Objects in the Field (1999) Masters Thesis Goldsmiths College University of London


part 1 introduction
part 2 objects
part 3 photographs
part 4 if you want to kill something…
part 5 field
part 6 fieldwork


part 1 introduction

In the kinds of artworks that I have made, there is a strong commitment to making art outside. A typical situation arises where I have set up a structure, situation or process in a particular place. These ‘eclogues1’ are most often ephemeral in nature, with signs of my workings being removed from the location after I have finished. This strategy had its origin in an ethical position on what is appropriate to leave behind after an action has taken place. Because of the transitory nature of the eclogue there is a practical problem of how (and why) they are recorded: take a slide? Then what do you do with it? Why do I feel dissatisfied with the kinds of photographs I am taking?
Bon Jour Mr Courbet

I had thought through using the term eclogue quite early on in my career, as a logical description for the kind of work I seemed to be gravitating towards. Eclogue was the word before ecology in the dictionary. There was a short definition of what it was. It implied an aesthetic engagement with a landscape. Something about it too made it feel appropriate for describing performative events. Some years later I found an ad in an art magazine for a mid-career American artist who was doing actions in the environment. Black and white Image…ECLOGUE (big letters)…Man stands gesturing in creek…: same process-engagement with environment! For some strange reason I didn’t photocopy the page or write down the details, and I have never found it again. Weird.


Sometimes (my) eclogue is a process where my body is used in the space, or where a quite normal ‘blank’ scene is recorded — and the event is more conceptual in nature — or perhaps the performance occurs (literally or metaphorically) behind the camera, or before the camera got there. The more specific cases that I want to discuss are when an object made by me is emplaced, or when an object is found in a location. Neither of these events are new to modern art (see Figures 2 and 3) nor is the need to photograph temporary installations (inside or outside — see Figures 4 and 5) — but there are interesting questions that for me remain unanswered. These questions revolve around the object, the medium, and the field2.


situation out there

part 3 photographs
part 4 if you want to kill something…
part 5 field
part 6 fieldwork

1 eclogue, ek’log, n. a short pastoral poem like Virgil’s Bucolics. [back]
2 field, feld, n. country or open country in general: a piece of ground enclosed for tillage or pasture or sport: the range of any series of actions or energies: region of space in which forces are at work: room for action of any kind: a wide expanse: the area visible to an observer at one time the space range within which objects are visible through an optical instrument in any one position (as in a microscope, telescope): (U.S.) a frame in television: a region yielding a mineral: the surface on which something is displayed: the ground work or background of a picture: the scope, opportunity, or extent of material for action or operation: an area or sphere of action, operation or investigation; a wider or narrower range of opportunities or objects for labour, study or contemplation; a department or subject of activity or speculation. [back]

part 2 objects

What are art object3? A BIG Question. The other day I experienced a very strange thrill of a piquancy that comes from realising something really mundane4: it was that in the Arts, objects really are something that have only existed in this century. By this I mean that we take it for granted that we can now look at art ‘things’ in themselves and not just as transparent carriers of, or metaphors for meaning(s)5. Minimalism took the object that was a painting or sculpture to a (utopian) ultimate refinement. Reducing surface applications made the material more obvious. Later Conceptual Art took on the object as part of a strategy to question the formal, functional and ontological parameters of art. Whilst people such as Fried believed that minimalist art (which he hated) insisted on concentrating on the (formal or material) objecthood of a work of art (a theatricality which he didn’t like6), later conceptual work was specifically directed against the traditional art object as part of a project of critiquing ‘the institutional premises that condition experience in the process of signification’ (Goldstein and Rorimer 1995, p. 13), often by incorporating non-art viewpoints or methods, and non-art objects. I see direct connections here with the kinds of found objects that I photograph today7.

deer and wolf

accidental superimposition

The objects that I deal with are within the scale of the human body8. In the realm of commonsense, objects have a material existence — they are stable and exist in reality. One characteristic of modern thought has been a shift in how objects are seen — being more than their physical dimensions — with additional association coming from their subjective relationships with people (or space or even other objects). Fields as diverse as anthropology (and material culture), psychoanalysis (desire, fetishism and Freud), economics (Marx and commodity fetishism9), and Foucauldian analysis (power-knowledge) all stress the social relations of objects, and often their changing (or transitional) nature. The object is no longer stable in time or space.

pan man

found thong collection

You could look at the thong10
in Figure 8 and discuss it in terms of is production as a consumer object in some South East Asian country with a large petrochemical industry, and its importation and sale in Australia; its life history of use by some unknown person — perhaps that person wore their lucky thongs (thong-fetish) when going roo shooting — and the story of its abandonment on a sand dune on Mardathuna Station, once its functionality had ceased. These associations are all intimately bound up with the material thing itself. At least on an everyday level, they are considered a ‘natural’ (and therefore hidden) condition of the physical object. But I’m actually more attracted by the continuation of apparent solidity of the object in the face of these analyses — of things shooting off from the surface of the material — than any sense of indignation about how people are ‘duped’ into believing that things are exclusively stable.

examples of tying

The distinction in an art object stems from the transition that occurs when the object is turned into art, and the relationship between the viewer and the art object which follows this transition: one thing that we can be certain of about an art object (in whatever form: whether material or not) is that these processes occur.

an influential exhibition

Writing in 1971, Kaprow defined the Art-art object as one that

‘takes art seriously. It presumes, however covertly, a certain spiritual rarity, a superior office. It has faith. It is recognizable by its initiates. It is innovative, of course, but largely in terms of a tradition of professionalistic moves and references: art begets art. Most of all, Art art maintains for its exclusive use certain sacred settings and formats handed down by this tradition: exhibitions, books, recordings, concerts, arenas, shrines, civic monuments, stages, film screenings, and the “culture” columns of the mass media. These grant accreditation the way universities grant degrees.

So long as Art art holds on to these contexts it can and often does consume itself in nostalgic echoes of anti-art…’ (1971, p. 101)
‘You cannot be against art when art invites its own destruction’Kaprow (1971, p. 100).

Anti-art gets sucked into Art: thong-art is invented and subsumed. Cummings (1993) highlights the proliferation of objects in modern culture and an increasing use of objects to hold our fears, desires and aspirations, and attributes this encouragement to physically and psychologically identify and associate with things, to processes of industrialisation. The commodified object acts autonomously and creates its own dreamscape (Sayre 1989). Cummings believes that these changes have affected the art objects’ ‘representational hegemony’: ‘No longer does it seem desirable or possible to situate a boundary between reality and its representation.’ The anti-Art strategy of ‘playing dumb utility against the chatter of aesthetics’ seems to be an empty gesture (Cummings 1993, p. 15). He proposes that we look at the use of the object — especially those uses that fall out of the normal commodity cycles — rather than producing slick replicas that can only infiltrate so far into the market system.

Divola's rock necklace

La Banquet wild

‘Things here seem closer to their being, worn, expressive, stripped of hype and glamour, in the relative economies of use and need. This is where, I believe, an object’s real life begins, moving from hand to hand, being bought, thrown out, collected, displayed, broken, sold recollected and re-displayed. Something closer to the flea-market economy’ (Cummings 1993, p. 19).

This is one reason why I am attracted to performing objects that are ‘lying about’ (that is, ones that I have arranged at the site or ones that have genuinely been found), as if they had been lost from these cycles.

Just when I thought I had understood what I was doing….

Ignore this

Is there a space outside of Art art? Is the thong saying more than anti-art? In 1971 Kaprow suggested a refocusing on the transitional point by thinking about the non-art object and its use by the un-artist. Unlike art objects, non-art objects are caught before the point of intention ‘Non-art is whatever has not been accepted as art but has caught an artist’s attention with that possibility in mind …non-art …exists only fleetingly, like some sub-atomic particle, or perhaps only as postulate’ (Kaprow 1971, p. 98). I realise that my un-theorised choice of tool-objects in my photographs is part of a continuing questioning of use of taste and aesthetics to value objects, but my question is whether this fleeting condition is at all useful. Is it possible to keep the object unstable?

what to wear in utopia

part 2 objects
part 4 if you want to kill something…
part 5 field
part 6 fieldwork

3 object, ob’jikt, n. a thing presented or capable of being presented to the senses: a thing observed: a material thing: that which is thought of, regarded as being outside, different from, or independent of, the mind (opposed to subject): that upon which attention, interest, or some emotion is fixed: an oddity or deplorable spectacle: that towards which action or desire is directed, an end. [back]
4 I mean, duh! [back]
5 Duchamp articulated this in the readymades, assisted readymades and reverse-readymade in an attempt to shake up some of the conditions of art production. These anti-Art objects have the overt intention of blurring their operational contexts (after Kaprow 1971). The Surrealists were concerned more with the symbolic function of objects especially using accidental juxtaposition, irrationality, magic, and dreams. What is of interest to me here is a recognition of ‘the margins surrounding real objects where humour and poetry survive’ (Ades 1990, p. 24, quoting Louis Aragon), the principle of montage, and the Objet trouvé (‘Objet trouvé (found object). Any strange, romantic, or comic bit of stone, wood, or manufactured bric-à-brac which is presented by the finder as an art object’ (Willett 1988, p. 600)). The 1936 ‘Exposition surréalist d’objets’ divided the objects exhibited into ‘natural, natural interpreted, perturbed, found, found interpreted, American, oceanic, mathematical, readymade and readymade aided, and Surrealist’ (Ades 1990, p. 26). [back]
6 In 1967 Fried wrote:
‘This can be summed up by saying that modernist painting has come to find imperative that it defeat or suspend its own objecthood, and that the crucial factor in this undertaking is shape, but shape that must belong to painting — it must be pictorial, not, or merely literal. Whereas literalist [what Fried called the Minimalists] art stakes everything on shape as a given property of objects, if not indeed as a kind of object in its own right. It aspires not to defeat or suspend its own objecthood, but on the contrary to discover and project objecthood as such’ (Fried 1998 (1967), p. 151).
He argued that theatricality eliminated the distance essential for aesthetic contemplation — which has implications for the pause that I am searching for — see later.
7 But I also have a concern with a sort of historicism: the 1960’s crisis of the art object or land art is over in the sense that I cannot act today without knowledge that these issues have already been debated in a particular way. What is the role object-in-the-field with a sense of hindsight at the end of the Century of Objects?
‘After a century of mass overproduction, terms like ‘found object’, or the exquisitely dignified objet trouvé, are obsolete. Whoever first said ‘readymade’ was very clever, but it’s a long time since people discovered that you could dig with an antler — something serviceable, heraldic and mythic all rolled into one’ (Wentworth 1998, p. 7).

I can’t get away from the fact that the outdoors still contains traces of ‘escaping the gallery’ in a 60’s sort of way when my work there may be about something else. Hal Foster also points out the general problem of the reabsorption of resistance strategies — of shifting the siting of artworking away ‘from the surface of the medium to the space of the museum, from institutional frames to discursive networks, to the point where many artists and critics treat conditions like desire or disease… as sites for art…Yet this siting had limits too: it could be recouped by gallery and museums, it played to the myth of the redemptive artist…’ (Foster 1996, pp. 184-185). [back]
8 An extract of an interview with a Minimalist artist, Tony Smith, reproduced in Fried (1998 (1967), p. 155-6) concerning his work, Die (1962), a 6 foot high cube:
‘Q: Why didn’t you make it larger so that it would loom over the observer?
A: I was not making a monument.
Q: Then why didn’t you make it smaller so that the observer could see over the top?
A: I was not making an object.’
9 Marx’s term for the fact that objects are more than material, and constitute a bundle of social relationships and transactions once they enter the market and are assigned values and undergo exchanges. In part because these social values are invisible, Marx used the term fetishism to highlight these ‘magical’ attributes.
10 flip-flop, sandals [back]


part 3 photographs

ignore more

When I take a photograph of an eclogue I have in my mind that I want it known that it did happen. It is always partially a document. Some of the other things I am thinking include: I have selected this object and time for a particular reason that I want to communicate to an audience; I want to use the image (and in this case using the quality of the photograph) as a mechanism for causing reverie. And the pause for thought (say, about the aura of associations around the mundanity of some objects), is of great importance. The image is then quite consciously taken to different contexts, such as the gallery11. But what I want to investigate here is how the photographic image might be not just a slice of time, but a focus and summation of the whole event.

radioactive landscape

I have just discussed how objects carry their representations with them — both stuck to their surfaces with superglue and spinning off into the ether — but what is the specific role of photography in representing objects? Unlike an object, where one cannot deny its material substance, commonsense interpretations of representational media, particularly photography, frequently ignore the material of the image, as if it were a weightless transparent envelope for the image: ‘Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see’ (Barthes 1993, p. 6)12. The photograph is seen by many to reduce the object that is captured to a flattened sign. For Barthes this is a consequence of weightlessness of the photograph. ‘I cannot penetrate, cannot reach into the photograph. I can only sweep it with my glance, like a smooth surface’ (Barthes 1993, p. 103).

cotton wool

Photography was well suited to aspects of conceptual art because of this apparent objectlessness, but the illusion of transparency (as Barthes called it) has been the subject of extensive critique, especially in the use of photographs in advertising, propaganda and much subtler uses. Despite the seduction of this illusion, photographs do have material qualities. Contrary to Barthes’ conclusions about the immateriality of photography, the old photographs that he used already had an aura of nostalgia and materiality about their actual decay 13. The changing way that we look at objects has also affected our understanding of photographs.



In the simplest analysis, photographs act at the instant of exposure and it is true that time is stilled in the shot. Much has been fetishised around this aspect of photography. But can the photograph act beyond the instant of the taking? The photograph can be seen as a memory technology designed to accumulate time. As such it is anomalous that it is reduced to only a moment. For Lyotard, this way of viewing information technology is important because of the twin drives in history: of humanity to complexify the universe (‘neg-entropy’), and of information technology to control and accumulate time14 (Lyotard 1991). Applying this analysis to the photograph highlights both the usefulness of photographic technology to diffuse information across space, and its cultural role as a device for yielding local information from the viewer (their memories) that is not so easily globalised. This latter use of photographs to evoke more than one time benefits complexification, as much as it serves time accumulation. It feels to me that the photograph acts beyond the instant of the taking.

tourist book about Rome

with plastic overlays

The third apparent power of photographs is their relationship to truth. Cliché: ‘the camera doesn’t lie’ — the photograph is an authentic record of a past event. But strangely the power of this assumption does not seem to be greatly diminished even today. Perhaps this is because of the role of objectification within the truth power, as the subject of a photograph is always transformed into an Other (or in fact many Others15
). Sontag (1977, p. 98) notes that ‘one of the perennial successes of photography has been its strategy of turning living beings into things, things into living beings.’ But the evidential power of the photograph also limits further interrogation. ’The photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force…With the photograph, we enter into Flat Death’ (Barthes 1993, p. 91-92). Authenticity kills the life of the object. Can it be re-temporalised?

mirrors are such a cliche now

Barthes was in part a ‘realist,’ believing in the power of the photograph, and searched for an ontology of photography16. This is not because the photograph simply displayed a perfect representation of a memory (which it didn’t — it blocks memory and substitutes for it), or just because it was a mostly accurate chemical recording of a real event, but because of the photograph’s co-natural relationship with its subject: what is photographed must always have existed. To Barthes, the photograph’s power of authenticity exceeds its power of representation17. Here it is not just that the event had passed, but a total authenticity of both been-there and can’t-lie18. In some respects this is not surprising since Barthes had narrowed his consideration to monochrome portraiture (and old photographs at that), but the authority of the photograph also suited the need for many conceptual artists, for example, to remove themselves as creative authors19. The combination of authenticity and transparency leads to a temporal contradiction which suggests ‘that objects are present while simultaneously confirming their absence’ (Sember 1998, p. 37). This is photography’s double stance: ‘…its ability to be read in terms of both presence and absence. We experience photography as a presence itself — as a formalist art object — and as a presence signifying the virtual absence of some a priori experience’ (Sayre 1989, p. 1).

violent landscape

I work often with a po-face. There is a danger in my artwork when I work close to the line. If a function of art is to destabilise objects and our relationships to them, then there is the real possibility that my work will be dismissed as boring when I play with the very systems that stabilise them. I am attracted (at times almost fatally) to the exactness of objective descriptions20. The critique is either that I have not dealt with the materiality of the objects — they are not physically altered or transformed — they are uninteresting. Or that the artworks are without feeling and are too intellectual. This is not creating the pause that I am interested in — the act of thought that is open-ended, that does not come to a firm conclusion.

place visited in the real and via souvenirs

The fifth power of photography is its reproducibility. I’m thinking here not only of the effect of the photograph on the aura of a work of art (and its effect on what art is thus created) as theorised by Walter Benjamin, but more widely to its use for popular culture (in the commodification of objects in advertising) and by popular culture as a memory device (however imperfect). Another reason for the popularity of photography in conceptual art was because such a relationship to mass culture lends works of art that included photography a certain non-Art banality.

or just a newspaper?

part 2 objects
part 3 photographs
part 5 field
part 6 fieldwork

11 These may include:
• using the photographic image as a record of the eclogue without any other imagery;
• as the object itself combined with the representation of its past (the photograph) as a new image: ‘this is what did this’;
• using the object itself returned on its own as the image in the gallery;
• using the photographic image in the gallery context by transforming it into different forms, but still being about the eclogue;
• using the photographic image by transforming it into a different art work about a different subject in a gallery context; or
• using the photograph or object as only a source of inspiration for different art works in the gallery.
12 Barthes believed that a photograph is always contingent, in that it is dependent on what it represents. According to Barthes, this was particularly relevant to photographs (as distinct from other media) because of their relative newness as a genre, and the stillness that they contained. Photographs were not as tied to the frame and the weight of convention, as paintings were, and although they were as ‘real,’ they didn’t have the continuing life of a cinematic image. The cinema contains a blind field — a space beyond the frame where the characters emerge and continue living. Unlike the negative which is almost always transformed into a print, the slide that I take is even less substantial if it is presented as light. The slide-as-projected’s short duration mimics the moment of its taking and it positions itself at the cinematic end of the photographic spectrum. Oh bugger. This means that I have to think about film, too. [back]
13 Later on Barthes calls the photograph a fugitive
‘Not only does it commonly have the fate of paper (perishable), but even if it is attached to more lasting supports, it is still mortal: like a living organism, it is born on the level of the sprouting silver grains, it flourishes a moment, then ages…Attacked by light, by humidity, it fades, weakens, vanishes: there is nothing left to do but throw it away’ (Barthes 1993, p. 93).
14 Duchamp was very aware of tying his objects down with time:
‘…by planning a moment to come (on such a day, such a date such a minute), “to inscribe a readymade”. The readymade can later be looked for (with all kinds of delays). The important thing then is just this matter of timing, this snapshot effect, like a speech delivered on no matter what occasion but at such and such an hour. It is a kind of rendezvous.’
-Naturally inscribe that date, hour, minute on the readymade as
information (Duchamp 1973, p. 32).
15 Barthes (1993) enumerates the fragmentations of the self — what the subject is in itself, what it wants to be to others, what the photographer thinks it is and what each viewer carries away. [back]
16 If but a skeptic one: ‘At all costs…what is photography in itself…beyond the evidence provided by technology and usage, and despite its tremendous contemporary expansion, I wasn’t sure that it had a ‘genius’ of its own’ (Barthes 1993, p. 3). [back]
17 This statement of frustration and failure is at the root of his realism, and explains Barthes’ fascination with why portraits never captured quite the essence of a person that he was after. For Barthes the most powerful aspect of the photograph was the paralyzing punctum of time. Punctum: the special affect of a photograph which pricks or stings Barthes into animation: the detail that attracts or disturbs, and that has the power to expand the response to a photograph. A photograph with punctum has a blind field extending beyond the material object. It is contrasted with the studium, a polite interest, or general enthusiasm, perhaps where you generally understand the photographer’s intention. ‘The studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste: I like/I don’t like’ (Barthes 1993, p. 27). Of the punctum of time Barthes (1993, p.96) writes
‘This new punctum, which in no longer of form but of intensity, is Time, the lacerating emphasis of the noeme (“that-has-been“). Its pure representation…the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: this will be and this has been;…the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. I shudder….over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe…’
18 ‘Now, in the photograph, what I posit is not only the absence of the object; it is also, by one and the same movement, on equal terms, the fact that this object has indeed existed and that it has been there where I see it. Here is where the madness is, for until this day no representation could assure me of the past of a thing except by intermediaries; but with Photography, my certainty is immediate: no one in the world can undeceive me. The Photograph then becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand “it is not there,” on the other “but it has indeed been”): a mad image, chafed by reality’ (Barthes 1993, p. 115).
19 ‘The photograph always lingered between ‘documentum’ and ‘monumentum,’ between the official piece of evidence and the legitimised record; between sighting and reminding, between collecting and storing. That is, between process and substance, activity and object’ (Ascott 1996, pp. 167-168). [back]
20 Lyotard likes those arts that are furthest from objective descriptions , those that:
do not describe exhaustively those objects to which they refer…What matters in these modes is clearly the fact that all should generate occurrences before knowing the rules of this generativity, and that some of them even have no concern for determining those rules…the freedom and the lack of preparation with which language sows itself capable of receiving what can happen in the ‘speaking medium,’ and of being accessible to the event’ (Lyotard 1991, p. 72-3).


part 4 if you want to kill something…

photograph it

see * footnote

walking landscape

Just when I thought that I had understood what I was doing….


where I want to get to

Are the mirrors in Robert Smithson’s photographs (see Figures 23 and 29) stilled of all their life? Is there a way that the photograph liberates the object rather than hold it down21? If I look at what I wanted the photograph to do, it records an event that took place, and its authenticity is useful. The object found is empowered by being named (arted), and this is evidenced in the photograph. Because of its peculiar qualities the photograph is effective in causing a stillness that is pensiveness — the hesitation and anticipation of the punctum. Does choosing a banal object against background heighten this sensation by presenting a strange sort of stillness in the nature of the object, but with a dynamic in its relationship to the field? Even when the object pictured is an art object made specifically for the situation, I would argue that its muteness when photographed skirts the edge of banality. I still think that the punctum is useful, as the floating flash of unlocatable disturbance, and especially in its relationship to stillness: an intense immobility at the time just prior to detonation (Barthes 1993).

Perejaume and friends

fake or staged?

For me it is just important that the space in a photograph appears to be stilled. In a celebrated review of paintings, written in the form of a fictional letter to a friend, Diderot strays into a painting in mid-sentence and begins to travel through its successive viewpoints22. The conversation that Diderot is having shifts back and forth between the friend, the painting, the people in the painting and the vistas that he encounters. He spends a time in the idyllic pastoral landscape. He creates a narrative, has a delicious and languid experience23, he goes through space. He sees things in the painting only hinted at if you stand outside it. Not being able to grasp the whole scene at once means that multiple times occur in the painting. The painting is expanded by stretching the time of the object by experiencing it over space, and the space of the object by stretching its time.

hmmm no women on this list
Is this spatial change more or less likely to happen in a photograph? The reproducibility of photograph expands it over space. In the images I am taking, the close-ups expand space and make it more haptic24
. Celia Lurie charts a shift in recent society, which is evident in the practice of seeing photographically25. Lurie (1998, p. 219) argues that ‘the recognition of seeing photographically has encouraged a view of the object as if in a spatial continuum, that is, as if it could be seen from all positions at once26.’ Framing (and re-framing) become practices of the self as the self is destabilised. These are characteristics of a prosthetic culture.

Passaic fountains

walking mountains

this is a model

Malik (1998) connects Diderot’s experience with Lyotard’s theories about destabilising the relationship between the artist, the work and the audience. In Diderot’s description, the critic, the painting and other players interchange their position and the work of art does not have a stable arrangement (see Figure 35). Can this happen in the photographs that I am taking? Literally, the field of view is often restricted, but even in the reduced field, it is still possible for the viewer to move through a micro landscape27. The viewer is set loose because of the associations thrown up by the objects. If I take on Lyotard’s model I need to relinquish control of my position and realise that my communication with the viewer is not the only process involved.

thank god Im not at Goldsmiths anymore

A good one?

There are still some questions that are unanswered. I need to re-explore the possibilities of movement between multiple images (say, like a field of postcards). Does the object talk to us the way that Barthes’ subject in portrait photography does? If I look at the photographs that I have taken, the object is deliberately frontal and fully in the frame. The object has an overpowering relationship over the field — we look for the figure against the ground. This is even so when the object is not central to the frame, it still has a direct power against the emptier background. When the object isn’t there (and the field is without focus) we get a ‘gap’ that is sneakingly like the sublime. I have noted the critical outcome of photographs to turn something with dimensions into something flat and still — the “this-has-been” which suggests that the thing photographed is already dead. But what is the consequence of something that is not living like a portrait: ‘by attesting that the object has been real the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive’ (Barthes 1993, p. 79). The aura of the object is both reduced and augmented. The power of death is muted because the object never lived, but the object’s life is accentuated because we assume that the object did live. If the object has no eyes does the whole surface act as eyes because there is still a look from the object? And even if there is no object, does the field look back at us?

from a book about chaos and nature

part 2 objects
part 3 photographs
part 4 if you want to kill something…
part 6 fieldwork

* Extract from a description by Lucy Lippard (Lippard 1997, p. 120)
Phil Young (Cherokee) …installation on the rim of Canyon de Chelley, Arizona. A painter who has made work inspired by rock art and real archaeological sites, Young has in the last few years made several installations that use burial and archaeology as double-edged metaphors and critical weapons. He has buried astroturf (now reclaimed by real grass) and a painting of his own. Several works, dealing with the burial of fake, stereotypical, or stolen Indian objects, parody and condemn the random use of Native images, or highway signs like…”Make Your Own Mandella [sic] and Indian Legend Dream Catcher Today”..’
21 Does the trouvaille, the photograph that is a lucky find, still exist? Is it possible to have some spontaneity in these arguments?
22 Diderot used the technique of entering the painting several of his Salon reviews in 1763 (a painting by Loutherbourg), 1765 (Le Prince) and 1767 (Hubert Robert, and a long description of a series of paintings by Joseph Vernet) (Fried 1980).
23 which in some ways echoes the Eclogue. [back]
24 I have to think carefully when I enlarge the slide in a projection. [back]
25 In A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, Smithson writes, ‘When I walked on the bridge, it was as though I was walking on an enormous photograph that was made of wood and steel, and underneath the river existed as an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous blank’ (Smithson 1979, p. 50). [back]
26 Lurie (1998) calls this multiplication of potential contexts, outcontextualisation. [back]
27 I am attracted to the work of a number of photographers who are creating model spaces. See Figure 34. [back]

part 5 field

We think that the background is exactly that. We are used to seeing the figure against the ground. My intention in my work is to shift the focus to the scene. Not by creating a vacant scene, but by making evident the detail between the object and the background, turning the surroundings into a field of action28. Looking back in time, the field has changed from the vertical to the horizontal, a change that was evident in installation, where there was no longer one objective viewing position. Land art increasing the size of the field. ‘They suggest vastly more than they depict. They project a hypothetical experience, It is in this hypothetical territory, in the open spaces of the imagination, that earth art has situated itself’ (Sayre 1989, p. 215)29. There is the invitation to go outside the frame as there is always something that is not captured. The approach I will take is to look at some examples of the aesthetic of the field before returning to examine the strategy of the eclogue.

din dins

I have always been attracted to Daniel Spoerri’s tableaux pièges (snare pictures — see Figure 38), and on a formal level the eclogues I am investigating here owe something to the aesthetics of the aftermath. Rugoff (1997) talks extensively about what he terms the forensic aesthetic, and the field of action which he calls the scene of the crime. Artworks using this aesthetic are wide-ranging in their style, because what links them is the ‘type of approach they demand from their audience’ (Rugoff 1997, p. 82). Something (the event) has happened. The viewer reconstructs the prior actions from a set of diffuse clues, rather than from a coherent plane of objects. The envision-er is forced to scan and move about. The event is contingent and the objects within it are narrative30. ‘[I]nexplicably linked to an unseen history, this type of art embodies a fractured relationship with time. Like a piece of evidence, its present appearance is haunted by an indeterminate past, which we confront in the alienated form of fossilised and fragmented remnants’ (Rugoff 1997, p. 82). In the extreme case of the detective fiction, the scene is defined by the absence of the object in question31.

peter loves books

The scene of the crime is the pausing of space found in criminal and archaeological photography. But, although the gridding and controlling of space is attempted, Vidler (1997, p. 132) points out that it is this classification which is always undone:

‘…while the question of “what” has usually been answered easily enough through physical evidence… the question of “where” has often be rendered unanswerable by the simple trick of denouncing the various projections, suppositions, and assumptions that underlie any exercise in mapping. Objects can be presented in the courtroom, but spaces always have to be imagined — and represented. And representation has, from at least the early nineteenth century, been not so much a science as an art controlled by psychological projection and careful artifice’.

objectified space

Cindy in her abject phase
Space becomes liquid and deviant. There is a cycling between cool and warm spaces32
. Space itself becomes an entropic condition which dissolves boundaries. ‘Space, infiltrating and dispersing place, put the tangibility and thereby the veracity of courtroom “exhibits” into doubt. The crime takes place in space, which in turn renders its exact position unstable’ (Vidler 1997, p 134)33. Furthermore, Vidler believes that the key to ‘knowledge’ in such scenario is losing one’s way, being blinded or relying on haptic skills. He refers to Walter Benjamin’s affirmation of space in distraction ‘a state that ignores the visual characteristics of the building in favor of its haptic and tactile environment’ (Vidler 1997, p. 136). The effect of such deviant spaces is that the whole fabric of the space (and every single object) becomes the clues. The city itself is turned into a space of ‘perpetual and undifferentiated crime’ (Vidler 1997, p. 139)34. ‘This detachment of meaning from the individual image or object contributes to the aura of theatricality hovering over forensic art’ (Rugoff 1997, p. 83).

homeless spacesThe effect of the forensic aesthetic is to turn objects into traces. This implies a thread-like connection with the anonymous protagonists so recently departed. The boundaries of the object are outside its physical limits. An object ‘can appear at once to be utterly mundane and charged with a surplus meaning that eludes our visual inspection and so seems vaguely uncanny…a ‘postmodern’ understanding in which the same object can shift between opposing categories’ from the reject (is this abject or uncanny?) to the sublime (Rugoff 1997, p. 82). The most exciting forensic art (see Figures 44 to 45) is when the directions that might be taken are most open-ended. I am not frustrated that I have been denied the answers, despite being kept in a tantalising condition of speculation and inconclusion: not TOO little here.

where he threw the typewriter out of the window of a speeding carThere are obvious kindred themes in my own artwork, of scientific space that is undone, of failed classifications, and of something just around the corner. But my eclogue photographs differ from forensic space in that there is never any blood, and the objects selected are not overtly harmful. Without the threat of violence they are not as exciting. If I want to encourage a tension between the scientific object (with its stability and presence) and the free floating object (and its becoming nature), I am aware that there is the potential to slip into nostalgia. Sayre explains it well: ‘This would be a straightforward enough situation, except that for so many the recognition of the latter [unstable object] in no way mitigates their nostalgia for the former [stable object], It is as if, having lost formalism, we necessarily long for its return, as if, having lost the present — or, rather, the fullness of presence — we are somehow embarrassed to admit it’ (Sayre 1989, p. 175).

consumer babeDespite these misgivings, the forensic aesthetic is manifest in the feeling of gap that is the part of my work. It is connected to the pause in the photograph. This feeling is a version of the sublime. It is not really the monumental ‘pure’ sublime of land art, because I am not working at those scales. It is more like an urban sublime — or the sublime of the wasteland (if it was a straight-forward theatrical sublime it would have none of the dry (but human) emptiness of the wasteland). I think of Robert Smithson’s industrial wastelands — disturbingly present but silent — without narrative history — much more spare than the case of a cluttered scene of the crime35. The stillness in them is related to the stillness of the reduced close-up scenes of my eclogue documentations.

I have been reexamining Smithson’s work because it presents a number of takes around the picturesque and the sublime. He called his approach to mining rehabilitation a picturesque one, because it did not attempt to disguise the past uses, nor attempting to recover the wilderness or the frontier. I don’t think that it was simply picturesque unless he was attempting to create a new variation, because his work was presented as an aerial view36. And making a picture to stand outside of was not his aim. The shift from the picturesque ‘window’ to the aerial, makes us more comfortable with the sublime and allows us an elegant detachment which I find dangerous. And yet Smithson ‘mined’ this area of contradiction. He brought his concepts of entropy and extended time to the wilderness setting of Spiral Jetty, whilst insisting on what he called a dialectic relationship, which he paired with his notion of the picturesque: ‘entropy …[was] the concept used to reject anthropomorphic notions of representation and limited historical perspectives, while dialectic …[was] employed to suggest the possibility of a real relationship between the artist and nature, a relationship that could be extended through the artist to other people’ (Shapiro 1995, p. 151).

deserted LAX

scapeSmithson’s use of parody in Spiral Jetty ‘s deadpan narration was not to expose the inadequacy or falsity of the sublime but a weakness in our construction of the sublime ‘[i]t is as if we were watching our very undoing, not by the catastrophic forces of nature, but by our own hands’ (Sayre 1989, p. 221). Shapiro (1995) discusses Lyotard’s theorisation of the contemporary sublime. It is no longer the condition of relief of being safe from the thing in the distance, but the (entropic) threat that nothing more might happen in the world. In other words the role of art was to hold off this threat — to create delight (a condition of neg-entropy!). But what happens if the pleasure is in the sublime itself and not its avoidance? What if we live quite happily in a ‘scape of estrangement? I think Smithson’s attraction to entropy meant that he worked cooperatively with the sublime. His work was not the picturesque of a composed scene, but it was not disguising the human role in a way that the traditional sublime does.

The work of Smithson that looks most like the eclogues that I have been discussing, are the Non-sites (see Figure 47). The Non-site presents the shift in the art experience that I have been discussing. The Non-site signifies the absent Site which is only a memory trace, like the photograph. The Non-site describes the Site, but the Non-site is experienced and the Site is not37. The Non-site becomes the site because it is where it happens. Smithson (1996, pp. 249-250) was well aware of this: ‘the site is the unfocused fringe where your mind loses it boundaries and a sense of the oceanic pervades, as it were… the site is a place where a piece should be but isn’t.’ The Non-sites make specific the concrete displacements as one moves out of the gallery, studio, or museum, and the abstract shifts in their discursive frameworks. They were earlier than his earthworks and are quite different to plonking something down or digging a hole38. The connection between the out of place and the in-place is very specific39, but they retain the sense of turning something over with the toe of your boot (which I want in my work), because of their minimal construction. Thinking about the Non-site gives me a way of re-viewing the scene of my work in the gallery and re-thinking the amount of care I take in putting things together.


field of chicken wings

With the benefit of hindsight, Smithson’s binary approach to Non-sites and his dialectical method are too rigid. As much as the Non-site pulls together the outside and the inside, it can also emphasise their distances. Hal Foster identifies clear dangers with simple approaches to the other, and with mapping without reflexivity40. In the Non-site, nature could be primitivised as the time-of-the-past and as the space-on-the-other-side-of-the-world. This is the problem of the ‘siting of political truth in a projected other or outside…First this outside is not other in any simple sense. Second, this siting of politics as outside and other, as transcendental opposition, may distract from a politics of the here and now, of immanent contestation’ (Foster 1996, p. 177) ‘…this othering also buttresses the self through romantic opposition, conserves the self through dialectical appropriation, extends the self through surrealist exploration, …[and] prolongs the self through poststructuralist troubling’ (Foster 1996, p. 179). The question I need to ask is, what experiments would I do if I pushed the Non-site idea to its limits, today? And I ain’t answered it yet.

bellybutton of the atomic world

site, nonsite, Heather Angel

part 2 objects
part 3 photographs
part 4 if you want to kill something…
part 5 field

28 Laurie Anderson (1981) cited by (Sayre 1989, p. 148), says ‘In all the work I’ve ever done, my whole intention was not to map out meanings but to make a field situation. I’m interested in fact, images, and theories which resonate against each other, not in offering solutions.’ [back]
29 Referring to Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field (1971-77), Sayre states that
the Field is larger than any individual experience of it. In place, the experience of the work is ephemeral, fleeting….Lightning Field requires us to perform it, operate it, recognize and participate in the polysemy of its experience. In this sense it defines an imaginative zone, a field upon which the imagination can play; it creates imaginative energy as if by transforming the lighting itself….’ (Sayre 1989, p. 215).
30 Sayre (1989, p. 17) proposes that such objects can be interpreted on a scale between the ritual object, and the narrative object. The point on this continuum that a performance event exits is dependent upon its relation to the documentation (or object) it produces. Of the former object, Sayre notes:
this new object appears as a text or document or site which exists as a script or score or generating environment for ritual action. But the presentness of the object in ritual work is limited — it projects a larger or greater presence which is realized in the performance of the ritual activity itself’ [my italics].
The ritual object is to be activated. The narrative object has been used: the presence of the narrative object is restricted to being the focus of the storytelling ‘insofar as storytelling is an action in and of itself…[the object only] rehearses or “represents.”’ Because the images I am producing are so spare I cannot decide whether the event has taken place (narrative object) or is to take place (ritual object). If they are part of the forensic aesthetic then they are narrative?
31 Wollen analyses the ritual nature of the crime scene where nothing must be contaminated
Crime scenes present us with both a surplus and a dearth of meaning. They are full of the resonances of inexplicable dread and destruction. At the same time they can appear stupidly banal and vacuous. As we enter the terrain of the crime scene, we enter a world in which meaning seems overwhelming in its presence yet strangely insubstantial. Something happened there that we cannot quite grasp or understand. In our minds such a space seems a kind of anti-space, a space of negativity which is extraneous to the ordered space of everyday life’ (Wollen 1997, p. 25).
32 Remember that game? [back]
33 The space of the O.J. Simpson case was undermined by the indeterminacy of the location of the blood-spattered glove. [back]
34 Vidler quotes from Frederic Jameson’s analysis of Chandler’s novels:
The author’s task is to make an inventory of these objects, to demonstrate by the fullness of his catalogue, how completely he knows his way around the world of machines and machine products, and it is this sense that Chandler’s descriptions of furniture, his description of women’s clothing styles, will function: as a naming, a sign of expertise and know-how” (Vidler 1997, p. 139).
35 ‘Any site that lends itself to the de-differentiate low-level kind of situation excited me because everything is sort of moving toward a background, an ever-deepening background. There’s an almost complete lost of foreground in terms of site. And then the only thing that holds it together is, the shrunken containment of the non-site’ (Smithson 1979, p. 116). [back]
36 His notion of the picturesque included roughness and complexity, intricacy, variety and physical obstructions. These values are at odds with a well-composed scene. [back]
37 Non-sight: never to be seen, a cite to be reported. [back]
38 Although Smithson’s land art also took the same strategy of forcing the viewer to construct a narrative because they were unvisitable. [back]
39 even didactic. [back]
40 ‘Such mapping may thus confirm rather than contest the authority of mapper over site in a way that reduces the desired exchange of dialogical fieldwork….[Foster proposes] a different map in which the framer is also framed, plunged in a parallax in a way that complicates the old anthropological oppositions of an us-here-and-now versus a them-there-and then’ (Foster 1996, p. 190). [back]

part 6 fieldwork

Throughout this writing and underlying all these other issues that I have discussed, is the question of why these objects are in-the-field. I have not answered the two basic questions: Why should I want to work in the environment in the first place? Why do I think it is necessary to remove my work at the end of its physical time-span? I have not concentrated on these questions partly because I wanted to do some practical thinking focused on my work41. This writing is not an exploration of environmental ethics. I am also concerned I might be falling into the trap identified by Foster — the danger of the extremes of discourse-specific art practice. Here the artist moves from issue to issue rather than charting a medium-specific course. To work from issue to issue learning each history ‘one must understand not only the discursive breadth but also the historical depth…To coordinate both axes of several such discourses is an enormous burden’ (Foster 1996, p. 202).

Et in Arcadia Ego

My concern for the environment and my curiosity about out-there is at the heart of my practice, but I have not emphasised my ethical beliefs, because they are exactly that. My current work with field tools is a direct result of my concern with how human-nature relations can be represented in social space. The object is the mediating device between body and environment. Many of these objects are about finding your way. I am interested in whether using these tools takes away from the estrangement of looking at a landscape.

 burger rings

To work exclusively inside the gallery is to lose some of the important qualities of engaging with an environment. I choose to work in those spaces that are public, but invisible due to their remoteness, shortness of time in existence, or banality. The direct audience of my eclogues are minimal — I want people to come across things — and these are the reasons why considering the properties of the photograph was so important. The field is more than being a background in the formal sense — it is the reason for working in this way in the first place.

IHF is a nice bloke

This essay has not just been about land art because I am not specifically interested in monumental sculpture. I place my work with a concern to the prior and continuing existence of places after the eclogue event has taken place. This does not mean that some art works don’t work when they are permanent. And some works are there to work with natural process: to be broken down by forces already operating. In prosthetic culture, gaps and loss and disappearance are no longer ‘bad things’ and can be seen as highlighting contemporary conditions of temporality, and as future potentials. A potential that came out of reading about performance theory is the idea of working ‘into’ disappearance (Pollock 1998, p. 85) where one gains by losing and by giving the artwork away ‘in the double sense of revealing its own materiality and letting go of the object/referent conventionally held tight…’ Working in the field is a good space to be. If you realise that the ground beneath you is always shifting, you are more able to cope with the idea that where you can never ‘vanquish’ what you critique in art because it is always consumed, but only unsettle it again and again and again.

rhythm of scratches

altered walking state

Alas, I went to an exhibition yesterday on Contemporary British Landscape42 and now I know why for the last two years I have never uttered that word…

I’ve covered forensic spaces but not field science spaces, and perhaps if I was to begin again I would choose this direction to develop, along the lines of Mark Dion’s use of the semi-fictional character as the field operant. Dion (1999, p. 55) describes the condition of moving in and out of the field:

‘After working too long in the ivory tower, it helps to clear the head by going into the streets, after the compromise of the streets, it’s satisfying to return to the control of the ivory tower, It is an intense dissatisfaction with both modes which results in this hybrid method. It also seems extremely important as an artist to present a moving target, because once you become classified its possible to place you on a shelf. And that is an extremely difficult location to speak from.’

I met him once

I wrote about the wrong thing. I should have written an essay about my work as fieldwork, and written as fieldwork. Do I want the thong art to do anything other than Art art? Who cares? Damn it

termites conquer London


part 2 objects
part 3 photographs
part 4 if you want to kill something…
part 5 field
part 6 fieldwork

41 I did end up finding out a bit more about real Eclogues, too. When I hijacked the word I didn’t expect that there would be much concordance other than at the most superficial level: Virgil used the Eclogue to expand the fantasy landscape of Arcadia, whereas I use the eclogue to make ‘reality’ appear less stable. But, whilst being essentially about a bunch of shepherds who sing a lot, the Eclogues also refer to contemporary farm evictions as a consequence of the defeat of Brutus and Cassius (based on Virgil’s own experiences). The Eclogues were some of the first poems written by Virgil (in around 42-37 BC) and were largely copied in form from the pastoral poems of the Greek, Theocritus, written 200 years earlier. Virgil had gone for a less earthy and more elegant style, reflecting his position as a member of a civilised elite in an urbanised culture that idealised life in peaceful country retreats away from the political realities of the capital. They are not as moral or as exploratory as his later work rather more aesthetic and musical (Williams 1967). They contain references to his own experiences of growing up around shepherds, and not only are there allegorical allusions to contemporary living figures (including his patrons), but also to the turbulent politics of the time. Most interestingly the Eclogues have a confusing amalgam of landscapes of pure imagination (Arcadia), Virgil’s Mantua and Mincio (of his childhood and upbringing) and Theocritus’s Sicily and Cos.
Thus Virgil has on the one hand taken the pastoral world a step further away from reality than Theocritus… Virgil’s shepherds live in an idealised and mannered Arcadia…and on the other he has from time to time used this Arcadia with all its distanced conventions, with its golden haze of unreality, as a setting for his own Roman world. There is sometimes a strange and bewildering mixture of the artificial and the real…’ (Williams 1967, p. 10).
Virgil’s Eclogues and other works influenced painters such as Poussin and Lorraine, and artists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay (see Figure 52). Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego (Figure 50, 1638-40, also known as The Arcadian Shepherds) features four shepherds reading an inscription on a ruined tomb. There are two different interpretations of the inscription: I, Death am present even in Arcadia; and I, the person entombed here, once also lived in Arcadia. The former alludes to the terror of death in a ‘classical allegory,’ and the latter to a romantic melancholy that we will all die (something more from Poussin than Virgil). The phrase was used ironically by Robert Smithson when writing about Spiral Jetty: Et in Utah Ego — there ain’t no Arcadia in Utah!!!!
42 Completely Boring Shit. Terribly conservative! (Flowers 1999). [back]



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part 2 objects
part 3 photographs
part 4 if you want to kill something…
part 5 field
part 6 fieldwork