March 22, 2019

Eclipsing Binaries

Pictured above is a work by Vija Celmins, called Blackboard Tableau #9. I saw it at a retrospective of her work at SFMOMA. One of the boards is a found object, a small writing slate from the early 20th century; the other is a meticulously made copy. That is, one is “real” and one is “fake,” but the irresolvable question is which one is which.

That is not merely a matter of distinguishing one from the other. It also depends on what one means by those terms, what framework of authentication one chooses to advance. Is the fake one Celmins’s copy, a tour de force of artistic craft; or is it the found object, which wasn’t a deliberate aesthetic production at all?

A similar work presents two stones: one found in the desert, the other a careful copy. Are either of these “natural”? Which one could be considered “valuable”? Which really belongs? Which one is cheating?

Not that it is an either-or. From a disengaged perspective, it’s obvious that the concept of these pieces requires both, that they require each other like both sides of a dichotomy need the opposite term to define themselves. But the experience of looking at them trapped me into comparative, reductive thinking nonetheless: Which blackboard is a representation of the other? How “accurate” is it? Am I being fooled somehow?

The possibility of discerning something telling to distinguish these near-identical twins provided a rationale for how to look at them, but it was self-cancelling, self-defeating. Even if you can tell them apart, you are no closer to knowing which one is the replica. Instead you find yourself caught in a meaningless guessing game, oscillating between the poles of an axis around which nothing revolves. No difference but différance. Yet the game itself held my attention, kept me scrutinizing, noting details and seeking telltale anomalies despite their ultimate uselessness as evidence. It was like a conspiracy writ small.

This frustrated me mainly because it was how the wall text wanted me to see the work, as a paradox that compelled the viewer’s investigating eye by thwarting it. That just made me want to turn into the skid, to stop looking at the blackboards as though they were competitors for the status of real and see them as something else. But what?

I wanted to see the Celmins show because I knew of her paintings of ocean waves, framed without any orienting context. I like that these works go against the grain of their subject. What seems significant about waves is their constant motion, but Celmins carefully renders them in a specific position at a particular moment in time (she makes the paintings from photographs) without that moment being of any special significance. This makes the paintings appear both exactingly precise and somehow blank, like the slates. They are extremely specific in what they represent but also seem nonrepresentational, making “representation” itself seem like an inadequate reference point.

Celmins has also painted pictures of the night sky, scattershot plots of tiny dots, an arbitrary section of the infinite. She seems determined to reproduce a particular tableau that the naked eye could never confirm in reality — no one will ever see the waves or the sky as they were in the reference photograph again. These layers of mediation work to separate the will to represent from what is represented, making that will itself suddenly representable. It’s there in the blackness of space, in the play of shadows in the water, where there’s nothing else to see.

It seemed to me that I should be able to look at the blackboards the same way, as the triumph of the autonomous artist over the tyranny of content. But more than anything else, I kept on seeing them as iPads about to be touched, dormant screens ready to be filled with lots and lots of content. Clearly that’s the point, right? I thought. Were iPads around in 2007? Why is this work dated 2007–2015? Did it take eight years to perfect the patina? I was reminded of an old season of Survivor, in which one of the contestants missed his BlackBerry so much he fashioned a pretend one out of a piece of wood.

The same issues of reality and representation, of authentic and fake, are obviously also at play in the distinction made between screens and the “real world,” between being online and being truly present. I assumed that Celmins chose these slates with that in mind, to comment on disappearing reality in the age of digitality or some such. How can we learn to see when our eyes are captured by screens? To save us, she will taunt audiences with these blank slates that can’t be turned on, that can’t become distraction machines. So I wasn’t surprised to see on her gallery page, in the only quote from her provided, that she says, “I believe if there is any meaning in art, it resides in the physical presence of a work.”

This is perhaps a convenient point for a gallery to emphasize, given that it means to sell her work and would profit from any aura attached to physical objects. For what it’s worth, I thought much more about her work away from the museum than I did in its physical proximity. I looked at the images I took with my phone, which added another supplemental layer of representation, isolating a different moment in time. I thought a lot about why I bothered to take the pictures, what aspect of the aura I was trying to appropriate, and why I couldn’t be content to simply look at them reverently like I was supposed to.

Celmins’s blackboards seemed, in that context, like anti-tablets; I felt like they were mocking me as I photographed them, my own little black rectangle in my hand. I felt as if I couldn’t bear to look at a blank screen — I had to nest the blankness within another screen and turn it into positive content. It was my way of writing on the slate.

The blackboards stage both a deliberate refusal of mediation (they are blank) and an elaborate performance of it. One slate represents the other, down to the trace imperfections on its surface, making these accidents into substantial elements of composition. The materiality of the medium is foregrounded as the content, which cannibalizes its potentiality as media — the more we see the scratches on the board as significant in their own right, the less important it becomes that it ever bear any other message.

To hold someone’s attention with a blank slate, all that’s necessary is to put another blank slate beside it. You don’t have to write anything on either of them.

If you try to say something similar of iPads, it seems absurd. The screens don’t somehow seem more real when turned off. But a single screen in your hands, even before it is activated, does have the allure of infinite possibility seemingly at your command — an endless sky. That rapidly diminishes when the screen comes on and the options begin to winnow, taking their orderly place in the rectilinear grid and obeying their algorithmic encoding. But in my hand, alone, the phone still feels like the only relevant portal, even when it’s off: It’s waiting to show me something, placing me at the center of the universe.

But two phones together don’t conjure individualistic fantasies. They refer to each other’s ubiquity, how everyone else has one too. They evoke the enmeshing networks they form, the circuits of communication that include and disinclude. The person I was alone with my phone feels compromised. I start to think about the many selves I project, and how the phones work to align them beside themselves, inviting comparison. Presumably one must be real, but like the blackboards, it’s impossible to tell which one it is, even for myself.