In Terms Of

When Does a Stone Become a Boulder?

This essay is the first of three that reviews a recent symposium at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Read the second and third texts.

States of Emergency: Objects as Agency circa 1970
Friday, September 16, 2011
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Sackler Center for Arts Education, New York

Alexandra Munroe and David Joselit introduce the symposium (photograph by Tanya Ahmed and © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2011)

Despite its alarming title, the symposium “States of Emergency: Objects as Agency circa 1970” was a placidly academic affair, in which discussions revolved around Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity, an exhibition concluding its summer run in the spiral of the Solomon R. Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright building in New York. The afternoon event, organized by David Joselit, Carnegie Professor in the History of Art at Yale University, and Alexandra Munroe, Samsung Senior Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim, attempted to expand transnational art history by favoring peripheral artistic activity in the mid- to late twentieth century over the postwar domination of the United States. Joselit and Munroe divided the symposium into three sections, covering Japan, Italy, and Latin America, with a final paper addressing an odd American scientist who made forays into electronic sound composition based on biofeedback.

In her opening remarks, Munroe referred to Lee as a Postminimalist artist, placing him in the familiar master narrative. She also noted that he was educated in Continental philosophy and was among the first to write about Mono-ha, a generation of artists in Japan who emerged in the late 1960s. Though Lee was slightly older than them, he was counted among the group’s members. Joselit then explained that he intended the symposium’s title—lifted from Carl Schmitt’s essay on the “state of exception,” in which a sovereign power suspends the rule of law—to evoke the era’s revolutionary political moments, the New Left, the crisis of the art object, and the idea of objectivity in different parts of the world. He then began to waft through notions of “fissure” and the “energy of objects,” the kind of talk that excites impressionable graduate students but generally lacks grounding in reality.

Installation view of Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity (photograph by David Heald and © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2011)

Snubbing the commodification and reification of objects, Joselit advocates notions of softening, deformity, and reanimation, as well as elision, circulation, networks, and process, as the vital qualities of engaging art. At the same time he wants to replace “dematerialization,” a word taken from Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s famous 1968 essay, since this brand of art had in fact “rematerialized” in object forms of another kind: photographs, texts, and related flat documentation. His is a lost cause. In spite of numerous perceptive critics in the late 1960s who quickly recognized how fraught the term was, and who publicly scrutinized the contradictory nature of artists’ stances at the time when the work was first exhibited, the term has persisted for decades. Let’s not split linguistic hairs and instead embrace dematerialization (as well as Cubism, Minimalism, and numerous other inadequate descriptors) as shorthand for a historical moment. We know what you’re talking about.

Leading off the official symposium presentations was Mika Yoshitake, an assistant curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden who aided Munroe with Lee Ufan: Making Infinity. She gave a primer on Mono-ha, which has parallels to the New York and Western European avant-gardes but which developed independently. Hers was a standard but eye-opening history of the art of this understudied period, touching on major issues; naming key artists and works, such as Sekine Nobuo’s Phase-Mother Earth (1968); studying important group shows in Japanese institutions; and providing an interpretative cultural and intellectual framework for the movement.

Mika Yoshitake speaks on Mono-ha (photograph by Tanya Ahmed and © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2011)

Like Earthworks in the United States, both the popular and art press covered Mono-ha, with Lee writing several key articles. The February 1970 issue of Bijutsu technō, a leading Japanese art magazine, published his essay “In Search of Encounter,” which offered black-and-white photographs of men moving stones, lifting concrete wedges, and hauling thick rope over their shoulders—images resembling multipage spreads of the manly labor of Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, and Dennis Oppenheim in the first issue of Avalanche, published later that same year (but which date to 1968–69).

I’d like to see Yoshitake, who is pursuing a doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles, publish her history of Mono-ha, modelling her approach on James Meyer’s Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (2000), which seamlessly weaves exhibition histories, critical reception, interpretation of works, and chronicles of larger cultural shifts into a highly readable, engaging account. I’d also like to see her organize a killer exhibition on the movement for an American museum.

Lee Ufan addressing a question, with Joan Kee looking on (photograph by Tanya Ahmed and © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2011)

An interview with Lee Ufan—easily the high point of the symposium—followed Yoshitake’s overview. The questions from Joan Kee, assistant professor in the history of art at the University of Michigan, were short and to the point, a good thing since the artist launched into a lengthy monologue (in either Japanese or Korean—I could not tell) after each one. Through a translator taking copious notes, Lee explained that Mono-ha materials such as rope and stone were without value, demonstrating a parity and equality of objects that need not explain themselves. Their choices expressed an anxiety of industrialization and postwar identity—how can someone slow or halt production directed by the relentless Japanese ministry of finance, which he said ran the country following the war but whose members were not elected by the public. Countering a focus on the trivial also concerned him at the time.

What was it like being a Korean in Japan? “That’s a delicate question,” Lee responded, recalling that he moved from his native country to Japan as a college freshman without knowing the language or the culture. The political situation was different: Japan was vehemently anti-American, thus he began to learn aspects of criticism. At the same time, he wasn’t interested in personal communities and “minor cultural disputes”; independence movements around the world excited him more, as did universal, individual, and collective issues in philosophy, and those concerning capitalism and industrialism.

Lee evaded a question addressing his contemporaries—as artists often do when discussing matters of influence—saying he wasn’t fully aware of contemporaneous movements such as earthworks, Conceptual art, Arte Povera, and Minimalism. He was concerned more with conveying “the issue” through his art. Why did he return to painting in 1972? After avoiding the medium for several years because it was about “developing an image” and “establishing your views,” Lee said that by then he had traveled to Europe and the United States. Seeing a Barnett Newman exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in the 1970s, which had only a few color works, convinced him that a systematic approach to painting was possible, in which he could produce not an image but color. The processed-based “performances” of Yves Klein and Piero Manzioni, and canvases by Newman and Mark Rothko, also helped turn him back to his traditional pre–Mono-ha practice.

Installation view of Lee Ufan: Marking Infinity (photograph by David Heald and © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2011)

In the 1970s, South Korea became a quasidemocratic dictatorship, and artists immersed themselves in abstraction as a silent protest. Lee, who was not living in the country at the time, said that Korea was poor. Its citizens wanted freedom but did not know how to get it. Within these limits artists began working in abstraction and used repetition and “nonsense repetitive writing.” Authorities, unfamiliar with the monochrome, tolerated these activities. After seven to eight years, political repression ended. According to Lee, the livelier artists from the 1980s criticized those from the previous decade for their silence, even though it was a “completely frozen era where expression was not allowed.” Did he influence this period of abstraction? That is hard to say, Lee replied. If he did, it was by introducing Korean artists to artists and critics in Japan.

Lee continued his monologue in the Q&A that concluded the symposium’s first section: Mono-ha was critically and popularly misunderstood as a return to nature. (Earthworks was similarly misconstrued in both the art and mainstream press.) An understanding of nature, he said, was always beyond one’s grasp. What interests him is the distance between language and nature. Further, Lee stated that Mono-ha makes use not of singular objects but rather of broken or distressed elements, which suggest impermanence, duration, and time. In countries with a monsoon climate like Japan and Korea, nothing lasts forever. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks, Lee continued, sought permanence in the pyramids and large-scale burial statuary. As much as many Asians obsess over gadgets now, they inherently distrust the object.

Joselit asked Yoshitake an interesting question: What is the political meaning or statement of disappearance [in art]? She was noticeably flustered while trying to answer. To me the answer is self-evident: disappearance in aesthetics becomes political when connected to assassination, imprisonment, and censorship, forcible or voluntary. In this way, dematerialization of the object ca. 1970 reflects repression across Asia and South America, in the United States and South Africa, and throughout Africa during the “short century” of liberation movements. Disappearance as a political and aesthetic strategy, alluding to control and elusiveness, is something, sadly, that never goes out of style.

In Terms Of count: 12 (full symposium).

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