The below text, ‘An Object Among Others’, was written as part of Barbara Knezevic’s Object Registry, a beautiful book produced by the artist and launched a couple of months ago at TBG&S. A gorgeous thing in itself, the book serves as a kind of object-by-object inventory of Knezevic’s practice, and achieves an oft-seen synchrony of content and design. Knowing Barbara (and Peter Maybury), I’d expect nothing less.
An Object Among Others
This text is situated within an object, this book, that serves the strange task of becoming a stand in for another object. This book is an understudy object, a proxy that is never expected to perform.
I have not seen the object it serves to mark or replace – a sculpture made by Knezevic, damaged and subsequently lost in a Scandinavian gallery[i] – at least apart from photographs. Thus this object aims not only to echo and stand in for the lost one, but also to speak in a space alongside all of the others, represented here, or absent; in storage, disassembled or bought.
It is an interesting challenge, but at the same time, perhaps, not wholly dissimilar from the one faced in writing about any object: art or non-art, present or outside the frame. The one in front of me, in such a way, is as remote as the one forever lost to that corner of northern Europe. All too often the challenge is blindly circumnavigated, and avoided, and the object remains for us a culmination of human desire or intent: inferior to us, and ultimately pliable to our demands. Aesthetic transcendence occurs not on account of the object per se, or the strata of matter that comprise it, but rather by virtue of how this matter is used, and to what transformative, ultimately anthropocentric, end.
Notably, however, there is growing interest in the reversal, or at least subversion of such anthropocentric thinking[ii]. This shift puts forward a conception of objects unbeholden to thought, and anterior to human mastery. Given the material nature of art – be that of film, or clay or pigment, or whatever – the baton thrown down by such a philosophical departure holds, at least for me, a specific kind of import.
Art objects differentiate themselves – being by their very nature created, or at least initiated, by artists – and therefore position themselves at a remove from other kinds of objects. They are specific and yet encumbered by the vocabulary of objects more generally. To see art objects anew, in the light of a renewed generosity towards objects, is not to belittle the role of the artist or to banish the objects towards the depths of murky inaccessibility. Rather, it is to perceive in the materials used a transcendence on which their categorisation as art objects is hinged.
And yet there is a trait specific to the art object, in particular, that enables us to see through, as it were, the materials that give rise to it. The painting is transmitted as an entity that transcends the base – the canvas, frame and pigment applied thereupon – becoming more than the sum of its constitutive parts. Indeed, this argument is well versed. It is internalised or seen-through to the same degree as the concept it puts forward: that is, the art object as site of mere stuff’s vital overcoming where matter is transcended at the behest of the aesthetic.
The aforementioned argument necessitates a division of the art object in terms of immanence – given by “brute” material – and transcendence – as that which grants the object a life force not beholden to material, or the visible, even. But what if this might be flipped on its head, affirming instead the transcendence of matter? What if, instead of this binary, the art object could be understood as not just the enforced union of transcendence and immanence, but rather the site of a specific transcendence in immanence; a transcendence of interiority uncoupled from this primary caesura.
This transcendence, given by matter, would be of a reluctant kind. It would not escape to remote heights, but rather shift and break underfoot. But, as I said: a transcendence of immanence. Perhaps, indeed, transcendence is the wrong word – too alienated, too pious, too compromised by the suspect connotations of metaphysics and God. And yet the word speaks true to the unchanging, wholly uninterested dimension to matter and substances, textures and objects: as Andre Malraux once said, “the religious vocabulary may jar on us; but unhappily we have no other[iii].” To uncouple transcendence carte blanche from the domain of art is to relegate the object – and every other object along with it – to the conceivably reducible. It is to flatten their unknowability, and it has not yet worked.
At this point I ask: when does an artwork become an artwork? Is it when the materials begin to be utilised, entering into an artistic activity, or some time before? If we, with a not insignificant degree of paradoxical thinking, ascertain the centrality of matter – the stuff of which an artwork comprises – in granting it the transcendence to which it attestsas a piece of art – then, arguably, it begins long before. The artist comes in late, but at a crucial point. Authorial intent is critical, as is skill, but so too is the shadowy quality given by the materials themselves, which plays a central role in the possibility of transcendence. Nothing, not even the artwork, comes out of nothing; the sculpture is but the manipulation or combination of prior-given, elusive, matter. What we call skill, or genius, is but combinatory or manipulatory prowess: the skill in creating something with the illusion of knowledge or understanding, from the domain of the wholly unknowable.
Now, if I claim there to be a transcendence given not by the surpassing of matter, but rather by its emphatic embrace, where then is the artist – and their intent, as author – sited? How can their activity be described, in the knowledge that they know not fully what they create? Is it, as some might attest, akin to that of a medium or shaman, permitting the materials to speak through them? Or is it more specific to the domain of skill, or genius: an elusive quality that transforms such material into something infinitely malleable.
Perhaps it is neither. Both approaches yet treat matter as something to be elevated, rather than transcendent in and of itself. A concept I have come across recently, and to which I have constantly returned, is the philosopher Stanley Cavell’s term ‘automatism’, which describes the material resistance that structures the art object and gives it form[iv]. With film, for example, it is the actual physical mechanics of film and subsequent playback. It is that which simultaneously enables and constrains the art object, and exists anterior, and indifferent, to authorial intent. With the sculptural object – Barbara Knezevic’s, for example – it is the material she utilises in forming her works; beeswax, linen, steel or foam; never neutral or fully appeased by their entering into the process of artistic creation. There exists a remainder – an automatism – that remains resolutely strange.
Perhaps the artist’s role instead takes the form of a questioning; an infinite questioning, which, though one-sided, still gleans results – in the form of aesthetic finality, or completeness. The artist acknowledges matter’s retreated nature, and her relative incapacity, but does not cease questioning, working materially through the challenges it presents. For to accept matter’s unknowable nature is to stifle it, too, relegating it to some ill-defined, transcendent haze. Its transcendence is immanent, and must be worked through, materially.
In Maurice Blanchot’s The Infinite Conversation (1993), this remainder, this irreconcilable outside, is negotiated doggedly. Here, the question founds itself on incompleteness, is predicated on failure. For a question of which one knows the answer is little more than a statement, and therefore cannot contain the possibility of transcendence. In his words:
The question, if it is incomplete speech, rests upon incompleteness. It is not incomplete as a question: on the contrary, it is speech that is accomplished by having declared itself incomplete. The question places the full affirmation back into the void, and enriches it with this initial void. Through the question we give ourselves the thing and we give ourselves the void that permits us not to have it yet, or to have it as desire. The question is the desire of thought[v].
Thus the artist (or critic) must remain materially desirous, must affirm by the act of questioning the impossibility – the Whole, the void, the thing, the Real – that structures the question and gives it form. The question simultaneously grants and takes away: it offers the possibility of atonement, but an atonement that must always be deferred. To answer the question, to come face-up to matters’ automatism and flatten or reconcile it, is to constrict the possibilities contained therein. A material questioning – the sum product of a desire to know – must be resolved to fail, and to fail interminably. The best art objects simply negotiate this failure to greater degrees of success.
And it is here that I would like to attend to the work of Knezevic. This text, somewhat strangely, holds in it the desire to be a catalogue-text-that-is-not-a catalogue text: a text that assumes a place in a catalogue, for all intents and purposes, but does not sit easily with a catalogue-text rationale. This would not wrap itself solely around the practice of the artist, but begin somewhere at a remove, and work itself back. At this point I feel I must work back towards that point.
The thoughts I have touched upon are, for the most part, inflected by the kind of conversations I have had with the artist over the past few months. Her language, given by material, speaks already to the kind of thought put forward by SR and OOO, but remains pointedly unresolved: it does not see material as an ineffable matter-of-fact, but rather a starting point for the work she creates, which in turn is negotiated, materially. Knezevic’s work is, indeed, more than the sum of its parts: her practice routinely grasps base and quotidian components and enters them into a creative process that enables their operation on a transcendent level, outside the signification of everyday life. However, this whole – a transcendence of immanence – does not negate the material’s aforementioned state, or, even, the state they held prior to their moulding into their present form: these prior stages are subsumed into the attainment of transcendence. The prior is not prior to transcendence, but in fact vital to its surfacing.
To me, Knezevic’s work appears conscious that the line to be negotiated – one that purports the remoteness of objects, whilst at the same time remaining fidelitous to their material questioning – is a fine one indeed. The insights gleaned by contemporary philosophy, fascinating and illuminative though they might be, should not enact any pause in thought. The object, that thing of unknown, unknowable matter, cannot be cordoned off from thought, but interrogated interminably, on its own terms: that is, materially.
Art objects, as I see it, are a perfect site for such an endeavour, for in them is a pre-existing concern for matter, in the forms and substances that are sublimated in creating the artwork. The challenge is to rethink the process of material sublimation, preserving in the materials themselves the means of sublimation and of transcendence. The materials do not simply combine to form a whole, their parts necessarily sublimated, but rather are already imbued with the whole prior to entering the process of artistic creation. The artist is someone who resolves to question, and to fail: to inherit the problem of the object, and to never tire of asking the same question, and getting the same infernal reply. For the question, and here I return to Blanchot, is predicated, is founded, on incompleteness. In the absence of such scarcity, no transcendence – immanent or otherwise – can take place. The art object, by its material nature, speaks to a primordial transcendence over and above the field of art. Certainly, it speaks of unknowability, but that does not mean we cease in the attempt to know.
[ii] Here I am referring to the schools of thought roughly demarcated under the banners of Speculative Realism (SR), and Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO).
[iii] As quoted in Timothy Bewes Reification: or, the Anxiety of Late Capital (2002) London & New York: Verso, pg. 62
[iv] Quoted in Rosalind Krauss A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition (2000) London: Thames & Hudson, pg. 1
[v] Maurice Blanchot The Infinite Conversation (1993) trans. Susan Hanson, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pg. 12