For Inclusion in the Syllabi

The first line of a press release by Am Nuden Da directs the reader as to how to approach the text that follows. The preamble to an exhibition of some form, the context of which we are presumably about to be enlightened, it invites us to engage “(Romantically)”. The words that follow might, one assumes, conform to a particular art-speak modality that is almost obligatory for any gallery happening this side of town. Prescriptive and authoritative, the tendency is to communicate very little as to actual content, and succinctness here is far from the agenda. The text’s role is instead to comfort, to reassure all parties involved that they are playing the same game, by the same linguistic and symbolic rules of engagement upon which the art world functions. Yet here, the press release does not refer to the exhibition in which it is situated. It has been orphaned, the solitary remnant of a prior show perhaps, accompanied only by three near identical versions of itself. These versions differ in the manner in which they are framed by the typographic accoutrements of successive galleries’ branding, whilst the main body of text remains untouched. In addition to the first unadorned version, which names only the rather cryptic Am Nuden Da, there is a second that lists half a dozen artists, a third which details a gallery in Zurich. The participants change each time, as do other subtle details. By the fourth variation, the ‘event’ having moved on to Rome, the (Romantically) instruction has been accompanied by an additional line informing us that what follows is now “A failed project by Vincent Honoré.”

The text itself is consistently playful and lyrical in tone, urging the reader to “succumb to the unexpected, to that of delightful bliss.” It asserts its relation to the matter (or lack of) of its own subject as that of a piece of writing which simultaneously materialises and elucidates the exhibition in which it is situated, each action causing the other into being. So what are we to make of this? It would seem that we have been caught up in some kind of feedback loop, the document forming and re-forming itself wherever it is shown. This is a sort of rococo conceptualism in action, the overriding sense of which is, surprisingly, not of a dry formalistic deconstructive nature, but which belongs to a wholly more romantic order. This is the potency of that one parenthesised mindset, of that singular trigger, whose inclusion is at once ironic and sincere, and whose power is nonetheless explosive enough to shatter the mirrors of recursivity that might have hitherto hindered movement. Caught up in an order of rigid adherence, one is urged to nevertheless pursue this path as if such a structure would, by way of an inherent failure perhaps, eventually signal the birth of a romantic becoming. This is the metamodernist condition in full flow.

For Inclusion in the Syllabi might also be, at first glance, a somewhat dry and authoritarian title for an exhibition, but at The Pigeon Wing in South East London, the curatorial collective known as Five Storey Projects have something altogether more egalitarian and experimental in mind. Am Nuden Da’s press release is one of the works on the ‘syllabus’ here, the product of a series of independent explorations carried out by the constituent members of the curatorial group, operating within (and against) a single overarching framework of their own design. The configuration of this system, outlined in a series of ‘Action Guidelines’, has been visualised in diagrammatic form, illustrated at the entrance to the space, simultaneously emphatic yet provisional, pencilled large on the gallery wall. Though providing no notation or key, it becomes apparent that the solar system of orbitary bodies mapped out therein is intended to represent the participating artists, curators and writers, all traveling along their own trajectories, whilst bound by the gravitational pull of their fellow contributors’ celestial and cerebral proximities. Further investigation reveals that the fiery star at the centre of their planetary schema is a poem entitled The Syrinx, A Pastoral Fiction, by the Portuguese mathematician-philosopher, António Franco Alexandre, from which the title of the exhibition originates:

I want someone who’ll love me and leave me
with equally tranquil concision
and who’ll record our encounter in a report
or a poem for inclusion in the syllabi
of the schools beyond the bridges.[i]

This text, or more precisely the four verses of it readily accessible in English translation, has been chosen, we are informed, by the fifth ‘impartial’ member of the curatorial group (as if such a position were not oxymoronic). It is proposed as a point of departure, in response to which the other members will assemble artists and writers of their choosing, who, in turn, are given license to invite others to lead the direction of artistic inquiry further astray, instigating a multilayered series of interdisciplinary collaborations, culminating in the exhibition and assortment of texts with which we find ourselves confronted here.

One might describe such a modus operandi as overtly obfuscatory. That is to say, all parties involved know that they have been assigned a role, but that comprehending the inner workings of the system’s entangled networks will have little or no bearing on the outsider’s experience of their outcomes. In fact, one might suppose that it is preferable for the schema not to be understood at all. What is important is merely to acknowledge the very existence of a system; one that, in the group’s own words, is “layered, intricate and open to contingency, but a system none-the-less.” Having set themselves to work within such a framework, the intent is not simply to pursue a closed line of analytical or (pseudo-)scientific inquiry, but to veer off course, to “fall into a well, without parachute or compass”[ii], or to tumble downhill so fast as to propel their creative flights of fancy into orbit—or, at least, as far as those schools beyond the bridges.

Matthew Thompson, Patrick Coyle and Ann Harezlak preside over a glass vitrine in the centre of the gallery. Three cheery frogs sit atop a rock within; a kitschy Jeff Koons-esque garden ornament, here loosely referencing the leaping amphibians depicted at the feet of the water nymph in Hendrick van Balen the Elder’s painting, Pan Pursuing Syrinx. The frogs have been positioned so as to appear spellbound, immersed in a 1980s textbook whose subject is the anatomy of birds, and whose author is, as if by chance, the artist’s namesake, Patrick G. Coyle Jr. The chapter they are here fixated upon displays the structure of the avian vocal organ, which is also known as the syrinx. A standoff is thus enacted between the vacuousness of the statuette’s ironic-postmodern orientation (with eyes quite literally glazed over), and the autodidactic earnestness of an enlightenment sensibility embodied by the textbook. The two figures are bound within a rather pleasing, somewhat contradictory, symmetry of intent and coincidence, enthusiasm and apathy.

Martijn in’t Veld continues on a whimsical note with Melody: a guitar pick on a shelf in a room in a building in a city in a country on a planet in a space, which is exactly as described, provided one makes the necessary poetic investment in the inanimate object, that is. A picture on the adjacent wall shows the path of a leaf falling through the air, conceivably alluding to the beauty that arises out of the combined effects of gravity’s ordered classical simplicity and the chaotic disorder of aerodynamic turbulence. Perhaps most interesting is a text by the same artist, invoking the spirit of Alexandre’s poem, which recounts the artist’s alarm at discovering that he has made exactly the same work of art as another artist. In fact, his friend informs him, if anything, the other artist’s work is “a bit better” than his. Mikko Kuorinki, the ‘other artist’, has been tracked down, and here presents his work in tandem with in’t Veld as a singular piece with joint authorship, entitled The Artist’s Keys. This small, unassuming intervention—a full set of keys, remarkable only in that they have been left uncut, capable of unlocking nothing—has newfound significance here as a sort of retrospective collaboration, subverting, or perhaps lamenting, the notion of original thought as a prerequisite for neoteric artistic genesis.

Assembled at the far end of the space, as if to mirror the ordered diagrammatic illustration encountered at the entrance, is a work by Julia Tcharfas and Tim Ivison, a large structure whose form is akin to a mangled electricity pylon, or perhaps Tatlin’s Constructivist tower, built entirely from papier-mâchéd newspaper. Its limbs are splayed out, barely resisting complete collapse. Any ideological aspirations have, it appears, befallen the same inevitable entropic demise as all tomorrow’s fish and chips paper. This failure is looked over by a picture of a vision of utopia: a bright, gleaming architect’s impression of a future construction, replete with orderly crowds dispersed about the space exactly in accordance with the grand visionary’s computer simulations. On closer inspection, the place is recognisable as the new King’s Cross home of Central Saint Martins art college, whose tatty corridors and ill-heated studios have been swapped for shiny, pristine white spaces, custom made for modernist contemplation and undisturbed creative conception. But perhaps the state of disrepair, the cramped dysfunctional spaces, the inadequate facilities, the uneven grey floors that masked a thousand layers of splattered paint, gave the old place a vibrancy, a sense of history and urgency, that made it so conducive to original and collaborative thought. We see the architect’s rendering here photographed on a billboard, juxtaposed against a decrepit brick wall, about to be engulfed entirely by a mass of intruding greenery. Can the structures and containers for creativity ever be implemented by design, one asks, or might the only path be for such routes to emerge over time, organically?

At the heart of this exhibition is the series of texts by curators, artists and writers that make up what is referred to as a ‘non-linear publication’. This emphasis on non-linearity, the desire for a rhizomatic structure, is at odds with the manner in which the project has been conceived, with the Syrinx poem functioning as the solitary seed from which all events here branch outwards. Rory Rowan’s essay, The Heart of the World, similarly undermines its own rationale, deliberately mistaking metaphor for metaphysics, and calling for an end to transcendent illusions. His conclusion, an attempt to escape metaphor’s vicious circle, proclaims the groundlessness of love as the answer to all, a fantasy that might free us from “the fantasy of earthly foundations.” In doing so, of course, the author assumes a position that is contradictory in the extreme. Angus Cameron’s riveting essay also speaks of metaphorical boundaries, introducing the ‘money devil’ as the ‘trickster’ that operates at the bridge between reality and the unknown, describing money as “mankind’s greatest (and most dangerous) collaborative venture.”

Matthew MacKisack considers Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, and the problems of transposing the novel’s descriptions of inarticulable phenomena to other linguistic and artistic registers. Alexandre’s Syrinx also raises the question of the failure inherent in translation, and we are offered an alternative, more literal English interpretation of the first verse, as well as numerous riffs on its meaning, and the associated story of Pan and Syrinx that precedes it. In the original myth, the water nymph Syrinx, pursued by Pan, magically transforms herself into a sheaf of reeds at the riverbank in order to guard her virtue. Upon clutching these reeds, Pan’s sighs of resignation resonate within their hollow lengths, producing an unexpectedly melodious tune that is to accompany him from that point onwards.

On the subject of art’s relationship to learning, an ever-present thread in this exhibition, Alain Badiou (another mathematician-philosopher) asserts that:

Art is pedagogical for the simple reason that it produces truths and because ‘education’ (save in its oppressive or perverted expressions) has never meant anything but this: to arrange the forms of knowledge in such a way that some truth may come to pierce a hole in them. What art educates us for is therefore nothing apart from its own existence. The only question is that of encountering this existence, that is, of thinking through a form of thought.[iii]

Claude Debussy’s Syrinx, an eerie embodiment of Pan’s aforementioned lament to unattainable desire, completes the exhibition, performed here in an ethereal black-and-white 1964 television recording by the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal, rendered ever more strange by a series of anachronistic Japanese captions. There is a real sense that this most elusive of melodies has become the star of the show, for one is shaken by the unexpected directness of this encounter. Knowledge has, it seems, been pierced by the truth of pure affect, and this is surely art’s most potent lesson.

[i] António Franco Alexandre, Quatro Caprichos, trans. Richard Zenith (Lisbon: Assírio & Alvim, 1999)
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics (California: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 9

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