SPECULATIVE ANXIETIES AND IMPERIAL ROCKET SKATES: A CATALOG ESSAY FOR THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
by Chris R. Morgan
At first we feared that it would end too soon. Then we feared that it would not end soon enough. But then we came to how we always end up: as settlers. There was, in an instance and without us really noticing, a great blurring of intensities—Or was it a melding? Still yet, a coupling? A cohabitation? Or maybe a cannibalization?—that could not otherwise have been compatible. What, indeed, gave into what? Did anticipation give into fear? Did disappointment take hope into its arms and squeeze until there was no breath to squeeze out of it? Did love melt into indifference? Did violence sauté and serve unviolence for a table of one? It is often said of the longest running installation art collective in the medium’s history that they are perpetually settling. But on what frontier it is never certain. Indeed, this unpredictability, this schizophrenia of theme, is at the center of America’s polarization. What they were trying to accomplish with OBAMA will seem dismissive to some, enticing to others, depending on how deeply one wants to look. Such as it is with all art, high and low, violent or unviolent.
But one cannot fairly assess OBAMA’s impact without first facing what had presaged it. America’s oeuvre, it seems, is never not commenting on its own history, sometimes exclusively and solipsistically so. In this case, however, it is something of a blessing that they have decided not to look back too far, something that has been of interest to them for the past few exhibitions. BUSH II was the clearest expression of this interest, and indeed it is BUSH II that is being confronted again and again in almost every kink and contour of OBAMA.
What even was BUSH II? Artforum said it was a “perpetually adolescent Sadie Hawkins slow dance with the deathworks.” Jerry Saltz thought it was “mesmerizing, satirizing, stultifying, cauterizing, simonizing, winterizing paleovoyeurism.” Dave Hickey ejaculated onto a 1040. It’s certain that BUSH II found the collective being more confrontational than it had previously been. But America always does its work halfway, letting “environmental factors” fill in the gaps. There were, it seems, so many gaps, left by faulty patchwork of themes, symbols, gestures, and feelings, beautiful in their own ways, but tormented out of form by vomit, glitter, and hot glue. In the end, though, response depended entirely on its either/or proposition. One can either let his or her heart be wrenched by the perverse exquisiteness of its intention or one can have his or her bowels ground into sausage over the opulent vulgarity of its execution. To say one has claimed to experience, let alone actively tried to experience, both, would be to attach to a missile of fallacy a warhead of insult.
What was most evident to those who saw BUSH II though was its sense of culmination. America had reached a point at which it seemed entirely uncertain as to whether it could or would continue beyond it. So much of it seemed so conclusive and mission defining as opposed to taste or epoch-making. Clearly our imagination has played us for fools. Appropriate, really, as it is a fool’s parlor game to even try to understand America’s creative process. How they chose to move from BUSH II to OBAMA seems simply migraine-inducing and humbling to contemplate. They must work in tandem, surely, but just how in tandem? Who gets what say seems entirely contingent on mood and resource. Is there a thematic faction calling for more hills on which to place more shining cities? Or is there a technical arm jutting through the philosophy to beg for “More light! At the center!” It is only clear that the debut presented all of these elements and more in an order more meticulous than previously conceived. BUSH II stood gleefully and relaxed on a center it was either unwilling or unable to hold. OBAMA stood aloofly and upright on a center that was holding in spite of itself. Here was something pristine and genuine, a corrective without actually professing to correct. It resisted intrusion or sullying; until our hands—not to mention our breaths and our loins—did just those things.
The idea of explicit instructions never seemed to sit comfortably into any of America’s manifestos. There was always conflict within them as to what, exactly, could be done. Some seemed issued entirely in jest, as dares and challenges, or as hazing protocol. It is important to repeat that none of America’s works are monumental, save maybe its first. Though it varies by certain degrees, the breakdown of the audience-participant divide is inevitable. Yet the contrast between BUSH II and OBAMA is notable. With the former, everything was conceived according to plan. It stood there, smooth-surfaced and graspable, a milling around rather than an occasion. And then it malfunctioned. (Or did it?) And we became meddlers. It became colder and we withdrew, encasing it instead with our stares, at turns blankly observant and disbelievingly reverent. And it froze, in a sense, and has never quite thawed. The expression and the impressions never changed and it got to a point that we could not look on in good faith anymore. The latter could not have been more different. It presupposed monumentality, and yet we reached anyway. Whenever the first touch was laid, and by whomever, it was evident that it would not stop. Nothing was stopping anyone from going on, in, and even through OBAMA. Whole arms protruded into it. Whole tongues slugged forth to taste it. Whole voices called to it. It did not respond, but we could see the evidence of our interactions all over its surface. Our smudges, oils, spittle, tears, and dents.
What OBAMA is, in the end, is up to the viewer. Is OBAMA bad? Of course. Is OBAMA good? Of course. Is OBAMA abstract and unknowable? Of course. Is OBAMA a presence in our lives, an object coexisting beside us but also between our adversaries as a benevolent Wall of Social and Legal Equalization? Of course. Earthly industry can produce near-limitless supplies of courses, and questions of OBAMA will only come very close to exhausting them.
But we’re talking about OBAMA in relation to the distant past and the brute immediacy of the present. Not that America doesn’t care about these things in relation to this piece, but compared to previous works, the future looms longer and starker. Perhaps, then, it wasn’t so much a monument to us as an omen for us, and standing in another plain entirely. It did not look at us when we saw it, or feel us when we in turn felt it, because it was given a higher gaze, for which it may have pained to look lower. Some, like Roger Scruton, have argued it was out of contempt. There’s a case for that, I suppose. Not since WILSON has there been so flippant a dalliance with the dangers of speculative fiction. But contempt to some is concern for others, concern for an audience otherwise unseen or unwrought into proper physical definition. I’d argue the latter because underestimating America’s gift for foresight is a pastime I find worthy of discontinuation. It’s not quite a genius, but what’s genius but a more entertaining variation of thermal shutdown? In OBAMA we are not given complete visions, but we don’t need them when the faint glints on the horizon are piercing enough in their malevolence. We see the competing possibilities of The New. New sources of energy, new sources of shock, new sources of anxiety, new sensations, new impotencies, new triggers to self-harm.
All of these are, in fact, making themselves known as OBAMA’s exhibition comes to its conclusion and new projects are under consideration. The question remains is whether or not OBAMA will be returned to once America has moved on. To haunt beyond its time is not the most sought after or simplest but certainly the most noble of the artistic ambitions. Could it hang at the edge of our psyche, fangs flashing, like Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion or The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living? Or will it give us pause to question why we were so moved it experience it in the first place like any number of Koons’s balloon animals? Then again there are some things that are not so either/or.
The experience of OBAMA carries with it all the fatigue, aches, scents, and moistness of roughly one thousand masturbations. Perhaps even infinite masturbations. What we had obscured deep into the chapel of adulthood came vaulting back half-blind and through glass on rocket skates. We hit the ground. We always do. The injuries we sustained are perpetual. Some of them bring us joy. They are in cool shapes. Some are even phallic. Some bring us searing remembrances of the original pain, shooting into our centers—spiritual and literal—like bullets or ice picks, simply heightening the pain to new levels. Fury and flight. Joy and pain. Pain and accelerated pain. Art is what does this. Art is OBAMA.
(Above image: Anatomy of a World Leader by Alex Grey)