Ceal Floyer’s work takes the Readymade aesthetic to its logical conclusion. For Nail Biting Performance, 2001, she walked onto the stage at Birmingham Symphony Hall immediately prior to the beginning of a concert and bit off her fingernails into the microphone. This performance was hosted by the Ikon Gallery Birmingham (England) and an Ikon Gallery text reports: “Her ‘nail biting performance’ took stage-fright as its subject, the artist, bit her fingernails into a microphone for five minutes. The sight of her alone amongst the musicians’ empty chairs, accompanied by the amplified sound of nervousness, was affecting and tense.” (Ikon).
Another of her works, H2O Diptych, 2002, consists of two monitors, one showing a pan of water slowly reaching boiling point whilst on the other a glass of fizzy mineral water gradually goes flat. Her most radical works include Garbage Bag, 1996, “a black bin liner filled with air and secured with a twist-tie”, and Monochrome Till Receipt (White), 1999: which is a supermarket till receipt. But it is not a random till receipt, a Time Out commentator noted:
A till receipt attached to the gallery wall is the seemingly inconsequential evidence of a shopping trip. The title however, as is often the case in her work, prompts a closer inspection. Monochrome Till Receipt (White), 1999, lists dozens of items including flour, salt, milk, rice and so forth. In a bizarre twist, the mundane activity of a trip to the supermarket is a knowing reference to the highly aestheticized white paintings of Robert Ryman. (in Peer 2001).
The Ryman reference is pertinent and one can see an example of his work illustrated left. Floyer’s till receipt is not simply a till receipt but the result of a minimalist-conceptualist shopping expedition, a species of “performance” in which she only purchased items that were white in colour. Accordingly, Till Receipt is not simply a Readymade repetition but an instance of performance art of which the till receipt is a document. What is significant about Floyer’s work is the way in which she reveals that the Readymade is not a simple aesthetic formula that engenders mindless mimicry but, instead, a complex game akin to chess with its aproximately infinite “moves”. It is not possible for the Readymade to be anything else but complex due to the fact that it is a self-reflexive poetics. Like Rauschenberg’s Zen-blank canvases the Readymade points less in the direction of nothingness than it does to the structure of chance (c.f. complexity theory).
White like black is a quintessentially minimal-conceptualist colour (transparency is another member of this set). Whiteness plus the Readymade status of the Till Receipt (although it was constructed or made by Floyer’s selection of goods) means that it references quite a large swathe of art theory and practice. And one of the key features of deconstructive art theory and practice is that the traditional concept of the artist as genius is backgrounded and the discourse, or system, of art is brought to the fore. Bearing this in mind one has to admit that the sheer humility of Garbage Bag, 1996, prevents it from being a statement of heroic artistic genius. This is reinforced by the fact that being firmly in the Readymade genre it is not entirely original (as if there is any such thing as “entirely original”).
One might compare Garbage Bag with the interpretation of existing scores provided by classical musicians. But unlike a musical composition Floyer’s interpretation is not of a single work such as Fountain, 1917, but a conceptual framework. And since the 1960s that framework has ramified into a manifold of variations. In addition to the Readymade one also has to note Floyer’s reference to Minimal and Conceptual Art and to the Arte Povera movement which pioneered the sculptural application of ‘poor’ materials.
In Ceal Floyer’s Nail Biting Performance, 2001, for example, the frame is not simply art history and theory but an institution that lies outside the art gallery or art musteum: the Symphony Hall in Birmingham, England. She is not performing outside of the context of culture but she is indicating that the aesthetic she subscribes to does not begin and end with Duchamp. As commentators have observed her nail biting into the microphone in that musical context resonates strongly with the Fluxus artist John Cage who pursued deconstruction in the domain of music, building on the courageous attempts to escape the harmonic bounds of the diatonic and chromatic scales which seemed at odds with a new age.
One of Cage’s most radical works is his famous 4’33”, 1952, which consisted of four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence (pointing the listener towards the ambient sounds in the institutional context framing the musical performance). The relationship of Nail Biting Performance to 4’33” points to the web of what I have termed “deconstructive art” (Coulter-Smith 2006) which has gained increasing hegemony over fine art since the mid-1950s onwards. But what is more significant than observing the viral proliferation of deconstructive art is posing the question how and why it happened.
And, in historical terms, it happened quite recently: it happened in the second half of the 20th century. Even in the 1950s there was still little doubt that fine art could be defined in terms of painting and sculpture. What is remarkable is that artists who focus on painting and sculpture today are considered somehow ‘old fashioned’. We can trace this erosion of traditional media back to Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism and a focus on the idea as opposed to the object. But these movements would be nothing if not for their considerable impact on art of the 1960s, evident in a mosaic of elaborations such as: Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus, Pop Art, Minimal Art, Arte Povera, Land Art, Performance Art, and Conceptual Art. It is radical art of the 1960s that forms the bedrock for art at the turn of the millennium. And the crucial question becomes has this revolution expanded the concept of art or diminished it? And the thoughtful answer has to be that there has been a bit of both.
The complex structure of nothingness to which Floyer’s work, in part, resonates with two outstanding icons of modernity: Fountain 1917 and Malevich’s Black Square c. 1913. Both works are radical statements that conflate aesthetic and existential anomie and absurdism with an expansion of creative horizons. So contemplating Floyer’s work we return to the idea that the discursive formations of modernism and postmodernism are as important as the individual works of art that feed on them.
Individual works of art such as Floyer’s function only because they resonate with a complex of ideas and material practices that lie beyond any single individual. The importance of the discourse of art over and above the individual artist was especially foregrounded by the postmodern appropriationist movement that dominated art in the 1980s. One of the key books from the 1980s is Art after Modernism: Rethinking Represenation (Wallis, 1984). But the title (and thesis) of that book ignores the fact that the questioning of represenation lies at the core not only of postmodernist but also of modernist art. One thinks here of Impressionism, Pointillism, Cubism, Expressionism. All these modern movements questioned the possibility of a simple one to one correspondence between reality and representation. The three most significant breakthroughs attained by modern/postmodern art are abstraction, expressionism and conceptualism and all three interrogate the issue of representation.
The modern period began with the rise of science and the rise of empirical philosophy—Locke, Hume, Berkeley—which laid the basis for modern pyschology. Science penetrated further into nature than was possible with the naked human senses and modern philosophy threw doubt upon common sense presumptions regarding identity and reality. It is only possible to understand the rise of modern/postmodern art in the light of the epistemological revolution that accompanied the evolution of a bourgeois, liberal, secular and democratic society.
It is significant, therefore, that Floyer produces works that focus on perception: in one of her early works (above left) she projects a slide of a light switch onto a wall, and at the 50th Venice Biennale, 2003, (above right) she projected a video of a small nail hammered into a wall onto a wall. Duchamp also played with perception particularly in his Roto-Relief in which a pattern painted on a flat disk produced a strong illusion of three-dimensionality when spun. In each case the statement seems extremely simple, even too simple. But it is evident that she makes no attempt to hide the illusory nature of her works. The projector is visible and its illusion is obvious. Similarly in another work she places a black plastic bucket in the gallery with a cd-player inside making the sound of water dripping as if there were a leak in the gallery roof. Like her nail and light switch projections this is an illusion without illusion because the cd-player is plainly in view in the bucket.
Unlike science art can only pose questions and leave the process of creating answers to those who view the work. In the case of Floyer one question seems to be “how can we look beyond a habituated mode of thinking and perceiving”. And in this sense one can compare her work with that of artists such as Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Höller, and Henrik Plenge Jakobsen.
When Duchamp succeeded in placing his urinal into an art exhibition he translated it from the condition of urinal into that of sculpture, we could also say he reframed it, or recoded it. These processes lie at the crux of what we call conceptualism and it is important to understand this because whereas we seem able to accept abstraction as a valid aesthetic framework we still baulk at the Readymade aesthetic, or “conceptualism”. Of course, when we fully understand conceptualism it will be over, in the same way that when we fully understood abstraction to the point where its variations became repetitions it was over—although it may have become recoded into conceptualism.