Magazine article Art Monthly

A Secret Service

Magazine article Art Monthly

A Secret Service

Article excerpt

A Secret Service De La Warr Pavilion Bexhill on Sea January 27 to April 15

There would appear to be a fundamental contradiction in the idea of art that can be secret, since many definitions of art depend on display and communication. If art is taken to be a reflection on the totality of human experience, though, concealment would play a major role--as Lord Byron put it, 'All that we know is, nothing can be known'. Withheld information spurs political acts, while mystery is integral to narrative form, and one of the meta-narratives of 20th-century art revolves round the purposeful disappearance of the artwork and the alternative strategies that this necessitates. Secrecy, then, is a core concept that artists often eye ambivalently. The pull of the art market and an artist's desire for critical recognition require a conventional relationship between artwork and audience; and yet, as 'A Secret Service' demonstrates, there are methodologies, subject matter and ideologies that can somehow employ the covert while remaining in plain sight.

Curator and artist Richard Grayson conceived of 'A Secret Service' during an AHRB fellowship at Newcastle University, where a fragment of Kurt Schwitters' Merzbarn, 1947-48, is permanently installed in the Hatton Gallery. Schwitters' enigmatic Merz installations provide a point from which Grayson charts the extent of a conceptual territory, drawing out parallels and permutations throughout other, more recent artists' work. That none of the Merzbauten were on public display is central to the exhibition: the windows of 5 Waldhausenstrasse, Hanover--the site of the first Merzbau, destroyed by bombing in 1943--were whitewashed to afford no glimpse to passers-by; very few people were ever invited to visit it and the few surviving photographs taken throughout the 20 or so years of its construction provide evasive, even self-contradictory, evidence. A number of artists in 'A Secret Service' also position themselves within the art world but, like Schwitters, operate at the edge of visibility. Gedewon's talismans are to be viewed by the spirits that inhabit humans, while Tehching Hsieh's year-long performances--which include being tied by a rope to artist Linda Montano, clocking in on the hour every hour and solitary confinement in a cage in his studio--could only be known through documentation. Grayson draws associations with outsider artists Henry Darger and Oskar Voll on the basis that neither made work for an external audience. In Darger's case the supposition is that his vast novel The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angellinian War Storm, Caused by the Slave Rebellion, for which his collaged drawings of hermaphroditic little girls are illustrations, is a therapeutic working-through of religious and familial upheaval.

Another permutation on the theme is art that is made for an audience, but employed to make the hidden visible. Mark Lombardi's diagrams, for instance, trace the connections between prominent figures and organisations and nefarious activity, detecting and publishing that which has been wilfully obscured. Susan Hiller's Dream Mapping, 1974, on the other hand, attempts and ultimately fails to identify imperceptible group dynamics. Hiller asked seven acquaintances to keep a diary of dreams, using diagrams, drawings and writing, and then invited them all to sleep for three nights in a field abundant with fairy circles in the hope of identifying a collective dream. …

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