28 September 2010

Slow Down and Smell the Theory ~ Alfredo Jaar

Artist’s Statement: In his own words. … Alfredo Jaar talks about his installation The Marx Lounge, a neon lit reading room devoted to left wing theory. His piece is a public realm commission for Liverpool Biennial 2010: Touched, the International Exhibition. (here)
Well, I've been a great reader of this kind of literature for many years and I really think there has been a kind of revolution going on in the last 20, 30 years in the intellectual world.

If you read some of these texts by Stuart Hall, by Terry Eagleton, by Alain Badiou, by Jacques Rancière, Frederic Jameson, etc, etc. They are extraordinary texts and essays. They are very challenging. They are models of thinking the world and that's what I do as an artist. I create models of thinking the world.

So I wanted to share this knowledge with the public because people tend to go very quickly in a biennial. They move from work to work. They are stressed. They are rushed. They want to see everything, and so this is in a way a work that asks you to ‘stop, please stop, stay here, relax, take your time, why don't we think for a while?, let’s go in depth into these subjects.’

I'm an architect making art so basically when I was given the space I wanted to create a comfortable space where people could sit down, enjoy themselves, and have good light to read, be comfortable, to offer them a break in this rush around works. And basically we created the longest possible table to accommodate some 1,500 books.

So the centrepiece is this huge table and of course we made a funny allusion to Marxism and communism with the red walls and the neon sign that says Marx Lounge, and we have the red carpet and we decided on black sofas. So it’s a very striking colour decision. We took red and black. But it's really a comfortable place. It's a place that invites you to sit down and relax and read. It's a reading room.

I wanted people to stop in their tracks, because you can access the internet in your home and on your phones. There is so much technology today, but I think the book has this value of stopping you in your tracks of asking you to go deeper inside. I have the impression that technology keeps us on the surface.

It's very difficult to sit in front of a computer and go deep inside because your eyes get tired very quickly. You have to operate software. You have to operate the mouse, etc, etc. And you are distracted by mail, by different windows opening up and flash movies and things like that. So here it’s really about you and a world construction that is being made in front of your eyes by this author in the book. I wanted to slow down and technology goes too fast. I really wanted to slow down.

Liverpool has a long tradition of progressive politics and historically it's a place where workers have fought for so many rights and so I thought it was the right place to create a work like this.
As a political theorist I find Jaar's work wonderfully provocative and his taste in "theory" unfortunate. Many (not all) of the writers he mentions are virtually impenetrable [1]. Among the problems with progressive or leftist "theory" is that verbiage takes the place of analysis; not only is there a tendency to be Luddite with respect to the often very useful tools of standard social science, but there is a preoccupation with abstraction and a turning away from genuine political and economic problems.

By contrast, among the things I like about Jaar's art is the way he keeps his eye on the ball - that is, on the problems of people in the world. For a start, here as in past projects, aiming to get people to stop and see and think. So, while Jaar sees the parody being the red neon sign 'The Marx Lounge,' I take the "theory" being peddled in this garish decor redolent of a bordello.

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Blogger adam hujhes said...

I'm a big fan of your blog, but today's post irked me. This comment is directed toward both Alfredo Jaar's art and your previous comment on Slavoj Zizek (linked as a footnote).

First, I think your complete dismissal of Zizek is unfortunate, while your willingness to lump Hall, Badiou, Jameson, and others together with him is somewhat irresponsible. Dismissing these authors as "impenetrable" reveals more of your own bias than any substantive critique.

Zizek explains Lacan in a superficially accessible way to be sure, but anyone who seriously wants to understand his arguments would do well to read Bruce Fink's The Lacanian Subject and Richard Boothby's Freud as Philosopher first. If you argue that a "preoccupation with abstraction and a turning away from genuine political and economic problems" limits the usefulness of Zizek's work, maybe its because Lacanian political theory still needs to be fleshed out by better writers - I'll never defend Badiou's readability.

Zizek portrays himself as a clown and a prankster, a pose that is both appealingly ironic and consonant with his anti-establishment message. He calls his own work "bullshit" to defy readers to prove him wrong. The fact that this pose makes him even more popular and increases his book sales is a demonstration of his own claim about ideology: "I know what I am doing; nonetheless, I am doing it, because I don't know what to believe." (Puppet and the Dwarf p.5)

At the same time, Zizek makes some points that anyone can understand. Watch this video, and tell me that you don't understand Zizek's basic argument about authority: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjEtmZZvGZA

Just because something is so complicated it makes your teeth hurt doesn't mean you shouldn't try to engage it. And if you can't, you owe it to yourself to explain why.

I'd agree that an art installation like this one does not allow an audience to engage with most theoretical texts, much less those chosen by the artist. However, I don't find the artist provocative in any sense: he is simply selling intellectual cache to hip art consumers. Is the artist really getting an audience to "stop and think?" Or is he getting them to smirk, nod in appreciation, and maybe pick up the newest Badiou book as coffee table fodder? I agree that the overall affect of the piece is "redolent of a bordello," but not because of the work selected by the artist - it's the setting.

Libraries and universities are far more egalitarian and effective than art galleries when it comes to serious intellectual development. A lot of conceptual art hits me just like a flash movie: you get the point, smile appreciatively, and close the window. Stacking up a bunch of books and turning on a neon sign won't create the discipline necessary to "go deep inside" anything.

28 September, 2010 22:45  
Blogger adam hujhes said...

I'm afraid that I find Jaar's work much less provocative than you do, and it's not because of the texts he selects.

First of all, a gallery is far less egalitarian and effective than a library or a university when it comes to promoting intellectual development. I think that most people who visit Jaar's installation are likely to smirk, nod appreciatively, and maybe pick up the newest Badiou for coffee table fodder. But an art installation cannot inspire the discipline necessary to understand serious works of political theory because it is not a social institution: people enter and exit, consuming cultural cache and little more.

I also think that your outright dismissal of Zizek, as well as your conflation of his work with Hill, Jameson, etc. are both misguided.

Zizek presents himself as a clown and refers to his own work as "bullshit" to strike a pose, and defy readers to prove him wrong. It is performance art, but it demonstrates Zizek's idea of contemporary ideology: "I know what I am doing; nonetheless, I am doing it... because I don't know what to believe" (Puppet and the Dwarf p. 5).

And if you really find Zizek totally incomprehensible, watch this youtube interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjEtmZZvGZA or read Boothby's Freud as Philosopher and try reading him again. Calling him "incomprehensible" is not as effective as demonstrating how the level of abstraction he uses is unwieldy.

28 September, 2010 23:01  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


Thanks for the frank comment. Really. I don't think we will find much common ground, but so what?

Sorting through the dense prose of Zizek's latest book of the week for this or that tidbit of insight is a waste of my time. Of course, no one can be wholly incomprehensible all the time. But SZ takes a good shot at it. I understand that he thinks he is being oh-so-ironic. I think he is full of it; worse he is being 'clever' at the expense of others. That is irksome and worse, it is self-defeating. If one needs to call attention to one's irony the strategy has failed. That is he difference between reading Marx or Freud, for instance, both of whom traffic in irony and reading SZ. They treat their readers as intelligent enough to see multiple meanings, he treats his as dopes.

Perhaps I have a "bias" for straightforward prose - give me Raymond Geuss or Gerry Cohen over any of the folks Jaar mentions any day. But that is not because I have an aversion to grappling with work that makes my "teeth hurt." That goes for reading Nietzsche and Hegel as much as for reading game theory. I just don't think that one needs to be opaque for the sake of being opaque. I didn't buy that from Adorno and Marcuse decades ago and I don't buy it now. And not just Zizek but many of the other theorists in the Verso stable basically are still peddling that line. Hard to understand does not equal difficult or important.

It may well be that "Lacanian political theory still needs to be fleshed out by better writers." I'll give you the benefit of the doubt on that one. But Lacan has been dead for three decades and we are still waiting for someone to make the claims clear? I frankly think there are more useful theorists on whom to place my bets.

On your assessment of the relative merits of Universities/Libraries and Art fests, I tend to agree. but I've managed to get a University to pay me! I tend to think the art world is terminally shallow. The thing I like about Jaar is the notion that moments to sit and think are increasingly (perhaps) fleeting. And that is even more apparent as viewers rush through the gallery/museum ...


28 September, 2010 23:36  
Blogger adam hujhes said...

Thank you for the thoughtful reply - I was pretty burnt out yesterday and may have been slightly insulting. I think that perhaps "we are still waiting for someone" to make Lacan's claims clear because many of his Seminars are still not available in good English translations, and his writing is indeed abstruse and contradictory much of the time. Bruce Fink's work is the clearest explanation I have read.

I guess I slog through Zizek, trying to piece together his points, mainly because I think that psychoanalysis has been given the short stick in political science and psychology departments overrun with rational choice theorists and empirically-oriented behaviorists. Zizek and Lacan both have a child-like way of questioning the most basic social norms and presuming that the opposite of common wisdom is the truth: theoretical strategies that remind me of Tocqueville.

For what it's worth, I agree completely with your point that "other theorists in the Verso stable" are often being oblique for the intellectual cache of it. It's a shame that word choice comes before clarity - but there are good writers out there doing a better job.


29 September, 2010 08:12  
Blogger Beth E. said...

Hi Jim,

I think I have to largely side with Adam on this one--your post sounds too easily dismissive of what's unfortunately come to be labeled 'Theory' (the easier to paint all of it with the same tarring brush).
In my experience, there is often something terrifically worthwhile embedded in what can seem like impenetrable language--for me, Heidegger would be an excellent example--and it's only our own loss if we toss out all those golden nuggets just because they're sometimes difficult to see through the silt. The other main problem I see is that certain people (I'm thinking of Derrida here) organized their work around what was a genuinely brilliant insight, only to have their work used to prop up a bunch of second-tier, much less original folks who crank out mostly useless attempts at seeming clever by applying the theory.
My own career in academia (mostly adjunct, always contingent) has organized itself around trying to salvage and to translate the key ideas and insights emerging from many of these critical theorists for undergraduates (and a smaller group of MFA students), while trying to get them to figure out just what the hell is actually important to them in the world and to find ways to articulate and to act on it. As I recently told my grad-only course on Photography in Contemporary Art, when they expressed some dismay at understanding the text in a Douglas Crimp essay I'd assigned, "Don't worry--my job is to make you NOT feel stupid when you read this stuff."
And they do seem to be getting it....

02 October, 2010 08:57  
Blogger Beth E. said...

Oh, and P.S. I think the Jaar installation sounds pretty lame, also.

02 October, 2010 08:58  

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