For Hannah Arendt writing in 1958 the ‘Human Condition’ is underlaid by three kinds of activity – labour, work and action. The painting we’ve recently completed took a significant amount of time at the wall face for its two labourers, myself and Barbara Penrose. The repetitive activity led to a conversation on work as a living, work as a crafting occupation, and work contributing to a sense of identity.
The most private survival-oriented category in Arendt’s ‘active life’ is labour, serving biological processes of survival, making a living and extending out into all areas of consumption. ‘Work’ in Arendt’s system pertains to the making of things, its product houses and equips human life. Action is in another realm : Action is the only activity that goes directly between men, without the intermediary of things or matter… it corresponds to the human condition of plurality. Action for Arendt is the initiation of an act together with its consequence, the performer and witness drawn by their participation into the formation of identity.
This blog forms a background to my art practice and lately I’ve been feeling some repercussions from the thoughts unravelled here. The posts are clipped fragments of word and image aiming to articulate the making and experience of art engaged within a public space.
Action, in Arendt’s sense forms a glancing identity perceived within the transformative plurality of a social situation. I see myself reflected by others. It’s a model of public space inherited from the Greek Polis, unpredictable, risky and rarely seen in our very different public spaces. More likely now my appearance stands for me. Bound into consumer structures, my identity is given by signs portrayed in clothing etc. Perhaps the disturbing repercussion of this line of thinking is that I’m spoken by and through things, rather than in more directly communicative relations with others.
In March 2003 Barbara and I began an Australia-China Council residency in Taipei, our project was to observe the way public space is used in Chinese culture. The Chinese scholar Wu Hung suggests we look to Chinese civilization for something other than formal monuments, In place of ‘monument’ he proposes ‘monumentality’, introducing the idea of content over form and foregrounds the people themselves in Chinese civilization as monumental. This approach is echoed in other currents such as European archaeological sites viewed through the lens of performative rituals as opposed to object inventories. As applied to public space it suggests we look to transformative content rather than commemorative forms.
The residency coincided with an outbreak of SARS in the city, a week later a state of emergency blanketed all of Taipei’s Public spaces. Suspected SARS carriers were quarantined by thermal imaging in public buildings and with thousands detained in their homes the city verged on civil insurrection and social collapse. The work I made during this period, observed a public space caught in a tension between the individual and the calibrating force of the civic institution. I painted linen tapes cut and marked with increments, figures and mists of glaze. The concept was crude, its allusion to an overbearing social control, a thinly realized and over-determined process of art-making. In the intervening years I’ve taken these limitations as an environment from which to order crowds of figures with ad hoc systems of drip-lines and gridded surfaces whose nuances instruct the figure placements.
The latest painting conceived under these auspices adds something else into the mix, it’s an installation of three walls, the central being a 3m x 5m coloured grid layered with almost a thousand figures. Either side are mirrored images of a close-up of a female visage. The juxtaposition is made loosely continuous by a frieze-like gridded surface that, on longer exposure yields the scenic visage.
The three walls of Riversongs evolved through the layering of repetitive visual systems. Loom-like the central wall was hung with a hundred measured drip-lines, the developing grid of 1800 rectangles coded in 14 colours developed the warp and weft of the loom bed while the final layer smudges and shadows the colour with a thousand figure sketches.
The systematic application placed our working attention within the layers of the painting, dripping paint lines in regular intervals, filling in rectangles with preordained colour codes, sketching figures from photographs shot and collected for the purpose. This kind of absorption leads the result away from the Modernist goal of autonomous form and presence… dissapoints the self-seeking subject. Against this lack of self presence is a kind of call and response rushing to fill the void. One is left taking it in rather than surveilling.
In the period between the Taipei work and Riversongs I’ve worked with pattern as a kind of geometrical space and people somehow in it but resisting – a grid of constraints with people smuggling across the space – organism and environment as distinct from figure and ground.
Arendt was keen to comprehend the ‘Unquiet’ which in a pre-modern tradition was negatively cast in relation to contemplative ‘Stillness’ in which a singular truth could be revealed. Arendt’s project in The Human Condition is to disentangle aspects of the active life in order to better comprehend how modernity has conflated activity into labour and lost its articulation of work and action under the priority of consumption.