Between New York City and Marfa, TX on a road trip with much planned in between, I can only recall there being kudzu and the sound of watchful front seat experiences bracketing my pressing in and out of upright sleep. With the cold plane of the window saddling a flat spot on my head I rocked to the left and right of comfort.
We crossed state lines moving westwards and the uninterrupted spray of kudzu high along the interstate signaled us forward. Its vines, shot spooling into the trees from a tractor-trailer bed in our near future, preceded us and explained, like ancient waterways, human stewardship in a word–empire.
Kudzu smothers and shapes programmed contours like hot vacuum-sucked plastic. It dithers, throwing careful noise into the crevices of raw forms, producing a rich and undulating fabric that, if not for its capacity for unstoppable encroachment, is distinctly pleasurable as an effect in passing.
I turn to the documentary evidence and find no picture or proof of interest in kudzu, or empire for that matter. Instead this trip from five years ago hovers in my library of photos, monopolizing the gut of it with a twitching block of selfsame images. To scroll through is to give the single hour or so I spent at Marfa, inside Donald Judd’s minor paradise, undo fact and possibly even faith. Though I wonder, at the moment, how this works.
We had been camping out on our trip, fumbling with tents at midnight on roadside clamshells of hard dirt and scorpion-shaped rocks. Or so I thought, being from New York, and always finding something deadly or murder-ish about the outdoors at night. The darkness saturated the air and pestered my sense of continuity. I remember once walking from the tent to an outhouse not a hundred yards away and then turning back to see the bottom of the night sky standing up in front of me. Above were all the stars, but to no effect, for it seemed impossible that in some direction and not so far away sat our tent at the foot of a pitch black tree, alongside a pitch black stream running through an even darker forest.
I remember picturing Judd’s kitchen at night, with the house lights cutting straight lines across the concrete porch. The strange abundance of mortars and pestles I had seen on our tour, neatly arranged on a low shelf, had morphed into something essential. In a form of knowing somewhere between rumor and reverie Judd re-entered the place at an earlier time, impinging on twilight dinner parties with obtuse pronouncements regarding the superiority of straight-up mortar-to-pestle grinding. I imagined him standing on one side of his rotating door yelling “Not in my name!” into the darkness, watching the churned up clouds of dust as they migrated in and out of vision.
It would be a stretch to say that Judd’s residence and studio, La Mansana de Chinati, channeled these ruminations or even encouraged them past the simple pleasures indulged by every historic house museum. Theatrical moments of untidiness here and there form the lexicon of history’s affect: a dented pillow in a cordoned off room, a bar of horn-hard soap, a book dropped and turned on a table or a riled up work space that now seems tragically ordained. These overactively frozen moments stand temporally tiptoed: either poised and ready to touch down upon a revelation of the past or posed and not quite settled in their placement.
As a fan of historic house museums, an American post-war phenomenon which peaked in the 1970’s around our bicentennial and has been on a dire path of decline since the 1990’s, I often wonder how it is that sites like these circulate what they are said to capture–namely a time and place through the lens of a life.
Unlike traditional museums, which transfigure the personal into the impersonal for the sake of broader historical arguments, historic house museums preserve personalities first and foremost. Their particular pageant of history, an admixture of fact and facsimile, is welcoming yet fugitive. It steps out of rooms as you enter them. It snaps a velvet rope into place as you climb a creaking staircase. It silently closes the front door as your heel hits the driveway and releases you back into the inertial flood of everyday life as if shedding a kind of skin.
Once inside I often do little but record these novelties, which are themselves kinds of recordings, in hopes of capturing something to take home. I want to see how exactly the lives and events they represent are enshrined that, like oracles, we can expect to call them back into form, back into relation with seances of untouched furniture. I was therefore surprised to learn, that the caretakers of many historic houses are its actual inhabitants, living long periods of their own lives in cordoned off parts of the property.
One particularly eccentric guide, whom I had met at the Thomas Hart Benton house in Kansas City, evoked the Pythia, living as she did in her temporal hermitage and speaking about its qualities not from her own experience but from Benton’s. Benton, she would say, liked to sit in this chair or work late into the night sometimes. He hated the sight of that house there from this window. He spent much of his time in this spot, in this room, at this time of day. She spoke of Benton as if he were a cat, or an emanation–alternatively weak or strong in areas–but with such intuitive force that not only did he come into focus but so too did his qualities become the qualities of the house, and his values the values presently experienced.
In fact it seems that this kind of transportation mostly takes place at a distance; I am not transported from proximity to lofty planes but instead from a thing’s oblivion to its re-creation in startling detail. I think here of Minimalist sculpture in my own experience, and how much closer I feel when I am far away from it. In some squat room curled into a worn couch I read the documentary evidence, the polemics and the eyewitness testimony, and this historical encounter supersedes the standing, stark, white-cubed one, so much so that like sheet music played aloud the one mode of encounter and the other seem not like equivalent accounts of the same thing but different stages of its existence.
When I return to the work again, in person, the discourse follows. One could say that the Pythia has returned not as a historian but as a text. Like the person of the deceased in a historic house museum, this phantom is no more invisible than any organizing force, which is to say that its mechanisms take investigation to experience while its effects do not. It is a hermeneutic experience, where call and response impersonate each other, as do cause and effect.
My thoughts turn here to a biography of Wittgenstein and a later essay, Life Without Theory: Biography as an Exemplar of Philosophical Understanding, by the philosopher and biographer Ray Monk. Monk brings together moments in Wittgenstein’s life and his philosophical writings in a way that elucidates connections between the two, describing shifts in his philosophical investigations simultaneously in terms of events personal, political, and professional.
Monk’s stance on biography, as philosophically interesting because of its non-theoretical nature, shifted my perspective as a sculptor away from the unreliable dichotomy of making or thinking, pursuing a materialized or de-materialized art practice. He recalls an image devised by Wittgenstein in which a person, unaccustomed to the game of catch, is thrown a ball and instead of throwing it back she puts it in her pocket and walks away. He connects this image with Wittgenstein’s comments on aspect seeing, often associated with the duck-rabbit phenomenon:
‘What would a person who is blind towards these aspects be lacking?’ Wittgenstein asks, and replies: ‘It is not absurd to answer: the power of imagination.’ But the imagination of individuals, though necessary, is not sufficient. What is further required for people to be alive to ‘aspects’ (and, therefore, for humour, music, poetry and painting to mean something) is a culture. (Monk 531)
To know which game is being played, as a viewer of art, if the ball is to be thrown back and forth as far as interest allows, or caught and pocketed–to be revisited at times or forgotten entirely–requires a cultural understanding.
This kind of understanding, which consists in seeing “family resemblances” does not focus on accurate explanations but accurate descriptions. There need be no effort made to unify the range of phenomena via an initially invisible underlying principle, as is the case with concept-based theoretical modes understanding.¹ In description the limits of bodily perception are a meaningful and important boundary as opposed to an arbitrary one, stultifying to the discovery of stronger explanations.
Ironically to work with and within the sensible, as a framework, one cannot accept, as firsthand, divisions between the material and immaterial aspects of bodily experience. Unfelt boundaries and secondhand resemblances crowd out the apprehension of quieter distinctions, pre-conceptual relationships.
What endures in deeply hermeneutic experiences like a good biography or a well-appointed historic house museum is the diversity of connections, not their strength. It is the overlapping descriptions, the wealth of signal and noise, the search for an underlying principle and not the opportune adoption of one that make for an “intuitively convincing” account.
The video oscillates back and forth between interior and exterior shots of the artist cleaning the windows. When the action is filmed from outside the house, looking in, the audio is that of the squeegee “kissing” the glass. When filmed from inside, looking out, it is overlaid with electronic sounds that seem to evaporate. These sounds, the artist tells us, are created by stretching “a single moment from a guitar solo by the band Kiss.”
From start to finish the video does not move towards resolution but instead explores the filmic events created by the work’s conceptual framework, such as the abstract patterns made on the glass by streaking water, the unexpected intrusions into the framed landscape of the artists’ face or laboring hand, or the gaze of the woman inside, enclosed in music, that penetrates out past the glass, past the lens of the camera, and into the installation itself.
To some extent this video is about access and the act of enclosure. Architecturally, the transparent barrier between interior and exterior creates a strange and exciting concatenation of public and private, organic and planar, inside and out. Practically, however, property is property and the idyllic views framed by its floor-to-ceiling windows are just as emphatically owned as the furniture and the dinnerware.
My proof here is personal: It was 2010, South Hampton, NY, and I was canvassing on foot for the mid-term elections. I was part of a slapdash team of eight volunteers varying greatly in age, political experience, and quantity of regular employment. I shared a small room with Bob, a District Attorney, and a thick Vote Builder packet that we worked door to door like a pair of antiquated farriers or travelling scissors sharpeners, such was the mixture of puzzlement and disbelief we encountered through fence-mounted intercoms.
In one particularly cinematic scenario, I walked suspiciously through the open gates of a sprawling waterfront estate to find worker after worker pointing anxiously in the same general direction. I walked towards the water. I rounded a corner and an enormous glass wall greeted me with sudden indiscretion. This god-like window cut the house like a stage set and exposed all the rooms to an uninterrupted view of the ocean.
Looking out towards the landscape behind me was a man on the other side of the glass enjoying the view. Embarrassed, I raised my hand towards him as if to a high-ranking alien and pointed to my literature. Without shifting the focus of his attention he attempted to move me with his hand, mechanically dozing my image to the side like a carnival coin game. I watched him for some time with curiosity but then I left, confused and acutely aware of my two feet on the shore and my image in the ether of his parallel dimension.
Having been thus abstracted I can empathize with the complicated relationship Manglano-Ovalle creates between himself and the Farnsworth House. In an interview for PBS’ Art 21 series, he explains that cleaning the building, this “shrine of modernism,” was a way of working around the restrictions surrounding it, and actually getting to touch its entirety.
This gesture then is a mixture of genuine appreciation and of parody: He is both the supplicant dutifully washing an elder’s feet and the miscreant making motions at the sanctimonious scene. And that is not all, by taking on the role of insider and outsider Manglano-Ovalle recapitulates the Farnsworth’s overmodest offer of acceptance with denial, both in the structure of his work and its presentation.
The all-encompassing window panes of the Farnsworth house represent a kind of unrealizable access that the Le Baiser/the Kiss, as a hermeneutic text, mirrors. To be clear the house is not simply the video’s setting but the text through which the video expresses its meaning. The building’s architecture dictates the video’s. The building’s history affects our experience of its form.
The choice of the band Kiss for the stretched guitar riff announces, albeit in the administered language of the artist’s process, a pun that ties the auditory, the filmic, and the narrative effects together. In using this pun as a structure Manglano-Ovalle has created a thoroughly justified edifice of decisions that anticipates a discursive evaluation. This anticipation fast-forwards the evaluative and/or appreciative process past the initial descriptive experience.
As Sianne Ngai puts it in her recent book Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting:
In recognizing how it diverts our attention from feeling-based judgments (quick/instantaneous) to concept-based justifications (slow/ongoing) and thus how its relation to justification connects to its relation to time we can see what most significantly sets “interesting” apart from other aesthetic evaluations…it inevitably diverts attention away from itself so as to throw the spotlight entirely on the question of its own legitimation. It is a judgment that shoves us from judgment to justification, that hurries past the first moment in its eagerness to arrive at the next. (Ngai 168-9)
I agree with Ngai that a focus on justification as opposed to judgment hurries past the ostensible experience of a work in order to address all of the non-appearing measures one uses in sizing it up. Judgement, however, in addition to its instantaneous nature also suggests a temporal range that is ultimately much longer than that of interest.
Like a meter stick that one must check every so often to see what time has wrought, my judgement returns again and again to the same works of art and is itself measured by the passage of time. In fact it is time and only time which forms it. New experiences, concepts, ways of seeing, organize the phenomena that inform my judgment but they do not give rise to it.
To my judgment my experiences never appear as pure postulates or as pure events. Whereas I can surely revisit the postulates and discover what they, at the time, made visible and invisible to me, I cannot then reformulate my judgement from this new point of departure as if my previous experiences were merely placeholders. I cannot retroactively rewrite my form of being, as with an argument. Having already begun what is the allure of hurrying past this moment of judgment, of overlapping, to arrive at an always new always old beginning?
Looking back at the concepts that interested me in the past and fueled my sculptures–the economics of saving vs. spending, the Morris water maze, the philosophy of games, humiliation technologies of the public square–nothing seems to connect them better than their temporary usefulness to me. Ultimately it is this that scares me as an artist when faced with interest, first and foremost. For interest, by way of discourse, seems to approximate the much longer passage of time that judgement requires to be trued.
The audio and video in Le Baiser/the Kiss are connected by a theme–the artist’s process–that, more so than any phenomenon, negotiates my experiential passage from one to the other. The “Kiss” pun legitimates Manglano-Ovalle’s aesthetic decisions by creating theoretical resemblances between the video’s disparate elements. However, I must shift from my experience as a viewer to Manglano-Ovalle’s experience as an artist in order to see these underlying connections. It is Manglano-Ovalle who has now become the hermeneutic text through which I must read the video and it is my access to Manglano-Ovalle himself that regulates my success or failure in this endeavor.
In fact, it is a statement made by Rosalind Krauss, in a retrospective appraisal of the Minimalist period, that makes me anxious to experience a more expansive hermeneutics than the kind exemplified above–not the “look of mind” or of a mindful process but an iterative, strange-attractor kind of intertextuality:
For LeWitt’s generation a false and pious rationality was seen uniformly as the enemy of art. Judd spoke of his own kind of order as being “just one thing after another.” Morris and Smithson spoke of the joy of destruction. For this generation the mode of expression became the deadpan, the fixed stare, the uninflected repetitious speech. Or rather, the correlatives for these modes were invented in the object-world of sculpture. It was an extraordinary decade in which objects proliferated in a seemingly endless and obsessional chain, each one answering the other-a chain in which everything linked to everything else, but nothing was referential. (Krauss 258)
Historic houses, like biographies, present working models of richly hermeneutic experiences. They are good in so far as they communicate the fullness of a person, not just their genius but also the diversity of contradictory descriptions which together constitute the phenomenon we call life. A life not in the sense of a transcendental subject, but an incidental one: a subject formed by an otherwise unnecessary chain of events.
1 Allen, Richard, and Malcolm Turvey, eds. 2001 Wittgenstein, Theory, and the Arts (London: Routledge).
2 Monk, Ray. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. New York: Penguin, 1991. Print.
3 Monk, Ray. “Life Without Theory: Biography as an Exemplar of Philosophical Understanding.” Poetics Today Vol 28. Issue 3 (2007). Print.
4 Krauss, Rosalind. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989. Print.
In concluding the passage above in a 1978 essay on Sol Lewitt, more specifically on the discourse surrounding Lewitt’s work, Rosalind Krauss objects to an assertion that Lewitt’s work is about “the look of thought” or of “Mind” and writes, “To give accounts of this kind of art that misconstrue its content, that entirely misplace the ground of its operations, is to invent a false justification of the work which traduces and betrays it. Aporia is a far more legitimate model for LeWitt’s art than Mind, if only because aporia is a dilemma rather than a thing.”
This conclusion is enlightening in its shift in focus from the “false and pious rationality,” that Lewitt’s generation opposed, to the “false justification” which Krauss takes issue with and considers a betrayal of the work. False rationality is the province of poor or misguided judgement. It is a way in which a person perjures his or herself. False justification, on the other hand, more acutely involves one’s interlocutor(s). It is a way in which two or more people contest each other’s points of view.
It is important to see how Krauss’ use of Aporia dovetails with Wittgenstein’s use of Aspect Blindness, because the topics that they are addressing, artworks which dislocate authorship from the perspective of the viewer, and optical illusions which meld figure and ground, are functionally quite similar.