ‘sculpture’, like the best Minimalist art, isn’t really about ‘objects’ as was the Art that preceded it, it’s about something more mysterious and obvious at the same time, it’s about ‘things’. So, when McCracken thinks back to some of his older works, where black ‘planks’ lean against the wall, he’s says, holding his hand out at an angle, that it “goes kind of up like that into heaven. Into Infinity. Into the galaxy or the universe or whatever”. It is not contained by our conventional sense of space.
The language McCracken uses, and even the allusions to Science Fiction and Star Trek, might not sound immediately convincing; they might not be easily ‘appreciated’ in an academic sense. But actually, they seem pretty good at describing a complex part of our experience that a lot of art forms and art critics overlooked, and still do. Minimalism, we are reminded, was after-all a space age art form. But perhaps even more importantly, we are reminded that however tangible our ideas and objects might seem to be, the material world leaves us with nothing more, or less, than an enigmatic series of sensations.

January 6th, 2010 | James Clegg | Categories: Ideas | Comments: No Comments

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