Yesterday afternoon Ian Carr-Harris presented a lecture at Toronto’s Power Plant art gallery about his impressions of the two exhibitions currently on display: Recent Snow and Nothing to Declare.
Michael Snow, Condensation, 2009
in discussion of Michael Snow’s Condensation, Carr-Harris brought forth discourse of the relationship of the sublime to the idea of totality: in regards to the inability for a sign to represent the sublime. "In this attempt to represent totality one reaches ideally toward Totalitarianism".
Looking at the twentieth century through the effect of endeavors of totality/totalitarianism we see the ultimate outcome was the Second World War. The failure of Totalitarianism was both catastrophic and far-reaching. Ironically the atrocity of the Second World War mirrors the inability for totality to be represented, in its attempt at totalitarian rule. The more the idea of totality is applied to a review of the twentieth century an apparent theme begins to develop. The twentieth century took place on a finite earth, an earth that over the course of that great century would attempt to have every piece accounted for, an earth that for the first time would be shown a picture of itself, an earth which would eventually become infinitely small through technology. Even without totalitarianism at the helm the representation of totality would remain the intension and preoccupation of the Twentieth century, as every faculty would have to account for this new paradigm of finiteness.
Liz Magor Racoon (detail), 2008. Photo by Scott Massey
Later on in the lecture, the subject of melancholy entered Carr-Harris’s discussion of the work of Liz Magor: more specifically the sense of melancholy in postmodernism in contrast to the more optimistic modernist endeavors to find new forms. The motivation for this modernist effort to find new forms appears to be reactionary to the failure to represent totality. Abstract painting for example in its abandonment of realism during the modern era shows an escape from the desire to capture the real and took on an optimistic experiment to express without reference to the real. While postmodernism seems to just accept that the real can not be represented and melancholically pursues expression through what ever processes suits it’s expression best even including realism. Not as a judgment of Postmodernism, as it co-exists within the continuation of modernism, but certain implications of this melancholy create fundamental differences to modernism.
But reaching back towards thoughts of totality, we see that the artist always muses with the representation of the unrepresentable, pushing outwards the boundary of what the sign is capable. While the ghosts of totality haunt a progressive century unmatched in technical and intellectual accomplishment, the artists of this new century will be faced with the challenge of moving past the history that created the environment for their practice to exist. Again paradoxically these problems are too enormous themselves to have a containable resolve.
Again melancholy rears it’s head as a prolific era’s accomplishments are left behind or stepped upon in a continual effort to move forward and redefine the art of a new century. An ideal of death and rebirth comes to mind with these thoughts of composting the last century. A birth of a new paradigm cannot take place without first the death and grievance of the old mode. It seems this death was the initiation of Modern form and later the grievance was the melancholy of the post-modern.
Only time will tell what new growth will sprout from this compost of grandeur. Possibly either the success of the representation of the real or a new goal disregarding the total of history, creating new symbols referencing nothing? Again the failure of language is inescapable and we find our selves in exactly the same place, trapped in the twentieth century even a decade into the twenty first century.
“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive and impoverished.” Roland Barthes