Magazine article Art Monthly

Mystics or Rationalists?

Magazine article Art Monthly

Mystics or Rationalists?

Article excerpt

Mystics or Rationalists?

Ingleby Gallery Edinburgh 4 August to 22 October

The question asked by this exhibition seems intentionally impulsive, its brevity a well-judged nudge to make you feel uncomfortable with the dichotomy it presupposes. The Enlightenment drove a wedge between mysticism and rationalism that no longer seems desirable and in fact seems most associated with more reactionary groups such as the 'New Atheists', who paint a fairly black and white picture of things. More complex descriptions of science, which was at the heart of the Enlightenment, see mysticism and rationalism less as natural opposites and more as the result of political struggle. As philosopher John Gray writes in Straw Dogs, 'Modern science triumphed over its adversaries not through its superior rationality but because its late medieval and early-modern founders were more skilful in the use of rhetoric and the arts of politics.'

The most prominent conceptual artists of the 1960s certainly possessed such skills. Self-promotion and marketing were essential ingredients of an art radically opposed to traditional proficiency and aesthetics and demonstrating ambivalence to the production of physical and saleable objects. Seth Siegelaub, dealer and curator, tirelessly promoted artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry, Dan Graham, Lawrence Weiner and Carl Andre, whose 'signatures' became more and more tied up with the value of their work. The question of whether Conceptual Art was more rational than it was mystical at this time is difficult to determine. Certainly when emphasis is placed upon Conceptual Art as an avant garde, posed against the post-painterly abstraction of artists like Jules Olitski, it is espoused as a rational pursuit. On the other hand, with precedents for Conceptual Art including figures such as Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein, there is no doubt that it also retained mystical elements.

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The idea for this exhibition is derived from Sol LeWitt's 'Sentences on Conceptual Art' published in 1969. LeWitt's writing, which stresses intuition and, in the earlier 'Paragraphs on Conceptual Art', published in 1967, explicitly states that Conceptual Art 'is not theoretical or illustrative of theories', proves to be a strong backdrop for the subtle and elegant works shown here. Cornelia Parker's The Collected Death of Images, 1996, leaves you to examine the results of constructing silver sheets from the debris of the photographic fixing process. Here theory is suspended as you focus instead on the more occult task of getting a sense of some distilled 'imageness' from the visually noisy surfaces. Cerith Wyn Evans's 'Scripts for the Pageant' (excerpt ... YES, The First Lessons: 10) by James Merrill (1980), 2008, establishes an intuitive relationship with language, again utilising the theme of death and the spirit realm. For this work a contemporary chandelier flashes Morse code verses from Merrill's poem about experiences on a Ouija board. In Morse code, unreadable by most gallery visitors I suspect, the language of poetry becomes an encounter with the impression or feeling of communication without the passage of recognisable concepts, much like the function of a Ouija board. …

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