This is the second installment of our four-part interview/conversation with artist Guy Laramée. Read Part 1 here. (The first question here is half statement, half question, responding to Laramee’s push to get me to be more expressive with my questions. It worked for a while.)
ANOBIUM: It seems that the contemporary art scene has become an exercise in intellectual embellishment. Say you have a blank canvas, and you put a label and a date next to it and hang it in a gallery somewhere. Perhaps at one time this might have been aesthetically provocative, but it seems that rather than letting a piece like this provoke on its own terms, an artist or art critic feels a need to step in and spend time explaining what the piece ‘means.’ Ultimately, this relegates the piece to a mere analog for the artist’s so-called intellectual embellishment or pontification, and subsequently lessens the ‘meaning’ of the piece on its own terms. In this way, it seems that contemporary art (or our idea of contemporary art) is more like a lecture series, thus relegating ‘pieces’ of art to being something like evidence, or examples of a more abstract idea. In other words, it seems that the contemporary art ‘scene’ (if there is even such a thing) is almost catered to the whim of ideologues.
It is almost as if there is a dichotomy here: art by ideologues and art by artists; but the line is so thin. Considering that there is this ideological tendency towards artifactual relegation in the contemporary art scene, how do you consider your own artwork in this narrative?
GUY LARAMEE: Spontaneously, I would feel inclined to say “anti-conceptual.” More or less in the lineage of painter Agnes Martin. But then I would fall in a trap of sorts. I’ll explain:
I adhere to most of your description of the situation in contemporary art, although it must be said that we are now feeling the return of the pendulum. There was this big fad of “Conceptual Art,” where the work is no longer necessary, or is there only to support an idea. This was/is yummy for people like critics and curators – the intellectuals who make their bread fabricating “meaning” – and this is easy to do because the ideas are already half baked.
Conceptual Art arose out of a big misunderstanding between “idea” and “concept.” For example, “Idea” is what makes the object “table” possible. “Concept” is what explains it. The misunderstanding I am talking about is to the effect that it is possible to make art with concepts. Big mistake. So big that the whole category of “art” got jettisoned; hijacked by the academic opportunism of the 60’s and 70’s. This started with Picasso perhaps, who said that he did not want to paint what he saw but what he thought he saw. This deviation was probably necessary, but it now has to be severely questioned.
When I say we feel a return of the pendulum, I have be careful, because a prank of this return is that it could be a fake return. All this “bad painting” that we still see in fairs and biennales (looks like painting can’t be anything but bad nowadays, if it is to justify its existence…) – all this lazy stuff is still under the spell of conceptual art. So the question arises: what is the other side the pendulum is swinging to? The perceptual? The experiential? Theorists have been at loss to find an alternative category, and in my own survey, we definitely need more than one.
Since I am not a theorist but a practitioner, I do not care if my analysis is complete. One thing I know is that the anthropological theories of Jacques Maquet helped me to get my head out of these troubled waters and find some theoretical solace. Maquet built a model based on a certain conception of consciousness. According to him, you can divide consciousness into three regions: conceptual, emotional, contemplative. The contemplative mode of consciousness has been totally neglected by the West, but it is the basis of all Eastern practices that deal with awareness. In this mode, the distinction between the seer and the seen collapses and all what is left is sight itself. If you’ve never experienced this mode of consciousness, your first reflex is going to be to dismiss it. This is what happens with 98% of the intellectuals? Why? Because to enter contemplation, you need to suspend internal dialogue, or at least to be able to put it into perspective. This is very difficult for intellectuals… Some people have had the opportunity of experimenting with the limits of language, though there is always the irony that you need words to know where words cannot go.
Beauty and contemplation are forbidden words in Post-Modern art theory. So this is really a religious war!
So how can I say that I am anti-conceptual? How can I say that I turn 180 degrees from conceptual art without falling in the trap of not only conceptualizing my position, but also by utilizing this conceptualization in art-making itself, thus rendering my work as conceptual in disguise?
I believe there is no problem with concepts if you don’t bring them into the bed. That is, I believe it is somewhat inevitable that, to some extent, we will come to analyze our positions. This is legitimate if and only if it comes after the fact, and if it is recognized that on the level of daily practice, artistic creation defies all analysis. You can analyze, but it does not mean that your analysis can stand for the work itself. Like in any translation, something is lost. Even the analogy of the translation is wrong, because in a translation, both “texts” usually belong to the discursive mind. Art does not belong there, so your verbal translation is going to be very approximate, if not altogether pure speculation.
There are at least three levels here: the making, the seeing, and the verbal description. As an artist, it is the first two that concern me most. Contemplation is a nice descriptor of the seeing, and of most of the making – if it is done in the non-discursive mode. But it fails somehow to describe the Eureka. Contemplation prepares the terrain for the Eureka, but the two must not be confused.
In Eastern practices (Vedanta, Zen, and to a certain extent, Sufism), this is the classic distinction between Samadhi – the state of union between the perceive and the percipient – and Satori/Kensho/illumination. This comes very close, it is said, to the Eureka; a transcending of two irreconcilable opposites by the creation of a third term. This is the true meaning of “creation,” but it must not be confused with the creation of new stuff. It is a change of point of view, not necessarily a concrete thing.
Once in a while a new platform is created out of a Eureka. Meanwhile, many false Eureka stemming from the remnants of conceptual thinking need to be trashed in one of my garbage cans. Nothing more.
Where do I fit in this picture?
In this context of over-intellectualization that is now the culture in which we live, it is a daily challenge for me not to become reactive. And to be reactive would be the actual trap, because it would make you a slave of what you reject – in my case, conceptual art. So I would rather say I am non-conceptual rather than anti-conceptual, but even then…
My work aims at inducing contemplation in me and therefore in others. That’s all. Transcending through active metaphors, neither/nor, neither book nor landscape, both of them, sculptures; neither blobs of paint nor misty landscapes, images, paintings; neither models nor actual scenery, dioramas. Landscapes. Things that have nothing to “say” but that do something to you. I make all this with a figment of “content” which I stole from the Romantics (…), the great nostalgia of the lost paradise, etc. You want to ask me if I feel guilty stealing my subject matters from these 19th-century chaps? They stole their subjects from religious people, so I’m just stealing from thieves.
A: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was to learn more about your book-sculptures. Now that we’ve torn down the idea of ‘conceptualization,’ it pains me to say that I really admire the ‘concept’ of your book-sculptures, though here I suppose I mean ‘concept’ in a more concrete way, rather than something abstract.
Anyway, where did you get the idea (or concept) to start seeing a book as something like an uncut stone?
GL: Maybe you like the “idea” more than the concept, but anyway, it all started in a sand blaster cabinet. I put a book in there – stupid idea – and there it was. Within seconds I saw the landscape, the drama, Borges, the little people who lived in books, everything.
Going back to concepts, I cannot deny that there are “ideas” and “concepts” floating around this work. But there is a process of decantation that gradually strips the work from those concepts and leaves the piece bare; the piece then becomes a pretext which allows you to lose yourself in it. For example: I started a piece this morning. It had been on my bench for months, ready to be started. It’s made out of a Webster dictionary, you know, those big bricks that look so much like a cord of wood. The inside covers have maps of the sky. That’s what triggered the piece. I thought of making an Aztec pyramid, but that’s too simple. And then I thought of an observatory, but come on! Then a lot of things passed through my mind. Then I decided I would just enter in the chunk of pages with my chainsaw and see what came out. I kept the idea of using the maps as two moons – the maps are round. Then I got the idea of using the Web of Webster, keeping only that on the back, and call the piece “The Web.” Open enough, the title may allude to the WWW, to the cosmos, to a social critique, to anything, but it is not anything, it is suggestive. It is not because the work is open that it is imprecise. While doing the piece I went just a bit too far, the “B” of Web is gone… Too bad. I’ll see what comes next, but you see? All these events, in my mind and in the material, get incorporated to the piece in a way. Well, I like to think that there are, but maybe it’s just in my mind…
To answer the last part of your question: I never really totally forget that these are books, that my raw material is not wood, not even paper, but a book. At times I’m lost in the project, in the landscape. But a book is a book, structurally. The pages are not glued, so you have to respect the structure, from the binding of each pages to the cover, otherwise pages will fly away when you release the clamps.
And I never totally forget that this is knowledge I carve, knowledge I destroy. You see? Maybe I’m a conceptual artist after all (giggles).
A: You also do a lot of work in musical composition. Can you talk a bit about some of the approaches you take to this discipline? What role does music have in the context of your artistic cosmology?
GL: I DID work in music, a long time ago. I haven’t written a line for 20 years. I started my career as a composer. I was involved in microtonal music, gestural music, all played on invented instruments. Then I stumbled on “The Force of Silence” by Carlos Castaneda. And that was it, the end had come. What was in this book was disturbing. He had his main character say that our world was held together through our inner dialogue and by shutting it, we could access other realities.
I did many experiments in shutting down the internal dialogue. Then gradually I slipped into silent contemplation. Painting helped a lot. Silence was gradually becoming louder and louder.
Today I realize that what we call “silence” is not so much about shutting down the internal dialogue – which is impossible – but rather about getting to a level of attention which we usually avoid. We get involved in this inner chatter out of inattention. Then I also realize that all my work with micro-intervals in music – microtones that is – is now paying off. That was the beginning. Paying attention, ultra care to infinite details… maybe that is all what art is about. I was told that John Cage, when he applied to Black Mountain College, offered a class in mushroom gathering! He justified it by arguing that it was a very good exercise in attention.
Maybe you remember Wim Wender’s film The State of Things. It is a film within a film. At some point the director of photography says: “Color is nice, but Black and white is more realistic.” I would add: Music is nice, but silence is even better – or louder, if you wish.
A: So far, you’ve mentioned people like Merleau Ponty, Maquet, Castaneda… Phenomenology and anthropology. What is it that attracted/attracts you to the philosophies of these thinkers? Who are other thinkers you consider important?
GL: They talk about the real stuff, they won’t stick to the surface with empty taxonomies. Their writing relates to the existential, the fact that we are going to die, the fact that every human being suffers. Why do we suffer? Take away all the anecdotes, the conditions, and the alleged causes of our suffering, and the fact remains: not a single era of human history has known an unequivocal bliss. Unending suffering without the means to guaranty a lasting happiness, that’s our lot and I agree that it is unacceptable. Forget the socio-political, that’s kid stuff. Go to the root: we are wounded at the very core of our being, precisely because we are aware of ourselves. The blessed curse, as the ancients put it.
These authors were the entrance door to this problematic, but they all had they flaws as I see it today. I had to go back to more serious and more ancient traditions: Buddhism, Sufism, Vedanta, etc. What we now call “consciousness studies” is only the timid recycling of this very old knowledge. Think about it: 4000 B.C., the Vedas already had a cartography of consciousness that even our most sophisticated psychologists cannot match. That’s a shame, really. What did we do all this time? Play chess? Well, we invented the iPhone…
The other thinkers: Albert Low, the director of the Montreal Zen Center, ex-student of Roshi Phillip Kapleau and Yasutani Roshi. He beats them all. Out of his 50 years of Zen practice, he built an unbeatable anthropology of consciousness.
Nisargadatta is also on my top list, although in his case, you cannot talk of a “thinker” proper. He would rather be an anti-thinker. The owner of a shop in India, he was close to being illiterate. But he became, along with Ramana Maharshi, one of the most influential teachers of the 20th century. He puts the intellect into its due place: as a servant, not a master, and more often than not, a very bad servant. He replaces “consciousness” within “awareness” and shows that what we value most – the mind, consciousness – is encompassed by something larger, something that is our birthright.
All these ideas can be summed up in one axiom: the individual – the “I” – is a fiction. It does not exist, though meanwhile, it is the source of both immense satisfaction and immense suffering. (A knee-jerk to the myth of the artist, my apologies…)
On the art planet, I have yet to find something more eloquent than the writing of Agnes Martin. Her only book is a compilation entitled Writings. She’s the princess of princesses to me. Her language is so simple – subject, verb, complement – but she’s always right to the point. Her text “On the Perfection Underlying Life” is pivotal. She speaks to the practitioner. She is the first author I heard speaking frankly about the ecstasy and the peril of solitude, for an artist. Her other text “What it is that we do not see when we do not see” is also a jewel. Obeying inspiration is the true meaning she gives to freedom. A must.
Finally the writing of Hubert Benoit was also determinant for me. In the same vein of defining freedom by obedience, instead of defining it as free will or caprice, his writing is also key to understanding the mess we’re in – in North American culture. We think of freedom as doing what pleases us. We equate freedom with choice. But he shows that true freedom is exactly the opposite: it is doing the only thing that could have been done in a given space-time. (A knife in the chest of contemporary art, sorry about that…)