N° 79 Tautology
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28 March - 9 May 2004
Just what is it?
Marc Bauer’s work could be summed up as a series of images that recreate scenes from personal memory. Bauer has used drawing, usually done in graphite or crayon, as the ideal medium to represent these scenes. Based on the drawing, he has also carried out a series of installations that carry his interest in that space of individual memory into three dimensions.
I see the search in art for an individual, personal space as a kind of paradoxical resistance to the individualism that is plaguing us. It is still possible in art to think or construct the individual, or at least to problematise it as part of the consumer system which defines it totally. However, this is not a search in which the individual compensates the pleasures of consumerism with other pleasures. The space of the individual today is a space that is based on the idea that the subject is centralised, that everything goes on around the subject, and that – and many see this as a strength – that is precisely what makes it so extremely fragile.
My first contact with the work of Marc Bauer triggered this train of thought. From that first contact – and this may be the experience of any viewer – those scenes of memory that the artist has created stand out in which they are frequently interrupted by a series of interventions that disturb some kind of moral order: the man who in one scene represents the head of the family appears in another as the two-headed man in position for anal penetration; a nuclear family commits incest by way of the heterodox practice of various sexual experiments; a series of sketches of domestic pets represents them in a position that suggests rigor mortis; zoophilia is equally connoted or denoted; a scene of soldiers at war looks more like a rape. In short, scenes in which the individual subject is subjected to a whole range of destructive pressures.
In the light of this, it is hardly surprising that Bauer’s work produces in me a sensation of witnessing a playing with morality, in spite of – or rather precisely because of – the clear-cut beauty of his drawings. It has often been pointed out that in the modern era the centrality of the subject has depended to a large extent on the development of psychoanalysis and anthropology, and that both disciplines have had to modify their perspectives to take changes in the moral order into account. I believe that Bauer’s work confronts us with these ruptures in ethics and aesthetics, with their highly decorative burden and their narratives referring to the universe of the personal.
Decorum is purity, honesty in social behaviour, closely related to decoration, which is defined in the dictionary as that branch of architecture that shows how to confer on buildings the aspect and quality that is appropriate to their respective functions. I think of this instance in which morality and art find themselves intertwined, undifferentiated, as being very close to Bauer’s works. I believe that this is one of the reasons why his work has had to make the leap into space, into the installation: to underline a relation between ethics and aesthetics that conditions or tries to control our individual behaviour and which is found most subtly and generally in the field of architecture. In fact, in a work like Genealogie der Moral, Bauer presents the three-dimensional version of his genealogical tree as a series of mutilated trunks, that is, the narrative trauma is intensified in the spatial equivalent of what is represented in two dimensions (a mural with a genealogical tree of the artist).
What is there on the inside of social life? What is there in intimacy? These questions arise in the face of what Bauer proposes, perhaps because the insistent presence of the figure, of the centrality of the subject lying in that gaze which simulates an anthropological and psychoanalytical approach, is no more than that, an appearance to question the wholeness of the individual, to show its fractures. What I want to say is that, in the case of these works, we can certainly ask: How much truth is there in the stories that are told from the memory of childhood? How universal are these experiences? What do they actually tell us about the narrator?
I find the etymological coincidence between decorum and decoration much more interesting than any of the stories, the fictions, that the artist tells us because, in order for the stories to be effective, to have a certain capacity to transform the spectator who confronts them, we would have to take them at their face value. If we wanted to engage emotionally with the scenes that Bauer describes, we would have to identify ourselves with what is going on there, try to exchange our memories with those that appear to be his. But Bauer is telling stories which put pressure on the drawing, but it is not the kind of pressure that is exerted by a document. The weight of the twins that hide their face with their hair brings about the drawing on the tiny piece of grass on which they are resting (there is no trace of grass in the rest of the picture except in the drawing that emerges beneath the knees of the twins), in other words, what is manifested on the basis of the story is the evidence of art. It is the same with a family which is trying out various pornographic activities in the drawings that serve as a decorative motif for a paper carpet in the installation Happier & Healthier, when the head of one of the characters disappears in one of the scenes for no apparent reason other than aesthetics. In Constructing Intimacy, the principal figure of a man drawn directly on the wall, the cloud that hovers above his head does not appear in relation to what the man might be thinking but as a gestural, almost expressionist image of an artistic nature, difficult to interpret as a dream, nightmare or any other event that would lead us back to the figure of the man.
So how is that crisis of the individual produced which permeates Bauer’s work if any identification with the subject is purely fictitious? Let me repeat that this work confronts us with a questioning of the centrality of the subject by way of decorum/decoration. As in Richard Hamilton’s famous work Just what is it that makes today’s home so easy, so appealing?, what appears as a form of calling into question is not the narrative but the structure underlying it, the false identification between morality and decoration on which the apparatus of modern knowledge has been nourished.
Bauer’s work seeks a direct connection with art. His images are the images produced by an artist in a genealogical relation with the history of art. They do not require the ethnographer’s disguise.
There is a much-quoted passage from Benjamin’s ‘Unpacking My Library’ which seems to me to be particularly pertinent here:
The phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner. Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter. I do know that time is running out for the type that I am discussing here and have been representing before you a bit ex officio. But, as Hegel put it, only when it is dark the owl of Minerva begin its flight. Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.
In the face of Bauer’s gaze, in which critical or disturbing visions of the everyday present are collected and combined with traces of the endurance of art, it would be worth asking whether it is only at the point of extinction that the individual can be understood.