Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Anxious Object: The Sublime Void and Art in the Age of Anxiety

The Sublime Void (Ludion Press, Antwerp / DAP, 1993); Art in the Age of Anxiety (MIT Press/Morel Books, 2021)

“Perhaps it was always like this. Perhaps there was always a vast alien expanse between an epoch and the great art which it produced. What distinguishes works of art from all other objects is the fact that they are, as it were, things of the future, things whose time has not yet come.” – Rainer Maria Rilke.

“Art in the age of anxiety explores the ways in which everyday devices, technologies and networks have altered our collective consciousness. We are all living in an age where anxiety has become a part of our daily life.” – Omar Kholeif, curator.

When my wife Dr. Mimi first gave me these two books as a birthday gift, it was not immediately apparent how intimately connected, as if by some subterranean river of meaning, both of them were to me in the present, nor how substantially that meaning would expand exponentially over time to encompass almost every aspect of what tenuously living in both the 20th and 21st centuries actually might signify. That gift might just be the unexpected case where profundity drops down on us, apparently carried on winds that at first are not quite even discernible by us, until later on, one day, it comes crashing through the roof of our skulls and rearranges the furniture in our minds.

So it is with both The Sublime Void, the earlier and more poetic publication, and Art in the Age of Anxiety, its deeply moving techno-cousin, which joined it thematically in the manner of a visiting relative who arrives on vacation but never leaves. But before considering these superb exhibition catalogues, fine books in their own right which manifest a portable museum installation pairing splendid visual art with marvelous storytelling, it might be useful to approach the book which forms part of the archaeology of their own origins. The book which somehow managed to capture and embody the core essence of the 20th century before it was even half over, and also forecast the essential ingredients of our current experience of the 21st.

The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue is a breathtaking six-part poem, a book-length poem, in fact, which was published in 1947 by the British-American modernist poet W.H. Auden. The term eclogue, originating in Latin and Greek poetry, was used metaphorically to encompass interlinked poems as a sequence in a longer text. It was frequently used in the genre of pastoral poetry, but in Auden’s case he shifted its emphasis to the Industrial Age and the challenge it presented to our search for a valid identity and desire to live a life of authentic substance. It transpires in a wartime bar in New York and uses four key characters to deliver its existential themes. It won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1948 and inspired both a symphony by Leonard Bernstein and a ballet by Jerome Robbins.

While having no connection to the opulent and extravagant style of 17th-century visual art using the same name, it does borrow the same stylistic term, baroque, which means irregularly shaped in its original French usage, to position Auden’s observations about our increasingly unmanageable isolation in the machine era, a state the poet felt was amplified yet further by what he saw as our general lack of any traditional religious beliefs. As it unfolds in a nighttime bar, four strangers, three men and one woman, have encountered each other and they eat, drink and discuss life before they adjourn to her apartment, where two men then depart, leaving the final man alone with the woman. She is disappointed when he passes out, drunk, on her couch. The poem is basically an exploration of spiritual loneliness and existential emptiness, the core condition of modernity which results in our shared anxiety-ridden lack of any true purpose, and it ends bleakly on the streets of the huge city at dawn. Auden would return to this theme in his essays contained in The Dyer’s Hand: “Every man carries with him through life a mirror, as unique and impossible to get rid of as his shadow.” And that sentiment is the precise echo, though written more than half a century earlier, of the chief subject explored in the two movable exhibition catalogue feasts which Dr. Mimi gifted me.

The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue by W.H. Auden (Princeton University Press, 1947)

The Sublime Void, a meditation on the persistence of memory in our ever more complex modern imaginations, and Art in the Age of Anxiety, a contemplation of the fragile incandescence of our overworked imaginations in the postmodern digital age, approach the same dangerous hinterland of evaporating meaning which Auden warned us was fast overcoming us as a result of our increasing dependence on machines as well as our lack of a firm foundation to sustain us in an era bereft of faith. He put it quite succinctly in his essay, which contains a visionary insight predating the principal interpreter of our delicately interactive and vulnerable communications systems, the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, by at least two decades: “What the mass media offers is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish.”

McLuhan, echoing the insightful concerns of German culture critics such as Siegfied Gideon and Walter Benjamin, as well as the American futurologist Buckminister Fuller, all of whom were canny judges of a society overwhelmed by deep awareness of the precariousness of an epoch in which mechanization has taken command of our lives, said it with his usual startling simplicity: “Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools.” The Sublime Void presents us with the prescriptive means of surviving our own industrial successes by adhering to the ancient regimes of poetry. Art in the Age of Anxiety shares the works of artists whose main task is almost homeopathic: using the digital tools at our disposal, while recognizing how they have altered the customary art-making process forever, as a means of surviving our current post-industrial epoch.

Bart Cassiman, the curator of the 1993 Antwerp exhibition The Sublime Void, and the editor of poetic texts gathered in its superb catalogue, specifies his intentions with typical Belgian clarity: “The starting place of the exhibition The Sublime Void is the existence of an artistic consciousness which – however implicitly — creates images that are compelling in the present, but equally strongly grounded in history. The central theme is the interweaving of memory and imagination in the artistic process. The individual and collective memory on which the artist draws is always present in an imagined, condensed manner in his or her work.”

As Cassiman explains in his cogent introduction, and in observations throughout the marriage between images and texts, the book accompanying the exhibition is unique in that it brings the artworks into what he calls “a living fabric of texts that in a sense replace the walls of the museum. The texts do not explain, any more than the pictures of the works illustrate. A border has been broken through, time and again, just as one thinks the ‘essence’ had been captured. The links that the texts form with the pictures blow off the dust that fame or time has scattered over these writings. With the pictures as their guide, they are, so to speak, given the opportunity of rebirth in a new present.” Creating for us a “new present” is, of course, the secret task that literature has always shared with the fine arts, and it has never been situated more poignantly for me than in the spookily ideal juxtaposition of several texts with their accompanying artworks. Among them are glitteringly fresh interpretations of both the art and the poetry, brought about by the collision of images with words under the guiding eye and mind of the astute curator/editor.

The German poet Rilke, for instance, is featured with a short text called “Works of Art,” adjacent to evocative and obscure photographs by James Welling. The overall procession is an inspiring and illuminating one, with authors as luminous as Charles Baudelaire and Hermann Broch going on a blind date with visionary artists such as Luciano Fabro and Janis Kounellis. Among my favourite pairings is one with two of my favourite artists and texts selected to dance with two of my favourite authors. Elias Canetti, author of the haunting novel Auto da Fe, is represented by a short essay portion taken from his Conscience of Words (1971) in which he muses on the meaning of the dichter’s (the poet’s) role in our lives, side by side with a fabulous Gerhard Richter painting called Annunciation After Titian (1973) in which the artist makes poetry palpable as an embodied meaning:

I have said that a man can be a dichter only if he feels a responsibility, a responsibility for life, which is destroying itself, and one should not be ashamed to say that this responsibility is nourished by compassion. It cannot be the dichter’s task to deliver mankind over to death. Not closing himself off to anyone, he will be stunned to learn of the growing power of death in many people. Even if all people consider it a futile undertaking, he will shake away at it, and never, under any circumstances, capitulate. It will be his pride to resist and fight the envoys of nothingness who are growing more and more numerous.

Canetti’s rich text, in itself a kind of poetic annunciation, is complemented regally by the rigor of Richter’s abstract evocation of Titian’s religious imagery, but minus any saints or angels. Consider it a kind of corporate merger between the flesh and the spirit, perhaps, following a road map that is also carried on the journey through looking and reading, one that proceeds in an almost magisterial manner.

Gerhard Richter, Annunciation After Titian, 1973.

Gerhard Richter, Annunciation After Titian, 1973.

And the road trip continues with pit stops along the way: Blaise Pascal with Michelangelo Pistoletto; Theodore Adorno with Jeff Wall; Peter Handke with Luc Tuymans; Friedrich Nietzsche with Jan Vercruysse; and so on, until the horizon between words and images is utterly breached by Edgar Allan Poe with Robert Gober, among many other similarly incongruous but perfect companion pieces. The Sublime Void is, quite simply, sublime.


Very little in the first exhibition and book is overtly or explicitly political in nature or tone, whereas the pieces shown in the second one, Art in the Age of Anxiety, are all, almost without exception, glaringly political. The second selection under consideration also gave birth to an elegant book that stands alone as a curated artistic and poetic document on its own terms, in addition to being the enticing archival remnant of a museum show that took place at the Sharjah Art Foundation, in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates, in 2020. Though separated by twenty-seven years, both exhibitions and their books prefigure a zone of interaction between humans, technology, art and poetry, although the first is classically romantic and elegiac, and the second is practically an anti-romance yet still ends up being equally elegiac.

The Sharjah Art Foundation is an advocate, catalyst and producer of contemporary art within the Emirate of Sharjah and in an open dialogue with the international arts community: a mirror of the present moment. The foundation fosters and advances an experimental and diverse programming model which supports the production and presentation of contemporary art while sharing an understanding of the transformational role of art in our daily lives. Dr. Omar Kholeif is a curator and cultural historian who serves as the director of collections and programming and has organized over 100 exhibitions and published 31 books. This ambitious exhibition and illuminating book examines the relationship between art and the Internet by means of what he calls “cross-embedded media” and the delicate interfaces between cognition and environment. He invites us to consider our own complicity in what he calls the “increasingly corporatized technological sphere” by examining artworks which address this dizzying realm directly.

Ranging widely from works by the Canadian writer and artist Douglas Copeland to Chinese experimenter Guan Xiao, the exhibition and book deliver a striking indictment of what the current electronic domain we occupy might be doing to our consciousness in general, as well as its applications to the art-making process and how they modify an art market which has changed very little since the days of the Impressionists, even though the realities being represented are often almost alien in their form, content and sociocultural ramifications. Regarding the startling messages being transmitted to us by contemporary artists, Erika Balsom, a critic and lecturer at King’s College London, enquires: “Who isn’t anxious these days? Art in the Age of Anxiety offers a sweeping account of how it feels to inhabit the manifold crises of our technological present, a compendium of proposals, confessions and keywords, all of them concerned with mapping the contemporary condition and, more importantly, searching for ways to survive it.”

Kholeif does a masterful job of conducting an orchestra of visual artists and choreographing the implicit and explicit meanings they offer for our contemplation, as well as for our existential entertainment. He has succeeded in enhancing and even expanding the traditional spatial concepts of both what a museum is and what a catalogue does. In this respect he reminds me vividly of the earlier work executed by AndrĂ© Malraux in his landmark imaginary exhibition and dream-book called Museum Without Walls, in 1947. Linking the arrival of personal computers in the 80’s, the appearance of the Internet in the 90’s, the political climate of America since the sad advent of Trumpism and the degrees of separation inherent in a global pandemic, Kholeif’s insightful take on our collective situation is both personal and universal, as he points out in one of the essays:

My mode of address here is indicative of a specific cultural time. I believe in a diaristic form to reach readers. Welcome to the Age of Anxiety. Do these words feel warm and welcoming to you? This is a world where we think we know everything there is know about ourselves but where we are nonetheless left struggling to comprehend the impact of our everyday technologies and the behaviours they have engendered within us. As the godfather of anxiety studies, Soren Kierkegaard, once wrote, “For me, my melancholy is the most faithful sweetheart I have had.” It felt appropriate to delve into issues that informed the melancholic anxiety of the present, the goal being to consider the context around our current paradigm shift.

One of the most dramatic installations, among many poetically disturbing melancholy souvenirs, is the Douglas Coupland sculptural grouping of Tsunami Chest (Hutch) and Tidewater, both from 2018, which present us with debris found floating all the way from Japan to the coast of British Columbia. Talk about an emphatic and unsettling evocation of McLuhan’s notion of the ‘global village’! Like so many of the works in this important exhibition and book, the notion of a shrinking world of shared disasters even further solidifies my original cognitive hook of Auden’s grand inquisition of our time in his compelling eclogue excursion into embodied fear and trembling.

Douglas Coupland, Tsunami Chest (Hutch) (2014/2018). (Sharjah Foundation)

Across a tantalizing cross-section of subject and themes, everything from the performance art of the internet, genetic and pandemic panic, the future of money, the persona malleability of software and other exotic culturally colliding edges, the one thing that the Sharjah Kholeif project shares with the Bart Cassiman Antwerp project is a profound and revealing one: the consistent presence of melancholy over what we have lost or are in the process of losing. This is used, in both curatorial programs, as I have suggested, as a homeopathic remedy, the application of melancholy in small incremental doses in order to inoculate ourselves from the tidal wave, or tsunami, of sadness we are in danger of experiencing if we don’t wake up, and wake up fast, from our quaint little Industrial Age fantasies.

Douglas Coupland, Tidewater (2018). (Sharjah Foundation)

And so I end where I began, with the critical gaze bestowed upon us by one of our greatest modern poets, in ways that even he could never have imagined. Glyn Maxwell has observed of Auden’s most austere and obscure long poem: “The Age of Anxiety begins in fear and doubt, but the protagonists find some comfort in sharing their distress. Even in this accidental and temporary community there arises the possibility of what Auden called ‘local understanding.’ ” I would suggest that the odd interfaces of social media and digital platforms, those non-local communities explored so tellingly by Kholeif’s Sharjah exhibition and its excellent accompanying text, is a celebration of just such a temporary gathering of strangers, one whose accidental intimacy digitally diminishes the distance between fragmented humans in our ever more immaterial and amorphous world.

This might be because no matter where we are located physically, we all share a similar dislocation and discontinuity that we might experience as an invisible bond of dreamlike togetherness. And as Auden himself noted in “For the Time Being,” prior to undertaking his expedition into the future and inadvertently describing a world that was still fifty years away from the world he occupied (in other words, our present world): “It’s as if we left our house for five minutes to mail a letter, and during that time the living room had changed places with the room behind the mirror over the fireplace.” This is precisely what the works of art in Kholeif’s visual saga offer us: a way to find our way back to the room, and the haptic world, that we used to live in and may yet live in again, if only the forces of our lamentable history can ever be reversed.

It’s a world of incidental perceptual displacement, discontinuity writ large, psychological bricolage, the absence of clear facts, the proliferation of nightmarish whack-job theories, involuntary migration, and a head full of charming hallucinatory beliefs and archaic superstitions we largely inherited from the Renaissance. We would do well to remember, however, as these exhibitions and books, subtly and not so subtly, remind us, that the shadow of this Renaissance, only now beginning to recede, was mostly an advertising campaign designed to promote the Medici family and the seductive consumer products which ‘their’ artists manufactured for us to adore. Indeed, ‘our’ artists of today, equally seductive but far less reassuring, are still in the business of selling intellectual and spiritual real estate: property which, as usual, all of us . . . well, we can only rent it in our dreams. These exhibitions and books are virtual biographies of those dreams.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.


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