Could We, I am Asking review

John Calcutt, ‘Could We? I Am Asking’ (The Map, 10, 06/2007)

John Calcutt finds the work of Kate Davies complex, subtle, powerful and bravely questioning of gender perspective. Born in New Zealand, and now resident in Glasgow, Davis is attracting increasing international recognition.

Facing Facts: it is almost routine these days to claim that the history of art has been dominated by male artists, that the documenting of this history has largely been the preserve of male writers, and the public display of this same work has been mainly in the hands of male gallery directors and curators, but they operate nonetheless within institutional contexts that have been seriously inflected by their male-dominated histories.

As far as I can tell, none of these preceding statements appears contentious today: they are simple matters of statistical fact and historical record. But they are facts that fail to account for experience: they do not, they cannot, convey what it feels like to be a female in any of these situations. I can use reason, empathy, sympathy and imagination in an attempt to project myself into a ‘female’ position, but with limited and unreliable results. Perhaps, in trying to identify with the Other, we will always end up in a similar condition to that of Thomas Nagel when he tries to imagine himself as a bat: ‘insofar as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it is like for a bat to be a bat.’1 Yet would it necessarily be a good thing for us to be able to occupy fully and understand the ‘other’ position, as if from within? Might it not, ultimately, be a denial of difference, reducing otherness to sameness? If I truly believe that I (as someone born a male) can fully inhabit the position of the female and see the world as if from there, then there can be no privileges, no special status, attached to that other position: it is mine to assume at will. We are back where we started. Is there another way to address this human and ethical dilemma?

‘[T]here is something about the other person, a dimension of separateness, interiority, secrecy or whatever, that escapes my comprehension. That which exceeds the bounds of my knowledge demands acknowledgement… For Levinas, an ethical relation is one where I face the other person and keep my distance, for distance implies respect.’2

Kate Davis was recently included (along with Glasgow based artists Lucy Skaer and Sue Tomkins) in the exhibition If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution, a group show of young international artists held at De Appel in Amsterdam (November 2006 – January 2007), with an accompanying symposium and programme of performances and events. The title of the exhibition (which is also the title of a larger ongoing project) is drawn from the writings of the Lithuanian anarchist Emma Goldman, and curators Frederique Bergholtz and Annie Fletcher, who, whilst at pains to avoid ‘trying to sum up a contemporary feminist art, or collate an aesthetic for feminism’, were keen to explore ‘what it could possibly mean, right her and right now to think about feminism in relation to contemporary art practice.’ Davis’ contribution to this project was ‘I want to function in the present time’, a work comprising framed drawings/prints and sculptural objects. The drawings/prints were self-portraits, alluding in both pose and stylistic execution to work by Kathe Kollwitz (1867 – 1945), whereas the sculptural took the ‘classic’ 1960s modular floor pieces of Carl Andre (the bricks, the square metal tiles) as their point of departure. From a particular feminist art historical perspective it might seem as if Davis is relying upon a certain ‘given’ emotive power generated by friction arisen from the polarised reputations established for these artists: Kollwitz as the neglected and overlooked champion for women’s rights and women’s independence; Andre as the archetypal artistic champion of, in Anna M Chave’s words, ‘authority’, ‘mastery’, ‘power’ and violence’.3 (The fact that – despite being acquitted at the trial of her murder – suspicion still surrounds Andre’s possible involvement in the death of his partner, the feminist artist Ana Mendieta, only adds to the tension here.) But if a reiteration of such flat simplifications were the limit of Davis’s efforts the results would be, I think, rather self-satisfied, and ingratiating appeal to the unchallenged values of already knowing viewers (Kollwitz is unquestionably ‘good’, Andre is undeniably ‘bad’).

A vital clue to Davis’s more complex intentions, however, is suggested by the work’s title. It expresses a need (‘I want’) in relation to temporality (‘in the present time’). To want is to recognise a lack, but to want can be understood equally as either to need or to desire – and there is a crucial difference here. Needs can usually be satisfied, desire cannot (the needs of my real stomach are very different from the desires of my metaphorical ‘heart’). Desire, according to Malcolm Bowie, ‘is insatiable, and it’s objects are perpetually in flight’4. Davis’s ‘want’ – her desire – is, it seems, articulated in terms of objects and images – actual works of art produced by Kollwitz and Andre, as well as the more general sets of associations evoked by their names. But these objects and images are in perpetual flight, refusing to settle ‘in the present time’. Davis’s attempt to occupy or share the place of Kollwitz by assuming her poses and adopting her graphic style is, inevitably, doomed to failure: she cannot be Kollwitz – and even if this were possible, it would be at the expense of Kollwitz’s displacement, her negation (they cannot both be Kollwitz). Davis’s refusal to ‘modernise’ Kollwitz (ie the retention of the earlier artist’s historically distinctive style), and her failure to occupy Kollwitz’s subjective position, result in the two artists converging – in some other fictional and indeterminate time and place that is not entirely of either the present or the past. And within this asymmetric process of dislocation, Kollwitz is transfigured from an active historical agent (someone who produced images and meanings in the world) into a sign (someone reduced to an image and a set of stylistic characteristics). In ‘facing’ each other, both Davis’s and Kollwitz’s identities are thus revealed as contingent, and put at risk. They are their work (this is how they are present to us, through the medium of self-portraiture), and the work is lacking: each work lacks that of the other. In searching for a shared identity and proximity, it is only distance and difference that are discovered.

To avoid any possible misunderstanding; I am suggesting that this simultaneous underlining and undermining of her relation to Kollwitz may be an important conceptual aspect of Davis’s project, whether or not consciously intended by the artist in the ways I suggest: this is not to be mistaken for negative criticism. On the contrary, when we consider the further aspects of Davis’s work the positive philosophical, ethical and political implications involved become increasingly evident.

As previously noted, ‘I want to function in the present time’ incorporates direct reference to Andre’s bricks and metal tile floor pieces that first appeared in the 1960s. In Davis’s hands, however, these emblematic Minimalist works have been radically transformed. Davis’ six ‘bricks’ for example, have been roughly formed into irregular shapes and cast in bronze. Whereas Andre’s precise, geometric forms had evoked mass, industrialised production, Davis’s three ‘tiles’, which were made from pressed and distressed paper before being cast in aluminium. Andre’s interest in his preferred forms ands materials (fire bricks, zinc) arose partly their resistance to symbolism. This distrust of symbolism and desire for no-nonsense factuality typified an attitude that Andre shared with the majority of his male contemporaries: ‘What you see is what you see’, as Frank Stella famously declared. This rejection of symbolism was also a denial of the work’s narrative potential (the work would ideally refer to nothing but itself) and, consequently, a factor in its removal from the shifting dimension of time into an incident-free condition of pure presence. The work would always be ‘here’, and it would always be ‘now’: it would always ‘function in the present time’. Having apparently mastered its relation to time, many artists of this period turned their attention to the work’s relation to space. ‘The better the new work’, Robert Morris claimed in 1966, ‘takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light and the viewer’s field of vision.’5 But, as Anna M Chave notes, Morris ‘referred not to a relationship between the viewer and the work…but only to a relation between the work and the viewers’ ‘field of vision’ – as if the viewers’ sight were separable from their minds, bodies or feelings’. Under ideal conditions, then, it appears as if viewing works such as Andre’s was affectless, involving a sensation of timelessness (an eternally recurring present) occurring within an apparently dematerialised, non-tactile space.

Six bronze bricks have been carefully positioned on the floor. I say bricks: they are not like house bricks, but they have brick-like quality. They are evenly spaced, forming a neat line that extends outwards from the wall, beginning at a point perpendicular to the spot on which a framed picture hangs. So if you stand at the end of this line of bricks, you will be standing directly in front of the picture on the wall, but several feet away from it. If you would like to approach closer to the picture in a straight line in order to get a better look at it – tough. The bricks are in the way. You could carefully pick your way through or around them, I suppose, but you would probably feel a bit self-conscious or embarrassed. All the bricks are slightly different in shape and size, but they all share the same lumpy awkwardness, and they are all made from bronze. The colour of the bronze is the colour of shit, and you can’t help thinking…The female in the framed picture looks directly at you, but something says that her thoughts are not focused on you. Her hand is on her forehead, like she is worried, or concerned, or thinking, or exasperated, or has just remembered something important. It’s impossible to know for sure. She is beautifully drawn, in a kind of academic way that you don’t see very often these days (not in contemporary art, anyway), with delicate cross-hatching and white highlights, which look great against the brown paper – which also makes the picture look a bit old fashioned. It’s called ‘I want to function in the present time (self portrait II and bricks)’.

In referring to Andre’s work, Davis both endorses it (as something worthy of serious consideration) and challenges it (as something that raises problems). Through their citation, Andre’s bricks and tiles in Davis’s ‘I want to function in the present time (self portrait III and tiles)’ function in a similar manner to the cast bronze bricks – operate in a new mode. They are now part of what we might loosely call a narrative structure in which they enter into temporal and semantic relations with the work of Davis and Kollwitz. They also occupy physical space in such a way as to force the viewer to become conscious of their bodily occupation of that space, rather than surveying ‘the field of vision’ as if with a detached eye. Furthermore, the bricks and tiles no longer exist as plain ‘facts’; they have been forced to enter into a more complicated exchange of ‘meanings’. The truth is, of course, that Andre’s sculptural objects never truly behaved in strict conformity to the hopeful claims and assertions offered on their behalf. They would always exist within the ‘hell of connotation’; they would always suggest some meaning or other to this person or that person (for Chave, they signified the rigidity and inflexibility of institutionalised patriarchal power and were the very image of masculine aggressiveness).

If Andre is denied what he may have ‘wanted’, then so too, maybe, is Davis. I want to function in the present time: why does this even present itself as a potential problem, we might ask. Surely we all function in the present time? Davis’s work, however, seems to tell a different story. It relies upon things upon things that are not fully and immediately present, such as the actual works of Kollwitz and Andre, for example. In the work she produced for Your Body is a Battleground Still, her recent exhibition at Tate Britain (February – March 2007), Davis brought the work of Jacob Epstein and Barbara Kruger into another ‘face-to-face’ relationship, the angular machine-man of Epstein’s ‘Rock Drill’ being challenged by Kruger’s uncompromising feminist cri de guerre, ‘Your Body is a Battleground’. But to Kruger’s assertion Davis adds the rider, ‘still’: for Davis, the issue remains open, live, unresolved, continuing: it will not linger in the present but be outrun by time. To emphasise the unfinished (infinite?) nature of this political project, Davis produced another piece in which her four framed photographs show her attempting to draw a free-hand version of the word ‘still’ in Kruger’s signature Helvetica typeface. We are never shown the completed word, and as Davis tears out the pages of her sketchbook with each successive incomplete attempt we finally see her running out of paper. The task will never be completed, and each attempt in the present is haunted by the inevitability of its failure, always to be displaced by the next. The present will not ‘stay still’, and is therefore an extraordinarily difficult place in which to function, in which to ‘be’.

Although primarily concerned with questions of class in relation to postcolonialism, Gayatri Spivak’s essay, ‘Who Claims Alterity?’ (which, coincidentally, was published in a book edited by Kruger that appeared in 1989, the same year that she produced ‘Your Body is a Battleground’)6 puts these issues into a wider context. Addressing the question of value, Spivak argues that value ‘is a thing that is not pure form, cannot appear by itself, and is immediately coded…this coding operation is not merely economic, it can be understood in the field of gendering and colonialism’. Values, she notes, are embedded in historical narratives, and to change values historical narratives must be rewritten. This is not an easy task: oppositional, or counter-narratives may be less successful than those that work to undermine established historical narratives from within, exploiting their fragility and their ‘fault lines…without participating in their destruction’. Yet this is precisely what Davis attempts in her re-evaluation of the past and its relation to the present (in a way she coaxes the traces of Andre’s works into emitting a narrative, for example). In her ‘reworkings’ of Kollwitz and Andre, and of Epstein and Kruger – all of whom are canonical figures in 20th century art history – Davis stages their ‘face-offs’ (as well as her encounters with them) in such a way as to force them to reveal their contradictions, limits and ‘fault lines’. Such a project of critical re-evaluation, Spivak concludes, ‘is hopeful and interminable’. Because present actions will have an effect upon what is yet to come, it anticipates a future of ‘achieved solidarity’ and thus ‘nurses the present…It’s ‘present’ is a field of value-coding…; the political, the economic, the affective are entangled there.’

What makes this series of works by Davis so remarkable is that the artist does not exempt herself from the critique: her own relation to the works she cites and ‘faces’ is also troublesome. I want to function in the present time: could this mean that she wishes yet another impossibility – to break free from the very historical past on which on which she depends to produce her work? I find myself wanting to think about Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic here, but I don’t know how, or even if I should. I am now caught up in the general loosening of certainty. Davis is a female artist whose work clearly addresses questions of gender, authority, meaning, power, but as a male viewer I do not feel beyond its range. It shares something with Ludmilla Jordanova’s compelling suggestion that, ‘…if we start with a strong commitment to ‘gender’ rather than ‘women’ as the key analytical term, we find that not only should both men and women, their experience, representation and their visual culture be considered, but also that masculinity is a contested term, in ways that are inevitably entangled with the ways in which femininity is contested.’7

In Kruger’s ‘Your Body is a Battleground’ there is an ambiguity about whose body is at stake, but there is a general tendency (supported by the main ‘body’ of Kruger’s work) to assume that it is the woman’s. In Davis’s Your Body is a Battleground Still it is less easy to decide. In the three Kruger-inspired drawn posters that are also part of the work, Davis depicts herself burdened and restricted by an array of objects, her body an unwilling host to these parasitic encumbrances. Equally, however, the body in question is that of Epstein’s ‘Rock Drill’, originally an unrestricted celebration of throbbing, thrusting masculinity, but subsequently censored and, according to the Tate Gallery: ‘shorn of its virility, the once-threatening figure is now vulnerable and impotent, the victim of the violence of modern life’. ‘So early’, Davis has written on one of the posters. ‘Too late’, reads another.

1 Thomas Nagel, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ Philosophical Review, (83), 1974

2 Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction, Edinburgh University Press, 1992, pp. 285 – 6

3 Anna M Chave, ‘Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power, Arts Magazine, vol. 64, No 5, January 1990

4 Malcolm Bowie, Lacan, Fontana, 1991, p.10

5 Robert Morris, ‘Notes on Sculpture: Part Two’, Artforum, vol. 5, No. 2, 1966

6 Gayatri Spivak, ‘Who Claims Alterity?’, in Kruger and Mariani (eds), Remaking History: DIA Art Foundation Discussions in Contemporary Culture No. 4, Seattle, 1989

7 Ludmilla Jordanova, ‘Nochlin’s ‘Women, Art and Power’, in Bryson, Holly and Moxey (eds), Visual Theory, Polity Press, 1991, p.55

Kate Davis ‘Waiting in 1972, What about 2007?’ Solo Statement with Sorcha Dallas at Art Basel 2007