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Looking at Blindness:
The Double Ascendancy of Conceptual Art and Writing

Last year, I decided not to visit Robert Smithson's classic work of land art, Spiral Jetty (1970), before writing about it. Instead, I substituted a visit with a story, told to me by a curator friend over dinner on a sidewalk café in Seattle. She went to Spiral Jetty several years ago in an exhausted state; her father had recently died, and at the end of the trip to his funeral, she tagged on a drive out to the Jetty, which is notoriously difficult to find. Right on cue, she found herself lost. She had a hard time distinguishing jetties; there are real, non-art ones in that same area on the Great Salt Lake, and the ground is rough and unmarked. She got out of the rented SUV and still wasn't sure she was in the right place—until she found a camera lens cap in the dirt at the mouth of the path, the unmistakable mark of an art tourist.

I embedded this appropriated story in my own essay rather than my own memoir of pilgrimage because it characterizes Spiral Jetty as aptly, and in its elliptical way, is maybe more faithful to the spirit of Smithson's piece. Smithson knew Spiral Jetty would be rarely visited but widely photographed—he made it that way—and he knew too that the Jetty could disappear under the water of the lake's naturally changing level only to reemerge years later (which it did after his death). In his work, he was always concerned with the tension between seeing and not seeing; as the scholar Thomas Crow has pointed out, his famous "non-sites"—piles of earth taken from remote sites and arranged in gallery settings—might also be seen as "non-sights," conjuring the notion of everything you missed in this lopped-off environment.

I felt free to non-sight Spiral Jetty. While Smithson is not a conceptual artist per se—as in, an artist who is strictly grouped with Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth, and others of the purist ilk—he was certainly conceptually driven, and given the dematerialization of the art object under conceptualism, deferring the physical object with a linguistic one seems to be just carrying out what the art trained me to do. Conceptual art has always been about language, or about what Roland Barthes termed the transformation of "the work" into "the text," or a field of inquiry rather than an object of delectation. Conceptualism in art was one among many attempts in twentieth-century art to move the proxy body of the art object to the side so that the primary bodies—author and viewer—could rise and come together for a dance with nothing but a slim negative space between them.

While conceptual art didn't get going until the 1960s, its first object is obviously Duchamp's Fountain (1917), the readymade urinal, which doesn't need to be seen to be appreciated and understood, and which, as Duchamp put it, did nothing more than take an existing object and add a new idea to it. And yet, conceptualism is unfixed, almost from the beginning. The readymades that Duchamp lost at the start of his career (including Fountain) were reproduced later. [End Page 4] The idea could not be permitted to stand alone; it needed a body, even a proxy of the proxy.

Today, while "conceptual" is easily the most ubiquitous word in art, it does not signify any particular style or form of art. "What does seem to hold true for today's normative Conceptualism," writes Seth Price in Dispersion (2002),

is that the project remains, in the words of Art and Language, "radically incomplete": it does not necessarily stand against objects or painting, or for language as art; it does not need to stand against retinal art; it does not stand for anything certain, instead privileging framing and context, and constantly renegotiating its relationship to its audience. (emphasis mine)

Art has inarguably been refreshed and strengthened by the rise of conceptualism and its challenge to the stronghold of retinal perception, but art no longer need follow the anti-gesturalism of a readymade, or be executed by written instructions (as in Sol LeWitt's drawings, which are mere after-effects of the ideas that govern their making), or explicitly reference semiotics (as in Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs [1965], in which the dictionary definition of a chair is displayed with any chair and a photograph of that chair in that place). Instead, conceptualism is marked by incompletion, continuous relocation, and the sort of "non-sight" that Smithson created, an awareness of blindness. The readymade, for instance, is not located in place and time but is instead an interiorization, as Price points out; it's not a position but a reading process. "Perhaps one always reads in the dark," Marguerite Duras wrote. "Reading depends on the obscurity of night. Even if one reads in broad daylight, outside, darkness gathers around the book."

Darkness likewise gathers around the idea of conceptualism in writing, which is about as slippery as in art—but shares with art an overt awareness of the history of art. When Kenneth Goldsmith writes the introduction to his book Uncreative Writing, it is essentially a manifesto that adapts to literary practice many of the dominant beliefs in art of the last forty years. When he writes "Context is the new content," an art historian hears echoes of Rosalind Krauss's 1979 theory of the expanded field of art. He writes,

Age-old bouts of fraudulence, plagiarism, and hoaxes still scandalize the literary world in ways that would make, say, the art, music, computing, or science worlds chuckle with disbelief. It's hard to imagine the James Frey or J. T. LeRoy scandals upsetting anybody familiar with the sophisticated, purposely fraudulent provocations of Jeff Koons or the rephotographing of advertisements by Richard Prince, who was awarded with a Guggenheim Museum retrospective for his plagiaristic tendencies.

Nearly a century ago, the art world put to rest conventional notions of originality and replication with the gestures of Marcel Duchamp.

Hmm. Yes, appropriation is king in visual art. But its real implications still remain theoretical in important ways. Artists like Koons and Prince are happily ensconced in a capitalistic system that rewards the original in haunting ways, such as that regular reminder on the wall of a museum's institutionalism: the "No Photography Allowed" sign next to a fully appropriated work of art. The much-touted death of the author often simply results in the reconstitution of the author/persona as an owner, or authorizer, in a consumer system. But the mass-distribution system of literature—in addition to its ability to be precisely reproduced rather than in a shadowy way (think JPEGs of artworks versus Vanessa Place's ongoing project of Tweeting the entirety of Gone With the Wind [1936])—suggests that writing has more radical potential than art. That, and its history as an experience of embodying other voices, other bodies. As Michel de Certeau writes, "To read without uttering the words aloud or at least mumbling them is a 'modern' experience, unknown for millennia.... This withdrawal of the body, which is the condition of its autonomy, is a distancing of the text. It is the reader's habeas corpus."

Habeas corpus: who has the body? You? The artist? Is it the work itself? The body of the work of art, or piece of writing, is constituted instead in a dark place, a limited yet floating Smithsonesque zone that evades the light wherever it finds it. Place's book Tragodía 1: Statement of Facts (2010) is a Ulysses-weight piece of writing consisting entirely and only (there are no addenda or explanations) of appellate briefs from Place's day job defending indigent sex offenders on appeal (she almost always loses). The shame and elusiveness of the crimes dramatizes this dark place where reading and comprehension are as charged as sex and justice.

In Place's collection of appellate briefs, voices intersect and collide with only systematic attribution. This is a form of public sculpture, built around an interior that can only be obsessively circumnavigated. Police reports, public record in any town or city, are like this: the mess of the events themselves (even on a fundamental level: what is the experience of a sexual act for a prepubescent child?) becomes processed through a further mess that includes precise addresses that make mock of the imprecise testimonies, extraneous facts added, intrinsic facts overlooked, and, to top off this sundae of semiotic gluttony, stenographic tics that participate in unknown systems of failures, biases, and triggers in the reader/receiver. The mess is in direct disproportion to the neatness desired, and total neatness is desired, since this is the moment when authorities have become involved in order to clean up.

Place happens to be working on a film project with visual artist Stephanie Taylor called Murder Squaredance on the Spiral Jetty. It will not include a trip to Spiral Jetty. By phone from her home in Los Angeles, I asked Place about why she writes alongside visual art—essentially, why she applies art systems to writing. I loved her answer: "For visual artists, the whole idea of dematerialization is okay because you have language left. The problem is, when you lose that stability, which is what happens when you go into the tradition of the literary arts, then what do you have? And that's what's really interesting to me." You have only a newfound awareness that you are, finally, in the dark. [End Page 5]

Jen Graves  

Jen Graves is art critic at The Stranger. Her work has also appeared in Art in America, The Believer, Modern Painters, and in 2010 she received a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. She has taught twentieth-century art history at Cornish College of the Arts, and she plans to give in and go to Spiral Jetty in 2011.