on abstraction and hauntology

(Takashi Murakmi, Infinity, Mixed Media, 2008).

Just riffing here…

“It’s like OK, and then what? Now you have a picture of a building. Does that say anything more than what the blurry picture of the building says? Maybe. But, I think, a little less, really.” That’s how artist Trevor Paglen responded to an offer of technology that would make his often blurry photographs of classified sites more clear. The blurriness or imprecision of Paglen’s photos then serves a dual purpose; it is both aesthetic and allegorical, its essential indecipherability then, an allegory for the difficulty of uncovering the truth, specifically for Paglen, concerning the sites he photographs but also, I think by extension, in the 21st century as a whole. Paglen got me thinking about this in relation to other, what I’m referring to here, as “haunted” media, a phrase I’m borrowing and adapting from Jacques Derrida who used it to refer (in my very reductive summary) to the specters of the past haunting the present. Although not initially conceived as a reference to aesthetic experience it has since been well-explored in that regard perhaps, I think, most fully in contemporary writing on music. Some examples of my “haunting” would include an artwork such as Takashi Murakami’s Infinity (above), an abstract mixed media image purported, by Murakami, to be loosely based on/related to a scene from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” film (I can’t recall which one but its unimportant,) perhaps a musical piece such as “Plays John Cassavettes 1 & 2” by electronic musician Ekkehard Ehlers, or, I think, although I may correct myself later, work like Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Civil War series, and of course, any other number of additional songs, artworks, films, which bear no resemblance to their ‘subjects,’ the existence of which we often only learn after our encounter with the work or from, text/language appended to an object/sound. I’ve always been baffled by what to make of these textual clues to an artwork’s meaning/inspiration/whatever they might be gesturing towards, clues which can be remarkably exact or bafflingly vague, clues which seem as if they can only mean something to the artist, and aren’t we supposed to minimize or at least not fixate on artist intention in our estimation of a work? I like this word haunted to describe this type of work because it allows for a certain ambiguity which a work’s interpretation deserves while refusing us comfort with it, allowing the ambiguity to remain unsettling, “eerie.”

Paglen’s insistence on the dual nature of his photo’s “poor image” quality (my reference to Hito Steyerl’s positive theorization of the 21st centuries digitally poor images) has two positive connotations, first it refers, albeit too obliquely for my liking, to the parallel difficulty we have in understanding the purpose and role the subjects of his photographs play in politics, government, or otherwise, based on their classified or secret purposes, while also encouraging his viewers to look closely at his images, to engage conceptually with the art objects and, hopefully, be rewarded as a result. Abstraction (which I understand is not exactly a word that can be applied to Paglen) is necessarily grounded in our shared language of imaging, otherwise it would be unrecognizable as such, and we’ve long acknowledged the denaturalization, the emancipatory denaturalization, of vision this artistic strategy allows revealing to us as it does, the consensual hallucination (ie. ideology/worldview) “in which we regard images as truth” (Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity.) 

But this is a conversation about images undertaken with the understanding (at least this seems to me regarding Paglen’s work to be true) that the textual clues are included. It’s that relationship, the relationship between language and abstraction (and if not abstraction than something otherwise not immediately visually decipherable), that I still find challenging. Do the captions, text, language, affixed to an image participate in a role prior to, or following, one’s encounter with art? Do they participate in a retrograde realignment of the image with the “real” reality the images would otherwise seem to reject? Is their application, our reliance on them in our encounter with a work then, counter to purpose? Does language serve to destroy whatever liberatory potential abstraction or “poor images” promise?  What are we to make of them? Photography and Paglen may have been a poor choice to make in this comparison, given Rosalind Krauss’ assertion that the photograph is/was a heterogenous object always composed of both image and text, but I still think there is a parallel between poor images and photography that does not seek to use itself for truly representational purposes and abstraction in other media.

It is of course not necessary to know Murakami’s painting references a scene from a genre movie, I would not have been aware of the fact had I not read a wall text which accompanied the painting in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth’s exhibition of Murakami’s work, but still, I did, and it changed my perspective on the image. Given our our now historical rejection of medium specificity, what are we to do with painting, new media, any other number of mediums of representation which feign abstraction but offer us language? It would be too fantastical to assert the objective existence of the conceptual or emotional traces which inform ostensibly independent works of art, but the fact of their haunting remains.