Histories and other Eternally Recurring Things

For Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair
By David Quigley

Artists uncover something hidden in the present historical constellation, but this is done not to complete an archival gap or remedy some historical inaccuracy but rather to make something new, to make another way of thinking about the present situation possible ‒ however subtly different this new perspective might be.

[A photograph documents an abandoned Korean building that looks like it could be in Russia. Footsteps seen in the snow leading to the place where the picture was taken document the journey of the artist. The image is hung in a space somewhere on the other side of the planet. It, in turn, makes an impression on somebody else who begins to think about the identity of buildings, snow and footprints.]

Art is historical with respect to the history of art (in negotiations with past art) while at the same time functioning as a tool for shaping our experience in the world (negotiating our relationship to the various historical institutions and traditions that form our world). Although by definition interrelated, the art historical and the historically determined socio-political world are two different realms. All works of art are both works of art history and part of the socio-political world. Nonetheless, very little in the socio-political world is art.

The given situation (now!) is a unique historical constellation in which we may or may not be able to act, in which we may or may not be able to make a difference. The historical constellation is defined by various political, legal and economic forces that cannot be controlled by any single person. The abandoned Korean building is part of the historical-political world. In introducing it into a particular context, it becomes an art work. As a symbol, but also as a material thing, it becomes an art history.

Through creating art histories, individuals are able to create new versions of reality - although these realities might only be temporary and limited to a certain, sometimes even very small portion of the generation. Creating such art histories allows work (and thus also works) to escape the merely socio-political conditions of production. [Here again the recurring theme of the Feuerbachthesen: Artists not only interpret, they also change the world. They inscribe new interpretations (histories) of and into the world.]

Naturally, the more centralized the presentation of artworks, the more they become part of the world as a whole. At some point, art histories might become “art history”. The shift from “art histories” to “art history” occurs in the socio-political realm. The becoming one of the many histories implies a different valorization and increase in power; but in terms of individual freedom, it is often better to continue to speak in the plural. Histories (in plural) are closer to the underlying oneness of reality through their affirmation of the one as fundamentally many (paradox alert). Speaking in plural reflects both the fragmentary nature of brute matter and the multiple perspectives of individual life stories (as many histories as there are people alive: the generation).

Sometimes the point at which we do not understand what is going on in an artwork is the most productive. If we recognize too soon what is going on, there is no reason to continue along the path. When we understand something too clearly, we reach a point where thought stands still. At the same time, if there is no level of immediate understanding, there is no invitation to travel along together in the first place. The conversation must begin as clear prose and then slowly deteriorate (or progress) to more baffling connections. The conversation begins as a cultivated dinner party and slowly develops into an absurd, preposterous or beautiful rant, poem or nostalgic recollection [somebody reaches for the guitar and sings a song that will never be heard again, or somebody starts playing Michael Jackson records and everybody starts to dance]. The point at which we clearly understand what is going on is the point we should go home and start thinking about the horrible hangover we are going to have the next day. The point where we think the thought to its conclusion is the point where it is time to call a cab. The point where everything becomes clear is the end of history (the end of the party).

Time as Homesickness and the Voyage.

Heidegger paraphrasing Novalis claims: Das Heimweh ist die Grundstimmung des Philosophierens. In Novalis’s own words: “Die Philosophie ist eigentlich Heimweh ‒ Trieb überall zu Hause zu sein.” (In: Die Grundbegriffe der Metaphysik)

One could compare this “Grundstimmung” to that of Deleuze’s figure of the nomad (and thereby understand the fundamental difference between Deleuze and Heidegger). Not the nostalgia of the origin, of home, but rather the nostalgia (or more “glorification”) of the voyage. But along the way, this distinction gets fuzzier. The newness of the voyage reveals itself as the eternal return of the same [both the question of leaving nostalgia-intoxicated Russia and the recurring abstract forms free of immediate identity while at the same time trapped (or kept safe?) in the eternal return of the ornament]. Uncovering truth while becoming abstract machines, somewhere between nostalgia for the home we’ve known and joy in the face of the shelter we’ve just built.

Dedicated to the exhibition “us & them”. Published in Ve.Sch Heft Nr. 7, June 2012