The world is in need of healing, it is often said. From over-the-counter food supplements that help combat burnout to the anxiety-re-ridden teenagers re-actualising the subject of depression via the prominent rise of sad rappers such as XXXTentacion, in a preachy way Logic, and others (not the most exhaustive list, but burnout draws out even these very fingers doing the typing), we are hurt, hurting, and don’t know where the bottom of this pit of hurt lies.
The adrenalin-rush of the ‘woke’ nineties, the sugar-rushed noughties, the strange interlude of the beginning 2010s and the imminent crash – one cannot get even through a feminist-curatorial symposium without singing an eerie ‘kumbaya’ with the fellow burn-outs:
How to Take Care of your Voice: Exhaustion and other Habitual Affects in Working within large-scale Art Institutions Präsentation und Gespräch mit Alkisti Efthymiou, Kulturarbeiterin, Theoretikerin (Athen)”
(programme excerpt, Unsettling Feminist Curating, symposium, Akademie der bildenden Künste Wien, 1. 12 2017)
Be it identity-related, structural, economic, or whatever the type of differences that define our positions within the world, our partnerships and animosities, burnout connects people indiscriminately. A question that art now, therefore, asks, is not whether art can wake up people — because who needs even less sleep —, but whether it can heal. ‘Can you heal me, art?’ ‘Can you bring me to that special place, where thoughts are not muffled by an excruciating buzzing of my expectations left unfulfilled?’
The role of art in its postmodern twist was often defined in the terms of re-shaping the communal sense that makes it intelligible — thus, commenced the flow of various meanings behind a tediously overused term ‘deconstruction’. This communal sense relates back to Kant’s understanding of aesthetic judgement, positioned on the paradoxical intersection of the subjective and objective, more accurately, as subjective judgements with general validity. Kant helped himself understand this strange intersection of his critical project by implementing the notion of the ‘sensus communis’, a communal sense, that guarantees the intelligibility of the phenomenon of beauty.
What are the conditions of this common sense today? We fought for decades to push our fingers into the cracks of the subject, the universal, the true, good, and the beautiful, and now we are in need of a patch? How does the newly established position relate to this old problem? What is the status of this new sensibility that comes with the recent artistic developments?
From plaster as a material, I go to plaster as an object. I will look at two works of art (‘Urgo plaster for wounded pavement rock’ and Unknown) belonging to disparate art practices in order to reflect on these questions.
Before beginning with the reading of the two works, a formal remark is in order. One of the works is completely anonymous to me. I’ve stumbled upon it during the 2017 Rundgang at the Academy of fine arts Vienna, which can, if dealing with time constraints, as one often does, seem like a complex maze. The information about the author and the title was probably present at some point, but … I’ve completely missed it. I haven’t found any online archival cataloguing, and I am still in correspondence with the academy, so the presented information is pending for a future update.
The first work is, as the title plainly suggests, a pavement rock, supposedly wounded, and a plaster, covering the supposed wound. Daniel Djamo uses various objects, collected or found, to construct fictional spatial narratives. He primarily deals with the question of national identity and migration issues. The narratives are formed by and through the spatial relations between the used objects. This means that the exhibited works function less as autonomous pieces of art and more as elements of diagrammatic constellations. Talking about the piece ‘Urgo plaster for wounded pavement rock’ (exhibited as part of the exhibition ‘Past Futures’ at the Likovni Salon Celje), therefore means talking about a narrational element, to talk only about a part and not the whole itself.
The pavement rock can be understood as a literal and figurative foundation of society (of the street and of the vanishing public sphere), suspended in time by the plaster, which patches the wound that cannot be patched. The effects of the symbolic wound are effects of disappearance and the plaster patches the fissure that by its own existence already implies its in-existence, its ‘being in the past’. The plaster, thus, keeps the past present in order to establish a space for imagining an alternative future.
This is, at the very least, a partial line drawn through the various potential constellations of the exhibition. And as such it suffices for my endeavour.
The unknown work, on the other hand, is a bit trickier to read since there is no information about its background at my disposal. The living plant is a staple of the Viennese window-scapes, usually in the company of similar household plants, stacked to form a living barrier between the outside and inside. This cannot be anything else than a subjective observation, of course, yet it may shed some light on the fascination with the vegetative ready-made. Beyond that, the plant is a common element of private and public spaces, sometimes a bit dusty or part of a nicotine-ridden setting. The smooth drapery and the plaster are interconnected with a melancholic colour scheme that gives the piece a sense of corporeal intimacy, while at the same time, bringing forward an element of layering between the plasters, leaves, and the drapery, furthermore also achieving a certain levelling: a pictorial frame, into which the plant is drawn.
Focusing on the plaster-covered leaves, the levelling effect becomes even clearer. The dynamics at play is a counterbalance of two patches of material (living or not): its surface becoming a scene of care. Although, there are no actual marks of damage, no visible wounds in need of care, which makes the plaster less pragmatic (already taking into account that pragmatism is itself here understood in a figurative sense since plasters are not really usable by plants) and more an actor of care in its intimate connotation.
Both works approach the care of wounds that are absent (although in disparate ways). Both enact care to elements disappearing or taken for granted — signifiers of the world not in sync (becoming past, yet still lingering). They cling to the dusty, the walked on, the deserted, forgotten in a waiting room or a gallery, to the spaces vacant of agency and/or subjectivity. They not only outline but enforce these attachments, representing a certain conservational act. They are not content with letting things become obsolete. The question is, what are they clinging to exactly by doing that?
The surface of the pavement or the plant is whole and still patched to ensure its presence. To prevent its disappearance into obscurity. There are not cuts, not shuffling of parts. Yes, one could say that we have an absurdist play of heterogenous objects, the combination of a plaster and pavement rock, ‘how funny is that?’. Not so much actually, the heterogeneity strangely conveys a convincing operation. As if it was always a plausible use of the plaster. Two parts of a surface whole.
This would probably not be so just a couple decades before. It tends to a current dynamic. To a redoubling of the surface in contrast to artistic techniques of sectioning, serialisation, fragmentation, and dissemination. The ‘common’ used to be treated with scepticism and critical questioning is now approached from a nostalgic, sentimental position. ‘Bringing together in the time of need’, could be one of its slogans; an expression of the phantom sense of wounds, hurting, or fissures, where in fact it is a mere sense of the corporeality becoming past — a result fought for, yet when achieved, to strange for comfort. Art has eaten away at comfort, yet now it reestablishes it. It dramatically pivots.
One could trace similar tendencies on the level of truth. The letter dragged through the ditches or recuperated through varieties of perspectivism, and now bemoaned in the world of post-truth. Could it be, that we are dealing with the labour cramps of a new communal sense being born? Could it be that the project of breaking with the project of modernity only tends to the role of a midwife, bringing forward a ‘sensus communis’ redefined?
Exhausted, yet not working enough; sleep-deprived, yet sleeping ten hours a night; suffering in the cool embrace of the freshly washed sheets; pale shivers on the sunny rooftops; a constant need to die, yet also have the time to lick our wounds — caring for oneself is an ever stranger paradox.
The subject shivers, trying to shed its alienated skin (shedding itself into oblivion), yet nothing ever changes. It shuts up, mute from anxiety, diving towards its authentic core, isolated and asocial, seeking the last resort for the communicable and common, yet there is no resort. This shivering subjectivity is the pivoting force behind art’s overzealous patching of the unhindered surface. It brings art to a crucial point: will it be able to endure the turbulence of its postmodern flight, or will it find itself adhering to the monstrous nuptials, where it rediscovers the old values of ‘the state, the church, and the eternal object’? A dilemma, that might very well be a false dilemma, a knot with two ends, tying and untying at the same time.