In Guillaume Paris, selected works, 1998-1998, pp. 24-44
Published by Contagious Magic (London, England 1999)
PARODIES AND WOUNDS OF AESTHETIC SEMBLANCE AND IDENTITY
By PHILIP ARMSTRONG
From his first exhibition in 1988, and folding out from and continuing today in the H.U.M.A.N.W.O.R.L.D. project, the work of Guillaume Paris hinges on a sustained and privileged series of themes and issues. These themes and issues are clearly outlined in an interview from 1997 with David Medalla, embracing questions of fetishism, consumerism and ethnocentrism and extending to a fundamental rethinking of various forms of superstitious and religious belief. Situated in these eminently global terms, it is therefore in the more general relation between materialism and spirituality, immanence and transcendence, that his work finds one of its initial determinations to question and the guiding impetus of any claim to artistic and critical achievement. At the same time, the relation between materialism and spirituality provides the frame of reference in which the work appears to secure not only a wider social and political significance but the measure of its more immediate and tangible presence - the measure, in short, of its distinctly contemporary appeal.
A brief overview of the work over the last ten years clearly demonstrates how many of the pieces are situated in terms of their social and political significance. Indeed, what could be more pertinent for bringing the work closer to the more demanding issues of contemporary society and politics than commodity packaging now placed in the continually reinvented virtual museum of H.U.M.A.N.W.O.R.L.D., their perishable contents in evident antagonism with the historical fascination - the willed fetishism - of conservation in the world of museums? What could be more politically demanding than the use of ethnically stereotyped faces on this same packaging as evidence of contemporary "religious" icons, or restaging the exploitation of deeply felt human concepts and emotions as names for marketing brands (True Spirit, 1992; Bold Caress, 1992), "titles" that then ironically reflect on the purported seriousness of a museum or gallery label for a work of art and the higher, spiritual values with which the works are associated? And what could be more suitable for focusing these issues than the use of artificial yet "pure" materials milk (Fin d'Histoire, 1988; installation at Art:Concept Gallery in 1993 and Angel Inc, 1994), rubber bars of soap (Lye, 1991), naphthalene (Enhanced Being, 1991), laundry detergent (White Magic, 1992), perfume (Eternities, 1991), dishwashing liquid (Land of Milk & Honey (Bold Joy), 1996) all "pure" or purifying materials that, in the artifice of their display, suggest transformations in our perception of issues related to ecology and household economy? These would then be materials that also expose the "pure" work of art to the heterogeneous impurities and abjections of the world, to all these "impurities" stains (from plasticine, glycerine and margarine), waste and excess from industrial emissions and cleaning materials (Heaven, 1996), synthetic packaging (Dreaming Dolls, 1992) all "impurities" marginalized within the purist rigors of a modernist aesthetic and the sanitized spaces of a gallery. And what could be less pure than sequences from popular commercial films now placed in endless loops (Fountain, 1994; Minding, 1994; Being, 1995), as if the Russian formalist notion of ostranenie of making strange or the Brechtian notion of distance and estrangement could now force the viewer to rethink deeply held assumptions about the most innocent aspects of popular culture, eliciting us to laugh aloud in the sanctified spaces of an exhibition as dear Pinocchio, face down and drowning in a river, fails to resurrect himself into an erstwhile cultural "icon", or when ludicrously large stone m&m's spill across the grounds of a castle near Bordeaux, or when a vending machine is placed outside an exhibition space inviting us to buy peanuts for Ethiopia?
Situated in these general and thematic terms, the work of Guillaume Paris would appear to find its conspicuous place within a broader cultural moment, offering us work that is said to engage decisive aspects of our contemporary world. Not that the work simply reflects these issues and political contexts; it actively demands that we think through the various ways in which the mediations between the work of art and the work of the world have become obscure for us, caught in the miasma of commodified culture and fetishized commodities. In other words, the work included in this catalogueue would set out to put these mediations back into play, forcing us to rethink the intricate implications of the work of art in and now as the work of the world.
It is in this sense that this work has an obvious appeal, a sure sense that it is fully responsive to important social themes and political issues. Above all, there is a sure sense that specific aspects of the work are immediately recognizable, that the work uses materials and images that figure extensively within our day to day lives, that the references titles, brand names, cartoon figures, marketing concepts all participate within our shared imaginations of quotidian existence, all foreground the most mediocre aspects of cultural commodification. In other words, it is only through these immediate forms of recognition only through the almost intuitive sense of the cultural and social references in the work that we can now find ourselves suddenly re-exposed to the homogenizing effects of global marketing, forced to rethink what has become self-evident in our day to day lives as we confront these cultural references radically estranged from their habitual contexts of reception and meaningful significance. Recognition, in short, is the manner in which we know that the work works. And this would be one initial way of suggesting that one of the most salient aspects of the work of Guillaume Paris is its tangible presence, one way of recognizing the immediacy of its contemporary appeal.
Following the opening epigraph from the artist, I want to suggest that this more immediate and contemporary appeal of the work finds itself governed by a form of "synthesis", and more specifically a form of "synthetic" closure, one in which these social themes and political issues clearly situate the work within an identifiable, contemporary context. In this sense, "synthesis" plays an inescapable role in any initial interpretation of this work; it allows for the work not only to achieve some form of critical and cultural recognition of its own and thus one way of acknowledging the "circularity" of argument inscribed in any art that claims a "political" significance for itself but also allowing the work, in turn, to recreate and confirm our own forms of political recognition of the work, our own sense of our own "selves" as social and political beings. "Synthesis" at the same time allows for the work to find itself a compelling example of a more widespread and equally recognizable contemporary, critical practice. Read at this level, the work's political reception is thus not only unavoidable, a constitutive feature of the work's place in a wider cultural context; it becomes a recognizable and exemplary contribution to the critical negotiations in much recent work between contemporary art and the contemporary world.
On the other hand, the opening epigraph also suggests that "synthesis" would be only one possible outcome of dialectically oriented work, taking place alongside other goals and ambitions. In other words, I want to elaborate the suggestion that dialectical work of this nature finds itself exposed here to certain aspects of conflictual disclosure, exposed to what Guillaume Paris has himself termed "a mise en abîme" or "an irreducible dynamic rapport". In this sense, the work may be seen to impose rather than confirm our socialized and acculturated patterns of recognition and understanding. More particularly, I want to suggest that the work clearly situates itself in precisely this ambivalence between closure and disclosure, that it finds its force less in its immediate and contemporary appeal than in its historical untimeliness and negotiations with the past. Above all, I want to suggest that a reading of the work forces us to rethink some of the more deeply held assumptions and presuppositions regarding the political beliefs and claims governing recent critical debates and recognizable and engaged forms of artistic practice. Indeed, if these dialectical tensions informing the work are explicitly foregrounded from the outset, the following argument will also suggest that the work turns on the ways in which these same themes and issues bind the work of art indissociably to its conceptual and more conventional histories and origins.
Phrased another way, the work of Guillaume Paris can be seen to strategically distance itself from its most evident forms of interpretation. In consequence, we might say that the work has inescapably forced an acknowledgment of the ways in which it relates to issues of heterogeneity, alterity and multiplicity issues, in short, of non-closure and self-identity in and as a work of art (and not issues exterior to it, not referents outside of the work to which the work then refers at worst, illustrates as one of its principle themes). In other words, the work forces an acknowledgment of the ways in which questions of commodification and ethnocentrism are deeply inscribed in disclose the histories, narratives and conceptual origins of the work of art as an object of aesthetic contemplation and devotion. In short, heterogeneity, alterity and multiplicity are not themes that the work of art represents or illustrates in relation to a pregiven context; rather, heterogeneity, alterity and multiplicity are intimate aspects of the work of art's historically finite modes of "self-" exposition and display, "self-" presentation and identity. And as my opening quotation from Robert Morris attempts to suggest namely the necessity of recalling the distinction between the work becoming less important and the work becoming ("merely" becoming) less "self"-important all of these issues find themselves rehearsing a question as to the possibility of making art in and after "minimalist" practices, a question about "reductive" work that I also find played out in exemplary and decisive ways across the work of Guillaume Paris over the last decade.
Finally and not without a certain irony or evident paradox in the argument I want to suggest that it is in the most "superficial" and surface aspect of this work above all, in its "tone", its humor and sense of irony, in the work's conspicuous artifice that all these disparate questions and claims will come to find not only their initial focus but the sustained measure of their critical importance today.
At the outset, it would be necessary to recall briefly two ways in which the social and political issues raised in this work participate within a long and necessarily overdetermined history and tradition.
First, if questions of fetishism, ethnocentrism and consumerism play a determining role in the work, or in many of the artist's own writings and statements, they are obviously not reducible to the work of Guillaume Paris alone. At a fundamental level, the relation between materialism and spirituality is as old as the caves of Lascaux, as old as the "origin" of the work of art, indissociable from the narratives and definitions of "art"'s history and conceptual beginnings. Historically, it would be difficult to imagine the work of art detached from questions of fetishism and cult devotion, separated out from its spiritual, ethnic, and anthropological traditions. To be sure, situated now at the end of the twentieth century, it would be equally difficult and certainly naive to imagine the work of art detached from various practices of commercial interest, or from the ethnic and anthropological conditions that inform or fail to inform, or find themselves unable to inform these "interests". But the rapport between materialism and spirituality remains a decisive aspect of any definition of the work of art; indeed, it can be suggested that the work of art is woven indissociably into any attempt to define the very concepts of materialism (immanence) and spirituality (transcendence). In other words, pieces like Veau d'Or (1995) or exhibitions like White Magic (1994), Théophanies (1995) or White Spirit (1996) all clearly testify to the negotiated and strategically displayed rapport between a materialist aesthetic and an associated sense of spiritual transcendence. Rather than simply dismiss these issues as various manifestations of idealism, it is perhaps only through a question of the "self-identity" of the work of art that we can fully begin to rethink the agents between fetishism, ethnocentrism and consumerism, only through the question of the "origin" of the work of art that it then becomes possible to rethink the critical rapports between the various definitions and histories of "materialism" and any notion of spiritual "transcendence" or "synthesis".
The work of Walter Benjamin may be read in part as a sustained exploration of precisely these questions, notably in his discussion of the "aura" of the work, and in his analysis of "cult" and "exhibition" values, commodities, and the various forms of technical reproducibility that redefine the relation between aesthetics and politics. In the context of the work of Guillaume Paris, the concept of fetishism usefully brings together these seemingly irreconcilable histories, notably through a concentration on the conceptual proximity between religious and cult values, economics and aesthetics. At the same time, the artist's own extended interest in cultural anthropology is conspicuous in the ways he has tied issues of consumerism to its fetishistic, magical and animistic origins. In other words, by situating the work of art in light of all these issues, one obtains an especially acute manner of foregrounding the dialectically sustained ways in which secular and spiritual forms of devotion are not merely of contemporary interest but tie the present of art to its past. And if the promise of the work collected here to sustain itself critically and compellingly in the present depends on the ways it sublates these issues into a synthetic whole, into an exhibited work of art, then a decisive aspect of the work's reception would be to tease out these intricately braided, and historically sedimented, sources and influences.
Secondly, if these themes and issues provide a significant way of experiencing the work in any sustained manner, the themes and issues of cultural politics and commodification also raise the further question of the relation of the work to other artists working with similar material. In other words, questions of fetishism and ethnocentrism point to the ways in which much contemporary art also draws from the work of its historical predecessors. Indeed, there is a strong sense in which many of the pieces in the catalogueue refer to the myriad ways in which these same themes and issues were first represented in post-minimal work, in pop art and conceptual art especially. One might even suggest that such work knowingly cites its historical sources and models, that it knows that originality of style or technique is not one of its defining or necessary features, and that it is no longer possible to step back behind the screen of Warhol's soup cans and Brillo boxes no longer possible to ignore the history and reception of the "ready-made" in order to find an aesthetic model uncontaminated by questions of fetishism and commodification.
If there is a specificity to these problems in the work presented by Guillaume Paris over the past ten years, it is not only in its more subtle debts to this history but, I suggest, to the very "modernist" practices that post-minimal (or postmodern) works are said to question and displace. Indeed, a marked question in the context of any work concerning "impurity" and heterogeneity today would be the structurally related implication of the historical precedents of a "modernist" past, above all the "pure" and autonomous painting claimed by the critic Clement Greenberg, and the concept of "self-criticism" (if not "self-importance") with which it was accompanied. An important feature of the work included here may thus be seen in the ways it assumes, negates or renegotiates this modernist past. And again I want to suggest that the question remains whether it works to sublate this past into its own contemporary appeal. In other words, the question remains not only whether there are recognizable references to popular culture, and not only "citations" of the work's immediate historical precedents in pop and conceptualism, but whether there are vestiges of an "irreducible dynamic rapport" with a further historical past, specifically the "pure" and autonomous art of modernism as well as the minimalist practices that have come to figure as a crisis in this narrative.
To be sure, these are questions that demand time not only to answer but to formulate, and questions to rethink above all in light of the specificities of the work collected in this catalogueue. In other words, it would be necessary to situate the work in light of a more rigorous genealogy of these historical sedimentations, outlining an analysis that would constitute a more fitting critical and historical context for the scope of the issues the work evidently aims to raise in the viewer. At the very least, one suspects that claims to the contemporary appeal of the work, notably its references to social and political issues, will become reworked into a more nuanced understanding of the work's historical presuppositions. In short, this demand for a more intricate understanding of the presuppositions of socially and politically demanding work is the least that might be suggested at a time when widespread claims to ambitious art often appear coterminous with the most extraordinary displays of historical and art historical amnesia. No appeal to Fukuyama's "end of history", no appeal to Danto's pluralism and the belated Hegelianism of his references to "ends", no appeal to a situation defined as "postmodern" ever fully escapes the responsibilities for thinking through the historical presuppositions of exhibited work today. Whatever the arguments proposed by these readings and interpretations and their scope and heuristic value should not be underestimated suffice it to remark that the status of the work of art its self-identity will not remain unaffected, that the work of art will remain an irreducible issue for these problems rather than the medium through which they are relayed or illustrated. And I further suggest that it is a decisive aspect of the work of Guillaume Paris that it finds itself negotiating these issues; in short, that the work faces us in ways that its most immediate and recognizable appeal is also the way the work exposes us to a more unsettling "dynamic", exposes us to the more unrecognizable thoughts of irreducible, and remarkably contingent, differences.
Only when art's other is sensed as a primary layer in the experience of art does it become possible to sublimate this layer, to dissolve the thematic bonds, without the autonomy of the artwork becoming a matter of indifference. Art is autonomous and it is not; without what is heterogeneous to it, its autonomy eludes it.
Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, (trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor)
There is one specific section of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory that I want to suggest explicitly concerns the work of Guillaume Paris, a section that refocuses more succinctly some of the issues we have been raising in the preceding pages. The relevant section, toward the beginning of the text, focuses on what Adorno terms the "deaestheticization" (Entkunstung) of art, literally, the destruction of art's quality as art. Adorno is foregrounding the term in order to rethink the dialectical relation between commodity goods and the culture industry on the one hand and "the concept of pure art" and its "autonomy" on the other. He suggests that if "aesthetic categories have lost their a priori validity", then it is also important to remark that this loss has a history. The "deaestheticization" of art, in which aesthetic categories are now held open to question, is not only a determining aspect of the work of art's self-identity; it is constitutively tied to the historical relation between the positing of the "pure" and autonomous work of art and the fetishisized "commodities" endlessly reproduced by the culture industry. It is this history that I take to be especially pertinent for thinking through the work collected in this catalogueue.
In the pages immediately preceding the relevant section, Adorno is raising the question of the work of art's relation to the "empirical" world, suggesting that "art's inescapable affirmative essence has become insufferable. Art must turn against itself, in opposition to its own concept, and thus become uncertain of itself right into its innermost fiber". What imports in Adorno's claim is: 1) the way in which this uncertainty turns on the opposition between nonrepresentational, "pure" painting and work that engages the "real contexts" of the empirical world; 2) the way in which this "turn" by art "in opposition to its own concept" finds its "law" moving both within and against Hegel's "idealist dialectic", and notably Hegel's concern with a form of dialectical "synthesis," and 3) the way in which the positing of alterity and otherness in the work of art remains irreducible to its representational or thematic contents:
Essential to art are defining characteristics that contradict its fixed art-philosophical concept. Hegel's content-aesthetics recognized that element of otherness immanent to art and thus superseded formal aesthetics, which apparently operates with a so much purer concept of art and of course liberated historical developments such as nonrepresentational painting that are blocked by Hegel's ... content-aesthetics. At the same time, however, Hegel's idealist dialectic, which conceives form as content, regresses to a crude, preaesthetic level. It confuses the representational or discursive treatment of thematic material with the otherness that is constitutive of art.
Rather than seeking "otherness" and alterity in the representational or thematic contents of the work, art's constitutive otherness is disclosed in and as the aesthetic autonomy of the work. More specifically, the work's alterity is disclosed in its "elements" and in the work's "constellation" of effects. Not only is the work's invented artifice and "unreality" not independent of "existing reality" but its "autonomy" is only given through what is heterogeneous to the work's (own) self-identity:
Not only art's elements, but their constellation as well, that which is specifically aesthetic and to which its spirit is usually chalked up, refer back to its other. The identity of the artwork with existing reality is also that of the work's gravitational force, which gathers around itself its membra disjecta, traces of the existing. The artwork is related to the world by the principle that contrasts it with the world, and that is the same principle by which spirit organized the world. The synthesis achieved by means of the artwork is not simply forced on its elements; rather, it recapitulates that in which these elements communicate with one another; thus the synthesis is itself a product of otherness.
In asserting a more rigorously dialectical reading of the work of art's relation to its heterogeneous other, Adorno then goes on to suggest that any engagement with Hegelian "synthesis" not only discloses the various ways in which synthesis has its foundation in various forms of sublimation (a term that will come in for extensive conceptual use in the writings of Guillaume Paris) but also in what he terms "the spirit-distant material dimensions of works, in that in which synthesis is active". In other words, Adorno's text is attempting to rethink the relation between materialism and spiritual transcendence or synthesis in light of a radical reconfiguring of the "self"-identity or immanence of the work of art in relation to its exterior other.
What further demands our attention in Adorno's argument is the history that subtends the very attempt to rethink the question of synthesis and otherness in the first place. This history is not a question of the purity of nonrepresentational painting but rather insists on the "nonintentional" in art, a phrase that attempts to convey for Adorno not only art's relation to "what it is not" its heterogeneous other but what he terms art's apparent "sympathy with its lower manifestations". More precisely, the specific history of this "sympathy" is found variously in Wedekind's "derision of the art-artist", in the work of Apollinaire, and in "the beginnings of cubism". The specificities of this history concern us less than Adorno's argument that "the nonintentional in art" engenders "art's unconscious self-consciousness in its participation in what is contrary to it", i.e. its lower manifestations, concluding that "this self-consciousness motivated art's culture-critical turn that cast off the illusion of its purely spiritual being".
It would be possible to demonstrate that Adorno's argument, in its own stricter dialectical patterns, posits "pure" nonrepresentational painting as precisely that which is "unconscious" or sublimated in the "self-consciousness" of art's "participation in what is contrary to it". But rather than subject Adorno's text to these kind of pressures here, I want to foreground: 1) the analogies between Adorno's rethinking of Hegelian "synthesis" and the opening epigraph on synthesis and dialectical work with which we started, a dialectic which demands for Adorno "intransigence" toward all "reification" and "identity thinking"; 2) the proximity between Adorno's positing of modernism, notably the ways in which it finds itself transformed out of earlier cult and more archaic forms of fetishism and magic, and Guillaume Paris' own anthropological interests in fetishism and animism; and 3) the more difficult rapport between Adorno's phrase "art's unconscious self-consciousness in its participation in what is contrary to it" and Morris' distinction between the object becoming "less important" and the object "merely become less self-important" (a juxtaposition of phrases that admitedly replaces Adorno's reference to "cubism" here with "minimalism" and its critical legacy).
We turn, then, to the section in which Adorno's fuller historical narrative is presented concerning the relation between the "deaestheticization" of art the destruction or effacement of art's quality as art and the cultural commodities administered by the culture industry:
Art responds to the loss of its self-evidence not simply by concrete transformations of its procedures and comportments but by trying to pull itself free from its own concept as from a shackle: the fact that it is art. This is most strikingly confirmed by what were once the lower arts and entertainment, which are today administered, integrated, and qualitatively reshaped by the culture industry. For this lower sphere never obeyed the concept of pure art, which itself developed late... Those who have been duped by the culture industry and are eager for its commodities were never familiar with art: They are therefore able to perceive art's inadequacy to the present life process of society - though not society's own untruth - more unobstructedly than do those who still remember what an artwork once was. They push for the deaestheticization of art.
Adorno then goes on to describe this process of "deaestheticization" in specific detail:
Its unmistakable symptom is the passion to touch everything, to allow no work to be what it is, to dress it up, to narrow its distance from the viewer. The humiliating difference between art and the life people lead, and in which they do not want to be bothered because they could not bear it otherwise, must be made to disappear. If despite all this, art does not become simply consumable, then at least the relation to it can be modeled on the relation to actual commodity goods.
If this question of modeling the relation between the viewer and the work of art is implicated in the relation to "actual commodity goods", then this is made easier because, as Adorno argues, "in the age of overproduction the commodity's use value has become questionable and yields to the secondary gratification of prestige, of being in step, and, finally, of the commodity character itself": it culminates, he suggests, as "a parody of aesthetic semblance". In the process, however, "nothing remains of the autonomy of art other than the fetish character of the commodity, regression to the archaic fetishism in the origin in art". And to this extent, he suggests, "the contemporary attitude to art is regressive".
More pointedly for our own concerns here, Adorno goes on to argue that the modeling of the relation between viewer and artwork in terms of actual commodities transforms a prior history of the beholder of a work of art and the traditional affects the work was meant to create in the viewing subject:
The old affinity of the beholder and the beheld is turned on its head. Insofar as the now typical attitude makes the artwork something merely factual, even art's mimetic element, itself incompatible with whatever is purely a thing, is bartered off as a commodity. The consumer arbitrarily projects his impulses mimetic remnants on whatever is presented to him. Prior to total administration, the subject who viewed, heard, or read a work was to lose himself, forget himself, extinguish himself in the artwork. The identification carried out by the subject was ideally not that of making an artwork like himself, but rather that of making himself like the artwork. This identification constituted aesthetic sublimation; Hegel named this comportment freedom to the object. He thus paid homage to the subject that becomes subject in spiritual experience through self-relinquishment, the opposite of the philistine demand that the artwork give him something. As a tabula rasa of subjective projections, however, the artwork is shorn of its qualitative dimension. The poles of the artwork's deaestheticization are that it is made as much a thing among things as a psychological vehicle of the spectator. What the reified artworks are no longer able to say is replaced by the beholder with the standardized echo of himself, to which he hearkens. This mechanism is set in motion by the culture industry.
If I cite Adorno's analysis at length here, it is because it remains one of the most incisive challenges to the empty and ahistorical claims for the overcoming of modernist or "autonomous" art. At the same time, Adorno's argument clearly resituates the history that culminates in the widespread contemporary appeals to "activate" the viewer's participation in the meaning of the work. And lastly, Adorno is able to bring together seemingly disparate concepts, histories and discourses within a binding dialectical rapport, concepts, histories and discourses that clearly pertain to the work of Guillaume Paris and its critical elucidation.
"autonomous" work of art. The work openly appears to claim for itself the "regressive" aspect to which Adorno refers, as if conscious that the work's raison d'être is to become a "parody of aesthetic semblance". Looking through the catalogue, we recognize not only the references to commodities and the culture industry; we also begin to notice how certain pieces literally "dress" themselves up (two of the earliest installed pieces include a ballerina's dress placed around a white column (Untitled) and pink curtains of lace and gingham hanging either side of an electrical outlet (Untitled)). The work not only finds its more explicit concern with "the fetish character of the commodity" and "the abstract being-for-other" of cultural commodities; it fetishizes, as it were, this act of fetishism. And in this "excess", the work works on the viewer's recognition of the difference between the fetishism of commodities in everyday life and the conspicuous display and artifice of this fetishism, not so much collapsing of that distance (something that we have also learnt to call an "installation", or rather something the artist has more specifically termed a "dispositif"). If the work "does not become simply consumable", then at least the relation to it "can be modeled on the relation to actual commodity goods". And it is precisely this work of modeling that becomes the task of the work to re-display and renegotiate. The viewer not only knows the difference between the products of the supermarket and the highly artificial presentation of these same products; the work shows itself being self-conscious that it is not being "duped" by the culture industry, so self-conscious, in fact, that it seems to be playing with the terms in which the work is "unconsciously self-conscious" of these debts in the first place.
To be sure, the viewer is never quite sure whether this is a serious claim or not, never quite sure where exactly to find one's "self" in the carefully negotiated "distance" with the work. But the work appears to know how to perceive art's adequacy to "the present life process of society" and to make an exhibition of this adequacy. And what the work seems to know with the most extraordinary lucidity is that this "adequacy" can only ever be played out "seemingly" as an ironic joke. The work on first sight seems to assume its air of irony and cynicism not because it is dismissive of commodities and the culture industry but precisely because the work is "indignant" with what it takes to be the seriousness and nostalgia of those who recall "the concept of pure art", those who claim to "still remember what an artwork once was". The work, in other words, seems to want to deride the "art-artist" in order to negotiate its different strategies with both the viewer and the contexts in which the viewers are situated, the environment in which meanings are generated. In consequence, what seems to be the deaestheticization of art culminates in the piece both looking only what it is "a thing among things" lying rather dumbly on the floor or a shelf, without pretension, reified like an old commodity but it is by virtue of the fact that it is being what it is in an estranging context that it also knows that it offers itself to the spectator as "a psychological vehicle", one in which "the consumer arbitrarily projects his impulses mimetic remnants on whatever is presented to him". No wonder that widespread claims to cynicism abound when confronted with work itself so seemingly cynical, especially when "what the reified artworks are no longer able to say is replaced by the beholder with the standardized echo of himself, to which he hearkens". It is not the work that is boring and indifferent, as so many finally claim, and then blame the artworld (its institutions, its money, its smug opportunism). It is perhaps the more unsettling recognition that it is not only we as viewers who have become boring and indifferent hearing ourselves laughing endlessly at the same jokes about stereotypes but now bored and indifferent by the recognition of our own stereotypes as we wander aimlessly through the "gallery" and on to the next. At least we have recognized that the work is working. But that has become part of a more general ennui and disdain too. It is as if there is too much recognition of our own selves beginning to look like the artwork pretending to be different.
The question that remains to be asked is the extent to which these visual strategies, widespread and conspicuous as they have become, reproduce the culture industry's own attempt to efface "pure" art. And the question also remains whether art, art in general in the wake of minimalism, finds itself here forced to rethink the distinction Robert Morris established in which the object has not become less important. It has become merely less "self-important" because it assumes that this loss of self-importance provided the freedom for art's increased theatrical presence and performance, its own freedom to engage the world again after the self-enclosed and autonomous world of modernism. It is this freedom that is not only looking increasingly ironic and jaded today. The humor of so much recent art would also seem to be a symptom of the refusal to think through the agents between self and heterogeneous other in and as the work of art, the refusal, in short, to disentangle or re-entangle what is self-conscious in the work of art from what is unconsciously self-conscious. (I suggest that one of the most conspicuous recent symptoms of dialectically negating this problem would be the various ways in which the artist feigning a knowing ignorance has made his or her "self" the theatricalized and mediatized stage around which to display their own work as "unconsciously self-conscious").
And yet, the difference between these objects becoming less important and these objects becoming merely less self-important also tends to reinforce and necessitate the repeated references to the "reductive" structures characteristic of so much work in this catalogueue: (I cite at random) a black and white grid in Fin d'Histoire (1988); boxes in Present (1993-94) or Wolf in Sheep's Clothing (1994); serial repetitions with the banana skins in Untitled (frieze) (1992); minimalist painting on the wall in Endless Painting (1992); illusions of fullness and hollowness in Land of Milk and Honey (Bold Joy) (1996); or anthropomorphism in Huff Huff and Puppet (1994) all minimalist strategies that are then ironically transformed (see especially the four motorized rubber hands wearing latex gloves that extend out from the sides of the formica covered pedestal in Untitled (1990), or Huff Huff and Puppet (1994), fabricated boxes whose ends are pierced like their cardboard counterparts, and in such a manner that their faces now become faces.) If I cite Adorno in this context, it is in order to suggest not only the dialectical history to which this distinction between the "importance" and "self-importance" of the work can be rethought after minimalism, and not only to suggest how these issues are being played out across the work of Guillaume Paris, but to foreground the implications for a more widespread practice that refuses (like the culture industry and its administering of entertainment) to understand this "self-identity" in and as the form and autonomy of the work of art. In other words, these extended references to Adorno attempt to raise again the question of what it means for the work to "be," as Adorno writes, "what it is" (purely, merely) in and as its relation to "its" (impure) heterogeneous other. It is not only this relation that seems to be one of the defining and determining aspects of the work collected here; as Adorno further claims, this relation demands that we now accept that the antonomous work of art is thus not a priori but "the sedimentation of a historical process" that constitutes the very concept of art from the beginning.
In this light, we should therefore foreground Guillaume Paris' repeated insistence in his interviews that the work sublimates itself on two levels. Recalling our earlier discussion concerning the immediate "recognition" of certain aspects of the work, it is important that the work attempts not only to establish the distance what Adorno terms the "dissonance" for reflective and critical assessment, but to distance this first form of distancing. The first level of distancing is secured by the work's references to the everyday prose of the world, securing an immediate estranging, a dissonance that is constitutive of the viewer's initial experience. It is at this first level that the work's tone is apparent, confirming its sense of irony or even cynicism. But there remains the necessity of restaging that distancing at a second remove so that the work does not fall into mere cynicism, does not fall back into precisely the rapport of an "exchange" value typical of the "commodities" of the culture industry. Indeed, the second distancing works not only to displace the work's irony and cynicism but attempts to re-establish, through an intensified excess, "the regression to the archaic fetishism in the origin of art". In this sense, the work also appears to heighten the sense of animism or fetishism (say, a bar of soap with "Spirit" inscribed on its side, at once brand name and transcendental reference, or through titles such as Théophanies or White Magic), and in such a way that, in the artist's terms, de-reification is suggested through hyper-fetishism and the explicit displays of animism can now be conceived as their own form of cultural resistance. In short, it would be possible to demonstrate that the work collected here is concerned with trying to tease out the visual strategies and allusions that determine this double movement of sublimation.
Phrased another way, without this second form of distancing or "dissonance", the work becomes witness to its own historical amnesia, a "testimony of culture's failure", a failure in response to which all we can find ourselves doing is laughing with cynicism and indifference. As Adorno writes, "dissonance congeals into an indifferent material; indeed, it becomes a new form of immediacy, without any memory trace of what it developed out of". This doubling of the distance between the work and the viewer through strategies of display, coupled with the work's signifying allusion to both consumerism and hyper-fetishism, therefore attempts to circumvent the mere "indifference" of the thing being simply a thing without pretensions to be "a work of art" (culminating in the immediacy of the work's surefire humor and quickfire irony). In other words, this double movement attempts to circumvent the parodies of aesthetic semblance as their own reification, thereby establishing not so much a more meaningful relation with the viewer's personal responses but now explicitly concerned with the "memory traces" of the work and the presuppositions of its history. Only then will this second form of "dissonance" recreate the point where "the immanent play of forces" within an artwork find their autonomy complicit with traces of "external reality" and its empirical other. Only then, does the "power" of the work over the subject intensify in parallel with the increasing autonomy of the work. Only at this point will the work of art "assist the non-identical in its struggle against the repressive identification compulsion that rules in reality".
Not that the increasing autonomy of the work folds into an essentialized formalism. On the contrary, emphasis on the work's "elements", "proportions", form and sensuous semblances of being emphasis on its explicit play of artifice simultaneously discloses the otherness constitutive in the work's "self-importance". The "constellation" of the work is thus not only a measure of the work's "self-importance" but the "unconscious self-consciousness" of the impossibility of it ever fully becoming "merely" purely less self-important on which the work nevertheless finds its impulse to being a work of art. In consequence, we might say that the work's autonomy and "self"-identity is always deficient, at once lacking and in excess, its dis-play and ex-position the acknowledgment of its contingency, finitude or the "wound" of its autonomy".
In his book The Fate of Art, J.M. Bernstein remarks that:
the wound of autonomy is for Adorno the point of departure of modernist art, where modernist art is understood as the critical, reflective comprehension and continuation of the project of modern, autonomous art. True art must challenge its autonomous essence (autonomously), must, that is, acknowledge that its capacity to produce wholes is grounded in its distance from empirical reality, and hence acknowledge its wholeness as illusory... We are familiar with this tension extrinsically through the various attempts by art throughout this century to infiltrate itself directly into the real world, to break down the barriers between art and life. These attempts have failed. Hence the dilemma art finds itself in today: "If it lets go of autonomy it sells out to the established order, whereas if it tries to stay strictly within its autonomous confines it becomes equally co-optable, living its harmless life in its appointed niche."
This fate, of course, typifies much of what we might discern as the dilemma of art and the "artworld" today. And yet, as Bernstein then goes on to suggest:
To comprehend modernist works of art is to comprehend the motions of this dilemma, the symptoms of the wound of autonomy, as an internal constituent of artworks, indeed as constitutive of them, and hence constitutive of the claim works make. But since this claim is a historical claim it follows that its establishment must be intensely problematic since, if autonomy is a wound as well as a condition for art's claiming, then art is a critique of what lies outside it. However, the only evidence offered for things outside art being such as to make autonomy a wound is the wound itself; that this, and this alone, is art's historical fate. Equally, however, this is the strength of the thesis; if art's autonomy is a wound, if art's autonomy inscribes an antinomic space, then this offers the best evidence we can have that the world outside art is disfigured by its repression or exclusion of what art works exemplify, of what their illusory wholeness is an illusion of.
Of course, the work in this catalogue would seem to be everywhere surrounded by illusions and unfreedom, to which it simultaneously bears witness. And art's irony, art in general's irony, would appear to offer itself as an endless commentary on this predicament. Worse, the cynicism that appears so widespread today offers itself as a gratuitous compensation for the knowledge that this predicament is insurmountable, the work left "living its harmless life in its appointed niche". As Adorno writes, "whoever, rightly, senses unfreedom in all art is tempted to capitulate, to resign in the face of the gathering forces of administration, with the dismissive assertion that 'nothing ever changes' ". And yet it also seems that the need for art appears to intensify today in the midst of the "imageless world", a need that inevitably "tends to arouse doubts" (something like "an afterimage of magic as consolation for disenchantment" Adorno suggests). Facing this doubt, what I have been trying to discern in Guillaume Paris' work is how the acknowledgment that the work's "illusory" wholeness in relation to the world is itself irreducible to irony and cynical effect these surefire effects that are so many theatricalized symptoms of what the work "really wants to be", symptoms then displaced to the displays of the "self" so appealing to the artworld's contemporary self-representation irreducible, in other words, to the numerous pseudo-politicized discourses about institutional "appropriation" that so frequently accompany, validate and justify these effects. What I have also been suggesting in these pages what I find determining the work in exemplary ways is not the manner in which it "corresponds to manifest social need" (to cite Adorno one last time) a correspondence, he argues, that allows art to become itself "primarily a profit-driven industry that carries on for as long as it pays, and by its smooth functioning it obscures the fact that it is already dead" (there are already enough of these dead works living today to contribute to these self-serving causes, already enough graveside sermons to the media gathered around giggling carcasses.) Nor is the work advocating that it overcomes its self-identity as a work of art and fuses with life. Rather, it is "in the semblance of what is other" and the fictioning of alterity in the "traces of the existing" that determine the work's own groundless and "wounded" autonomy that the work's "possibility" and "potentiality" unfold. In other words, what I have been trying to imagine in an initial and abbreviated form are the ways in which this work offers us an affirmation without recourse to blind or complacent skepticism, and a community without cynicism an affirmation and community, then, as contingent and finite as the deficiencies, distress, contradictions and potentialities of (a) H.U.M.A.N.W.O.R.L.D.