Interval, GAP and Windows: The Conditional Monuments of David Robinson

Friday, December 1, 2000

By Bruce Van Slyke

Upon encountering the beast, one is already confronting a seemingly endless series of allegorical shifts: the mythical centaur, with uncharacteristic complacency, supports an equestrian, who sits astride his incredible mount with equally incredible slack insouciance. This complex set of relationships is overtaken by another, for it soon becomes apparent that the attitudes of the two figures are not merely equivalent, they are exact replications of one another. And yet one takes precedence over the other. Perhaps it is because the angle of its gaze meets one's own in closer proximity, or maybe it is due to some vestigial lack of faith in representations of mounted leaders, but it is with the figure of the centaur that one first establishes empathy, not its human rider. This equestrian monument deftly turns the genre upon its head, making an oppressive weight of the rider and a heroic underdog of the normally marginalised horse. It is an uncanny thing, familiar but made strange, that tugs one both backward to the Ur-world of a collective unconscious, and forward toward an unpossessable future.

articleCan history continue? The question is overly simple, too large. Yet despite its unwieldiness it stubbornly arises surrounding the diminutive sculptures of David Robinson. Now that he has explicitly pressed the point by combining mythic association with monumental intention, any contemplation of his work must find some purchase on this issue, or skirt the great significance to be found there. Robinson is colonizing provocative territory, troubling the conventions of postmodernity by focusing their critical energies directly back at their source. The odds do not favour him; but no mythical protagonist had it any better. Whether or not he (or, more precisely and less heroically: his career) is consumed in the struggle, there will be a lesson to be learned within it. A principle will be revealed and questions will remain to be articulated and answered.

Both myth and monument are unlikely grist for contemporary sculptural practice, embedded as they are in historical time. To resurrect the forms wholesale and without irony, as Robinson apparently does, is both extreme and extremely unlikely to succeed, and the unreasonableness of the proposition rests in our attitude toward history.

We have come to know history primarily as yet another resource available for exploitation, no longer as the envelope that contains our self-awareness and sheaths a culture that stretches backward and forward through time. History, in fact, exists rather uncomfortably with capitalist democracy: useful, on the one hand, to validate whatever purpose appears politically expedient at a given time, an impediment to rapidly changing understandings of context, on the other. As it is largely through our ability to recontextualise that we generate wealth, it is no wonder that we consistently retreat from these forms that are bound up in notions of culture, history and eternity. History is now far more practical to us as a malleable and reactive material than as a rigid, though permeable, shell.

Rosalind Krauss, in Sculpture in the Expanded Field, provides a model for the appreciation of contemporary art that makes explicit its corrosive relationship with history. She observes that early modernists felt the need to employ strategies of inversion to oppose the historically rooted logic of the monument, which coalesced into a categorical negation by mid-twentieth century. This proved to be a creative cul-de sac and later artists (such as Smithson, Morris, Nauman, Serra, and Heizer), sensing both the strengths and limitations of that simple inversion of logic, expanded the term sculpture formulaically. They did this by problematising the historical boundaries of the term itself: that it be in the landscape but not the landscape; that it be on the architecture but not the architecture. Thus areas that previously had been outside the accepted conventions of sculpture, such as landscape itself, architecture, photography and performance, could arguably be included within it by stretching the term and creating an "expanded field" [1]. Note that both the modernist and postmodernist progressions of this effort are acutely anti-historical. Although Krauss describes the implausibility of historicist accounting of this art [2], she does not attempt to locate the motivation for the anti- or ahistoricism inherent in it. Krauss' expanded field emanates from the barrel of historically bounded sculptural convention like a blast, clearing a swath through cultural convention, and the necessity for this violent action is left, for the moment, to be accounted for.

Krauss' metaphorical "field" is, of course, the conceptual territory opened up by these works of art, now that the actual territory of the world, to which the logic of the monument is attached, has been more or less assimilated under capitalism. This field, notably, does not immediately represent space and opportunity, for it is only on the crowded expanding edge of it that art work can claim a negotiable place. Thus, though it is to the logic of the monument that we usually ascribe hidden qualities of military violence [3], the conceptual map illustrated by the expanded field offers a similarly militaristic picture of contemporary art. It is a map of "the front", not of the territory, and the enemy is historical culture.

The capitalist imperative to abandon historical memory expresses itself most succinctly in the requirement of novelty, and the expanding field of sculpture does nothing if not generate novelty. Novelty serves not only as the emblem of personal freedom, but engenders obsolescence, as well. Both help to stoke desire, through which wealth is created. It is a system that has only momentary need of and can, in fact, be hindered by cultural coherence. It must bracket culture, making it a marketable resource, culture [4], which is fit for consumption but inoperable for any other service. Once a cultural artefact has been removed from its original context, that is, from a living tradition in which its value is founded, it is no longer capable of transmitting culture, the capability upon which its value had once been based [5]. It now has exchange value based on its authenticity in a society in which culture is accumulated, stored up in a global attic (a museum or private collection) like so many heirlooms in a haunted house. As willing collaborators, making mortified objects preconditioned for consumption, or conscripted, dragged kicking and screaming from the breast of a doomed culture, artists and their artworks are assimilated under this spell, for nothing, it seems, once caught in its gaze, can escape its grasp.

Thus, those who administer and support culture under capitalism normally allow work such as David Robinson's to fail in its apparent attempt to link our present condition to both our past and future. But Robinson muddies the waters with postmodernist panache, problematising the somewhat forgotten boundaries of the historical monument to resurrect the form as a contemporary critical tool. How those boundaries are challenged will remain a moot point to those who do not recognise the significance of this act, for to them this art will appear antiquated or irrelevant. But in resurrecting the form outside of its (extinct) cultural milieu, Robinson has capitalised on its new availability to speak historically and in opposition to globally culture-consuming capital while maintaining a foothold in Krauss' field.

Resurrecting the convention in the starkest light, Robinson's Interval makes use of the artisan's ability to create unique objects to address perhaps the defining aspect of the post-industrial work-a-day world: reproducibility. Reproducibility of text, sound, image, object and now life has multiplied and thus diluted the cultural contexts surrounding any given concept while simultaneously tearing the original contextual fabric in which our history, no matter how flawed or subjective, was kept alive in our minds. In an era in which every thing must be assumed to be industrially reproducible, the value of any tradition is relegated to that of an advantageous backdrop of authenticity. This value, authenticity, must remain (while the tradition itself can be undermined and eradicated) if the artefact is to carry any exchange value. But upon what does authenticity depend? If the very concept of culture collapses and we stand entirely outside of history, can authenticity be measured? This theoretical day of judgement looms, and we might do well to consider our options, if any.[6]

In order to read the allegory represented by Interval, the viewer must adopt a stance within history, a position that would have seemed perfectly natural some few hundred years ago or in an imagined non-industrial culture, but one that is increasingly untenable for us today. And this, for some, will be the insurmountable obstacle to its appreciation, for history, as we all know, is written by victors and monuments are one-sided memorials. We all have histories. Upon which history is Robinson counting?

Rather than respond to this justifiable probing just yet, let us take up Robinson's apparent query: what depends upon the erasure of history? Just as reproducibility cannot properly be understood without taking into account its impact on surrounding context, history is more precisely and usefully described with the modifier cultural or political preceding it. Time is not history, and its invocation is not subject to the same prohibitions. Capitalism's trump card has always been the inseparability of culture from political tyranny. It has effectively outflanked political culture in the mind of the "citizen", who has traded his or her rights and responsibilities for those of the "consumer", just as recontextualisation as a mode of expression has outflanked historical modes, such as the one employed by Robinson. This is not to say that political history is not made or is irrelevant under capitalism, or that tyranny does not exist there, just that political activity is enacted under capitalism and not the reverse. Thus we are safely within the regulated field of professional artistic activity only when we take a critical stance toward history, whatever history, a stance by definition outside of history itself. In this sense, the germane question is no longer "Whose history is it?" but "Can history continue?".

Robinson troubles the contemporary convention of anti-historicism by engaging in a historically grounded traditional form, representational modelling, and allegorically expressing our alienation from any culturally defined past and future. He risks being considered reactionary or, far worse in terms of a professional career, not being considered at all. But to label Robinson's own particular brand of reactionary politics, thus proving their existence, the critical viewer must descend to the level of his allegory to gather the evidence. Once there, unaccustomed as one may be to the conventions he utilises, one finds no trace of palace guard nostalgia. The skeletal miniatures of Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones and Unsolicited Proposal for a Public Monument readily admit the disaster that befell them. The sightless/seeing eyes of the centaur/rider superimpose their lack of vision upon all equestrian monuments that precede them. The objective of this work is not the glorification of a single past, but an ennobling of the human ability to maintain a past that is at once both cautionary and inspiring.

Our ability to maintain history is the condition upon which the works' monumentality is based. It is a quality that is assumed within the logic of the monument, but here its questioned existence becomes part of the content as well. Robinson's output to date has rarely faltered in its attempt to portray the contingency of subjectivity that is equally the task of many if not most contemporary artists. It is his insistence on historical continuity, on bracketing rupture, that puts him at odds with much current practice. His works show influence, as if engaged in living discussion with the past. He does not make quotations. His work accommodates rupture within an expanding narrative rather than commencing a new narrative to express each new re-evaluation.[7] His stance is as radical as it is conservative.

Our global power to quote and re-contextualise also reaffirms the conditionality of Robinson's monuments by dooming them to remain essentially siteless. The physical world has been turned into a haunted place for these figures and for us, too, inasmuch as we seek to ground ourselves in some historical continuity. The cutting edge of "digital culture", the tool that most efficaciously allows us to quote from one context to another, has metaphorically severed our limbs. Though we are quite able to both digitally and physically travel the world, less and less are we able to experience each place as a discreet and meaningful site. Instead, we hover like ghosts. Here the earlier (1990) version of the Equestrian comes to mind. Tied to his ponderous mount for eternity, he wanders the "capitalised" territory of the globe, a paradoxically landlocked and static Flying Dutchman.

As in a myth, Robinson's sculptures appear to face long odds and a precarious fate. Inherently public sculpture in a privatised age, physical markers in an uncanny landscape, these misbegotten creatures of myth and history will succeed only through their ability to endure. In this they depend upon us, and the faith with which they are made is not altogether unfounded. The drive to apprehend the new by relating it to the known, that is, to "historicise", is fundamental to our understanding of the world, the obverse of our drive to expand our knowledge. Indeed, one concept, knowledge or the unknown, cannot exist without the other. Robinson's conditional monuments exist across both, drawing our attention to our own practical relationships with each. As spectral and nomadic allegories we will never fully know these works, nor would we if they found legitimate sites upon which to claim the status of monuments proper. Their content attaches itself to this moment that stands both within and without history, the interval between ourselves and our cultural past.

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Notes:

[1] Rosalind Krauss, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field" in The Anti-Aesthetic: essays on postmodernism and culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townsend Bay Press, 1983) pp. 36-39.

[2] Ibid., pp. 32-33

[3] Mark Lewis articulates this latent violence in his essay "What is to be done" in Parachute, no. 61, 1991. There he also presents a number of tactics for reclaiming the conceptual ground of the historical monument.

[4] Whether we are witness to the demise of culture as a concept or the superimposition of a new cultural order upon an older one, the term culture is highly contestable. Wishing, for the moment, to maintain that uncertain position, I will use bold italics to denote contemporary "culture", and regular face to denote historical culture

[5] This Benjaminian notion is the basis for a thoughtful discussion of the fate of culture by Giorgio Agamben called "The Melancholy Angel" in his book The Man Without Content (Stanford University Press, 1999), upon which I have relied heavily in this analysis.

[6] Ibid. pp. 107-108.

[7] In this he might make an unlikely "bedfellow" of Tracy Emin, whose confessional installations may be a means to repossess a history that itself has been violently ruptured. The aesthetic "gap" she maintains between her art and the viewer could be viewed as a figuration of the gap between herself and a history she is unable to fully claim.