As the news of David Bowie’s death thundered around the world I received a number of texts simply stating “end of an era.” This feeling that we live in an era, a specially marked time, is an odd thing. It seems to me that eras don’t really end, things inevitably cycle back around, changed but often very much the same.
It’s been 12 years since the world also lost essayist, novelist, playwright and filmmaker, Susan Sontag. She’s one of those perennial thinkers and writers whose thoughts are well worth re-examining every year or so; they’re so easy to re-apply when looking at changes in both society and art, and her work is rich because she embraces the new but always with an eye to the past.
In 1979 Rolling Stone published part of a lengthy interview between Sontag and journalist Jonathan Cott that had taken place during the preceding months. Sontag revelled in conversation—for her it was a form of thinking while talking. The published interview gave us glimpses of one of modern times’ greatest minds revving at full throttle. Recently Yale University Press released the entire transcript, the full 12 hours of frenetic discussion.
It’s a good read, wading into all kinds of areas but moving on at pace. It offers parts of what are clearly longer thought lines. It could be accused of being fragmented. But then for Sontag this was not a problem. To quote directly from her, “It seems as if the fragment is really the art form of our time, and everybody who has reflected about art and thought has to deal with this problem … There’s a reason why the fragment, starting with the romantics, becomes the preeminent art form that allows for things to be more true, more authentic, more intense.”
Sontag goes on in her interview to talk about the fragments that are created by the mutilations of history. She points out that Venus de Milo would never have become so famous if she still had her arms. The love of the fragment has to do with a sense of the pathos of history and the ravages of time; we’re aware of the missing parts, the parts that have been lost or destroyed. We’re called on to fill things in with our imagination. The form of the fragment says Sontag “points to the gaps, spaces, and silences between things… it’s literally decadent—and not in the moral sense—it’s the style of the end of a civilisation or a tradition of thought or a sensibility”. She goes on to point out that the fragment presupposes that you know a lot, you have a lot of stuff behind you. “It’s not an art form or a thought of young cultures that need to make things very specific.”
Since visiting Sir John Soane’s Museum in London during 2015, I’ve been thinking a lot about fragments and their inverse, the encyclopaedic vision. I’ve been wondering if the shift from the 20th-century focus on fragments to our Google world of all-knowingness marks a decisive break between one artistic generation and the next. And wondering if the changes taking place around us now are in some way close to those that took place in the 18th century, a time also marked by both rapid technological advances and an accompanying desire to catalogue the world and all its things. After all, it was the time that gave us the encyclopedia and the public museum.
Like many of his countryman Sir John Soane undertook a ‘grand tour’ of Europe in the late 1700s. His desire to see and know as much as possible led to him to collect a vast array of architectural drawings, hundreds of architectural models, a mindboggling array of Greek and Roman statues, architectural relics, paintings, Chinese ceramics and an Egyptian sarcophagus. He lived with this extraordinary collection, remodelling his house as the number of objects grew. It has been described as one of the most intricate and ingenious interiors ever conceived. This house is now a museum and is open to the public. Entering it is like entering someone else’s brain.
Artists born after the 1980s have grown up in a world where computer technology is their major research and communication tool. Unsurprisingly, this has changed the kind of art they make. Many of the most exciting emerging artists of our time make work of huge complexity and encyclopaedic ambition. Collecting data, cataloguing, filing, indexing and cross-referencing have become major artistic strategies and have largely taken the place of editing, minimising and abstracting that were the language of 20th-century artists. Working to ‘find more’ and then organise it can be seen in the work of artists like Simon Denny, Camille Henrot, Christian Marclay and Simon Starling. Theirs is an art that spells things out and seeks to gain control of information.
We’re living in a brave new world convinced of the power of information. Those who can find ways to master the categorisation and control of information via apps and digital devices are richly rewarded. It seems that we’re struggling to get hold of a new kind of world. Sontag points out that Roland Barthes had stated in the dying days of the 20th century that his whole effort at that time was to go beyond the fragment. As a society we’re no longer satisfied with fragments—whether physical or mental. We have come to believe that more information is more knowledge, more power. The art of our time has followed with its encyclopaedic form.
Camille Henrot’s video Grosse Fatigue, which was shown at the 2013 Venice Biennale and is on show at City Gallery Wellington (until 13 March), is a fantastic example of an artist grappling with our current information overload and the problem of how to make sense of it. Her desperate attempt to force endless information into a history of the world is exhilarating. It’s both a celebration and critique of information overload. It’s also meant, I believe, to show the difference between information and knowledge.
Information refers to data that has been given meaning by being processed, given meaning through establishing relational connections between one bit and another. Knowledge however is the collection of information in a way that makes it useful. For sure you need information to gain knowledge but to go from one to the other, information must be modelled—most often by giving it a pattern. The challenge of moving from information to knowledge is not a new problem.
I’m reminded of the words of the Australian Aboriginal painter Emily Kngwarreye. When asked what she painted she replied, “Whole lot, that’s the whole lot. Awelve (my Dreamings), Alatyeye (pencil yam), Arkerrthe (mountain devil lizard), Ntange (grass seed), Tingu (a Dreamtime pup), Ankerre (emu), Intekewe (a favourite food of emus), Atnwerle (green bean) and Kame (yam seed). That’s what I paint; the whole lot.”
A certain challenge lies in her words. To open work to “the whole lot” is the challenge of the moment. The artistic strategies of the new generation of artists differ from those of the 20th century, but in order to appreciate and critique this new work, it seems important not to be blinded by its newness and to remember the predecessors. In the end all generations are perhaps just pathetically groping around, trying to make some sense of their situation.
Published in Art News Autumn 2016