Jeff Gibbons, Body
Jeff Gibbons Drink the Bath
I like the term 'intermedia', used to describe Jeff Gibbons' work. Besides the obvious Fluxus provenance (sentimental or otherwise) and its related overtones, the term seems to fit very well with the kinds of displacements that Gibbons "performs", for instance, his use of wire hangers as both line and structural support. Since the first time I saw Fischli and Weiss's work in the 1980's I have been attracted to work which delves fully into both the materiality and narratology of the lives of objects, and the lives of ideas as objects.. I think there is a certain kind of conceptuality to this particular work that I like which is involved with its thinginess. By what circuitous flexing of the mind does an object become philosophical? Is it by replacing a hanging head's tongue with a brick? Is it by painting a stationary figure onto the surface of a video monitor whose scene doesn't so much change as drift? The name of this grouping also seemed interesting in light of the quote used to preface it:
“The water in a vessel is sparkling; the water in the sea is dark. The small truth has words that are clear; the great truth has great silence.” - Tagore (from Stray Birds)
A bath seems somewhere between a vessel and the sea, and this work seems somewhere between clear words and a great silence. One of the funnier pieces that even echoes and compresses both options together was a piece that read like something by Raymond Pettibon. In a large black empty field of color is a tiny little planet covered over mostly with the tiny exclamation of "woo!".. The first way I read this was of a funny evocation of the whole of the history of our planet (animal, plant, everything) as compressed into one blissful confused cosmic yawp, an occulted version of "big deal", as if to say even after all of this, it's still only "this big", issuing a sort of negative grandiosity. Strangely enough, because of the several other adjacent pieces using the celadon color that reminded me of Chinese Ming pottery, that little "woo" started reminding me of the Chinese phrase "Wu Wei". Gibbons' "woo way" now began to make its way into my mind. Wu, being without, made it read as a picture of a planet having lost its way, but also of a humorous and serious complexity; woo as in trying to get someone or something to love you, and of course the original Taoist set of meanings which might more or less be translated as 'the way is the way's way', or if you don't agree completely with that, there is always wikipedia's take:
Wu may be translated as not have or without; Wei may be translated as do, act, serve as, govern or effort. The literal meaning of wu wei is "without action", "without effort", or "without control", and is often included in the paradox wei wu wei: "action without action" or "effortless doing". The practice of wu wei and the efficacy of wei wu wei are fundamental tenets in Chinese thought and have been mostly emphasized by the Taoist school. One cannot actively pursue wu wei. It manifests as a result of cultivation. The Tao is a guide.
In Zen Calligraphy, wu wei has been represented as an ensō (circle); in China, the calligraphic inscriptions of the words wu wei themselves resonate with old Taoist stories.
So is it strange then for me to continue making these kinds of associations within the work that may not even be there? Possibly, but I'd like to point out a statement about Rabindranath Tagore to illustrate the line of thinking: "Tagore introduced new prose and verse forms and the use of colloquial language into Bengali literature, thereby freeing it from traditional models based on classical Sanskrit." When I think about it, "colloquial language" seems very much akin or cognate to something like a "vernacular object", and this idea for me both tightens the association with historical fluxus intermedia (pianos, frying pans, concerts of everyday living, etc) as well as clarifying a certain aspect of the grouping in the whole of the gallery for this show. Part of Stephen Lapthisophon's gallery blurb reads thusly: The mixed media works combine text and letter forms to create poetic improvisations inspired by and referring to deeply buried literary sources. Through the use of unconventional materials such as pigmented animal fats, spices, dirt and coffee grounds, Lapthisphon exalts the everyday and attempts to slow time in order to look longer and unpack hard to find meanings and forgotten histories. It's also very easy to locate vernacularity in the work of the other artist on display in the gallery, Vincent Ramos, whose use of golf putting machines, golf balls, and old portable cd players, as well as common cartoon characters, jazz, records, as well as the fringe of spiral notebook paper all become a stew of material referentiality.
Tightening up my view, and looking for models of this occulting (ie "forgotten histories"), I really became intrigued by Gibbon's use of these nebulous celadon forms. Looking at the wikipedia entry for celadon, you get a sense of the tangled and confusing cultural history surrounding the naming of this color:
The term "celadon" for the pottery's pale jade-green glaze was coined by European connoisseurs of the wares. One theory is that the term first appeared in France in the 17th century and that it is named after the shepherd Celadon in Honoré d'Urfé's French pastoral romance, L'Astrée (1627), who wore pale green ribbons. (D'Urfe, in turn, borrowed his character from Ovid's Metamorphoses V.210.) Another theory is that the term is a corruption of the name of Saladin (Salah ad-Din), the Ayyubid Sultan, who in 1171 sent forty pieces of the ceramic to Nur ad-Din Zengi, Sultan of Syria. Yet a third theory is that the word derives from the Sanskrit sila and dhara, which mean "green" and "stone" respectively.
It's this "corruption of the name of Saladin (Salah ad-Din)" which grabbed my attention with regard to the name of Gibbon's show _Drink the Bath_. Gibbons studied intermedia with Stephen Lapthisophon as part of his MFA from the University of Texas Arlington in 2013.
How similar is "Drink the bath" to "Lap this" or "Lap this, o faun", or even "Lap this, Sophron.." And even more to the point, how clear is the reference here to both the Fluxus instructions and the instructor of Fluxus intermedia?
Sophron of Syracuse (fl. 430 BC) was a writer of mimes. Sophron was the author of prose dialogues in the Doric dialect, containing both male and female characters, some serious, others humorous in style, and depicting scenes from the daily life of the Sicilian Greeks. Although in prose, they were regarded as poems; in any case they were not intended for stage representation. They were written in pithy and popular language, full of proverbs and colloquialisms.
There is something strangely resonant and relevant in the evocation of Sophron here:
serious AND humorus, daily life, prose regarded as poetry, pithy and popular, full of proverbs and colloquialisms.
At any rate, I found it very difficult to get very far in attempting to unlock very much of what might be under the surface of Lapthisophon's offering, but looked at as a kind of key, Gibbon's work seems to unlock at least a sense of deeper relationality between the different artists within the show. This isn't a criticism, but Gibbon's work for me, if not exactly speaking clearly, did at least speak even upon first glance. For instance, if the black "woo" piece seemed like Pettibonian black humor, the celadon pieces (Body, Body II) read like evocations of a transhistorical, transrational sublime, which then became entangled auspiciously in the complex etymologies of certain schools of buddhism, ie, the "lesser" or "greater vehicles". The celadon pieces seem to depict a projectile, almost a pot, or a fish, perhaps not unlike a transcultural memory of Brancusi's Bird in Space, a pale cloud-like jade iconographic rendering of an orca, a hollow amphora with a dorsal fin, or perhaps even being, now gone astray in the white noise of being, the sound of "astray" echoing L'Astrée from the tangled history of the term celadon.
I'm fairly certain that I've been led astray in certain of my readings here, and perhaps several of them are even "lesser" or inferior, but there is an echo even there, with the workings of Tagore's epithet:
“The water in a vessel is sparkling; the water in the sea is dark. The small truth has words that are clear; the great truth has great silence.
Is not a great silence able to be rendered as small clear words?
And then there is that bath, and the command to drink it. For me, this seemed like the most prescient and amazing connection I've ever seen between something like the meaning of Fluxus, and Diogenes of Sinope.
Diogenes is discussed in a 1983 book by German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (English language publication in 1987). In his Critique of Cynical Reason, Diogenes is used as an example of Sloterdijk's idea of the "kynical" — in which personal degradation is used for purposes of community comment or censure. Calling the practice of this tactic "kynismos", Sloterdijk explains that the kynical actor actually embodies the message he is trying to convey. The goal here is typically a false regression that mocks authority — especially authority that the kynical actor considers corrupt, suspect or unworthy.
This also seems to reflect back on the work's materiality, calling into question all kinds of hierarchical assumptions about beauty, and the separation of human life from the singularity of biosemiosis (even when termed as divinity), or even a clean separation of the concepts of corruption and metamorphosis. It is on this basis I think there is much here to recommend this show, and also this grouping of artists.