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Mercurial States

Lucy Cotter

As a child, I once broke a glass thermometer and the mercury it contained flowed into the palm of my hand. I watched the silver river circle my palm with each movement of my wrist and the cupped globule divide into tiny droplets when I probed its surface. Studying its glinting presence, I wondered if it came from the moon. The beauty and power the mercury possessed was bound up with the agility of its transformations. It evoked a sense of unending possibility, a rare quality that I later found again in contemporary art. With time, I could no longer dis-engage art from the immanent toxicity of the art world’s prejudices and exploitation, anymore than I could recover the innocence of my first encounter with mercury. Yet the art world remains for me a place where the wonders of material malleability combine with mercurial states of thought, pointing to the multiplicity of every encounter and the potential reimagining and restructuring of all things.

With this series, I have chosen to share artworks and artists’ lectures that plunge us into material-conceptual intelligence and the potent transformations they draw us toward. I want to highlight art’s engagement with “the riddle of ambiguity”—“the constant alteration of the relations between matter and words, time and meaning,” shifting focus to how art’s intimacy with materiality and media produces new speculations that are often in dynamic relation with, but of a different nature than, academic thought.1 Even when they are “finished,” artworks insist on an essential incompleteness, a non-closure of form. More specifically, at this moment of intense pressure on mainstream art institutions to expand and change their offerings, I wish to foreground how these mercurial qualities are present in practices that work toward political change. Drawing on the power and agency of making and the specific attributes of artistic media, these artists mine for potential in the tensions between the proscribed and the possible; creating new questions and holding open compelling areas for reflection, rather than seeking resolution. Too often, this artistic thinking is overshadowed by critically addressing such artworks in terms of “hot topics,” creating a false distance from quietly philosophical works that are encountered almost solely in terms of their material-aesthetic choices.

Why do some of my perceptive colleagues’ eyes glaze over at the mere mention of politics, as if its presence occludes art, as if it leaves nothing to see? The memory of intently gazing at mercury reemerged while searching for words to describe Sky Hopinka’s video I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become, in which we contemplate a vista of moving bodies whose colors are translucent, iridescent, and always changing. These Native powwow dancers are materially evoked rather than documented; their corporeal reality washed through like an old Polaroid that struggles to hold an image. Drawing on the abstractions of color field painting and poetry, Hopinka challenges the semiotics of documentary filmmaking. Color, words, and sound are in a constant state of alteration as he reflects on the changing landscape of indigenous languages, myth, and politics, on death and our inheritance of the earth.

We are now working in a time when art institutions have declared their commitment to cultural inclusivity and yet, while apparently “sharing” the same spaces, a climate is perpetuated in which the interrelationship between various artistic enclaves is often limited to their juxtaposition. Isabelle Stengers has researched this kind of impasse in the dynamics of (antagonistic) practices. Acknowledging the need for “an ecology of practices”—vital in an art world that is in search of its own sustainability—Stengers suggests that it is more beneficial to let go of the idea of new values, evaluations, and meanings replacing the old ones “in the name of a truth that one would have finally discovered,” and instead to reconceive this moment as being about “the production of new relations that are added to a situation already produced by a multiplicity of relations.”2

I identify this production of new relations in the practice of Christian Nyampeta, which asks, not coincidentally, “how to live together.” Working across art, design, and theory, he creates conditions in which words seek the labor of reinvention and insist on leaving their temporal and geographic origins to wander in search of new meanings. In the brief interview with Nyampeta I share here, we can witness a flow of possibility between institutional exhibition practices and socially engaged ways of working, between the located and dispersed, the intimate directness of material encounter and the outcomes only possible through durational unfolding. Staying with this mercurial flow of materiality, ideas, and relations, we can delve into Sarah Rifky’s assertion of the malleability of institutional forms. By acknowledging the shared etymology of “institutions” and “statues,” they become forms in a constant state of making and remaking, exposing the agency of words, people, and ideas. As I listen to Rifky’s differential and destabilizing repetitions of “institutions,” I picture clay being manipulated into constantly changing configurations; her mind-set a theoretical extension of material competence.

There has, in recent years, been a proliferation of scholarship engaged with the materialization of all bodies—human and nonhuman—and an increased emphasis on the post-human performativity of “intra-acting matter.”3 Manuela Infante’s playful performance Estado Vegetal (Vegetative State) creates space for embodied and material experimentation with materialist and post-human philosophy. Its structuring of words into vegetal configurations and deep rendering of plant intelligence into every element of its highly inventive form brings home the possibilities for alternative models of self-governance and collectivity without recourse to theoretical explanation.

Are we entering a phase in which the political urgency to reimagine and create new forms of living invites a more dynamic and rigorous relationship with materiality? My own thoughts on this question were echoed in and extended by the work of artist Gordon Hall. As the artist’s lecture shared here makes evident, they have reimagined minimalist objects as catalysts for phenomenological experiences that might reeducate bodies to more profoundly feel the fluidity of gender. Hall acknowledges the tradition of their aesthetics in minimalism and the history of art, yet they move forward, insisting on creating new languages that are as rooted in contemporary political conditions as they are in abstraction.

In Katarina Zdjelar’s AAA (Mein Herz) a woman’s voice becomes a mercurial flow, moving from one language to another, from song to spoken word, from one historic era to the next, never resting on a fixed subject or position. The experience of listening to the work is a kind of expansion, an “opening stretched toward the register of the sonorous.”4 It constitutes a different access to self, not as an “I,” but as a “coming and a passing, an extending and a penetrating”; a state of being that removes us from our ongoing act of objectification, both of self and of others. Encountering the mercurial properties of art, one flows from oneself, and this lack of hardness, this elasticity, forges a new breed of connectivity.5

—Lucy Cotter

Lucy Cotter is a writer, curator, and artist whose work explores the interplay of the aesthetic, the political, and the unknown. Among other projects, she was curator of Cinema Olanda: Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Dutch Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennale. A contributor to journals such as Flash Art, Frieze, Mousse and Third Text, her new book Reclaiming Artistic Research (Hatje Cantz, 2019) engages in conversation with twenty leading artists and curators to explore how artistic thinking forges new paradigms through embodied and material forms of non-knowledge. Following its recent launch at the Research Pavilion, 58th Venice Biennale, and Looiersgracht 60, Amsterdam, launches in the United States will follow at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday, October 9, and the School of Visual Arts, New York, Thursday, October 24.

1 I paraphrase Chus Martínez’s definition of aesthetics in “Aesthetic Consciousness,” in Experimental Aesthetics, ed. Henk Slager (Amsterdam: Metropolis M, 2015), 10–13.

2 Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I, trans. Robert Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 32. Emphasis added.

3 See, for example, Karen Barad, “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs 28, no. 3 (2003): 801–31. Barad builds on the work of Bruno Latour, Judith Butler, and Donna Haraway, among others. See also Timothy Morton, “Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology,” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 19, no. 2 (2011): 169.

4 Jean-Lucy Nancy, Listening, trans. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 12.

5 I draw on Gaston Bachelard’s free translation of Rainer Maria Rilke: “You flow from yourself, and your lack of hardness or elasticity means nothing any more.” The Poetics of Space (Beacon Press, 1994), 230.

September 3, 2019