Thank you very much for entrusting me to take L’internationale on this small trip to Germany. The painting and I are having a great time so far and as you have seen already, it is very much enjoying the fresh air and its excursions into nature.
In the first photo you have seen, L’internationale and I went to see an old Nazi sculpture called ‘Torch Bearer’, a 6meter tall sculpture representing an athletic man carrying a torch. Despite the history and ideology this sculpture represents, I realized that in the formal composition of the photograph, I am very much enjoying the repeated gesture of an arm holding up a celebrated object - in the sculpture it is the torch, in the photograph it is the painting. The comparison makes me a bit uneasy. On the wall behind the painting is an engraved text, and the lighter blocks you can see have been retrospectively installed to obscure the words ‘Adolf’ and ‘Hitler’. Or that is my reading of it. Perhaps the blocks were already so mutilated by bullet holes from subsequent military occupations of this place that the name was no longer readable. In any case, the name is gone. But the history is still there. And so while I am enjoying the photograph, I am feeling uneasy about the conversation I have started between these two works. But perhaps uncomfortability is not something to shy away from.
This next photograph is much less confrontational. It is in my temporary living room in the barrack-turned-hostel in which I am staying. Apparently it has won many awards. We could think of this room as the most comparable space here to the space of Plǝt-. But nonetheless, it is still a reconfigured piece of Nazi achievement. Perhaps in this photograph it is the squishy couch and the fluffy red cushion that are trying to erase the words ‘Adolf’ and ‘Hitler’ - the architecture fading from ‘hostile’ to ‘rustic’. Formerly, in this photograph, I enjoy how the black and white of L’internationale brings out the colour in the otherwise colourless stones - this artificial element of the painting bringing out the natural characteristics of the building’s materials. In this photo, I feel the context and the painting are simultaneously highlighting each other’s qualities. And this time it is not in relation to ideals: it is the two materials speaking to each other that surfaces, beginning eclipse the stories we know that lay behind them.
I don’t know if I mentioned to you that the place where I would be staying in is an old Nazi Education Facility, now turned into a monument, a museum and a hostel. But if I did not mention it, it was because I was far more excited about the setting in which these buildings are placed - that is, a nature reserve called ‘Eiffel National Park’. This next photograph is from my walk through the forest in this park this morning. The light was hazy from yesterday’s rain; the damp in the forest was slowly evaporating in the morning sun. I took some photographs, and once again realized the contrast between the painting and its context was the colour. Here, my black-clad arm joins the painting and my thumb joins the orange-tinted trees. Everything man made is a shade of black, and this strong separation - joined by the angle of the painting - makes it almost act as a signpost towards the context it finds itself in. Placed within the context but still definitely divorced, the light reflected on its surface marries it; the light on its upper edge creates a contrast that separates it.
I’ve never observed paintings in nature till now, and I’m very much enjoying the way each highlights that which the other lacks. Every manmade decision strengthens the natural quality found in nature behind it. And every represented natural form, such as the wisps of the peacock feather you painted in the upper left corner, bring my attention to external, similar forms. Never would I have compared a peacock feather to a tree. But now I have.
This is as far as I’ve come on this trip. I hope this has updated you on your painting’s movements. Due to limited internet I have kept the images small, but if you would like to see them with more clarity, then I will resend them when I’m back in Amsterdam, in their highest resolution.
Thanks again and all the best,
Dee and L’Internationale.
Locating Narratives was a conversation held at Plat-, with Lara Wilhelmine Hoffmann and Silke Xenia Juul and a number of walk in participants on Wednesday 28th of February 2018. Otherwise remembered as (one of) the coldest days of the year, those who braved the weather were welcomed to Plǝt - with tea, coffee and a (accidentally unmediated) discussion about interpretations and the reading of art. Structured around L’Internationale, the site-specific still life painting coauthored by Alain Urrutia and Plǝt-, Locating Narratives aimed to explore the fictional element present in this work. “I find this problematic”, Silke opened with, ‘isn’t all art fictional?’
I’ve been questioning the idea of fiction in relation to Plǝt- all along, wondering if it could ever be framed otherwise, since it is all documented through me, the tenant, with my subjective narratives stringing stories together of events and exhibitions. So opening Locating Narratives with the topic of fiction seemed to fit; fiction acting as a blanket in which liberties could be taken, purposefully or not, illustrating simplified lines of logic rather than enacting statements through a belief of scientific objectivity. Or at least, that was my approach.
Curious to unpack the set of symbols painted within Alain’s composition, I brought up the topic of symbolism in contemporary painting in general, wondering out loud whether we have a comparable relationship with symbols as in traditional still lives. When we enter museums, labels quickly tell us the meaning of particular motives, pinpointing a singular, ‘correct’ reading to elements within the frame. Fruits were a symbol of wealth, exotic fruits even more so; carved vegetables a display of artistic prowess. Blue, the most expensive pigment, was reserved for the most important figures. It was immediately noted that contemporary art is also strewn with symbols, just as older still life paintings, and we noted how perhaps it is our reception that registers the break between the two. Rather than being told by a third party what-means-what, it was suggested that perhaps we absorb contemporary symbols in the way that we hear words – the connection so innate that we barely register our reception of them, pictorial phrases speaking unconscious stories straight into our experience, illustrating the assumed realities of our current society.
It was pointed out that meaning is socially constructed; going beyond the material meaning that an object might hold. For example, a still life laden with exotic fruit painted in the 16th century has a material reality that points towards wealth, as only the wealthy had the means to travel and only those with the means to travel had access to non-local produce. But further meaning can be socially agreed upon. Blue might have been the most expensive colour historically, but it was transformed through social agreement to represent the status of a person within a painted composition. The same might go for the representation of a pineapple over a mango, for example. The meaning that we attach to objects not necessarily being tied to value. Therefore, the symbols in still life paintings have at least two ways of being read: 1) as a historical document through which the context of the painting can be deduced and 2) through socially constructed/agreed upon symbolism.
These two axes of reading also constructed the lines of our conversation. Constantly meandering between the two, the first point – material signifiers of context – seemed to dominate the second: the second feeling somewhat ‘silly’ in relation to Alain’s L’internationale. Upon questioning why we felt this way when questioning the symbolic meaning between a toy tiger and a quince, we realized we do not live in a society in which a generally agreed upon meaning between toy tigers and quinces exists. Therefore constructing a meaning between the two confronts one with an un-ignorable singularity – consciously feeling ourselves constructing the meaning out of our own logics. However, deducting how a quince and a toy tiger might arrive in a Spanish artist’s studio in London in 2018 felt to be a much more grounded route to explore, and therefore our conversation was constantly steered towards more contextual and social readings.
This mode of viewing art has the potential to bypass intentionist theories, in which artworks are read as an illustration of the intention of the artist. With Alain’s L’internationale, where intention is purposefully erased (at least from the surface of the painting), intention versus reception wove in and out of our conversation. We shared a common conception that materials and space exercise their own voice in the reception of the work, but despite this, rather than sticking to material interpretations, the intention to erase intention became an often returned to topic. So despite our verbal desire to leave the intention of the artist behind, the structure of our conversation tended to suggest otherwise. Western art history is predominantly written through the celebration of artistic intention, so perhaps we are still in the process of unlearning this socially constructed habit.
Other attempts to leave dominant ways of seeing led us to the topic of object oriented ontology. But this suddenly confronted us with the notion that we might be holding the objects in the room hostage. We paused, saw we were teetering on the edge of a topic we were not very well versed in, and reversed – leaving it for another day, perhaps. Coincidentally, it is a topic that keeps coming up in regards to Plǝt-, Anik Fournier brought up the topic in Table Talk in a Home Show when she asked about the paintings as guests. It is also a topic I inadvertently refer to when talking of my current habit of greeting L’internationale every time I enter the apartment, saying hello to it as if it were a flatmate sitting in the corner reading a book. The exhibitions definitely do bring a humanistic element of sharing space with another being into my living environment. I have always connected this to the objects’ relationships with their makers and the decisions of these artists shaping my living space. But perhaps object oriented ontology has the potential to open this area of thought up further in another discussion.
Though Alain’s painting holds signifiers of conservative western art – the form of still life; the medium of painting – the artwork has some inherent paradoxes. Alain’s entirely black and white oeuvre contrasts strongly with the luscious, colour-filled tradition of still life paintings, and the humble stature of the painting caused by its small size counteracts the ‘masturbatory’ element that painting sometimes evokes. And while Alain’s painting practice actively exercises the traditional role of the artist, his intentions to remove authorship simultaneously undermine it. The artwork embodies traditional form, but what it activates is a scene or space for discussions to build and for activities to happen, rather than conveying a particular message or portraying a given meaning.
The surface of the painting becomes a place in which objects meet, the result heavily affected by today’s global interactions, today’s immersion with the internet; its arbitrary collection of objects somewhat unspectacular when seen through the lens of today’s everyday life. The chances that you have a similar composition of unrelated objects composed around you as you read this are great (a fruit, a book, a disposable publication, jewelry, an arbitrary toy). We can find meanings in the details of these particular compositions, but they are only constructions. Their meaning relies on the time and on the space in which they exist.
And the context this painting exists in is a capitalist one. And so, as always, the conversation took its obligatory turn to acknowledge monetary status and value. We split value from meaning, postulating that they are merely spectrums on which we place subjects, spectrums that interact, but do not necessarily correlate with each other. Value is more easily manipulated than meaning and is done so, constantly, by museums and art institutes. We realized that when value is not fixed, it becomes malleable to the intent of those shaping it. And we realized that value is often presented on two oscillating terms: 1) the material object 2) a representation of the artist - skipping from one to the other depending on what suits best. Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, for example, is guarded to protect the physical work, implying that its value lies in it being a physical manifestation of Rembrandt’s intent. But when asked about its cropping in 1715 –physically mutilating the artist’s work – its value becomes representational – the physical painting becoming a placeholder for the artwork it once as. Yet it is still protected as if it were materially valuable. And The Night Watch is not the only one. Any artwork intended to be interacted with, rather than contemplated, is preserved as a representation of itself, never activating the intent it had when it was created.
L’Internationale was created for Mise en Abyme, a site specific work embodying an interactive game between Alain Urrutia, and Plǝt-. In a sense it too will become a representation of its original intent once the exhibition closes. Scheduled to be sent back to London, Alain has decided it will not be sold. And any meaning it picked up in its residency at Plǝt- will become represented by its surface – the familiarity of its face acting as a trigger to the memories it created during its exhibition. Its value will be sentimental. Its meaning will be a memory. But, as it was pointed out, in this current context even this has the potential to be commodified.
We ended there, before leaping into another arm of conversation that our brains, now two hours tired, might no longer have had the strength to hold. We served one last round of tea, and closed.
The day after events always start with a scavenger hunt for my belongings - crammed in draws, cupboards and adjoining rooms at a moment’s notice before the visitors arrive. Pens are found in bookshelves, pillows in filing cabinets – the cupboard doors concealing scraps of thoughts, actions and daily life from the room’s calm and empty surface.
The doorbell signals white lights to turn on, the room is cleared to sufficiently bare and the painting hums quietly in the corner. Despite white expanses of walls, the room’s composition is far from sterile: reconfigured by a last-night dream, objects are carefully carelessly placed and empty walls are left as gestural backdrops for life scenes to play in front of. The painting is installed by the head of the bed to frame sleep - catching dreams, hanging low and at the perfect height for children or lounging visitors.
Slowly, slightly awkward hospitality stirs, people trickling in spatters and globs, seeping in and out of the third floor door. Conversations build context by being spoken of, and concepts build as words flow from mouths creating thought paths that re think the order of how things went and what might follow.
A music box is installed at ear level, introducing the tune as title, announcing the work with a powerful tinkle that dampens conversation to a halt each time it is ‘read’, playing the whole room silent.
Faces appear asking where the work is and what the work was and “Yes, it’s a painting” – the bed an obstacle no one dares to traverse but the three kids who dart about with bodies and eyes, exploring the exhibition with touch and movement. Unpacking the relations between the room-installed objects and painted representations, they physically move their bodies from one location in the room to the next to conduct their investigation. The rest of us stand still, sit and sip quietly, touching the work with thoughts only.
The content of the work purposefully evades meaning and the gallery lights exhibit blank walls to ensure the whole room is spotlighted– giving attention to each activity within – a self-conscious fish bowl scaring stragglers to jostle with others into groups to avoid the glare. A pile of jackets accumulate by the window, a dog runs the circumference of the room and groups of singular visitors huddle in the corner to view the carefully composed painting.
The last visitors trail out and in doing so turn off the room. And I, laying on bed, painting over shoulder, recount every detail of the event I can conjure - objects accidently flung across the room; faces seen; revolving conversations refining descriptions and interpretations; kids and artist alike investigating the painting’s surface with their fingers. The tiny painting, always far away, on the far side of the bed, encouraged speculation more than observation and now, calm and alone, I open “Essential Cubism” – installed in and under the painting – to read a short description of an etching by Braque. My private attendance of my performance transforms the dry words of theory to poetry and, reflecting a comment by Alain, activates art history within his composition. Perhaps Arthur was right in saying art contemporary to its time has the ability to enrich art history retrospectively. If not in reality then at least in one moment of my perception. The artist’s thoughts reflect the content of the book he fictionally painted and never read. The room is the inaugural manifestation of a composition painted in the past. Still life painting suddenly becomes Science Fiction. Except not so suddenly, because Alain mentioned it earlier. I start a scavenger hunt for my belongings through crammed draws, cupboards and adjoining rooms to search for a note I made of conversations earlier. But all I find is my pen in my bookcase and my pillow in the filing cabinet.