Under Darkness - Page 1


by John Roberts

With the advent of conceptualism the cognitive status of art- its capacity to raise claims to truth about reality—became increasingly preoccupied with the use and context of the art object. Conceptualism was not so much a crisis in confidence over art's function as a critique of what was being represented to who and for what reasons. In essence conceptualism's break, with the self-identification of the artist with his or her object of expression, pushed art into a closer and more self-conscious relationship with power. The second-order practices of conceptualism (its commentary form on the status of images and words) introduced a new problematic; art's purchase on truth and knowledge became lodged within a pregiven field of inquiry: the mass media. Art began to put questions to the source of its own reification.

This re-ordering of the mythological has recently been firmed-up by the widespread influence of discourse theory, in particular Michel Foucault's work on the 'politics of truth'. Foucault's basic thesis - that truth is not something we attain beyond the operations of power, but is produced, reproduced and maintained through specific disciplines, institutions and practices - has had a profound effect on how photography and art see their critical responsibilities. Hence the enormous amount of recent work on sexuality and representation. The idea that power is something that oppresses malevolently from outside, that tyrannizes the mute subject, has been abandoned for an understanding of the affects and sources of power as being diverse and multivalent; power enters into lives not so much from above but through a network of relations ascending from below.

Denis Masi is an artist who has consistently examined this conjunction between conceptualism and the critique of power. In the early seventies he was producing work which was concerned either with the power-relationships within art-historical practices themselves - as in the staged photograph Tableaux Odalisque (1970), an enactment of the tyranny of the artist-model relationship - or with the general cultural status of modern art itself -as in the film Nose Wipe/Lipsmear (1971), in which Masi's own facial distortions become a kind of cultural aphasia. Both works show Masi excluded from positions of inherited authority. Since the mid-seventies Masi's field of inquiry has broadened. The need for a more flexible relationship between subject, form and audience - which this work adumbrates - finds its voice in a series of tableaux which use the dramatic manipulations of theatre to focus not only on the ubiquity of power but power's dark, other side: fear and the prospect of violence. If we can read the understanding of power in the earlier work in Foucaultesque terms at the level of models and practises, here Masi offers intimations of an 'older' conceptual framework: the autonomous individual struggling against some external source of oppression: Masi's human analogues (stuffed dogs, rats and monkeys) are at all times the subjugated species of a visible, singular force. Nonetheless it would be misleading to allocate a specific form for the source of this power (in the sense that its referent can be named: the Father, the State) rather power here is something broad, historical, technical: the growth of instrumental reason. Masi's tableaux are concerned with the forces and techniques of modern managerial and bureaucratic manipulation. Thus the idea that Masi's animals are the victims of the vivisectionist is only partly true. Masi's animals are the victims of our medico-psychiatric culture as such. In fact instrumental is a pertinent word. Masi's tableaux - Search (Rattus Invesvgatus) 1975/77, Meeting (Canus Lupis familiaris - Obscurus) 1976/78 - contain the steely implements of incision and measurement. This is a clean, epicene world, in which truth is administered through the offices of practical expertise, a world in which the powers of human self-understanding and self-determination are mere humanist residues. The most chilling of this series of tableaux, because of the most alienating in its objectification of such abstraction, is Barrier (1979) in which two rhesus monkeys, one screaming in fright, the other silently terrified, sit behind a glass partition on a crafted table. On the other side of the partition stand various cold and pure geometric solids. Here is the rule of our 'post-enlightenment' world: the split between science (its claims to represent our best interests) and every day experience, between fact and feeling, is and ought. A world in which human existence, under the dynamic of social modernisation becomes subject to a culture of autonomous specialisation.

Partition, segregation, regulation are the topological forces of this capitalist life-world: they are also the key terms of Masi's scenarios. Masi's visual language is the language of correction and surveillance; in the earlier tableaux the animals are not just placed within spaces of confinement but places where confinement is the source of disciplinary power (the gymnasium, the laboratory, the compound). But again the central ambiguity of Masi's work - "I don't want to complete the experience, I want to initiate it" - the dual function of the animals as victims and as subjects of resistance, makes the idea that these tableaux are metaphors of external control only half the story. Although these tableaux do represent the external control of bodies they are, in a more general sense domestic interiors in which humans are placed in the position of morally self-monitoring subjects. In Foucault's terminology Meeting - with its muzzled dog, spotlights, recording equipment - offers a prescient image of the immanent logic of bourgeois society. The pursuit of private interest leads to an authoritarian extinction of that very individuality which originally set this logic in motion. The subject literally becomes the muzzled but appeased guardian of this 'freedom'. For Foucault this process is now outside the laws and motions of capitalism, and thus inescapable. Whether Masi's work endorses such apocalypticism is another matter; what concerns me here is how Masi adopts this logic to his own imaginative and critical ends.