On Intentions

This year resounds with memories of John Cage. His methodology of posing questions and using chance operation to find answers faced the possibility of infinite number of answers with steady honesty about not knowing. Indeterminacy, Cage writes, is the possibility of unique form, a result of structures within composition producing unexpected results. I doubt that this could happen if the process a working is incessantly controlled by an artist’s intention. The following examines three such cases.

The intention of the artist to create a work of art is a necessary condition. Yet, that intention is also an insufficient condition. Not only it cannot guarantee art’s values, it cannot even guarantee that there will be a work of art. That intentions are insufficient condition for something becoming a work of art is of paramount advantage for the open-endedness of creative process.

Equally, the view that my interpretation of a work of art can be supported by appeal to knowledge of the artist’s intention raises serious doubts. Not just because I may be interpreting  works of art without  artists’  intentions known or available to consult. More valuably, I want to attend the visual art through looking, not through something that has been said. A discussion  – on the other hand-  may be even positive, if coming after the intense first encounter.

Sadly, it has become fashionable for artists to give talks, publish handouts, and write up labels to foreground their intentions into the viewer’s experience. The intention of the artist then, is a demand for an author’s intention to be a sufficient condition for both a work of art and an aesthetic experience of it. There is a choice to use or ignore such demand. Underlying is a more interesting question of what happens to the artist’s intention in viewer’s direct experience of the work of art. Over time, my amateurish sample of observed reactions includes all shades of dependency and refusal, from “oh, I did not see that” to “a monkey can paint it better… it is rubbish.”

By a coincidence, I came across the following example of an artist keeping his intention open ended. It is provided by the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, titled Matisse: In Search of True Painting. On one wall a painting The Dream(1940) is surrounded by photographs demonstrating Matisse’s use of whole canvases as tools to “…push further and deeper into true painting”. This display copies the one Matisse supervised in 1946 for Galerie Maeght in Paris.

Recognisable is the stability of the composition. Major changes happen in hues and tones and small details – clearly responsive not to the original intention but to steps between newly formed and abandoned intentions, as they developed from the work. This second kind of intention is not less significant than the first, it differs though in being responsive to the first. It is not necessarily affirmative. Henri Matisse(1869-1954) clearly questioned, repainted, revaluated each version. He respected the indeterminacy, one of the ten words John Cage (1912 -1992) listed in Composition in Retrospect (in Etchings, 1978-1982, Crown Point Press, Oakland, CA, 1982)

My intention is to trace the role of artist’s intention in relation to open-endedness of three installations.

I. Claire Morgan: Gone to Seed, 2 November, 2012 – 20 January, 2013, MAC, Belfast

It charmed me on my first visit by elegant simplicity of an idea and materials supported by admirable discipline and dexterity. The well-spaced seeds strung on nylon threads with lead weights holding them steady mapped the levitating half globes / shells, the smaller pair inside the outer bigger one. The seeds mapped the verticals into concentric circles. Movement of visitors around the roped off exhibit would stir the silent metal rectangles gently and almost imperceptibly into shallow waves. In the middle, slightly off the ground, a black crow crushed dead. I felt enchanted by the poetry of the white seeds and the intelligence of the artist to make the open shells/globes so convincingly there by mere suggestion of a curve paradoxically made by fluffy fragments of seeds threaded on a straight vertical line.

Claire Morgan: Gone to Seed. The Sunken Gallery, the MAC.

Claire Morgan: Gone to Seed. The Sunken Gallery, the MAC

The rhythm of the full and empty, of the present and absent harmonised with the poetics of a natural form, its significant source. The other enchanting quality was the esoteric geometry controlled by a sensitive eye and steady hand of the artist. A visitor remarked to me that the work would benefit from coloured lights, whereas I adored the “economy” of the tonal chord of greys and a white as they forged a prefect dreamlike appearance. I walked away feeling glad that some contemporary art is still celebrating the visual and the tactile, the tiny shifts in tonality, to present an imagined object as convincingly real. I felt enthusiastic about this installation, and returned expecting some more of the same.

Claire Morgan: Gone to Seed. The Sunken Gallery, the MAC

Claire Morgan: Gone to Seed. The Sunken Gallery, the MAC

How dismayed I was, when on my subsequent visit weeks later, the magic of the charm absented itself. The installation has not changed, yet, the greys appeared drab and tired, and the dead bird too morbid. The seeds on threads still conjured up the transformation of parallels into concentric circles but with subdued intensity. The change of the meaning during the second encounter connected to Thanatus. I searched for another layer of the first meaning, found none. I searched for some element that triggered the change, the switch from life supporting world to drab grey underworld. The installation had not markedly changed. The seeds indicating renewal of life were still there, but now without sparkle or dynamics. Stasis wilted them a little. More dramatic was wilting away of surprise, of enthusiasm, of trust in beauty. The capacity of aesthetic categories swopping places, tragic with comical for instance (the skidding on banana skin) is beyond our control. A work of art supporting contradictory meanings is not exceptional either. That Morgan encased contrasting meanings in the single set of material, skill and set up cannot be judged as negative, per se. Yet, the feeling of some poverty would not leave me. Spontaneously, I compared my two different responses to Gone to Seed with my multiple responses evoked by many other works of art on subsequent encounters. Memory of those rich encounters raised a question: if the meaning of a work of art is closely, tightly controlled by the artist’s intention, by the rational control, where is the space for that all important je ne sais quoi? Indeterminacy? High on skills, Gone to Seed, sufficiently fulfilled the expectation of the artist’s intention and condemned important values, e.g. open-endedness, to become transient or absent.

II. Peter Spiers: Pissed Ink, 2 – 17 November 2012,  Platform Arts,  Belfast

Peter Spiers: Pissed Ink | Urinating Action, medical grade ink on paper, various sizes, 2012

Peter Spiers: Pissed Ink | Urinating Action, medical grade ink on paper, various sizes, 2012

Rectangles of paper with drips of blue ink, copied below from www.peterspiers.info, were displayed directly on the walls. Of his intention he says:

“The exhibition is a development of previous research (Our Empathy Endured and Hitting Photographs) into the relationship between aesthetic engagement and empathy. Whereas the previous works examined the tenability of the dislocated source in both aesthetics and empathy, these new works focus on the performative trace as a source of both empathic and aesthetic content.”

Peter Spiers: Pissed Ink | Urinating Action, medical grade ink on paper, various sizes, 2012

Peter Spiers: Pissed Ink | Urinating Action, medical grade ink on paper, various sizes, 2012

Speer’s intention was to insert blue ink in his urethra and “urinate” over white paper rectangles. In his explanatory handout he writes: “ When presented with these performative traces from the physical action of pissing ink, we recognise the most primitive and animalistic form of mark making”. If this is the intention, then any urinating will be sufficient condition for that “recognition”. The blue ink however, attempts to link the marks to a tradition of drawings by ink.

I have not witnessed the action. The sensational use of a body’s orifice instead of a brush or a similar tool, has not translated into a sensational work of art. A viewer who knew how the marks were made, and it is not apparent from looking at the traces, may be either attracted or appalled by the artist’s choice. The information looms large for being unusual, and for empowering a concept to overwhelm the visible traces. Knowledge of the history of Fluxus, Actionists etc made Spiers’s selection of means derivative, replaceable, low on importance. The “torrent” of penises, dung, menstrual blood etc depends on the delusion of entitlement. More significantly, that choice determines the content. It is about its own making.

I saw the random blue marks on paper rectangles pinned on the walls of the Platform Arts small exhibition room. I like blue hues, I like abstraction. The drips on paper were not substantially different from other drops on paper, even not from the grey blobs on stairs, forged by years of use, which I noticed on my way out. The blue marks could have been made by dripping the blue paint in a number of other ways, making the one chosen here, just one of many possibilities. Inserting a reference to Bakhtin may make Spiers’s intention significant, convincing, or not.

“The Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin describes aesthetic seeing as an empathic like movement where we project into aesthetic subject, but the product of this act of projection remains outside of the aesthetic object.” Making this statement insecure, the dubious term aesthetic seeing does not appear in the supporting quote:

“Aesthetic empathising (the engaging of the subject from within) is actively accomplished from a ‘unique’ outside position and it is this same place the aesthetic reception is accomplished, that is the affirming and forming of material through empathising.” (Towards a philosophy of the act, 1993) .

Bakhtin’s one site for two processes, in the light of current research, looks like a false premise.

Too many unanswered questions: How does seeing differ from aesthetic seeing, how does empathy differ from aesthetic empathising, and perception from aesthetic reception? If an “aesthetic reception”( Bakhtin’s original Russian term is not given, Russian language has two different terms for the process) is accomplished in the same place as aesthetic empathising what precedes what? And how it can be established that the two are different processes, still produced in the same place? Bakhtin use of “same place” may be generic, not descriptive, however, it leans towards its obvious meaning. The mechanism underlying empathy, according to recent research, are the mirror neurons, while, the early sensory processing distinguishes cross-modal synaesthetic from required associations, for ex. semantic control. If the urethra releases blue ink instead of urine, the nociceptive sensory message enters the meaning presented by words to challenge the verbal severely. The brain involves many different tissues working together, e.g. amygdala, prefrontal cortex, sensimotor cortex, even dorsal thalamus affects responses of visual neurons. There is not just one place activated by sight.

I have not followed the scientific studies of empathy after Lipps and Woefflin. Just a cursory glance at current research papers still confirms that empathy does not limit itself to re-affirming process. Emphatic response that creates personal distress or distaste or aversion causes turning away from the provocative condition of the other. Urinating animal is easily tolerated, not so an adult man (unless you visit a village church in South of France during the hot summer lunchtime).

The argument why pissing ink is more significant for a work art than dripping paint from a tool is absent. It is not experimental or innovative. An experiment demands rigour of testing by variations of one element, followed by comparison, and refutation. Obvious trust in some theory, ideology, philosophy, gives Spiers confidence that the outcome of a performative act inspired by, in this case, Bakhtin, must work as art. Given the prevalent art world belief than anything may become art, it is possible, and by its sheer indeterminacy, irrelevant. Thus each outcome stands on its own vis – à – vis a viewer’s questions, e.g. can it be crafted to elicit higher cognitive faculties? Can it become inspiration for some of humanities better qualities?

The marks under the dictate of inflated intention are on their own if / when searching for answers.

III  Adrian O’Connell: Off Limits, October 2012, Platform Arts, Belfast

Adrian O'Connell: Off Limits

Adrian O’Connell: Off Limits

The two parts of the installation obliquely related by a motif of belonging shared the space unequally. The bigger installation used a half of the length of the gallery, the smaller one just something like a metre squared in a far corner.

An electric fence marked the boundary between the part of the gallery accessible to the audience and the space with four suspended monitors. O’Connell filmed immigrants in Belfast as they were pronouncing, in their first language, This space is off limits to all… Facing the space for the visitors, above the fence, the talking heads (60 of them) recited the prescribed words: followed by the name of nationality of each speaker.

Given in different languages, any viewer would have to wait for his own first language version of the sentence to be broadcast to be understand what is said (assuming correct translation). Unless they read the handout describing the artist’ intention beforehand.

“This space” is prohibited to people of selected nationalities, who by chance were represented by the sample. Reductio ad absurdum would reveal the possibility to extend it to all people, which indicates a flaw in the concept. What space each talking immigrant refers to? The one captured in each monitor? The one between the fence and the windows? The space outside the windows? Each speaker seems to be addressing me through the lens.. is this space the space around me? Do the filmed persons direct the statement to us, viewers? Or do they describe what happened to them and ask for our sympathy? If “this space” is the one enclosed by electric wire, who would want to get in there? Some uncertainties are valuable necessary conditions for visual force, poetic force, however,too many look more like an unresolved concept. I have seen the documentation of O’Connell’s Berlin version of this installation, I cannot be sure, but the direction and shape through which visitors walked, being similar in to the check up frames in airports, could have separated the installation from the overwhelming ambiguity that strangled the Belfast installation.

Moreover, the sound of the voices had to compete with an industrially raw speaker above the second part of the exhibition, at the top of the installation of thousands of door keys connected in the manner similar, but less manifold, than El Anatsui connecting his materials. The assemblage of abandoned keys, collected over time, allows O’Connell to succeed in constructing an object that is beautiful (minus the sound, too much noise, felt unnecessary), has power to enchant and invites brave new interaction between the subject and the viewer. A familiar element multiplied all over the towering mesh glistens with new life. The loss of the original function is felt as a positive transformation with a residual imagining what door each key once opened and safely closed. The keys celebrate their past as guardians of privacy without remorse of their intended function being lost. If there were a paradise for keys, this would be it.

A O’Connell, Off Limits, via Platform Arts

All three artists chose to replace the indeterminacy by strict adherence to their intention and skills. All created a new brave intimacy between the visible subject and the viewer and thus contributed to the problematic relation between art and ideas.

Morgan relates, even if unintentionally, to older art e.g. Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon, 1952 (his combinesa), Spiers touches upon the dark side of creativity, or rather the refutation of it by Oscar Wilde saying “there is no such thing as moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written.” O’Connell overlooked that images do not analyse themselves by the virtue of mere juxtaposition. His sculpture made of joined keys steps in the direction of the original and compelling El Anatsui(b 1944) who so perfectly connects political, social, and historical concerns with sumptuous and mesmerising beauty.
In summary, there are three intentions interacting: the intention of the artist, the intention of the work (process) and the intention of the viewer. All three benefit from being sufficiently open to chance, unforeseen invention and sheer delight, art is so supremely capable of evoking.

About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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