Kevin Rodgers: Contingency Problem

Kevin Rodgers
Poster from Kevin Rodgers, OUT OF ORDER, 2012 McIntosh Gallery in London, ON.

In a 1972 text that takes the Watergate scandal as its stepping off point, Hannah Arendt writes:

The deliberate falsehood deals with contingent facts; that is, with matters that carry no truth within themselves, no necessity to be as they are…

It’s hard to think of a better analogy for contemporary art practice, or at least a certain tendency within it. Watergate may be far from the concerns of contemporary art but the manipulation of contingent facts is often the way art gets practiced today.

The characterization of art as a species of lying is long standing. The idea dates back to Plato. As a bulwark against the temporal nature of existence (which changes and ultimately expires) and the non-omniscient perspective of human beings, Plato posited another reality, one that was more real than the one mere mortals’ experience. It’s a schema that takes solace in the possibility of transcending the imperfectness and contingency of everyday life.

For Plato artworks were non-ideal, mere approximations of their referents, if potentially seductive regardless. Today art trades in a subtle variant on this idea of art’s essential deception. Dispensing with the framework of the meta-physic, contingency is no longer a problem. Instead it represents the opportunity every artist engages with. With each instance of reception meaning crystallizes anew, which is why such a high value is placed on the actual encounter with the artwork.

However, encountering an artwork provides no guarantee that meaning will derive from it. In the best scenario, contemporary art aims for a kind of freedom enjoyed by the spectator in the contingent moment of understanding. But it’s not a freedom easily won, and the reason for this is directly connected to the way art intermingles with falsehood.

Kevin Rodgers, OUT OF ORDER
Installation, Kevin Rodgers, OUT OF ORDER, 2012 McIntosh Gallery in London, ON.

In a certain type of art practice things are made to stand in for other things. This type of practice makes literal the idea that appearances are deceptive. The art encounter that results will require viewers to hunt for the meaning of the facts presented to them. A mental operation will be required that is often tough because exceedingly subtle. Back to Arendt:

“deception [is] so very easy up to a point…it never comes into conflict with reason because things could have indeed been as the liar maintains they were…”

Artworks similarly never come into conflict with reason. If a work defies logic it simply isn’t successful. It fails the demand that it be in some way interpretable.

The best works of art are open-ended and susceptible to multiple interpretations. The onus placed on the viewer in this transaction accounts for the dissatisfaction about art often expressed by contemporary art audiences. Arendt gets at this idea when she says “factual truths are never compellingly true.” And the demand placed on the viewer is perhaps never greater, and meaning is never more elusive, than when artists present an assemblage of facts, things standing in for other things, with only minimal clues about how to grasp their intention.

How do we access the meaning an artwork implies except through the hard surface of the facts presented? In the end, there is only this surface, a set of appearances held in tension with one another and, implicitly, held in tension with what isn’t there. The clues and lack of clues work together to create a kind of surface coherence, the edits or cuts becoming as important, as you will come to understand, as what is left in its stead.

Rosemary Heather

Commissioned on the occasion of the show, this text appears on the poster give away that accompanied Kevin Rodgers, OUT OF ORDER, McIntosh Gallery in London, ON, 19 July to August 11, 2012. The exhibition was the culmination of the artist’s PhD research at The University of Western Ontario.

More information about Kevin Rodgers work can be found here.

The Fox: Yam Lau, Oskar Hüber, Yam Lau, Sophie Nys and Kevin Rodgers

Oskar Hüber, moon video
Oskar Hüber, Gute Nacht!, cardboard box, video (2011)

Curated by Kevin Rodgers

Artmaking is always in some way an arena for subtle thought experiments. If everyday certainties fall away and audiences are left to re-think what they thought they knew, the experiment is a success. It is a commitment to the activity of thought, as opposed to its ossification in “knowledge”, which drives artist Kevin Rodgers’ curation of the Fox.

Setting the stage for the performance of thought, Rodgers’ quotes Hannah Arendt from her book, The Life of the Mind (1978), who warns not to “mistake the need to think with the urge to know.” Thinking, Rodgers’ notes, can be bottomless. The art gallery provides an apt metaphor for concept of a bottomless space; or in Arendtian terms, an interval in time between past and future. Rodger’s curation fulfills this ambition, primarily by being more enigmatic, and more successfully so, than your average art exhibition.

The figures of Arendt and her one time lover, Martin Heidegger, frame the exhibition. Giants of 20th century thought, their romantic liaison stands in contrast to key aspects of their respective philosophical positions. Heidegger, the eponymous fox, pulled the thread of his thinking through the holes provided by the meaning of certain words, such as ‘being’, which are central to the edifice of language. Parsing meaning into ever greater depths of subtlety led the German philosopher, in Arendt’s view, into a trap that suggests reasons why he could disavow culpability for his association with National Socialism.

Today Arendt’s thought enjoys ruddy health, in part due to her glamorous theorization of the public sphere as a realm of authentic living. In the exhibition, Rodgers’ presents the two figures in poster format. A scaled-up portrait of Heidegger is hung close to the ceiling so that he casts a dour gaze down onto the exhibition. As in his philosophical writing, Heidegger exists as a remote presence. For its companion piece, the artist prints a poster of Arendt’s parable about a fox in his lair, who is happily cunning but probably amoral as a result. Thinking about the trap of your own presuppositions offers a potential for release from it, by mere dint of thinking about it. By the same token, historical figures presented in visual form can only stand at the threshold of the ideas they represent. Onus for elaboration of those ideas is a job for the viewer.

The idea of an interval is given literal form by Yam Lau’s A-fold-in-two, in memory of Gordon Lebredt (2011). Lau’s work is a reprise of a collaboration he made with Lebredt, who died of cancer earlier this year, for the now defunct Toronto space Cold City Gallery in 1997. Originally accompanying Lebredt’s series of architectural interventions at Cold City, Lau here presents two off-white metallic slabs hung high up on the wall across the room from each other. Both slabs are bent at a right angle at one end, so they slant out from the wall. Implying sight lines that slice the room in two, at the same time Lau’s work brackets’ the gallery inside the legacy of contemporary art’s rhetoric of forms.

German artist, Oskar Hüber, takes a different approach to the encapsulation of space. Gute Nacht! (2011) presents a luscious, tightly-framed, video of the moon turning on its access that is hidden at the bottom of a cardboard box. By virtue of this simple spatial manoeuvre, a whole world is contained for the benefit of our mastery. Looking down at the work, however, also has the effect of relativizing our own place on the planet. Like David Bowie says, “It’s lonely out in space.” Hüber creates an effective portrait of the limits of our world.

Belgian Sophie Nys’ presents a large-scale reproduction of the cover of Heidegger’s Die Kunst und der Raum (1969) that hangs from the ceiling, and a video shot in the German countryside that features a still photograph of the philosopher and standing in front of his summer hut. Without delving into the content of the book, its title alone, which translates as Art and Space, makes for a nice précis of the exhibition as a whole: art plus life equals the steps we take to negotiate the interval between them.

In his book about photography, Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes formulates the concept of the punctum. Derived from the Latin word for wound, punctum can mean the tiny opening the eye has for the tear duct. In Barthes’ terms, it means the part of the photograph that punctures you, bringing on unexpected emotional associations that may be unrelated to the meaning of the picture as a whole. Although not a show about photography, The Fox has a punctum in it; specifically, a rustic toilet seat once used by Heidegger that Nys’ reportedly spirited away from the philosopher’s summer retreat in the Black Forest.

Making reference to the punctum to talk about artworks is to misapply Barthes’ concept. And yet to say I am pierced by the presence of this particular toilet seat in the show is accurate. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, the implications ripple outwards. For one, it invites unwelcome thoughts about the German philosopher’s ass and its related functions. Elevating the discussion a bit, the toilet seat also prompts thoughts about real things and their relationship to art. The toilet seat is a real thing and yet its effect depends on the story that comes with it. Nys’ piece is a powerful example of the type of experience the art gallery is uniquely capable of creating. An interval in Arendt’s sense of the term, it offers the viewer a chance to participate in a thought experiment of the truest kind.

The Fox was presented at G Gallery, Toronto, July 14 – August 20, 2011. This text appears in Border Crossings #120

More info about Yam Lau can be found here.

More info about Kevin Rodgers can be found here.

More info about Sophie Nys can be found here.