08 January 2007

Reality v. Monumentality

I am going to be giving a couple of talks in the next few months, and want to try out a couple of organizing strategies here first, but without boring you with a whole lecture. So these are blurbs that maximize the idea or structure and minimize the slide-chat-about-my-work. Please feel free to ask questions, comment, call bullshit, etc.

I take the fact that all artmaking practices are not the same seriously because I get a lot of information from looking at what sculpture is and what it does, and why it is different from painting or making a video. Sculpture is interesting to me because it has an explicit relationship to reality, or what is actually happening around you, and monumentality, or this public immortalization of a person or thing that becomes a shared idea.

A sculpture is not an illusion, like a painting or a photograph. You can't just do whatever you want--your choices must live up to the shared reality of Newtownian physics.

This is Jennifer Pastor's Untitled (Christmas Flood), and it looks really dynamic because it's jabbing itself out into space, right? The single most interesting thing about it is that it really is that dynamic... she didn't Photoshop this. These big, heavy pieces of material shaped like Christmas trees really do have to sit at this weird angle and not break or make the rest of the sculpture fall over. I think the best sculpture goes and surfs around the outskirts of Newtonian physical reality and tries to bend and shape reality. Tries to get away with stuff. Remember in The Matrix, where Lawrence Fishburne's character is explaining to Neo that once you understand that the Matrix is a program with a set of rules, then you can break or bend the rules? I think really good sculptors do that.

Monumentality is historical. It's about what sculpture has been made for. This is the Lincoln Memorial, and yeah, it's about Lincoln... but it's about so much more than that. Lincoln's (enormous) representation now embodies a war, a side, a cause, a set of shared national beliefs. Lincoln the man winds up becoming immortalized, but more than that he becomes a stand-in for a big-ol' shared public experience. This idea of a sculpture being a shared public experience is still alive today as much public art tends (for better or for worse) to mean the Permanent Public Sculpture. This concept has roots in Greco-Roman culture, that was eventually reborn as Renaissance culture, which became Modernism, which became Beuys' Social Sculpture...

...and on that note, Socrates Sculpture Park manages to be a really fresh spin on this ancient concept. It's an urban park that makes both the act of making and enjoying sculpture public. Socrates is a beautiful place because it is honoring that specific sculptural legacy of the public shared experience, and at the same time is... well... extremely real.

Interesting things happen when you take reality and monumentality and rub them together. For one thing, it becomes obvious that there is no such thing as a permanent sculpture--that it's impossible to immortalize oneself or anything else with a sculpture because a sculpture does nothing but decay. Even bronze and stone are not stable materials. The David was brought inside because acid rain was eating him. In fact, the more you start looking around with this in mind, the more obvious it is that nothing lasts forever. That your house, your car, tools, your own body. It's all falling apart, and humans spend a lot of energy fighting entropy but it's around every corner, in every vacant lot. Your skin cells are falling off your body and settling into every nasty corner of your house. Things change.

Under the harsh light of reality, monumentality becomes a dream, if not necessarily a lie. It's more like some tender wish that arrogantly flies in the face of reality. Reality dictates that it's all going to decay, and monumentality staves off that inevitability, but not forever. And sculpture is cool because you can use it to talk about both the essential state of dynamism and the steps you take to make the dynamic static.

When, as a sculptor, you start looking at things in terms of reality (what is actually happening) and monumentality (the beautiful fiction I create to mask what's happening), the questions just pour out. What on earth am I doing buying all this material? Why am I making anything when the world is full of too much stuff? What's the relationship between my stuff that I make and this state of stuff-fulness that pervades everything I see?

Isn't decay the only verb a sculpture's got? Why take that away?

How can I use sculpture to turn its paradox inside out? Can I use it to talk about mortality instead of immortality? Can I value this beautiful fiction of monumentality without getting suckered into thinking it's real?


Anonymous Jeff said...


I like your series of questions. They make me wonder if monumentality is fiction dressed as fact? Lincoln's statue is rather of the Heidegerrian idea of 'worlding' in art:


And yet we cannot step into the same river - the world inaugurated by the artwork continues to undergo changes (perhaps beyond perception) as though the artwork were a marker of a significant event rather than an ongoing state of reality.


08 January, 2007 18:18  
Blogger fisher6000 said...

Yeah, Jeff, the memorial is somewhat like Heidegger's "worlding" as you describe.

One could cut to the chase, I realize now, and say that the tension is between art's power to evoke and art's power to be exactly what it is--more like the Michael Fried v. Donald Judd argument.

This would make your true assesment--that the artwork is as bound by time as all other objects and is therefore a marker in time and not a beacon that shines through time--just another body blow to the romantic notion of art's Transcendence.

And yeah, I learned how to do that in school. I know exactly what you mean--you should look for what is true, right?

What I am looking for might be impossible. What if instead of pitting one idea against another (either it's transcendent or it is what it is), what if it were possible to keep staring down into this paradox until you pull up both?

Because when one looks at both, a really interesting existential problem emerges:

how is it that I have on one hand an infinite capacity for reality... but only because I want to catapult over it into immortality?

I mean, who the hell do we think we are that we can think that? And who doesn't think that? Isn't this what science means? Technology? Actually solving a problem like climate change? Regenerative medicine? Living until you're 140? There are legit researchers publishing papers about the biological basis of immortality right now.

This is such a rich, fundamentally dishonest, and extremely tender crossroads to find oneself at, and it's completely true--it's more true than making a choice between what is real and what is transcendent.

It's more true than a crass, magicless assesment of art being nothing more than a commodity.

15 January, 2007 08:05  
Anonymous nick said...


Fascinating set of ideas. I have two main reactions:

1. "A sculpture is not an illusion, like a painting or a photograph. You can't just do whatever you want--..."

I think this distinction is dissolved by the very argument you're making about the role of monumentality, which leads me to

2. "Under the harsh light of reality, monumentality becomes a dream, if not necessarily a lie."

Just as powerfully, you could reverse 'reality' and 'monumentality' in that sentence. I mean, when is reality *ever* itself? The most mundane daily situation is incomprehensible in the sense of totally capturing its conditions and consequences, even for one's self, to say nothing of making some "thing" or "image" that would communicate the moment. Reality is relentlessly fugitive.

In that sense, every material object is bound perceptually to a network of concepts that give it some sense. An object is an image of itself.

And that's just thinking about daily stuff, for example my coffee cup I'm desperately clutching right now. As you well know, the case of a very special physical object (an artwork!) is so much more fraught!

The Fried/Judd example is interesting. Once I got out of school and started making artwork in the world, Fried lost all his sway with me. However, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't come to terms with the Specific Object. After all, it's a sculpture, right? So the whole argument seemed wrapped up in a bygone discourse.

But when I first when to Marfa and saw the Chinati installation of 100 Milled Aluminum Boxes, it came flooding back. Only everything was upside down! The boxes, installed in this amazing architectural situation, are constantly dissolving into illusions! The objecthood of *everything* is up in the air: boxes and architecture become illusion, and light itself carries weight.

Hmm, I've digressed. The most exciting thing in your discussion, for me, is the plaintive hope of approaching the Impossible and turning physical conditions against their true natures. Really it becomes a metaphysical hope, doesn't it? And isn't the paradox that the Impossible happens all the time, we've all *experienced* it, we know it's true, but still, what kind of cheese do we put in our mousetraps, to catch it for ourselves?

16 January, 2007 10:42  
Blogger fisher6000 said...


It's great to see you here--I enjoy your blog.

Yes, thanks for getting the meat, which is the grasp at something impossible. You are right, it does happen all the time, and I do think that this kind of "real magic" is beautiful and useful.

I see what you are saying about reversing the streams and privileging monumentality instead of reality... it's what we do all the time, IMO. There is already much arguing for the idea that life is what you think it is--valuing the power of your meaning-making self over the facts on the ground.

Case in point: Iraq.

Case in point: This Whole Barnum-and-Bailey-Show of an administration.

Case in point: Paris Hilton.

Case in point: more teenage girls think it's more important to be like Paris Hilton than it is to be smart.

Oy, vey!

I would argue that it is less useful/helpful/interesting to reverse the argument, if only because it's everywhere. But maybe to understand is to understand that the door swings both ways?

Interesting food for thought!

16 January, 2007 13:16  
Anonymous Nick said...

Deborah -

Well, the GWB/Iraq/Paris Hilton axis inflicts blunt-force trauma to my point, and I concede it! ...with this qualification:

The "reality-is-what-you-make-it" position is just the starting point for action. Reality-as-such exists somewhere on the far side of passive acceptance of the mentality of the George W. Parises. I merely wanted to posit that Monumentality could take on a second definition, that reaching out to touch the world despite the lies requires Monumental effort.

Thanks for the challenging discussion...


17 January, 2007 08:24  

Post a Comment

<< Home