On laughing at works of art appeared in the catalogue Once upon a time a clock-watcher during overtime hours, published by Fondazione Giuliani and NERO, Rome, IT in 2011

On laughing at works of art

Bruce W. Ferguson

On a visit to the galleries of the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London in 1987, a friend of mine – a poet – and me – a curator – realized that if a Cezanne painting entitled Montagne Sainte-Victoire on the wall that we were face to face with was in fact painted in 1887 (which was the label’s ascription), it would be 100 years old. We were, accidentally it must be admitted, privy to the painting’s centenary birthday (give or take a few months because Cezanne’s season was clearly summer and it was July in London).  Standing about four feet directly in front of its distracting golden frame, we decided, without much thought it must be said, to sing that ageless song “Happy Birthday” out loud in the gallery. Our unconscious inspiration, or maybe it was conscious, was Gilbert and George from their signature performance “Underneath the Arches”, made famous by Flanagan and Allen much earlier and resurrected by the two glib English artists. Also confidence in our public selves was buoyed perhaps from a pint or two of the local ale from a nearby pub, another less deliberate nod to G&G. Regardless, it was a pointless moment in the history of art and as far as I know does not figure regularly in the histories of Cezanne’s reception (to date).

As we were leaving an elderly female docent at a desk near the stairwell said in her best Geraldine McEwan playing Miss Marple impersonation, “Are you the boys what sang “appy birthday to the painting?” When we admitted to it, she said with a charming smile, “it’s so nice when someone doesn’t take art so seriously.”

And of course not everyone does take art so seriously. Beyond the obvious hordes of assumed philistines whose numbers are everywhere in legion, and beyond the uninitiated that includes whole cultures and populations for whom art doesn’t register at all, there are even among us, professional comedians and cartoonists who have made a living of gently and sometimes antagonistically mocking art. The New Yorker cartoons with art at their center, particularly modern or contemporary art, are a genre unto themselves. And other riffs on the artworld’s pretentions and assumptions are common in popular culture in general. But for those of us who choose to live and work within the parameters of the artworld, all of the above are generally considered people easily dismissible and not to be taken seriously. As with the humorists, they are understood as being envious and in some way are flattering in their attentions.

But artists generally do take art so seriously. Like Hollywood stars interviewed endlessly and claiming allegiance to film history and the stars/actors, directors and writers who preceded them, with varying intensities of sincerity, artists often align themselves with a perceived history of art’s importance, and its generalized but assumed, contribution to culture and civilization itself. The gallery and museum label field is strewn with innumerable titles that begin with “homage to” as a not so subtle reminder of the artist’s own relation (fantasized and sometimes delusional) to major artists or major historical works of art. Naming a work of art, “homage to”, has probably produced a tower of labels much higher than Brancusi’s Endless Column by artists who nevertheless often remain nameless and forgettable.

Then of course there are the artists who are “critical” of art institutions and the artworld, artists who declare big teeth but who barely nibble at the hand that feeds them. Surprisingly, the targeted hand of the handouts is happy and claps for them and feels redeemed for knowing they are cleaner for somehow allowing for the criticism and still conducting their affairs normally. Such artists are often tenured and command large prices from major galleries. They often represent countries at biennials and so on as “critical” art is one of the best passports today to the legendary pantheons of contemporary art history. To be “critical” is a kind of proclamation of seriousness that is only guaranteed by a narrow and elite audience represented by the very institutions they claim to criticize because those institutions themselves have equally knee-jerk responses of fashion. The result is an international circle jerk tautology of small nips and back slapping; all hands on board.

So years later, I find myself again in front of a work of art having fun, again laughing out loud.  The sound track this time might have been Frank Sinatra singing, “I did it my way.” This is an exhibition that makes, among other assertions, the deliberate claim that art doesn’t have to be taken so seriously. It makes the claim that a work of art can be thoughtful and passionate and intelligent; the kind of demands that one might exact of friendship without playing either the “critical” card or the “avant-garde” card or the “art history” card. In some ways, it conventionalizes art as a discourse.

Ahmet Ögüt is a serious enough artist that he can take art both seriously and not seriously simultaneously as his attitude seemingly embraces contradictions. Or, more importantly, one of his declarations in the works in this exhibition is that the meanings ascribed in the reception of a work of art is at least, and possibly more important, than its production. And further, as a corollary, Ögüt is proposing, I believe, that there is not just the interpretation that the artist chooses to dream and project onto any work of art, but the many other readings and constructions of meanings that the audience might also dream and project onto it. He has projected meanings here onto works of art without interfering with the artist’s intentions that are still available as well.

And it is these inconsistencies or paradoxes to a large extent that he has chosen to astutely embrace in Once upon a time a clock-watcher during overtime hours. Curated by Adrienne Drake, in this exhibition Ahmet Ögüt has taken the special occasion to investigate selected works of art from the very purposeful collection of the Fondazione Guiliani in Rome. He relies partially, but purposefully, on a method now known familiarly in architecture and other contemporary discourses as “adaptive reuse.”  This is no longer just a term to suggest collage and the recirculation of materials, a history that runs from early Cubism to Robert Rauschenberg for instance. Instead, the contemporary idea of this evolutionary term refers to the reconfiguration of meaning, or of reception theory as it is sometimes known, and it is a direct result of conceptualism’s insights. In other words, it is not just a postmodern appropriation or quotation or translation device, as the die-hard preservationists of modernist tradition would have it, but a new understanding of how art actually works.

In fact, the sense that context is a dynamic in understanding works of art was proposed very early on by one of the canonical figures of modernism in Houston, Texas in 1957. On a panel with Gregory Bateson, the famous anthropologist cum cybernetics and information theorist, Marcel Duchamp, icon of iconoclasm, delivered a paper that in some ways is a manifesto of the notion of contextual meaning in art. Duchamp’s proposition was eerily like Bateson’s work itself. This odd pair, coupled at the annual Convention of the American Federation of Arts, where Duchamp was advertised as a “mere artist”, echoed each other’s insights. Duchamp said clearly, “In the last analysis, the artist may shout from all the rooftops that he is a genius: he will have to wait for the verdict of the spectator in order that his declarations take a social value and that, finally, posterity includes him in the primers of Art History.” This is not just a statement about the social role of art but, like Bateson’s work on information, it is about the way in which works of art influence their audience and their audience influences them in return in an endless mise en abyme of use and reuse. This evolutionary oscillation is known to artists and scientists alike and is one of the ways in which we now all know the limits of so-called objectivity. Duchamp went on to say, “All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists”.

So, adaptive reuse is perhaps, then, not a contradiction after all.  It is in Ögüt’s use a system of reconfiguration, if you will: a method for selecting relevant components from an archive of images or, in this case, a collection layering them in a new embodiment which itself can be reinterpreted. And who better to be the first re-user of art than another artist? Who better to be a spectator? A good example of a career made of adaptive reuse is that of Louise Lawler, whose photographs of works of art in context charmingly entice new connotations and significances from works of art whose stagnation and apartheid from external worlds are represented within the images themselves. Or of Matts Leiderstam, whose re-paintings of 18th and 19th Century genre paintings emphasize the repressed homosexual or homosocial undertones. 

Although many artists make art from art so to speak, most uses are either representational or referential; an attempt to expand a vocabulary or to walk on the sly side – a kind of academic wink to the past, nudging the spectator to engage in a game of visual quotes and citations. What makes Ögüt’s work so intriguing is his pure willingness to enter the spirit of the original – to take up its intentions – and then to subvert them or create what can only be called “added value”. Like a chameleon, he dresses in the environment of the unique object of art, only to flash a signal of difference. Like the definition of information made famous by Bateson, it is the “difference that makes a difference.”

Ögüt furthers this engagement by making new works of art himself, included in the exhibition like the re-adaptations of Kosuth and Coffin et al. In this way he makes himself vulnerable to the same re-adaptive process of a new spectator’s projections of meanings just as he has done to the artists’ works to which he has directed his material attention. In this way he acknowledges his own necessary openness to this oscillating process of meaning, re-meaning, un-meaning; orienting, disorienting, re-orienting as fundamental to the nature and call of art and its forthrightness as a discourse of democratic goals; one of the very few.