It is worth thinking about Julie Mehretu's paintings and drawings as perfect contemporary pictures - not because they necessarily are 'perfect' (whatever 'perfect' might mean), nor because Mehretu seeks such a quality (I suspect she does not), but because her achievement is predominantly celebrated on the basis of the virtuosity and thoroughness with which her pictures purportedly reflect the complexities of globalised existence.
If we take at face value the assertion that her paintings are indeed 'perfect metaphors for the increasingly interconnected and complex character of the 21st century', as Douglas Fogle described them on the occasion of her exhibition at the Walker Art Center in 2003, we can examine some of what seems to make Mehretu's work so compelling on this level of the 'perfect' metaphor (and also where this supposed perfection gives it cover).1 But perhaps more interestingly, this approach allows us to consider what our embrace of her work suggests about the state of spectatorial engagement more generally - and what we want a painting to be, or do.
If we adjudicate 'perfection' as something approaching 'completeness', Mehretu indeed seems tough to beat. The shortlist of subject matter claimed by the artist and her critics is vast: flight patterns, architecture of all varieties, city squares, airports, highways, subways, scrambled computer screens, the imagined millennium computer bug, computer games, family genealogies, armies, maps, comets, stairwells, stadiums, amphitheaters, smoke, bullets, blazes, explosions, implosions, graffiti, comics, skateboard graphics, tattoos, racing stripes, hot-rod flames, news photographs of riots and uprisings, upraised fists, the Enron scandal, the WTO, the UN, the Arab League, Civil War strategic maps and NFL game plans. Among art-historical references, we find cited Baroque engravings, Robert Motherwell, Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, Ethiopian illuminated manuscripts, German Renaissance landscape painting, Otto Wagner's drawings and Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of weather and water. The structure of Mehretu's work has called to mind swarms, crossroads, grids, nests, webs, whirlwinds, systems of motion, water currents, a tsunami, a gust of wind; the compositional energy of her work is described with a range of not-quite dialectical dynamic pairings such as ascent/descent, destruction/regeneration and deflation/conflation.
We talk regularly now of a world increasingly out of control, beyond comprehension; this is Mehretu's world. There are disasters, certainly - among them a proliferating information culture, sublime in the scale of its urgency and apparent omniscience, that reinforces a hysteric fear of being overwhelmed, overstimulated and utterly unable to maintain a grasp on our lives. Everything is happening everywhere but we're missing it because we can only be here. However, Mehretu's 'narrative maps without a specific place or location', as she terms her paintings, allow us to be nowhere and everywhere at the same time.2 She takes the position of Walter Benajmin's famous angel of history, looking at this world as an accumulating wreckage of events, its strata piled up yet transparent, a chain of events both painterly and referential that are collapsed into a single catastrophe.3 In our despair she is our angel oÃering a view that, while utterly decontextualised, feels sympathetic. Her provision of the appearance of an overwhelming amount of data from a safe distance keeps the chaos from being threatening, even at the enormous scale at which she sometimes works.
It is precisely this simultaneity of the space and events in Mehretu's pictures that makes them feel so perfectly contemporary. She produces masterful variants of what visual-information guru Edward Tufte terms 'disinformation design', embracing spatio-temporally overlapping structures that feel familiar in their confusion.4 Further, the lyrical blankness of her images, punctuated with hints and gestures towards things we think we know, allows us to effusively project content upon them, and feel like we're making sense of things. Without batting an eye we can discuss 'historical and fictional landscapes collid[ing]', or some 'topographical terrain in which mythical communities are formed, wars are won and lost, and civilisations rise and fall'.5
This currency is something that is not achieved by Matthew Ritchie's narrative cosmologies or Franz Ackermann's cartographic cartoons, to which Mehretu's pictures are sometimes compared. Nor is it attained by Terry Winter's impastoed informational structures, or Guillermo Kuitca's opera-house pictures (whose space initially appears quite similar) - though, it might be said, none stakes quite that claim. Even Benjamin Edwards, whose exploded suburbias come closest, remains, well, suburban, and too specific: his corporate logos are variously recognisable, and his space is necessarily too familiar. More so than that of her peers, Mehretu's omniscient space recalls both the temporal superimposition of Futurist painting and the Cubist spatial concurrence. Her time scale, however, is much longer than the few seconds of Giacomo Balla's dog out for a walk; her Cartesian purview goes far beyond a guitar player.6 Moreover, where Cubism provided a shifting viewpoint on one object, collapsing our movement around it into a single image, Mehretu inverts this relationship: she depicts a fractious environment swirling around a static, intact subject - her viewers, posed in the calm eye of the storm.
There is a larger point here, stemming from a portion of Cubism's internal deliberation over the significance of simultaneity, and whether it was better thought of as a qualitative representation of the psychological experience of a given object, rather than as a quantitative register of successive movement around that object. The broader framework in which this debate occurred centres on whether a painting is an end unto itself, or if it is more significant as a tool to activate the spectator. The Cubists wondered whether a picture should synthesise a concurrent deconstruction and reconstruction of its subject within the frame, or serve as a means through which to effect a reconstruction of the deconstructed subject within the viewer's mind. In short, can a painting be, or should it act?
Some of the challenges that arise in Mehretu's work are, perhaps not surprisingly, related to this conflict. The artist herself seems unresolved on this question. 'How can abstraction really articulate something that is happening?', she asked in an interview last year. 'When you make a picture of a condition, how can it make sense of that condition?'7 In an earlier interview, she seemed to see painting as a static mode of representation - a container or structure - and drawing as more active. 'Well, I really think of the drawing as growing, as behaving, as building, as acting. I don't think of the drawing as being a static representation of something.'8 But the question is, acting how, and to what end?
Writing in 1912, the French painters Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger asserted an activist motivation for Cubism, recommending that 'in order that the spectator ready to establish unity himself, may apprehend all the elements ... by creative intuition ... the plastic continuity must be broken up into a thousand surprises of light and shade.'9 It is the viewer's 'creative intuition', markedly, that puts the pieces together; the image is reconstituted finally in our minds, not on the canvas. In a different take on painterly enaction, Hubert Damisch, writing on Mondrian, escribes a kind of spectatorial activation born of the Dutch painter's iconographic impoverishment, rather than a destabilised picture plane. 'If the painter has chosen to prohibit the imaging consciousness from giving itself free rein,' Damisch states, 'it is for the purpose of awakening in the spectator the uneasiness with which the perception of a painting should be accompanied.'10
To the extent that Mehretu seeks a kind of challenging uneasiness, she seems to consider her paintings as activist models rather than means per se, using a variety of formal tools to animate the conflicting but simultaneous identities and realities that arise (as they have for her) in relation to globalisation. 'I come from two different realities and I'm trying to locate myself,' she has explained. 'That was the point of departure in all the work, trying to make sense of the version of history and reality that my whole family in Ethiopia is living in, and another one that exists here with my parents and my grandmother and yet another one that I experience.'11
There is a downside to the 'perfection' of her models, however. In so successfully reflecting these overlaid, competing and chaotic aspects of globalised contemporary culture, Mehretu's work both reinforces and suffers from the very condition she depicts. I find myself woozy in front of her paintings - unable, really, to focus on any aspect of them too closely or for long enough to get very engaged. In spite of the delicate touch of her drawn line, I don't find enough to hang on up close. Surprisingly quickly, my imagination generalises and stagnates into a kind of enforced passivity, despite all that visual information. I'd say it feels similar to how I respond to overstimulation. The result is that I feel undeservedly lazy and a bit exhausted, but not guilty for it - which is more or less how I feel every time I pass a television, newsstand or bookstore. In short, Mehretu both stimulates and simulates how I think we feel in this information-saturated, interconnected moment that is her subject. Her best paintings materialise an alternative virtual reality - of the world, surely, but also of the eÃect of this world on us, albeit exhausting or soporific. This begs the question: can we consider as 'active' a painting whose affect is overexuberant, but whose effect may be one of paralysis and stupor?
Paul Virilio - whose 'global temporal space' Bernard Tschumi describes as consisting of 'landscapes [that] become a random network of pure trajectories whose occasional collisions suggest a possible topography' - seems well suited to assess the qualities of Mehretu's milieu and in turn, her plight.12 'Today,' he wrote in 2005, 'we are prone to succumbing to the labyrinth of signs as we were once prone to succumbing in the absence of signs.'13 He describes those of us suffering from the resulting spectatorial passivity as 'optical atheists', 'those baffled beings no longer capable of taking an interest in the shape of a world that is passing faster and faster...'.14 For Virilio, the sheer quantity of information provokes a listlessness much as the lack thereof once had. 'Today we are no longer truly seers [voyants] of our world, but already merely reviewers [revoyants].'15
By way of Marcel Odenbach's video Die Distanz zwischen mir und meinen Verlusten (The Distance between Me and My Losses, 1983), which limits activity to a slit-like area in the middle of the screen, Virilio observes that anorthoscopic viewing - in which the field of vision is constrained - activates spectatorship through the manner in which our brains track the field of movement beyond what we can make out through the slit. Mehretu's formal vocabulary, in its abstraction from her source material, could be argued to provide the semiotic equivalent to Odenbach's blinkered slit. The projection of content upon this variable semiotic system discussed earlier is begged by the poverty of specific information it offers. Describing the flag-like elements in Mehretu's Congress (2003), Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson notes that they 'are interchangeable, and could function equally as logos for a sports team or as billboard advertisements'.16 We're given enough colour, shape or gesture to lead us, and we are intuitively encouraged to identify the source, to turn what Mehretu has stripped down and decontextualised back into something recognisable. In this way, perhaps, we can consider Mehretu's paintings as active in their stimulation of 'creative intuition'. The holes, however, are in what tend to be uncritically referred to as her 'personal markings', which seem to be all those elements in her lexicon that evade the demands and ambition of our creative intuition, and operate on a more generalised level, perhaps without referent. (What is remarkable is how fully critics swallow whatever is identified by artists as 'personal', perpetuating a circular system of opacity that gives the appearance of explanation in the literature around a body of paintings, but also in the works themselves. Inscrutability, not surprisingly, is much less of an issue for more 'purely' abstract painters than it is for those who openly reference informational systems.)
Importantly, it is these less specifically referential elements of Mehretu's visual language - the small drawn ink marks that she calls 'active social characters', for example - as well as those that allude to a multitude of sources, that allow her work to stand up so well in the varieties of biennials where it has been shown, adapting to a range of audiences. In Istanbul in 2003, a local visitor described to me the Mehretu painting before us, Empirical Construction, Istanbul (2004), as an illustration of the confrontation between East and West that is at the heart of Istanbul's historical identity, and the chaos of the new Turkey that is seeking a deeper economic connection with Europe. To a Paulista I spoke with at the 2004 Bienal de São Paulo, Mehretu's work reflected the modernising tensions shaping Brazil, and depicted local gang warfare and the city's bad traffic problems. The ability of her paintings to function in these rather different contexts as arbiters of globalised societal construction while concurrently seeming to illustrate local conditions mimics, in a certain way, the success of Rirkrit Tiravanija on the multinational exhibition circuit. Perhaps more than any of the other relational aestheticians championed by Nicolas Bourriaud, Tiravanija's work has been characterised by its insistence upon the visitors' active role in completing the artwork. As such, the same piece can travel to many different cities, yet become instantly personalised and localised in each venue through the participation of the indigenous audience. This malleability can be construed as one measure of a successful artwork, but its openness also limits aspects of the work's supposedly empancipatory effect. As Claire Bishop and others have noted, when openness and emancipation become enough of the focus of an artwork's construction of meaning, they ironically assume a degree of the very fascism the work purports to contest.
In her critique of Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics (1998), Bishop specifically engages the problem of art as a means or end unto itself, and the critical difficulties that attend works, including Tiravanija's, which self-identify as open-ended in their form and function. She cites Umberto Eco's The Open Work (1962), in which he states that 'the poetics of the "work in movement" (and partly that of the "open" work) ... [install] a new relationship between the contemplation and the utilization of a work of art'.17 Recalling the Cubist debate, Bishop continues, Eco 'regarded art as a reflection of the conditions of our existence in a fragmented modern culture, while Bourriaud sees the work of art producing these conditions.' Bourriaud and Bishop aside, Tiravanija seems to both reflect and produce the conditions of our fragmented, if socially more interdependent culture - though his successful reflection of that condition derives from his production of it. It's primarily a distinction of location: those of us on the outside of a given Tiravanija work are able to be (and in turn see), since we don't have to act.18
Mehretu has spoken of her desire to 'convey and reflect ...
speed, dynamism, struggle and potential'; like Tiravanija, she
attains a dual contemplative and instrumentalised identity, but in
reverse order, and to very different ends.19 The sort of
spectatorial lethargy sometimes provoked by Mehretu's dense
matrices is a direct result of the acuity of her virtuality, and
the way in which we have come, through no fault of the artist's, to
succumb to that labyrinth of signs that is her subject. But if we
find common cause with Virilio's aspirational grand politic of a
re-engaged spectatorial relationship to this overstimulating world
(which Mehretu may not), this is not a positive effect. As one more
perfectly simulates this dystopic landscape, it seems one also
risks more perfectly stimulating the languid response that it can
W. Somerset Maugham wrote, 'is a trifle dull.'20
Douglas Fogle, 'Putting the World into the World', Julie Mehretu: Drawing into Painting (exh. cat.), Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2003, p.6.↑
Julie Mehretu and Olukemi Ilesanmi, 'Looking Back: Email Interview Between Julie Mehretu and Olukemi Ilesanmi', Ibid., p.13.↑
'This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.' Walter Benjamin, 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' (1940), Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, Hannah Arendt (ed.), Harry Zohn (trans.), New York: Schoken Books, 1968, pp.257-584 .↑
See Edward R. Tufte, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, 1997, p.64 .↑
D. Fogle, op. cit., p.5.↑
Giacomo Bala, Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912) and Pablo Picasso, Guitar Player (1910), respectively.↑
Lawrence Chua, 'Julie Mehretu', Bomb Magazine, no.92, Spring 2005, pp.24-31.↑
David Binkley and Kinsey Katchka in conversation with Julie Mehretu, 28 March 2003, www.nmafa.si.edu/exhibits/passages/mehretu-conversation.html, last accessed 4 June 2006. Emphasis my own.↑
Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger, Du Cubism, Paris: E. Figuière et cie, 1912. Cited in Robert Mark Antliff, 'Bergson and Cubism: A Reassessment', Art Journal, vol.47 no.4, Winter 1988, p.345.↑
Hubert Damisch, Fenêtre jaune cadmium ou les dessous de la peinture, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1984, p.71. Cited and translated in Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990, p.248 .↑
L. Chua, op. cit.↑
Paul Virilio, A Landscape of Events, Julie Rose (trans.), Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000, p.ix.↑
Paul Virilio, Negative Horizon: An Essay in Dromoscopy, Michael Degener (trans.), New York and London: Continuum, 2005, p.37.↑
P. Virilio, A Landscape of Events, op. cit., p.39.↑
P. Virilio, Negative Horizon, op. cit., p.37.↑
Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, Julie Mehretu/MATRIX 211: Manifestation (exh. cat.), Berkeley: University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, 2004.↑
Umberto Eco, 'The Politics of the Open Work' (1962), The Open Work, Boston: Harvard University Press, 1989, pp.22-23; cited in Claire Bishop, 'Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics', October, no.110, Fall 2004, p.62.↑
While it does seem that a viewer's self-reflective capacity is diminished from 'inside' a given Tiravanija work (i.e. as participant), I do not mean to suggest that such a position necessarily precludes the possibility of seeing what the work reflects. Nevertheless, this dynamic complicates the question of 'active' versus 'passive' spectatorial conditions, since one can argue that the active participants (those 'inside' the work) are passive viewers (to the extent that they can view at all), limited by their position vis-á-vis the work itself.↑
J. Mehretu and O. Ilesanmi, op. cit., p.14. Emphasis my own.↑
W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1938, p.297.↑