The art market crash at the end of the 1980s found itself surrounded by various forces intent on offering an “inside” view of art world commerce. Conceptual art, the Situationists, and the criticism of cultural institutions emerged from history and declared themselves revived. Symposiums and conferences were often billed as replacements for the “business as usual” of presenting exhibitions (for example, at New York’s Dia Center for the Arts) and activist events (Act Up, Group Material, and Paper Tiger, among other groups) again found their way into the art world’s field of awareness. In other words, the insuperable discourse on the object, as developed over the course of the eighties, seemed at least for the moment to have been wiped from the slate.
Any such vision of history is fairly simpleminded and might best be confined to primers and handbooks. Or it can furnish conservative critics a model for a kind of self-purification of the art market, serving to shore up a normative view where the events in question are provided a wholly natural development (with recession as the destiny of modernist thought); or it can simply trigger still another revival, referring in this case to the art of the seventies. But that’s hardly the way things look in the production of art. We can’t restrict our attention to a list of symptoms that point to a shift in the horizons of postmodern thought as determined by a logic of decade-long cycles. The problem, instead, is to embark on a search for specific methods and practices that allow a transposition and further elaboration of a constellation of concepts that enable us to come to terms with history, semiotics, and politics. It’s not that conceptual art was of no importance; rather it has to be seen as a part of a history of activities that did their best to steer clear of cultural and institutional contamination.
It’s equally impossible to jettison the eighties. A version of history that finds its terms in repetitions and revivals, a form of semiotics stuck fast on the shoals of allegory, and notions of politics that confine themselves to interior confrontations may prove itself superior to the potential hegemony of the purchasing power of the middle classes. This, however, does nothing to invalidate specific artistic practices such as re-photography, remakes, appropriations, trash, cynical affirmation, billboard politics, and so forth; and it’s surely no cause to throttle their preservation for the better times of the next new art boom.
An early work by Fareed Armaly is a fine example of the first formulation of a similar praxis; it also indicates how its methods could be transposed for a new, further paradigm. Wechselkurse (Rates of exchange) was made in 1989 and consisted of twelve spheres of snow—twelve spheres of nothing but snow. Each rested on a pedestal, and taken as a group, defined a field that corresponds on an abstract plane to the shared internal market of the European Economic Community. What the spheres finally came to represent is the free play of the market economy. Though still entirely trussed up in the object logic of the eighties, these banal, kitschy objects were employed with a certain irony and contained a first indication of an escape route from the dead end structures of that form of discourse. When compared to the slightly earlier Individual Works by Allan McCollum (over ten thousand pieces that sought to broach the discourse on the object in terms of quantification), Armaly’s twelve, totally identical objects exhibited a wholly different level of flexibility in the construction of sign and meaning: the object itself was the only content of its own distribution.
Armaly’s next exhibitions aimed to explore the theme of how specific content allows itself to be bound to an object. His interests didn’t lie in any exhaustive mode of firmly established attributions, nor in an allegorical abandonment of orientation, but rather in a procedural approach that functions at a level of semiotic transformations and thereby effects the external material in the elaboration of an artwork. As compared to the reactionary manner of reading complexity - where everything hangs together with everything else - we here discover a point of departure that can comprehend a wide variety of discretely definable planes, including everyday life, our modes of social structuring and their representation in the media, as well as labor and other constellations of a political and social bent. The institution of the “exhibition” was transformed into a model of interaction in which the linguistic discourse of the seventies was no less inscribed than the semiotic discourse of the eighties. Constructed along this cleavage, the model remained both incomplete and extremely useful, since it ascribes a value of experimentation to the work of art, thus freeing it from the precincts of all potentially provisional discourse that might pretend to establish its legitimacy.
Armaly’s first thematic exhibition was held in Paris’s Galerie Lorenz (1989), entitled (re)Orient. It found its theme in “Orientalism,” and in its various states of visibility in a visually oriented culture. The exhibition ranged from a sequence in Godard’s Bande a part, where a group of people ran through the Louvre to a cartridge case, a damaged Muybridge, a camera reflected in a series of minors, and a circular reading table with reproductions (first xeroxed and then photographed) of the covers of the various library books that exhaustively document the history of Orientalism from the time of Vivant Denon.
The next exhibition, Orphée 1990 at the MCC in St. Etienne, further developed this initial departure by directly confronting the theme of “cultural production.” The entrance to the building contained three video monitors that played the scene where Jean Marais strides through the mirror and into the realm of “the others” in Jean Cocteau’s much-renowned film, Orphée. This passage through the mirror was a leitmotif that ran through the whole of the exhibition, finding its exemplification in imaginary or real terms in a consistently political approach to culture. The actual exhibition space remained closed to the public, and viewers looked through a glass door in the middle of the room where the artist had erected an empty wooden frame that reflected the triptych form of Cocteau’s mirror. But the public had access to the work room, where one discovered the actual material of the exhibition: documentation on the region’s labor conflicts and an exposition of the events of May, 1968. Cocteau’s proposal for passing through the frame of the mirror, understood as a metaphor of cultural socialization, was contrasted with the cultural policies of André Malraux (who founded the MCC)—policies Malraux designed to assist this “passage through the frame of the mirror.” The absence of frames in the protest movement was likewise a visible issue, while recognition of the meaning of work was evidently shared by all three of these positions.
From a historical point of view, one can find no precedents for these two works. Armaly may have incorporated elements from the conceptual art of Dan Graham, John Knight, Michael Asher, and others, but the solutions he envisioned found articulation in a standard of semiological reflection. To a certain degree, they refurbish not only the history of conceptual art but indeed the whole of critical modernism, returning it to precisely that point at which Richard Prince largely blotted it out in 1978. History itself thus seems to be allowed to step outside of its circle of revivals and repetitions and present itself anew as a determining factor of social and artistic production, at least in the sense in which Jameson sees history as approachable only in its textual form. But I have no real interest in singing the praises of the feats of individual artists or in attempting to create new legends (even if that can’t be truly avoided, in spite of the best of intentions). It’s clear that there are other artists and other stories that lead to similar conclusions. I am concerned with defining a position that’s essentially confrontational: a position that doesn’t completely resolve into the terms of the market—but that likewise doesn’t stand guard over the grail of the achievements of the seventies. It’s a position, rather, that promotes transpositions, and that thus envisions an adequate and radical relationship to the present.
Armaly is an American artist who has lived in Europe for quite some time. He feels that the European art world is far more open to a spirit of experimentation. Even his work with his own gallery has largely functioned to conquer a certain freedom, and this has often seemed much more crucial than the mere presentation of his work. But reactionary forces have been far from dormant, and this work has been received (the work, for example, of the Galerie Nagel “group”) in terms of utterly alien models of perception. In the name of “progress,” of relentless criticism, and of a deconstruction of critically oriented art, the conservatives have imagined they have their points to make. Arguments on supersaturation have run amok, especially insofar as the culture of the academic left is concerned; there’s at least an implicit commitment to models of national counter-cultures. “Conceptual” is exclusively used as a term of denigration. As though any of that could possibly be the point, or as if such arguments hadn’t been totally disavowed already in the eighties! Yet the new regression toward reactionary structures is already far advanced. This, rather than any euphoric notion of a paradigm shift (as might have been conceived at the beginning of the nineties), should be seen as the background for the most recent of Armaly’s exhibitions.
Contact was presented in February 1992, at Galerie Nagel, but without any benefit, paradigmatically, of a vernissage [opening]. No rituals and no festivities on the part of an art world brotherhood, or so the message seemed to read. Architectural interventions had rotated the whole gallery ninety degrees. Visitors first entered the office and only later found their way into the two facing exhibition spaces, each of which contained a makeshift stool and a video monitor. The “living room theme” (from Claes Olden-burg to Richard Prince to Jim Isermann) was connected here to the idea of the “newsroom” (Hans Haacke, Peter Fend, Jasper Morrison) as a way of achieving a specific analysis of place, situation, and circumstance. In one of the rooms, clips from “Wünsch Dir Was,” a socially critical, family TV drama from the early seventies, were played over the monitor; Fassbinder’s Acht Stunden sind kein Tag (Eight hours are not a day), the working family series documented in a book; a sheaf of population statistics that were attached to the stool—from which the 30% portion addressing the working class had been removed—all testified to an awareness of problems that had long since flowed under the bridge. In the other room, 8% of the pile representing foreign residents had disappeared from the statistics, and courtroom drawings were screened on the facing monitor. On one hand, they furnished a visual documentation of rituals of social exclusion, on the other hand, they were related to a book of Dan Graham’s spatial constellations of the seventies.
In contrast to all conservative attempts to restore the notion of artistic essence, Armaly hereby presents a perception of a basic connection between history, semiotics, and politics. He postulates the “representative” character of cultural (as opposed to social) production, no less clearly than he speaks of a kind of subcultural knowledge of the nature of representational signs. Such knowledge, moreover, can be read as a criticism of precisely the kinds of structures that are now in the course of asserting themselves.
Translated from German by Henry Martin