Garrett Phelan - News from NOW:HERE
A text by Declan Long, a curator and writer based in Dublin
At a certain point, among the interconnecting patterns of agitated drawing and chaotic, incorrigibly plural textuality that characterised the vast majority of Garrett Phelan's NOW:HERE, there appeared an area of concentrated absence: a communicative void. This region of relative emptiness was to be found in an upper room of the derelict domestic apartment that housed NOW:HERE and instead of the intricate and deeply involving detail that up to this point had seemed to cover every inch of wall space, here only a single intensely rendered form was visible: a large, densely spray-painted black circle. Virtually floor-to-ceiling in height, the dominant and intimidating scale of this ominous mark seemed to force a sudden, radical shift away from the complexities of the surrounding imagery. Almost everywhere in these empty rooms, Phelan had drawn rough sketches and scrawled strange texts on the walls, each referring in different ways to what one scribble openly termed 'the big ideas', and these relentless references to instances of belief, progress or catastrophe in the contemporary world gave the work the appearance of being a form of elaborate, high minded graffiti. In that such content was so evidently concerned with the production and transmission of specific meanings - giving the impression of ideas being worked through, of formulae evolving and data being processed - the bold black circle was by comparison notably devoid of information and as such it appeared to offer wholly distinct challenges and possibilities.
NOW:HERE's broader matrix of ideas and imagery had been developed in these run-down rooms in Dublin's north inner city over a period of several weeks in 2003, the artist gradually assembling a network of associations that combined complex technocratic terminology and scientific diagrams with philosophical fragments and arcane religious references. In this former domestic environment, statistical data was now displayed alongside representations of bodily functions, mathematical equations were juxtaposed with sketches of military paraphernalia and corporate insignia were accompanied by occultist iconography. And yet, in each case, there was some suggestion of interrelation. The unlikely connections encountered in these deserted spaces therefore had a cumulative and disorientating effect, on the one hand tempting viewers with the possibility that a hidden totality, a grand design, might be revealed through close scrutiny of this diverse material and on the other, frustrating the establishment of a coherent narrative as each new and puzzling component was chanced upon. Like the notebook glimpsed by Ciaran Carson in his poem 'Linear B', NOW:HERE was all 'squiggles, dashes, question marks, dense as the Rosetta Stone - it was either nonsense or a formula.' 1
In this uncertain context the upper room's portentous black circle was at first sight an unlikely addition, seeming set apart from the widespread semiotic superfluity - amongst the white noise of signs and symbols this was a moment of solemn silence. Was this, then, to be understood as an interruption or a termination of the ongoing processes of information production? Did this blank space imply a shutting down of the system of inter-relations, an end-point? Yet, although it was ostensibly different in style to the effusive forms that prevailed more generally, there was something 'uncertain' to be considered about this circle. There was, for instance, a spatial indeterminacy about its shape. Next to the relative graphic clarity of nearby drawings and diagrams, this hazy circle looked to be out of focus, and as its blurred, imperfect circumference seemed to spill over the skirting board and spread beyond the edges of the walls, it was possible to imagine its physical dimensions as provisional, incomplete. Closer inspection, therefore, allowed this circle to become many things at once. It was an intensely rendered mark that was visually distinctive and even assertive - a vivid, immediate 'presence' that noticeably contrasted with all that surrounded it - while also being free of any obvious 'content', it was an absence. And though as a circle it had a recognisable symmetry and integrity, it simultaneously gave the vague impression of being slightly amorphous and not fully fixed to a particular point in space.
This process of teasing out the ambiguities and complications which are largely made invisible by dominant, collectively received forms of cultural representation, is a vital element of Phelan's practice. Indeed, the stated objective of NOW:HERE is to begin an examination of what the artist refers to as 'collective belief systems', this work marking a part of the first stage in an ongoing project aiming to explore the ways in which 'ideas or beliefs enter into society or are formed by the individual, from the official to the subversive, from the Positive to the Negative' 2 . NOW:HERE introduced the first of the four phases making up Phelan's ambitious investigation into collective beliefs, and hence he has described it as 'gateway' for 'an exploration of how information is received'. The manner in which opinions or ideologies are formed and maintained is therefore crucial to NOW:HERE and so Phelan bombards the viewer with signs and symbols that relate to specific ways of seeing or shaping the world. The ultimate - and desired - result of the subsequent information overload is however, the creation, or perhaps the endorsement, of a condition of profound uncertainty. Writing on Sigmar Polke, Dave Hickey has proposed that there is a 'vertiginous, anxious pleasure' to be derived 'from being freely lost, from not seeing anything clearly and not knowing anything for sure' and perhaps Garrett Phelan's engagement with collective beliefs might offer a similarly 'affirmative' vision of uncertainty. As Hickey notes, it is possible to look for 'moral authority in the ebullient and gallant modesty of not knowing and not pretending to know', conceding that in contemporary culture 'one pays too high a price for the comfort of certainty' 3.
Yet the passage towards a form of 'scrupulous uncertainty' (to borrow James Wood's description of W. G. Sebald's style) 4 is an inevitably difficult and disorientating one. In NOW:HERE the confrontations with collective belief systems, with doctrines and methodologies that are founded on putative certainties, involve a disconcerting reappraisal of the viewer's common sense assumptions. The languages of science, for instance, are frequently utilised in this work and though scientific enquiry is properly valued in contemporary society as a key source of knowledge, in this context references to industrial, medical or communication technologies tend to have an alienating rather than an illuminating effect. Expert knowledge is required to decipher the multiple diagrams of electronic circuitry or other unidentifiable machinery (captioned with terms such as 'in line fuel filters' or 'aux side tanks'- potentially more confusing than enlightening) and this tacit acknowledgement of an insider/outsider power structure raises questions about the widely held belief in the objective character of scientific enquiry. Edward Said has argued that in the era of late capitalism a 'cult of expertise and professionalism' has developed in such a way as to restrict what he calls 'our scope of vision': there is in humanistic culture, he contends, a dominant and antidemocratic doctrine which maintains that
the general public is best left ignorant, and the most crucial policy
In such a context, the positive benefits of 'not knowing' may seem less than easy to discern. Yet divisions such as those outlined by Said continue to be validated by the assumed certainties of bourgeois consensus - what Orwell called 'the smelly little orthodoxies'. Said's comment that political discourse is 'choked with enormous, thought-stopping abstractions' 6 is perhaps of relevance here (it is interesting that in this description of terms such as 'terrorism', 'fundamentalism' and 'freedom' his vocabulary refers to the stopping of breath - a recurring theme in NOW:HERE) and although such abstractions are 'potent and refined', the uncertainties prompted by NOW:HERE would seem to allow us to resist their seductive appeal.
In an essay dealing with political and intellectual responses to the September 11th attacks, Slavoj Zizek makes the point that in the wake of these events the mainstream media imposed a basic message: 'the easy games are over now, we should take sides - against or for (terrorism)' and considering that few voices within the realms of western politics or intellectual practice are likely to be openly for 'this means that doubt itself is denounced as covert support for terrorism'. This, Zizek is convinced, 'is the temptation to be resisted: precisely in such moments of apparent clarity of choice, mystification is total' 7. In Phelan's work, clarity of choice becomes confused and the potential for doubt more pronounced. Here the autonomy and integrity of individual belief systems is undermined through repeated juxtaposition and superimposition - we see in NOW:HERE both stark contradictions and implied connections between belief systems or ideologies which are on the face of it wholly incompatible. Scientific subjects which might be associated with the legacy of Enlightenment rationalism and technological progress are placed alongside messages or symbols which relate to atavistic, superstitious cultural tendencies and often the points where one begins and another ends are far from clear. At times, these subjects [word 'to' removed here] take on fleetingly topical significance, before doubt about their place in the broader conceptual scheme sets in. One room, for instance, features a cartoonish depiction of a jumbo jet placed within close proximity of a list noting the populations of the world's major religions - so setting us squarely within the realm of contemporary political affairs. Jostling for space within the field of vision, however, is a representation of the hierarchical structures of Greek myth, suddenly and inexplicably forcing us to consider the relevance of an episteme from classical antiquity.
But this description of one enforced interpretative diversion does little to indicate the scale of the labyrinth of signification within which Phelan has placed the viewer. Each new piece of information might either offer a clue to a possible route through, or merely show us that there are many more pathways than we had imagined. The numerous drawings of electrical power sources could therefore be seen (if it is not too reductively straightforward) as metaphors for this constant generation of information. This sense of an endless supply of information, that is at once enthralling and enervating, brings to mind the character Nicholas Branch in Don DeLillo's novel Libra who has been given the unenviable task of preparing the official - and secret - internal CIA report on the Kennedy assassination. This veteran analyst has immersed himself in the Agency's immense archive of evidence and testimony and in the fifteenth year of his investigation he knows that 'there's no end in sight'. Constantly Branch is sent more information to add to the existing papers on the assassination ('one hundred and twenty-five thousand pages'), each new piece of data only offering space for further theory and speculation. And yet, 'Branch must study everything. He is in too deep to be selective.' 8
He has photo enhancements, floor plans, home movies, bibliographies, letters, rumours, mirages, dreams. This is the room of dreams, the room where it has taken him all these years to learn that his subject is not politics or violent crime but men in small rooms. 9
And so it is with Phelan's NOW:HERE. For all the information, all the 'collective belief systems', uncertainty prevails - and what stays with us is the evidence of an individual encounter with the here and now. Given that the location of this first stage of Phelan's ongoing engagement with collective beliefs was a relic of a thought system which sought to elide individuality and difference - architectural modernism - it is appropriate and important that Phelan's aesthetic involves so many instinctive, individual traces. The carelessly hurried handwriting and 'wilfully inelegant drawings' (to borrow another term from Dave Hickey) offer abundant reminders of the presence of a distinct personality. These idiosyncratic texts and drawings encourage us to consider the contingent nature of the systems of representation which form the basis of our individual relation to the world and in their dense particularity these marks allow us to see in NOW:HERE the possibility that, as the poet Browning wrote, 'the present is the instant at which the future crumbles into the past' 10.
1 Ciaran Carson,
'Linear B', The Irish For No (Gallery Press: Dublin, 1987), p. 33.
© Declan Long / Garrett Phelan