This year’s ‘potlatch’ was a neat and tidy affair. The giving was orderly.
In the understated chapel of All Hallows on the Wall, City of London Parish, we were invited to select from 24 framed pictures taken down from the metaphysical vertices of the gallery walls, laid out in a grid on temporary trestles and tabulated like fish on the dock. Each picture was a gift.
Last year’s potlatch – by all accounts – was more fractious. Then there had been paintings as well as drawings, seemingly of greater value despite all the works being ‘free’. The absence of price gave way to the inevitable meta-value of perceived cultural worth manufacturing a heated market atmosphere as punters bartered over goods.
Nonetheless, it took little over an hour for all the work to go – detailed graphite reproductions taken from four source images, The Stonebreaker, by John Brett; The Stonebreaker and his Daughter, by Edwin Landseer; Gustave Courbet’s, The Stonebreakers; and The Stonebreaker, by Henry Wallis (I picked up a copy of Courbet’s take on the 19th Century theme) all identically framed in white 570mm by 570mm squares.
Each image carries on its reverse equally detailed production information: the origins of the image, and the hours of work involved – roughly ranging from 5 to 15 hours depending on the size and detail of the image marked out on a ‘time sheet’. You signed for the work and gave your name and address and so consented in a sense to becoming constituents of the continued gifting of JCHP.
Between the ritual of their annual ‘shows’ this gifting (rather than giving, I think) takes the shape of over-sized postcards, mailed at regular(ish) intervals, each prompting with various degrees of directness a response by the receiver and simultaneously solicit a perverse form of brand awareness – think of us as you go about your lives.
The work – between each annual ‘systematic’ and ‘obligatory’ ‘discharge’ – actually exists, to my mind, in the continued attempts to articulate itself. The cards spit and froth with an underlying reticence quoting Marcel Mauss and Pierre Bordieu.
This is from ‘DECEM’: ‘As the cold sets in we remain in genuflection to our boards, with aching wrist and sore knees, mindful of our deadline… The moral imperative: to discharge systematically, if somewhat unceremoniously, by giving works away [framed, completed], in a manner more like homespun routine than an act of art.’
You can’t help hearing a melancholic self-parody in some of these (one way) retorts. There would have to be, if you turn this kind of anti-art into ‘ascetic practice’: ‘seeking immunity from commodification and a wholehearted search for a moral form of value over a marketable one. The simplifications of the gentle paranoiac.’
But then again maybe they mean it. And if so, something else takes place.
No doubt, JCHP is part of a conceptual tradition which attacks art as a metaphysical ideal (The Stonecutters theme reminds of Terry Atkinson’s Stone Touchers Series). But here (in the All Hallows potlatch) the atmosphere of generosity was disarming and undercut the cold objectivity of any conceptual minimalism (which was, anyway, inadvertently spoofed by the large slate plaques hanging over the alter of All Hallows on the Wall, inscribed in neat white lettering and looking a lot like two exposed Joseph Kosuths – from afar).
No. With JCHP a strange and beguiling bathos is at work. In a church on the edge of the city’s financial district, we ‘genuflect’ at the eternal let down of art as money. Where ‘society pays itself in the counterfeit coin of its dream.’ (Mauss courtesy of the JCHP card quoted above.) So did we, then, gather in mourning at the loss of some symbolic exchange?
I’m not sure. At base, JCHP’s ‘work’ exists in its failure to say itself (note the wonderful book-length ‘text in five acts’ that was also gifted on Thursday, entitled Sic, Sic, Sic); it speaks its own impediment, its failure to correspond, again and again. And this is, in a ‘liturgical’ sense, joyous, like the imperfect reproduction of the drawings now distributed across how many homes? – rescaling and repeating as accurately as possible not an original as such but a laboured fidelity to the close distance of the original, always lost, always denied.
‘Art’ (distinct from its ‘works) is all at once an economy, a discourse (or language) and a network. And it is at these interstices that the JCHP ‘asceticism’ (which always sounds a lot like aestheticism) is at its most serious and most dynamic. Parodying its continued reliance on mailing list networks and ventriloquizing its gut-speak is one thing, but combining this with sidestepping the economy of art is no mean feat.