The Fish-sticks Dialectics
The clock in the living room strikes 9, and the windows are open to let in the cool evening air. The table has been cleared, the washing up is done and the news has finished. A child runs to dig out a videotape from the plastic bag just inside the doorway. Everyone settles down on the sofa, gathered around the television. Tonight is film night at the Gruber’s, as it has been every Wednesday evening since they purchased their VCR.
Imagine, if you will, the sculptor as a child devouring not images, but situations.
Paris, 20 years on, and it is the same time of the evening. Assaf Gruber, sculptor, is sat in front of his laptop, laughing as he watches Tom Cruise cut up fish-sticks for Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man, 1988).
Study in Sculpture! The title suggests forms, bodies emerging from freshly hewn stone, or objects arranged in a still fluid composition. Instead what are we presented with? Videos. Clips, lifted for the most part from 80s blockbusters. Surprise, a smile, and finally, joy: joy at being able to see through the eyes of the sculptor.
What is at work in these Studies in Sculpture is not the realization of an unfinished sculpture – at least not yet. These extracts from mainstream 80s films have nonetheless been selected for their qualities as sculptural exercises: the famous three-breasted escort girl in Total Recall (Study in Sculpture #22), for example. They are equally chosen as metaphors for the work of the sculptor: Bruce Willis expounding the finer points of that classic set up - hiding naked in the wardrobe (Study in Sculpture #30). Willis’ line is “sometimes you forget I’m a detective.” Gruber hears “sometimes you forget I’m an artist.” A detective. An artist. In other words, a way of seeing.
These Studies in Sculpture prompt a kind of acculturation. Faced with these video samples, the first instinct of the viewer is to attempt to reconstitute the narrative as quickly as possible, as if the film were about to continue. But these clips are by definition without context, without a build-up or resolution – except perhaps for those who can (honestly) say that they know, off by heart, every line in Blind Date, Teen Wolf or Lethal Weapon... The ‘clip,’ then, exposes the way in which our habits as consumers of fiction are entirely geared towards the development of a narrative thread, and, simultaneously, the perspective of Gruber, the non-sculpting sculptor.
A two-fold thought process is therefore required to comprehend these objects: we must place them within the context of the culture industry and the habits it engenders and, at the same time, bring to them another subjectivity, that of the sculptor; this despite their non-sculptural form and lack of apparent creator. In each case, it is a specific kind of relationship to the cultural object that is at work: that of détournement.
Put in these terms, we could easily be fooled into thinking that Sculpture Studies are a hermeneutic highway and lend themselves readily to analysis. The critic starts up his computer, strikes the prerequisite pose (think Michael J Fox in the lift, Study in Sculpture #28), and just like detective Bruce Willis, with the sacrosanct schools of Francfort, Adorno and Horkheimer in mind, deciphers these fragments of mass cinema. Next up comes the good old Hegelian dialectic of subject and object. Finally we retreat to that paragon of ordinary recuperation: Guy Debord and the Situationist détournement. Here criticism renders itself ridiculous: next to works which play with all the clichés of mainstream culture, can we equally reel off all the clichés of interpretation? No. So the Sculpture Studies are also hermeneutic pitfalls.
What is the material? A barely legitimate product for the cultural mainstream: anodyne extracts, gags, scenes of Hollywood banality.
What is the action? Gruber isolates a narrative element, gives it autonomy (whatever the diegetic moment represented) and repurposes it as a sculptural object (all dramatic action in the scene is now directed towards sculptural creation.)
What is the effect? The sudden appearance of the artistic subject in that great leveller of subjectivity: mainstream cinema. In severing its thread, Gruber exposes the coercive nature of the blockbuster narrative, and breaks the spell which binds the viewer. For these films, as if there were any doubt, are not scholastic summas or gothic cathedrals; the part in no way contains the whole to which it belongs – see Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (Panofsky, 1951). For the viewer, the isolated fragment still belongs to a timeline and arouses the instinct to reconstruct the narrative. The effect of the clip, the looped playback and the series, however, is to transform these inane cinematic artefacts into dialectical détournements. Let’s look closer at how this is achieved.
It would be nice to settle for an explanation as simple as the following: here is a plinth, here is an everyday object (a video clip) and so here is a readymade. First of all, if there is a plinth it serves quite simply to place the video at the eye-level of a standing visitor. Here we are not dealing with the ever-ready miracle that is the readymade, which serves the critic just as transubstantiation once did nitpicking theologians. The concept is tired and no longer challenging. In fact, precisely what was lost over the course of the 80s, in the legacy of the readymade and of Pop Art, not to mention in post-modernism in general, was any dialectical relationship between high and low culture; who today would think to write Avant-Garde and Kitsch (Clement Greenberg, 1939)? Artworks and theories pitched themselves on the interplay and exchange between these different registers which ostensibly sought, in the name of a pseudo-democratic ideal, to blur the line between the two. But, being linked as they were to a mercenary system, these practices served only to accentuate the division, isolation and celebration of the “artist” as opposed to the “spectator.” This text has no intention to do so further.
In labelling his works Studies in Sculpture, Gruber rises above the question of the readymade; though they are exhibited as ‘artworks’, they nonetheless refuse by their title - Studies - the full status this term would otherwise accord. So these are not proper sculptures, but rather precursors to sculpture; better still, we could see them as something that Assaf Gruber, sculptor, does when he is not sculpting. But we need only to look to the title to see that we are indeed dealing with sculptures! We could follow this paradox ad infinitum. Let us therefore consider instead the choice of the word ‘study.’ It implies not so much the creation of objects – in this case, sculptures – but more a certain way of looking at objects created by others. What’s more, these cultural fragments do not all originate (as this text might have mistakenly given the impression) from the popular culture of 1980s America. Herzog, Losey, Jean Pierre Melville and Marco Ferreri are also to be found. Their presence in the series of studies creates an incongruity which dispels any false notion of unity arising from the apparent uniformity of the initial material. So while we might at first be surprised to see an extract from There Will Be Blood (2008) followed by one from La Grande Bouffe (1973), if we take the final words from each – “I am finished”/”It is not finished” – we realize that each time it is the close of the work that is being examined: in Study in Sculpture #18, this is a corpse and shattered bowling balls; in Study in Sculpture #19, a morbid recipe. In his inclusion of these discordant elements, Gruber once again introduces hermeneutic pitfalls; what he presents is not a unified cultural corpus but instead a mosaic of different practices.
Though they are uses rather than works, the Studies do not pick up on the potentially subversive modes of consumption described by de Certeau, or even postproduction in the sense that Nicolas Bourriaud uses the term. What is at issue in Gruber’s work is not the “utopia of use” that Tom McDonough cheerfully dismisses in The Beautiful Language of my Century" (MIT Press, 2007) : a utopia which "resists the logic of reification only by recourse to an entirely private, atomized understanding of consumption – a kind of petit bourgeois fantasy of consumption as realm of personal autonomy." Gruber is not concerned with reification; if he is, it is on a level beyond wishful thinking or of pseudo-subversion.
The Studies in Sculpture are deeply subjective interpretations of cultural fragments. As such they allude to the very personal relationship with time of these interpretations-made-artworks. On the one hand they constitute a forward-looking project: their numbered succession and their definition as studies made with sculpture in mind suggest an ongoing process. But they equally possess a romantic quality, a nostalgic look back at cultural habits inherited from childhood: the traditional familial viewing of a VHS. Finally, they also give a nod to contemporary cultural practices, particularly with regard to video clips: in some places rendered perfectly banal (Youtube), they are also at the centre of a continuing debate that has been reduced to legal and economic questions (ACTA) whereas, in reality, they touch on the quasi-anthropological (our relationship with culture).
It would be easy to see in Studies of Sculpture an act of micro-piracy, and to shudder at the risks Gruber runs in reusing copyrighted material; this would be a little farfetched. In doing so we would be yielding too easily to the contemporary obsession with hacking; the word itself has become so tired, media-friendly and anodyne that few would question its innocuousness. Nor does Gruber, then, belong to the supposed class of hackers whose conscience McKenzie Wark attempted to stir (A Hacker Manifesto, 2004).
Gruber continues to self-identify as a sculptor, even when his practice would seem to suggest otherwise: "Studies in Sculpture by Assaf Gruber, sculptor."
When approaching his work, first and foremost we need to retain a sense of humour; unfortunately critical discourse has a hard time taking humour into account without somewhat killing the joke. It is often in fits of laughter that Gruber ‘devises’ his Studies, and it is hard not to crack a smile as we try and imagine just how he managed to discover the sculptural in these films: a frustrated Tom Cruise’s simple operation to transform three fish-sticks into six, for example. We also need the ability to imagine ourselves in the place of the artist. Neither artworks, nor subversive uses, these Studies in Sculpture are ultimately a visit to the artist’s studio; or, perhaps more accurately, a portrait of the artist in his studio. Through this process of selection from the mass of filmed material, we can perceive a subjectivity that is often strange, and sometimes obscure. We discover traces of the author in his eventual selection, and are surprised and amused as we think of the reasons he could give for his choices: the omnipresence of memory, current cultural practices, ideas of future works. Here we reach something impassable, and, since the word is in vogue, the most enduring form of resistance. It is also the most effective form – the artist shows himself at once “at work” (gathering material for his work) and idle (lounging like the viewer in de Certeau’s book who reads the landscape of his childhood in the evening news" (The Practice of the Everyday, Berkeley, University of California, 1984, p.xxi). The effect is that he seems simultaneously within reach and entirely singular.
The Studies in Sculpture are a method, a way of doing, which we might like to think of as accessible, but which in fact remain demanding since they require us to remove ourselves, by way of a radical singularity, from the alienation of the cinematic spectacle.
We must imagine the idling sculptor who laughs, remembers, and rejoices as he dreams of sculpture. Like a child.
English translation from the French: James Horton, Paris.
Emmanuel Guy currently teaches art history and literature at Paris Nord Villetaneuse university as well as co-organises with Sophie Cras the seminar “1955-1975: sources and methods / if you remember anything from the sixties you weren’t really there”, at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris. Since 2008 he has been an associate reasearcher at the Guy Debord Archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, where he will be co-curating, with Laurence Le Bras, a Guy Debord exhibition and conference in Spring 2013.