A few days with Robert Arndt’s ‘A Line Meant in Passing’
Last summer I saw Robert Arndt’s video work, A Line Meant in Passing (2010), at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver. Installed in a dark room, it was projected on a projection screen resting on the floor and leaning against the gallery wall, so that you had to look down to view it. The video depicts a series of objects that each move onscreen from the right and slowly move along a white ground until they disappear off screen left. Set against a neutral grey, the objects appear to be in some kind of constructed fantasy space where each object is paraded across the screen as if on a conveyer belt. The work’s soundtrack, recordings from a factory assembly line, create an interesting relationship between the arcane rickety, mechanical sounds and the digital ease at which the objects cross the screen.
Arndt had originally envisioned having the objects laid out on a 100 ft surface and filming them with one continuous dolly shot, but for several reasons, ended up simulating this effect by collecting individual images of objects and montage-ing them into a digital environment he created. The artifice of this construction is readily apparent. You can tell from the light reflections on each object that the photographs are from different sources, as the light source isn’t consistently coming from one direction, and the simulated shadows of the different objects on the pristine white surface give themselves away as illusions. Some objects look ever so slightly pixilated, as the resolution of the original image was likely too small to be enlarged and inserted into the video. However, the work as it was ultimately realized, which resembles at times a digitized mock-up, ends up offering more complexity than Arndt’s original idea. The objects he’s transformed and recontextualised bear subtle and odd visual qualities that complicate the photographic representation, bringing the scene into an imaginary realm.
Of course no photographic representation is neutral, but there is a perceptual experience I had while viewing the work at the CAG and more recently on my laptop that is difficult to describe. I felt that there was a kind of Zen thing happening: as particular objects appeared, you recognized both the object and your desire for the object, but were able to just focus on your feeling of desire and to lose attachment to that particular object. At the same time, the piece has an element of the surreal, of something so fleeting and transitory that it is almost meaningless, maybe Pop even. On a minor scale, the experience was kind of like browsing images on a website or viewing photographs in a book instead of a gallery, where you physically you have to move to view a given image and can’t just flip past it quickly. It was an experience that was pleasurable in its lightness, in its resistance to offer a thesis or a declarative statement as so many artworks do today. At some level, the endlessly streaming objects achieve another level of emptiness, a surreal (yet essentially melancholic) experience that demands nothing of you and reveals the objectless, aimlessness of desire itself.
The work presents an intriguing operation: to transcend meaning through “meaning-laden” objects. At the same time, a foil is set up by the very specificity of the objects themselves. They were not chosen arbitrarily; many of the objects could be easily grouped into a category of mid-century objects and curios that people often collect. One could argue that these objects could represent the objects of desire of an identifiable group, such as artists, designers and others interested in culture. The fact that these objects could be prototypes for some marketing scheme sparks a sense of unease within the work. No one likes to be marketed to.
I can’t decide whether to out Robert as a closet mystic – at least that is the hunch I have. Got back his edits and he is not comfortable with the Zen reading. But I can’t quite give it up. I edited it so that the Zen thing wasn’t the only focus but I can’t cut it. Perhaps it is opportunistic, but I’d like there something written about “neo-conceptual” “idea driven art” (you know, any kind of art today where the process is driven by an idea rather than through a process involving playing around with materials in the studio), that doesn’t discuss the work only in terms of intentionality and meaning. I feel strongly about this since for a long time I worked with the first process and now I am back to happily messing about in the studio. But I still remember what working like that was like. Stressful. No, really, I just wished that there were more instances where (for lack of a better word) contemporary “neo-conceptual” artwork was discussed in bolder ways. For instance the general aesthetic of these kinds of art practices which often seems to be governed by similar formal decisions and assumptions could be discussed. I wanted to read embarrassingly speculative postulations that discussed subjectivity without falling into the trap of the narcissistic tell-all or entering the fraught domain of sociology. Perhaps something that tried to guess why artists continue to make work that considers materials in terms of their meanings and tries to combine these meanings in order to arrive at a statement.
In Writings, a book of collected writings by the abstract painter Agnes Martin, Martin writes that there are two kinds of artworks: artworks that speak to the ego and artworks that point to the existence of an ideal place of beauty and perfection. The latter hint at those very instantaneous and brief moments in life where everything seems perfect. But Martin also states that these moments don’t actually exist, as perfection doesn’t exist in life, so it can only be hinted at in art. For Martin artworks are about the ego when the artist’s desperate struggle for self-expression is evident in the artwork. She says that these artworks reveal the artist’s own ego – wanting to be a significant artist, etc. – and that ultimately these artworks won’t belong to the canon of art history because we don’t want to be reminded of this, we would rather remember artwork that reminds us of beautiful experiences in life.
I remember reading this book last fall but recall it now as it is one of the few books I’ve read that talk about art and Zen experiences. Martin doesn’t categorize the perceptual experiences she describes using this term, but for clarity’s sake I will. I don’t necessarily agree with Martin’s terms, but I think that they reveal some interesting distinctions between A Line Meant in Passing and Arndt’s other video works, such as Placeholder (2011), Scene One (2006) and Telegraph (2006). While A Line Meant in Passing can elicit a perceptual experience that hints at an ideal place or moment of transcendence, the latter works each feature characters (actually played by the same actor in each of these works), who appear to be in existentially tortured or manic states. The actor wanders through the forest while a voiceover riffs an anxious, rambling rant; he positions and re-positions identical objects in a film studio environment; he dusts a camera with absurd excess. Although A Line Meant in Passing also addressees this moment of anxiety through his selection of particular objects, it is distinct from the others in that it is able to toy with the idea of transcendence within the perceptual experience of the work while the characters in the other works never attain any level of satisfaction. These characters inhabit worlds that are deeply nihilistic in their elaborations on the futility of artmaking and everyday life. It is position that is stark but profound. A Line Meant in Passing is a departure from his other works in that it allows for a surreal, yet fleeting moment and possibly a way out of the ego’s frustrations; it is an exercise for a different kind of emptiness.
Reference:Martin, Agnes. Writings. Bilingual edition. Hatje Cantz Publishers: Germany, 2005.