NO MORE THINKING! LET US COPY!
Learning: Despise it as the sign of a narrow mind
Gustave Flaubert, Dictionary of Received Ideas, 1881
We expect art to be conclusive, to provide us with answers or a sense of conviction or certainty about things. As every schoolchild knows, however, arriving at a conclusion is often not the most enjoyable part. Disorderly classrooms where the equations remain unsolved can be more fun (and sometimes more to the point). The French caricaturist J.J. Grandville summed up this situation nicely in an illustration from 1869 showing a conceited looking (and short-sighted) old ‘ass’ instructing a gaggle of small parrots to conjugate for him the verb ‘to be bored’. Cheekily, and to his annoyance, they comply, reciting, well, parroting, ‘you are boring me’, ‘you are boring us’ etc.
Calling the answers into question has in some ways become a hallmark of the modern era. While he was rather more serious in tone, in fact the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche could have had Grandville in mind when he wrote ‘what is truth then? A movable host of metaphors, metonyms and anthropomorphisms.’1 He saw the belief systems and convictions of his time as mere fabrications of fixed convention, transferred through a process of mindless replication. For Nietzsche, truth was a coin that had lost its value. It rattles emptily, as it is passed from hand to hand. Noisy but without meaning - like one of Grandville’s adolescent parrots.
Grandville’s illustration is perhaps a good place to start when discussing the work of Canadian artist Gareth Long. In a series of ongoing sculptural, textual and discussion-based works, he presents us with moments of misunderstanding, irresolution, limitation and imitation. These are not seen as obstacles, however, but are made rich with potential. Miscommunications and mistakes are mined for unforeseen meaning and the unanswerable for its open-ended promise. Replications abound, but often as imperfect copies without recourse to an original source. At the heart of much of this artist’s work, lies a fascination with the medium of the book, which, as a primary vehicle for the transmission of knowledge, could be understood as the epicentre of such concerns.
Untitled (Stories) (2008-2011) is a case in point. Here, he has created a series of works around a Little Brown & Co. book cover design produced for four of J.D. Salinger’s novels: The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Nine Stories (1953), Franny and Zooey (1961), and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963). The diagonal rainbow-coloured stripes that brand these books summarise the look and feel of Modernism as it stood at the time of Salinger’s writing. Measured, deliberate and discreet, they take their cue from the stripe motif, which was ubiquitous in the work of painters such as Frank Stella, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. In America, where the books have largely been distributed, the instantly recognisable covers have become synonymous with the author’s work. Packed tightly into a crate of odd second hand books, it’s easy to pick out the Salinger by its little band of colours running along the spine.
Long’s interest lies, however, in a curious disjunction between the book covers and Salinger’s actual texts. This became apparent when he realised that Little Brown & Co first applied the cover design in 1991, long after the books’ initial publication. In fact, the novels mentioned in the above paragraph departed from Modernist convention in a number of ways. Salinger’s narrative style, for example, is often fragmented and keeps a continuous meta-fictive dialogue with the reader. His characters are filled with existentialist malaise. They interrogate life, suffer collapse, and find solace in spirituality, and sometimes death. The turbulence of his writing in these particular stories is therefore oddly misaligned with the kind of Greenbergian aesthetic evoked by the design, which sought to eliminate emotional, religious or personal content. One suspects that the glossing over of these nuances and complexities in the covers’ design, speaks more of 1990s nostalgia for a bygone Modernism than the actual content of the book.
It is this misalignment that becomes the basis for Untitled (Stories). In a series of six-foot prints, the artist amplifies and distorts the cover design. The work is made using lenticular technology, a technique in which small lenses are used to give images the illusion of depth and movement. While the gimmicky lenticular cards found in cereal packages usually only show one or two views, Long extends common uses of the technique to condense more than thirty frames of video or animation into a single picture plane. A complicated process, particularly large scale, which is undertaken by one of few specialist companies in the field, the result is unique - a complex compilation of images that defies easy reading, both for the eye and in an intellectual sense.
This technology is key to an understanding of the work. It complicates in a number of ways the modernist connotations of the stripe motif, and visualises in its discontinuous flickering the split between the covers and the content of the books. Strongly linked with popular cultural forms, such as crackerjack prizes and postcards, for example, it subverts grand narratives with its low-cultural associations. Modernism is here rendered in the language of kitsch, and so with a clichéd emotionalism that undermines the solemnity of its gesture. If the starting point is Frank Stella (and Long cites the connections/disconnections between Stella – his work, but also the artist as persona - the cover design, and Salinger’s writing as a starting point of sorts to the series), the end result is closer to a psychedelic rock album cover.
In addition, the lenticular method overturns High Modernism’s call for autonomy and purity of form. In format, the works conform to rectangular pictorial convention, but their surfaces break into looping whorls and shifting colour fields that extend outwards into the surrounding environment. Leaning against the wall of the gallery at a jutting angle, they deliberately acknowledge minimalist works, such as the propped planks of John McCracken (in fact Untitled (Buddy) can be seen as a direct reference to the work of Frank Stella, Untitled (Waker) to Daniel Buren and Untitled (Boo Boo) to Kenneth Noland). But with one important distinction: turn your head just a little and their surfaces dissolve into liquid movement. Responsive to our every move, as derivations of Stella, McCracken and Noland et al these are impure forms. In terms of artistic genres and media as a whole they are difficult to define. They shift between categories, suggesting, but never quite conforming to sculpture, painting, photography and the moving image.
In fact, ‘lenticularism’ (it is tempting to refer to it as an ‘ism’, a distinctive doctrine or system on its own), requires a certain active physicality that moves beyond artistic disciplines alone and towards literature and the act of reading. In Penser/Classer, Georges Perec brings reading ‘back to what it primarily is: a precise activity of the body, the bringing into play of certain muscles, different organisations of our posture, sequential decisions, temporal choices…’2 He tracks the complex movements of the eye as they sweep the page jerkily, halting imperceptibly, in what he believes to be an agitated, disorderly and repetitive manner. He describes lips moving, hands leafing through pages, and the ‘posturology’ of reading that may comprise lying, kneeling, standing, walking and sitting. This ergological approach is perfectly evoked in Long’s prints, as one walks back and forth before them, adjusting the eyes to their restless flickering.
This is not a dismissal of Modernism per se. Rather, it’s as though Modernism were reformatted for the precarity Salinger evokes in his writing. In Untitled (Stories), the certainties of the modern era seem to tremble and shift. We find ourselves in a swaying landscape in which it’s hard to find one’s footing. In works such as Untitled (Franny), as though subject to a Copernican shift, the middle point of the design decentres and slides off frame. It’s an instability that brilliantly conjures the search for a sense of self in a world that is no longer rationalised, but essentially chaotic. As solid form breaks down into shivering viscosity, we are reminded of the fragile condition of this author’s characters, who tends to be neurotic, cathartic or in crisis. The prints’ nausea-inducing optical effect provides an apt visual metaphor for an existentialist ‘sickness of the soul’, in much the same way as Seymour’s ‘bouquet of early-blooming parentheses: ((()))’ in Seymour: An Introduction are the ‘bowlegged – buckle-legged – omens’ of his unstable state of mind.3
Human-scaled and named after the nine members of Salinger’s fictive Glass family (and in reference to his Nine Stories), Untitled (Stories) could be read as a series of non-figurative portraits of the eponymous characters. In each case, the artist uses the Little Brown and Co. design to pun and quip on their quirks and characteristics. In Untitled (Franny), for example, named after perhaps the most vertiginous of the Glass family members, concentric circles ripple woozily around the picture plane, never quite finding the centre. The V-shape of Untitled (Boo Boo) recalls a ship’s hull and keel, a nod to Boo Boo’s sea-faring ways and prominence in the story ‘Down at the Dinghy’ (as well as a suggestion of the female form, Boo Boo being the first ‘girl’ print made in the series). The conjoined circles of Untitled (Walt) echo the circles of a stovetop (Walt was accidentally killed when carrying a stove).
Viewers are reminded of the works’ literary starting point by way of a small shelf carrying a series of the Little Brown & Co. Salinger books, which are displayed for reading alongside the prints. Aptly named Books (Untitled), all text on the recto and verso of each book has been erased (with sandpaper, painstakingly). Only the iconic stripes remain. With this simple gesture the artist points to the slippage between the exterior’s restrained design and the psychological turmoil inside. His adaptation of the books is almost a process of ‘sculpting’, in which he works at the sequential format of the book medium until it becomes object-like, material and unique. The fact that Books (Untitled) is also there to be read, however, is important, providing us with a referential framework from which the overall series can be understood.
If Untitled (Stories) pushes a quintessentially modernist motif into crisis, in Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Invented Desk for Copying (2007-ongoing), Long takes as his subject a book in which one of the underlying principles of the modern era is put into question, namely the authority and validity of intellectual knowledge. Gustave Flaubert’s unfinished novel, posthumously published in 1881 as Bouvard et Pécuchet tells the story of two copy clerks who, tired of their mindless existence and coming into an inheritance, leave for the country to pursue ‘the life of the mind’ and to make their mark on the world. Beset by difficulties, frustrated by the contradictions they find in each area of study, and unable to come to any of their own conclusions, they ultimately give up. At the end of the first half of the novel they make a desk for two, so as to resume their original occupations as ‘copistes’.
The artist’s work previously has taken the notion of copying as a primary subject. Here, he centres on Flaubert’s two-person desk for copying, realising this literary invention as a series of ‘desk-sculptures’ that are both discrete sculptural objects and work platforms for a number of on-going pursuits. The desks follow the repetition of a basic principle: each has two recesses, which place the sitters–not facing one another in direct opposition–but seated at a slight, companionable remove. Despite this replication, as copies they are imperfect forms that cannot claim to be sourced to any kind of ‘original’ prototype desk. Each one produced by different fabricators, they vary greatly in style, ranging from a basic folding table to an elegant wood and metal desk inspired by French designer Jean Prouvé’s compass desk of the 1940s. Often working with friends, gallery staff, or even family, Long invites a level of collaboration with the fabricators, who have at times designed the desks themselves (according to the blueprint), or provided their own interpretations of his designs.
Flaubert's book was written at a time when labour practices were shifting away from skills-based production to the huge expansion of administration and management. The ‘desk job’ is perhaps the ultimate emblem of this society of bureaucracy and expertise, and the office desk its central location: a place in which the world’s ambiguities can be answered, rationalised and dispelled. The frustrated endeavours of Bouvard and Pécuchet upset this. Their activities result in what could best be described as a kind of blind probing, a form of knowledge that is indeterminate and unstable. Their failures and refusals provide a closing down, a metaphorical resistance to the notion of ‘expertise’ and the use value of knowledge as an end product.
A desk for two with a mirrored seating arrangement is the perfect platform for an ulterior mode of knowledge to be produced. When they are seen together, the ensemble of desk-sculptures mimic an educational setting; a classroom or lecture theatre. However, their inward facing doubling destabilizes the conventional didactic teacher-pupil relationship, in which knowledge is passed in one direction only: from ‘expert’ to amateur or ignorant student. Rather than hierarchical relationships, the desks allow for an equal positioning between the sitters, in which there is no ‘front’ and ‘back’ (no being sent to the front of the classroom to demonstrate knowledge or sent to the back in disgrace), and in which learning takes place reciprocally and in tandem.
Here, the artist’s on-going interest in the copy resurfaces in the form of the pedagogical. In Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze insists that education is a system of mediation and decoding, in which knowledge cannot be passively reproduced, but must be actively translated. Deleuze states: ‘we learn nothing from those who say: “Do as I do.” Our only teachers are those who tell us to “do with me,” and are able to emit signs to be developed in heterogeneity rather than propose gestures for us to reproduce.”4 The palindromic configuration of the ‘Invented Desks for Copying’ invites something of a Deleuzian notion of collaboratively learning ‘with’ rather than ‘from’ or ‘to’.
Collaboration, of course, entails ceding control. Its outcomes are always unpredictable or unexpected, and can never be measured or foreseen. Adopting the same spirit of collaboration and open-ended inquiry as Flaubert’s two protagonists, the artist activates the desks with several on-going projects and lines of research. In one example he opens out the question ‘who invented the desk?’ to colleagues, students and friends. The ensuing responses make it clear that finding an ‘answer’ to this query is somewhat beside the point (if such a thing were even possible). More important is the wide-ranging discussions provoked, which to date have taken place in a variety of forms, from discursive events to succinct texts published in a small volume of writing.
One of his principle activities is to use the desks alongside Toronto-based artist Derek Sullivan in a series of public performances in which they illustrate Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas. Some speculate that this satirical encyclopaedia lampooning French society of the time may have been part of the material Bouvard and Pécuchet set out to copy in the second (unrealised) half of the book. Mimicking this final act, the two artists bring Flaubert’s ‘received ideas’ up to date with images copied from the Internet and bound into a series of smartly-designed books made with designer Mike Gallagher. (The Internet is perhaps the dilettante’s library of today, and one that parallels the vast library embedded within Flaubert's novel – for which the author claimed to have read 1500 volumes during his reasearch.)
It’s hard to view their entertainingly inexpert sketches (Long describes himself as a ‘crap drawer’) with a straight face. An illustration of Madonna in her cone bra phase for the entry ‘ambition’ (‘always preceded by “mad” when it is not noble’) or a pig with knife and fork about to tuck into its own haunches for ‘ham’ (‘always from Mainz. Beware of it, on account of the danger of trichinosis’) matches the nineteenth-century author’s caustic wit with a humour that is both school-boyishly funny and decidedly twenty-first century in its Internet-style arbitrariness. An entry such as ‘imagination’ (always vivid. Guard against it. When one has none, denigrate it in others’), for example, is peculiarly illustrated by an image of the popular children’s TV-character, Sponge-Bob Square Pants.
Accompanying the drawings are the artist’s ‘amateur’ translations (he is not a native French speaker) of the original Dictionary entries, another instance of his illustration of the novel and its two dilettantes. It’s tempting in Long and Sullivan’s quasi impersonation of the two dabblers to see a kind of parable for the subject of art making itself. As in Flaubert’s book, artistic activity can be more valuable as a kind of probing amateurism, one in which ‘success’ does not necessarily lie in the answers, but in the unresolved and unexpected discoveries that occur in the process. (‘Artists: All charlatans...What artists do cannot be called work’).
Despite the pedagogic themes that the motif of the desk invokes, the work is not entirely in keeping with the ‘educational’ practices prevalent in art contexts today, which often takes the form of desk displays in galleries, scripts for reading or spoken narratives. Language defines such practices, as it does for Long also, but with his work it retreats to the background, only sometimes appearing directly in the work. Often, the literary references are embodied in the work’s material components. A lenticular flicker visualises the uncertainties in Salinger’s stories, for example, the slippage between cover and content.
Similarly, the desks’ mirrored formation mimics the circularity of Flaubert’s narrative (which refers to itself in several places and ends ultimately with a return to the beginning), and the two scriveners’ discussions, which go around in circles never reaching a conclusive outcome. The sheer number of ‘invented desks for copying’ (to date they total 14), as if the artist were unable to settle on a definitive type, fetishises a state of deferment that perfectly evokes Flaubert’s themes of incompleteness. The effect is a little like a writer endlessly arranging and re-arranging the desk before summoning the motivation to write. Currently, the desks continue to grow in number and a conclusion to the series remains unresolved (and would perhaps seem contradictory, given that Flaubert’s novel itself remained unfinished).
Flaubert wrote: ‘What mind of any strength—beginning with Homer—has ever come to a conclusion?’.5 Like Grandville, he satirised the convictions of his age, realising the impossibility of complete and absolute knowledge. Bouvard and Pecuchet’s ill-fated endeavors towards such an achievement end finally with the cry ‘No more thinking!’ ‘Let us copy!’. It is precisely at this point of inconclusiveness that Long’s work can begin. Bouvard and Pécuchet’s Invented Desk for Copying, Untitled (Stories) (and, in fact, earlier works such as his 2006 Don Quixote) each unfold from this point, from moments of doubt, slippage and complexity, which refuse to be simplified or resolved.
That these visitations have in recent works tended to accumulate around books carries certain logic. One of the enlightenment project’s most quintessential forms, books, archives and libraries are the primary vehicles for knowledge and truth to be transmitted and reproduced. But as Bouvard and Pecuchet themselves deduce, sourcing knowledge through books has its limitations. (‘Books: always too long, whatever the subject’. ‘Encyclopaedia: Laugh at it pityingly for being quaint and old-fashioned, or else thunder against it!’). Long’s work attests to this ambivalence and takes pleasure in the book as a fallible and fluid form that can always be disrupted and made anew; read, re-read and misread.
Frances Loeffler, 2011
1 Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’ (1873), in Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large, The Nietzsche Reader, Blackwell publishing Ltd., 2006, p. 117.
2 Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, trans. John Sturrock, London: Penguin Classics, 1997, p. 175.
3 J. D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters, Seymour: An Introduction, Boston, Little Brown and Company, 1991, p. 98.
4 See Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, and for a discussion on collaborative pedagogic models, see also Florian Schneider, ‘(Extended) Footnotes on Education’, Eflux Journal, no. 14, March 2010
5 Gustave Flaubert in a letter to Louis Bouilhet dated 4 September 1850, trans. Gareth Long, published in Oeuvres Complètes Illustrés de Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance, Tome I (1829-1854), Èditions de la Librarie de France, 110, Boulevard Saint-Germain, Paris, 1928, p. 256.
From: Gareth Long: Never Odd Or Even
Exhibition catalogue published by the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, 2012.