Silence = Death

Matthew Jones

In Mathew Jones' installation the gallery space is divided in half: one half measured out according to the works' equidistant placement on the floors and walls (two works lean against walls); the other half left empty. Above each of the wall-pieces hang painted (white on black) canvases bearing the slogans: homosexuality = aids; silence = death; discourse = defense; defense = disease; and disease = discourse. There would appear to be two referents for this work: the issue of homosexuality and AIDS; and Minimalism.

The works employ a number of Minimalist tropes or signatures modified in certain ways. For example a unitary form (a blank white canvas) repeated throughout the installation is transformed by a process which seems mechanical, opposed to the process of reduction which may have constituted the implied originary Minimalist form. The canvas is either swollen so that it appears to exceed its original dimensions or it hangs limply between its exposed black graphite support like a collapsed deckchair. And in the absence of any overt pictorial content the materials and construction of the works become constitutive rather than incidental to their meaning. But the corresponding textual analogues suggest a meaning beyond the works' evident materiality, a correspondence with the representation of AIDS. And while the surrounding space (the cultural and public space which, according to Rosalind Krauss, is crucial to the critical intentions of Minimalism) is implicated in the placement of works, and in particular by the leaning of several works against the walls—a sovereign Minimalist device for bringing the wall into relation with the floor—there might be, nonetheless, a residual content in the work.

A straightforward gestalt reading of the installation (that is, according to its evident minimalism) is complicated by a certain kind of pictorialism, better expressed as an inhering dysfunctionalism. A primary unmediated experience of these works is prevented by the recognition of a pervasive and pathetic utility—beds you cannot lie on; camp stools you cannot sit in; deck chairs that it would be impossible to erect. So the spectator's physicality is acknowledged (apropos the intended phenomenological effect of these tropes) and his/her repose is quite literally invited (via an oblique association with a range of furniture). But it is ultimately frustrated by bad design or precarious placement.

Here the disavowal of anthropomorphism (the imitation of the human figure), which according to a number of commentaries[1] differentiates Minimal art from a long tradition of sculpture which preceded it, is perversely acknowledged. But so is the indebtedness of Minimal art to the host of functional objects which surround us and which likewise might remind us of our corporeality, though by different means.[2] Thus the works appear as hybrid forms, happily irresolute according to the predominant systems of representation at work: one, the anti-pictorial and phenomenological effect of primary structures which lingers on in the appropriated Minimalist forms; and two, the pictorialism which arises in depicting (or appropriating) those forms. The distinction between what is literal and what is metaphorical is ever-present but unable to function in the production of a single coherent meaning.

The textual analogues-including the title of the exhibition Silence = Death-occupy the same ambiguous territory with regard to language. They parody the slogans of gay activism which in turn, according to Lee Edelman, endorse the validity of the rhetorical form of homophobia. The metaphoricity of these equations (functioning within the gay community like flags) contaminates their logic (their literalness) producing an infection within language which suggests that any properly gay politic is impossible without at the same time validating the contrary logic of homophobia. "So homophobic and antihomophobic forces alike find themselves producing, as defensive reactions to the social and medical crisis of AIDS, discourses that reify and absolutize identities, discourses that make clear the extent to which both groups see the AIDS epidemic as threatening the social structures through which they have constituted their identities for themselves".[3]

Christopher Heathcote, critic for a daily newspaper, finds the work "meaningless" since it neither "supplies us with information" nor "empathises with the tragic victims of AIDS".[4] He interprets this as the work's failing. For him the work is incorrigible and mute. But to occupy either an objective or benevolent position in relation to the issue of AIDS might be a greater failing since the issue would then be subordinate to the knowledge and morality of a single artist or critic.

On the contrary the work is resolutely ambiguous, and precisely because of its historical referent. But the critic's response elides this. Describing the exhibition as a "tired attempt to invoke early 1970s minimal and conceptual art" he disallows any continuity in minimalist forms, maintaining instead the rigidity of historical categories according to which Jones' work is "deskilled" and "unimaginative ". Thus he sustains his own privileged discursive identity as a newspaper critic who can differentiate the periods, styles and genres which comprise art history. We might even say that history is invoked by the critic for this very reason; to maintain the artist in a subordinate role to the categories of art history and therefore subordinate to the critic himself who defends those categories. And yet these categories are by no means settled as recent debates about Minimalism attest.

Michael Fried recently reaffirmed his view that Minimalism represents the apotheosis of the inherent literalness in modernist painting, "as if the Minimalists were the ones who really believed the Greenbergian reduction—that there was a timeless essence to art that was progressively revealed"[5] Accordingly, Minimalism is the culmination of "modernist idealism".[6] For several critics who claim to speak from an anterior position to that of Fried[7] the use of certain materials and techniques in Minimalism and the repetition and seriality of works reflect the conditions of late industrial capitalism and mass production. Minimalism "initiates the postmodernist critique of institutional and discursive conditions."[8] Within the latter perspective Minimalism remains representational but the means have changed; no longer a matter of depicting but of embodying. In this sense the Minimal work is no longer literal (a relevant term only within American modernism) but symptomatic or metaphorical (within postmodernism).

Perhaps what motivates this debate is the 'silence' of Minimalist works. As Darby Bannard commented in 1966, Minimal works of art "are made to be talked about", the result of having to incessantly ask "but what does it mean?"[9]Indeed, '60s Minimalism is characterised by unprecedented verbiage which continues in the larger claims presently being made on the works' behalf to mean something historically within either a modernist or postmodernist paradigm. But this might be the current value of Minimalism and the whole point of its evocation in Jones' work; as a reservoir for all the putative meanings of the current debate which fall either side of the division literal/metaphorical.

While it is the virtue of silence that others may speak, it is also, implicitly, a refusal to speak in others' terms. The use of these tropes by Jones is a decidedly non-partisan contribution to the debate about Minimalism. It is intended to broach but inevitably elude the explanations or meanings available which conform to the same division between metaphor and literalness which complicates definitions of gay identity in discussions of AIDS. Therefore, the correspondence between form and text in the installation occurs on the basis of a common syntactic structure, the confusion of standard grammatical arrangements. As Jones suggests, perhaps this is inevitably the speech of a gay man, an explicit refusal of terms which are insufficient to a sense of gay identity. But it is a refusal or silence which does not equal death (that is, as the end of discourse according to the equation silence = death), rather a silence which aims to maintain debate by frustrating definitive interpretation.

The implied strategy in Jones' work, and one commensurate with the notion of activism, is to problematise the predominant means of explanation and thereby circumscribe the absence of a critical position from which the gay community and the gay artist might speak unequivocally, or, from which the issue of AIDS might be adequately addressed. In this sense we should conceive of the work in terms of its effect, as an attack on all accounts which, in parody of disease, undermines the assuredness with which the critic demands information, empathy and orthodoxy. it is the critic's insistence upon certain inviolable art historical categories, his refusal to engage with the problematic proposed by the work, which is the most worrying. For the critic's silence speaks loudest of his refusal to reorient public awareness in relation to the deficiencies of art and language in accounting for the experiences of the gay community. And it is perhaps only within the configuration of artist—work—critic—criticism that the problem of gay identity is manifest, in various incommensurable terms.

notes: 

 

[1] Frances Colpitt, Minimal Art: The Critical Perspective, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, 1990, pp. 67-73.

 

[2] This indebtedness is most apparent in the phenomenological analyses of everyday objects by Merleau-Ponty which are read as a subtext for Minimalism, especially by Rosalind Krauss in Passages in Modern Sculpture, Thames and Hudson, London, 1977, pp. 239-240.

[3] "The Plague of Discourse" in Displacing Homophobia: Gay Male Perspectives in Literature and Culture, edited by Butters, Clum and Moon, Duke U.P., 1989, p. 297.

[4] Christopher Heathcote in his review of the exhibition for The Age, Wednesday 22 May, p. 14.

[5] "Theories of Art after Minimalism and Pop", in DIA Art Foundation Discussions in Contemporary Culture, Bay Press, Seattle, 1987, p. 73.

[6] Peter Schjeldahl, "Minimalism", Art of Our Time: The Saatchi Collection, Volt, Riuoli, New York, 1985, p. 20.

[7] Rosalind Krauss epitomises this point of view: "we look back on the modernist origin and watch it splinter into end-less replication."

[8] Hal Foster, "196711987" in Janet Kardon, 1967: At the Crossroads, Uni of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1987, p. 2

[9] "Present-Day Art and Ready-Made Styles", Artforum, December 1966, p. 33. Incidentally, a question which Heathcote refuses to ask but certainly answers in claiming the work is "meaningless".