The Great Society

Statement for the Exhibition at the Loveland Museum/Gallery, Colorado, USA.
(February - April 1999)

Upward rising land,
with aerial roots, ckoked
by the breath of stone

Paul Celan


The Loveland Museum is situated at an intersection and across from an empty lot. Without more ado, it blends into the character of the town; like any other public building it is neither particularly closed nor open towards the outside. It is an institution. According to its program, a museum wants to be an interactive place where people meet, in order to exchange ideas, view art, to hear poetry and to reflect upon the past and the future. From time to time it is used by an association as a place for local painters and hobby artists, by people who take what they see extremely seriously. Their products are popular and they sell. That a flower is a flower, a woman a woman, and the sky the sky: That is how it is supposed to be, also in a museum and especially there. Why not?


Coincidences happen. The curator could not have foreseen that there would be parallels between the first and the second exhibit of this year. When I arrived in Colorado in January, I was surprised to find works by Australian aborigines in the museum, evoking water holes, snakes, and songs, marking the landscape, while I kept to destroyed forests and marching feet of soldiers. They, too, staking out terrain. The other, obvious difference in similar treatments of space: The work of the aborigines, no longer painted on wood or bark, have a very definite effect in depicting the indefinite on panels; the result is decorative. By contrast, the tree stumps evoke the destructive, the broken, and the truncated, even if they regain dignity in museum environment. Destruction is not a »privilege« of the 20th century, but something very »human.« Ever since our beginnings, we have been geniuses of invention and survival, but just as much of destruction. The »Great Society«, which calls itself the »Global Society« now, is a complicated, opaque kind of pell-mell, unprecedented in history. Ours is a society of suppression. We suppress, as far as possible, our terrible fears and desperations into which the condition of society would actually have to plunge us. Brave new world, in spite of everything. We go on, ever craftier, faster, and less and less foreseeable.


Surprising for me, even if it makes sense, how Colorado's medium-sized towns present themselves, harmless in an almost strange way: Clean, free of crime, open and transparent; some things reminiscent of founding times, and others, modern ones. Outwardly visible in the strictly functional look of the factory buildings: small high-tech fortresses where advanced technology is produced, while at night, in the bars, hillbilly music and country western is played.

Somehow, the global society is quite far away and yet present.


The Periphery and the Province

We know the provinces. Many of us come from there, we put up with it, hated, loved and cursed it, and many of us, having to earn money, were pushed onto those boring and restrictive island which function like prisons. But the province was also the place where we discovered ourselves, the body, the stranger, the Other. And where a September afternoon with its mild sun made us aware of something that we, high-flown and (to us) adequately called the »sublime« or the »transcendental«, a more intense presence than anything else. To see, smell, touch, feel. In our provincial places, we learned to use our noses amd our heads; there, we learned to defend ourselves with our hands and our feet. There, we listened, for the first time, to sounds and sound sequences which carried us away, which tore us apart and put us back together again. Which made us dance. Be high. Be hot. Be in the groove, without speed, by way of black music alone.
Tougher than the rest. In the provinces, it is, for those who want to know, an intellectual and artistic »obligation.« The urban periphery means: Survival, fight (fight to the death, if that's how it is and there is no other way). Compared to the sounder and more sensual province, the periphery is more abstract, fleeting, more injured and more modern, with more euphoria for the future and more apocalyptic fear. Those are slippery terrains of steep incline, highly charged but also boring, places of extreme violence, of excesses, of crime, but also of fleeting tenderness and poetry, of the explosive and of resignation, and, yes, they are also places of love and of the strangely beautiful.


Art is what it is. It has always been disquieting and calming, vital and deadly, illustrated remembrance, and the new and undiscovered. It is our last province and our most extreme periphery. Deadland (the desert) and wonderland (the imaginary, the future). Art today is both province and periphery. Again and again, it produces a conglomerate of styles, in the most grandiose way, in the works which we count among classical modernism. Almost all artists belong to the Me-province in which everything is being explored and transformed in a magical, phantastic way (as did the surrealists): Sea shells, horses, beacons . . . or things are reduced to the elementary in a fascinating and consequential way (Mondrian, Kline, Ad Reinhardt). Or the shrill reproduction of industrially useful objects (Rauschenberg).
The province! Because almost everyone gains strength from its constraints and limitations, it is being avoided, hated and loved. And yet it remains the substance and background of art.
The periphery is that in any case. It remains so as the inhospitable, impossible margin, as a form of schizophrenia, as something becoming shallow, as an indiocy, a criminal environment, a place of rape, or of the bloody or thwarted revolutions, but also, again and again, as a place of innovations and break-throughs. Without the periphery (and without the province), today's culture would have dried up and become unpalatable a long time ago. The flaneur of yesteryear is today the voyeur and observer on the fringes, which long since have become new centers. Les fleurs du mal (Baudelaire) no longer lurk in the inner city; they have emigrated. Outlaws and adventurers, those addicted to art and the curious intermingle in loud, shrill events. The periphery (also the virtual one, having recently arrived and haunting us everywhere and nowhere in its www-presence) is autistic, cool, intelligent, and highly abstract.


The great Society

The »Great Society« is a mixed up society, a pell-mell which lives by ambivalence, insecurity and uncertainty. Its resources are optimal when its members have become convinced that they would not rather live in a different place and time than here and now.
On the backside of this is the nightmare of being uprooted, without documentation, without nationality or means, alone, alienated in a world of others. The strange appears as the undesired, even if the difference is being praised aesthetically as an enrichment. It's about power, about the (alleged?) securing of one's own territory. The structures established in the process (or those one imagines) are said to be rational ones, and the truths at stake universal. But the ways and means to this goal are barely distinguishable from the spirit of the crusades and the intent on absolute dominance. It was and is about power. Whether we think about Vietnam, Cuba, or Iraq, it's about interests. This is rarely doubted any longer, but just as rarely mentioned critically. The assumption that moral debates nowadays rest on better information and carried out more widely (e.g. Anthony Giddens) is questionable. In any case, the fact that politics appear more strongly again in art, even if fortunately not placably, is a sign that the questioning is suppressed or ignored elsewhere.


Pulled on land by
the whitest root
of the whitest

Paul Celan

Wandering about in the museum without being able to hold on to certain works or texts.
Tree trunks as the pictures at an exhibition? - Of course, they mean injury, encroachment, clearing to cultivate land, clearing to destroy the enemy. Memory of what was and still is: The use of chemicals to destroy life. Clearcut in society and in nature; the associations are eradication and war. And, strangely, also poetry, because the color White, complex and multivalent, says more.
Ashes are white; the bridal dress is white; in the East, white is the color of death; the landscapes and spaces in our dreams are white: obtrusively close and far away. From white, the painter gains all the colors he needs. Glowing red, transcendent gray, prison orange, and ocean blue.

Wandering about in the museum without being able to hold on to a single work or text. That's asking too much. A challenge. I am giving it a try. Draw lines. Take a step.

Urs Jaeggi
Trans.: Irmgard Hunt
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