Written image questions rules

Just a couple of years out of adolescence, Joseph Kosuth made a daring foray into the art establishment by having a chair, its photograph and the dictionary term of a chair – printed and wall-mounted in black and white – presented as a work of art. An immense impact on the language-based conceptual art of the early 1960s, «One and Three Chairs,» as the work was called, was followed by the artist’s equally famous series «Art as Idea, as Idea» which consisted of photostats of enlarged dictionary terms. Although almost four decades have elapsed since then, the basic concept behind both these works has continued through to Kosuth’s present work. As in the past, this celebrated American artist is still questioning the nature of art and looking for ways of subverting conventional meanings and replacing them with new concepts and unlikely associations. Still largely influenced by the philosophy of Wittgenstein, his art is, moreover, about texts: using texts as images but also producing new «texts» through art. Joseph Kosuth’s recent installation for Athens – one of a series that has been presented in various countries across the world and which is inspired by the views of contemporary Austrian philosopher Hans-Dieter Bahr – is no exception. Presented at the Hellenic American Union and curated by Artemis Potamianou, Kosuth’s «Guests & Foreigners, Rules & Meanings (Athens)» is a surrounding made up of Greek and English language texts interwoven and printed across the walls of the exhibition hall. According to the artist, the work is «a bundle of components, an interface between interfaces.» Kosuth has used texts on social etiquette from ancient Greece (mostly from Plutarch) and from 1950s America, together with excerpts from Adorno and Horkheimer’s «The Dialectics of Enlightenment» (instead of Benjamin’s texts that Kosuth most often uses). Weaving together rules of etiquette from two entirely different periods in history, Kosuth’s work is intended to take a critical stance toward issues related to history, cultural difference and contemporary politics, particularly the war in Iraq. «I like to think of the work as a critical presence… I also speak very much of the cultural horizon of American culture which America has been frightfully good at exploiting, and in fact the whole global market economy has served as a seedbed for the distribution of American culture. In a way, I am the dissenting internationalist of American culture and I try to provide a critical point of view, as I think is the responsibility of anyone who in a broad sense is an intellectual and comes from a country which is misbehaving as badly as mine is. The point is not to make a work that is political in that sense in which art is reduced to a truck delivering a message. I do not think that art survives that,» Joseph Kosuth told Kathimerini English Edition during his visit to Athens. As with most of Kosuth’s work, «Guests & Foreigners» is not about a single, fixed meaning but about an interplay of multilayered meanings. The words «guests» and «foreigners» for example, have various connotations: They refer to the viewer or the artist in interchangeable roles of guest or foreigner (for example, the viewer who is a guest of the museum but a foreigner to art) but, according to Kosuth, they also refer to how, in the global market culture, «we can find ourselves both a guest and a foreigner, co-habiting with both the familiar and the impersonal.» Kosuth’s work is about a web of contingencies, about how texts and concepts acquire different meaning when placed in changing contexts. «I work with the relations between relations. I try to avoid the idea of a masterpiece; this a kind of totalizing art work that presents a unifying world that I think is deeply positivistic and deeply problematic for that reason… Although I work with the words and meanings of others, I can claim that this surplus of meaning is my own,» Kosuth said. But just how comprehensible does conceptual art render this meaning to the viewer? Could it be that conceptual art is too intellectual and distanced to directly engage the viewer? «I find conceptual art to be much more personal and expressive than Expressionist art. It is a form of art that shifted the meaning from an object, from being about forms and colors to being about meaning itself, which is something pre-modernist, and picked up what is a much longer historic tradition of artists producing meaning, a practice that was corrupted by the experimentation of modernism… Conceptual art is much less prescriptive, it is not based on the limits of the medium, it can grow, it is open. It is not about a style either, the bad conceptual art is… As a mode of expression that is not traditional in the sense that it has become a cultural authority, conceptual art has to be experienced and thought through by the viewer, so that it expects a far less passive role on the part of the viewer,» said Kosuth. Back in the ’60s, conceptual art may have helped overturn the hegemony of abstract expressionism and given artists the freedom to experiment with new modes of expression. But does it still retain this avant-garde, innovative character or has its assimilation by the art establishment turned it into another stylized, conventional art form, a form that, moreover, often resembles advertising techniques? Do terms such as avant-garde have any relevance to today, anyway? «We all know that art goes through biting periods and periods of mastication. The ’60s seemed to be a big biting period and it may be true that the mastication has perhaps gone on for too long,» Kosuth said. «But in the end there is a dynamic, something new that emerges out of periods that seem stagnant.» Joseph Kosuth’s views on contemporary art are decidedly positive. He expresses no reservations about the appropriation of popular culture by contemporary art and also believes that in what he calls «the post-philosophical period,» contemporary art plays a vital role and fills a gap once occupied by religion and then philosophy. «That is why contemporary art gathers more and more power and interest, more and more people want to become artists, more and more museums are built and an increasing number of people go to museums,» Kosuth said. And although there will always be those «painful hybrids,» works produced in order to satisfy the prerequisites of the market and under the pressure to be trendy, art will always retain its dynamic. Anybody familiar with Kosuth’s views on art will also add that this is true as long as art continues to question its own nature and offer a critical stance toward the subject it addresses. «Guests & Foreigners, Rules & Meanings (Athens)» at the Hellenic American Union (22 Massalias, 210.368.0000) until September 11.