Marina Abramovic: The Row About “Nothing”

There has been some controversy, reported in the media during the last few days (see here and here), concerning Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramovic’s proposal for a new exhibition entitled “512 Hours” at the Serpentine Gallery later this month. The performance involves her doing “nothing”. Abramovic’s most famous recent work is her 2012 performance at MOMA, “The Artist is Present”, a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her.

Part of its notoriety, in the popular media at least, stems from the fact that visitors to the performance included the popstar Lady Gaga. (Abramovic later stated that – “The public who normally don’t go to the museum, who don’t give a crap about performance art or don’t even know what it is, started coming because of Lady Gaga.”) In this performance the presence Continue reading

Affectivity, Art, Books, Claire Morgan

Claire Morgan: The Slow Fire


“That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine, in fact, probably that’s why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are…” ( David Foster Wallace, The Pale King)

The catalogue for Claire Morgan’s new exhibition in Cologne, The Slow Fire, is being published next week. This beautiful catalogue contains some stunning images of Claire’s most recent sculptures and drawings, together with my latest essay on her work entitled “A Vibrant Silence”. This essay has also been translated into French, German and Italian for the catalogue.

“The ceaseless flow of time and place that marks the life of all living beings is halted with an acute poetic minimalism. The stillness produces an almost impenetrable sense of mystery. Each sculpture choreographs a strange imaginary confrontation between animality and the artifice of culture. These weird meetings bring the wounding severance of humankind from nature back to the surface. The disastrous consequences of our ongoing sublimation and degradation of nature through religious dogma, ideological obsessions, and technological possession are repeatedly enacted through acts of collision.” (Darren Ambrose, “A Vibrant Silence”)


‘If you turn outside yourself – to the birds and animals and the quickly changing places where they live – you may hear something beyond words. Even humans can find silence, if they can bring themselves to forget the silence they are looking for.’ (John Gray, The Silence of Animals)


‘My work is related to my own processes of coming to terms with understanding our relations with animals and with my own feelings of discomfort at everything in life being impermanent. All of my work eventually leads back to ideas about life, death, and the human condition. We are never really secure in any way, yet we yearn for the security of permanence in our lives.’ (Claire Morgan)


Affectivity, Art, Philosophy, Prehistoric Art

The Affectivity of Prehistoric Art (Part 3)

The arguments presented by those archaeological and anthropological theorists discussed in Part 2 are obviously deeply flawed, and these flaws need to be exposed. Between their different ways of thinking we are in danger of being herded into a space evacuated of aesthetic intensity and affective response.

An overarching assumption (or presupposition) dominates this type of thinking – i.e. that when one associates an experience of aesthetic affectivity with a particular non-Western or prehistoric artifact, one is merely uncritically applying (wholly subjectively) a late Western construct linked to individualism, taste, and decoration. Our concern with experiences of aesthetic affectivity solicited by different visual and material cultures is consigned to being a peculiarly post-Rennaisance form of cultural embroidery that is an entirely inappropriate frame for approaching prehistoric, non-Western or hunter-gatherer visual culture and crafted artifacts. Little or no consideration is given, however, to the view that aesthetic affect is an ongoing trans-historical and transcultural cognitive and existential feature of human beings. Each of the thinkers assume consideration of aesthetic experience to be nothing more than a late Western cultural product, and, as such, totally inadmissible when considering Paleolithic images. Any derivation of aesthetic affect generated from one’s experience of works from prehistory is always an unwarranted projection and an unjustified supplement to the work itself. It is just a superfluous and entirely unnecessary feature that should be eradicated from the ethno-archaeological pantheon for good. If one succeeds in evacuating Paleolithic images Continue reading

Affectivity, Art, Books, Film, Reviews

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

Some of the great works of literary impressionism – Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, Zola’s Germinal, Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Lowry’s Under the Volcano – harness the individual as a confluence of disparate sensations driven by a powerful and often only vaguely expressed desire. Often these kernels of desire are associated with feelings of love, regret, nostalgia, loss, disappointment, and death. All of these writers opposed the old literary fiction where the novel voiced by an omniscient spectator of the human scene is resisted in favour of the emergent unreliable spectator who is as confused by the whirlwind of events in life as everybody else. This is an individual who isn’t even certain anymore of what they are or if they are even an individual, who scrabbles around and searches for meaning in the flurry of disparate sensations, the ruins of time’s passing and death’s ever-present face. Here all ‘real’ experience is presented as elusive, fragmentary and irreducibly sensorial in nature. The world is suddenly no longer made up of stable things, including stable point of view, constructed upon a steady and linear flow of time. The extent to which it ever did being only the illusory effect of literature. With these writers time is fragmented and broken, qualitatively differentiated and non-homogenous, composed of different perspectives, orders of speed, folds, repetitions and echoes, echoes and silences. For them, quite simply, this hallucinogenic fragmentation and kaleidoscopic condensation of sensation is the ‘true’ nature of reality, as it was for impressionist painters like Monet, Manet, Cezanne, and Renoir. The fragmentary yet vividly coloured impressions through which we pass the fragmented temporality of our lives are more ‘real’ than any of the fabulated linear narratives and coherent sense we might wish to impose. Yet, is it possible that the literary assemblages composed by any one of these writers be any less fictional than any of literature’s previous forms? According to Celine, in a passage cited at the very beginning of Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty, it cannot, simply because the life that we experience Continue reading

Art, Books, Finnegans Wake

‘A Knot of Coherent Nonsense’: Reading Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’…Again


This week I decided to have another go at reading James Joyce’s massive book Finnegans Wake, and bought an old second-hand copy from a beautiful antiquarian bookshop here in Wellington, NZ. Since I’ve been away traveling in the past few months and living minimally out of a rucksack, this will pretty much be the only real book I’ll be carrying around with me (the rest of my books are on my Ipad!). I’ve tried to read Finnegans Wake a number of times before and I’ve always failed to get much beyond the first handful of pages. I really have tried. The book itself is notoriously and willfully obscure, consisting of dense pages of seemingly senseless neologisms, streams of total nonsense, puns, and mysterious geographical, historical, and literary allusions. And this is absolutely unrelenting for each and every one of its 628 pages.

I first read Joyce’s Ulysses back in college after being partially inspired by reading and enjoying Malcolm Lowry’s stream-of-consciousness masterpiece Under the Volcano, Virginia Woolf’s modernist novel To the Lighthouse, and Samuel Beckett’s Absurdist play Waiting for Godot. I had also been intrigued by the figure of Joyce himself in Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties, where he is a cypher for genuine artistic creativity and integrity in the face of the Dadaist Tristan Tzara’s nihilistic iconoclasm. In fact, I think Stoppard’s characterisation of Joyce made a deep and lasting impression on me, as I’ve always subsequently held Joyce in the highest regard. At the age of seventeen, in the midst  of devouring pretty much any difficult and challenging Continue reading

Affectivity, Art, Books, Philosophy, Prehistoric Art

The Affectivity of Prehistoric Art (Part 2)

I was queuing for tickets to visit the cave of Les Combarelles when I overheard a conversation between two American prehistorians attending a conference at the International Centre of Prehistory in nearby Les Eyzies. Both were animatedly conversing about their recent visits to other cave paintings and relief carvings in the local area, and were severely criticizing people who visit the caves and thoughtlessly produce speculative interpretations of the prehistoric images ‘on the spot’, as opposed to giving more careful and sober consideration to published archaeological and anthropological scholarship. One of them was bemoaning the sheer interpretative naivety of many who visit the caves, evident in their desire to quickly impose uninformed and determinately biased ideas upon them (often without any proper grasp of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ milieu or mindset). All that results from such immediate speculations about their status as art, they argued, were biased projections and analogies that were more telling of the cultural prejudices, expectations and sentiments of non-specialist twenty-first century spectators. Their conversation reminded me of a vivid observation made by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who argued that fetishization of recently derived historical categories is a particularly serious flaw in much art history, which ‘never having really broken with the tradition of the amateur, gives free rein to celebratory contemplation and finds in the sacred character of its object every pretext for a hagiographic hermeneutics superbly indifferent to the question of the social conditions in which works are produced and circulate.’ (Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, p. 1)


As I listened to the prehistorians talk I felt a certain degree of sympathy with their views. It is undoubtedly the case that non-specialists visiting the caves do speculate somewhat haphazardly as to the work’s meaning, intention and purpose, sometimes producing very little in the way of insight. However, for all of their interpretative naivety, I was not at all comfortable with the implication that the only true response to the affectivity of prehistoric art be restricted to historical ‘experts’ or archaeological scholars. Their conversation implied fixed truths associated with the imagery in the caves, the meaning of which was only accessible to the detached and dispassionate eyes of informed experts. Yet, I knew that this view had been challenged in recent years by archaeologists such as Ian Hodder. Hodder’s work emphasizes the irreducible subjectivity of archaeological interpretation and advocates a much more pluralistic Continue reading

Affectivity, Art, Books, Philosophy, Prehistoric Art

The Affectivity of Prehistoric Art (Part 1)

In the flickering lamplight, deep in a cave at Bedeilhac in Southwestern France, a creature’s eye stares out from the rock, a perfectly placed natural circular hole in the rock. Around it, described by the addition of a few graceful curving lines 14, 000 years ago, is carved the outline of a reindeer. Its head is almost entirely composed of a natural shape on the cave wall, and the engraving continues to use the natural relief of the cave wall for the animal’s back and the undulating shape of its body. It look as if the reindeer is advancing, turning slightly and looking directly at us. It is caught and held in a moment of alert stillness, and seems to be about to run away. This creature expresses an audacious sense of life and possesses an odd ‘in-between’ quality. Its hesitant pause at a point of imminent retreat extenuates its spiritual status as something existing between two different worlds. It stands at a point of organic emergence, coming out of oblivion to meet our look, yet about to flee and disappear back to its hidden realm.

This reindeer is a consummate example of prehistoric art’s ability to summon life from inorganic material. It is one of the earliest examples of prehistoric art’s capacity to draw out animals (perhaps understood as a spirits, ancestors or representations of some higher power) out from base material, to bring them to life and hold them into view – caught in the magical instant of their emergence – an ancient hypostasis. One can only imagine the wonder evoked by those who were originally privileged to witness a glimpse of this subtle yet breathtakingly art. In the moment of wonder and astonishment a delicate affective thread is spun between then and now. I do not think this is an entirely fanciful notion. The affectivity of this instant, this moment, this glimpsing, seems, at its most basic and fundamental foundation, to be similar. Wonder and astonishment. Because of our different way of life from that of the Magdalenian era, their myths, beliefs, knowledge, thought and way of being, the degree of intensity associated with this affectivity will almost certainly have differed from our own. Yet, at its most radical, primary and originary, the affective moment associated with this ancient reindeer persists through time. Its affective moment is intrinsically tied to a display of fusion between the organic and the inorganic, a birth and transfiguration. The evident ancient affective alchemy of the art is still full of transformative potential.


The archaeologist Paul Bahn, in his popular guide to the decorated prehistoric caves of Southwestern France and Northern Spain, insists that the only difference between viewing the original paintings and relief carvings in the few remaining sites still open to the public, and the modern facsimiles at Lascaux and Altamira, is a ‘psychological’ one. Any aesthetic differences between experiencing the originals and reproductions are negligible. For him the knowledge that what you are seeing is actually original is merely psychological and largely irrelevant to the appreciation of the ancient images. But surely this apparently Continue reading