Dirk Bell (2011) Art Review, London, Issue 49 (April). P.113.
From a pragmatist point of view, there sometimes seems to be a void between what artists apparently do and what writers say they do. For an example relating to Berlin based artist Dirk Bell, take the following statement that his work, “explores the enduring tussle between love and freedom, along with the universal structures that shape and control our societies” while “our attention is drawn to the immensity of the universe, the overwhelming power of nature and of the sublime.”
I’m standing looking at a dubious painting of a Blue Eye, 2011, a large welded star with lights inside and attached to a computer game (Merkaba, 2011), and some welded sculptures, one containing the letters of the words ‘Free’ and ‘Love’ ( FREELOVE, 2010). Still playing the pragmatist I will assert the following: 1) I don’t subscribe to the notion that ‘structures’ underlie ‘society’ and if I did I couldn’t see more than a peculiarly art-world construction of society here. 2) I don’t know how to turn my attention to the ‘immensity of the universe’– though I could ‘gawp’ as if sensing something ineffable. 3) I feel uncomfortable with the concept of the sublime.
Dirk Bell, initially working in painting, intentionally animates romantic themes and evokes an archaic mysticism, but problems arise when contemporary accounts of his practice exude a mysticism of their own. To take a critical stance, in the spirit of Jacques Ranciere, might we not ask if the vague language I’ve quoted actually belies a very certain prescription for how viewers are supposed to relate to this work? In this relation, reason is supposed to be supplanted at the point where the artwork takes over, at which point the viewer must presumably gawp as if (or actually?) sensing something ineffable.
A Merkaba, the title of what is undoubtedly an iconic sculpture, is a divine light vehicle from modern esoteric teachings and related to meditation. In the computer game linked to this sculpture you navigate, in first person, a 3D environment where you can knock over representations of Bell’s sculptures, making an ominous clamour facilitated by a subwoofer. You attempt to balance ‘love’ and ‘freedom’. Another sculpture in the exhibition, Phedra, 2011, is an open door with a crystal and basin behind it. On the door, wiped out of the dirt, is the image of a classically apportioned female form, perhaps relating to Phaedra, a mythical character who concocted a story of rape in order to exact revenge on one who spurned her love. At the level of description, before we prescribe relationships to it, there is reason to be interested here. It’s brave to mine mysticism and romanticism in the light of postmodernism and it is no surprise that it has caused critical problems given the censure of both terms. So, perhaps the success of Bell’s work is that it appeals to us to work out a better way of analysing these themes within contemporary art. As yet however, this appeal might just be a background noise.