Since September 2007, the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts (where I’m a student) has been hosting a long-term retrospective of German artist Tino Sehgal. Sehgal, whose works are enacted by interpreters, does not produce things, or put more precisely, material objects. At the Wattis over the past two years of his endless retrospective, these immaterial works have been interpreted by gallery guards, who deliver to you the piece.
Looking for Sehgal’s most recent installment, I asked the gallery attendant if there was a Sehgal work on view (so to speak). “Yes,” she said, and concurring with me, “he has a retrospective.” I waited. She paused—( )—and that was it, that was the work, the pause. In the work of Sehgal, who never produces objects, including any kind of written agreement or proof of artwork, the question of physical production (or perhaps the absence of product) is palpably present.
Abraham Cruzvillegas, who recently lectured at CCA's Timken Hall, discussed a process of production that took on a much more general meaning, but was not far from the immateriality of Sehgal. In a thought echoed by curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev during the panel discussion “Global Art in the Downturn” at SFAI earlier this week, Cruzvillegas proposed that the concept of productiveness as a virtue is a social construction. The impulse toward production originates in an economic (ahem, capitalist) understanding of the world, and seems to be tied fundamentally to ambition.
Time—and space, as Christov-Bakargiev argues—spent not working toward any particular goal (whether professional, social, or otherwise) are important parts of life in general, which for some of course includes artistic and curatorial practices. Indeed, both the artist and the curator argued, and quite compellingly, for waste.
If one were capable of setting aside social, professional, and spiritual ambition, what would remain? If only we could all be wastrels. Perhaps the answer lies in developing capacity for acceptance; perhaps we should embrace our fates.
The 2002 Polish film Edi offers a strikingly puzzling proposition about acceptance. One tragedy after another befalls the unfortunate protagonist, all of which he accepts with a shrugging stoicism. The viewer comes to sympathize—if not fall in love with, a little bit—the puzzling Edi. He is a man living off the money he makes collecting scrap metal on the streets of the industrial city Łódź, whose cracked concrete is beautifully captured in aerial views as Edi slowly treks across tram rails alongside his emotionally dependent friend Jureczek. Wrongfully accused of rape, Edi is brutally castrated and left with an infant to raise. Embracing his fate, he moves to the countryside with the child, and the melancholy story seems to near resolution in the moments of the film's careful rendering of flowing water, wind, grass, and baby gurglings.
The film does not, however, offer up Happy and Hopeful as one might expect. Instead, the child who has caused Edi to so change his life to accommodate beauty, peace, and looking forward to the future, is taken away from him. It is not his child; he gives it up peacefully but remains stoically heartbroken. What is most enigmatic for the Western movie-goer is his reaction: he does not despair. He admits the fate of losing this child as readily as he had accepted it. He moves back to the city streets and his daily routine of collecting scraps to buy a bit of vodka.
In Edi's total acceptance of his fate, he eschews all traces of ambition for his own happiness. Rather than privileging an ambitious impulse (as perhaps Cruzvillegas argues against), practice total acceptance. The complete resignation of Edi seems completely foreign to me. The American values of making it on one's own, of struggling for a better life, are wholly capsized in Edi's (in)action.
As an American, am I incapable of wasting time? Must it always be ambitious diligence, Protestant work ethics, and endlessly insufferable self-improvement? In the face of tireless curatorial creative multi-hyphenates and the need to see everything, including the farflung biennials, nevertheless to maybe, perhaps, one day curate one, can I just hang out? Do we need to make and strive for things? Is there inhabitable space between ambition and resignation? Can’t I just step back and accept my fate?
The answer to these and other burning questions, lest you miss them, can be found in the following long pause...(_)
- Joanna Szupinska
Image courtesy the artist, the Wattis, and kurimanzutto: Abraham Cruzvillegas, Autoconstrucción Mobile, 2008. Customized bicycle, steel pipes, wood, cardboard, cables, car battery, speakers, mirrors, car stereo, video projector, DVD player, tea flask, bell, horn. 240 x 125 x 260 cm. Second image; film still from Edi, courtesy of Polish Cuture.
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