Matt Mullican’s early experiments questioned the relationship between the material and the objective reality of the world he and his artistic productions inhabited. He questioned the literal place of the things he drew (landscapes, beings, objects). “Where was that reality?”1 This question led him to “go […] further and say […] that that picture is real and that I am in that picture and it does have mass and weight and air and smell…”2 This approach notably resulted in a series of drawings in which Mullican explored various modes of relationship between representation and reality, more specifically drawing as a potential support for projection and identification, able to generate an empathetic response.
As Mullican repeatedly drew a stick figure, a recurring character of sorts, he decided to give it a name, suggesting that this act of naming transformed the nature of the character’s representation by making it more available to a kind of projection and of empathy. This is how “Glen” was born. Through the act of naming, the drawing acquires a form of humanity that emphasizes the character’s anthropomorphic dimension and brings it potentially closer to the artist and his interlocutors. On his sheets of paper, Mullican would also write a sentence describing a state pertaining to his character and referring to an action, a feeling or an idea. Mullican is interested in spatial boundaries that however only exist insofar as they separate objective reality from subjective reality. Thus, in the drawings he produced during the 1970s, Mullican proceeds to a self-referential delineation of physical space. Not only is he interested in the contours of drawing paper itself, but he frequently demarcates a fictional place within the space of the page, allowing himself to exceed the analogy between drawing and fiction.3 In Untitled (Mirror reflecting things outside the frame), from the Fictional Reality, Physical Experiments series (1974-1975), Mullican represents a space in perspective. A mirror sits on the ground, facing the outside of the room, reflecting something. In this drawing, Mullican simultaneously points at the physical space of the sheet of paper belonging to our objective reality, at the represented space of the room in which the mirror was placed, as well as at another space, beyond the frame, within the drawing itself, as a partially visible image reflected by the mirror. Through other kinds of experiments Mullican was able to treat the outside of the frame differently: he drew “fictional details” that gave the drawn object a “realistic” and even “super-realistic” dimension.4 Notable instances of these works include the self-descriptively titled Untitled (Detail of an Angel’s Wing) (1975) or Untitled (Entrance to Hell): so when Mullican indulges in representational “super-realism,” his chosen objects do not belong to objective reality, but to the field of myth and spirituality.
In his 1976 exhibition at Artists Space, New York, Mullican presented Entering the Picture: Entrance to Hell, a performance in which he sat down on a chair in front of a drawing of the entrance to Hell. Taking what he saw in the image as a starting point he initiated a journey inside the drawing, trying to explore the space spread out beyond the boundaries of the frame. Mullican proceeded from a rather simple postulate: the fact that this space is not drawn does not mean it does not exist; it is the drawing that gives only a fragment, a detail of it.
If you want something to happen, you draw a picture of it and, lo and behold, it will happen.5
There is something ambiguous in Mullican’s work that I would like to explore here: he tries to make the boundary between objective and subjective reality as porous as possible, or even to render their separation obsolete; we could however consider the notion of distance differently and argue that through his approach Mullican also introduces a distance in the way we are to perceive the physical world. We could thus say that he takes some distance. The term “distance” seems to raise an issue: on the one hand we would like to suppress it, and on the other hand we would like to introduce another kind of distance. Mullican disturbs the distance produced by a norm that purports to produce a fundamental distinction between what belongs to the realm of the objective, of the tangible, of the scientifically proven, and what belongs to the realm of the subjective, of the imagination, dreams or beliefs. The distance Mullican introduces is rather a resistance against this normative and regulated distribution of places and roles attributed to the objective and to the subjective. He introduces complexity and offers the possibility for wanderings, adventures and experiences. His approach claims displacement and possibilities: “it will happen.”
In 1973, Mullican juxtaposed two objects—a pillow and a timber off-cut; he placed the pillow on the floor and put one end of the plank on the pillow. The resulting work is entitled Sleeping Child. With this work, a regular fixture in his exhibitions—up to the most recent—Mullican tries out an exercise in personification: relating two objects of a highly different nature; on the one hand, the pillow is used for what it is, in relation to its usual function associated with sleep; on the other hand the wooden beam, coupled with the pillow, becomes the symbol for a human body, in a similar way to the artist’s stick figures. Despite the absence of an object standing for the head, the mere fact of placing one end of the beam against the pillow is sufficient to convey the idea of a face. A piece of wood is lying down; a body lays asleep; here the title plays a crucial part and provides this body with a more precise identity: this is not just any sleeping body, but that of a child. We may now conjecture on this particular representation of sleep, and wonder if the state into which sleep plunges the body is not, for that matter, a transitional, paradoxical state, neither animated nor unanimated, alive yet steeped in a form of passivity that is not a state of inactivity. Sleeping Child appears as a programmatic work prefiguring Mullican’s photographic juxtaposition of the face of a corpse and the face of a puppet, asking which one of these two images produces the stronger feeling of empathy. The paradoxical dimension of sleep also anticipates the artist’s experiments with hypnotic trance initiated in 1978.
In the poetry collection entitled Tender Buttons, published in 1914, Gertrude Stein evokes a large number of objects belonging to the realm of the domestic and the everyday, including a cushion:
A cushion has that cover. Supposing you do not like to change, supposing it is very clean that there is no change in appearance, supposing that there is regularity and a costume is that any the worse than an oyster and an exchange. Come to season that is there any extreme use in feather and cotton. Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a chance to see a tassel.6
I read and listened to a recording of “Objects,” the first section of Tender Buttons. Every time I have read or listened to Stein’s writing, I have noted a strong contradiction: her poetical or prose texts—such as the lecture “Composition as Explanation”—combine two seemingly opposed qualities; on the one hand, the importance of depiction, the extremely concrete, almost brutal dimension in its materialistic approach to things and its way of calling forth the physical characteristics of objects; on the other hand, the profound disorganisation of grammar, an obstacle to the grasping of language by human awareness in the context of language’s referential operations and of meaning production. Stein’s poetry does not subject its visual, and more broadly sensory apprehension of space and objects to the rules of grammar or any existing literary model; words are strung together, juxtaposed, made contiguous, and translate Stein’s apprehension of things in the system that is language without strict distinction between objects and subjects, without establishing a hierarchy among meanings, between what belongs to physical perception or mental projection. Stein’s poetic writing does not allow one to distinguish what she sees from what she thinks or imagines. In a different manner from Mullican, she shares a desire to abolish the distance between objective reality and subjective reality. Stein undoes logical connections, overturns the syntax, re-enacts associations in a completely different way, and thus firmly complicates the passage from language to imagery. She does not entirely prevent the circulation between the verbal and the visual, but constrains it to such an extent that readers are obliged to radically transform the way they approach words, sentences and poems. Like Mullican, Stein does not refuse the frame of representation; on the contrary, she gets involved in it by challenging the opposition between objectivity and subjectivity. Stein’s writing, just like Mullic an’s artistic practice, borrows from the codes of realistic representation, exploring the material universe of ordinary things, putting its internal limits to the test—not those that distinguish between realism and abstraction or nonsense, but those that separate the ordinary from the infra-ordinary.
What we need to question is bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms. To question that which seems to have ceased forever to astonish us. We live, true, we breathe, true; we walk, we open doors, we go down staircases, we sit at a table in order to eat, we lie down on a bed in order to sleep. How? Where? When? Why?7
Mullican relentlessly questions the human need to build systemic worldviews, cosmologies, to invent languages and other systems of signs, to build cities, and so on. He notably casts doubt upon the strict separation between subject and object, between the objective and the subjective worlds, stressing the eminently ambiguous quality of the frames of representation located at the junction of these two dimensions. One particular work by Mullican could be taken as his most direct attempt at poetry: in 1973, the same year as Sleeping Child, he wrote a text entitled Essex (Details of an Imaginary Life from Birth to Death) in which he listed—starting from “Her birth” and ending with “Her death”—the various events, persons and objects that punctuated the life of a generic person (“her” not referring here to a woman, but to any human being).
Her house, home
Learning to crawl
The heat from the kitchen stove
Learning to walk
The pillow on her parent’s bed
Crying when feeling lost
The people living down the street
Learning to read words
The dining room table
While Mullican’s writing style appears more conventional than Stein’s, both share a desire—beyond the fact that these passages both mention a pillow and a table—to depict a world in which the distinctions between subjects and objects are uncertain, allowing one to imagine new relations and giving inert things a new role.
While Stein belongs to a series of references I always return to with pleasure and curiosity, the example of Tender Buttons came to me while I was thinking about Geoffrey Farmer’s work.
Kathy Acker rang my head like a bell.
It happened sometime in the spring of 1990, while she was reading out loud, a passage to our class from Gertrude Stein’s 1914 book Tender Buttons.
I had just read it myself and thought little of it. In fact I clearly remember not liking it.
The book is comprised of three parts: Objects, Food and Rooms. I didn’t understand what any of the passages had to do with any of the subjects that they were listed under. When Kathy read, she did so simply, without sentiment and with a New York accent that delivered the words with matter-of-factness.
She was sitting at the end of a long conference table at the San Francisco Art Institute, and I was with half of the class, looking out through the window at Alcatraz, our backs facing the wall with the then entombed painting, The Rose (1958-1966) by Jay Defeo.
“The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.”
Then the sound of a bell.
“The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong…”
I’m thinking about this now, in New York, while I look out at the rain from the circular window of my hotel room.
In 2009, Geoffrey Farmer spent about one month at the Parc Saint Léger art centre at Pougues-les-Eaux, at my invitation, in order to produce a new piece for a collective exhibition.9 There, Geoffrey developed a particular relationship with the surroundings of the centre, and was particularly attentive to the most ordinary elements of his private life in the context of the residency; he also explored two culturally identified places connected to Bernadette Soubirous. She has a particular presence in the context of Nevers, the closest city to the art centre.10 Geoffrey had wished to see the reliquary in which her body, declared intact by the Church, was placed in 1925. He also visited the church of Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay, designed by Paul Virilio and Claude Parent, built in 1966 in the Banlay neighbourhood of Nevers, and dedicated to Bernadette Soubirous. The work entitled The Blinking Eye of Everything gathers a set of disparate elements resulting from an inquiry following the person of Bernadette, herself the heroine of an American film entitled The Song of Bernadette—a film that, Geoffrey was aware, was of particular significance for Gregory Corso.11 The Blinking Eye of Everything offers a scattered form of narration focused on affirming a psychological and psychic vision. Geoffrey fabricated devices for sight: several stereoscopic glasses of sorts, built from ordinary materials: twigs, the bottoms of glass bottles, red and blue threads. These glasses were designed to look at the photographs made by the artist while exploring the natural spring of Saint Léger, now closed and disabled. Geoffrey also removed his room’s window and placed it in the exhibition space: he tried to cover the window with dozens of broken bottle fragments, assembling them so as to recall the motif of a stained-glass window.12 Elsewhere, on a window ledge on the first floor of the exhibition space, he put a number of postcards, barely visible and hardly accessible. They were made from images found on the Internet, all sharing a mushroom-shaped motif. This motif moved and transformed: the shape of the church of Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay, the nuclear cloud above Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the words of Gregory Corso’s poem “Bomb,” arranged on the page in the shape of a mushroom cloud), an erect penis, and poisonous or hallucinogenic mushrooms. In spite of the spatial dispersion of objects and images and the looseness of the connections tying them together, the entire set of elements making up the work was turned toward hallucinatory experiences, an altered, disrupted vision of reality, in a context that was not aiming at the extraordinary, but on the contrary, that anchored the possibility of a mystical experience in the time and space of everyday life.
How to understand (describe/deconstruct) an experience that presents itself as coming from elsewhere, as non-appropriable, an experience that, on the contrary, is asking for this kind of “dispossession” that we call “self-surrender.”13
To my knowledge, Geoffrey never showed the work he created during his residency at Parc Saint Léger again; I am not even sure he took the objects he had produced with him (postcards, posters, stereoscopic glasses…); besides, some of them were absolutely inappropriable: an architectural model of Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay borrowed from the city of Nevers, his room’s window, or a towel rack that was also displaced during the exhibition. Moreover The Blinking Eye of Everything had an extremely intimate—even erotic—dimension, which was unsurprising: this antiquated place, the site of the old Saint Léger spa, then of a casino, exudes a certain apathy and idleness that encourage imaginary projections. The term eye may of course be heard as I. One blinks when blinded by the sun or when one’s vision is disrupted; yet how are we to understand this form of blinking as it relates to the I? A blinded, bedazzled, intoxicated subject? And what if the act of drinking from this spring, now closed but still existing, had thrown one into an unheard-of drunkenness?
The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong…
In Boneyard, presented during the 2014 exhibition Cut nothing, cut parts, cut the whole, cut the order of time at Casey Kaplan in New York, Geoffrey Farmer meticulously cut individual figures from a series of books on the history of sculpture published in the 1960s and entitled Capolavori della Scultura. He took each figure from the surface of the paper and placed them in the exhibition space. Formerly fastened to a linear historical account, these 813 paper figurines escaped from the frame of representation and the ordering of knowledge, and offer another experience to viewers. Farmer thus embodies the figure of an art geologist, exploring the innumerable layers of history in order to disrupt its rigid succession and enable new genealogies. In this context, it is probably no surprise to note that Farmer was inspired by Stein’s work, whose writing immerses the reader (and herself) in what she called a “continuous present,” a concern for “composition and a time-sense.”14
The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.15
Stein writes almost only in the present tense: occurrences of the past tense are rare, no future tense, but a present that may be successively qualified as “prolonged” and “continuous”16 in order to stress certain grammatical forms she uses to distinguish different temporalities and her systematic use of repetition.
Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here.17
The notion of “continuous present” echoes Farmer’s work, whose long and meticulous process of cutting figures disrupts Art History’s chronological account and plunges us into a new composition, characterised by the attempt to gather all the figures in one single expanse in which historical time has been dismissed. An inert thing, abandoned to the past, is given life. For Stein as much as for Farmer, repetition is a transformation, a new beginning, the assertion that everything can be put into question in the face of a seemingly given world.
Once Friedrich Nietzsche declared, “God is dead” then FUCK became the most important word in the English language.18
Geoffrey Farmer supplements Boneyard with an index, a series of words numbered from 1 to 47. These notes provide a vast array of textual registers lacking explicit sources: fragments, from a paragraph to a simple verbal juxtaposition, historical narratives, poetic texts, philosophical reflections, or a classified ad. Interspersed with casual or even vulgar expressions, the index generates a series of elliptic interjections, commentaries or anecdotes that often border on the undecipherable, yet allow an alternative interpretation of the work through references to eroticism, sexuality, violence or the sacred.
Gertrude Stein, Matt Mullican and Geoffrey Farmer share a certain degree of obstinacy: they persist, they repeat themselves, they stand their ground, and even revolt. They do not hesitate to infuse their work with ordinary, familiar or even vulgar elements—Mullican’s hypnosis-based works abound with insults—but also with erotic aspects: Mullican’s notebooks include erotic dreams, while his Bulletin Boards use images taken from adult magazines. Stein, Mullican and Farmer are obstinate, disobedient, and enthusiastic subjects.
Their works aim at producing syncopated, disjointed narratives that paradoxically unite brutal shocks and repetition. Theirs are narratives of ecstasy in which the issue of being beside oneself is fundamental: their visual, poetic approaches make way for a verbalised, dispersed, and deficient figure, keeping the subject possessing power and knowledge—unique, conscious and autonomous—at a distance.
Is a dream child? Representing, personal habits, being unaware, subliminal messages, trances, hypnagogic, sleep, dreaming, delirium and comas.19
Matt Mullican, interview with João Ribas, in Matt Mullican: A Drawing Translates the Way of Thinking (New York: The Drawing Center, 2008), 7. ↩
Ibid., 10. ↩
The act of drawing a fictional place on paper seems to correspond to a traditional type of figurative representation, yet I believe the experimental dimension of this representational practice should be stressed in Mullican’s work. ↩
Mullican uses the term “super” to qualify a type of relationship between the image and reality that tends to test the distinction between objective reality and the representational frame. Besides, for his performances under hypnosis, he refers to a “super-theatre,” that is, a theatre in which an actor plays a part without being able to distinguish the character’s reality from his own. ↩
Matt Mullican, 11. ↩
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (Mineola, NY: Dover, 1997), 3-4. ↩
Georges Perec, “Approaches of What?” in Ben Highmore (ed.), The Everyday Life Reader (London—New York: Routledge, 2002), 178. ↩
Text written Geoffrey Farmer for his exhibition Cut nothing, cut parts, cut the whole, cut the order of time at Casey Kaplan, New York, October 30–December 20, 2014: http://caseykaplangallery.com/cat/exhibitions/geoffrey-farmer. ↩
Le Chant de la carpe, Parc Saint Léger, 2009. ↩
Bernadette Soubirous effectively found refuge in 1866 among the Sisters of Charity of Nevers. Since her death, the Church has maintained that her body has remained intact. Bernadette Soubirous was turned into a symbol when the Church moved her body inside a transparent reliquary for everyone to see. The reliquary went on to become a pilgrimage site. ↩
Gregory Corso (1930-2001) was a major member of the Beat Generation along with poets and authors Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. ↩
Upon visiting Sainte-Bernadette du Banlay, we learned that the church’s stained-glass windows had been vandalised, and were never restored to their original condition. Paul Virilio paid particular attention to stained glass windows as he had been trained as a master glassmaker at the École des metiers d’art in Paris. ↩
Isabelle Stengers, “William James—naturalisme et pragmatisme au fil de la question de la possession,” in Didier Debaise (ed.), Philosophie des possessions (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2011), 65. ↩
G. Stein, “Composition as Explanation,” in A Stein Reader, ed. Ulla E. Dydo (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 495. ↩
Ibid., 497. ↩
“A composition of a prolonged present is a natural composition in the world as it has been these thirty years it was more and more a prolonged present. I created then a prolonged present naturally I knew nothing of a continuous present but it came naturally to me to make one, it was simple it was clear to me and nobody knew why it was done like that I did not myself although naturally to me it was natural.” (Ibid., 498). ↩
Geoffrey Farmer, “Boneyard Index (2014),” Mousse 46 (December 2014–January 2015). ↩
Published on <o> future <o>, April 16, 2016.
- [CC BY-ND 4.0](https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/)
This text is part of The Protagonists a series of new contributions and translations edited by François Aubart, to accompany two recent projects: a series of talks entitled Laissez-vous séduire par le Sex Appeal de l’inorganique (September 26, 2015—February 25, 2016) at centre d'art Passerelle, in Brest, and the exhibition Surfaces of You (January 21—April 10, 2016) at Le Plateau—Frac Île-de-France in Paris.