With A Name Like Yours, You Might Be Any Shape.*
Concept by Georgia Holz and Claudia Slanar
" Must a name mean something? " Alice asked doubtfully. " Of course it must, " Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: " my name means the shape I am — and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost. "
The proper name is a designator of reality, like a deictic; it does not, anymore than a deictic, have a signification. ... It is a pure mark of the designative function.i
With a Name Like Yours, You Might Be Any Shape
In mythic thought, names have been regarded as congruent with one's personality. The name was, and sometimes still is, seen as an attribute to the individual sphere of its bearer and, as such, a creator of identity. ii Fairytales like the Grimm's Rumpelstiltskin often refer to this mythic belief that a person's " true " character and intentions are revealed by use of their proper name. Spirits are evoked but also revoked through naming them. The great God of Judaism appears to be too powerful to be called out and is referred to by a number of " other " names that all seem to be proper. Barack Obama or Mitt Romney? There is an obvious difference in these names, but they don't immediately point to the politics of their bearers because proper names, as Lyotard has pointed out, "...do not have a signification... and to name is [thus] not to show."iii
In Lyotards's text " The Différend, The Referent, And The Proper Name," published in 1984, it is not only this designative function and our belief that the name roots the subject in the Cartesian laws of Western rationalism that are at dispute. In a system of deductive logic and through a complex analysis of language, Lyotard also develops a theory of the "différend" — a case of dispute between parties that cannot be resolved because there lacks a rule of judgment applicable to both.iv It is this "unstable state of language," where an injustice suffered by one party cannot " be signified in that idiom (of the other party)," that remains just a " feeling." v The victim party is therefore rendered silent because there is something unspeakable, or at least unspeakable as of yet, to be said. In such a case, we clearly have to work towards this signification or to lend "the ear to what is not presentable under the rules of knowledge."vi But reality itself is not so easily designated. To establish a relationship between the referent — as designated by the proper name — and reality we have to call out a complex universe of language phrases and systems: Name, show, signify!vii In this operation the proper name becomes the crucial point to relate its indexical function to its signifying one. For the proper name is, in essence, an empty designator. It constantly adapts to different semantic values that escape a universality, which we, and historic sciences, may have relied upon. viii
The artists included in With A Name Like Yours, You Might Be Any Shape focus on this shifting function of the proper name, further destabilizing it through various naming strategies. In this manner, their artwork points to a different notion of subjectivity. By appropriating and redistributing the proper name's symbolic power, these artworks expose and critique the hegemonies inherent to these discursive formations. In so doing, they ultimately follow Lyotard's theory that reality is something unstable — "a swarm of meanings" that includes an entire universe of possible meanings not yet produced.
At the same time, the exhibited artworks stress the particular relationship between the proper name that designates a specific author and what that name symbolically represents, a phenomenon that Michel Foucault designated as the " author function." ix For him, the author's proper name is situated between the " two poles of description and designation " x in that it neither fully performs either one of these functions. This relation between an author and his/her name is thus not isomorphic. Rather, it is subject to possible modifications due to a surplus in signification. xi As such, returning to Lyotard, we can conclude that the author's name occupies a very special position as it can name, show, and signify. The author's name is therefore crucial to defining the author's function as both constitutive of and by a bundle of discourses not attributed to an individual but preceding it. xii By focusing on the author's name, as a very particular case of the proper name, an existing bundle of discourses can subsequently be questioned, deconstructed, and ultimately reconstructed but never fixed.
For the Unknown Artist, history's narrative is not fixed but malleable. In a series of twenty black-and-white photographs depicting famous artist groups from the 1920s to the 1970s, the Unknown Artist has inserted himself in place of another person. His identity is ambiguous. He oscillates between a real person with a specific physiognomy and a literal stand-in for every artist unknown and unidentified by art history. By staying anonymous, the Unknown Artist rejects the curiosity about his identity and undermines modernist concepts of artistic originality and creativity. But these photographs not only speak to his desire to be aligned with famous artists. They are also document a history of artists who were very keen on their chosen form of representation. Different layers of time are also conflated in the series — that of the decades the pictures were taken, the production of the actual montages, and that of the spectators who are ultimately confronted with their own contemporaneousness.
Matthias Klos' slide installation is based on the assumption that art history has always also been a history of names and their symbolic efficacy. The artists choice to use a pseudonym thus functioned as a tactical maneuver for questioning identity and challenging authorship. This was also the case with one of the most well known pseudonym of the twentieth century, Rrose Sélavy, and her inventor Marcel Duchamp. Whereas Duchamp chose a woman's name to openly questioned gender normativity, the Victorian Era writer Mary Ann Evans picked a male alias, Georg Eliot, to ensure her novels would be published and taken serious. Klos, in turn, initiates a fictitious dialogue between these artists' two personae about how they found their bearers, not the reverse. In so doing, Klos speculates that with an alias the " choice " of a name is really not an intentional act on behalf of the authors. Rather it comes to the author from an unsuspected, almost imaginary, direction.
Alternately a producer, then author, translator, or editor, Hina Berau provides relief for her employer Judith Fischer allowing her to make art beyond the productive imperative. Yet Berau, at the same time, is able to live in a way the entrepreneur-artist cannot: withdrawn and avoiding contact. At the real level she functions as producer. At the imaginary level she could be the protagonist of the video dark.reading. Symbolically she embodies a narrative, like the person depicted in the video that eventually rejects our reading and our desire to produce meaning. But " reading " also refers to the precarious process of recording. Shot on 16mm with an old Bolex-camera, the analogue film was then transferred to digital video, which made the original flaws, scratches, and shifts even clearer. Dark.reading shows the attempt to ward off a conventional narration, which is thrust upon the subject from all sides. It thus remains, like Hina Berau,
Sometime during her last years at graduate school, artist Zoe Crosher received the photographic collection of her aunt's friend, Michelle duBois, as a gift. DuBois had been traveling the Pacific Rim as a call girl during the 1970s and 80s. She had also documented her changing appearance, her partners and environments. The pictures of Michelle duBois, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Crosher, show the influence of media-culture on women's self-image. But Crosher subverts these highly sexualized poses by re-ordering the pictures, having pinned-on notes covering parts, or by pres-enting their reverse side. DuBois' authorship is thereby acknowledged yet made precar-ious. The result is a discursive history mapped on to a woman's body of work that only seems ordinary on a first glance.
In the 1990s, Ronda Zheng was a mythic being and cult figure in the Viennese art scene. Whenever Zheng surfaced it was in connection to the biographies of her real life inventors Ricarda Denzer and Isa Rosenberger. Zheng first appeared on the invitation card for a group exhibition at the Secession in Vienna in 1993, where-upon her name was covertly inserted into the list of artists, two-thirds all male. Over the following years, a series of events were initiated in Zheng's name without her ever appearing in person. She hosted the opening reception of the 1994 Art Season kick-off in a private apartment; she staged a public group therapy session for artists' collectives; she had a palm-reading session; and invited people by calling cards to leave messages on her answering machine. As a fictitious artist, Zheng functioned as a projection of her two initiators, Denzer and Rosenberger, as well as a myth created by the many
participants of her collective fabrication.
Donelle Woolford is an emerging artist from New York who has exhibited in London, Paris and Vienna. Multifaceted as a narrative, a scripted role, and a fictional character, Woolford has actually entered the real world through the different actors who have impersonated her. The shifting embodiment of Woolford, along with the diversity of her work, hint at the fact that she is actually the invention of artist Joe Scanlan who, in turn, casts young African American women to play her. It can thus be said that Woolford is the author of the artworks Scanlan produces. If so, then Scanlan both colludes and questions the institutional structures and representational politics of the art world. The impersonation gives him freedom to createartworks that do not necessarily fit within his own biography. But as a construction, Woolford also challenges our desire to connect an artwork to an artist-subject and to read the work through the author's " authentic " biography.
Roee Rosen is known for inventing a cast of fictitious artist personae. They " participate " in the art scene through staged photographs, retrospective exhibitions, catalogues, reviews and even novels such as Justine Frank's Sweet Sweat. In so doing, they draft an alternative narrative to canonized, art historian discourse. Rosen makes his protégés speak openly out on current politics through their art works. In his video, The Confessions of Roee Rosen he again does not speak for himself. Instead he has three undocumented female workers in Israel, obviously non-Hebrew speakers, read a first-person narrative phonetically from a teleprompter. It remains unclear whether these infamous anecdotes and erotic episodes are about the artist himself or if they belong to the realm of fantasy, mixed as they are with stories from the precarious everyday life of the illegalized immigrants. A moral dilemma arises by the artist's decision not to inform the performers about the actual content of their parts as it strips them of agency and turns them into victims again.
In 1969 art critic Kiki Kundry published an article in ArtNews about the young artist Oscar Neuestern's exhibition " The Plan." But did this show and its protagonist really exist? Or was Neuestern just the fictional character of a story that tried to extrapolate the times' obsession with the " dematerialisation of the art object? " For artist-researcher Mario Garcia-Torres, the boundary between fact and fiction is blurry. His installation simply recalls the " known." The fortynine slides fade from black to grey to white as he shows Neuestern's obsession with the void and his own absence. Garcia-Torres characterizes Neuestern as struggling with a short-term memory that allowed him to see the fading of acts and ideas as the psychological conditions of his being. His story exposes the dilemma of an artistic subject caught between its wish to disappear and society's desire to archive and preserve even the most ephemeral moments.
Untitled Collective addresses artistic and legal concepts of identity. After a New York-based association refused to accept group applications for an artist residency, Untitled Collective decided to merge its members' CVs and employment histories into a single identity. Marshall Gordon appears as a young overachiever who personifies a generation of artists in the " cultural industries " who have put their " soul " at work to accumulate mainly social capital. By also applying for a drivers' license, Gordon be-comes another "shape" of Untitled Collective, a sub-category that can take on different tasks. Straddling the boundaries of legality, this project points to data that can easily be manipulated and to security policies' phantasms that encompass virtual and actual identities alike.
Laura Wollen's works have always been dedicated to the interplay of presence and absence. Whether it was the overgrown front garden of the CalArts' Womanhouse where she planted tomatoes and string beans in 1972, or her re-enactment of Yves Klein's famous photo-performance Leap into the Void from 1960 with a safety net and a pile of foam rubber. In the end, she " disappeared herself," as she decided no longer to produce art as of 1976. Laura Wollen is a fictional character that cannot be represented or reproduced through common artistic hagiographies but rather demands alternative narrative forms such as re-enactment, speculation, and gossip. She is an unruly subject sometimes even blocking and sabotaging her own narrative. Wollen thus achieves artistic sovereignty while still tied to her creator. Wollen's story is one of dissonance, rediscovery and the performativity of history that will always be re-written.
In conclusion we can state that the artists in With A Name Like Yours, You Might Be Any Shape all employ improper names: pseudonyms, composites of existing names, or of phrases that aren't even names. Through these naming strategies and " improper names," the artists question current modes of subjectivity. In so doing, they enable those who do not have a voice of their own to acquire a symbolic power outside the boundaries of an institutional practice. As result they express collective and singular processes of subjectification characterized by the proliferation of difference.
i Jean-Francois Lyotard, " The Différend, The Referent, And The Proper Name," Diacritics 14.3
(Fall 1984): 10.
ii See Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt, " Metaphysik der Eigennamen," in Was ist ein Künstler? Das Subjekt der modernen Kunst, ed. Martin Hellmold et al., transl. C. Slanar (Paderborn, 2003), 91-92. She quotes the Russian linguist Pawel Florenski who, in 1926, warned of the results of a enforced change to " modern " Russian names in children. According to him this would result in " a split and chaotic personality " similar to a loss of biographical identity. As the proper name thereby " has
become one among many, a random and external appendix."
iii Lyotard, "The Différend," 11.
iv Lyotard writes against revisionist historians that try to prove the non-existence of gas chambers in Auschwitz through lacking testimonies by actual eyewitnesses.
v Ibid. 7.
vi Ibid. 14.
vii Ibid. 13.
ix Michel Foucault, What is an Author? (1969), online accessed Oct. 14, 2012, at http://wiki.brown.edu.
This exhibition is made possible by generous support from the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, the Arts and Culture.
*Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, 1865
University Art Gallery (UAG), Building 712
Room Gallery (R), Building 727 – Room 1200
Contemporary Arts Center Gallery (CAC) – Building 721 – Lobby Level
Artists receptions are held at 6:00 p.m. on the opening night of each exhibition -- the public is welcome and admission is free.
NOTE: Artists, titles, and dates are subject to change.
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