The Montreal Biennale; or, why are Momus and Canadian Art retarded?

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A throwaway

Please note: I don’t write about any of these articles because they are particularly interesting, but because they are symptomatic of the state of discourse on art in the country.

While biennials tend to be tombstones for recent art trends, Momus’ Saelan Twerdy suggests that this one might be different. He contextualizes it with his nausea about Brexit and the Trumpocalypse, cast here as the two beasts proclaiming the end of globalization and wonders if, since contemporary art has been defined in terms of this now (speculatively) moribund process, it has cachet any more. The Montreal Biennale is then interpreted as a symptom of the uncertainty about the continuity of the contemporary. Curator Philippe Pirotte (and his three advisors Corey McCorkle, Aseman Sabet, and Kitty Scott) position this instance of the Montreal biennial against the previous future obsessed variant and other contemporary (CON) or post-contemporary (PC) concerned models around the globe. Twerdy suggests that maintenance of the contemporary model has been a rear-guard action by the establishment since the financial crash of 2008 [this is rather vulgar Marxist historicism]. With the present ‘unbearable’ and the future unclear, “Pirotte seems to argue for abdicating such responsibilities, calling for a deeper look into the past as a remedy for present-ism and for an ethos of pleasure and hedonism in place of political moralizing.” This is manifested in a handful of post-contemporary works in the show. Embracing Jean Genet’s The Balcony as a model, a choice the author thinks is very out of step with CON/PC aesthetics, what results is “a dense and sensual exhibition that, though indeed often perverse, is far from nihilistic.” [He doesn’t explain or develop the conditions or consequences of the last part of this remark.]

For him, the content is by turns invitingly erotic, like Luis Jacob’s Sphinx (a strikingly innocuous kind of kitschy homoeroticism), or deeply archival and stuck in the idiom of personal and political histories. He likes the latter since they “[plunge] into the persistence of the past in the contemporary moment punch hardest when they touch on histories of exclusion.” All of this is relegated to the merely ‘contemporary’ while the ‘newer sensibility’ is elsewhere. It’s ‘ravishing’, and has ‘sensual materiality’, has the tactile value of good art direction and displays historical reflexivity, all of which sounds extraordinarily like the contemporary as he describes it.

The underlying anxiety of the article is with populism. The reason for this isn’t precisely teased out but he seems to glean that Genet’s suggestions about power relations aren’t exactly comforting, least of all to liberals. Twerdy seems to dream of a left leaning populism and is horrified of right wing populism, which he, symptomatically and unimaginatively, equates with fascism, pace “But will the decline of contemporaneity result in any durable new paradigm? [Was there a pun in there or is he only capable of thinking in time-oriented terms?] In the era of Trump, will art be able to mount any sufficient resistance, or will its already-exclusive community be conscripted to dress the windows of a fascist regime? [Is there really no such thing as fascist art? Are these things totally antithetical? To paraphrase an old Bolshevik anecdote: the difference between a socialist and a fascist is that fascists make better tasting soup.] The post-contemporary aesthetic, [aesthetics are not art; they’re consumer validation] as it stands, shows scant resources for withstanding the pressures to come.” This is art that’s affective and material though not analytic or particularly meaningful… but it’s more open to different ethnicities etc. and it looks good when you see pictures of it on the internet. He hesitates to use the ‘post-contemporary’ label but it doesn’t really sound like much more than lifestyle branding (“everyday sources of pleasure and meaning” whatever the hell those things are, and hey, isn’t the hedonistic spectacularization of banality as politics what Adorno and Horkheimer thought fascism was?) And this lifestyle is one that is basically as elitist and exclusionary as what it claims to object to.

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He dreads that the escape into hedonism might just be a turning away into privileged pleasures. But he seems to want to be hopeful. “…the artist Faith Holland tweeted: “thinking about what direction my art needs to take post-Trump and i[sic] think it’s time to double down on pleasure.” At a time of historic anxiety and despair, the idea that art should emphasize what makes life worth living is far from trivial.” A few paragraphs later, he concludes that “a certain amount of either sadism or masochism might prove necessary for survival.”

I’ll just note a few things about this passage – first Holland’s utterly bizarre assumption that Trump’s rise was antithetical to a substantial increase in pleasure. The joy on the new right, alt-right, whatever-right etc. was so palpable it exceeded trivial references like orgasm (this is not even to mention the masochistic pleasure extracted from recent events by anti-Trumpers). Trump’s mystique was a profoundly aesthetic and hedonistic one, even if a frequently sadistic one. And it came with a rich and storied aesthetic milieu of its own – the meme warfare division of 4channers, a cultural event and ‘movement’ of greater significance than anything vomited out of art schools and galleries in decades. Second, this hedonism in the place or moralism that Twerdy repeatedly alludes to is clearly moralism again. There is nothing more moralistic than hedonism. But why one should imagine that any of this is relevant is not explained.

As revealed in his text, nothing about the allegedly new or post-contemporary substantially divides it from the contemporary, even less than the postmodern’s limited difference from the modern or contemporary. And even then, as Wyndham Lewis once put it, modernism was just Victorianism again but worse. It isn’t merely a question of the idiotic fetishizing of the new, but the fetishizing of time and the subjective apparatus that accompanies it. If the global is dying for the resurgence of the national, time is also shifting away from the torrents of time to the sedimentation of space. And with this, to the more territorial. As Canadian artists realistically put it in the 70s – you can make imperialistic art or nationalistic art – unfortunately, there is no in-between. And this is perhaps what is the most horrifying to CON enthusiasts. This may have always been the case. One can readily note that everything he cites is directly, or within minimal indirection, New Yorkais [and the anglosphere in general], in other words CON and PC are only the world’s most obnoxious form of enforced provincialism. [Even Trump, obnoxious New Yorker that he is, isn’t guilty of that.] Nowhere does Twerdy, or those he cites, seem to seriously wonder what halting the fetish for time in favour of territory would mean. [In spite of name dropping Deleuze occasionally, none of them seem to get this.] What would happen if we dropped duration and, as a result, aesthetics, that is ‘lived,’ ‘embodied’ phenomenal ‘experience’? After all, art doesn’t need aesthetics any more than it needs artists or critics, it doesn’t even need the human race.

What’s really astonishing about articles like this is that, in spite of all of the performative self-awareness of subject positions (and his is only vague and cursory), is its deep ignorance. The most astonishing thing about Trump’s victory was its confirmation that the left has become so hermeneutically sealed from reality, and so profoundly aesthetically and politically illiterate, that to take them seriously is to degrade one’s intellect. Yet this fact, obvious to anyone who can see, seems completely invisible. What does the contemporary mean when it only ever meant living in an imaginary past? Even the PC as Twerdy introduced it via Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik are, as they admit, just doing Derrida again… only worse.

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And speaking of worse… and apparently unaware of the dubiousness of the notion of presence, Canadian Art’s feature coverage of the Biennale was written in what appears to be a bad parody of 1970s new journalism. The self-involved opening paragraphs of Merray Gerges’ article detail her awareness of graffiti, her Tinder activities and the fact that, in an allegedly bilingual country, the only French she ever bothered to learn were the words for Muslims, refugees, women and LGBTQ. She describes a carnivalesque protest of Trump’s election outside of the MAC. Maybe she’s being clever and knows that the source for the theme of the Biennale, Le Grand Balcon, set up almost exactly the same situation in order to spell out that politics, private and public, are little more than BDSM theatre. She doesn’t seem to get that though. She goes on about ‘white-liberal shock’ and the need to protect those “affected by the white-supremacist, misogynist and homophobic policies” sure to come. Some description of works follows, but barely and rife with hyperbolic projection. As she tours she ‘reads didactics first’ but can’t understand them or understand what they have to do with the sculptures she encounters. Is this because she’s embodying the ‘post-truth’ world of the Trump era where it’s impossible to tell the difference between a witless stereotype as satire and someone being ‘earnest’?

Gerges complains, “My synapses just aren’t firing. In this state it’s all just a grouping of personal affects/effects composed to make an object or a video or a space. And without didactics—to which I resorted, as most people would, to contextualize the work and supplement its legibility—it’s literally just that: a grouping of personal affects/effects composed to make an object or a video or a space.” Since the exhibit seeks to avoid ready legibility, didactics are pointless. She admits this, but doesn’t wonder why they are there anyway – what becomes of the ‘didactic’ when it isn’t? Anyway, that bothers her so she looks for the familiar, her native tongue, and spends the bulk of the article blandly describing a video by Hasan Khan. She then returns to panicking about activism and Pepe the Frog before going to McDonald’s and finally getting on her bus back to Toronto where she likes to hang out on a shooting range. Her conclusion: “‘Le Grand Balcon’ makes no sense at all, especially on the day that I go to see it.” Whether this article was a joke or an attempt at sincerity, it was still less embarrassing than one of Canadian Art’s more desperate recent attempts to seem politically significant.

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