Walead Beshty: Passages
Walead Beshty’s work uses a set of constraints or conditions to determine an outcome rather than rely on using a medium for a metaphor or an allusion to something. It is actually not a very difficult concept, though the jargon surrounding Beshty’s practice is some of the heaviest since Liam Gillick. Simply put: when you step on Beshty’s shatterproof, mirrored glass in LAX Art and leave your trace and your crack, your life in the space (your movement, your steps) determines what is present in the work -- the collective impulse of the room determines the aesthetic happenstances that become the piece. The artist does not endow the piece with its life -- he sets the conditions and lets the life happen.
It is the same with his photographs or the Fed Ex boxes. For his abstractions (which we don’t see in the LAX show), Beshty’s actions in the darkroom move according to set of conditions that he has either preset or the machines make a necessity. The results are photos of folds and random colors and can be striking and lovely. For his x-ray photographs, Beshty walks film through an airport x-ray machine, exposing the film and determining partially the later outcome of the printing. Then there are the box works, where Beshty sends a cube or triangle of glass in the mail. Fed Ex handles the box as they would any other box. The glass cracks and sometimes breaks. This determined thing is subsequently displayed, a literal “handled” record of its travels around the world.
In Beshty’s work, things happen, the outcomes can even be surprising or even beautiful, but the work never escapes or fails to acknowledge the conditions which led to its creation. The camera, the darkroom, and the nature of photography are good places to enact his views of the world. After all, mechanisms, chemicals, printers, and darkrooms are all conditions that contain the action of an abstract, unknowable entity called the photographer. We see the marks of the people stepping on the glass but don’t know anything about them.
This way of working is popular and its vision is consistent with how many in the visual arts see the world. The dream of this work is to de-center the artist as the agent and arbiter of meaning of the work. Instead, the artist sets the conditions and then takes a step back, allowing the interaction between the viewer and the work to make the meaning. This apparently avoids the pitfalls of the artists injecting ideology into the work or when an artist becomes didactic, teaching some lesson to the viewer. The viewer instead comes to their own conclusions.
It doesn’t bother many that this type of work can, in fact, be very didactic, that the artist, despite the arguments to the contrary and their apparent phobia of “expressing,” can’t help but be present and directing in terms of what they want you to see. In fact, in all of the text and materials that surrounds work of this nature, the artist is in fact much more imposing a vocal force than in those brushy paintings that everybody felt were screaming at them in the fifities. The work claims an objective, distant, and a dispassionate way of handling the world (that it fully acknowledges itself as one amongst many systems), but ultimately the way of working disallows many of the things that make people essentially human, basically their ability to weigh their own thoughts against another set of clear thoughts to come up with a reasonable way of living. The reasons for this, as I will discuss, mostly lies in the work’s obscurity, its coyness about its intentions and what it is trying to do, and ultimately, it’s frigid nature -- its lack of ability to handle things that are essentially human like emotion, passion, and most of all mystery.
In other words, there are reasons why Beshty’s work makes me uncomfortable, and it is difficult for me to get involved too deeply with it. First, its political motives are unclear. Second, its system claims to be purely secular and not open to any intangibles other than chance when this is clearly not the case. Finally, the work is a closed, un-escapable system for approaching life and work that I simply don’t buy into.
First, politics: the work has vague political overtones that are not clear (leftist, maybe defeated Marxist, maybe just suburban melancholy, difficult to know) and does not (not that art really ever does) promote any action on the part of the viewer to enact any change in society though (and I am speculating here) it might want to. For instance, we find with a little bit of research that the billboard over LAXART art is a zoomed-in vision of smog particles over
I think this is confirmed by the photographs of abandoned malls and empty stores, those failed businesses marooned without a purpose, clicking on a screen in a slide show with the soundtrack of Dawn of the Dead playing in the background. These are probably meant, in some way, as Becher or
For me, it does not do much good to attempt to answer these questions. To assume that consumers are trapped in systems of production and are products themselves and the subsequent dread attached to those thoughts is familiar, well trodden, and I would say overly simplified if not outright silly. A more probable thought, in my mind at least, is to not assume the world is ending like some secular sibyl but to assume instead that those abandoned building will be re-appropriated, will be used again. For what? Well, that would be something to think about. I guess what I am saying is that I don’t quite understand what Beshty wants from presenting this data to us. What does he want to happen? Beshty’s art diagnoses a shifty illness that we do not quite understand and therefore for which we cannot write a prescription.
Another reason I am uncomfortable is that Beshty’s work aims to be completely and utterly secular when it cannot succeed at it. Beshty makes it a point to say that his work does not involve things like gesture, expression, subjecthood, intention, representation, or any other idea associated with a “transcendental” vision of art. I do not think this is the whole story. Like I mentioned in the previous paragraphs, there is a bit of expression going on, albeit obliquely -- there is direction going on in the work. We need stories -- we need to know about how the work is made. We need to know about Beshty’s accident with an x-ray machine which exposed his photographs of an Iraqi embassy, we need to know that Beshty is setting conditions, that we are inside those conditions. We don’t know Beshty, but he is in there somewhere expressing, that’s for sure, and that expression is necessary to arrive at an understanding of the work. Why else would we suspect the work might be involved with something political? In a political realm, there are viewpoints. Beshty has one, even if it is not very clear. There is intention. Can’t escape it.
Finally and most importantly, Beshty’s vision of how art functions does not promote a vision of human life that I understand. Namely it supposes that all human interactions are governed by sets of conditions that can be shifted and negotiated but never overcome. Silly things like beauty, passion, and aesthetics are just bi-products of the system that contains them. “Be transparent about the system, be skeptical about those bi-products, and keep your distance,” the work seems to be saying. Beshty might get such a vision of experience from a variety of sources and it is not important whether they are Marxist or Post-structuralist or both. The fact is that the vision seems rather closed.
Sure, there are beautiful aesthetic moments in the work but there is no framework to deal with such topics other than, “you see, this is what happens when humans interact with things.” I compare this vision to the vision of Wallace Stevens, who took comfort in things and processes because he just could not believe that anything outside of direct experience offers any sort of guarantee for that experience. That’s true, you might say, and that is your right. I, for one, prefer, “Well, you never know, maybe there is something we cannot see, that cannot be determined, maybe things are a bit more complicated.” I like art that accounts for such mysteries and avoid work that discounts them in favor of mechanisms, conditions, and little, as they say, “sites of resistance.”