Just as the young Cy Twombly's foray into military cryptology later informed his gestural abstraction and childlike scribbles, John Bock's double degree in art and economics now seems inextricably linked to the understanding of his practice. This informed access to symbolic economies of scale, type and flow, is guided and refracted through the skewed prism of a mad professor - a cryptic academic so full of knowledge and history that any sense of metastructure breaks down, exuberantly, like the old canon to which the academy once clung. But rather than chattering through the theoretical battles that defined a rather bloodless war fought in the pages of journals and dissertations that a generation of would-be intellectuals thrilled to misunderstand, Bock's own practice moves with a frenetic energy that not only invites misunderstanding, but seems to downright encourage it. Rather than fretting the loss of meaning as the Tower of Babel comes crashing down, Bock revels in mimicking the gestures of a doomed civilization.
Untitled, 2007, 2 hair dryers, beer can with hair, tea bag, milk carton and wood, 32 x 70 x 40cm. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles
At Regen Projects (2007), four bolts inserted rudely into the wall support four coarse ropes that lead to a makeshift theater in the centre of the room, made of nylon drop cloths. Surrounding this stage are a number of Bock's trash sculptures and framed drawings torn from sketchbooks - most of them notes for performances or films - hanging from the gallery walls. Littered with hardly legible scrawled text in multiple languages, with scraps of magazines and photographs thrown into the mix of trashy and dramatic absurdity, Bock's video, drawings and sculptures delight in the playground of obsession, madness and pataphysics symptomatic of the meaninglessness that is at the centre of our culture and the organization of our knowledge. The works in the show appear as props to an absurdist play: '2 hair dryers, beer can with hair, tea bag, milk carton and wood' or the much shorter but still equally ridiculous, 'sock with eggs'. These are the types of items that usually appear in Bock's performances, improvised lectures composed from a suitcase packed full of carefully collected junk, from which he riffs into convoluted and absurd diatribes that mash the jargon of aesthetics, politics, science, economics and pop culture into a babble rife with signifiers.
The heterogeneous, non-sequitur presentation of the work gives the impression that this is simply a collected reframing of pieces brought together under one roof, offering the chance for a general assessment of Bock's varied practice. However, there is one notable addition to his oeuvre: the rather quiet drama played out in the video Frau im Hotel (2006). The strange tension underlying the video in both tone and content seems vaguely reminiscent of the interior examinations of Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape (1958); a defined aesthetic impulse emerges in this moody narrative, in which our attractive subject enacts a perilous flirtation, deciding whether or not to eat the cake or the pills.
The trivial made grand, Frau im Hotel forms the crux of this exhibition - as many of Bock's performances have done in the past. A young woman in a lace shirt (a wedding dress?) looks mournfully out of the window and then at a rather oversized, unappetizing hunk of chocolate cake. She lights a cigarette and opens the large round window next to the table at which she's sitting. She leans in close to the crevice between the window glass and the frame, blowing the smoke out in into the chilled urban air, the noise of traffic leaking into the warm ambience of the hotel room. Throughout the film, she vacillates between the chocolate cake and the cigarette, finally settling for a bottle of what appear to be diet pills that she pulls out of dresser drawer - otherwise empty except for a full pint glass of water.
The round window, as the carefully framed shots remind us, functions like a trompe l'oeil; the composition invites comparisons to both religious painting and renaissance portraiture. However, she isn't static paint on a flat surface, but a moving image going through the plaintive gestures in a performance of the trivial. After a couple of viewings, it becomes almost funny, a joke, perhaps, on Freud's little interior theatre of desire. Bock gestures towards the mythic and revels in its absence.
When I look at John Bock's work, I find myself wanting to compare his videos and performances to literature, but they careen out of any easy genre definition as he sabotages any effort at constructing a typology. He moves through the whole panoply of tactics that are at an artist's disposal, circling the void at the center of what Baudrillard defines as our simulations. Bock has often been compared to Kurt Schwitters, and, reading a line like 'Discover the Ur-sculpture' in one of his drawings, I can't help but think of Schwitters's Ur-sonata (1922-32), a musical composition of nonsensical phonemes. Bock's practice moves like a meth-addled genius poring over the 21st century - as Schwitters once pored over a bombed and burned Europe, collecting the broken, abandoned and disused for his art. But the breakdown Bock engages in is not one of destroyed master narratives during World Wars; it is one of a culture of rarefied and often misunderstood academia, of collectors and hoarders of schizo-capitalism, of the jumbled ubiquity of simulacra - what's left over after the semblance of meaning departs. Simply put, after the illusion of form disintegrates, there is no longer anything connecting all systems of signs but their own meaninglessness.
The same way Schwitters's collages document the breakdown of meaning, and Twombly's implied cryptography endlessly refers to ancient myths that are no longer present, Bock's practice performs the empty gestures of meaning with intellectual force and creative zeal, as if he knew - and no longer cared- that meaning no longer exists, and never really did. Bock seems to encourage misunderstanding because there is nothing left to be understood, apart from the dissolution of the central myth of meaning: there was never a Tower of Babel in the first place.
- Andrew Berardini