translated from German by Carrie Roseland
It’s staring at me, expressionless. Its gaze is boring into me. I can’t take it anymore. I pull my blanket over my head. That thing keeps me from doing what I want, even in hiding. It doesn’t need to see me, and it can’t. It’s enough for it to smell me. It doesn’t even need to smell me, just the idea that it could is all it takes. Maybe it’s been broken for ages anyway, or it’s nothing but an empty shell making me postpone my cigarette in anticipatory obedience. Were I to smoke, it might set off a chain reaction. The plastic companion would do the one and only thing it can do: detect smoke and sound the alarm. Seconds later, the cleaning supervisor would bang on the door, a human extension of the olfactory machine monitoring me, ready to storm the room. I‘m imagining a thoroughly wild scene, although those interventions usually go down discretely. So, nothing would happen after my offense. I wouldn’t even know if the detector had registered my smoke at all. I would remain suspended in uncertainty until my departure, and then practically relieved by the sense of clarity at having indeed been caught that paying the one-hundred and fifty Euro odor-removal fee on top of the minibar tab would bring me. The concierge wouldn’t even go to the trouble of explaining to me how I came to accept that service. Instead, he would stare at the screen and trust entirely in my own guilty conscience. So far, everyone has gone weak at being told they smell nasty. I read the price for de-scenting in the instructions to my hotel room that I found laying on the table in a folder. By leaving my credit card number as a deposit, I consented to the contract and the fine qua paid service. I inch my head back out into the light and regard the serial number (225 / 16) on my contractual partner’s electronic nose. Just smoking at the window won’t work either, since the 9th floor windows have been locked as a precautionary measure in light of the heightened risk of jumping. Putting off my cigarette is making my head spin. The desire to smoke triumphs over my unwillingness to get dressed. I pull on my jogging pants and leave the room. On the way to the elevator, bleach spots on the floor mark past accidents. In these erasures, whatever blood, red wine or human excretions once inflicted is supposed to disappear. The chemical attacks eaten pale into the carpet remind me of a piece I saw two weeks ago by Lawrence Weiner. An Amount of Bleach Poured Upon a Rug and Allowed to Bleach was part of a large show on the life of the carpet dealer and gallerist Seth Siegelaub.
For Siegelaub’s January Show (1969), Weiner had given type-written instructions to pour bleach on the black carpeting in the gallery and let the substance take effect. Now a full-scale replica of that gallery has been installed in the Stedelijk Museum and Weiner’s instructions are being carried out once again. Set between pieces gnawed at by the teeth of time, the cleaning spot has a fresh feel to it, as does a new chair similar to the one on which Siegelaub’s assistant Adrian Piper is once supposed to have sat. I imagine this spot could also have been smuggled into a show of recent work without attracting too much attention. One industrial product attacking another. An inconsistent destruction follows, threadbare discolorations that can no longer be blotted out. The texture is being exposed. The fabric is losing its smoothness. A consistency is breaking down into various depths and trajectories. The eye believes it can look through chalky white holes into transparent material. Now the elevator door is opening. I get sucked up by a Scandinavian tour group, only to separate myself again a few seconds later. In front of the hotel, I become part of another group whose members have been intimidated by teacup-sized plastic objects under the ceiling in their contractual rooms, just like I was. This group looks bad. I feel ashamed, toss away my cigarette after just a few drags and make a run for the breakfast room. The silent flat screen is showing an African man who can pull nails from wooden planks with his teeth and then lets vehicles drive over him. Six light-skinned men climb into a Land Rover and take off, but the phenomenal man caves. That appears to exceed his capacity for achievement. I stare at my plate, disturbed, and think through my scrambled eggs to the contracts Seth Siegelaub devised, the ones that were supposed to regulate the sale of immaterial projects as a new commodity art form. Initially he simply offered spaces, which could also be books or posters, where defined gestures were declared a previously unknown form of work. In Weiner’s case, the liquid application does imply a relatively calculable effect, but it also frames a dynamic of the unforseeable. No bleaching could turn out like another. Although the procedure could be defined in one statement, the spot evades description. The beauty of the piece is that it uses so little, almost nothing in fact, to spin a web of contradictions. An Amount … follows the lines of a conceptual art that withdraws into the immaterial. But in that piece a dynamic materializes in which one material takes away portions of another, disappears it. Carrying out the instructions eats itself into the material as an amount, erases the color and corrodes the tissue. What remains as an erasure alternates between amorphous quasi-naturalness and the banality of the quotidian. While putting the industrially manufactured amount into effect through a random human agent does give an appearance of personal anonymity, it also has a physicality momentarily reminiscent of bodily fluids that leave behind white tracks. Strictly speaking, there is no need to extend the defined incursion into the surface of the rug through aesthetic associations. An Amount … is simply there and yet everything but “indifferent to its material conditions,” as Suhail Malik recently tried to define the supposed “Anti-Aesthetics” of the instruction pieces in “Reason for the Destruction of Contemporary Art.” His desire to revive the possibility of an anti-aesthetics in the speculative theme park feels outright understandable. But ultimately I can’t fight off the impression that Malik is just betraying a truth for the sake of his punchline. The bleach spot originates in the cosmos that Benjamin Buchloh once called “the aesthetics of management.” Although the bleaching has been pseudo-contractually preformulated, it doesn’t stop at that. Execution results in something more. Yet, instead of generating an object, the Amount eating into the tissue leads to a materialized interference, not a destruction of the framework, which suggests the perforation of an assertive order. What opens here are passageways though which lines of flight could extend. Pinholes like these seem more promising than Malik’s militant call for destruction. While the desire to sidestep a stalled circulation between thing and viewer might be entirely understandable, barked calls to smash the existing order generally only lead to leaving three and calling it even, just to keep the punchline from falling flat. Nothing against the desire to go for a stroll in the past. But, from Malik’s retrograde projection that an “anti-aesthetic” was possible fifty years ago, how can we derive that a contemporary art which has supposedly lapsed into randomness and explanation dependency has to be destroyed?
Seth Siegelaub’s conceptual art adventure was already exhausted in the early seventies. That is where the main section of the Amsterdam show Beyond Conceptual Art begins, no big surprise for a time when abandoning art appears to be en vogue. Siegelaub shut down his gallery and worked on an alternative New York paper instead. When that failed to take off, he relocated to Paris and built up a Marxist media analysis archive. In a way, you could say he started turning his back on the future. Whereas the gallery was still a space, or a non-space, where what had never before occurred could happen, media criticism commented on facts as given and the resultant assumptions. The move from making possible that which never was toward studying that which is would accelerate one more time. In the early eighties, Siegelaub started collecting hand-woven fabrics and fabrics from regions outside the West.
He effectively focused his attention on the very thing he had used to finance his start. In other words, Siegelaub completed a curve that started with material dissolution in art, proceeded over materialist criticism of the information industry and terminated at the collection of materials whose loose ends were long-since tied up. He collected materialized history and literally went conservative in life. He could now monitor the objects of his attention, which is reflected in an elevated platform where the exhibition architecture lets viewers look out over the vitrines and the fabrics arranged inside them. The last years of Siegelaub’s life saw yet another turn. In Time and Causality, he wrote a book on theoretical physics and opened yet another door, this one to a spatiotemporal world in which no one thing followed from any other and how things were did not indicate how things would be.
Seth Siegelaub, Beyond Conceptual Art, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, until April 17, 2016
Hans-Christian Dany is a Hamburg based artist and writer, and a founding editor of Starship. His most recent book Schneller als die Sonne. Aus dem rasenden Stillstand in eine unbekannte Zukunft is available at Edition Nautilus, www.edition-nautilus.de.