Mystics or Rationalists? (2011) Art Monthly, London, Issue 350 (October), Pp. 26-27.
The question asked by this exhibition seems intentionally impulsive, its brevity a well-judged nudge to make you feel uncomfortable with the dichotomy it supposes. The Enlightenment drove a wedge between mysticism and rationalism that no longer seems desirable and in fact seems most associated with more reactionary groups such as the ‘New Atheists’, who paint a fairly black and white picture of things. More complex descriptions of science, which was at the heart of the Enlightenment, see mysticism and rationalism less as natural opposites and more as the result of political struggle. As philosopher John Gray writes in Straw Dogs, ‘Modern science triumphed over its adversaries not through its superior rationality but because its late medieval and early-modern founders were more skilful in the use of rhetoric and the arts of politics.’
The most prominent conceptual artists of the 1960s certainly possessed such skills. Self promotion and marketing were essential ingredients of an art radically opposed to traditional proficiency, aesthetics and an art demonstrating ambivalence to the production of physical and saleable objects. Seth Siegelaub, dealer and curator, tirelessly promoted artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry, Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner and Carl Andre, whose ‘signatures’ became more and more tied up with the value of their work. The question of whether Conceptual Art was more rational than it was mystical at this time is difficult to determine. Certainly when emphasis is placed upon Conceptual Art as an avant garde, posed against the post-painterly abstraction of artists like Jules Olitski, it is espoused as a rational pursuit. On the other hand, with precedents for Conceptual Art including figures such as Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein, there is no doubt that it also retained mystical elements.
The idea for this exhibition is derived from Sol LeWitt’s ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’ published in 1969. LeWitt’s writing, which stresses intuition and, in the earlier ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, published in 1967, explicitly states that Conceptual Art ‘is not theoretical or illustrative of theories’, proves to be a strong backdrop for the subtle and elegant works shown here. Cornelia Parker’s The Collected Death of Images, 1996, leaves you to examine the results of constructing silver sheets from the debris of the photographic fixing process. Here theory is suspended as you focus instead on the more occult task of getting a sense of some distilled ‘imageness’ from the visually noisy surfaces. Cerith Wyn Evans’s ‘Scripts for the Pageant’ (excerpt… YES, The First Lessons: 10) by James Merrill (1980), 2008, establishes an intuitive relationship with language, again utilising the theme of death and the spirit realm. For this work a contemporary chandelier flashes Morse code verses from Merrill’s poem about experiences on a Ouija board. In Morse code, unreadable by most gallery visitors I suspect, the language of poetry becomes an encounter with the impression or feeling of communication without the passage of recognisable concepts, much like the function of a Ouija board. As Mark Cousins eloquently stated when reviewing Evans’s broader practice in the past, ‘Whatever meaning I can glean is beside the point – it is rather that I feel close to meaning in general.’
So LeWitt’s ideas are therefore a magnificent prompt for experiencing the works here, in a somewhat ontological fashion. However, this itself leads to another important theme also running through this exhibition: materiality. In this context, however, I prefer the term alchemy. Simon Starling, whose Autoxylopyrocycloboros, 2006, seems to directly evoke alchemy, has throughout his career explored the transfiguration of materials and their corresponding monetary value. This video from his 2006 residency at Cove Park in Scotland shows Starling cutting up bits of a wooden steam boat, out on Loch Long. The pieces of the boat are fed into the engine until eventually the boat sinks. Susan Collis makes sculpture and installations that appear to be collections of junk or detritus, but are actually meticulously constructed from expensive veneers, rare metals and precious stones. In this way she might be thought to turn gold (or often platinum) back in to base metals – the metals you assume a bent screw to be formed from. But the experience of viewing the work is the reverse, whereby upon reading the label you suddenly feel the need for a revaluation of what you are seeing. Jeremy Millar’s mirrored cubes, surrounded by salt, link Minimalism to ritual transformation.
Alchemy also traverses ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. This is apparent in the work of Iran do Espírito Santo whose Globes, 2011, make immaculate porcelain forms from everyday objects. However, perhaps even more enticing are the links in Susan Hiller’s found photographs Homage to Yves Klein (Levitations), 2011. These popular images, sourced from the internet, reflect the fascination held by ideas that remain fantasies. Hiller has said that she believes ‘the images were not made to mislead viewers into believing their subjects possess the supernatural talent for overcoming gravity. Rather, on a more profound level [they] are expressing a collective aspiration for a revised version of the human being – poetic, imaginative and powerful, with as-yet unrealised abilities and potentials.’ Continuing the influence of Klein, Katie Paterson’s Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight is a room lit by a special bulb, developed to omit a light with the exact frequency of moonlight. That moonlight is so entwined in cultural representations of romance on one hand and lunatics on the other makes the blank room all the more poignant.
It seems natural that Conceptual Art would evoke alchemy: its pioneers were, after all, able to turn fire bricks, photostats, inert gas, dissolved versions of Clement Greenberg’s essays and other everyday materials in to art. What is surprising about this exhibition is that it shows how the ‘dematerialisation’ of the art object, as Lippard described it in 1973, has been subtly overtaken by the alchemy of the art object. And to understand alchemy you need to be an intuitive mystic to catch the transient experience of viewing the workand then a rationalist to figure out where it has taken you.