While researching for my new work, I sketched copies of landscape paintings from the Old Dutch to contemporary. These exercises were a part of my investigation of the quickly disappearing borders between nature and culture. I recognized that although I try to abolish the fabricated idealism in these landscapes, I consistently use similar tactics in my work. How do I navigate a critique on our commoditized and embellished natural world without contributing to, or even benefiting from, the problem I reference?
Protesting within art brings up two contradictions that have to be reconciled. First, we cannot possibly reject a matter that we have not experienced personally. What validity would we have? In order to speak to something, you have to know it. Secondly, work that protests an incident is dependent upon the incident it rejects. If the condition ceased to exist, the work would lose all relevance. Therefore, to the tiniest yet still significant degree, critical art is dependent upon the very phenomenon it abolishes. If not dealt with, these two contradictions could manifest work that is self-assuming and blind.
The gray area is the vulnerable space between understanding an occurrence and renouncing it. It is the moment when the artist exposes themselves to a condition and responds. Ambiguity in art gives the audience an opportunity to do the same. It is the substance, sensitivity, adaptability, and approachability in a work.
Consider Duchamp’s 1913 readymade sculpture Bicycle Wheel, which showed that anything could pass for art and art can pass for anything. Duchamp did not photograph the object, he did not paint it, he joined two already existing objects to create a new self-contradicting one. Even if this work took one simple step to conjoin, it still took a step. Choices were made and therefore, Bicycle Wheel cannot entirely be “ready-made.” In order to critique production, Duchamp had to go through the process of making an object. Further, Duchamp did not assume to claim what is and what is not art; he pointed to the impossibility of identifying these boundaries.
By working with a subject, by beginning the dialogue with an issue, art becomes vulnerable to contradictions. Think of Daniel Buren’s 1968 exhibition at the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan, Italy, where he closed the gallery by covering the doors with his trademarked vertical stripes. Buren, along with other artists practicing institutional critique, still work with the galleries. In order to have the intended conversation, Buren had to enter the space that would be most relevant to his protest. Using the gallery meant that he participated with the system he was rejecting.
At the same time, critical work is dependent upon its subject. Without the crisis, the work loses significance. What makes political work powerful is the boldness it has to stand against its opposition. Yet, if you remove the opposition, you will be left with a work that cannot substantially stand on its own. Further, if any attention is given to the work, then the artist benefits, even to the smallest amount, from the crisis.
Self-awareness can be one of the most charming aspects in conceptual art. Take, for instance, Malevich’s White on White, Magritte’s Treachery of Images, or Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs. A more recent example is Andrea Fraser’s 2003 untitled performance, for which she sold an hour-long sexual encounter to an anonymous collector. While renouncing the global art market, Fraser both addressed her own contribution to and dependency on the system, and directly exposed herself to the corrupt system.
Why choose a particular subject? As humans we can become saturated by potent situations. Whether through experiences of fear, personal grief, or curiosity, something particular sticks out to us. We would not respond to a problem unless provoked.
I observe moments when invented landscapes are disguised as natural. While direct consequences arise out of these moments, such as an apathy towards the real or the wasteful consumption, there is still a mysterious attraction to landscape. I have traveled to See Rock City, Dollywood, and other manufactured natural spaces. The process of entering into the phenomenon is what gives substance and credibility to my work. Despite my own hatred of these spaces, going into them has shown me that I still draw pleasure from these hyperreal experiences. Without the exposure, I would either have an uninformed response or have to forget the fabrication of these false environments and embrace the hype. The rock concealing a speaker that’s playing country music outside of Splash Mountain could be more satisfying than the abrasive wind that batters you at the top of the Smokies. The uneasy attraction I hold to these fabrications, despite knowing the downfalls of their existence, provokes me to respond. Some things are too good to be true. Ignorance is not bliss.
The previous examples were chosen not because of my affinity or disagreement with the artists or work, rather for clarity of my points. I wanted to explore the relationship between critical work and the subject. In my own navigation, I have struggled with the contradictions of working critically. One conflict is the dependency my work has on what I oppose. Another, to some extent, is that I either benefit from or participate in the issue. What I have found is that these contradictions do not have to be a limiting factor; they instead can be a useful tool in conceptualizing work. Self-awareness is an opportunity for vulnerability. The gray area is the active space between complacency and uninformed claims. How do we avoid a self-contradicting concept? How do we navigate utilizing and in some cases benefiting from circumstances we critique? Acknowledge it and use it.
Kellie Bornhoft is an artist and writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her work can be seen in “Giving Attention” at Georgia State University’s Welch School of Art & Design Galleries through February 20.