Today is Just a Copy of Yesterday? 1)
Among the most widely-used contemporary artistic strategies we find the so-called remake. This procedure means the constant reference to and renewal of works from the past. As if artists were a sort of DJs limited in a post-production strategy to use remixes of songs made by others and set out to be rearranged. So, as if the world were set out in images, in a network of circulation and free distribution, ready to be revitalized, today's artists transform André Malraux's Imaginary Museum into a reality.
Perhaps here the most fitting term for this gesture is that of appropriation, which reveals the saturation, and at the same time the democracy of contemporary art, which is no longer based on the values of uniqueness and originality that art possessed in the past. Great artists have some responsibility in this event. As does the culture industry. So the great works come back in the shape of inhibited phantoms haunting young artists through the weight of their influence. On the other hand, they allow these same artists to strip these classic artists of their categories of unattainable masters.
Harold Bloom, in his essay The Anxiety of Influence, describes the ambivalence involved in this process: a sort of blessing and disease at the same time (the flu from which it derived its name is well known: influenza). So this is simultaneously a divine inspiration that moves artists in the sublimations to the masters, but which ties them down to a universe of (often heaven) references that makes the works of the past be copied and eternally repeated, making us feel that we are in a world in which nothing can be defined as unique and unrepeatable. Walter Benjamin caught the essence of an era like ours, that of the copy, owing to an industrialisation that brought about the reproducibility of the work of art. Yet, as he states, the work of art was always reproducible and nothing can be done without the influence of something that has already existed. Seeing the matter from a positive side, and fulfilling Lavoisier's view of nature: nothing is lost, (nothing is gained) and everything is changed.
Jonathan Monk (b.1969) is one of the best examples of contemporary artists who make this revitalising of great masters from the past their modus operandi. Through parody and irony, Monk revitalises works by artists who influenced his activity, such as the conceptualism and minimalism of the sixties and seventies. In this exhibition he comes back to one of the works by Edward Ruscha, Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass (1968), a set of photographs which forms an artist's book. In this work Ruscha plays with the irony about daily life, taking photos of nine swimming pools in an apparently banal and ordinary manner.
However, at the end of this set he inserts an image of a broken glass, casting the unsolved mystery for the spectator, causing a sensation close to that of suspense. This broken glass serves as an element of meaning against the idyllic image of swimming pools. What is that glass doing there? Has a crime been committed? Is it a reference to spilt water? Or is it just a joke by the artist, playing with the nonsense of a work that should only be worth what it is, without having to be anchored to an external and hermetic referent? Thinking on his line of work, this process comes from a will that the conceptual inherited from abstractionism: that of leaving the observer with an enormous field of freedom of interpretation. Perhaps this is why Ruscha's book has a set of blank pages. For Ruscha, these are just to grant body to the work, and he also states, ironically, that they are also a way of saving money in production costs. For the observer they may be the way of freely getting introducing another version into this story. This freedom of intervention is something that Harold Bloom describes as being creative correction, used as a tool, so that the work redone is not just a mere copy or exercise of skill.
In inverting the order of Ruscha's images through creative correction, Monk guarantees the authenticity and originality of his own work. The broken glass, which in Nine Swimming Pools and a Broken Glass, appears at the end of the series, is in Broken Glass in the Swimming Pool, the unifying centre of the nine swimming pools that the artist turns into blue neon lights with different tones. Monk keeps to the importance of the formal composition of Ruscha's photos, and goes on to an almost alchemic transmutation: water moves into neon light, from photography we go to installations and to oil painting, from contemplation to dreaming immersion.
Despite such clear influences, Monk goes beyond and renews the work of his master. In doing so he translates his ancestor. Translating is not unknown to this creator (Translation Piece, 2002). In the work he is showing here, and which teaches us a process of translating (because to translate means to betray), there is always a bit that can't be translated, a something over. That's exactly where this work takes place.
In getting into it, even if we see the inspiration in Ruscha, we don't think of it. We swim in the pool, leaving our critical overcoats aside, and we enjoy the fun (and not the worry) of influence. This is the only way we can find pleasure in the works that, looking at them from the half full glass point of view, are just copies of the past. But might we not ask ourselves in the end: what is really virgin new? Isn't the world made up of transformation that brings us the refreshing sense of change? Take care in plunging, the broken glass does not provide safety. But everything that is worthwhile always brings risks. Otherwise this would be the eternal boredom of the safety of repetition over and over. Like historical facts and even those of today, one imagines art to be an open system, like a palimpsest ready to be re-written. Coming back as a conclusion, the metaphor of the water of a river: the water that flows here is the same as the moment right before it. That's what makes it flow, just like us, mere observers in a process of change, which, indeed, guarantees that we are seeing a true work of art. Unique.
Carla de Utra Mendes
1) This title is taken from one of Jonathan Monk's works: Today is Just a Copy of Yesterday (Holiday) from 2002. The question mark is not a part of the original title.