blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


MARK HARRIS | On Aspects of the Avant-garde

I'm shifting to another emphasis, the final part, really. Or the middle part.

Where the artistic avant-garde fails in its ostensible objectives—such as to avoid recuperation, to be uncommodifiable, to undermine the institution of art, to provoke social change—it succeeds in extending the kinds of resistances that I've just outlined. It opens up new possibilities for inventive responses that in turn become part of our everyday experience.

I'd like to spend the remaining time discussing the avant-garde's articulation of intimacy and intoxication as a means of achieving this.

I don't know how functional a term intimacy is. Perhaps it can serve as a transitional word, something that takes us on to a more effective formulation. And again, I'd welcome any thoughts that you have on this. On the other hand, intimacy signifies a reduction in the remoteness of artworks and objects, a reduction of that alienation from things which tends to increase with the commercial pressure for everything to have functionality, to have the function even of meaningfulness.

I see intimacy as determining a new kind of relation to things, a new orientation towards them where the unusualness of the perspective brings them closer. In this sense it's not just that it invites the possibility of participation—it may not at all—but that it is the revolution in our relationship that formulates a new aspect to things. It also draws out, importantly, I think, the sensual aspect of the encounter.

In this respect, Felix Gonzales-Torres is an obvious example since his work addresses relationships, here a piece called Perfect Lovers, and the clocks keep time. [slide 14: Perfect Lovers] And here, a piece called Ross in LA, [slide 15: Ross in LA] and for those of you that don't know the logic of these candy spills, Ross was his boyfriend who died before Felix Gonzales-Torres, both died of AIDS, and the candies are the weight of the person whose portrait they stand for. And as a spectator you can help yourself to them, you can take one and eat them. So there's obviously a way in which we can think of intimacy and that aspect of participation and the end of the edible artwork. And the supply keeps getting replenished.

But I'd also consider Gordon Matta-Clark's work in this context for the way in which it makes the city into a permeable entity—Gordon Matta-Clark is a 70s artist who cut through buildings. Particularly, I think, in this work, which is the delicately humorous Reality Properties: Fake Estates, from 1978 [slide 16], where he would buy up useless parcels of land around New York which cost next to nothing but which were, say, a strip of land that for some reason got isolated between two buildings or two properties.

But also relevant here would be Beom Kim's, Korean artist, Beom Kim's strange objects. And here is a piece called Electric Noose [slide 17: Electric Noose, 1992], which you can't quite see, there's a shadow on it, but it's plugged into the wall. [slide 18: Pregnant Hammer, 1995] A piece called Pregnant Hammer.

image loop of slides 15-18

Intimacy is also a function of intoxication as it loosens our grip on our subjectivity in a surrender to a more fluid relation with the world. As you'll see, I don't mean intoxication as just artificially stimulated. It is both an ecstatic moment—getting out of ourselves—and a stepping out of our habitual environment, our patterns of working, our relation to our surroundings. Neither intimacy nor intoxication preclude the possibility for opposition (however pointless that may be). They reframe it as a subversively clandestine approach.

With these two states, we can see how they shift some classic avant-garde positions, in this case provided by Adorno. Where Adorno's saying that as an avant-garde position, contemplation as a refusal of action, under intoxication, it becomes complete incapacity, not just refusal.

Where he says that the critique of the privileged subject, the avant-garde's particularly privileged subject, the author who's independently expressive and self-determining now becomes a complete uprooting of subjectivity.

Where the protest against production for its own sake now becomes, quite importantly, I think, an avoidance of what turns out to be the equally workman-like effort not to produce anything at all. So under intoxication, or considering intoxication, becomes some sort of middle ground between them.

It takes an equal amount of work ethic not to make work, if you know what I mean.

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