Article | Erika Kierulf: Retiens mon Souffle

Erika Kierulf: Retiens mon Souffle
By Eduardo Ralickas

To anyone preoccupied with the aftermath of Minimalism in contemporary art, Erika Kierulf’s recent exhibition “Retiens mon souffle” (La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse, 10–12 October 2007) will be a breath of fresh air. I contend that by means of two video installation works, Kierulf reconsiders the now historical critical debate surrounding Minimalist art by framing its two antagonistic positions—namely, Michael Fried’s brand of modernism versus what he calls postmodern “theatre”—in a highly sophisticated and enlightening manner. In fact, Kierulf’s work is a prism through which one can make sense of a widespread retro trend in recent contemporary art (which casts a backward glance particularly at the 1960s and 1970s); ultimately, it affords one a critical re-assessment of the stakes of Minimalism in our contemporary context, especially as these stakes are now being played out in the hands of a new generation of artists.

As one enters La Centrale, the first work on display, Breathe (2007), is experienced almost like a wall that impedes further entry, be it visual or bodily, into the space at hand. Breathe is a video installation comprised of three equidistant rectangular video screens built into a large white polyhedron (a rectangular parallelepiped or cuboid to be precise). This fact alone suffices to understand the work as an explicit reference to the geometrical universe of Minimalism’s “specific objects.” However, as opposed to the aesthetic parameters of Minimalism (in which the sheer presence of objects is in the service of an anti-illusionistic agenda), a representational element is included in Kierulf’s sculptural entity: from the screens emanate the images of three “spaces” delimited solely by a frontally framed wall. These unevenly lit walls each bear—given their video translations—slightly different tints (one is bluish, another tends towards the violet, whereas the last one appears to be grey). Thus, these images of placelessness evoke both the Trinity (and the Christian motifs in this exhibition abound) as well as the serial repetitions associated with the art of Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Dan Flavin. The images appearing on these three screens are coordinated in such a way as to relay the actions that are shown on the outermost left and right screens to the central monitor, thereby underscoring the fact that these three, separate images really comprise a single, albeit dismembered, entity. Much like a Minimalist “sculpture,” whose totality can never be experienced if only because a finite spectator is in time and must apprehend each face of the sculpture independently and then synthesize them in one’s imagination, the projected image in Kierulf’s work displays three independent “faces” of a given scene in three formally distinct manners (if only slightly so).

The action, a minimal narrative, is as follows: very slowly, either from the left or right screen (depending on the point in the sequence at which one encounters this work), emerges a standing figure dressed in contemporary attire framed from the waist up. The figure walks in profile, solemnly, towards the central monitor. Once at the centre, he or she turns, faces the camera, and then falls out of the frame, away from the camera, in a sometimes poignant, sometimes comic act of abandonment of the body’s motor capacities as well as its normal state of verticality. Each model in fact willingly lets himself or herself fall back onto the floor (which one only imagines, for it lies outside of the field of representation). Entropy here becomes anthropic. The slow-motion playback of these sequential “falls” conveys the normally imperceptible moment of vertigo that characterizes a state of in-betweenness, between standing and falling, self-control and self-loss, consciousness and non-consciousness. In other words, this work explicitly frames, by displaying, a state of absorption equal in evocative power to sleep, unconsciousness, or the pathos of affective intentionality—all modes privileged by art critic Michael Fried’s historical accounts of this mode. One could almost say, as Fried does in a lecture held at the National Gallery of Canada on 10 September 2006 entitled “Jeff Wall, Wittgenstein and the Everyday,” that the absorbed spirituality in Kierulf’s Breathe emblematizes, much like Chardin’s art in the eighteenth century, a “structural duality”:
“. . . at once facing the beholder as artefact, and close to the beholder as representation. . . I suggest that such paintings [or videos]. . . in which young people are engaged in what seem to be trivial pass‑times [or repetitive bodily actions], represent quite a momentous discovery. . . namely, that absorption as such is perfectly indifferent to the extra‑absorptive status of its objects or occasions, so that particular actions (playing with cards, or blowing bubbles [or willingly letting oneself go onto the floor]), emerg[e] [in Chardin, and now in Kierulf] as vehicles of a new, essentially positive, mental or say spiritual state, the ultimate implications of which. . . we have yet to fathom.” (1)
That, I contend, would be a gross misinterpretation: such a rapprochement between Fried’s “absorptive states” and Kierulf’s Breathe are in fact unwarranted.

It is worth keeping Fried’s position in mind when viewing Kierulf’s work, whose relationship to Minimalist aesthetics is complex. On one hand, Kierulf’s video installations certainly partake in an aesthetics of absorption wherein “an individual finds themselves in their own internal world, their own psychological landscape,” (2) as a summary analysis of Breathe clearly demonstrates. However, given my critical effort not to limit myself to what Jean-Marc Poinsot terms “le discours autorisé de l’artiste” (or the artist’s authorized discourse on his or her own work), Kierulf’s installations can be regarded, on the other hand, as a contemporary deconstruction of the Friedian position in which the aesthetics of absorption is cited or “mentioned” (to refer to the vocabulary of structural linguistics) without, however, being really “used.” Indeed, I maintain that at the heart of Kierulf’s work lies a sophisticated use of “echoic” irony wherein the modernist tradition of representing figures in absorbed states of mind is at once framed at a distance and then criticized in a two-tiered process at the end of which the viewer is left with an intelligent reworking of the stakes of Minimalism for our contemporary context. One could almost claim that the reciprocal action at stake in these installations is not solely between a viewer and the viewed, but, above all, between contemporary art and its early history. Here, historic art is reconsidered and thus reinterpreted in light of the politics that underpin contemporary production; both the historical and the actual emerge transformed.

More specifically, absorption is foregrounded in Breathe in the guise of an explicit restaging—in another medium, namely video—of one of Robert Morris’ well-known performances at the Living Theatre in 1961. (3) It is worth mentioning that Morris’ performance is one of the works against which Fried constructed his polemic in favour of the arts of absorption (and against Minimalism and “theatre”) in “Art and Objecthood.” (4) Kierulf’s -reference is thereby extremely well chosen. Morris’ performance in -question is comprised of a vertical box that appears on stage (after the curtains are raised). Three and a half minutes elapse. Slowly, the box begins to move and quite suddenly, it collapses. It is now horizontal. Three and a half more minutes elapse. The curtains close; the -performance is over. What the original viewers of this work by Morris perhaps gleaned from their experience is that Morris himself was hidden within the Minimalist-like box. The artist’s body thus functions as a metaphor for the empty parallelepipeds of Minimalist sculpture, that is, as a metaphor of artworks devoid of “content,” illusion, and subjectivity. To put it otherwise, both the “artwork” and the “artist” emerge as functions of an aesthetics of “specific objects” in this work in which “self” and “object” are equivalent, interchangeable, tautological. In the final analysis, “what you see is what you see.” The parallels with Kierulf’s Breathe are striking.

The force of Kierulf’s installation stems from its ability to mobilize with great dexterity the iconography of absorption in a form that subordinates its figures’ ostensible states of mental absorption to the dominance of variegated historical forms of Minimalism. Absorption is here contained within an imposing parallelepiped, that in itself “contains” a highly theatrical replaying of Morris’ seminal work. As such, Kierulf’s Breathe exemplifies what Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson have termed echoic irony, that is, a type of irony in which a proposition or state of affairs is “mentioned” in a new context in order to treat it, by virtue of its distanced reframing (which they call “echo”), as that which is under critical scrutiny because no longer “used.” (5) The preponderance of absorption (or the seeming return to questions of absorption) in contemporary art might just well be such an echo—which signals the outdatedness of the tradition, to which one now returns with a spirit of historical irony. This is no mere citational practice, but a reworking of both Minimalist aesthetics and its nemesis, Friedian absorption, in a new historical situation. In this light, Kierulf’s is an art of historical hermeneutics as well as a practice that seeks to fashion new forms in light of particular psychological problems (the loss of self, the borders between willfulness and abandonment, activity and passivity, etc.). The intelligence of her resulting installations stems from their careful balancing of both these traits prevalent in her work. Breathe ultimately exemplifies, in the language of Minimalism, a critique of subjectivity and its normative modernist form: absorption.

My Idiot (2007) further embraces such tensions. In this installation (which incidentally lies directly behind the massive Breathe, the latter concealing the former, much like the box concealed Morris’ body, although one can hear My Idiot as one contemplates Breathe), the reverse situation applies, much like a glove turned inside out. This installation displays two life-sized projected versions of the artist’s body on another parallelepiped, this time constructed out of two walls that are built out of a corner of the gallery space. The resulting object (a protruding or convex “corner”) echoes the real corner which it faces, while concealing it. In this way, Kierulf displays another “sculpture” reminiscent of Minimalism, a sculpture that one knows to be empty (since it is comprised of the positive space that envelops the negative space of a real gallery corner, where two of its walls meet). The work of Morris again springs to mind. The two video images of Kierulf that inhabit the visible surfaces of this cuboid show the artist ceaselessly knocking her head against a wall at different tempos. (This “private” performance is the nec plus ultra of self-absorption.) The hollowness of the “sculpture” is here emphasized along with that of the “creative artist.” Again, an extremely private performance of interiority gives rise to a highly theatrical intermedia simulacrum where Minimalism underscores the contemporary “return” of Fried’s figures of absorption. Repetition is here effected though in reverse order: whereas Breathe discloses the invisible interiority of its subjects (who are “contained” in a room that is itself echoed by the work’s actual housing: a large parallelepiped), My Idiot frames the inside of a non-space by means of fleeting, intangible video images of an “emptied” artist who dwells on its visible surfaces.

Ultimately, Kierulf’s practice is perhaps symptomatic of the stakes of art today as practitioners are challenged by the weight of recent history and the problem of subjectivity in its various guises. If the painterly tradition of defeating spectatorial presence began, as Fried has it, in France some time in the eighteenth century, and has dominated art making from Chardin to David, Courbet and Manet, and, beyond them, to Morris Louis, Jackson Pollock and the New York School, arguably one of the chief claims of contemporary art since Minimalism has been to embody (i.e., to engender, historicize, temporalize, subjectivize, “finitize,” etc.) the invisible spectator and/or artist of modernism, and thereby to deconstruct the subjectless visuality endemic to the latter’s aesthetics. In the final analysis, the widespread return to absorption in contemporary art, a “repetition” to whose logic Kierulf seems clearly to partake, ought not to be read in terms of continuity (as Fried would have it in his recent work on photography), but in terms of a complex form of rupture: that is, along the lines of an après-coup wherein repetition does not signal the mere return of the Same, but rather the persistence of a problem whose resolution has not yet reached a suitable form. It is here that the inner life of figures in intense modes of absorption reaches its point of paroxysm, that is, the point (never seriously fathomed by Fried) in which absorption itself is theatre—the point in which it is, now, only history.

1. Taken from the author’s audio transcript of Michael Fried’s lecture, National Gallery of Canada, 10 September 2006.
2. Erika Kierulf, artist’s statement and press release, La Centrale.
3. See Rosalind E. Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (New York: The Viking Press, 1977), 201.
4. See Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” (1967), Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 148ff.
5. See Sperber and Wilson, “Les ironies comme mentions,” Poétique, revue de théorie et d’analyse littéraires 36 (1978): 395-412.

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