Article | Seeing Through a Crack: Miniature Versus Totality | esse arts + opinions

Article | Seeing Through a Crack: Miniature Versus Totality

  • Barbara Kruger, The Globe Shrinks, Mary Boone Gallery, New York, 2010. Photo: courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York
  • Barbara Kruger, The Globe Shrinks (istill image), 2010. Photo: courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York

Seeing Through a Crack:
Miniature Versus Totality
By Victor Tupitsyn

“When theory fails, art gains.” Isn’t this the message that the culture industry sends to all of us? In 2010 Barbara Kruger exhibited the video installation The Globe Shrinks at Mary Boone (Chelsea), featuring episodes from an inventory of daily life, experienced and co-created by total strangers. Presented as randomly linked clichés of minor significance, these mundane episodes suggest extrapolation. Whereas in the past the opposition between fragmentation and totality was clear, today it is more ambiguous. These fragments are being extrapolated into what can be dubbed as “totality in miniature” — the infantile model of the whole. A symptom readable as the deferral of adulthood. (1) In the words of Ilya Kabakov: “A person who feels like a child is able to escape the canons and boundaries of being, in which he or she is, as it were, assigned a place. You develop an entirely different attitude toward reality. It is perceived as a theft, even though it is, in fact, not limited by anyone and therefore belongs to you in unlimited quantities. This is space without dimensions: it can be shortened but can also be expanded. What starts from such attitudes (or criteria) is the prospect of complete happiness and eternal childhood.” (2)

“Be ye therefore as children,” Christ urged his followers, “for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Verily I say unto you: whosoever does not accept the Kingdom of God as a child will not enter the Kingdom of God.” Self-perception as an eternal child (a phenomenon, which demonstrates the similarity of Soviet traditions not only to Christianity, but to Zen Buddhism) harks back to a time when the burden of adulthood was placed on government bureaucracy. Everyone else was inculcated with the idea that “the only privileged class in the USSR is children.” Therefore, the prospect of the loss of such (class) privileges, anticipated by the “communal unconscious,” caused the tempo of maturation to slow down. Something similar is happening in today’s art world, the difference being that the role of adults has been taken over by curators, critics, and art dealers. It would seem that if the creative personality is an enfant terrible, to enter a professional relationship with such a person is to engage in the exploitation of child labour, and therefore to violate both moral and legal norms. That is why relations between the child (enfant) and the adult do not usually go beyond the “symbolic economy”: the former is expected to be diligent and well-behaved, in exchange for gifts and praise from the latter. Such is, in general terms, the “compulsory assortment” of sociocultural infantilism. Nonetheless, the inconveniences that burden permanent childhood, are more than adequately compensated by the conveniences acquired as a result of abdicating social responsibility.

An infantile vision of reality is conservative and, in a sense, reactionary, especially when practiced by adults. In relation to this, one can introduce (paraphrasing the philosopher Mikhail Ryklin) the term “terror-optic.” The child, after all, is simultaneously a prince and a pauper, a sovereign and a vassal, persecutor and persecuted. The infantile model of subjectivity rests on the presumption of the wholeness of the world, on belief in the totality and continuity of being, while representing, at the same time, an example of aggressive ego-centrism. Following Lacan, one can maintain that “the characteristic modes of the agency of the moi in dialogue are the aggressive reactions,” (3) and that “aggressivity is the correlative tendency of a mode of identification that we call narcissistic.” (4) Hence, the naive longing for accidents combined with the carnival-like (festive) perception of acts of violence: the conviction that “even dying is good if the world is watching” best illustrates this. Translated into the language of urban problems, immaturity is the ghetto, whose contribution to culture is nothing other than kitsch (contrary to Greenberg’s belief, it is not avant-garde). Those who came out of the ghetto often turned out to be the most zealous guard dogs of convention and orthodoxy, the angelic host entrusted with protecting the authoritarian power.

Despite their chronological proximity, the contexts of childhood and youth are not metonymically close: unlike childhood, youth does not feel comfortable in the position of onlooker fascinated by the conflict and the unity of opposites. It is characterized by social altruism, rebellion and an intolerance toward everything invested with “paternal” prerogatives. On the other hand, the iconoclastic gesture does not befit childhood (eternal, stagnant childhood), for which inertia and a taste for an apocalyptic vision of the world are “appropriate” — whereas youth is aflame with a desire to alter the existing order of things. In other words, both youth and the youthful are missing from present-day world, where childhood and adulthood remain the principal psychosocial niches.

Sometimes the compartmentalization of viewpoints and principles characteristic of verbal interaction does not apply to the written word, which, as we know, “once written, cannot be erased.” That's why, upon seeing rules and regulations produced by the authorities, we become instantly sobered up. The return from childhood to adulthood transpires in seconds, as if attesting to the fact that the printed word is a maturing factor.

In the space of collective speech, one feels like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. On the lips of grown-ups, babyish lexicon manifests itself in diminutive suffixes as well as borrowings, imitations and repetitions. “Repetition is the mother of learning,” states the well-known truism imported from the scholastic practice of memorizing the sayings of great men, slogans, and literary texts. Continuing on the subject of borrowing, imitation, and repetition as attributes of schoolboy manners and infantilism, one has to mention postmodernism, for which these are key concepts. Regardless of the borders, any “spectacle order” that presently exists worldwide can be contemplated as the play of similarities and differences between postmodern infantilism and its transcendence (the youth paradigm).

In “Post-Autonomous Art”(5) I wrote about the effect of fractionality, about our perception which is programmed in such a way that we react exclusively to fractions of phenomena, events, and experiences — to a diet of shortened thoughts, plots and narratives. In other words, these are not “whole numbers” but “fractional” ones, i.e., surrogates that epitomize the partiality to which the mass media have gotten us accustomed. Isn’t it why we find ourselves adjusted to watching actions and events through a crack as if the entire world can fit in? Fractionality is, to some extent, a sort of pornographic device. Structurally, TV news and commercials aren’t all that different from peep shows. Museums try to do roughly the same thing; that is, they adopt the aforementioned media technique — the technique of manipulating fragments (read: miniatures) in order to endow them with the false (or exaggerated) sense of universality. There is nothing new about expanding to universality or “constructing” it out of fragments (i.e., constructing the whole out of miniatures), just as there is nothing new about fractionality. The novelty of the situation is in how extreme it is.

Once ensconced in a museum, artworks begin to resemble the relics of holy martyrs (stumps and fingers) displayed in order to make a “Treaty of Versailles” with fractionality, for which we pay dearly with a heightened sense of the whole, with a desire to detect in part the general picture of what is happening. The fractured nature of this illusory totality is levelled by technology; the seams and the clearings become invisible. Every part-object appears before us in media packaging, in the sense that partiality is presented not as an innate quality of reality but as a pretext for submitting a claim that has to do with the restoration of the lost or promised wholeness of the image. In other words, the fractional is perceived as an “anticipant” of the whole, as evidence of its “undisputed” presence in medial space.

In order to explain how the effect of fractionality manifests itself in the context of the museum, I will cite an exemplary art exhibition with a multitude of accompanying texts (on the walls) and snappy titles through which one can see the barely discernible shapes (fractions) of issues and discourses, the way one can see watermarks on dollar bills. Upon closer inspection one finds out that this is nothing more than a media trick which relies on “an imaginative intending” on the part of the viewer inclined (or made to incline) toward extrapolation. Subject to extrapolation, for instance, are the fractions which determine the level of connection between the discourses announced at the exhibition entrance and the eclectic expositions inside. The same argument can also be applied to other fractional phenomena (part-objects, part-concepts, part-insights), whose ephemeral nature is the best possible pretext for medial extrapolation. On the one hand, the notion of fractionality applies to everything that appeals to the so-called “expanded field” (in Rosalind Krauss’ terminology). On the other hand, there are different modes of fractionality: while the media have been dealing in extremely small units for many years now, museums have only recently “succeeded” in attaining this goal.

Due to the medial effects I have described, contemporary art exhibitions have been gradually losing the status of an autonomous aesthetic event. Moreover, the curatorial projects themselves are no longer oriented toward the art of curating, toward the representation of autonomous worlds (autonomous not in the sense of being socially disengaged or detached from reality, but in the sense of being independent from die Kulturindustrie and the media). Neither the exhibitions not the featured works attempt any longer to lay claim to the status of independent artistic value (lest they be accused of “mauvais ton”). In most cases, they consist of trash dumped in such a way that it makes itself available for multiple associations on the part of the spectators, for extrapolation, and for contact with things that, presumably in “completed” form, exist somewhere beyond the boundaries of the art world. As a result, the exhibition is no longer fulfilled in a museum but in the gaps between commercials and news reports. By the way, the word trash is used here not in a derogatory way, but in order to amplify the indexical potential of sign-objects featured in media-oriented group shows.

The hypocrisy of the slogan “Support our troops” yields a comparison with ballpoint pens. The repeatedly renewed process of using these disposable tools is linked to the notion of parthenogenesis in the sense that the used-up set (the dead) is immediately replaced with a new generation. Such is (we are told) the balance sheet summarizing relationships between “casual” and “universal.” To conclude, I will recall a misfortune that befell Italian PM Berlusconi in December 2009, when someone threw a miniature sculpture into his face. Regardless of pros and cons, one is left wondering if the miniature has survived the accident.

(1) In The Globe Shrinks the preference of small-scale deconstruction over systemic critique is self-evident.
(2) An excerpt from my conversation with Kabakov in “Parallels Leben oder Leben im Kanon,” em>Neue Bildende Kunst (December 1998): 60-64.
(3) Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. by Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), 15.
(4) Ibid., 16.
(5) See chapter 12 in Victor Tupitsyn, The Museological Unconscious (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009).

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