Mapping the Cracks: Art-Objects in Motion

Part One

by Daniel Rourke

“The spacetime of the lightcones and the fermions and scalar are connected to the chocolate grinder. The chocolate grinder receives octonionic structure from the water wheel.”

– Tony Smith, Valdosta Museum Website

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, EvenIn 1927 Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass was broken in transit. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, Duchamp's title for the piece, depicts a mechanical Bride in its upper section and nine abstract Bachelors in its lower. Duchamp took oil, lead, varnish and dust and sandwiched them between panes of glass. The Bachelors encounter their Bride in the presence of a large, gorgeous, chocolate grinder whose drums revolve in motions which seem to reach up, across the divide, to touch the ethereal Bride in her domain.

In 1936 Duchamp 'fixed' the broken Bride by repairing, rather than replacing, the shattered panes of glass. He claimed to like it better that way.

Today progenies of Duchamp invest time, thought and often a great many dollars in their own artworks. The successful ones amongst them package those artworks up in foam, plaster and cellophane to be moved, shipped and re-exhibited in multiple gallery spaces again and again. Without dwelling on the commodification of the artwork I want to build my own scheme for understanding these movements. I want to rest a little and draw the lines of desire that artworks traverse; the paths they take that human intent had nothing to do with; the archives they carry within themselves. For every map there are points we must plot, spaces and places in real space and time that require isolation and signification. We grab a GPS device and codify the crossroads where St. Martin's Place meets Trafalgar Square, marking carefully the precise angle via which Madonna on the Rocks will be fed through the clamouring crowds into the The National Gallery's mouth. Artworks live in motion, just as readily as they live in the gallery. In the dark recess of transit they sketch a hidden, secret life away from the viewing eye, becoming not 'art', but 'object' – traversing the gap between these concepts as they travel.

The Bride now rests out her Autumn years in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, waiting for gravity to release her chocolate grinder once again from its sandwich of (un)shattered glass.

Through Plato's writing we know that Socrates maintained a deep mistrust of the art as object, distinguishing three realms through which art must move before it was realised. In Book X of The Republic Socrates develops the metaphor of the three beds. The ideal bed, made by God, the carpenter's bed, a mere imitation of God's idea, and the artist's bed, again made in imitation, but this time of the carpenter's creation. The art-object is twice removed from 'truth'. It is a model of a model; a mimetically charged, displaced falsehood. Like a black-hole emitting virtual particles in space, the realm we long to peer upon is always hidden, allowing only those particles escaping from the object to catch our gaze.

Ever since Socrates we've aimed to stretch, like Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, across an invisible divide into the realm of the absolute. Like Duchamp's Bachelors, ever removed from their beloved Bride, it is the network, the movement of the Earthly chocolate-grinder, that throttles our attention. We believe in an 'other' place, attempting to represent it in our paintings, our sculptures, novels and poems but we will never reach it – transfixed as we are on the material realm around us. Should we instead forget the Bride, and concentrate on the cracks beneath-which the chocolate-grinder forever whirls? Forget the 'ideal' bed and ponder on the imperfections the carpenter ensures in his work, as the hammer and nails meet in a blur?

Walead Beshty - FedEx Sculptures

* I will not talk here of the other exhibits in Altermodern – and elsewhere – that took me on similar discursive journeys. I will instead lend you a series of hyper-links, a network of possibilities, for you to travel.

A new breed of artist believes so. They make art that realises a network of possibilities, rather than a final imperfect solution. Artists such as Walead Beshty, whose Installation of FedEx Sculptures echoes, in its shattered cubes, the 1927 incident when Duchamp's Bride was disfigured.

Beshty's FedEx Sculptures are a series of shatter-proof glass cubes broken in transit. What makes these boxes different from mere badly wrapped art-objects is the intent behind their destruction. The boxes are shipped by FedEx, rather than professional art-object shippers, from Beshty's studio to each new gallery. Their constant destruction sketches their character as meaningful objects. Each crack a palimpsest of movement, of random intent gathered in transit – between exhibitions. The boxes were exhibited as part of Tate Britain's Triennial, Altermodern, * earlier this year, where I had the opportunity to see them. Peering through the cracked panes, into the voids contained within each cube, I felt like a cartographer tracing lines made by movement and time to the source of an endless ocean.

Like the shattered panes of Duchamp's masterpiece, or the unique voids contained within Walead Beshty's FedEx Sculptures, time and movement have oft been deceived by our perceptions of art. For every artwork, whether considered whole or disfigured, is riddled with tell-tale cracks.

Throughout his second voyage to the Pacific (1772-75) Captain James Cook was accompanied by William Hodges, an ambitious artist whose landscape paintings would serve as a living archive of the expedition. Hodges was amongst the first people from Europe to see the Rapanui monuments of Easter Island, to sail The Cape of Good Hope or shake hands with the Maori of New Zealand. Hodges’ keen memory for light and atmosphere were responsible for much of the romanticism an enthused Europe would languish on Captain Cook’s expeditions.

View in Pickersgill Harbour, Dusky Bay by William Hodges (Palimpsest)

Some of Hodges’ more unusual paintings were recently x-rayed in the lead up to an exhibition of his work at London’s National Maritime Museum. As well as revealing a wealth of archival information about the artist’s processes, x-ray images of his View in Pickersgill Harbour, Dusky Bay exposed something far more spectacular. There, beneath the painted surface of the luminous rainforest canopy were two giant, white formations stretching up and out of a black swathe of ocean. Hodges, for reasons we will never fully understand, had chosen to paint over the first ever visual record of the Antarctic. The icebergs, having hidden for over 300 years under layers of oil paint, were freed by the roving, radiographic eye of the x-ray machine. The canvas usurped by its own regolithic layer; the history of the event ebbing over an invisible event-horizon like separated virtual particles.

Understanding that the archive is not contained solely in the document does not come naturally. To fully sketch the mimesis of art-objects we must devise better ways to peer beneath their surface. As I write this I am aware of what I am trying to say, and what I am actually saying. There is a gap between, a significant chasm that this text will never bridge. The art-object carries with it a history of its making, a memory of its movement. The art-object is vast in its potential to be seen and re-seen. Whether by accident, or intent, there are always cracks on the surface of an art-object. Some of these cracks may only be breached with new technologies – such as the x-rays that pulled across the void William Hodges' lost vision of the Antarctic. Some of these cracks are allowed to creep onwards by artists who long for their art-objects to develop lives of their own.

In this article I have concentrated on the movement inherent in art-objects. Scupltures and paintings are traditional fodder for this kind of exploration. But what of the text? How is the modern writer, aware of the networks of intent that spiral from her art-writing, best to shatter her work into life? How can we make the text move and encourage it to crack? And how will we read its movements upon its return?

This is a question I currently ponder. A question I explore in:

Part Two : Thinking Subjects as Book Objects

by Daniel Rourke