Remakes: Mark Prince on Artists as Curators of the Self

By Price, Mark | Art Monthly, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Remakes: Mark Prince on Artists as Curators of the Self


Price, Mark, Art Monthly


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The centrality of autobiography as a form of contemporary art might be measured by the contradictions that it throws up. its significance to postmodern art and literary fiction suggests artists can only rely on their own experience, their scope of authority not extending beyond the remit of the first-person narrative. The artist is the only ground the art can be sure of; everything else has become uncertain or mediated. An ever-proliferating babble of Facebook posts and Twitter texts is a popular symptom of the compulsion to advertise oneself to the world at large.

There is, however, an alternative narrative which sees the artist's self fragmented by Modernism and then scattered into the cultural ether. In this version we have witnessed a gradual erosion of subjectivity as the stable source of an artistic 'voice'. Roland Barthes, in his essay 'The Death of the Author', collapses the primacy of the author into a mere facilitator of language, 'a tissue of quotations', which is held together 'in a single field' only when it is reconstituted in the mind of the reader. Barthes points in two directions: he predicts postmodern relativism, in which past and present, the artist's subjectivity and the culture surrounding it, are assimilated into a level field of available reference, all potentially up for grabs; he also suggests the dissolution of the traditional boundaries between the roles of artist, curator, critic, collector and viewer; all are both writer and reader of a creative act for which none can exclusively claim responsibility. In this scenario, the connection between art and artist has been irredeemably breached. Barthes's essay is a rhetorical elaboration of a complex condition more than a workable diagnosis. The author is not dead but the security of his Romantic inheritance has been seriously undermined. Perhaps there is no contradiction: the rise of autobiography can be seen as a corrective response to a crisis of beleaguered subjectivity. Artists are impelled to turn the tables on the existing narrative of their own development so as to raise the issue of subjectivity to a theme, to consolidate what has become unstable or, if that is not possible, to turn that instability into working material.

US Minimalism of the 1960s is an early manifestation of this theme. The reduction of the art object to standard units of basic material supplants subjectivity by denying reference, association and personal narrative. Matter erases the maker as it finds its own autonomy. In contrast, some of the autobiographical art which emerged from Minimalism's decline--the work of Mike Kelley, Martin Kippenberger and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, for example--emphasises rather than denies the artist, holding on to self-revelation as the only credible subject matter left, only to discover that its solidity is an illusion. Methods for confirming a coherent self prove only to question its efficacy.

Kelley's Educational Complex, 1995, takes the shell of minimalist sculpture and decorates it with personal anecdote. The collection of white architectural models, arranged on a trestle table, resembles a site plan for a college campus. In fact, it is an artificial grouping of key locations from the artist's youth--the various school buildings he attended, the house he grew up in--with sections of the otherwise detailed surfaces left blank, corresponding to lacunae in his memory. The white-out of forgetting is simultaneously an effacing of the descriptive facades of the sculptures back to clean minimalist surfaces. Minimalism, here, is defined as a state of willed amnesia. If Kelley attempts to reclaim the past, he is also asking it to lay claim to him, which it refuses to do. He is the classic unreliable narrator, creator and viewer, subject and object, at the same time. His not knowing who he has been has become his subject. The art and the self it refers to have diverged, like the fictional voice of Samuel Beckett's novel The Unnameable, 1953, which is driven along on the vacuum of the self which utters it, a self which is only held together provisionally as long as the voice maintains its flow. …

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