Absurdity, Absurdity, and Absurdity

Dave Ball, currently pursuing a practice-based PhD at Winchester School of Art, presented ‘Absurdity, Absurdity, and Absurdity‘ as part of Conversas series at Schillerpalais, Berlin, 29 Nov 2017. The following are his reflections on the event.

 is a regular series of thematically diverse talks held with the aim of creating discussion and dialogue, where audience members are encouraged to interrupt and ask questions, and presenters are warned against preparing “too tightly”. I decided, therefore, not to give a conventionally coherent presentation of my work or my PhD research, but instead treat the event as a public testing-ground for some of the more speculative elements emerging out of my research into absurdity.

The plan was to present a series of examples of what I’d identified as eight variants of absurdity observable in works of contemporary art. Since those categorisations were, to a degree, based on my own intuitive assertions about what would or wouldn’t constitute “absurdity”, I was very keen to test them out publicly.

The talk began with a short screening of one of my own video works, which was greeted appreciatively, followed by a brief introduction to my research. As soon as the presentation turned to the work of other artists, however, the atmosphere in the room became unexpectedly heated. In fact, the very first slide shown (a photo by Thomas Ruff of a man inelegantly attempting a handstand on a leather chair, legs flailing in the air) received an immediate rebuttal that “Why shouldn’t we do handstands on chairs? Why is that absurd? That’s so conservative!”

In fact, almost every slide I showed initiated some tirade or other on what various audience members seemed to consider an affront to their intelligence, their outlook on life, or at least their conception of art. My gentle conceptual enquiry into whether or not the works could be considered absurd was frequently met with an impassioned and resounding “no!” Whist some of these protestations could easily be dealt with through reasoned argumentation or clarification of concepts, others unearthed genuinely fertile grounds for further investigation. But what took me completely by surprise was the level of passion, conviction, and emotion with which the audience responded to the topic. Absurdity, as was repeatedly made clear, really matters – and not just to this particular PhD researcher…

Practices of Research


Image-Text-Object: Practices of Research
10 February – 16 March 2014
L4 Gallery, Southampton
Download Artists’ Statements [PDF]

The exhibition, Image-Text-Object: Practices of Research, was held at the L4 Gallery space in Hartley Library (University of Southampton). The exhibition presented the work of 16 PhD students and two members of staff from Winchester School of Art (WSA). Taken together the works offered a series of images, texts and objects, helping to think about different ways of seeing, thinking, writing and making. The School is dedicated to the exploration of diverse practices and creative research methods. Studio-based researchers in art and design work alongside those engaged in humanities and social science research, covering areas of art history, critical theory and curatorial practice, as well as the management and marketing of advertising, design, media, fashion, textiles and luxury branding. All researchers at the School are engaged in the critical making of new knowledge: each moving in and out of complex and disciplined modes of activity. Whether it is reading, writing, looking, making, coding, speaking, recording, and much else besides, each are forms of imaginative and critical engagement, developed and extended within the context of a collaborative and inter-disciplinary research community.

See also: Re: Making

RAW: 7th – 13th November 2013

RAW – an exhibition held at 5th Base Gallery – brought together the work of four WSA PhD candidates, Jane Birkin, Rima Chahrour, Jason Kass, Nina Pancheva-Kirkova,  The show examined the nature of practice within visual arts research. An underlying question in curating RAW was the degree to which the production and exhibition of artwork becomes repositioned when considered as part of academic enquiry.

Some of the works on show reflected the process of working with and through theory where the results may be unfinished and tentative, suggestive rather than conclusive. Other works developed and offered up their autonomy as moments of resolution and statements that challenge.



Japan: Artists & Disaster

Japan’s tsunami of 2011, and the ensuing nuclear disaster at the Fukushima plant, has weighed heavily on the minds of everyone in the country – not least its artists. A radio documentary of Japan’s contemporary art scene evokes the figure of Godzilla to characterise a certain inventiveness in trauma and disaster:

Godzilla, the giant green lizard which levels Tokyo skyscrapers with a sweep of his enormous tail, was the response of Japan’s film makers in the 1950s to the national trauma of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the wake of 2011’s Tsunami, the nation’s artists have been similarly inventive in turning the disaster into art. The “post 3/11 movement” takes inspiration from the devastating images of flooded cities, smoking nuclear reactors and grief stricken victims which emerged after the earthquake and tsunami (In Godzilla’s Footsteps, BBC Radio 4)

The programme takes in the views of artists who showed work at the Art Tower Mito’s 2012 exhibition Artists and the Disaster – Documentation in Progress. Installation artist Tsubasa Kato volunteered to help in the clean up  Fukushima. Working with 300 local residents who had lost their homes, Kato constructed a three storey lighthouse from the rubble of ruined houses and schools, which now stands looking out over the sea. The controversial collective Chim Pom, on entering the Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in protective radioactive suits, held up referee red cards at the cracked dome of the nuclear reactor. While the video artist Kota Takeuchi actually took a job at the devastated nuclear plant. His video of a worker (presumed to be Takeuchi himself) pointing an accusing finger at the video camera (of a live feed by the plant company) gained a great deal of attention. He went on to hold press conferences to put pressure on Tepco, the operator of the plant. Another powerful work included in exhibition was Fuyuki Yamakawa’s ‘Atomic Guitar’. The installation uses radioactive soil taken from the the area of Fukushima and two Stratocaster guitars. Geiger counters transmit the radioactivity, which vibrates as an analogue signal, hitting the guitars physically and making them play. The ‘sound’ of the radiation (through the effect of the electric guitars) creates an haunting clang of guitar strings, at once ‘beautiful’ and disturbing.

Sutthirat Supaparinya, ’10 Places in Tokyo’ (2013), Video installation.

Work exhibited at the Tokyo Wonder Site, an art organisation dedicated to creating and promoting new art and culture in the heart of the Tokyo, further demonstrates the significance of 3/11 to contemporary art. The current exhibition at the Shibuya venue, Identities in the World, introduces works of five artists from their Exchange Residency Program; with each having taken up the themes of ‘energy’ and ‘identity’ to express our dependence on the environment.  ‘After the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake,’ the exhibition points out, ‘all of us in Japan were forced to recognize just how much our day-to-day lives are influenced by the electrical power supply. At the same time, there is a current which is much larger than the power of any individual’. Sutthirat Supaparinya’s exhibit, ’10 Places in Tokyo’, is particularly noteworthy. In her own words, she explains how the work, ‘pays attention to the relation between the use of nuclear as a means of electricity generation in Tokyo and its use as a weapon such as the atomic bomb in Hiroshima’. As a video piece, showing the location of specific sites from static camera points, it combines ‘the effects of the first use of nuclear as a weapon in 1945 in Hiroshima with the top ten places in Tokyo that used the most electricity in 2010’.

IKEDA Tatsuo. ‘The Owner of the Fishing Fleet’ (1953), ink on paper.

Of course, in geological terms, Japan is highly prone to natural disaster and subsequently the response of artists to such events has a specific national history. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, has recently curated elements of its permanent collection to bring this history to the fore. Our Ninety Years 1923-2013 begins with the Great Kanto Earthquake and works through aspects of the World War, reconstruction and events leading to our present. The exhibition opens with the work of Takeshiro Kanokogi, whose large-scale painting, September 1, Taisho 12 (1923), provides a realist (if nightmare) scene of people exiting from a charred wasteland. The painting has always prompted debate due to the artist’s apparent clinical distance from his subjects, despite the shared devastation. The War period also prompts controversy, with numerous artists being drawn into the war effort,  pressured to produce works of a distinct realist and patriotic nature. Nonetheless, many artists, such as Tadashi Sugimata, worked secretly on surrealist-inspired paintings. The post-war period brings new difficulties and tensions for the artist community. Tatsuo Ikeda, as a former member of the Kamikaze squad, is troubled by the fading war memories, yet equally attacks the problems inherited by the postwar society. He produces ambiguous works of an unsettling nature.

Thomas Demand, ‘Kontrollraum / Control Room’ (2011), C-Print/Diasec

Included alongside Ikeda’s work are also examples of American pop art, with a work by Lichtenstein and Wesselmann on show from the collection – so adding to a jarring sense of history. As the exhibition moves closer to the present there is an inevitable dilemma for artists who do not possess an experience of events as participants. A work by Oscar Oiwa, a Brazilian of Japanese descent, provides a more analytical account with a double work, ‘War and Peace’, with each panel depicting the same area of downtown Tokyo in war and peace time. The sense of distance from an event is taken to a further extreme in the work of Thomas Demand, who is known for using photographs of historical sites as disseminated through the media to construct full-size models, which he then photographs (so re-mediting the site of an event). On show was his work ‘Control Room’, which re-presents the control room of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which circulated globally as an image. As the curators note:

[Thomas Demand] utilizes the reality provided by a place that is the center of worldwide attention, but which is in such a critical state that it cannot be touched or even represented, and working from a distance through a chain of indirect contacts, he reaches out to it. He does this in a way that is more obvious than that of Takeshiro Kanokogi [whose work opens the exhibition], exploring the distance that is predestined to exist between expression and reality, in what must surely be described as a critical act. (Museum of Contemporary Art Toyko, Curator’s notes, 2013)

Being for the Benevolence of August Sander

I recently visited Tate Modern’s collection display, Photographic Topologies, which brought together the work of artists whose use of photography presents a systematic, or ‘topological’ approach. Typically, these works show multiple images of similar subjects. On display were portraits of Thomas Ruff, Rineke Dijkstra and Paul Graham, and architectural subjects in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Struth and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Through repetition these artists reveal subtle contrasts and similarities in their subjects.

Of course the typological method is most well known for its pioneer, the German photographer August Sander (1876-1964); whose work I specifically went to see. Examples ran along the central gallery, taken from Sander’s seminal ‘People of the Twentieth Century’, a vast collection of portraits documenting the society of the Weimar Republic according to profession and social grouping. It was great to see them up close. Many times I have looked at the ‘stiff’, ‘self-importance’ (to borrow Barthes’ words) of Sander’s Notary as it appears neatly on a page in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. The portrait shows a figure in a hat and buttoned-up coat, holding a cane. He stands before a brick building with a curved flight of steps and stares blankly away from the camera, perfectly perpendicular to that of a dog who stands before him. Given that Barthes in the relevant passage writes how the ‘Photograph of the Mask … [is] critical enough to disturb’ and that ‘[p]hotography is subversive …when it is pensive, when it thinks’, I have frequently considered the strict, cool-eyed work of Sander to relate in some kind of  ‘zero-degree’ seeing. Indeed, according to the curator’s notes, ‘Sander’s process of analysing and ordering his images was matched by the rigorous, objective style of the photographs themselves. All of his subjects are observed by the photographer with the same neutral distance’.

Sander, then, has always been on my list of artists to include in a study of ‘zero degree seeing’. As I stood there in the gallery, peering at the pictures framed on the wall, I was still inclined to link Sander to the Neutral, yet not in the way I had first imagined… Let me first state the case for my original thinking on Sander’s work. Before coming to Barthes’ The Neutral, I had long thought about how images, and particularly photography, might be considered to undo categories and structures of meaning. I’ve read the passage on Sander in Camera Lucida countless times and every time I seem to have come away with a slightly different view. Even in itself, this suggested to me something about how ‘the image’ unmoors our thinking in ways that are seemingly productive, even cohesive, yet without properly ‘fixing’ (the word here has a nice irony since photograph are – or at least used to – ‘fixed’ in the darkroom to stop them from simply fading away). At the close of Camera Lucida, Barthes suggests in an epic, final line that there are two ways to look at the Photograph: ‘The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality’.

Turning back to the passage on Sander, we can start by thinking that here is an example of pure, intractable reality. Barthes suggest this is in a sense the reason why Sander’s work was censored at the time, being ‘critical enough to disturb’. Sander’s photographs have no come-back. They are directly what they show. The notary, for example, is exactly as shown – yet in being shown, we suddenly realise we don’t know what this means. The code of perfect illusions is immediately revealed as a code and bursting through is the intractable reality of the man in the photograph, who we soon start to know less and less. Barthes remarks that in the commercial sphere ‘no meaning at all is safer: the editors of Life rejected Kertész’s photographs … because, they said, his images “spoke too much”; they made us reflect…’. The question is: does Sander’s work make us reflect? ‘Photography is subversive,’ Barthes argues, ‘not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks’. I have always looked upon the Notary as the embodiment of this ‘pensive’ image. We do not know what the man is thinking, but we believe he is nonetheless. He stares firmly into the distance, though seemingly at a brick wall (which perhaps adds to the strength of his stare). His hands are clasped tightly too and the dog adds further ‘bite’ to the composition. The notary’s stare then becomes our own as we start to think about the meaning of the image; why it was taken, who this person might be and what significance he holds.

This, I feel, is the effect of moving between the pages of Camera Lucida, and in many ways has remained my way of thinking about Sander, whether I like it or not! Yet, looking again (and again) at the text, Barthes is actually quite clear. He considers him a ‘great mythologist’, but whose work ends up an aestheticisation of the political:

Sander’s Notary is suffused with self-importance and stiffness, his Usher with assertiveness and brutality; but no notary, no usher could ever have read such signs. As distance, social observation here assumes the necessary intermediary role in a delicate aesthetic, which renders it futile: no critique except among those who are already capable of criticism.

Not only then a highly constructed image, but indeed a ‘spectacle’ which we submit to the ‘civilized code of perfect illusions’. Surely then, too full of ‘paradigm’ for anything of the Neutral?

One of the prints in the gallery was Sander’s ‘Victim of Persecution’ (c1938). He is a neat, well-to-do man. There are no immediate signs of being persecuted (though of course that is what the picture questions in itself). The man is a little sullen, and the framing of the image (the upper torso and face turned slightly to one side, his eye-line a little raised) evokes for me a man in the dock (though perhaps I’ve seen too many courtroom dramas!), yet there is really so little to go on. Yet what struck me was the feeling of a certain benevolence. The directness of the photograph and the succinct title gives no reason other than to believe this person is who they say they are. The man looks benevolent and I feel similarly towards him. But what do I mean by benevolence in this case? The man is not ‘real’ for me and I will never have to prove my benevolvence. He is only an image. He does evoke reflection in me, though in no way is this something I can easily articulate. If it were simply a ‘kindly feeling’ I held towards the image/this man it wouldn’t necessarily be of interest. In The Neutral, Barthes distinguishes between ‘dry and damp’ benevolence. Damp benevolence is ‘on the side of demand: “kindness” … diffuse aura of amiability’; so being the more common-place meaning of the word. Dry benevolence, however, refers to Taoist thinking: ‘A stiff benevolence, because rooted in indifference. For the sage, everything is equal. Refrains from exerting a function’.

Looking at the series of the photographs in the gallery, what I saw was simply a ‘batch’ of photographs. The stiffness, the exactness, the pensiveness – all as we associate with Sander – was not matched in the physicality of these prints. Some lacked focus, others the edges were not strict. I did not feel in the presence of some ‘intractable reality’ – there was nothing to puncture my world. However, these were not ‘tame’ images either. At the close of Camera Lucida, Barthes complains of a consumption of images, as some kind of ‘nauseated boredom, as if the universalized image were producing a world that is without difference (indifferent)’. On this count, what I saw in the images – as refraining ‘from exerting a function’ – would seem to place them under Barthes’ critical eye, so as to ‘subject spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions’. But I would prefer to appropriate his reading of a dry benevolence. As I stood in the gallery, wondering what to make of the photographs, wondering if others around me could see more than I might, I tried to grasp at what the sage might see: a radical vision, in which ‘everything is equal’. Standing before these photographs perhaps many of us could repeat Barthes thoughts: ‘I feel this “benevolence” for people who are such strangers to me that I have no occasion for internal conflict with them = total and peaceable incommunication’.

Neutral Remains…

The salient feature of Gauguin’s Green Christ (1889) painting appears in the foreground: the mournful woman sat before a calvary, a sculpture of Christ’s crucifixion. Christ lies on a diagonal, with his arm extending straight down like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, forming a perfect triangular framing of the woman, whose body twists awkwardly.

However, when I saw the painting – in amongst the crowds – at the recent exhibition at Tate Modern I was immediately drawn to the small figure in the middle-distance. A lone, weary fisherman appears between the sand dunes; placed someway between the edge of the sea from where he has come (on the left of the painting) and the route which takes him beyond the picture frame (to the right)). He is returning from a day’s work (though being a fisherman the day no doubt stretches forth for the rest of us); upon his shoulder a rack of fish being the only, though surely significant ‘remains of the day’. I want to suggest this figure is a delicate sighting/siting of the Neutral. To develop this line of thinking I will take a literary detour, with Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day; to help work upon some of Barthes’ observations of a certain ‘neutral’ weariness…

The novelist Kazuo Ishiguro would seem an exemplary writer of the Neutral. His first-person narratives offer poignant revelations, yet generally only through suggestiveness and ambiguity. The pathos he generates typically derives not from a character’s action, but inaction. The narrator of his most well-known, Booker-prize winning novel, The Remains of the Day, is the butler, Mr Stevens. He is surely the epitome of neutrality both in the simple sense of his profession, as someone whose presence must never interfere, and with regards the more complex matter of being unable to reconcile his sense of service with his personal life (specifically his romantic feelings for housekeeper Miss Kenton).

Given Ishiguro’s storytelling is always based in a past history and through a private telling of that past, there is generally a melancholic air to his novels, and in fact his work is often described in terms of the Japanese idea of mono no aware, which literally means ‘the pathos of things’. However, it is easy to be heavy-handed with accounts of melancholia. Mono no aware is also translated as ‘an empathy toward things’ or ‘sensitivity of ephemera’. In Japanese it refers to the awareness of mujo, the transience of things coupled with gentle sadness or wistfulness. Thus there is beauty in transience and not least in the acceptance of transience.

It is easy to see only loss – of love and lives wasted – in Mr Stevens’ final reflections upon the ‘remains of the day’. As Miss Kenton utters the line ‘I get to thinking about a life I might have had with you, Mr Stevens’, it is as if gravity itself is lost. There then follows a seemingly vain attempt to look upon things happily; Mr Stevens seated alone upon a bench declares quietly to himself: ‘I should cease looking back so much … I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of the day’. However, the narrative of loss is perhaps too easily overlaid, and for two main reasons. Firstly, for Mr Stevens’ the sense of duty to his profession is genuinely as much a passion as he might hold for Miss Kenton. And in fact both passions are figured with a similar reserved quality; an ardent reserve even. His is an intense, strong quest both to define and live a life of dignity. Secondly, whilst Stevens himself might be said to repress his feelings, the narrative he tells offers insight to a heightened experience, or empathy towards things. There is tremendous beauty revealed through sustained, quiet discernment. His attention to detail: the quality of light, for example, the careful annotation of events and formations. Mr Stevens is attuned to many nuances of his day to day. The closing revelatory sequence, for example, takes place amidst rain and neutral toned light:

The light in the room was extremely gloomy on account of the rain, and so we moved two armchairs up close to the bay window. And that was how Miss Kenton and I talked for the next two hours or so, there in the pool of grey light while the rain continued to fall steadily on the square outside.

It is during this exchange that Mr Stevens considers a weariness that has come over Miss Kenton:

Miss Kenton appeared, somehow, slower. It is possible this was simply the calmness that comes with age, and I did try hard for some time to see it as such. But I could not escape the feeling that what I was really seeing was a weariness with life; the spark which had once made her such a lively, and at times volatile person seemed now to have gone. In fact, every now and then, when she was not speaking, when her face was in repose, I thought I glimpsed something like sadness in her expression. But then again, I may well have been mistaken about this.

The possibility of his having been mistaken is important here. On the one hand, both are older, slower with life. And, as the story unfolds, there is sadness at the root of this relationship. Yet, the uncertainty Mr Stevens notes of here is what allows for a remaining intensity (remnants of the volatile!). Barthes’ identifies a root to weariness that is related to the body (labour, lassitude and fatigue). Labor is, as Barthes suggests, easily associated with the rural and with manual work – it is a word we of course relate to class conditions. Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton are of a working class. They have labored all their lives cleaning and tending to the estate of a landowner. But weariness is harder to place; perhaps if anything, Barthes writes, ‘it is hard to connect … with the worker’s, the farmer’s, the employee’s manual or assimilated type of work’. He suggests the following experiment:

…draw up a table of received (credible) excuses: you want to cancel a lecture, an intellectual task: what excuses will be beyond suspicion, beyond reply? Weariness? Surely not. Flu? Bad, banal. A surgical operation? Better, but watch out for the vengeance of fate! Cf. the way society codifies mourning in order to assimilate it: after a few weeks, society will reclaim its rights, will no longer accept mourning as a state of exception…

What interests Barthes in weariness, then, is that it is not codified. Instead, it:

…always functions in language as a mere metaphor, a sign without referent … that is part of the domain of the artist (of the intellectual as artist) -> unclassified, therefore unclassifiable: without premises, without place, socially untenable -> whence Blanchot’s (weary!) cry: “I don’t ask that weariness be done away with. I ask to be led back to a region where it might be possible to be weary.” -> Weariness = exhausting claim of the individual body that demands the right to social repose (that sociality in me rest a moment … ). In fact, weariness = an intensity: society doesn’t recognize intensities.

In light of these remarks, we might say society does not recognize the intensity between Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton. The book ends, or delivers even this very sign without referent. It is held between these bodies who have labored and grown slow with life, but who equally still bear witness to a ‘neutral’ or unclassified state (‘without premises, without place’) – and this is what they impart still further (hence the intensity of the book itself).

Returning, then, to the fisherman in Gauguin’s Green Christ, I’m wondering if we can now see this neutral weariness in just a mere fleeting scene. There is the juxtaposition of what is heavy and angular in the foreground and the delicate S-bend of the fisherman. His is an existence of labor, he is a ‘tire that flattens’, returning from his work. Whilst in the foreground is the weight of a spiritual (intellectual?) realm. The latter is heavily codified. It inscribes one’s right to think. The former, however, is ambivalent. The fisherman walks  away (freely?) from his responsibility (if only until tomorrow). Is he content in his weariness? He seems to lead up to ‘a region where it might be possible to be weary’…