ROOMS OF PURGATORY

29 Sep

In Ian Watson’s “Rooms of Paradise” a biotechnologically reincarnated man awakes and finds himself in a blank room. There’s a door leading to the next room and it takes him a whole day to get thru it. A robot follows him, feeding him. Each day, another room.

If he refuses to go thru it, he finds he awakes in the next room anyway. He spends years like this eventually remembering his dreams. In his dreams he’s living life as he imagined it would be: growing up young again. A boy, a teenager, a young man. But the boy doesn’t remember his past life (except in his dreams perhaps). Without his memories this boy makes the same mistakes, misses the same opportunities. Does he dream again each night of a long succession of blank rooms?

In Neil Gaiman’s The Seasons of Mists another boy returns from Hell which he remembers also as a series of blank rooms. But this time something is following him. Something unknown and deadly, something black. Which Hell is worse? Between fear and nothing what would you take? What a mysterious image: a succession of identical, white-walled rooms. Empty. This is a very modern Hell.

These stories are remembered to me because recently I happened upon a certain book: Site-Specific Art, oh excuse me, site-specific art. The lower case is significant in a way lost on the author one Nick Kaye who held the Chair of Drama University of Manchester for 5 years. He’s a professor. He’s written books on performance and research and postmodernism (whatever that means).

Try and get past the first sentence:

This book is concerned with practices which, in one way or another, articulate exchanges between the work of art and the places in which its meanings are defined.

There’s are places where meanings are defined? Where are they? I believe there was one atop the hill on Collins St but then it moved to Ringwood Plaza. Now it’s a strictly online operation and the money goes to the Caymans. We articulate exchanges says Prof Kaye. Does that mean ‘we talk’?

There aren’t many works of art in the book which concerns Installation Art. Certain installation artists who are, I guess, the author’s mates are spruiked. There’s one that’s some very groovy lego-looking shit but the thing that caught me seems to be Kaye’s own work The Rooms (Oct ’75-Sep ’96). Twelve shows over twelve months each a variation on the same thing: rooms leading off to infinity. The Galleria Christian Stein in Turin put on the show. It’s where he got the idea: infinite identically blank rooms leading off forever.

One such variation stands out as the Italian for ‘son’ is embossed above each door. Kaye gets all mystical here telling us that every “man is the son of the son, of the son, of the son, and bears within himself the father of the father, of the father, of the father”. We get the point. One would think such excessive repetition required a less banal observation?

That was Room #3. And we’re all pretty optimistic that people understood the patrilineal facts of progeneration by New Year’s Eve in 1975. The rooms have some kind of narrative but I suspect that the images are organized to make the project seem like more work and higher craft than it actually took.

Of course before we get this far we need several pull-quotes from the obligatory French Theory God. This time a de Certeau who tells us that “space is like the word when it is spoken, that is, when it is caught in the ambiguity of an actualization, transformed into a term dependent upon many different conventions, situated as the act of a present (or of a time), and modified by the transformation caused by successive contexts.” Well that, I’m sure, clears a lot of things up for us all. How, I wonder, does a space get transformed by successive contexts? Are we talking a house boat here? Kaye follows this by telling us that “Space, as a practiced place, admits of unpredictability”. His italics. How is a toilet unpredictable? And how exactly does the successive disposing of human bodily waste bear on this unpredictability? How does a space admit of anything?

It’s all rubbish. The book is sub-titled: “performance, place and documentation” and it is the document I think that is the centrepiece here. The most expressive bit of the book is some kind of kit documenting something, we’re told, is a ‘site-specific Theatre Work’. His capitalization. There’s instruction on how to assemble this document which features a lot of avant graphics and text that makes not much sense. There’s maps, set drawings and photos of performers all a nicely balanced montage that evoke some kind of drama. The document is punctuated by textboxes one of which tells us about ‘the transparency of architecture’ which apparently means that ‘all images are compromised’.

Mysterious sentences that sound like MBA management-speak as cut-up and randomly rearranged by William S Burroughs. How come these sorts of projects seem to exist to be written about in this fashion? Does anyone’s soul actually get touched by them? The retort to this would probably be Foucault’s maxim that the soul is the prison of the body. How many French writers have ridden the gravy train of Anglo-Academia because of this groovy but functionally meaningless riff where they interchange the subject and object of sentences causing every half-baked tenured mediocrity to pull at some straggled, greasy hair and go: mmmmm?

How did the passion of artists so evident at the beginning of the 20th century devolve into something that has all the charm and romance of a flue gas stack with none of the utility? How cold and grey it all is. How Kafkan. All this activity, subsidized by an indifferent citizenry, in aid of producing what seems to be the most exalted art object in the early 21st century art world: the File.

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