On a Certain Tendency of Contemporary Installation Art

March 3rd, 2019  |  Published in *, Winter 2019  |  2 Comments

British installation artist Alex Hibbitt’s Rhizome: Falling (2018) has traversed numerous gallery locales throughout the States in the last few years and hangs, suspended and static, in the Weston Gallery’s atrium ceiling. The work – a horizontal web of variegated materiality and form – while weighty, sputters a certain recherché of the ethereal, culling to mind the delicate balance of spindly multiplicities that the botanist’s “rhizome” contains. As a preliminary, the “rhizome” is a metaphor adopted by philosophy from biology (and, more specifically, botany), albeit one radically amended to describe the visible and invisible threads connecting history and culture. The rhizome was first introduced into psychology and, consequently, theoretical discourse, by Carl Jung in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1962) in order to describe “what remains” after “the blossom,” or the enduring unconscious energy that is both hidden and operative – Jung’s rhizome is both the invisible excess of the blossom yet the source for subsequent flowering (4).

Nonetheless, Hibbitt’s piece does not appeal to nature – referents to natural phenomena and biology are amiss here, as every bisecting shape in the “web” is artificial, composed of sharp, carefully fitted pieces shaped by machine. Hibbitt’s Rhizome: Falling invokes industrial processes more than natural ones, and makes reference to the rhizome as conceived by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their seminal study Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980).

Deleuze and Guattari conceived of the rhizome as a concept to challenge a growing practice in fields such as linguistics (spearheaded by the likes of Noam Chomsky and analytic philosophy, overall) that privileged dominant ontological models, positing them as hierarchical or binary systems (e.g. logic/mathematics, psychoanalysis/chemistry, etc.). Deleuze and Guatarri opposed the political implications of centrality and authority in these hierarchical “tree-like systems” – for the duo, the rhizome has no unique source from which development occurs. Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome has served as a useful model for political action – Marxist collectives, hacktivist groups, and resistance movements often necessitate non-hierarchical internal organization. In art history the rhizome is used to describe repetition in ornamental patterns in sculpture/architecture from the Indian subcontinent. Most obviously, perhaps, is the analogy of the internet as a “rhizomatic network.”

Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizome” is a model, a quasi-representative conception that describes non-hierarchical multiplicity as it applies to culture and society – an “intermezzo” organizational structure with no beginning or end. Artistic undertakings to describe Deleuze and Guattari’s conception have been numerous, and “rhizome” has spurred journals and blogs galore, which have lauded the concept while often failing to implore its complexities and, thus, the term has been abundantly brutalized, perverted and squandered ad nauseum. This is a part of visual art’s in-vogue appropriation of post-structuralist French philosophy/philosophers and it is not a new gesture though it bears discussion when considering Hibbitt’s work, particularly if we are to truly consider whether the suspended sculpture buttresses its ideational underpinnings.

First, however, let us consider the work in its most materialist, reductive mode – it is a modular sculpture of suspended porcelain, fitted with intersecting multi-colored shapes. The sculpture hangs well above spectator-reach. Rhizome consists of multiple castings of branch-like forms that spread via a horizontal plane. Hibbitt’s artist statement claims that these intersecting borders map the relationships between two-dimensional, three-dimensional, and “virtual” environments, transfixing the cast “branches” as floating nodes of data that suggest an “intricate symbiotic relationship that is continuing to evolve and expand.”

These are grandiose, lofty claims for a suspended sculpture that abides by “old media,” insofar as it is comprised of wood, porcelain, felt, steel, and string. To “evolve and expand” and to map the “virtual,” as Hibbitt claims, calls to mind something less stagnant than the immotile, anchored web that is Rhizome: Falling. This is perhaps why the rhizome more often inspires new media artists, who can use digital technologies to facilitate cybernetic corollaries with social structures in order to articulate the “expansive” movement of rhizome. Hibbitt cannot be afforded this faculty, partially due to her media choice(s). Hibbitt’s use of “branches” is also rather puzzling, as Deleuze and Guattari quite nearly take war on “arborescent systems,” which they regard as “hierarchical systems with centers of significance and subjectification.” (1987, 16).

However, if Hibbitt’s flaw is one rooted in her choice of media and scope, then it is worth mentioning that not all new media artists are successful in their considerations of the “rhizomatic,” either – in fact, I would argue that most are not. When these works do successfully make use of the rhizome, it is often in annexing technology to illuminate a reflexive potential of political critique. This strategy is exemplified by artists such as Nigerian duo Keith+Mendi Obadike, whose work The Interaction of Coloreds (2018) I would argue is successfully “rhizomatic,” as it examines the racialized protocols of the World Wide Web via user-participation. Hibbitt’s work is far more reserved and the object of spectatorship, committed to industrial design – Rhizome: Falling is not as grounded in technology or techno-progressivism as it is post-Fordist labor: the projecting branches and intersecting shapes are repeating and uniform, the by-product(s) of mechanization.

The rhizome is compromising territory for installation art to claim if it is dogmatically shackled by sculpture. This is not to mean that Hibbitt’s media of choice  are themselves irreverent or inconsequential – but when framed by a philosophical concept that inherently involves transcendental transgression beyond material bounds, Hibbitt’s project becomes self-defeating, naïve at best and presumptuous at worst. The rhizome is a dynamic metaphor, as Felix Guatarri articulated in Semiotext(e)’s Soft Subversions (1977-85); the “rhizome collapses, little sprouts begin to proliferate.” (118). If movement is a tenant of the rhizome, Hibbitt’s project is disingenuously static – Rhizome: Falling better describes displacement and exile, the sculpture bounded in its niche corner, a projection suspended by steel cables that are woven though not interwoven. The work is the outline of a story though not a “world,” as the artist claims.

I have explicated on some of the finer points of Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizome” because, as a proponent of both critical theory and theoretically-minded visual art, I believe that the latter too often fails to finely examine the former and, thus, in “glazing over” theory, visual artists often blunder integral philosophical details. Secondly, there arises a pernicious qualm with which the visual arts must grapple with when it professes to become theory – that is, when visual art propels its ontological status as a philosophical object rather than the offspring of ideology. Such is the case when Hibbitt claims Rhizome: Falling is a visualization of the rhizome –what does this imply for Hibbitt’s sculpture?

Well, Hibbitt’s far-reaching ontological claim implies mean that the wooden branches are reaching for infinitude, that the ceramic collections and felt shapes are the “unwrapped” skins of history in motion, designed to “unfold” and reveal veiled hierarchies. In other words, if we commit Hibbitt’s installation (or more generally, visual art, itself) to such loosely qualified philosophical applications then we risk not only misunderstanding philosophy but also inculcating visual art with the imitative/mimetic mode of removed understanding that Plato famously lambasted artists for in The Republic. As Althusser recognized in the case of Brecht, linking art and theory in a common project of political modernism reaches an impasse unless we consider the relations between art and philosophy, rather than art as philosophy. Thus, if Hibbitt’s Rhizome: Falling seeks to serve a philosophical purpose then it ought not to make its priority apprehending Deleuze and Guattari’s “rhizome” but, rather, directing it into alien terrain (thus illuminating new considerations).

Again, the most vexing qualm here is not one idiosyncratic to Hibbitt or Hibbitt’s work but a general tendency we see in contemporary art of the epoch – the practice of visual artists name-dropping the theories of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and company has become all too common and more often than not risks confounding misconceptions and false-readings. As Rancière once put it, “Art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy, and thrives on that ambiguity,” meaning that to preserve the promise that art can effect a change in the world, we must let go of the idea that we can anticipate its effects. This is why as art historians, aestheticians, philosophers of art, and art critics we so often instrumentalize works of art as social and political artifacts in order to examine and describe the world around us – however, for artists like Hibbitt to circumscribe their work to totalizing conceptions of philosophy is to severely limit their works’ political or aesthetic potential.

Nonetheless, if we allocate a certain irreducibility to Rhizome’s forms and understand it as a discursive substructure – a fragment or articulation of the “rhizome” rather than the “rhizome,” itself – then we can contend with visual art as it is informed by the other disciplines with which it must be made compossible (in this case, philosophy). Rhizome: Falling is not an austere work and, understood as a modular incarnation of mechanical automation, it can certainly gesture towards the greater ideological operations at play in its production. As a micro-architectural model, Rhizome’s “pure presence” is its immanent singularity, a self-negation of its own mirror and a breaking with its own materiality: porcelain branches are interrupted by flaxen, lime, and crimson felt figures that loosely resemble leaves or continents. Rhizome: Falling can very well be considered as a segment of the ulterior “rhizomatic organization,” but to claim that it encompasses the rhizome would be folly –the rhizome’s visualization is an inherent impossibility.

I am not certain that the rhizome is an appropriate or even necessary model for Hibbitt to undertake, but if she insists upon it as an organizational thesis then, surely, she must recognize that the rhizome is a nomadic system of planar movement that resists any chronology or organization. This is exactly why it is an impossible undertaking for Rhizome: Falling to present audiences with the rhizome – it can only serve as a piece. Therefore, I believe that it may be more adequate to consider Rhizome: Falling as a piece of the “rhizome,” falling.

–Ekin Erkan

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis, et al. Reading Capital. Verso, 1997.

Rancière, Jacques, and Julie Rose. Figures of History. Polity Press, 2014.

Responses

  1. Roxanne says:

    March 4th, 2019at 2:08 am(#)

    Wow how finely articulate! Bravo!! this has got to be one of the best reviews I’ve ever read.

  2. C. Abram says:

    March 11th, 2019at 4:37 am(#)

    Ah – what some may not recognize is that this title is a play on “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” by Francois Truffaut – a critique of the pre-New Wave. Keen little critique even at the title – fantastic article and I would expect no less from the likes of Mr. Ekin Erkan.

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