[Written to accompany the exhibition John Marriott: Eavesdropping on Objects, YYZ, Toronto, 2008. Link to essay on gallery website here.]
The Artist That Therefore I Am
John Marriott has too many ideas. It's a problem; it comes time for an exhibition and he doesn't know what to show. It isn't a matter of editing, or of selecting the good or successful or appropriate work from the duds, the losers, the inappropriates. It's a matter of starting all over again, as if from scratch. Too many ideas: vertigo, vomit. He's asked me to write about the work that didn't get into this exhibition, and I'm fine with that because, after all, it's still everything, more or less. Almost everything.
John Marriott has too many ideas, and what is worse, they tend to be ideas for works of art. His is a machine with two parts, two mechanisms: one comes up with an idea, the other executes that idea. It is a common enough machine, the machine of a certain kind of post-conceptual practice. But each machine is particular. What are the relations between these two mechanisms - let's call them "ideas" and "artwork" - in Marriott's practice?
In Marriott's artwork the idea is not only manifest but straightforwardly apparent (looking at a work one can easily discern the idea). There can be a satisfying simplicity in this: works that not only are what they are, but carry their relation to their originating ideas in a breezy, even carefree way. They are unburdened by their materiality as artworks and equally unburdened by the weight of whatever idea they have manifested. They are often funny: parodies of existing art works or genres, verbal or visual puns, other types of silliness.
In other words, they are often one-liners. But what a horrible, diminishing term, as if all they had to offer was a slight chuckle, a minor frisson as one "gets it" and is then not only free but compelled to move on to more substantial, richer, burdensome artists.
Something far more interesting is going on in Marriott's work. While the relations between "idea" and "artwork," may initially appear to be straightforward, on further investigation they prove to be quite rich and complex. So rather than looking at this work as if it were merely a series of one-liners, I am proposing that its real substance lies elsewhere. This is work that masquerades as a lame kind of post-conceptualism as it goes about its real business of staging and enacting various social and ethical encounters.
In the recently published book The Animal That Therefore I Am - based on a ten hour(!) seminar he delivered in 1997 - Jacques Derrida "insists that animals have the capacity to interrupt one's existence and inaugurate ethical and political encounters" [Calarco, p. 104]. Derrida, naked in the bathroom, falls under the gaze of his housecat, M. Fluffers (though significantly unnamed in the text) and begins to philosophize:
I have trouble repressing a reflex of shame. . . The impropriety of a certain animal nude before the other animal, from that point on one might call it a kind of animalseance: the single incomparable and original experience of the impropriety that would come from appearing in truth naked, in front of the insistent gaze of the animal, a benevolent or pitiless gaze, surprised or cognizant. The gaze of a seer, a visionary or extra-lucid blind one. It is as if I were ashamed, therefore, naked in front of this cat, but also ashamed for being ashamed. A reflected shame, the mirror of a shame ashamed of itself, a shame that is at the same time specular, unjustifiable and unavowable. At the optical centre of this reflection would appear this thing - nudity [Derrida, p. 4].
But I must immediately emphasize the fact that this shame that is ashamed of itself is more intense when I am not alone with the pussycat in the room. Then I am no longer sure before whom I am so numbed with shame. In fact, is one ever alone with a cat? Or with anyone at all? Is this cat a third? [Derrida, p. 9]
Derrida's shameful encounter with the "bottomless gaze" of a house cat reminds me of the encounter between a cat and the sculptures in the Henry Moore Pavilion of the Art Gallery of Ontario Marriott staged for his 1999 video Where the cat's at. If art, and the "truth" of art, exists at the seam between "the nude" and "being naked," we have some idea why this cat, cutely strolling through the museum, indifferently and insistently shames us into a raw, refreshed encounter with the Moore's. Gary Michael Dault described it as "so darned genial it's positively disarming," and this combination - genial and disarming - could describe a lot of Marriott's work.
Genial and disarming work that stages/enacts social/ethical encounters? It's beginning to smell a bit like relational aesthetics, that very large club with no paid members. Some aspects of Marriott's work could be productively examined through the lens of relational aesthetics, just as some more orthodox (and how fast its resistance to orthodoxy fell! - even before all the food was gone at the first Tiravanija dinner rules were in place - still reading Bourriaud made a nice change from Guy Debord, who is just too grumpy for today's more tender and complacent sensibilities) relational art could learn how to more productively negotiate between audience and community.
Often Marriott does call for a community to contribute to a work of art, though the contribution generally has parameters that are stricter than one would find in relational art. (In the video today, for instance, Marriott asks members of the Jarvis Collegiate debating team to prepare responses to the resolution "Today is a good day to die.") The one project that comes closest to relational art is, naturally, also a parody of relational aesthetics. In CONSENT, devised by Marriott and realized in collaboration with Suzanne Caines for the FADO exhibition Vivencia Poetica, the artists hired a consulting firm to form a focus group of average citizens who profess little or no interest in art to come up with ideas for relational art projects.
On the one hand Marriott's work is decidedly demotic - approachable, friendly, populist - and on the other is an extremely sophisticated engagement with post-conceptualism. This balance is necessary for work that engages as slyly and productively with the social realm as Marriott's does. While it often calls for social engagement from audience/participants, these participants contribute within the parameters he lays out, unlike relational aesthetics' call to replace the audience with a community that is burdened with constituting and completing the work. Marriott's social/ethical encounters are not produced as the work unfolds, but are rather built into the work along the seam between idea and artwork.
Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am. Fordham U. P., 2008