Review of Becoming Past: History in Contemporary Art
University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, MN, 2016
248 pp. illus. 50 b & w. Paper, $30.00
As an art historian about to start a new job lecturing art history at an art school, I could not help myself choosing this book to review. At the time when I was studying art history, end of the eighties, the most recent art that was mentioned was that of the end of the sixties. What struck me at the time was how the art of those sixties was seemingly endlessly divided, dissected almost in all kinds of categories and subcategories, whereas some 50 years on, most of those subcategories seem to be fairly useless. Does history thus need distance? As I grew up as the daughter of artists and with a father who warned me about studying art history as no artist would ever be thankful of it. I always was curious about the contemporary or current artist. Since these where hardly to be found as part of my studies, I thus decided to become a contemporary art curator, to be able to observe the emerging at first hand. As Jane Blocker, professor of art history at the University of Minnesota, explains by way of Grant Kester the terminology ‘contemporary art’ is however an oxymoron, because where does it start or end? And how can it thus “be treated with the gravity and scholarly detachment of a safely historical object?” The contemporary is a slippery or “rubbery” thing, the moment it happens it is already gone, “becoming past” as we speak.
A large part Blocker’s book is kind of irritating, mainly through its endless repetition and equally long description of certain artists and their work. But irritation should act as a warning to pay more attention, and Blocker in fact uses repetition as a means of getting closer to her subject that nevertheless evades her and us in general all the time. That being said, she does stick frustratingly long discussing specifically the performance group Goat Island and Dario Obleto to make her point. Especially in the case of Goat Island it is problematic for a good understanding of the text that the group’s work has barely been documented, leading Blocker to even more extensively describe their work. It is also somewhat surprising at first to see such a lengthy discussion of performance art within the given context until it becomes clear that the relation between play and history is crucial to Blocker.
Where the book becomes really important is in one of its last chapters, ‘Transitional Objects’ that is again largely devoted to Obleto’s work and more specifically his so-called Spools. Obleto, whose work was unknown to me and who can only partly convince me, is of use to Blocker in the way that he doesn’t treat historical objects with the awe of uniqueness that is usually attributed to them. Instead he literally dissects and unravels them, in the case of the Spools quite literally a childhood blanket back to thread. Blocker here connects to Carol Mavor’s book Reading Boyishly to introduce a historical method based on what Mavor calls surprisingly “boyish games”, based on the observation of work by amongst others Proust, Barthes and the play of her own sons. The latter would attach thread to seemingly unrelated objects which made me think of Marcel Duchamp’s twine installation in the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in 1942 that is weirdly not mentioned by Blocker. What Blocker aims at is a non-linear approach, “contemporary art history as a matter of play’. Referring to Freud’s grandson Ernst and his game of “gone” whenever his mother left him, Blocker connects contemporary art history’s escapist tricks then unfortunately to “a means of compensating for the newly or not yet fully absent pas figured as absent mother”. This Freudian link seems unnecessary and too much of a burden. More interesting is the picking up of Goat Island’s play around the word “last”, in the context of the last of the shoemaker and “to last”, connecting it to a video work by Belgian artist Francis Alys, Bolero (Shoeshine Blues). In this video Alys uses repetition to reflect on the nothing we are and will be. At that point the repetition that Blocker has been using becomes actually more informative.
In these times of fake news, it seems peculiar to advocate a play with history, but to me this playfulness seems exactly what is necessary. As Blocker points out, inspired by Derrida’s ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, “[h]istory is [...] always a prosthetic act of substitution, and, as such, it is [...] always already contaminated. Or fictitious for that matter. What truths, asks Blocker in the introduction, might we discover in the incorrect version of the past? What needs to be at stake with the use of these kind of experimental methodologies is that the “affective and creative transformation”, to paraphrase Blocker, is done in the full awareness and respect of clear historical facts. That way a new approach to the contemporary and actually history in general can become more revealing than a dogged linearity. Rich, irritating and to be played with in other words.