Vik Muniz: The Wrong Logician; Or, Cats and Dogs Fighting Like Clouds
Equivalence as Critical Aporia in the Work of Vik Muniz
Socrates: What are they then?
Strepsiades: I don’t rightly know; spread fleeces, perhaps
Socrates: I’ll put you a question.
Strepsiades: Quick, let’s have it.
Socrates: Have you never noticed a cloud resembling a centaur, a leopard, a wolf, a bull?
Strepsiades: Of course, so what?
Socrates: They turn into what they like.
Aristophanes, Clouds, 423 B.C.
It is one thing to take photographs of clouds. Gustave Le Gray, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston were among the many to do so. And, still more recently, of course, there is Gerhard Richter, who painted them, perhaps with a greater degree of ‘conceptual’ self-consciousness than the countless, consummate ‘painters’ of clouds who came before him. Here, of course, I am thinking of Tiepolo, Constable and Turner, just to name a few.
But clouds were never, really, in and of themselves, an unusual or innovative subject. If anything, they have always suggested themselves rather readily as persistent, if not eternal, objects of contemplation. Aristophanes’ play, Clouds, written in 423 B.C., gives a prominent example of such persistence. The daily weather report provides another, somewhat less distinguished or more commonplace, example. Whether from a mythological or ecological point of view, clouds have always been present, offering themselves as slow-moving still lifes to be contemplated at leisure, both by the amateur (philosopher) and the professional (meterologist).
For Stieglitz, in his series, Equivalents, executed in the late 1920’s, ‘clouds,’ as a discursive object, became, however, a radical or explicit way to release form from subject matter. And, perhaps, for Richter, later, this ‘object’ became a way to push these formal considerations toward a more conceptual or ideological approach to content. Although from comments, such as the following, made by Stieglitz, it did not seem that he himself was unaware of this potential: “I wanted to photograph clouds to find out what I had learned in forty years of photography. Through clouds to put down my philosophy of life — to show that my photographs were not due to subject matter — nor to special privileges, clouds were there for everyone — no tax on them yet — free.”1
Vik Muniz has entitled his most recent body of work, Equivalents (1993). It consists of a series of black and white selenium-toned photographs, accompanied by wax-on-plaster, as well as pink and white alabaster, sculptures. The so-called subject of the photographs and sculptures is ‘clouds.’ But if it is, indeed, one thing to “want to photograph clouds,” then it is surely another (entirely different) matter to set-up or ‘stage’ a photograph of cotton, as this artist has, in order to have its ‘subject’ look like or resemble a cloud.
Rather than actually photographing clouds, in a straight-forward or documentary manner, Muniz has photographed clumps of cotton that were shaped by him to suggest the forms of telephones, poodles, birds and cats, among many other recognizable or familiar ‘objects,’ that verge upon looking like clouds. In other words, he has not merely taken photographs of clouds to exploit the way they may look like something else or suggest or be interpreted as something else — such as cats or dogs. Which may be considered to be a void hermeneutic exercise or vacuous act of mimesis, at best. Nor, even, is form, here, equivalent to subject matter; nor does it function as a liberated or open-ended signifier or assume the value of equivalence in relation to a content, ideology, or concept managed according to any abstract principle whatsoever. Whereas the former two postures lend themselves to formal and structural or ‘linguistic’ lassitude, the latter two ploys proffer themselves too quickly as extensions of intentional idealism. It is not merely that the order and mechanisms of expectation and difference specific to form and function have been reversed or even denied here. Muniz is pointing to ‘equivalence’ as the collapse of difference, and the categorical collapse of all perception, interpretation, meaning, and all things rational, as ‘institutions.’ A ‘collapse,’ presumably, not only in the various mimetic and discursive systems of identity, resemblance, recognition, and representation, but in the epistemic ‘system’ of Western Civilization as a whole, as a metaphysical entity. The ‘mirror’ of culture may no longer be considered simply “broken,” it has become blind, and its logical forms must be pronounced dysfunctional.2
To assert the possibility that clouds could look like other things is simply to assume (a certain degree of) perceptual, hermeneutic or interpretative, and semantic freedom; but it is patently absurd that other things, like cats and dogs, should begin to look like clouds (or, for that matter, still other things). ‘Equivalence” at this level is tantamount to interpretative chaos. It implies ontological, or rather, onto-genetical chaos of such a metaphysical magnitude, of such unimaginable proportions, that it renders useless all our systems and rules of perception and meaning, all our meta-systems of subjectivity and objectivity. It renders all our organizing principles of form, and the principle of consensus along with it, dysfunctional and futile. It renders the ‘Other’ and otherness, trans-subliminal and monstrous. To claim that other things (can) look like other things, in this particular way, to set up such (extreme) possibilities (of resemblance, indeed, of equivalence), does not merely guarantee the basis of metaphor (in any Aristotelian sense) or substantiate the freedom of absurdity (in a Beckett-like universe), rather it emphatically proves the collapse of the rational (order) itself — and proves it to be a new anti-model of reality, or, still more tautologically, a new anti-model for an anti-reality.
In effect, it is at this extreme juncture of interpretation that, at the very least, a critical aporia in meaning is generated in Muniz’s work. That clouds can look like other things is self-evident and merely asserts or re-establishes the boundaries of interpretative freedom; but to assert that other things (like cats and dogs) can look like clouds, is absurd. Clouds may fight like cats and dogs, but cats and dogs do not fight like clouds. Even where (it is commonly held) dogs may certainly come to look like their owners (and vice versa), such transformations do not lead to the interpretative chaos that the latter assertion does. Equivalence itself is threatened or short-circuited by such extremes.
In short, the articulation of meaning is compromised by these extremes or critical aporias; the conceptual or rational order of things, in general, is threatened by these chaotic equivalences; and the ultimate outcome is an absurdity — or an absurd world re-articulated and re-conceptualized through laughter and humor, which, in a sense, humanely releases us from such logical binds or aporias. It is as if interpretation and meaning, and rationality itself, are pushed to an extreme and burst. The absurd, here, and its tributaries, laughter and humor, serve to de-rationalize or de-conceptualize the cultural, if not natural, order of things.
Specifically, it could be said that a species of this (cultural) process of deconceptualization3 in Muniz — even prior to the Equivalents, the present body (or ‘cloud’ series) of works — functioned to humanize, or rather, re-humanize, the work of art in the late 1980’s. One may go so far as to say that it was the presence of the absurd in relation to the conceptual that changed the face of conceptual art in the 1980’s. Rather than strictly apply a general theory of equivalence to his work retroactively, let us just say, and show, that Muniz’s work from the start was infested with strange equivalences, and that he was, among his contemporaries,4 almost solely responsible for imbuing the work of conceptual art with a sense of the absurd, a sense of humor. Nervous laughter — or what might be better described as ‘serious laughter’5 — was and remains a customary response to his work.
Instead of defending himself against the absurd, Muniz used it, allowed it to flow through his art shamelessly, and ultimately, incorporated it and its strange critical aporias to challenge the epistemological boundaries of the conceptual (and the rational, in general).
“Clearly, there can be detected in all of this a tendency to question, to step outside or away from, the role of Concept or the conceptual per se or the so-called ‘higher’ regions of art production. After nearly a decade (not quite), it should surprise no one to find so many different attempts being made at this time [by artists such as Vik Muniz] to escape this new set of rules, or what have now become highly mannered, intellectual requirements for making art. Even as the Neo-Conceptual vector was, and continues to be, in reality, so much wider or disparate than these rules and requirements, having, at least, during its initial stages, represented a release from both the self-indulgence of Neo-Expressionism and the self-castigation of picture theory art, nevertheless it has spawned a kind of self-consciousness that would propel it (the Neo-Conceptual discourse) away from itself.
“Where it has not resisted these mannered forms, it has produced the phenomenon of politically correct art. Where it has been successful in combating or using those mannered forms in a hyper-self-conscious way, it has managed to subvert or deflect the aridity and staidness of the conceptual mode, primarily through the use of humor, wit, irony, self-mockery, and an overpowering sense of absurdity and flagrant ‘incorrectness.’ If conceptual art — both in its early to mid-1980’s manifestation as commodity art, and in its late 1980’s manifestation as the new poverty (the scatter or refuse aesthetic and the return-to-Nature syndrome, whether in its artificial or authentic guise, encompassing its latest twists) — has become formally self-enclosed and self-reflexive, then the implementation of low forms (such as kitsch, folk and outsider-art modalities, hybridization, and forms of ultra- or hyper-expressionism, among many other options) would attempt, at least momentarily, to interrupt the ‘old’ low of the avant-garde, as well as this ‘New’ Order of the conceptual, whatever its manifestation.”6
It could be argued that as early as 1988 to 1989, there was an effort made by Muniz, and others, to test the epistemological limits of the rational without relying for effect on the irrational as an aporeme, and, in the process, defying both the logical (causation-bound) limits and ideological ’cause’ of the object. In a work entitled Quantum Ethics (1989), the artist stuck wads of gum cast in bronze beneath the top and around the legs of a transparent plexiglass table — reminiscent of a child or schoolboy’s well-known stratagem, but rendered in composite classical and ultra space-age materials and terms. The aporia, in this case, is located within the epistemological boundaries of the ethical; an equivalence is established between what is expedient and what is compelling (or ethical per se), or formally between what is transparent and what is hidden or concealed, or logically between what is super-rational and what is subconscious or irrational — ultimately, between facticity and absurdity, void and Value.
“When the enormity, the pallid reciprocity, of the end of facts and the end of consciousness in our Age, equates simply to lack of consideration rather than to a lack of hermeneutic integrity, then one is compelled to recognize the absurdity of this public and private void, and is forced to admit the futility of critique at any level. While there is no news in the observation that consideration is hardly an instrument of revolution, there is even less than no news in the item that critique is also hardly an instrument of upheaval in such matters.
“A void bracketing a void would seem to objectify psychologically or non-methodologically what can only be described culturally as a void within a void Ñ a hole within a hole, as it were. Which is something like the facts deprived of consciousness or consciousness deprived of facts. Which is to say the symbolic or higher order of facts, here, is respectively underdetermined by reification in the pragmatist model and overdetermined by reduction in the Cartesian model. But this state does not commit one to mere apathy, nor even to its legacy, that is, apathy that has gone, by meta-definition, unattended or unnoticed; nor does it commit one to a condition that cannot be experienced as such, that is, as unevolved. It merely objectifies how this void, or rather this meta-void, constitutes itself as an absurdity, and how the absurd, or rather, the neo-absurd, constitutes itself as the capacity to process this experience or non-experience.
“Insofar as this void-as-process can to a certain extent be experienced as the absurd; and insofar as such objectivities can be experienced, or rather, meta-experienced, or processed in actuality at all, politically or socially, perhaps the process of facts can be objectified and experienced as the compulsion toward an absurd ethics. Void-as-value would, in effect, usurp arbitrarily the unconsidered void transacted presently as the status quo of perception and substance, appearance and structure, image and meaning, facts and interpretation. The end of facts and the end of consciousness, here, merely serve to order the transcendental closure of Value. This approach would establish not just an arbitrary set of groundless values, or even concretize the value of groundlessness itself; it would frame the groundlessness of Value as a condition of closure rather than as a method of critique. The Neo-Absurd constitutes itself as the threshold of terminal facticity. The actuality of closure and void-as-Value function merely to release us from the hypocrisy of critique and the denial of Value, as such.”7
In this regard, an aporia is (ironically) like a ‘cloud,’ in so far as it establishes an equivalence between what is clear or hazy and what is not, or, somewhat more tautologically, what is a clear day (with a good view or buena vista) and what is an unclear or cloudy day. That is, from a deeper Wittgensteinian point of view, there is nothing in the reference to a clear day that necessarily also references it to a cloudless one Ñ since even a clear day can include the passage of cumulus clouds. Playing upon a later Wittgensteinian point of view, it could be said that what is true and what is false partake of each other: That is, truth and falsehood obtain to equivalence, in that there are no lies that are transacted colloquially which do not contain some part of the truth; and, conversely, there is no colloquial truth that does not constitute itself in some part as a lie or through lies. Which is to say, that both the truth and the lie, here, ultimately constitute themselves most effectively as meta-discourses, which always subsume the Other (borrowing, by analogy, still another term from Carnap) as an object-discourse:
“In a sense, what these works, and their attendant meta-discourses, manage to do is to push discourse itself to its limit through exaggeration or through extreme order and deprivation. Basically, they do so either by underdetermining or overdetermining the limits of the discourse. For example, the manner in which Rauschenberg contradicted the basic tenets of Abstract Expressionism was expansive, extravagant, all-inclusive, whereas Johns’s manner was extenuated, extremely studied or calculated, restrictive, and ultimately, hyper-exclusive in nature [É].
“Now, of course, to a certain extent, irony itself constitutes a discourse. Attitude (and intention), as well as situation, constitutes itself as a discourse. Originality, experimentation, breaking the rules, can just as easily become an academy as following the rules, seeking an ‘objective’ point of view, and exhibiting good taste in all things. Irony, like any discourse, can and does assume a specific character. Generally speaking, however, irony, and perhaps, the critical impulse itself, come out of a sense of suppressed, thwarted, or manipulated desire. As such, irony, at least today, equates, at its lowest threshold, to simply poking fun at culture, and, at its highest threshold, to criticizing the culture’s use of the media to trick its audience. But often the critique of representation is nearly as replete with the closure of manipulation as the thing or image it purports to critique. Which forces one to ask what might the conditions of zero-degree irony be like? Or, more broadly, what might constitute the terms of zero-degree discourse?
“When it is pushed to its extreme, and yet is devoid of moralism and self-righteousness, and is, above all else, devoid of resentment, irony reaches its zero degree. Such conditions situate irony on the threshold of the absurd. More precisely, it is the tension between such an extreme and such a void that lends to irony a sense of the absurd. And it is this sense of the absurd that allows irony to function occasionally in a non-discursive and disruptive manner.”8
In effect, it is precisely these disruptions that predicate the ‘reality’ of the anti-reality model. The facile but graceful disruptions of the ‘lie’ or illusion, or extreme forms of truth that try the limits of the rational Ñ no less than exaggerated utterances deprived of meaning or excessive meaning deprived of utterance (or the linguistic faculty of utterance) Ñ constitute the disruptive predicates of such an absurd or anti-real world. They forward the ironical ‘truths’ of the world Ñ comprising, e.g., the experience of non-experience or the reassertion of Value through the actualities of closure.
It was this type of ‘experience’ and these actualities that confronted the ‘object’ of conceptual art in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Muniz was among the few to accept the strange ‘reality’ of these terms and their implications:
“After nearly a decade of Neo-Conceptualism, it should surprise no one that a species of conceptualism is afoot that would question itself, that would self-consciously step outside itself, through wit, humor, irony, derision and even self-mockery, to examine its own position, function and Value. At the same time, it shows every sign of evolving its own ‘positive’ forms and moving beyond these necessary negations towards new thresholds of art. In fact, what we are beginning to see are examples of highly rarefied, highly acute or caustic examples of conceptual art, made in an effort to abandon attenuated, reified forms of conceptualism. The tension inscribed in this tautology or vicious circle is relieved by the laughter it would generate in behalf of such efforts. In poking fun at these highly mannered forms of conceptual art, and at the conceptual mode altogether, it would distance itself from the distance that protects itself from any existential immediacy it might incur. On the most sophisticated level, such work, as in Muniz’s case specifically, brackets itself through the use of irony and humor Ñ even ridiculing itself Ñ but not without bracketing its own use of irony as a highly stylized, even trans-reified, modality. Ultimately, the causal values of Neo-Conceptualism yield to the absurd, existential effects of a Post-Neo-Conceptual practice.”9
Or, one might say, a post-Postmodern practice. Even as the ’causes’ and the ’cause’ itself of so-called Neo-Conceptualism rapidly deteriorated before our very eyes, in no case, except Muniz’s, would these existential effects be acknowledged or an account of the disfigurement of the rational be given.
In a relatively early but symptomatic work from 1988, entitled Dualizer, Muniz installs an electric fan in a chamber Ñ vaguely reminiscent of Jeff Koons’s basketball tanks Ñ to push air futilely through one end and out the other. In this work, like so many others from this period, the futility of a binary structure (and binary thinking) is being objectified and ridiculed. And, unlike the basketballs in the Koons tank, which attempt to capture and prolong or suspend the moment of ultimate achievement or ecstasy, Muniz’s chamber activates the horror of the (existential) void. And rather than idealizing the perfection of the New (and the stasis of inutility), Muniz’s objects ‘realize’ their own breakdown, the breakdown of system, in general, and that of meaning based upon utility and function. The Dualizer objectifies the futility of the equivalence of intake and out-take. Ultimately, it existentializes the mechanical aporia of inhaling and exhaling, of breathing in and out; that is, it not only announces the death of a (the) System, it literally enacts its mortality.
Another early work that perfectly embodies this absurd process is Rocking Pedestal, from 1988. Muniz mounts a pedestal on rockers, that allow it to be rocked back and forth, at will. Rocking Pedestal literally mounts a case for dynamic stasis or the absolute equivalence of stability and instability or motion. It collapses into itself the physical extremities of the object, and gracefully, subtlety, humorously, lulls the properties of becoming into aporetic being, into the aporia of a self-neutralizing agent. The futility of the existential syndrome implied by this object is matched only by the self-reflexive nightmare of the Modernist legacy:
but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming, 1920
One might answer, the “rough beast” of equivalence, of aporia Ñ and, jumping ahead, more specifically, the rough beasts of the ‘Individuals’ Ñ the title of a series of works by Muniz, done in 1993, which were comprised of photographs of various amorphous ‘sculptures’ that he had made of plasticene to bear a striking resemblance to pseudo-‘outsider’ art, or better, to objects that might be made by patients in therapy, and which he then proceeded to destroy after photographing them. And, still later, the rough beasts of ‘clouds.’ Of other things, of the Other, of other things that look like (still) other things; of other things Ñ angels, hammers, swans, Mickey Mouse, a man in a rowboat, Rodin’s Thinker, a lizard, a teapot, a snail, a clown Ñ that (to an extreme) look like clouds.
There was, even in Muniz’s early work, a propensity to combine photography and sculpture. That is to say, collapse each into the other’s reality Ñ in order to subvert ultimately their respective reality-claims Ñ, whether the manifestly objective ones of photography or the objectual ones of sculpture. One could even go so far as to say that his work asserted the equivalence of the two, and that it played upon the aporias generated by this equivalence.
In works such as Somewhere Surrender, Arrangement, I Am What I Read, and Deaf for Sirens, all executed in 1989, the illusion of reality, enacted through a photographic representational image, is humorously or ridiculously bracketed, or literally framed formally, by the so-called three-dimensional, ‘sculptural’ reality of the object, either to mimic the actual subject Ñ but ultimately, and, in all cases, in order to manifest the reality of the illusion. What this conflation or equivalence of competing realities and illusions produces is a hybrid ‘thing’ that exists between meanings. Muniz says: “Meaning is like a disease: It keeps getting worse and worse.”10 And this monstrous, diseased ‘thing’ Ñ this physical aporia Ñ that is produced is beyond any final meaning, even where it may seem to encompass the finality of meaning.
For example, in I Am What I Read, the Cartesian epistemological ‘reduction’ is reworked in cultural terms as an accumulation of estranged signs: A photographic image of a sophisticated but ‘trendy’ set of book shelves Ñ replete with works by such figures as Einstein, Heidegger, Greenberg, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Artaud, Barthes, Sartre, Baudrillard, Blanchot, Wittgenstein, Deleuze and Guattari, Joyce, the Marquis de Sade and the Flash Art Diary (?!), among many others Ñ is framed three-dimensionally to look like an entertainment unit, that leans casually against the wall on two 1950’s styled metal-tipped legs. Cognition as a mathematical and noumenal process and substance, the notorious phenomenological reduction, the ill-fated duality of subject and object, the epistemological agon itself, are made to share in this lowly object the same extensional (and intentional) values of the entertainment world Ñ the same entertainment values of a stereo or T.V. set. And, by the same token, the transmission of information, if not knowledge per se, is infused with the psychic value of a slightly deranged but nonetheless culturally inflected episteme. Isolated no more, the cogito (or thinking ego) enters the fray of an unthinking illusion, the void of an unthinking culture, while the ‘real’ is invested with the super-reality of a disfigured soul.
The void frames the real (as the void within the void), and the real frames the thing (as meta-distance or a media-derived or -driven distance). In effect, the real is transmuted into ‘the thing,’ and the thing is transacted into or as the ‘real.’ The “rough beast” of ontology, the ontology of meaning itself, are altered irreversibly. It is as if ‘the thing’11 had emerged from the facticity of the unknown, or the groundlessness of the human condition, and has now finally donned the irreversible jacket of an epistemological meta-reality. To wit, in a later work, entitled Gloves (1992), Muniz has a pair of mittens knitted, to each of which hand he adds a sixth finger. We hardly notice it. There can be no doubt that we (or, at least, the artist) accept the reality, or rather, the meta-reality, of this digital mutation as if it were utterly normal.
It is not so much that the maxim ‘know thy self’ reduces to ‘experience the inner self,’ but rather that the reduction has been further reduced or inducted Ñ in this work (I Am What I Read), and in Muniz’s work, in general Ñ into the anti-reality of void-as-Value. The result, if there is one, the synthesis, the synthetic extension, is the hybrid surfeit of a super-critical aporia, the “rough beast” or distension of dire last laughter, the absurd ethics of a terminal non-Other.
It is undeniable that what is ‘abstract,’ at least in tone, in the above description of the early phase of Muniz’s hybrid photo-sculptures may apply even more directly to his rubber tube photographs or to what have become known as his ‘cord pictures.’ In these works, black rubber tubing depends Ñ indeed, blossoms-out monstrously, seemingly every which way, but always ‘rationally,’ according to some systematic or logical progression or impulse Ñ from framed, stark black and white photographic representations of extensions of this same tubing. These synthetic extensions translate the illusion/reality polarity, with all of its split-meanings and semantic over-growths, into a diagrammatic, Frankensteinian abstraction.
They (these synthetic extensions) render the three dimensional value of the object, the two-dimensional value of the image, and the one-dimensional value of all ‘reductions,’ transparent to the epistemological sub-reality and super-reality of form as an absurd de trop representation. Nor are they (object, image and reduction) immune to the surfeit of an underprivileged abstraction. Within the trans-genetic ‘circle’ or ‘shuttle’ (cf. Muniz’s work by the same title, done in 1989, among others12) of this void, all subject/object dualities are rawly and incontestably neutralized, all meta-distances are foreshortened (in keeping with the mannered conceptualism of the object, or rather, anti-object), and all experiential, ideological, and epistemic ‘mirrors’ are transacted into the anti-realities of an infinitely reversible ontology Ñ and ultimately, into the ultra-anti-reality of the non-Other as a trans-existential aporia. Do not ask what the ‘ethics’ of such a (ontological) figure (of speech) might be; know only that it reflects the terminal absurdity of meaning as it approaches the upright conditions of the trans-human.
The synthetic extensions of Muniz’s so-called abstract photography (or ‘cord pictures’) lead the analysis of his work logically to a discussion of the general critical aporia that exists specifically between his photographic and sculptural works per se. While these synthetic but non-structural extensions retain the mutant (or mutational), hybrid valences of the ‘cord pictures,’ and of many of the earlier works, they veer away in general toward more solitary existences and projections into the social.
While there is still a fundamental relation between photography and sculpture in Muniz’s work, in 1991 with The Best of Life series of works, and, later, in January 1993, with his Individuals series, and, still later, that is, with the present series of cloud works, or Equivalents series, the photograph constitutes itself primarily not only according to a reference (or to the object as a ‘referent’) but to a problematic (or highly problematized) reference, and in relation to an ‘object’ that is either intentionally suspended within the conception of the work or inherently dissolute. Even the white flag in (chaotic but now predictable) motion pictured (statically) in Somewhere Surrender or the birds in flight pictured in Arrangement or the ever-receding road, with its forever-receding broken white line, in Deaf for Sirens, basically reference objects with an ‘inherently’ limited scope. That is to say, the scope of the reference itself is encompassable, as an ‘object’ per se. But, in The Best of Life series and in Individuals, it was not, and in the Equivalents series, it is absurdly not (encompassable as an ‘object’). That is, in the case of the latter, the reference, or the meta-object, is irreferential or inconsolable, as it were, because the equivalence of meta-subject and meta-referent must, and does, occasion an aporia in meaning.
Or, more accurately, let us say, that in the former two series, the referent was not completely encompassable, or encompassable only in part, as a dissolute object or referent; and, in the latter series, the object (of the meta-reference) chosen (a cloud, whose meta-subject was a cat or dog) lends itself intentionally not merely to an incomplete or unencompassable referent but to an absurd one. While clouds lend themselves generically to interpretation, and their forms, or non-forms, may suggest other forms, or anything, if not everything, for that matter, and while certain, very specific things, like snowdrifts or cotton candy, may resemble clouds, things in general do not look like everything else, nor, more to the point, do they look specifically like clouds. This absurd, meta-referent is constructed by Muniz in the Equivalents in order to bracket not only our thresholds of interpretation but those of intentionality, which further encompass our capacity to refer and to mean.
What is at stake are not only our references and meanings but our very intentions. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then does it follow that the road to paradise is paved with bad ones? And therefore, does paradise, in Muniz’s world, constitute itself as a menage of disparate creatures Ñ kittens, puppies, cherubs, thumbtacks, cygnets, Minnie Mouse, a girl in a canoe, [Medardo] Rosso’s bambino malato, cupids, piglets, Semites Ñ, and does it resemble a pink or powder-blue cloud formation?
If the scope of the reference in The Best of Life series of photographs was not encompassable as an ‘object’ per se, it was because the meta-referent was memory itself, and if the scope of the reference in the Individuals series of photographs was also not encompassable as an ‘object’ per se, it was because the meta-referent was dementia. In both instances, the referent was inherently dissolute, and could only yield (in the case of the former) uncoordinated but consummate units of collective residual meaning and (in the case of the latter) uncoordinated but consummate ‘individual’ units of post-meaning. In effect, both series of photographs exploited the collapse of the objectual into the aporia of (or logical impasse between) what can be recorded photographically and what can only be remembered, as in the case of The Best of Life series, or what constitutes itself as the content of hysteria or madness or psychological trauma, as in the case of the Individuals series. The equivalence of referential and semantic extremes obviates ‘objective’ memory here, and, for that matter, the possibility of any ‘objective’ state of mind. With intentionality posited as the fundament of reference and meaning, it would follow that the meta-referent of the clouds in the Equivalents was a self-sufficient, sine qua non absurdity, an eternally disconsolate interpretant, a pure, unbracketed aporia in perception, which was the outcome of (an) intentional suspension and dissolution, and which could only yield uncoordinated but consummate hermeneutic units of pre-meaning.
In The Best of Life (1991) series, Muniz photographed drawings of images he had made from memory Ñ images that had struck a certain chord in society, that had become recognizable and attained a certain value through consensus. Images that had somehow entered the consciousness and conscience of civilization and become lodged ‘forever’ in the collective psyche. Images that had also, for the most part, found their way to the front pages of Life magazine, and that had, in effect, become part of the living museum of the super-real.
Originally derived primarily from the various news media, Muniz, for this series of works, decided to pull directly from ‘his’ memory Ñ which he did not believe was exclusively his own and which he considered to be reflexive ultimately to the collective memory of the race Ñ some of the images that he believed had become readily identifiable and could be ‘objectively’ (relatively accurately) reconstructed. Relying on this elusive but indisputable resource, he would, in effect, reconstruct the contemporary (twentieth century) parthenon of images that had become the new archetypes, or, at least, the new templates of our time.
‘Famous’ images, such as John-John saluting the flag, with his sister, Caroline, and mother, Jackie, during his father’s (JFK’s) funeral procession; or the Viet Cong soldier shooting a South Vietnamese soldier in the head on a road outside a small village in Vietnam in broad daylight in front of a camera; or, more recently, the lone Chinese student standing in front of a Communist tank in Tienenmen Square, using his body as a human blockade, were drawn by Muniz from memory. Then, in order to ‘return’ them to their so-called (mechanical) point of origin or the ‘stage’ from which they ‘originally’ were derived, namely the news media, and in order to ‘cool’ them (the images) down (which is in keeping with the nature of the media), he photographed the drawings. This was to eliminate any evidence of subjectivity and so that all signs of individual intervention might be more effectively expelled from his rendition. When he could not remember certain details Ñ for example, the exact angle of the student’s arm as she held the slain body of a fellow student in the Kent State massacre Ñ Muniz would call his friends and ask what they remembered about the image. But he would never actually consult the so-called original image. The ‘original,’ in his view, had long ago become the property of the popular or collective psyche, and the idea, or, at least, part of it, was to respect the highly profound but imperfect (‘new’ but ancient) ‘seat’ or home of the image Ñ namely, memory.
But there was still the matter of inevitable, persistent imperfections, slight awkwardnesses, certain discrepancies or differences that could not be eliminated and that could be readily detected in the photographs, even without consulting or comparing them to the original images. Signifying, perhaps, that there is, obviously, nothing truly ‘objective’ about the history of our images or their collective nature, or rather, that our meanings Ñ or what an image comes to mean to us Ñ are susceptible not only to the mutations of time or the meaning(s) of the void (in the experiences of life) as such but to the void in meaning itself. That any equivalence of the referential and intentional real is subject to the so-called fundamental ‘imperfections’ (or ‘experience’) of the void itself. And that what is inherently dissolute here is not only memory but memory as it reflects the reality of this void.
What better way to accent or emphasize this bitter but ludicrous reality than through the physical parameters of sculpture! What better way to bracket this void Ñ and not only the collective void of memory but the ‘individual’ one of subjectivity (or mind) or rationality Ñ, what better or more obvious way to underscore it visually, than through the three-dimensional world of ‘so-called’ material ‘objects.’ What more undeniable or indisputable way could there be to describe this deplorable condition, to depict this absurd predicament, to delineate the forever-advancing but imperceptible boundaries of the absurd, than through the so-called rational and visual coordinates of this objectual dimension. How ironical that the evidence for this void should become unassailable through the visible exploits of material, of presence, through the referential world of the object as a threshold-reality!
To accompany the photographs in The Best of Life series, Muniz sculpted, also from memory, the heads of such considerable personages and ‘heads’ of state as Elvis, Donald Duck, Bertrand Russell, Barbra Streisand and Hitler, among others. These heads would ‘encompass’ the conceptual order of the rational as a reality-control, whether issued from Hollywood or Washington, D.C., whether realized through cartoons or the latest trends in philosophy. But because they are rendered from memory Ñ Muniz’s memory as the trace of a collective experience Ñ, they exhibited all the symptoms of the trans-human, all the imperfections of void-as-Value, all the disfigurements of the void as an existential figure of meaning, both residual and superfluous.
What Muniz gives us ultimately, in these sculptures, in these figures, is the objective proof of the “rough beast” that slouched and “slouches toward Bethlehem to be born” (Yeats). The rough beast of presence as the abiding threat of mortality. If nothing else, Memory Donald Duck (1991), with its black pallor, hollow eyes and empty features, executed in cast Vatican stone, inspires ludicrously in the soul a modicum of terror. The ‘great’ figures of our time do not transmit great messages; they merely convey the ordinary, commonplace vacuum in meaning Ñ even, or especially, without their intending to do so.
Accompanying the Individuals series of photographs was no sculpture at all! Or rather, a double negation obtained to presence.
To reiterate: Muniz took photographs of amorphous, sculptural forms that he had made of plasticene to mimic the strange or seemingly demented shapes which often characterize outsider art or objects that patients make in therapy. After photographing them, he then destroyed them Ñ having, in fact, from the beginning, restricted the existence of these pseudo-sculptures to this purpose, this negation, this photographic destiny. The “sculptures” would exist only as photographs after they had been negated as objects, only after their presence as objects had been negated and reasserted as an image. That is, their presence would be reasserted only as an image. In effect, their ‘presence’ as an image is used, by Muniz, to confirm the former presence, and current void or absence, of the object. This is the first of the two negations, and this is how it (the first negation) obtained to presence Ñ as or through an image.
We must now analyze the second of the two negations. Muniz did not merely destroy the ‘sculptures’ after they had been photographed, nor did he merely display the pictures without, in fact, bracketing the negation or destruction. In point of fact, the second negation constitutes itself dramatically, and generally, through the actual enactment (or drama) or presentation of the object’s absence: He aimed spotlights at several empty pedestals stationed near the photographs of the posthumous sculptures displayed on the wall.
But it was not so much the object’s absence that he was spotlighting or calling attention to (which relates primarily to the first negation): It was, more precisely or specifically, the void (or the nature of the void) which the object’s physical being encompassed Ñ this was the actual subject of the absence that was being enacted or presented or dramatized on the pedestals. This ‘void,’ which was, in fact, ultimately unencompassable, could only be contained or surmised by the absence of the object Ñ or by what we called earlier the object’s post-meaning. Still more specifically, let us then determine the post-meaning of this void or the significance of the destroyed object.
The object (destroyed but depicted in the photographs) functioned in theory both to ventilate and objectify the subjective moods of the patient or the outsider-artist, and, more generally, to bracket the subjective state of the individual (in our society). It encompassed, again, in theory, the individual void of subjectivity. It was this void that was the actual subject of the object’s absence, and it is this void (or meta-void or the void within the void) that constitutes itself as the post-meaning of the ‘object.’ It is this post-meaning of the meta-object or meta-referent Ñ namely the void which is unencompassable rationally, except as the void within the void, or as meta-void Ñ that is enacted on the pedestals.
This is the second of the two negations. Which obtains to presence as an ‘object,’ as an ‘individual,’ within the void of subjectivity. And within the parameters of a superfluous order.
If the second negation not only expanded upon the first in the Individuals, but seemingly contradicted the photographic restrictions of the first, thereby spawning ‘absence’ as a reiteration of the void and subjectivity as the inception of chaos, then the ‘actual’ sculptures of clouds in Muniz’s latest series of works, the Equivalents, functioned to exceed the unencompassability of the void as meta-void through the postulation of intentionality itself as the pre-meaning of the void, thereby, in turn, spawning ‘presence’ as the direct assertion of void and objectivity as the terminal point of chaos.
This line of reasoning does not lend itself to easy acceptation. In fact, on the contrary, one might easily take exception with the idea that there is a void greater than the void or a void lesser than the void. Or that there is an indefinite linguistic substance that might exceed a definite linguistic vacuum; or an indefinite linguistic substance that might be undetermined by a definitive linguistic vacuum. Equivalence as the collapse of difference has, in effect, finally yielded the indifferent terms of a meta-referent, whose only semantic assignments are now utterly non-referential.
Even where these terms may be rendered according to the synthetic values of a particular dialectic Ñ realized through certain earlier works by Muniz, works such as Ladder (1989), Clown Skull (1990) and Soccer Ball (1992)13 Ñ, they nevertheless have achieved, even by default, such categorical registrations, especially in the later and most recent works, that they need only resist the polemical and rhetorical seductions of primacy (in this region of ultra-nothingness) to further achieve the ecstatic normalcy of absolute dialectical equivalence.
There can be no doubt that beyond the cloud that is intentionally made to look like something else, and that beyond anything that is absurdly made to look like a cloud, there hovers above us, calmly, trans-absurdly, the cloud that would oddly but virtually tautologically assume nothing but the appearance of the void itself. This, in a sense, is the strangest outcome of all. Clouds, in pink and white alabaster, or in beeswax over plaster, resting placidly on pedestals of varying height. Solemnly, ludicrously, normal to a fault Ñ or so perverse they inspire a norm with unimpeachable equanimity. But ultimately, resting there, inconsequentially, non-plussed, matter-of-factly Ñ sublimely. Stranger than strange, but somehow more normal than normal.
Clouds that verge upon the void as norm. The latter, reflexive to the drift of the quotidian, the former, reflexive to the aporia of the diurnal. These ‘objects’ hardly defy interpretation, and yet, ‘floating’ there, across powder-blue walls and over snowy white pedestals, like soft fits of undisclosed anxiety Ñ malleable, untoward, three-dimensional Ñ, they cannot but awaken undetermined feelings of discomfiture, sensations of ontological slightness, a blank environment of dystopia.
If we were asleep, we now awaken to the incontrovertible realities of a locked-in world; if were awake, we can now fall asleep in an unlocked-in world of unbordered dreams. If we were inside, we can now exit; if we were outside, we can now enter. But there are neither doors nor keys Ñ or rather, there is only the shimmering equivalence of either no doors or no keys. Or an indistinct sky with an unspeakable confusion of pillows.
In this environment of bridgeless expanses of land and infinite bridges connected to no land, it is as if the ‘clouds’ Muniz has constructed have come to contain within themselves the three-dimensional collapse of all difference. Or as if they have collapsed within their non-being the inner and outer worlds of difference. It is almost as if they have become the aporia of difference itself. What is objective and subjective, illusion and reality, meaningful and meaningless, collapse into the pink and powder-blue ‘black holes’ of the referential world. The equivalence of order and chaos shrink into the self-neutralizing equanimity of a disparate aporia. Except where these ‘clouds’ threaten to ‘storm’ the ‘walls’ of Aporia, they simply overwhelm it with the blind beauty of a clear, blue (cloudless) day.
It is as if the order of the visible (or the chaos of the invisible) had been swallowed whole by the hysterical laughter, the indistinct, orgasmic mouth, of aporia as it widens into the void Ñ a hole within a hole within a hole. Like Muniz’s sculpture, Quantum Ethics, the epistemological boundaries of perception in the cloud sculptures become a blur, albeit a definitive one, but one that would seemingly become erased ultimately by the persistence of its very own being. A hole to the third power of indistinction raises the spectre of a trans-negative differential. The clouds become reality-erasures, so to speak, in that they erase the line that would differentiate their reality-claims but bracket the erased line itself. Hence, the sfumato effect, their out-of-focus quality, that embodies aporia Ñ the sublime but chaotic, absurd equivalence of form and amorpheme. There are no ‘kitty’ clouds here Ñ only the transcendental roadkill of groundlessness, cast as the proverbial non sequiturs ‘No problem’ or ‘Have a Nice Day.’
Unlike the photographs of the clouds, in which the aporia approximates the condition of a cloud; in the sculptures, the clouds approximate, three-dimensionally, the aporia of ethics, being, Value, and the void, as such. What is clear and unclear about the contours of reality, truth, and the rational, merge into an arbitrary, if not vapid, synthesis of absence and presence. An aporeme is created that would seemingly defy the ideological cause and logical causation of the object, but whose terms of transaction and mutation are determined neither by wholly transparent nor wholly opaque lines.
The clouds push beyond the futility of a self-neutralizing ‘horizon’ or the hope of a phenomenological bracket or frame; they push beyond the diagrammatic abstraction of an illusion/reality mechanism; they even try to push beyond the dissolute resolutions of The Best of Life sculptures and the resolute dissolutions of the Individuals.
Even the handling of humor, in part, differentiates the cloud sculptures from the previous bodies of work, and from the cloud photographs themselves. Whereas, in the former series (The Best of Life), humor is strong-armed in the photographs but is whole-heartedly allowed to re-enter the picture, so to speak, in the sculptures; and, whereas, in the latter series (Individuals), humor is generated through pathos of form, or, more literally, through the pathetic semblance of form; in the latest series, Equivalents, humor factors categorically, and bathetically, in the cloud photographs, but in a muffled, almost disarmingly poignant way in the cloud sculptures Ñ never relinquishing however the conscious irony of a non-referential, tautological void.
Cloud is a cloud is a cloud. A tautology to the third power is not only funny, it defies the absurdity of the system by pitching the systematic absurdity of the void into chaos. But even before it is a void, it (Muniz’s tautological cloud) must encompass illogically the pre-meaning of this void and recast itself according to the logic of its unencompassability. Which is to say that while the tautology of a supreme equivalence can defy the absurdity of the system, it can only encompass the absurdity of the void as onto-generic collateral against itself. All our interpretations are frustrated, indeed, all our meanings are neutralized, all our perceptions are undermined, in the cloud sculptures, by these lines of ontogeneric collateral. And all our references dead-end in the patently ludicrous figure of the ‘cloud’ as a metaphysical anti-referent. Intentionality itself is, in effect, tautologically self-suspended and subsumed by the unencompassability of these ‘lines.’
In the last section, we spoke of the sfumato effect or the out-of-focus quality of Muniz’s cloud sculptures.14 In the same section, we also spoke of a related matter Ñ namely that of their logical unencompassability, particularly as it relates or inheres to the sfumato effect and its out-of-focus line.
There is a very (important) recent work of Muniz’s Ñ just preceding the execution but not the conception of the cloud sculptures15 Ñ that is, in a sense, related, in a preliminary way, to the cloud sculptures and to the critical terms above. It is entitled Monochromatic Appreciation (1993),16 and it is comprised of three somewhat gruesome or visceral, humorous, rather abstract-looking heads made of beeswax that are mounted on three steel prongs which protrude from three separate steel plates. The plates are painted monochromatically (in household enamels) olive green, gaudy, sexed-up pink and cadillac blue, and mounted on the wall. The heads, which look like something out of Medardo Rosso, face inward or toward, as if they were staring at or ‘appreciating,’ the monochromatic steel plates. If access to the heads is not to be limited to their profiles, the viewer must virtually insert his own between the steel plate on the wall and the head that faces it. The viewer’s (perceptual) ‘space’ (as consciousness) and the space of the object (as phenomenon) are hypothetically turned inside-out. We must think of both the viewer’s perceptual space and the space of the object as figurative, and of their common environment or atmosphere as configurative, in which both the object and the perception (of that object) intersect (finally) in the meta-figurative (or meta-linguistic) space of the ‘soul.’
“É it becomes clear that Medardo [Rosso], without yet renouncing the depth of significance of subject matter, confronted head on the isolation to which the sculpted figure had been destined. He shattered that destiny within the internal coordinates specific to sculpture, even if his tone was not self-reflective or metalinguistic, which would have been unthinkable in his time. He broke open the shell that enclosed the plastic image and achieved an interrelationship of internal and external space.”17
We say ‘hypothetically,’ because the dynamic of equivalence, here, in Monochromatic Appreciation, is effected in an extroverted manner; whereas, in the cloud sculptures, the mechanism of extroversion and introversion is itself subsumed by the equivalence. But, in a sense, whatever can be said about Muniz’s heads in this work (and the ‘plates’ in those heads), and their relation to Rosso’s sculptures in specific, can also be said about the cloud sculptures, in general, despite the hypothetical nature of that work (Monochromatic Appreciation). A synthetic figure of speech would assert that Muniz has his head, or, more specifically, his ‘heads,’ in the clouds.
If the steel plates or panels ‘reflect’ (transparently) the tautology of the norm and its transaction, then the heads ‘encompass’ (opaquely) the ecstasy of the norm and its transmutation. That is, the ‘norm,’ understood respectively as a “normal” Ñ external, ‘objective’ or collective Ñ entity, such as a landscape or sky or the ‘space’ of the ‘object'; and (understood) as an ‘individual,’ psychological, subjective, internal state of being, such as the perceptual ‘space’ of the subject. Fully transacted, the tautology yields external figurative space; and, fully transmuted, the ecstasy yields an internal figurative object in internal figurative space.
In Muniz’s cloud sculptures, as in Rosso’s sculptures, the ‘line’ dividing the one (external space) from the other (internal space) is erased by its own unencompassability, and the erasure itself or equivalence, which is ‘objectified’ as object, as sculpture, as aporia, produces the sfumato effect or the out-of-focus quality of the work.
“Rosso’s fusion of figure and atmosphereÉcharacterized by the radical abolition of contours and the dissolution of a preconceived volumetric structureÉcannot be explained merely as a preference for a fast touch over inert, homogenous modeling, or a mere emphasis on the pictorial quality of surface. His formal language grew instead from his adhesion to the positivist tenet of the unity of the real and its absence of boundaries.”18
What Muniz’s sculptures ultimately objectify is what they cannot objectify, namely the unencompassability of this equivalence in the form, or non-form, of an aporia (in material, as well as in meaning). In effect, the ‘erased’ line, in these works, produces a trans-figurative object in meta-configurative space: A cloud.
“Rodin saw figures and objects plastically in space where Rosso perceived color, atmosphere, and the effects of light and shadow. Line, contour, and the perfect figure existed for Rodin, but not so for Rosso.”19
But a cloud by any other name is a void. Which ‘encompasses’ the “unity of the real” Ñ i.e., the “fusion of figure and atmosphere, characterized by the radical abolition of contours and the dissolution of a perconceived volumetric structure” Ñ “and its absence of boundaries.”20 A cloud by any other name, then, is the ‘void of the real’ itself.
Earlier, in relation to Muniz’s work, we asserted that the “‘real’ is invested with the super-reality of a disfigured soul.” This definition could apply equally as well to Rosso’s work and world. Could it be that the void in Muniz’s work, in general, but in the cloud sculptures, in particular, configures little else than the unencompassability of a disfigured universe, whose barest outlines can only be vaguely glimpsed by a figure whose contours, lines, and soul are themselves far from perfect? It is this imperfection that becomes the very soul of knowledge, in Muniz’s work, the very soul of humor, and the very soul of the absurd.
By strict Wittgensteinian standards of logic, Aristophanes’ wrong characterization of Socrates (in his play, Clouds) as a sophist is right; but from a more humanitarian (or ‘liberal’) point of view, this characterization is clearly (and classically) ‘wrong.’ Given that Socrates was, himself, after all, in actuality, an opponent of sophistry, the characterization is, in a sense, doubly unfair.
CHORUS: Greetings, old man [Strepsiades],
who seek the science of subtle speech!
And you too, [Socrates], priest of cobweb folly;
say what you wish.
No sophist high-flown would we rather oblige,
he for his mind and wit, but you because
you strut in the streets
and roll your eyes and go barefoot
and take abuse and walk in pride
confident in our patronage.21
In all probability, Aristophanes was himself aware of this fact, but could not resist making Socrates the butt of his critique, given the importance of Socrates in the community, and, more to the point, given his role in relation to the ‘industry’ of knowledge and to the epistemological transactions of his time. In a sense, the ‘fictive’ approach added substance to Aristophanes’ ‘drama,’ and drama to the ‘substance’ at hand: Although knowledge, and the science of knowledge, namely epistemology, were hardly lifeless topics, especially to the ancient Greeks, the episteme, in itself, despite liberal fantasies, was hardly the (primary) fueling agent of polis.
So, what does Aristophanes’ critique of sophistry have to do with Muniz’s practice? It is as if Muniz, being an artist (not an epistemologist, a scientist, a philosopher, or a meterologist), and having all the ‘rights and privileges’ that artists, in general, assume, has inverted Aristophanes’ critique. That is, it is not merely that Muniz’s work has functioned to critique Neo-conceptualism, which has, for sometime now, become a form of sophistry in the art world, but that he has adopted a kind of sophistry of his own as an absurdist methodology in his work, in order to effect this critique. The pseudo- or meta-sophistry of Muniz’s epistemological absurdities, which functions as a critique of the conceptual in art or as a critique of the epistemological pretensions of late conceptualism in contemporary art, enjoys an inversely proportionate relation to Aristophanes’ use of “epistemological correctness”22 as a critique of sophistry or as a critique of the excesses of epistemology or knowledge. Muniz uses in his work intentionally imperfect knowledge Ñ or rather, extremely active or hyperactive forms of epistemological imperfection Ñ to expose not only the reifications of conceptual art that pass themselves off as forms of perfection but the pseudo-epistemological perfections of intentionality itself.
It is Muniz’s use of sophistry as an absurdist methodology Ñ the intentional creation or construction of epistemological imperfections Ñ that ‘compromises’ the conceptual, the epistemological, and the perfectionist impulse (as mannered forms of rationality) and generates humor in his work. Because this methodology is self-conscious (intentionally mannered), the ‘sophistry’ involved may be better called meta-sophistry, and the forms of the absurd it generates may be more accurately described as meta-absurd. And because Muniz’s work would effect a critique of conceptual art as a mannered form, it must re-constitute itself conceptually as a (intentionally ridiculous) form of meta-mannerism, and, in effect, as a mannered form of meta-conceptualism.
There is a work by Muniz that captures ‘perfectly’ the absurd spirit of this bloated rationalism. It is entitled Big Book (1990). If you ‘hear’ in the title of this work the echo, ‘Big Foot,’ do not dismiss it so quickly, for this work may, in fact, constitute still another ‘step’ toward (this time the epistemological) closure for humankind.23 Big Book is comprised of a complete set of 1929 Encyclopedia Britannica. But this is the hitch: Each volume of the set is mounted vertically on top of the other, and all are bound together in leather into one, single, nearly three-foot high, super-volume. Leaving no ‘nuance’ unaccounted for, on the over-sized ‘spine’ and ‘cover’ of the volume, stamped in gold, is the title: “The Encyclopedia Britannica / Fourteenth Edition / Single Volume.” All human knowledge, epistemology itself, has been compressed into one, perfect (ideal) object, one, single, perfect volume Ñ that happens to be totally ridiculous looking, absurd, and virtually impossible to handle, take in, or ‘manipulate.’ ‘Encompassing’ for all intents and purposes, all knowledge, it becomes a trophy of Man’s utter epistemological despair Ñ and one that is, to ‘boot,’ hard to move. Muniz’s ‘big book’ would contain the equivalence, and, ultimately, the aporia, of all knowledge (as a completed process and product).
Which ‘completed process’ leads us, finally, to the topic of logic. In Aristophanes’ Clouds, two types of logic are described: “Right logic” and “wrong logic.” The sophist uses right logic when he reasons in his own best interest, that is, for the sake of expediency; he uses it wrongly when he does not (reason in his own interest).
Strepsiades:É Go and learn.
Pheidippides: And what would you have me learn?
Strepsiades: They have, people say, two Logics, the
better, whatever that is, and the worse.
That latter teaches a man to speak unjustly and win.
If you learn that Unjust Logic, not a penny
of what I owe on your account would I have to pay.24
Muniz is what might be called a ‘wrong logician,’ in that he intentionally places the conceptual in art at the behest of wrong logic; i.e., in so far as he would subvert the rule(s) and authority, the expediency, of the conceptual in art today, he, his work, does not argue in its ‘best’ interest.
Because Muniz would undermine at every turn what has become mainstream in art, namely the conceptual, it could be said that he argues inexpediently, and that his own meta-conceptual forms, or epistemological ‘tricks,’ smack of moral turpitude, if not downright political incorrectness.25 That is, he has become the consummate wrong logician, the consummate epistemological humorist, of his time.
Like Stieglitz before him, who had wanted to “put down [his] philosophy of life” by photographing clouds, Muniz would now, once again, not only by photographing clouds but by exercising wrong logic, by practicing the logic of inexpediency, put down his philosophy of life. He proves, indeed, celebrates, the imperfections, the equivalence, the aporia, of knowledge, in order to gain some paltry insight into our knowledge of the void, the absurd, and imperfection itself. And, perhaps less significantly, by doing so, he returns the soul to concept, and to the conceptual in art. And, perhaps less modestly, Muniz restores the laughing soul to humankind.
Collins and Milazzo
N.B.: This text was originally published in Vik Muniz: Equivalents, Ponte Pietra, via Ponte Pietra, Verona, Italy, and the Grand Salon, New York, September 1993. It contained many typesetting errors. In the process of correcting these, I have also made some slight revisions, none of which change the spirit or the style in which the text was originally written. (R.M., July 11 – 14, 2003).
1 Alfred Stieglitz, from “How I came to Photograph Clouds,” in The Amateur Photographer, Vol. 56 (1923), p. 255; quoted in Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982, 1988), p. 171.
2 For a general discussion of this “mirror of culture,” see Collins and Milazzo, Theoretically Yours, the Museum of the Autonomous Region of Valle d’Aosta, Italy, May 29 – June 28, 1992, catalogue, section 6, entitled “Strange Laughter: Unreflexive Mirrors, Metapsychosis, Post-Postmodernism, and the Disfigured Soul,” pp. 84-89.
3 For an in-depth analysis of this notion and process of deconceptualization, in specific, and the larger or wider notion of post-Postmodernism, in general, see again Collins and Milazzo, Theoretically Yours, Aosta, catalogue, section 6, pp. 84-89, and section 7, entitled “Derealization, Metastasis, Deconceptualization, Meta-Breakdown and the Resort,” pp. 89-97.
4 For Muniz’s role among his contemporaries Ñ such as Ross Bleckner, James Welling, Sarah Charlesworth, Richard Prince, Peter Nagy, Allan McCollum, Peter Halley, Jonathan Lasker, Jeff Koons, Philip Taaffe, Haim Steinbach, Annette Lemieux, Saint Clair Cemin, Robert Gober, Mike and Doug Starn Ñ see Collins and Milazzo, “[Rene Ricard:] From Kant to Kitsch and Back Again” [Pt. 2], in Tema Celeste, no. 29 (January 1991), section 2, entitled “Mannered Conceptualism; or, Emily Post and the Etiquette of Conceptual Art,” pp. 76-77. Also see Collins and Milazzo, Theoretically Yours, Aosta, catalogue, pp. 55-100, passim., which discusses, in addition to the above, the works of Donald Baechler, Sherrie Levine, Mike Kelley, Fabian Marcaccio, among others.
5 Which should bring to mind Nietzsche, in general. Also, see Collins and Milazzo, Theoretically Yours, Aosta, catalogue, p. 85: “[É] in Muniz [É] laughter is amplified by the desire to talk back: His images and objects would contradict the Conceptual as the ‘New’ Status Quo of Seriousness in art Ñ much as Meg Webster and Holt Quentel were among the first in the 1980’s to question (and complement) with their use of Nature or natural elements and ‘worn’ materials and signs the ‘New’ Status Quo of the Commodity in art.”
6 Collins and Milazzo, A New Low, Claudio Bottello Arte, Turin, Italy, May 9 – June 15, 1991, catalogue, npp.
7 From a lecture entitled “Void-as-Value: Selling Encyclopedias to Socrates [Pt. 1] and An Ethics of Absurdity [Pt. 2],” delivered by Collins and Milazzo at the symposium, “The Convergence of Art and Philosophy,” at New York University, International Center for Advanced Studies in Art and the Department of Art and Art Education, Schimmel Auditorium, New York, May 22, 1989; quoted in Collins and Milazzo, Buena Vista, John Gibson Gallery, New York, October 14 – November 11, 1989, catalogue, Section 6, pp. 16-17.
8Collins and Milazzo, The Last Laugh: Irony, Humor, Self-Mockery and Derision, Massimo Audiello Gallery, New York, January 6-27, 1990, npp.
9 Collins and Milazzo, Outside America: Going into the 90’s, Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta, Georgia, March 6 – April 16, 1991, catalogue, npp.
10 From a conversation with the artist, New York, July 7, 1993.
11 Muniz, in fact, curated an exhibition entitled “The Thing,” at Rubenstein Diacono Gallery, New York, June 1 – July 22, 1991, which included the works of Arthur Dove, Jean Arp, Louise Bourgeois, Jonathan Lasker, Saint Clair Cemin, Carroll Dunham and Carl Ostendorp.
12 Besides Shuttle, see also other such works by Muniz as Cogito (1989) and Rosenthal Effect (1990).
13 Although less than absolute, these three works inadvertently form a dialectic that is primal to the categorical thresholds that pre-figure the zero-degree transformations of the cloud sculptures: The ‘ladder,’ with its eccentric (absurd) distribution of ‘steps’ (some too close and others too far apart from each other), ‘de-regulating the journey upward (or downward), and calling into question all formulas of aspiration and transcendence; the bronzed ‘sunken’ (or virtually deleted) soccer ball, ridiculing, again, the (ontological) ‘steps’ (this time ‘horizontal’ rather than ‘vertical’) of competition, achievement, and glory (not to mention Jeff Koons’s basketballs); and, finally, the ‘clown skull,’ with its bulbous nose constituting not merely a part of the ‘mask’ (of being) but an actual (structural) part of the anatomy (of being), lending synthetically ironical, existential closure to the spectacle of the human condition.
14 A quality that is not unrelated, by the way, to the cloud photographs, or, for that matter, The Best of Life series and Individuals works.
15 Some of the clouds in the photographs and the sculptures are based on actual sketches of clouds Muniz did from nature as far back as three years ago.
16 This work by Muniz was recently included in the exhibition Elvis Has Left the Building (A Painting Show), curated by Collins and Milazzo, sponsored by Sandro Chia, 521 West 23 Street, New York, May 26 – June 26, 1993.
17 Luciano Caramel, “The Open Case of Medardo Rosso,” in Medardo Ross: Impressions in Wax and Bronze 1882-1906 (New York: Kent Fine Art Inc., 1988), catalogue, p. 6.
18 Caramel, “The Open Case of Medardo Rosso,” op. cit., p. 5.
19 Caramel, op. cit., p. 10.
20 Caramel, op. cit., p. 5.
21 Aristophanes, Clouds, in The Complete Plays of Aristophanes, edited with an introduction by Moses Hadas (New York: Bantam Books, 1962, 1988), p. 112.
22 Cf. Fabian Cereijido, “Epistemological Correctness / Political Correctness (ECPc),” in 99: Turn of the Century Magazine, vol. 1, No. 2 (Autumn 1993).
23 See note 14, above, for a catalogue of these ‘steps.’
24 Aristophanes, Clouds, op. cit., p. 105.
25 Again, cf. Cereijido, op. cit.