Sunday, February 7, 2010

Limitless horizons, or museum illusions, with theremin

The Roman playwright Terence (I think) is famous for his “Homo sum; puto nihil humanum alienum a me.” Kwame Anthony Appiah points out that this Family of Man type of saying, “I’m a human being; I don’t think anything human is alien from me” is followed up with the line that therefore “if I think you’re right, I’ll leave you alone; if I think you’re wrong, I’ll endeavor to set you right.”

But those of us who never feel completely at home in any situation are painfully aware of the problem of communicating across cultural boundaries, including the communities we actually live in, and of the particular difficulties of ever “being right.”

So imagine my surprise the other weekend when I dropped by Agnes Scott College’s art gallery to take another look at “Limitless,” and found myself in the midst of what appeared to be a tour group of retirees from Eastern Europe. I imagined how the tour guide must be challenged with explaining Didi Dunphy’s padded see-saws, E. K. Huckaby’s deliberately distressed paintings and Department of Dysiatrics, Klimchak’s theremin and homemade musical instruments, and Martha Whittington’s erasing machine, where its origins in a Leonardo da Vinci design would be the easy part of the explanation.

Actually, the group was as sophisticated as you would expect a tour group from somewhere in the former Soviet bloc to be, one of them asking to be reminded if the theremin wasn’t invented by a Russian “twenty, thirty years in the last century” (meaning the 1920s-1930s), and another taking enormous pleasure in Huckaby’s not-so-Southern Gothic sensibilities and asking how to get in touch with the artist.

I was tremendously worried, though, as to what they would think of Joe Peragine’s huge, allegorical diorama of a military invasion, a commentary on the tidied-up world of history dioramas in general. Peragine mixes historical era and levels of skill, emphasizing the artificiality of the diorama genre by using unpainted cardboard cutouts in the foreground, more convincingly painted ship models behind those, and a large background painting continuing the theme of overwhelming seapower, with fleets of B52-like bombers massed in formation overhead.

It’s a complex commentary on how we perceive the messiness of history through a romanticized filter. (The luridly sentimentalized colors of the backdrop refer to Peragine’s previous series of paintings exploring this topic.) I suspected that all the retirees would see was a vivid reminder of the Wehrmacht rolling across the plains of Ukraine and Byelorussia or blitzing the cities of the Russian Front.

And I was right. They said through their translator that this reminded them of things they had seen in the Second World War, and one wanted to know if this represented a specific battle. So the work required some explanation of the place of artifice in the representation of history and how combining successive generations of military hardware and levels of sophistication in the representation meant that…well, actually, gallery director Lisa Alembik and I made no such remarks. She did talk about museums and how they tidy up history with adorable miniatures when the original was a big, horrible in-your-face reality. This latter fact, these folks remembered very well.

When I asked where they were from, there was a debate about how to describe “a country that no longer exists,” and the translator settled on, specifically not Russia, but “the former Soviet Union.” (From the discussion I began to wonder if they were from two or three adjacent former Soviet republics; one of the younger members of the group, perhaps even from the immediate postwar generation, introduced herself in English as being from Leningrad.)

In any case, I suspect their country was indeed still the Soviet Union when most of them left it to come live in metro Atlanta. I once learned from the daughter of a post-WW2 Russian émigré that many members of the postwar emigration never completely mastered English even after decades of living as almost the only foreigners in the smaller cities that accepted them. Later generations of émigrés would presumably have faced even greater challenges of adopting a very different language later in their lives.

The young translator, whether out of incomprehension of my question (but not because of any lack of fluency) or unwillingness to discuss it further, would say no more than these were part of a local adult day care program that arranged day excursions. “Adult day care” might be taken to imply some degree of impairment, but the only obstacle these folks were facing was a need for company and a lack of fluency in the English language.

So I felt I had had an instructive day trip, myself. Just when you think you have gotten to know all the diverse communities in this very multicultural burg, another one confronts you with a challenge of translation in more ways than one. I once wrote about the challenges of writing art reviews just tailored for audiences aged eighteen to eighty who shared historic U.S. ethnicities; throw in not just the rest of the United States but the rest of the planet, and—well, there you have it. On the internet, but not only on the internet, the world is already here. (But the whole world is not watching, and that too is part of the problem.)

But the Truth Is Simple

I suppose that since Image Not Available didn't reach a level beyond the standard Collector's Discount on Listed Retail at the auction, I ought to play the art version of Seinfeld's soup Nazi: "No private artist's statement for you!"

The physical portion of the work can be viewed here:

As is stated there (and as wasn't actually visible at the auction, either), the words "image not available" are hand-printed in gloss on the seemingly blank matte white canvas. The object on the square canvas below it is a small branch coated with acrylic gesso, so it isn't an image any more than the words about lack of an image. It's the real thing.

The art historical precursors are pretty obvious (Malevich, Ad R., Magritte, Yves Klein, Tino Sehgal), beginning with witnesses to an invisible spirituality and ending with purveyors of invisible zones of commerce. The bluntly commercial offer made in the poorly written artist's statement framed above the painting(s) has now been carried out.

The presence of the material question, however, does not negate the question of the spiritual. What we don't see, don't notice, or deny is even there remains a presence and a problem just as much as the fact that the words that elucidate this mystery are invisible in all but the most unusual of lighting conditions. (I did manage to photograph them, more or less. But only the word "not" is legible.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

It's Complicated

It’s Complicated; or, And Now for a Completely Gratuitous Moment of Unconcealed Self-Promotion

Jerry Cullum

The retail value of Image Not Available as listed online for the 11th Annual Art Papers Auction ( is for the artwork illustrated only. The originally listed retail value, not amenable to automated formats, was “It’s complicated.”

As set forth in a framed artist’s statement, which should appear above the artwork on the wall and which has been added free of charge as an additional incentive for bidding, the shape of the final artwork will be determined by the final purchase price and by factors to be determined by the artist.

The "value" of the final artwork is thus a variable function of the final auction sale price.

If and only if the price and other concealed but arguably rational factors make the gesture appropriate, the artist will provide an explanatory text that completes the artwork, for the purchaser’s exclusive use and enjoyment. If any of the unstated conditions are not met, the artist reserves the right not to provide such text, or to make such text publicly available to any such persons as he deems fit. The definition of “arguably rational factors” shall be determined by the artist and not by the purchaser and need not be disclosed upon delivery of the artwork. Image rights to the nonverbal components of Image Not Available are to be made publicly available to all potential users for noncommercial and scholarly purposes by Creative Commons license, or something like that that meets the actual requirements of legally binding description of availability.

I just thought y’all ought to know.

If a spoilsport Buys It Now, you won’t get to go through all this fun. The Complimentary Framed Statement will be yours to keep in any case along with the original artwork, to avoid pointless legal proceedings. Rights to the text of the Complimentary Framed Statement, including the production of subsequent limited or unlimited editions of said Statement, are retained by the artist for his sole use and for any such purposes as he deems fit. Purchaser may quote said text under current laws governing Fair Use.