I’d like to keep thinking about backstory. It is a literary concept, especially relevant in short forms where time is compressed, such as drama and film. A character, Hamlet for example, had a life before the story begins, and his or her experiences are going to determine how they deal with their crisis, but we only get hints and brief clues as to what and who they were, and have been, and have become before we met them. This is the backstory, and for me the beauty of it is in the demand it makes on our imaginations and feelings—to grasp it when it’s not spelled out. In art today the prevalence of backstory is probably due to nervousness about reception. One is afraid that the work will be misunderstood, so tries to anticipate criticism: “I want you to know that the work is this, because you might think it is really that.” And that need is likely a result of the experiences of art education. Anxiety about reception is a very interesting phenomenon today and I want to dwell on that as well, but as I said before, I think that Gareth James manages to void it well with the blank at the core of his work. For all that, I think he is still providing backstory as a necessary supplement to objects that would be difficult to read, or perhaps read inadequately, even with the gallery as frame.

Gareth James, Human Metal, installation at Miguel Abreu 2011-12

In his comment, David Court suggests that James’s blank is an acknowledgment of the instability of his position; I find the idea interesting and unexpected, but I’m not convinced. I rather think that backstory is a way to restore the presence and the plenitude of meaning that no longer inheres in the object. This is why I referred to the “metaphysics” of origins. The memory of an emptiness is replete with meaning, the more meaning the more remote that memory is.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying alternating these deliberations with quotes from Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit.

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