Enough is Enough

Duncan Wooldridge (artist, writer, and curator)

In 2’33”, a pianist sits in the gallery and plays intermittently.  She plays, in fact, quite casually: she seems barely to be playing at all. For a lot of the exhibition, she seems to just sit there: a little like Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby’, she ‘would prefer not to’.  And when briefly she might spring in to life and play - as if just to cease being bored - there is something casual, even rote and routine, about the playing of Beethoven’s Für Elise, which seems to be on loop, which has become muzak.

Bona Park frequently explores the relationship between art and life, so much so that we might consider it a core theme in her work.  In an earlier public project, Stranger than Fiction, 2011, she placed a performing protestor in the street in Seoul, acting out a role which that is associated with authenticity and dedication.  Collecting documentation of protestors from the web - including those of her own performer amongst the many others, she then disseminated the pictures  through a variety of additional channels.  An ambiguity between the performer’s place as a genuine protestor or as artwork and, between the works documentation as human spectacle or humanist documentary image, led to an indeterminate response, an uncomfortable ambivalence to the action: Art exists in everyday life, but art also increasingly looks like life; life, consequently, has begun to look like art.  We cannot be sure in Stranger than Fiction as to whether the individuals are artworks or genuine outpourings of hardship and campaigning, just as we cannot be sure if the playing of Für Elise is instruction or refusal, the performance bad or intentionally careless. How are we to tell, once we accept art appearing in any form, whether a gesture is genuine or contrived? If art has continued to mimic the everyday, is there not a risk that every gesture eventually becomes construed, even misconstrued, as art? Is this productive? Might we argue that art’s appearance as life has made light, or made comic, real life itself?

We have become used to Für Elise, that is for sure.  And if we linger long enough to hear it play, to recall it, we will probably hear it multiple times, as if on a loop (the performer plays in bursts and occasional flurries).  Für Elise, when it is played, is exhausted in Park’s 2’33”, just as Stranger than Fiction shows the exhaustion of artistic gesture and of protest. We become aware that something with such repetition is effectively emptied of all its potency, elevated ‘art’ descending to ‘life’.  When John Cage recorded 4’33”, his ‘silent’ composition, he did so because even with the greatest quiet (an anechoic chamber), slight sounds could still become still perceptible (the performer, David Tudor, was still performing).  If Für Elise is emptied, repeated lethargically, all we can hear is its playing, a performance of banality: we hear the dull thumping on the keys, the sped up boredom of the pianist, music’s susceptibility to be changed by its performance: this would lead Umberto Eco to describe in his book The Open Work, the openness of all works of music (Eco ultimately describes this space of interpretation as fundamental to the musical process, but is focused moreover on how composers began to structurally leave open elements of their work, to challenge and provoke the performer, something which Park exploits in 2’33’’). 

Black Square similarly explores the openness of artwork.  Directly recalling Felix Gonzalez-Torres floor-based poster works (something which, five to ten years ago, had become so popular as a form as to be emptied of its specificity), Park returns the poster to its political function, inscribing on its surface a rather emotive description, drawn from the web, of extinct animals. We are meant to remove the posters of course, but our participation, now usually codified in the positive-spin-interactivity of web 2.0, is encouraged but met with the dark even apocalyptic messages sourced from online.  Our emotional engagement is up in the air: do we actually care about what the text implores us to do?  Do we act based upon works of art?  Our sincerity in picking up the work seems under interrogation, and it would appear that our inclination to take the poster home, as a gesture, as a work of art of potential value, runs in opposition to our physical engagement with the works core message, of a past that is soon lost.  

Visibility and invisibility are reconstituted here, as they are across Park’s practice. As the posters are taken, so the record of the extinct animals also disappears from the space.  What we cannot see we are unaware of.  In a project which came to be called The Missing, 2009, Park explored a similar invisibility, constructed during the institutional time of the art work.  As Park took up a residency at the Fondazione Pistoletto in Biella, Italy, she was limited by visa restrictions, to a stay just shorter than the duration of the residency and its resulting exhibition.  Park had proposed to produce a film about a missing woman, only to find that, by the end of the exhibition, she herself would be gone, prohibited from staying long enough to appear with her work at the exhibition. Park herself was missing from Biella by the end of her residency, and all that remained was a trace, as the poster remains an empty trace of an animal, now extinct.  Whether or not the paper posters run out (which they can), we become accustomed to and aware of limitation and scarcity, to the exhaustion of the work and its gesture.

Another work in the exhibition Untitled (Between) displays another comingling of absence and visibility: magic and illusion. Here Park also sets out a contrast between the occupation ‘entertainer’ and the political status ‘immigrant’: a French magician performs magic tricks without the objects, describing them in his francophonic accent.  What is visible here is what is usually invisible, and what is usually foregrounded is in turn out of sight: the objects that facilitate magic are absent, leaving the sleight of hand gestures to reveal the processes of the trick.  The performer, who distracts the viewer from the object, here points not an idea outside of the trick - as magician in control of the audience - but in fact to the mechanics of magic itself, and to his own status as both immigrant and worker.  Magic of course, is an extended play upon the limitations of human vision, our inability to see at speed, to perceive of actions behind an object.  If the magician usually diverts our gaze away from that which we should not or cannot see, here a diversion continues, but is inverted to reveal the façade of the magician and the labour of magic: a practice and rehearsal is revealed and re-enacted for us, de-mystifying the product of the finalized trick. Whilst the performer is used to taking centre stage, we are necessarily more aware of the man’s status as ‘immigrant’ (in his thick set accent) when the object is absent. If the immigrant’s first task is to fulfill the expectation to become assimilated, rehearsal functions to reveal the production of sincerity at work in performing a refined illusion in a second language. We see how we are encouraged to perform both our everyday persona and our more formalized labour.   

Park’s emphasis on migration was apparent in The Missing from Biella, but is elaborated here in its fullest form.  Park’s integration of language, dialogue and performance extends upon The Missing, whilst connecting to her previous Warning in Urdu (do not feed the pigeons), 2008, which addresses the authority of language, and the perception of languages that fall outside of our comprehension.  In this case, Warning in Urdu plays off the fear and presumed militancy of Arabic script as perceived in some European and American populations (the script in fact reveals a distinctly British warning that asks the public not to feed the birds which congregate in public squares, though the script looks unnerving as a banner).  These presumptions, which Park reveals to be little more than projections, are continued in Untitled (Between), where the performer will entertain us with his exoticism if the trick is slick and convincing, but be subject to scrutiny and condemnation outside of a successful performance.  Park’s use of translation, and the presentation of multiple languages is a clear exploration of the status of the other.

We might say that Bona Park draws our attention to gestures and their exhaustion or limit.  Where art typically attempts to propose new ways of looking through a reconfiguration of elements into a new gestalt whole, Park’s simple gestures allow us to see the gestures as they are: their histories and the state of their transformation in what Bruno Latour calls The Migration of the Aura in an age of three-dimensional facsimiles.  Here the work of Art is understood as something in constant transformation, both materially and conceptually.  It is no coincidence that Park overtly links each work to the practice of another, singular artist, without attempting to claim a grand gesture for her own appropriation.  These icons, held up as moments of great achievement, are necessarily co-opted, transformed and sometimes emptied in their ascension to greatness.  Park demonstrates the transformation of the gesture, and points to the limit of our visibility in an epoch that continues to be concerned primarily with surface.