Well, look at that

On Monday, Response to a Request will go online. It is minor, admittedly, but I hope that doesn’t mean it’s anticlimactic. As you can see from the short text on the website, the aim with the publication, or maybe platform, is to publish one new short piece of writing every two weeks. Each of these texts is in response to an individual image. But even though I’m not trying to change the world with the project, I am excited to get started.

The spaces for this particular kind of writing to take place in Ireland, and particularly within an art-writing context, are few and far between. Sites of comparison exist, of course, most notably Critical Bastards and, in some instances, Paper Visual Art Journal. But nonetheless art writing is typically commissioned towards an end, whether this be factual/reportage/review (the VAN, Enclave Review, Paper Visual Art, etc.) or representative, for example with catalogue or artist texts. I have of course done both, and there is a value in each: namely enjoyment and learning, but also – more practically – getting paid every once in a while.

The rest of writing about art in Ireland is carried out online, most typically on blogs like this one. And the value of these, too, is inarguable, inasmuch as they keep the debate current and lively, sometimes even fractious. But – and this is a big ‘but’ – the problem with blogs is simply that there is generally no editorial control or consideration. They are personal. At least for myself, I find a real value in directing a text towards a person, an editor or simply a valued reader. If you find a good editor or reader, and they’re hard to come by, the final text is always the richer for it.

Response to a Request is, by contrast, a space for curiosity, without any particular end in mind. Its only rationale is to get to the bottom of this curiosity, to explore the particular draw of an image. Regrettably, there is no financial end in mind either: no one, including myself, is getting paid, and have all kindly given their time – in some cases, a massive amount of it – for free. But as someone who writes about art, I seem to have images that ask a lot of me. Unspecified, they seem to drag me into their orbit and hold me there. What I’ve asked of its contributors is to tease out and articulate this phenomenon, confident in the knowledge that they experience it too. As an editor, I don’t want to shape these responses too much, but only to make them more tangible to the reader.

I’ll give you an example: the image you see below, which I’ve used a lot, perhaps tastelessly, in the run-up to publication.


This is a photograph of the writer Robert Walser, dead in the snow. It was taken in 1956. A few months back, I started reading his work, specifically the short stories and prose work collected in The Walk. His writing was unlike anything I had read before. You might compare him to Kafka, a lot of people have, but the idiosyncrasy of his ‘I’ is truly astounding: self-deprecating, fallible, hilarious, just plain odd, but always with a sense of containment, hermeticism even. When I read Walser, I feel enclosed by a personality. His writing, despite the circumstances of his life, is an utter joy. He was found near the sanatorium where he had lived for nearly thirty years.

In the course of researching him, I inevitably came across this image. I immediately regretted seeing it, but at the same time was interested in it as an encapsulation of a writer; that, after all this incredible work, a person can be surmised in one hideous image. It is an image-punctum, but in the sense that Barthes described it, as a punctuation mark: in this case, a full stop.

But, is it a full stop? It is a tragic image, sure, but at the same time there’s something fitting in Walser’s end. It’s tragicomedy, if anything – he died on a long walk, his favoured pastime. And, if you read Walser, you certainly wouldn’t find it difficult to imagine this scenario as strange resolution to one of his stories. There’s a tender absurdity in his death that seems almost anticipated in his writing. A quick look at Wikipedia confirms my hunch: this striking image – his own death – does in fact appear in an earlier work, Geschwister Tanner (The Tanners; 1907). 

For these reasons, the above image has become one of those that latches on and demands. Hopefully I can return to it at some point and work out its particular draw. In the meantime, though, Response to a Request (titled after a short prose piece by Walser) will be publishing some truly fantastic responses to other, generally less morbid, images. Hope you enjoy.

The Sight of Death

I really enjoyed listening to T.J. Clark speak here about The Sight of Death, ten years after it was published. Of late, it’s a work that’s been particularly central to my thinking. Both it, and this podcast, are well worth your time.

Why not, indeed

Firstly, let me say that what you’re about to read has been a long time coming. Perhaps rushed into existence by James Merrigan’s recent, unclassifiable, text on Caoimhe Kilfeather’s exhibition at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, the following quickly-written thoughts also stem from a lot of thinking on the subject, conversations with others, and a fair share of personal agonising. The subject is the role of subjectivity in writing about art.

In many ways, it is a silly premise. The subjective always permeates every encounter with art, there being quite simply no objective way of doing it. Even, say, Donald Judd’s consciously sterile writings on art, nearly getting to a machine-like objectivity, are subjective: the decision to write like this being a wholly subjective one. At least for me, writing about art is subjective, but great art is somehow, kind-of, not: that’s the thrill of it. This does not, however, result in a situation where the writer can say anything, safe in the knowledge that each interpretation is subjective i.e. valid. Each interpretation is not intrinsically right: Kilfeather’s exquisite work is no more about popping pills as it is about day-time TV.

Additionally, though writing about art should be seen as inherently subjective, the decision to insert oneself into any discussion of it is not par for the course. Here the critic or writer make his or her subjectivity quite literal, creating a tripartite structure from reader, to artwork, to writer. This is not a necessity, but merely a matter of style. All too often, this lack of necessity comes off as forced or embarrassing, but nonetheless sometimes adds another layer of understanding to the work. This usually comes down to a question of appropriateness: as in, how does this subjective insight add to, or indeed distract from the art? If I sit down to read a text that defines itself, roughly speaking, as about art, would I feel short changed, even if I learned about the minutiae of the critic’s life? I guess the answer, as with most things, is that it depends on who’s speaking, and what kind of life they lead.

After reading Merrigan’s text, I re-read Jason Guriel’s I Don’t Care about Your Life, a polemical essay that was published online back in April. Guriel is quite angry with critics – it seems male critics in particular – and their preponderance towards the first-person pronoun that is ‘as conspicuous as a Corinthian column’. Confessional, critical writing is duplicitous, he claims, inasmuch as it strikes to endear the reader to the writer, when ‘smart sentences, one after the other, are usually heartbeat enough’. David Foster Wallace, the breakdown of master-narratives, and the role of internet-fuelled self-aggrandisement are the chief protagonists of this shift, he says. For Guriel this results in writing that invariably leads back to the critic; indeed, cannot help doing so.

I can agree with some of Guriel’s argument, but I think a small but significant caveat should be added: namely, that it depends on who’s talking. Some experiences are necessary to retell in order to complicate a still-dominant discourse, which is that of the straight-white-male. It is only through confessional writing that new kinds of subjectivity are even permitted to become. So when Guriel singles out Leslie Jamieson’s The Empathy Exams (2014) as one example of this dubious trend, I think he misses the complicating necessity of Jamieson’s work. It works, in a very particular manner, to undo the logic of the given.

One of the main questions to consider here, I think, and it’s one that recurs throughout Kraus’ seminal I Love Dick (1997), is: who get’s to speak, and why? What’s so important about this book, I think, is the act of reconciliation it achieves, which is to present an ostensibly female “hysteric” that can still think. She engages in pretty strange behaviour, but the subject of I Love Dick – overwhelmingly Kraus – is absolutely not crazy. In a similar way to Maggie Nelson, who offers a tremendous account of the thinking-pregnant woman in The Argonauts (2015), Kraus’ book shows us that an experience of female desire is only insufficient through the lens of patriarchal rationality, described by HĂŠlène Cixous as ‘the effect, the support, and one of the privileged alibis’. Kraus is not filling in some lack, but rather inverting its terms. The book’s excess is not to make up for something, but rather to give full expression to female desire, a desire typically represented by men: the equipment fails, like a black and white camera trying to capture the luminosity of a sunset. At the end of the book, Dick responds to Chris with a zerox copy of his response to Sylvère. In his mind, she is just that – a shitty, watered down copy, only important, actually only existing, through her relation to a man, her husband. Chris’ (mostly) one-sided correspondence with Dick, written as it was to give full expression to a specifically feminine experience of desire, does not even garner a response. He does not understand her or her desire.

Books like the ones I’ve mentioned have helped me appreciate the necessity of retelling first-hand experience in certain writing, whereas before it actually pained me to read it, let alone consider writing in a similar way (which I have done, awkwardly). And, though I have swerved off message, I think it’s ok: I never claimed this to be about art. For me, that’s the key point. The relation between the critic and artwork should be an empathetic, rather than dominant, one. Such a relationship involves research, careful looking, and a kind of reticence towards self-expression unless it directly adds to or complicates the work. In short, it means starting with the art and moving back to yourself – if necessary – and not the other way around. Also, there should be a sense of fidelity, of wanting to do right by the work, of striving, if not to represent it, then to sketch out some shape to its particular sensibility. For me and probably most people who care about art, it’s never enough to just say: “it might be about this – why not?!” 

The Trouble with Being Bored

Here is a new essay that I wrote for the excellent Fallow Media. It skirts haphazardly around boredom, dead-end jobs, and Hanya Yanagihara’s strangely tedious A Little Life. With much thanks to Ian Maleney for his editorial patience, and to Kathy Tynan who allowed me to reproduce one of her paintings alongside it.

I guess one of the things I was thinking about was boredom as a state of being, and if it can have any positive implications. One of the fundamental traits of the contemporary, as far as I can see, is that boredom – or, stasis – persists even as we are busier, more connected than ever, etc. With regard to politics, you could argue that the rise of Trump in the U.S and now, disastrously, with Brexit, that some people are voting just to “see what happens,” to initiate some kind of shift in the status quo – one that has been cruel, exacerbating inequality. At the same time, though, I think it’s important to remember that some people are simply bigots and knew exactly what they were voting for. Anyway, it’s not at all worked out in this essay (enjoy?).


A few things to report. The first is that some of my writing has come online at Mother’s Tankstation’s shiny new website. These are six essays written for their 2013 annual, and detail the whole year of exhibitions there. It was a strong year. Nina Canell, AurĂŠlien Froment, Fergus Feehily, Shane McCarthy, and Atsushi Kaga all held solo exhibitions there, with a terrific group show, Built with Love, completing the line-up. Writing the annual was a fantastic experience for me, not only because I got the chance to meet these artists, but also that I was able to understand the programme in a more involved, and prolonged, capacity. I know I’m biased now, but for me Mother’s is the most exciting commercial gallery (I hesitate in using this term unreservedly) in Dublin. Having recently celebrated ten years in operation, too, I can only hope that it stays open for a long time. The current exhibition, Cui Jie’s Latter, Former, is clear of an intent that’s as strong, if not stronger, than it was ten years ago (Congrats, Finola and David, and thanks).

In other news, I’m starting an art-writing website. Part TJ Clark’s The Sight of Death, part Vdrome and part that “what image do you have where you work” bit on the back page of Frieze, my aim is very simple: to provide a space for prolonged looking and writing about images. I guess the most pressing question is: do we not have enough of this already? Probably, but this is to be a very minor operation. There will be no archive, and so the most it will make are transitory but meditative impressions. One image, tight focus.

This could be construed as nostalgic, and to some degree it is. But really it – currently nameless – just aims to provide a sympathetically designed online space for considered writing about art. Too often, I think, online art writing is overshadowed by its mode of presentation, the subsequent article that tantalises even as we read this one. The hope, quite simply, is that there will be no distractions here. What there will be is an image, and a text. Software can take care of the rest. Self-control is particularly good.

In other news, the first issue of Third Floor Journal arrived from Montreal today. I have an essay on the recent practice of Metahaven in it, which you can read in full here (pp. 40-48).