Metaphysics of Origins

Adorno, in my favorite apothegm, observed that “there is no origin but ephemeral life.” The murder of Lorca during the Spanish civil war and Lorca’s elegy to the bullfighter Meijas make up the backstory of Motherwell’s Elegies series, but these points only triangulate the real backstory, which is the situation of the intellectual/artist in the American fifties, or his(!) view of himself anyway, meaning ephemeral present day dreams and delusions. So the origin presented by Gareth James, in his recent show at Miguel Abreu, namely a drawing with no known significance, is beautifully accurate. But then the question arises, what is the need for all the stuff in the gallery, or for the backstory? An enigmatic drawing would be sufficient in itself n’est-ce pas? But that would be ordinary abstract art, available on every corner. James’s real origin, and the subject of his show, is pedagogy. He is a university professor, and his work follows an ethic of self grounding, which also means a turn toward the social. But as Adorno points out, in an idea easy to understand but difficult to grasp, there is no ground that isn’t moving beneath our feet. In my view, an abstract drawing would better acknowledge that. Institutional analysis tends toward the stability of fixed positions

What I really want to think about is the concept of backstory, and why an artist would want to build it into the presentation of their work.

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2 Responses to Metaphysics of Origins

  1. David Court says:

    Hi Robert. This is an interesting line of thinking that you bring up around James’ exhibition. I hope you don’t mind a meandering comment.

    The regime of the backstory has a lot to do with the parallel histories of conceptualism and contemporary curatorial practice, right? Following these developments, the material forms of an artwork are only one part of the work; the artwork is produced alongside discursivity at every point in the process. So the regime of the backstory consists of works that take this condition as a frame, working with discourse as well as, or even more than, form, anticipating the press release and the artist talk, the curatorial statement and the review.

    I am curious if the backstory here can be understood to be the first component of the work, kind of like choosing a support for a painting. The work could not happen without the backstory, but the backstory is not the entire story; it is there at the beginning, driving or supporting the formation of the other parts of the work, which are as indisposable to the origin as paint is to canvas, and everything ends up equally important to the experience of the work.

    Where backstory functions as the key to the decipherability of the work it is often painful, but in James’ case something else is going on, having to do with the inscrutability that you point out, and also to the sequence of exhibitions preceeding this one, which more directly relate to the history of the readymade, which comes back to a concern over the arbitrariness or disposability of the object. It seems that this is a matter of framing. Under the modernist regime of autonomy, this might be a problem, since objects are intended to stand on their own. But an enigmatic form, such as an indecipherable diagram still requires a contextual grounding to appear as art. Perhaps the regime of the backstory is the regime under which forms are seen as always-already caught up in this process. Perhaps by grounding the objects in the exhibition with this backstory of muteness or inscrutability, James’ exhibition works to acknowledge and work with the instability of its own ground.

    • David, thanks for taking the time to comment. Of course you are right that today we understand that objects acquire “presence” or meaning from the discourse that’s moving through them and around them. And you are also right that the art world of today, in which conceptualism has become completely enmeshed with the professional order of curatorship (a little too wordy perhaps, but you know what I mean) has made the discursive inescapable. But the modern critical insight that motivated conceptualism and so much else was that the backstory is usually unconscious, and that it has to become conscious. I can’t argue with that, and wouldn’t want to, but I want to suggest that no matter how much conscious backstory is present, the amount of unconscious backstory also present remains the same, so it’s a formal problem. What form should a work have? My instincts are that the more suggested or implied and the less spoken the better. But this is all fascinating stuff, and I’m working on another post about it, which will take your comment into account. Meanwhile I hope that the funny though excruciating quote from Platonov’s Foundation Pit will suggest something.

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