The Art and Politics of Defeat, 2011 by Dr Raphael Vella on I Fought the X and the X Won.
The Art and Politics of Defeat Raphael Vella
“Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”1 Samuel Beckett's language in Worstward Ho is a stark reminder of the unavoidability of ultimate failure, couched in minimal utterances in which hope and pretence are simultaneously annulled. If we feel that his prose is almost unbearable at times, this is probably because the Sisyphean bleakness it transmits is couched in such precise and pitiless terms that it strikes a chord deep within us, one that few like to admit to publicly. Generally speaking, people don't boast about personal failures. Whenever lost battles figure in the tales we tell others about ourselves, they reek of self-pity or, at best, self-parody. So, many of us don't talk about them. Or else, if we do discuss our failures, we do so only to draw attention to a wrong that we've suffered: a defence mechanism that turns defeat into a moral victory. Something like: I lost, but the other side cheated. In short, we're bad losers.
“I Fought the X and the X Won” therefore sounds like a rather atypical declaration, particularly if we locate such a statement in the realm of a radical conception of the “avant-garde” that takes its name from militant origins. What strategic plan of action can be plotted by artistic revolutionaries who accept defeat so gracefully? How can one be a politically engaged artist in these post-Beuysian times if one doesn't dream of some sort of utopian “social sculpture” that succeeds in transforming at least some aspect of one's life? After all, Joseph Beuys himself took the “fight” quite literally when he fought his Boxing Match for Direct Democracy at the Documenta in Kassel in 1972 (and won).
Bearing in mind that the exhibition title is derived from a rock n' roll song2,it sounds uncharacteristically self-effacing, more like the moral teaching of a Sermon on the Mount than the refrain of a guitar-swinging rock musician. Whether the statement is interpreted in a conditional sense (“If you fight the X, the X will win”), an imperative sense (“Don't fight the X...”) or as a simple narration of fact (“Yesterday, I fought the X...”), it appears to promote caution, restraint or even complicity rather than resistance, confrontation or transgression. Clearly, within an artistic milieu, such an attitude reflects neither an aesthetic of power nor a modernist aesthetic of shock. One could deduce that “I Fought the X and the X Won” thereby reflects some postmodern age rather than an earlier epoch – an age, that is, without metanarratives ‒ because it distances itself from both the aestheticisation of politics indicted by Walter Benjamin and the modern movements by several decades. However, in a sense, one could also read such a statement as an indictment of art tout court, acknowledging to some extent the powerlessness of art in the face of many of the forces it set out to fight, starting around a century and a half ago.
Rope in some of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's rhetoric and the sentence changes to “I fought museums and museums won” (but then again, admitting defeat doesn't sound very Futurist, does it?). Give the sentence a Greenbergian twist and you have, “I fought kitsch and kitsch won”. Adapt it to Guy Debord and it becomes “I fought spectacular society and the spectacle won”. If the “I” in “I Fought the X” stands for art, could art's defeat mean simply its co-option by capitalism? Or could it signify the death of art's radical potential?
Yet, surely, such a clear demarcation of “winner” and “loser” relies too heavily on our experiences of sports, games and TV quizzes. What of those who are not even aware of their own fortunes and misfortunes? And wouldn't an interpretation that presents art itself as the “loser” (or even the “winner” for that matter) be inscribed in the very discourse of power that art once set out to transgress? Maybe, art cannot be positioned at the extremes of either defeat or victory, but somewhere in between, in the uneasy tension that subsists between forces, in the relation between the aesthetic and the political, or even in that gap that tears asunder or links the image with the individuals and communities who are faced by its silent energy. Sometimes referred to as a “relational aesthetic”, this dialogue between the image and its public or between different members of the public who concurrently interact with an artist's idea, is “democratic” to the extent that it releases rather than restricts or merely reflects communicative possibilities and social exchanges within and around the artist's work. Yet, this notion of democracy in the reception and even the completion of artistic practices by members of the public does not mean that art's “strangeness” disappears, or that some sort of universal harmony is achieved in the process. Quite the opposite. It stands for a dynamic process in which the public's encounter with art is accountable rather than detached, and “meanings”, even hostile ones, now occupy an open combat zone where the aim is to “engage” more than to win or lose. The effects of art – its transmission of ideas as well as its political clout or transformative force – are not measureable. You cannot count art's successes or failures but you can open to its tensions, its questions, its drifting away from acquired discourse, its reframing of technologies, its ability to elicit something “different” from your neighbour.
Take the work included in the exhibition I Fought the X and the X Won, for instance. It rewrites assumed frames of reference, asking questions rather than providing answers. Some of it, like Helidon Gjergji's, Petra Feriancova's, Siebren Versteeg's and Adrian Scicluna's pieces, plays with contemporary information and communication technologies and their predicaments: translation, distance, coding, and dislocation.
Katharina Swoboda's and Vince Briffa's videos struggle against time: they simulate, respectively, a three-minute boxing round and a race, but their time is fractured or fading away, like that of a boxer who gets knocked to the canvas, or a retired athlete, too old to be effective on the track of life. Gabriele Grones's painting haunts us as it also maps out meticulously the traces of time on a face, while Tarohei Nakagawa's black and white photographs and Austin Camilleri's small sculptures are the antithesis of the portrait: they hide rather than reveal identities and make us wonder whether the hidden face belongs to a representative of power or a victim.
Understandably, the effects of the media and other globalising and political forces, advertising campaigns and stereotypes also play a central role in the works of a number of artists in the show, particularly Ewa Kuras, Gabriel Brojboiu, Michal Moravcik and Dimitris Antonitsis. Embattled political histories, art-historical references, cinematic and internet-based references merge in the images of Dionisis Christofilogiannis, Radu Comsa and Raphael Vella, while Ry Fyan, Artan Shabani, Dimitris Tataris, Sharon Engelstein and Eva Mitala direct their attention to personal and collective memories and occasionally uncanny situations and anxieties.
In many of these works, there is no denunciatory tone that opposes “wrong” viewpoints. Arguments, ideas and people are not decisively split into winners and losers. Rather, their ambivalence, their irony and their discordance make many of these works so thought-provoking. The object is not to present an image that authorises specific interpretations, ideological underpinnings or political closure, but to destabilise certainties. This tactic is not a reflection of artistic or political indecisiveness but an understanding of antagonism in which the objective is to provide partial, non-authoritarian answers that weave themselves into other partial answers, bearing witness to “the impossibility of a final suture”3. There is no totality, no definite winner and loser, no fully self-conscious identity, no possibility of democracy or art without multiple, conflicting positions. Instead, art speaks of gaps andbreaks and paradoxically finds its own potential therein. This emptiness is its lifeblood.
1. S. Beckett, Worstward Ho, London: John Calder Ltd, 1983, p. 7.
2. 2 The song “I Fought the Law” has had many cover versions, most notably by Bobby Fuller Four and The Clash.
3 E. Laclau and C. Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London and New York: Verso, 1985, p. 125.