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Third Text, Vol.

23, Issue 4, July, 2009, 435446

Art Relations and the Presence of Absence

Dean Kenning

1. Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presses du Rel, Paris, 2002 2. For Stewart Martin relational arts replacement of the unique art object by social formations simply makes the commodification of human relations more explicit. See Martin, Critique of Relational Aesthetics, in Third Text 87, 21:4, July 2007.

Relational art, as influentially described and proposed by Nicolas Bourriaud, sets out a more social role for art informed by a realism which would modestly make use of what is available to us here and now, rejecting a utopianism which would risk marginalisation in the name of some better world to come.1 Instead of an avant-garde bent on the destruction of art as an institution separate from everyday life, the contemporary political project is to create microtopias: spaces where inter-human relations can occur alongside, and as an alternative to, the commodified zones of capitalist life; where we can take a break from being atomised consumers and in the process model new possibilities of social being. The paradigm of social formations may be new, but it is described along familiar lines: as a decisive shift away from the independent forms characteristic of the autonomous artwork in so far as this manifests the private symbolic space of the individual artist. This move from a supposedly private inner world to the outer public realm is achieved, crucially, at least in the work Bourriaud defends, by means of the institutional apparatus of the artworld, whose recent conspicuous global proliferation new contemporary art museums, funding organisations, residencies, biennials, art fairs, etc is of course closely connected to the rise of relational art itself. In so far as this exponential growth is simply part of the economic expansion of the service sector, art which operates within the institutional network is far from immune to the kind of commodified relations that isolate even as they bring people together art as entertainment,2 leisure, marketing opportunity, financial investment, etc; at the same time the networked, resourced and highly visible infrastructure made available to artists appears to offer an opportunity to do something that would have a real impact in a world beyond the artworld. Meanwhile, a conspicuous contrast persists between the kind of general human relations being proposed and tested by much recent art, and the actual relations of the art apparatus itself. The growth of participatory practices has, in fact, been accompanied by an ever-increasing competitive individualism within the artworld. This is not simply the effect of overtly commercial ventures such as the
Third Text ISSN 0952-8822 print/ISSN 1475-5297 online Third Text (2009) http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/09528820903007727


3. A miserable but typical example would be the threat of non-payment to those hired to take part in certain interactive art projects if they do not clear off the site before the opening party. 4. Along similar lines Artfacts.Net ranks over 100,000 artists according to a points system based on the value assigned to the institutions the artist has exhibited in itself derived from the rating of all the artists these institutions show, and the rating of the other artists in group shows the artist has been part of. 5. Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another, Site Specific Art and Location Identity, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002, p 31 6. Ibid, p 47 7. John Roberts, The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade, Verso, LondonNew York, 2007, p 169 8. Ibid 9. Victor Burgin, The Absence of Presence: Conceptualism and Postmodernisms, in The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity, Macmillan, Houndmills London, 1986 10. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, ed Peter Connor, trans Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, Simona Sawhney, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 1991, p 3, emphasis added

Frieze Art Fair although the highly tiered system of exclusions it thrives upon3 and the organising function this annual event performs for the wider production, display and distribution of art in London and beyond should not be underestimated. But aside from celebrations of the art market, the proliferation of prizes, grants and residencies on offer as a result of the increased professionalisation that accompanies institutional expansion makes competition with ones fellow artists the normal situation for anyone just out of, or even still in, art college. Coinciding with the denigration of the unique artwork, such awards and prizes now become the true guarantors of value in a self-replicating system of success, to be listed along with the names of collectors and galleries in an invocation that has more affect than the presence of any actual artwork.4 Relational art, with its lack of defined form, might also account for the current trend for art magazines to grace their covers not with images of art but Sunday supplement-style with photo portraits of the star artist. Suspicions as to the lingering or even reinforced presence of the artist in art contexts that lack an identifiable, authored work have been raised elsewhere. Miwon Kwon, for example, asks whether the privileging of site, including any collaboration which takes place, and the concomitant denigration of authorship, is a continuing Barthesian performance of the death of the author or a recasting of the centrality of the artist as a silent manager/director?.5 For Kwon, the internationally successful, studio-free itinerant artist of today, city hopping from one art institution to another simply takes the place of the physical object itself, the lack of which necessitates the presence of the artist for the execution of the project. In this way the artist approximate[s] the work6 and becomes the commodity, defined, in line with postindustrial production, as a service provider (organising, negotiating, researching, etc). This silence may then be a re-run of what John Roberts has called aristocratic autism.7 Returning to 1960s art Roberts identifies two opposed models of the critique of authorship: the first an expanded notion of authorship, where the social relations of artistic production are re-imagined through collaborative practice (Robertss examples are Warhols early Factory and Art & Languages research model); the second a formal critique of authorship (epitomised by Joseph Kosuth) where production is delegated for the sole purpose of excising the fussy tropes of subjectivism in order to pursue authorial singularity without recourse to the first person language of the artistic self.8 It was the latter model, the artist as absent author, that won out institutionally in the appropriation art of the 1980s. Relational practices may, then, seem like the latest nails in the coffin of a familiar corpse the expressive, self-possessed author, manifesting his or her singular vision in the unique art object; the figure which, according to Victor Burgin, derives from both a belief in a founding presence underlying meaning and the ideology of humanist individualism.9 Defined as a political project aimed at fostering connections between atomised individuals, relational art coincides with re-envisaged conceptions of community. According to Jean-Luc Nancy, the individual is merely the residue of the experience of the dissolution of community,10 a community that would place us beyond social division and techno-political control with all its deleterious consequences for human


11. Alain Badiou, Seven Variations on the Century, in Parallax, 9:2, 2003, p 74 12. For a first-hand account of these relations from the point of view of someone at the lower end see John Bowe, Marisa Bowe and Sabin Streeter, eds, Eric Beull, Art Mover, in Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2000, reprinted in The Uncertain States of America Reader, Serpentine Gallery, London, 2006. 13. See Walter Benjamin, The Author as Producer, in Understanding Brecht, Verso, LondonNew York, 1998 14. The prizes were reinstated in 1986. 15. Claire Bishop, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, October 110, winter 2004 16. It is easy to account for the feeling of manipulation when one can only engage with the work through a set physical interaction, especially when the artist is not there to return the serve (something Bourriaud asks of the viewer). What Michael Fried referred to as the human-like presence of the Minimalist artwork, requiring the special complicity of the viewer, is felt here as the absent presence of the artist him or herself. 17. Ibid, p 68. Part of the problem Bishops analysis points to is the shutting down of interpretive openness whereby one is blackmailed into either accepting the proposition and engaging in the relational set-up, or not accepting it and being left with nothing. However, Bishops focus on external exclusions has the effect of eclipsing the class and competitive resentments, which exist within such a relational work. 18. Ibid, p 70

happiness. In similar terms, Alain Badiou has written: the individual, in truth, is nothing the nothing that must be dissolved into a wesubject.11 What appears as a substantive entity that is the ideological illusion of the free, undivided, self-knowing subject is in fact a nonentity which gains a reality only when it disappears as such. It is clear, nevertheless, that in the absence of the self-present artist-creator, the artistic persona often persists as the privileged centre around which discursive and material effects take shape. All too often participation accrues to the artist and the social dimension becomes an aesthetic backdrop to a successful career. This is unsurprising in a field that excels in the stratification of winners and losers, and normalises the working relations that result from such internal divisions.12 What initially suggests itself is a politics of art stemming from an understanding of the artists own place in the production relations in which he or she operates, leading to a transformation of those relations.13 An example might be the protests made by artists at the 1968 Venice Biennale in common cause with demonstrations on the streets outside which led to the discontinuation of prizes.14 However laudable, such overt actions in a way reinstate the distinction between politics on one side and art on the other. There is a falsity nevertheless when art makes political claims but fails to address the context in which these claims are made. It is with this failure in mind that challenges have been made against relational arts selfperception as progressive and inclusive. Claire Bishops critique of relational aesthetics picks up on Bourriauds reluctance to talk in any detail about the specific contents of a work but passes from the briefest outline immediately to claims for the new relational paradigm it sets up.15 Most crucially what this eludes is the kind and quality of the relations that have been initiated: is anyone able to participate in an event, or interact with a piece of work, or only those invited to a private view, or the person who owns the work? Are the relationships in any way meaningful, or do they feel contrived, or even coercive?16 It is this collapse of content into structure that leads Bishop to accuse Bourriaud of formalism. For Bourriaud what counts as structure is the fact that certain relations have been instituted by the work, relations conceived in terms of generosity and conviviality, that is, against the commercial interests that order the interactions of our day-to day lives. In this way relational art is good a priori in so far as it fulfils a progressive political function the creation of a microtopia. But, for Bishop, by implying that these relations are good and democratic as such, Bourriaud is able to gloss over the real exclusions that the congenial social formations (set up by an artist like Rirkrit Tiravanija) are predicated upon.17 It is precisely these wider exclusions that the artist Santiago Sierra brings to the fore: by introducing collaborators structurally excluded from galleries due to their socioeconomic status, the artworlds selfperception as progressive is challenged. The relational, for Bishop, does not disappear in Sierras work; it just does not collapse into some vague, anodyne content (structure = relational = good). Organised around relations that are more complicated and more controversial,18 Sierras work makes the quality of the relation an unavoidable issue. The relationship experienced by the audience of art insiders towards the outsiders whom Sierra employs to take part in the work is one of


19. Ibid, p 79 20. There is no alternative to this system, or way to dodge it, change it, or question it. Santiago Sierra interviewed by Pamela Echeverra, Flash Art, 34:225, July-September 2002, p 103 21. Bishop, op cit, p 71 22. Pilar Villela Mascar has a similar interpretation of Sierra and applies a similar language of discomfort. Utilising Michael Frieds take on Tony Smiths car ride on the New Jersey Turnpike, Mascar suggest that Sierras trick (which accounts for the works value) lies in making the car ride as uncomfortable as he can, counting always on the fact that audiences will complain about the shabby state of the Turnpike [ie, the fact that real people are being cruelly treated] and find someone to blame for it. What counts is not the remunerated performers, but the viewers suffering. Mascar, Not in My Name. Reality and Ethics in the Work of Santiago Sierra, in Santiago Sierra: 7 Works, Lisson Gallery, London, 2007, p 33

awkwardness and discomfort.19 This experience of discomfort marks a mode of relational art Bishop terms relational antagonism. Sierra has made different types of works, broadly based around disparities of wealth, exclusion and dispossession, but I would like to focus here on his remunerated method whereby he hires participants who are willing to endure exhausting and humiliating tasks in exchange for a small amount of money (this is largely the object of Bishops analysis). A few titles describe the kind of activities for which Sierra has become infamous: Line of 30 cm Tattooed on a Remunerated Person (1998), Ten People Paid To Masturbate (2000), Workers Who Cannot be Paid, Remunerated to Remain Inside Cardboard Boxes (2000), The Wall of a Gallery Pulled Out, Inclined Sixty Degrees from the Ground and Sustained by Five People (2000). We recognise, from photographs of these events (the artwork to be sold), the dispossessed global underclass of drug-addicted prostitutes, illegal immigrants and unemployed labourers, passively enduring their contractual burden, heads bowed in submission. Sierra does not represent this reality from a distance, but presents it in operation as the participation of the remunerated persons becomes a site-specific index of the existence of poverty and inequality. Sierra then makes present as art those whose systematic exclusion from art is a direct effect of the inequalities and consequent exploitation that art relies upon in its status as luxury commodity and cultural capital. And he does so by reproducing that very exploitation, the arbitrary, purposeless nature of which signals high culture in its luxurious uselessness. To adapt an image of Benjamins, it is as if those trodden underfoot by the procession of the rulers have been simultaneously raised to the level of the cultural treasures held aloft in the procession, thus literally presenting the pinnacles of culture as the documents of barbarism. Bishop, however, is keen to distance herself from the usual ethicalpolitical judgements on Sierra, which either praise him for exposing the hidden conditions underlying global wealth (and arts role therein), or else damn him for amplifying and reproducing the worst kind of exploitation in cynical pursuit of a successful artistic career. When Bishop speaks of discomfort she is referring neither to the specific endurance of the person holed up behind a gallery wall or confined beneath a cardboard box, nor to the general economic conditions that the exploitation Sierra himself pursues draws attention to. For Bishop, what counts is not Sierras:
1 Santiago Sierra, 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People , December 1999, Espacio Aglutinador, Havana, Cuba, courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery

apparent complicity with the status quo, an interpretation which the artist seems to confirm in his adamant view that art can change nothing;20 what matters rather is how we receive it.21

The infliction of suffering we are witness to, and are in a sense complicit in as an audience for the art, disturbs our satisfied identity as art-goers, and of course any notion of convivial togetherness.22 Ultimately Bishops problem with relational art conceived as a form of conviviality is not that it remains culturally divided and exclusionary despite professions of unity and inclusion this would initiate moves to transform arts cultural relations; the real problem is that as a vision of democracy Bourriauds microtopia is faulty, based on an ideal of subjectivity made whole through communal identification (in this case


Santiago Sierra, 250 Cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People, December 1999, Espacio Aglutinador, Havana, Cuba, courtesy the artist and Lisson Gallery

23. Bishop, op cit, p 66 24. Ibid, p 79 25. Ibid, p 77

the fact that those present at an art event are all part of the artworld). Bishop here adopts Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffes theory of antagonism as the sine qua non of democracy: relations of conflict [must be] sustained, not erased, and the subject, ontologically incomplete and divided, must never achieve full identification in the group the alternative is total suppression of debate and discussion.23 If the temporary establishment of a convivial social formation at a gallery opening disavows the social exclusions that allow it to happen, then Sierras antagonistic approach sustains the tension by confronting the audience with the presence of the other. Face to face with Sierras remunerated performer our response is one of non-identification: this is not me.24 This tougher, more disruptive approach to relations25 is an acknowledgment of arts limitations, a decisive break with the transformational impetus of an older avant-garde. Its success as art centres purely on the individual viewers disturbed sense of integral subjectivity. In Bishops analysis there is either harmonious identification or continuous tension denying any cohesive formation. What this leaves out is a conception of antagonism which comes out of and itself produces group solidarity, and the possibility that individual subjectivity may be disrupted not for its own sake but in order to be reformed as the wesubject. If relational antagonism is the outcome of presenting the immutability of societal inequality, then we might contrast this with an


26. Jacques Rancire, On the Shores of Politics, Verso, LondonNew York, 2007, pp 323 27. Bishop, op cit, p 3 28. Ibid, p 79 29. Claire Bishop, The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents, Artforum, February 2006, p 180 30. Norman Fairclough, New Labour, New Language?, Routledge, LondonNew York, 2001, p 65

antagonism that stems from the drive to equality. According to Jacques Rancire, the essence of equality is not so much to unify as to declassify, to undo the supposed naturalness of orders and replace it with the controversial figures of division.26 This approach to antagonism is one which must take root from below in order to destabilise the stratified orders in which it finds itself as with class struggle where being a member of a militant class means only no longer being a member of a lower order.27 Bishops concern with the quality of relations the disruptive effects they have upon the individual viewer due to the inequality they present us with, rather than equality and the possibilities of disturbing those unequal relations, derives from her wider concern to excise political judgements from art, and to replace what she would see as an instrumentalising justification for art (which dispenses with questions of quality) with something like a Barthesian notion of free play (the capacity of the work to be opened out by the viewer/reader albeit with the possibility this offers of rethinking our relationship to the world and to one another).28 Bourriaud is not merely castigated for his false, non-antagonistic conception of politics, but, more crucially, for his collapsing of aesthetic questions into a question of politics per se (arts ability to instigate non-reified relations). In a more recent essay on socially engaged collaborative practice, Bishop brings this issue to the fore when she writes there can be no failed, unsuccessful, unresolved, or boring works of collaborative art because all are equally essential to the task of strengthening the social bond.29 One can sympathise with this point, but recognise that this reduction of art to an insipid inclusivity may in fact be a depoliticising move, a problem originating, I would argue, from its often top-down approach. Here Bishops comparison of socially orientated work with New Labours cultural policy is instructive. While it is true that social policy (inclusion, accessibility, etc) has been prioritised over artistic quality as a condition of state funding, it is important to see how this operates within a wider depoliticising agenda. To quote Norman Fairclough: The long-standing Labour Party objective of greater equality has been displaced in New Labour by the objective of greater social inclusion.30 The discourse of inclusion signifies a move away from policies of redistribution, which recognise the fundamentally antagonistic nature of capitalist society (its creation of inequalities and conflicted interests which initiates class struggle, or state amelioration), towards a fundamentally non-antagonistic communitarian vision of society threatened by an (often morally conceived) excluded underclass. Cultural policy is, of course, a way of strengthening the social bond in the absence of economic redistribution, but the way this is conceived by government is in terms of making cultural treasures available to the masses through increased accessibility higher attendance at galleries, etc. The culturally divided status of art is correctly identified, only for it to be tackled by a reinforcement of the high-class image of art as a treasure to be gawped at. This is not to suggest that government should dictate what artists produce rather than just influencing its distribution, but to propose that arts exclusivity, which stems from social inequality, is a problem to be addressed through art practice itself (becoming, therefore, part of any qualitative judgement). The problem is not solved but multiplied when art is brought to the people in the shape of normal everyday activities. Resentment kicks in when what are recognisably


31. Marc Spiegler, When Human Beings are the Canvas, ARTNews, June 2003, p 94 32. See Sol Lewitt, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, reprinted in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, eds Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, MIT Press, Cambridge, MALondon, p 12. 33. Spiegler, op cit, p 97

ordinary things occupy the special place designated for great works, and we have a familiar case of the emperors new clothes. Sierras working-class background equips him with an experience of the exclusions of high culture, and so it is of significance that his signature work came out of a very different experience. Following his move to Mexico he became a relatively rich Westerner, identified as such by his European skin tone. In Mexico City a random stranger agreed to have his back tattooed with a 30 cm vertical line for fifty dollars. Sierras initial reaction was one of shock, and he abstained from doing anything similar for a year: He was, quite simply, frightened by the emotional toughness of doing work where he was the exploiter even if the work was aimed precisely at highlighting social exploitation.31 The conceptual purity of Sierras remunerated method derives completely from this position of power, from playing the role of the boss. The anti-expressive conceptual purity of his realism, whereby he absents himself from any decision-making process subsequent to the initial contract, is the purity of capitalism: the agent of exploitation is absent, with money the neutral mediator meaning that any transaction is entered into freely. No longer the idea, as Sol LeWitt stated, but money becomes a machine that makes the (system) work.32 At the same time Sierra is wholly present in his absence as the artist-author vouched for by the pointlessness of the labours his performers must endure: as the functionless excess of an unequal society, the luxury commodity art takes the shape of a sweatshop worker making high street clothes, or a prostitute selling sex on the street. This is all very knowing, but Sierras extremism is also his conservatism, his toughness placing him beyond the implied naivety of those artists who think they can change anything. The naivety is certainly real when artists take on big issues from a distance, and so Sierras use of the other, the systemically excluded underclass, allows his art to remain pure, and by so doing to reinforce the status quo of an art establishment which thrives upon tough, difficult, extreme works. A temporary gathering of atomised workers brought into an alien cultural field will have no chance of forming any bond that would challenge the relations therein. We can see how the remunerated system saves the established order of things in a case where Sierra was indeed led to a more politically antagonistic approach. Sierras proposal to line up the gallery staff, bare backed in order of salary, from the director at one end to cleaners and caterers at the other was rejected by both PS1 and the Kunsthalle Vienna, the chief curator at PS1 explaining that it didnt seem to reflect Sierras paradigm of remuneration, since the workers were not being paid to participate in the piece.33 What this means in effect is that those with power and money are obviously not compelled to move out of their comfort zone and risk potential humiliation. Perhaps there should have been a free, anonymous vote on the decision. It is possible to see at least the potential for transformation resulting from a turning of the tables of power so that the hierarchies were exposed for those within the institution, especially since, as was Sierras assumption, the skin tones would run from light to dark along the line. The reality behind the progressive image would be made present in a substantial and continuing relational situation that might lead the institution to experience some discomfort. What we get instead is the institution reinstated in its radical capacity to show and


34. Dean Kenning, You Cannot Be Serious: Art, Politics, Idiocy, Art Monthly, no 307, June 2007 35. Ridiculousness, writes Adorno, is the residue of the mimetic in art, the price of its self-enclosure. In Aesthetic Theory, trans Robert Hullot-Kentor, Athlone Press, London, 1999, p 119 36. Bishop, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, p 70

commission the most shocking publicly despised kind of work. At the same time the viewer is confirmed in his/her self-perception as a special kind of subject, able to rise above common morality in order to perceive the pure art: after all, if Sierra is emotionally tough enough to instigate painful and degrading acts on other people, and pure enough to stick to his remunerated principle of minimum wages even as the resulting artworks command ever-larger prices, then surely the viewer is tough enough to endure the discomfort of non-identification and subjective disruption. Although much is made of the non-justificatory nature of Sierras work he is not exposing exploitation, we all know it exists, etc the truth is that Sierras work justifies itself as art through its seriousness, through the fact that the conceptual method makes one a kind of servant beyond any personal desire. If we compare it with the notorious video series Bumfights, in which homeless alcoholics were paid a few dollars to have the title of the show tattooed on their foreheads, we can see the distance between this extreme case of generalised cruelty, which in lesser forms dominates popular entertainment, and Sierras work. There is no ridicule involved in the art, no enjoyment to give purpose to the artists acts. The comparison can be illustrated through the early scenes of David Lynchs The Elephant Man where the greatest freak in the world is put on stage once for the sordid entertainment of the fairground crowd, and a second time for the objective, scientific curiosity of the medical establishment. Against the purity this testing of resilience suggests, one way of destabilising arts cultural status and institutional authority might in fact be self-ridicule, the making-ridiculous of arts image as serious and radical in the light of its socially residual function and hierarchical production relations. But this would require not the absent presence of the silent operator but the presence of the artist exposed in his/her idiocy:34 the individual (this clich), without (institutionally legitimised or communally granted) subjectivity, the residue of social and cultural division.35 This figure of the artist as a present absence rather than an absent presence, an absence, that is, made manifest, is interesting to consider from the perspective of the influence and development of performance art. As Bishop points out, Sierra adopts a mode of photographic documentation familiar from 1970s body art, casual black-and-white photographs indicating an action or event that took place over a certain length of time in a specific setting.36 In displacing the action from the artists own body to the bodies of others, Sierra thereby takes part in the more general move away from individual interiority as embodied by the artist the authenticity of the artists suffering flesh towards the elimination of the physical presence of the artist who now becomes an absent director or organiser, operating behind the scenes. If this death of the author takes the shape of a dispersed collection of participants (the audience, the public), an alternative trajectory sees the artist-subject condense into an image of absence made visible through the physical presence of the artist him- or herself. The well-known case of Paul McCarthy makes this clear given that there is a decisive shift from his early, pared-down, body-focused work, with all its ritualistic-cathartic associations, to his later embrace of, or entanglement in, the overabundant material signs of consumer culture. The compulsive actions performed by McCarthys various characters viscerally express how social violence and control do


37. I am influenced here by Slavoj Z i zeks political theory of enjoyment. It is worth mentioning that it is the factor of surplusenjoyment which differentiates Z i zeks theory of subjectivisation from Laclau and Mouffes. For Z i zek the subjects constitutive lack is always materialised in a fascinating and/or repulsive object, left over from symbolic interpellation. Furthermore, interpellation is actually dependent on this remaindered object, the source of sexualised pleasure beyond sense, a nonsensical element finally guaranteeing identification. This object is the embodied coincidence of excess and lack, of power and impotence in the subject. See, for example, Z i zek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Verso, London New York, 1998.
Z [o a c r n ] z] c a o r [ n Z [o a c r n ] z] c a o r [ n Z [o a c r n ] z] c a o r [ n Z [o a c r n ] z] c a o r [ n

38. This is achieved most forcefully precisely through what, for deconstructionist theories of absence, is the ultimate carrier of metaphysical presence the voice. See Burgin, The Absence of Presence: Conceptualism and Postmodernism, in The End of Art Theory, op cit.

not act on us from some external vantage point but possess us intimately like some alien force. But when McCarthy dons a costume or mask he does not quite become an actor, someone playing a role; in fact the whole element of enjoyment,37 of compulsive activity, manic energy and infantile pleasure-in-disgust, characteristic of McCarthys performances and videos which is shared with an audience through a kind of bodily contagion derives from the fact that the artist remains himself, and that this self seems out of control. The demonic here does not point to any special inner substance indicating artistic vision, but merely the ordinary, consumerist engineering of desire; and the ritualistic aspect signifies only cultural habit, the ideological training of the obedient subject reproduced and repeated in institutions from the family to the school to the workplace. At the same time McCarthy the artist is always signifying the artist and therefore art through excess: maniacal behaviour, machine-like repetition, industrial quantities of mayonnaise and ketchup, etc. The image of art is ridiculed through the clich of excess and through a humour that denatures arts supposed seriousness; simultaneously, it is only this excessive quality that allows the artist to escape the formulaic protocols of a professionalised conceptualism (authorial singularity serenely detached from the expressive signifiers of the artistic self). This excess pertains to the subject: no longer the legendary selfpossessed creator, but a unique individuality stripped to a bare thing-like idiosyncrasy. In his video Painter (1996) McCarthy turns these persistent qualities to the art apparatus itself. As is usual in McCarthys work the protagonist an action painter buffoon played by the real artist seems trapped within a system of rooms or spaces which themselves appear to be the materialised bonds of a system of social relations. In Painter we oscillate between the artists studio and adjacent bedroom, and then to his gallerists office. A fourth space, seemingly constituting the imaginary limits of the artists universe, is a TV studio where a rich collector couple indulge their egos as they chat moronically about their acquisitions to a sycophantic interviewer. Whilst on an immediate level the video is simply an admonishment of the self-important, naively expressive, macho painter (an easy target), the interesting thing is that McCarthy critiques this mythical subject which is also a stand in for art in general through a strategy of presence rather than absence, and, what is more, does so by stealing some of this deluded figures hysterical energy.38 The absence, or nothingness of the individual as embodied by the artistcreator, is made visible in two ways. First, the artist is hilariously depicted as an idiot: psyching himself up, lunging at the canvas with an enormous brush, parried by the physical pangs of his own creative torment, etc. And yet the painter, as is revealed, has a gallery, has rich collectors, and, therefore, is no idiot, but a producer of highly esteemed works. What seemed like the lunatic activity of a socially dysfunctional adult turns out to be the valuable expressions of the artistic subject, symbolically mandated as such by the authority of the gallery and the luxury market. In a moment of erotically charged trepidation, the artist recites the words de Kooning de Kooning over and over like an incantation, as if the famous abstract expressionists name would rub off as symbolic recognition. In McCarthys Painter we have what Slavoj Z izek has called the materialised emptiness of authority, its power revealed,
Z [c o a r n ] z] c a o r [ n


Paul McCarthy, Painter, 1995, performance, installation, video, photographs, photo: Karen McCarthy/Damon McCarthy, Paul McCarthy, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Zrich, London

39. Z i zek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture, MIT Press, Cambridge, MALondon, 1995, p 145
Z [] o a c r n z] c a o r [ n

40. Z i zek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, op cit, p 178

Z [] o a c r n z] c a o r [ n

41. Ibid, p 113

through its being made present, to be simply the effect of its place in the [social] structure.39 The panic of the artist is that he or she will end up a loser, a nobody, unrepresented, the residuum of the artworld. The second way the artistic subject is exposed in its nothingness is through the extreme image of social isolation that Painter confronts us with. McCarthys universe is a closed loop, a suffocating system of incestuous relations into which the oxygen of wider society is unable to enter. This, then, is a hellish vision of art as culturally residual, as marginalised and cut off from life. Embodied in the grotesquely narcissistic, infantilepaternal painter is a fundamental absence, which is the (always potential) failure of art, but also, through the subjective energies of McCarthys physical presence, the hysterical enactment of a resistance or refusal of subjectivity defined as subordination to the symbolic network. As Z i zek puts it: Before assuming a certain subject-position, the subject is subject of a question.40 This hysterical question opens the gap of what is in the subject more than the subject, of the object in subject which resists interpellation.41 This failure of interpellation is at once the potential fear reproducing the normative order of things (the competitive drive to recognition) and the fundamental questioning and destabilising of this norm. Playing the idiot (from idios: lacking professional knowledge)
2 Paul McCarthy, Painter, 1995, performance, installation, video, photographs, photo: Karen McCarthy/Damon McCarthy, Paul McCarthy, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth, Zrich, London Z o n r a ] [ c z] c a o r [ n


42. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, op cit, pp 1314 43. Ibid, p 40

McCarthys artist (both image and reality) is caught between these two positions: the incompetent misfit, lacking the appropriate networking skills to achieve recognition and success, and the idealist, refusing the compromise of institutionalisation. It might be objected that McCarthy is an incredibly successful, fully institutionalised and marketed artist. What I would like to raise, however, is the question of how a reconceived notion of the presence of the artist might operate within the relational paradigm of recent art. The desire to move away from the autonomous artwork to a more social, and perhaps a more fluid and unpredictable field of meaning is accurately described by Bourriaud, and comes, no doubt, from the attempt to form alternatives to the consumerist relations that isolate us as competitive individuals, as well as beyond the studio production of transportable objects. But, as Bishop has clearly demonstrated, Bourriaud in effect presents the place where alternative models are proposed as a neutral zone, unimpeded by structural antagonisms. The passivity which runs throughout Relational Aesthetics, where the artist dwells in the circumstances the present offers him,42 is meant to extricate us from the utopian absolutism of avant-gardist attempts to change the world according to the image of art (often leading to an increased isolationism), but it does so at the cost of ignoring the way the artworld is itself formed in terms of a prolongation and exacerbation of a more general individualism. The relations so gruesomely and comically portrayed in Painter are precisely the kinds of relations casually described in terms of conviviality by Bourriaud: friendly social interactions among artists, gallerists, dealers and buyers. When Bourriaud suggests that art is made in the gallery, the same way that Tristan Tzara thought that thought is made in the mouth,43 he skirts over the mechanisms that make a gallery, and a show in a gallery, possible, presenting it as a natural attribute of the art-maker, and seeming to confirm the popular suspicion that it is the legitimising symbolic authority bestowed by the institutional space which is the true guarantor of quality. A questioning of the ideological constitution and effects of the art system cannot simply be laid aside as a sociological problem, as Bourriaud seems to suggest; nor can political or ethical issues be extricated from the intimate concerns of art and its reception. These relations in fact confront the artist as material to be reckoned with and, possibly, transformed a modest transformation but one where the materials are unavoidably present. My interest in questions of subjectivity stemming from the artist rather than the viewer comes from a suspicion that the artist is perhaps at his or her most authoritative when he/she, or his/her materialised idiosyncrasy in the shape of an artwork, disappears from view. The issue is not one of moving from an inner private to an outer public reality, but of transforming the internal and external structural relations of art through the production of a variety of symbolic forms and social formations. The hoped-for elimination of the expressive outlaw-artist, the irrational surplus guaranteeing the value of art as a luxury commodity displaced from everyday life, may simply be replaced by an absence signifying a willing acquiescence with the rules of the game. If solidarity is required to counter the spirit of competition which pervades the artworld, then a refusal of subsumption into the existing structure may result from the stubborn reappearance of the artist against the grain of professional


44. Nancy, The Inoperative Community, op cit, 1991, pp xxxxviixxxxviii 45. Ibid, p xxxxvii

protocols of conceptual form, of existing hierarchies, and of divisions that result from exploitation and ethical dubiousness. This artistic subject would be the disrupted subject of a question, a questioning of institutional recognition and of social exclusion aimed towards and within the realms of the possible an alternative arrangement. The artist presented as a question mark, exposed in his/her ridiculous individuality, in this way manifests a rejection of individualism. As Nancy describes it, the beginning of a non-essential community, of a being in common, is a sharing which comes with exposure; the reality of my face always exposed to others, always turned toward an other and faced by him or her, never facing myself.44 Of a subject exposed: posed in exteriority, according to an exteriority, having to do with an outside in the very intimacy of an inside.45