In his very intelligent comment, David Court asks whether we should consider the artwork as more than the object, and the backstory as a kind of material, like a ground. Of course this is exactly what has happened, but I would like to recall Smithson’s words, quoted as closely as I can remember, that “for art to be art it must have limits.” Crucial to understand is that limits are not limitations, for they also “frame” what is outside them.
Personally, in my own work, I do not impose any external limits and let the limits emerge from within the work itself, but the dispersed, discursive work potentially is limitless; it has neither external nor immanent boundaries. As it expands into ever more ramified realms of discourse, and as the discourse appropriates more ready-made stuff, the energy present in any single part necessarily dissipates. This is neither a good nor a bad thing, politically, ethically, morally or cognitively, but it might be a problem aesthetically. In art, limits are productive, even as we know that they are arbitrary, fictional and conventional. The backstory as context, as I have been harping on, is normative; what I want to get to is the backstory as expanding the limits of art into the past. We might invoke the past for an explanation of how we got to here and now, but art allows us to see how memory is a present thing. We are not tracking a path forward to this moment, but reaching into some other cupboards of the present. So to return to the idea presented in the first post on this topic, an idea suggested by Gareth James’s installation, why not chuck the objects out, and get rid of most of the backstory, just edit it to the bone, and merely present a lost origin as the work. This would be a kind of literary art in the Wordsworthian/romantic/modernist tradition, but different in the way that a post-conceptual, post-ready made, post-gallery art would have to be. I haven’t seen anything like that myself, but would be very interested to do so.