Apr 19, 2013

Tell Me Everything... Again

Catalogue essay for ANXIOUS OBJECTS
solo exhibition by Susan Fereday, at Linden St Kilda

In the culturalised arrangement of things, as in the systemic organisation of commodity, anxiety is reproduced in the appearance of the object and its surrounding ambience.

Things appear: as natural emanations, as ironic materialisations, as objects of desire. Within an overwhelming ambience of appearance, the discrete object exerts its specific artefactual aura. So thoroughly are we prepared by, and so fully immersed in, commodity's ambient spectacle, that our anxiety before the object is no longer just a fear of missing out. Everyone knows there is already far too much of everything, and understands the abundance in spectacle. In precarious display we anticipate the collapse of its arrangement, even while we are bound to its gravity. Resistance is useless, consumption is naturalised as inevitable, and choice is expressed as compulsion where anxiety is inseparable from desire.

And yet viewed from the 'real' of the image, the object itself appears strangely hallucinatory, apparitional, imaginary in its presence. From our subjective activity, an anxiety that is also desire materialises in the object – its trace is superficial, visible only from certain angles, available only in glimpses, transparent as language. The expression of individual choice becomes significant as material, reflective as a double mirror, and ironically objective. It is speech of and between commodity.

Towards the critical redefinition of commodity, the art object has a privileged place. While it is subject as commodity to the economy of the everyday, its place within the art institution allows referential remove. The art object becomes the enigmatic model, evoking all objects, whose existence is apart, essentialised, free of apparent contingency upon the functional.

In ANXIOUS OBJECTS texts appear in combination with modest domestic objects, placed on plaques which at once resemble trophies and low-means signage. They are humble, everyday objects, perhaps technologically or stylistically outmoded, some tainted by cultural and art-historical memory. The texts and objects are placed in various relationships, sometimes linked by humour, visual pun, negation, contradiction, or metonymy, sometimes defying resolution. The works have a pseudo-industrial uniformity and take their place on the white walls of the gallery as surrogate paintings.

Their mode of display follows gallery convention, yet the ambience is unsettlingly evocative of commercial clutter. Unlike the cool, aesthetic allure which engages the presumed connoisseurship of the art market in a discrete one-to-one address, there is a sense of competition here, an anxiety of surplus.

In this room full of ANXIOUS OBJECTS, the unknown viewing subject is drawn silently into a museum of old noise from the polemic battlefields of the artistic avant-garde. Familiar, nostalgic, texts recall celebrated, essentialist claims to art's objective purity - its strident gestures towards autonomy, transcendence, and radical separation; the rebel yell and reactive bombast of antagonistic critical debate; the authoritative fervour of position and rhetoric; and the endgame assertions which heralded art's advance through modernity with an impossible weight of eternity.

Individual texts carry a burden of categorical finality, but re-presented within a group, the intensity and authority of each endpoint is annulled in competition, no one becoming more conclusive than another. The conspicuous display of these texts as bold slogans and signs, and the direct pitch of their content, mask the mute disquietude of their appearance. Their noisy, authoritative claims seem absorbed by these walls, recuperated as historical idealism of utopian tendency. What once was asserted as definitive now circulates as background chatter through the art museum, the ambient accompaniment to the work of art as cultural commodity.

The humour in these pieces brings the objective irony of the art work into view. Both object and text disperse their meaning simultaneously, effortlessly, appearing as the false unity of contradiction, and taking it upon themselves to become clearly ironic and ironically clear. LAST PAINTING might offer a final round of drinks to accompany polite conversation. MAKE IT NEW might brush fallen style into the commercial recycle bin of art history. FREE ART FROM ART might filter-out extrinsic materials in order to sift for art's essence. ONE PROPERTY might provide a handle by which art opens into socio-economic field.

That one might so simply compact the significant utterances of cultural authority into a series of one-line laughs is unsettling, and possibly a little annoying. The absurd literality, the slapstick jokeyness, the simplicity of juxtaposition, and the irreverence of repeating the obvious in these text/object combinations disturb the endgame rhetoric and institutional authority with remarkable ease. But think about it: despite their obvious obsolescence or compromise, these essentialist concepts of artistic separation and authority prevail even now as a kind of faith among artists, and as an underlying truth in public and institutional expectations of art.

ANXIOUS OBJECTS questions the condition where adversarial art practice, held to aesthetic or polemic criteria which have long exhausted, is continually resisted yet anticipated ironically, where contestation is denied even as it is absorbed and reconstituted, where oppositional action must always start from scratch, forced to celebrate its transgression against assumptions that are strictly 19th century.

Here the commonplace of the objects might undermine the text's claims to authority, but suggests also that art's cultural authority constructs an indirect value upon ordinary commodity. The anxiety, perhaps, is that these endpoints don't go away, that they recirculate as values underpinning even the most innocuous objects, that everyday objects can serve as a kind of repository of culturalised meaning, in this case as an endpoint of cultural criticism.

The work is also concerned with how art might speak beyond art, how the contestation of culture within the museum is normalised and anticipated as ambience, how art-as-commodity might work to redefine commodity. In their original contexts, each text was offered as an opportunity to challenge accepted notions of representation. In re-contextualising these texts Fereday's work offers opportunity to look again, progressively, at moments when representation engages power. Here the concern is less with the texts' referential idealism, than with their residue of authority, where such institutional authority is exposed in a form of a prior instance; it is heard, or rather recreated equivocally, as voice.

In contemporary culture the favoured mode of ideological authority is the covert and grandiose silence of exclusion and complicity, excess and singularity, the soft sell of normalisation. In contemporary art the voice of authority is less direct than ever, more discretely pluralised, internalised, and localised throughout the complexity of institutional structure.

Susan Fereday's project mobilises this present condition as a voice in momentary slippage, when the definitive and prescriptive tones of historical utterance rub up against the present call for understatement or silence. One is obliged now to recreate the voice oneself, as if being addressed.

TELL ME EVERYTHING one says to the book, the painting, the object of one's instant of complete attention. TELL ME EVERYTHING, recalling Richard Prince's Joke and the lynchpin of psychoanalysis, the policeman inside our heads and the reassuring directive of patriarchy. TELL ME EVERYTHING, a parent, bedtime, anxiety before the discovered fact. TELL ME EVERYTHING, a private confession, at home, on television, complete abandon. TELL ME EVERYTHING one insists of the object, positioning oneself not just as subject of address but as the subject of imagined conversation, an imagined life-story offered willingly before the object. TELL ME EVERYTHING... AGAIN.

© 1992

First published as, ‘Tell Me Everything – Again', catalogue essay for Susan Fereday exhibition, ‘Anxious Objects,’ at Linden, St Kilda, April 1992