Fiction (1982)

"Fiction," Parachute, no. 28 (September – November 1982), pp. 41-42.

Click to read

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
April 2 — May 30

After two decades of an “art of the real,” and a century of the critique of representation, fiction carries an uncertain status. This is not as true for literature where fiction, naturally, is its legitimate category. Although fiction has been reduced to a textual play there, language’s representational capacity is the ground of its construction. Fiction’s status in an art that has been predominately material, formal and structural is a more recent aspiration, its entry into the space of art seems to have been prompted by the language orientation of conceptual art and the narrational structure and biographical references of performance art.

Fiction is the title, but not a classification, for the works in a travelling exhibition originating at the Art Gallery of Ontario, organized by Elke Town. The works by Ian Carr-Harris, General Idea, Mary Janitch and Shirley Wiitasalo are as divergent as their paths to their particular ‘fictional’ spaces of presentation. In the accompanying catalogue, Town does not define the term ‘fiction’ except generally within its literary connotations. A title, however, is a space of presentation and, hence, a representation. This lack of specificity within the domain of art and the failure to theorize the problematics of fiction (for instance, ‘fiction’ and ‘representation’ are not interchangeable terms; whereas a fiction does not need a referent, a representation does) only add to the fragmentary look of this exhibition. It is left to the viewer to gauge the nature of ‘fiction’ in each of the artists’ works and to decide whether, truly fiction is the most important perspective. It is on the nature of each of the individual works then rather than on their fictional status, that consequently the exhibition stands or falls.

The objects and situation of Ian Carr-Harris’ construction, ...across town... (1981), maintain traces of the historical debate on literality, duration and theatricalization surrounding minimal art. These sculptural and theoretical sources show the difficulty in arriving at a consensus about ‘fictional’ works that arrive from different origins and derive from diverse strategies. In this instance, the sculptural and the fictional are brought together as a literal ‘theatre’ in which a play of desire is enacted. The separately housed, sequential system of lights, tape recorder and speakers that surround a bare platform standing for a segment of floor all together construct an apparatus for representing an absence. Through the flux of light and voices across the work’s various elements, desire is represented and displaced moment by moment. Insubstantial light is that ‘object’ of past desire recalled by a woman’s voice in the third audio segment and re-presented at the same time as a sweep of light across the empty stage. Voices and light circle that absence, that empty centre of representation.

The tape voices substitute for absent speakers, but they make something present through an act of speech. They do not simply circulate around this void: they are directed to an audience that activates, and in a sense operates, the piece. Within that situation and durational event—emphasized by the sequence of lights and separation of the voices in different speakers—the fiction, or rather Carr-Harris’ piece, presents something beyond itself.

Fiction maintains limits, whereas representation complicates these confines through reference and thus implicates the viewer. Fiction presents itself in its most privileged instance within the frame of a painting and in turn, within the boundary of the museum. General Idea has chosen painting, and in particular the fictitious archaeological fragment, as the next stage of their collective enterprise. The painted fragment, posing as a museum restoration, is called The Unveiling of the Cornucopia: A mural fragment from the room with the unknown function in the Villa dei Mistiri of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion (1982). But they have chosen ‘painting’ in terms of its contemporary signifier, and have emptied its ‘con-tent’ and used the format for their own purposes. Those purposes, however, have more to do with a maintenance of General Idea’s strategies within a changing art world than with the Pavillion itself. The fragment is ‘placed within’ the Pavillion, but its function within that fictional ‘system’ is ambiguous and tenuous. (Obviously the Pavillion is no solid thing or pre-ordained and rigid strategy.) Calling it ‘the room with the unknown function’ only dis-plays its formality as well as its use as material for a self-referential system, which makes the enterprise a balancing act caught in a mirror stage. By matching the ziggurat columns of this fake poodle-Pompeiian style wall fresco (with reference to all the ziggurat configurations of the Pavillion) to the grid of restoration implies that any of their new work is always already inscribed within its own system. The Pavillion has become a trap. Of course, it is not a closed system since it is infinitely expandable. For the work to come to meaning, a supplement is necessary — in this case their catalogue contribution more than the pavillion as a ‘whole’ to date. This iconography by fiat—the spilled cocktail glasses, etc.—does not accept the constraints of viewing within the gallery which a fictional work seems to demand. (Within strict terms, the fictional work is not conceptual or constative.) Apart from its ‘semiotic’ apparatus, presented as painting, and within those limits, the work does not succeed. It is good painting—merely the shell of painting. Those are the terms with which it has to be judged within its presentation here: hung on the wall of a public gallery without intervention of history or text.

For Mary Janitch, ‘fiction’ seems to indicate the indeterminate locale of an anticipated moment, with art acting as a means and place to call it forth rather than record it. In this work and incomplete, white latticed gazebo is flanked by a diorama of three large panels of overlaid sheets of watercolour blooms laced by streaks of pastel lines and handwritten words. Called Psalm, three songs toward a summer sky (1981), the ‘toward’ of the little implies that future orientation rather than the watercolour overlays indexing different memories or moments. The watercolours aspire to the mood and melodies of music (but in a clumsy way), with the process of their making showing the flux of a present, as much as a future, state. The gazebo, incomplete rather than in ruin, reinforces anticipation over memory. But it is uneasy in the space of the gallery, and as a place of observation and anticipation, it is awkward in regards to the wall panels.

Shirley Wiitasalo’s contribution to the exhibition is five paintings, although only four are listed in the catalogue. And it is that fifth, already shown in 1981, that disturbs the consistency of portrayal that makes the notion of fiction more applicable to her work than any other in the exhibition. For Wiitasalo does not present one work that is a constructed ensemble or that is conceptually or figuratively (i.e., metaphorically) referential. These are separate paintings, each with a simple, but distinct, focal image. That fifth—a canvas-size photo-emulsion image of the Reagan assassination attempt intruding into a private living-room—ties itself too closely to a discourse on media/ideological imposition. The rest of the paintings, presumed originally to stand together, are more sly and subtly shifting than analytical in their ideological suggestions; not pointed as a semiotic, but seductive in their simplicity as oil paintings. A nebulous seductiveness, in a sense, is the subject of these ‘house and garden’ paintings where subjectivity and irony mingle in projections, reflections and distortions. Within each of these paintings, figures float like clouds, non-verbal balloons or ‘thought-forms’. In Untitled (1982), a pink house floats in the middle of a bifurcated yellow and turquoise field reflecting its status trappings as an imitation manor or estate house complete with quivering price in the black pool of its imaginary. In Beautiful Garden (1981), the dream turns sour: in the ‘balloon’ above one filigree garden chair we can make out through highlights one figure beating another, while similarly above the facing chair, a man servilely kneels behind a passing officer. The gouaches that accompany these images in the catalogue show Wiitasalo’s pursuit of these moments of inner (and domestic) distortions of the imaginary, whether moments lingering in fantasy or disturbed in the sudden violence of paranoia. Her sophisticated means display the naive fictions within, not the critique of representations outside.