Traditionally, art was considered to grant access to transcendent possibilities. Certainly from a Western perspective, art has long been attached to the remnants of German idealist thinking and to the related spirit of 19th Century Romanticism. For the Romantics, art was a yardstick broadly indicative of the most elevated aspirations of human culture. Of course, it would be a considerable understatement to say that a lot has changed perceptions of art since then. It is indisputable that much of what came to be referred to as ‘postmodernism’ seriously challenged Romanticism’s hyperbolic claims for art’s significance. Nonetheless, it continues to be the case despite pervasive, and it must be stated, frequently deserved, cynicism regarding such assertions, that questions of contemporary art’s broader socio-philosophic roles remain seriously opaque. This is particularly true when considering art’s ambiguous entwining with more recent and disturbing changes to global economic and ecological spheres.
Today, many allege that art’s previously prefigured idealism has simply collapsed into the generalist terrain of global commercial culture – a culture ultimately antithetical to lingering conceptions of ‘the Spirit’. To be sure, art in its escalated global contexts is often difficult to distinguish from other dominant modes of contemporary, basically corporate, expression. Still, the supposed collapse of art as a mediator of abstract immaterial thought, although undoubted, is really only partial. Art’s identity as an a-critical by-product of corporatised post-industrial output is only literally the case at its most commercially successful and spectacularist extremes. Consequently, for a great number of other artists skeptical or dismissive of art’s supposedly inevitable ‘modesty’ in lieu of the corporate prerogatives of contemporary culture generally, the issue of art’s idealist quotient persists. That is not to say that such artists naively believe in art’s transparent power to change the world either. It does suggest though that artists of this inclination remain committed to a conception of art as a form of ongoing abstract and intellectual research based fundamentally on testing its foundational presumptions.
Philipa Veitch’s Dummy, obliquely raises issues about the assumed bifurcation that symbolically divides art production into ‘utilitarian’ and ‘idealist’ camps. From the start, the very materiality of Veitch’s work – heavily indebted to the quotidian syntax of the everyday – instantly challenges the viewer to consider how these ‘banal’ objects might be considered art. After all, here we are confronted with a construction zone of the kind found everywhere within the contemporary urban environment: what appears to be a storm water drain protrudes into the gallery where it is cordoned off by an equally familiar looking roadside barrier. Nevertheless, there is an obvious play here too on the simulacra of the objects presented, objects that while naturalistic in scale, are instantly recognisable as artful approximations. So, while this deliberately unspectacular tableaux bespeaks a certain descriptive realism, it simultaneously undermines the simple assuredness of such a reading by way of the artist’s choice of materials: MDF substitutes for concrete and aluminium foil for PVC. As a result, the objects assume an added metaphoric dimension. The storm water pipe is transfigured as a conduit, the portal via which the transcendence once offered by art is once more presaged as a possibility. Again, simultaneously denying the absolute imminence of such a possibility is the parochial and vernacular quality of the crafted objects. Therefore, art’s role in this instance, instead of being reduced to an either/or paradigm that pits simple utilitarian commercialism against abstract idealism, is suggested to be inevitably linked to both. The artwork can never entirely slip its mooring to the daily banality of its contexts just as it can neither –so long as it partakes of genuine thinking – be configured as wholly encapsulated by thought-less econometrics.
Such considerations finally lead us to ruminate on the ‘dummy’ of the exhibition title. Is the dummy in question the resistant subject who refuses the leap from the material to the metaphorical? Is it the familial dummy, the sedative gestalt used to both fool and appease the restless subject-to-come? Could the dummy alluded to signify another substitute, a decoy used to fool an audience or an enemy? Armies have frequently employed dummies to divert enemy fire from actual targets to imitations, of fake towns, factories, canons and tanks. Dummy bullets are habitually used in military and police exercises where death is only ʻpretendʼ. Beyond the military/industrial analogy, our world is crammed full of dummies, fetishes confused for the desires they displace. And as for art, doesnʼt art represent the quintessential terrain of the dummy, the decoy, the fake? What is art if not a replacement that seeks to convince us of its verisimilitude and conviction while covering up the fact of its disappearance, or at very least, the crisis it has faced ever since being denied the certainty of its historically enlightened role. Even so, in the end, the dummy does not fool all. Actually, it offers its own pleasures and joy in forgetting. Indeed, it can open a space, a domain of uncertainty that inherently provokes un-foreclosed possibilities. Ultimately, it is only a ʻdummyʼ who would proclaim the absolute triumph of a lesser, quantifiable possibility over the greater magnitude of an alternative, unknown horizon.
Alex Gawronski, July 2011
21/7/11 – 7/8/11