On the Geological Imaginary in Contemporary Art
Sometime in the early nineties, the lights went out in modern and contemporary art museums around the world – some would say, paraphrasing Sir Edward Grey, the 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, not to be switched back on in our lifetime. This darkening of the countless white cubes of museums and galleries alike was meant to accommodate the entry of film into the hallowed space of art; although there had of course been film and video art before (think of Andy Warhol’s Empire or Sleep and Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen respectively), it was really artists like Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Matthew Barney, Stan Douglas, Douglas Gordon, Bill Viola and Gillian Wearing who ushered in the canonization of Hollywood-inflected film art (mostly conceived as spatial installations), and oversaw its subsequent transformation into what was probably the dominant, defining art form of the first half of the decade. Fifteen years on, it is worth remembering that quite a few of these artworks were in essence based on the simple tactic of slowing down, of deceleration; certainly some of the period’s most emblematic pieces (Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho immediately comes to mind, but so do Viola’s films) revolved around the aesthetics of slow motion and the freeze (here we could cite Jeff Wall’s cinematic photographs as a programmatic example). There are many reasons why so many artists active at the very forefront of art’s habitual appropriation of cutting-edge technology (digital in this case) chose to slow down rather than – perhaps the more logical instinct, given that it had become technologically possible – speed up, but the advent of globalization as an everyday economic reality obviously played a major part in this, for the new world order of the electronic global village came with a new scopic regime in which the ceaseless acceleration, accumulation and proliferation of (digital) imagery gave new depth of meaning to the old situationist catchphrase of the “society of the spectacle”. Deceleration (and occasional paralysis) in moving-image-based art came to signal a critical stance not unlike that of the Luddites in early nineteenth-century, Industrial Revolution-era England, and pushing the pause button on the video camera (or in an early version of Final Cut Pro) could easily be constructed as symptomatic of a broader social or cultural demand for what the Dutch so poetically (hence untranslatably) call “onthaasting”: the conscious decision to lead a slower life of well-being.
In more recent times, art’s anxiety-ridden, traumatic relationship with the onslaught of time – always going forward, never going back; always going faster, never slowing down – has taken on a very different form, that of a “historiographic turn in art”: an obsession with the (recent) past and retrospective glance, excessive modulations of melancholy and nostalgia (the preferred tone of much ‘serious’ art produced in the last eight years or so), a compulsive desire for all that is anachronistic, archival and obsolete – all conspiring to produce that which Friedrich Nietzsche damningly called “the malady of history.” I have written elsewhere (and extensively so) about this chronomaniacal complex, focusing on one modality of the historiographic turn in contemporary art in particular – that of the archeological: artists collecting, digging, dusting off; revealing, uncovering, unveiling; excavating and lovingly inventorying the dumbstruck traces, shards and fragments of a distant, uncharted history (1). An important factor in motivating this widespread artistic interest in archeology, as one particular form of historiography, concerns the paradigmatic character of the archeological enterprise as an episteme, i.e. as a truth procedure and site of the production of knowledge: archeology is (by its very definition, namely that of the scientific study of history’s material sources) bound to a materialist view of culture, history and society, and it is always also a science of origins – “archè” being the ancient Greek word for “beginning” or “first principle”. Dig and ye shall find – and seeing as the earth, and the many mute materials that it hesitatingly hands over to the industrious digger, cannot lie, the process of excavation ultimately functions as a promise of revelation, of the unveiling of a hidden truth. And ahistorical truth, of course, is the stable rock of comfort and assurance we’re after in these hectic, disorienting times of the ceaseless acceleration and proliferation of data (connective, visual and otherwise), the silent, stone-faced permanence of the ruin or the excavation site offering refuge from the teeming culture of speed that permeates our daily lives to such dizzying, and ultimately petrifying effect.
The rock, the ruin and all that is solid and made of stone: here we seamlessly slip into the adjacent realm of geology, where time is measured on a scale that makes even the archeological seem jittery with continuous shifts and changes – where the building, completion and subsequent erosion of the pyramids is not very different, as a ‘historical’ process, from subatomic motion: geology, as the scientific study of the earth’s crust and physical properties, has revealed that our miniscule heavenly body is not that much younger, relatively speaking, than the universe as a whole (4,5 billion years as opposed to the cosmos’ estimated 13,5 billion years). Geology as the realm of stasis then, of what seems, to the untrained human eye, absolute motionlessness – the imperious eternal Same: no wonder that geology has been an (admittedly strange) source of philosophical comfort in its own right, and has made occasional allegorical inroads into the world of art, especially since the so-called “chronophobic” Sixties, when artists first started to tap into the rich reservoir of the geological (as well as astronomical, biological, botanical, ecological) imagination (2). Any consideration of the meeting of art and geology must of course pass by (or rather, depart from) Robert Smithson’s pioneering work in the Land or Earth Art movement, as well as his prolific activity as a critic and renegade art theorist. A lengthy quote from his widely-read essay “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects” (1968) reminds us of Smithson’s keen awareness of art’s folding into an experience or philosophy of time that is aligned with the geological rather than the merely historical (or archeological): “The earth’s surface and the figments of the mind have a way of disintegrating into discrete regions of art. Various agents, both fictional and real, somehow trade places with each other – one cannot avoid muddy thinking when it comes to earth projects, or what I will call “abstract geology.” One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason. Vast moving faculties occur in this geological miasma, and they move in the most physical way. This movement seems motionless, yet it crushes the landscape of logic under glacial reveries. This slow flowage makes one conscious of the turbidity of thinking. Slump, debris slides, avalanches all take place within the cracking limits of the brain. The entire body is pulled into the cerebral sediment, where particles and fragments make themselves known as solid consciousness. A bleached and fractured world surrounds the artist. To organize this mess of corrosion into patterns, grids, and subdivisions is an aesthetic process that has hardly been touched (3).” Smithson is best known today, of course, for his giant, megalomaniacal ‘interventions’ in the American natural landscape, most notably his Spiral Jetty (which, despite its monumental size, appears to be notoriously hard to find). Amid today’s incessantly expanding body of Smithson literature, the exegesis of Spiral Jetty in particular bears many markings of hagiographic hero worship (Matta-Clark is another favorite), yet there has been relatively little discussion of the relationship between geology and art’s epochal claim of “timelessness” (an important factor in all sainthood and sacrality): wasn’t Spiral Jetty geological – and no longer archeological, as was the case in the work of, say, Michael Heizer – in both scale and temporal conception because this best expressed the artist’s desire to move beyond time, to stand outside time’s merciless constraints – to ensure the kind of permanence and timelessness more commonly associated with the earth than with man’s cultivation of it? In the aforementioned essay, Smithson advises the artist to become the proprietor of art’s perceived timelessness, of the artwork as that which is a product of “no time at all”: “the deeper an artist sinks into the time stream the more it becomes oblivion; because of this, he must remain close to the temporal surfaces. Many would like to forget time altogether, because it conceals the “death principle.” Floating in this temporal river are the remnants of art history, yet the “present” cannot support the cultures of Europe, or even the archaic or primitive civilizations; it must instead explore the pre- and post-historic mind; it must go into the places where remote futures meet remote pasts (4)” – into the spaces of geological time, such as lifeless deserts (in his exemplary case) untouched by man’s corrupting presence. For deserts, as the domains of death (or at least of a deep-seated hostility towards life), are zones “out of time” par excellence, their forbidding, morbid silence the wind-swept ‘proof’ of the alignment of geology with the a- or anti-historical – this timelessness the dream, precisely, of many a land art project.
As one may have gathered from these few sentences, I am no great lover of the desert, of which it is said somewhere, in Tuareg wisdom, that silence is its prayer – indeed, could the great nay-saying Monotheistic religions ever have emerged anywhere else? It is no coincidence that one of the worst touristic experiences of my life [details omitted] happened on the very edge of the Sahara, south of the Moroccan city of Zagora. That said, however, one of the finest artistic experiences of my life, in a strictly touristic sense, also involved a trip to desert – this one under the knowing guidance, it should be added, of the Los Angeles-based ‘artist’ collective Center for Land Use Interpretation, who organize bus trips into the Mojave desert, including such memorable highlights as a visit to the mining town of Boron (home to the largest borax mine in the world) and the ultra-atmospheric Mojave airplane boneyard along the California State Route 14. Perhaps this was such a memorable experience precisely because the Center for Land Use Interpretation, as a bunch of time bandits, pull off that which so many others like (and unlike) them do not (mainly because of the programmatic immodesty and ultimate humorlessness of the latter’s many attempts), and this clearly has something to do with the risky business of trying to marry art and science (geology in this case), art and information, art and pedagogy – and entertainingly, parodically so to boot. But the success of their venture (and relatively high profile in a contemporary art world that is justifiably averse to positivist, lab coat-clad posing) is ultimately also linked to the object of their loving, slightly mocking faux-geological scrutiny: the city of Los Angeles and its built-up surrounds, a city whose short history was chronicled by Mike Davis in a book that promised to “excavate the future of L.A.” Can a future be excavated at all? Can the geological clock be wound (fast) forward, and art dream about tomorrow for a change? Exactly because of Los Angeles’ perceived lack of (natural) history – another prominent chronicler of L.A. culture and lore, Norman Klein, dubbed it the capital of forgetting (5) – and both its relative youth as well as its cultural obsession with youth, its historiography must be conducted in a spirit of slight irreverence, and there is perhaps no better way to do so than by reconstructing this history as a geological field trip along a string of imaginary excavation sites (such as a mining town): the geological fixation of many art practices, after all, always serves to signal art’s unease – in this case endemic to Angeleno culture – with the ruthlessness of the passage of time. And much more to the point of the present (that is to say, Maarten Vanden Eynde’s) curatorial undertaking, CLUI’s geo-archeological field trips do not concern natural wonders (the conventional destinations of such specialized tourism), but rather those naturalized ‘wonders’ left behind, in the haste typical of the Gold Rush’ provisional living, by man: theirs is not a geology of the natural, but one of the cultural world, proving that the daily practice of history (i.e. archeology) is a “quintessential tool for denaturalizing the social” indeed (6). A geology, not so much of the earth, then, but of the patterns of scars laboriously carved into its surface, rendered legible as a document of man’s restless passing across even the world’s remotest expanses.
A geo-logy of the cultural world rather than the earth upon which it rests: a paradox this may seem perhaps, but isn’t ‘paradox’ the very logic of all art?
(1) See, among others, my “The Way of The Shovel: On the Archeological Imaginary in Contemporary Art,” published in e-flux journal #4, March 2009 (to which the subtitle of the present essay refers); “After the Historiographic Turn: Current Findings,” published in e-flux journal #5, May 2009; “Whose ‘End of History’?”, published in Yilmaz Dziewior (ed.), Jahresring 56: Wessen Geschichte? Whose History?, Berlin: Kulturstiftung des Bundes & Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2009 (forthcoming); and “Listen to the Stones: Mariana Castillo Deball Among the Ruins”, published in Mousse Magazine #21, September 2009. (2) The reference here is to Pamela M. Lee’s book-length study Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s. In it, Lee links 1960s art’s anxious examination of the issue of time (history, progress, speed) to the “emergence of the Information Age in postwar culture. The accompanying rapid technological transformations, including the advent of computers and automation processes, produced for many an acute sense of historical unknowing; the seemingly accelerated pace of life began to outstrip any attempts to make sense of the present. Lee sees the attitude of 1960s art to time as a historical prelude to our current fixation on time and speed within digital culture.” [From the MIT Press website, ed.]