Thursday, December 09, 2010

Paul Thek and the Art of Failure (Notes)

Here are some notes from an essay I started working on today addressing the work of Paul Thek.

Installation art, before it was absorbed by the practices of artists and curators who could perceive its salability and various ways to preserve its memory, was a medium of failure. And this is perhaps why Thek invented it (however inadvertently): because he is an artist of failure, sublime failure. Why does Thek fail? What is the failure which he embodies, expresses through his body of work but through the installation works especially?

The installation works succeed precisely where they deliberately fail to produce a reproducible or representative object. This fact has been cited time and time again. That through the installation format Thek’s work not only lost in market value (at a time when the market wasn’t nearly as hyped as the one of today); but more so, the possibility of its being cared for by museums, galleries, and other institutions of art's valuation (despite the fact that Thek showed in some of the venues now considered the most significant for visual art in Europe in the 60s and 70s). This desire for the work to be unrepresentable, for it to remain live and to only produce ephemera—relics which may or may not be cared for—is part of Thek’s intention which I particularly respond to. And we can trace this intention through a number of different elements in Thek’s work. Namely, his use of ephemeral materials such as newspaper (for nearly all of his “paintings”), chalk, and even sand (for a sandcastle reproducing Bruegel the Elder’s “Tower of Babel”). If the Technological Reliquaries may be said to take Conceptual and Minimal art ‘down’ from a Neo-Platonic realm of ideational givens to the suffering of a soma, then all of the work relates a form of suffering through the effects of time, history, and labor—the approximation of a lived duration which imagines anything that could be preserved, and that could thus continue to exist outside its immediate presence, as ‘dead’—a relic or ruin. Whether as calculated fuck you to an American art world that had forgotten Thek, or to a world which he would have liked to have abandoned for nobler ideals (charitas and agape for instance), the work—despite its intense materialism—embodies a set of ideals; ideals of another world. Ideals of a better world, I think Thek would have agreed. Not yet-to-come, but always (at least potentially) 'here and now'. Especially now.

Art can be an exodus from art. It is as such in the work of Thek, and many of his contemporaries. Art as reproductive, violently reduced to an object. Art reduced to a saleable, possessable, preserveable thing rather than something binding, acting as a kind of social material, a participative-communal property. Many of Thek’s works attributed to him were in fact made in a workshop-like atmosphere, in which the artist’s collaborators (who were also his friends and apprentices) would have much to contribute, and whereby the social activity of the workshop (how someone cooked and arranged a particular meal, for instance) largely determined “product” (what was produced as installation, if only so that it could be eventually devalued and neglected by curators and potential collectors alike).

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