The Process of Finding

The very concept of finding requires that something must at first be lost, left behind or forgotten, temporarily elsewhere until it is once again called into the spotlight in the excitement of its having been found.

A second-hand bookstore is a temporal holding space, a halfway house for words waiting to complete their promised transaction from person to person. A bookstore like this one is a magical elsewhere for ideas, until they are rediscovered and passed on once again.

The road to rediscovery is often serendipitous, a consequence of a strange journey that leads from this to that. Surrendering to the search means opening up to possibility of the unexpected.

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When I first stepped into the Hard to Find bookshop a couple of months ago, I was inspired. Here was a bookstore with all the whimsical charm you could dream of: the shelves a winding maze of cramped passages through the main area, stairs with the slightly too tall steps leading up to the mezzanine where the books reach up to meet the now dangerously low ceiling. The stairwell to the upstairs is lined with rose pattern wallpaper cracked to show the hessian layer beneath and undulating loosely across the walls distorting the proportions of the hallway. The walls of the front rooms over-looking the street carry the bleeding brown of past water damage.

shop 1

Everywhere books, books, books, cramming the shelves, windowsills, on mantelpieces, on each step of the main staircase, piled on the floor two deep in places, knee high in others. And on the rare wall spaces, and in between shelves, on the end of shelves, on the banisters, the railing, the poles holding up the mezzanine, and even in places on the roof the crazy ephemera… bookmarks, cuttings, photos, postcards, photocopies, handwritten instructions on scraps of paper, and art.

It looked for all the world like a scene from a book. The kind of place you would knit together in your imagination, but never actually see in real life. I went home and dreamed about it, and became obsessed with the notion of holding an exhibition in that unlikely place.

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that the shop itself was a work of art, but how could I get people to reconsider it in this light given that they were more likely to take it for granted as a shop? The exhibition needed to include works of art that were inspired by books, research and storytelling. Rose and Alexa (whose work holds parallel themes to my own) were on board as soon as I described my ideas. We didn’t know if it would work, if we could pull it all off, but we thought it would at least be a very interesting experiment.

shop 3

At first I thought that the artwork would operate as a MacGuffin, (to steal some film lingo) that is, an interchangeable plot device around which the action revolves; in this case the thing that the viewer must look for, which in the process renders the shop visible as an artwork. In order to find something one must search, and in that search be exposed to many more unexpected findings along the way… this the experience that The process of finding attempts to illustrate. Trying to find the artwork in the bookstore would mean coming across and examining other works of art or ephemera, or being disrupted by book titles: a personalised journey of discovery.

It is the role of the artist (through the artwork) is to ask the viewer to look at something in a different way. During the exhibition, we hoped the uncertainty created by the layering of artefacts would encourage the viewers ask themselves “is this the art?” and to perhaps conclude (regardless of what they are looking at) that it is. The artwork is the exhibition. The artwork is the participating viewers’ own experience.

On the other hand it might seem strange to suggest that sixteen artworks are just an elaborate artifice to make the viewer look. I’m not suggesting that the individual works should be dismissed as meaningless, and here the MacGuffin analogy falls apart because actually there are at least two possible levels of engagement in the exhibition:

Firstly, in the search for the artwork the viewer is required to look closely at the shop in order not to miss anything, and in the process makes their own discoveries within the shop.

shop 2

Secondly, the artwork itself reflects the idea of finding. Whether it was, for example, Alexa’s found and photographed text, Rose’s found DVD collection that also evoked lost motivation, or my accidental watercolour created by water damage to a book, they are all about discovery. These works are evidence of the artists’ own search and the exciting moment of encounter which is paralleled during the exhibition by the audience looking for the work.

The preview night was a pretty strange experience, but one in which viewers for the most part took child-like glee in, clutching the artwork list like a treasure map, some even doggedly checking off the artworks one by one determined to trace them all. There was even an unanticipated level of collaboration between viewers, as they asked each other for help or gave directions, and jubilation when a new work was found. One of my friends commented that it created camaraderie between people who might not otherwise have talked to each other. And many people returned home with their own discoveries in the form of books.

I went back again this weekend, during regular hours, a guide to my family who couldn’t make the preview night. The atmosphere had returned to that of a slightly irregular bookstore, and the artworks were swallowed up within, absorbed into the identity of the shop, disrupted only with a couple of kids running around (to the tolerant bemusement of the patrons) yelling: “Aunty! I found another one!”

Truthiness

Although not yet in dictionaries, the word ‘truthiness’ is already commonly used by many English speakers.  It was first coined by popular American comedian Stephen Colbert on 17 October 2005 during his TV programme The Colbert Report as a means of describing the rhetoric of right-wing political figures who, he implied, repeatedly assert claims without regard for evidence, logic or facts.  As Colbert explained, ‘truthiness is what you want the facts to be, as opposed to what the facts are’. Colbert’s continued use of the terms is made all the funnier by his own truthiness; he is, after all, a liberal satirist pretending to be a conservative pundit.  Truthiness therefore turns out to be a serious kind of joke, a joke about truth and falsehood that is itself a lie, a lie one tells in order to reveal a greater truth that lies beneath it.

(Batchen, 2013, p. 3).

Doing without drawing, then.  Yet drawing always returns.  Does one ever give it up? Does one ever get over drawing, is one ever done mourning it?  (Derrida, 1993, p. 39)

The copy and authenticity

Integral to the notion of the copy are concerns about authenticity. There are fine lines in the understanding between homage and plagiarism. When does illusion (or allusion even) become deception? Copies call up the notion of ‘originality,’ which has always been a tricky debate in the art world especially since the idea of appropriation has long been legitimised (if not always wholly agreed on).

Anthony Downey’s chapter in the book Art and Authenticity (2012) discusses recently deceased artist Elaine Sturtevant (1924 – 2014), who recreated artworks by such well-known figures as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Marcel Duchamp among others. Sturtevant’s work has been highly controversial and often misunderstood. She is widely thought of as being a progenitor of appropriation art, but this was a term she herself detested preferring instead to call her works ‘repetitions’. To society what Sturtevant was doing seemed like forgery, but in fact her works were never meant to pass for the originals and were “deliberately inexact” (Fox, 2014). Sturtevant reproduced the images from memory, and titled them with the original artist’s name and title, the act of signing them herself also rendered them useless as fakes; there was no subterfuge beyond the initial jolt of (mis)recognition.

Sturtevant Warhol

Elaine Sturtevant, 2004, Warhol black Marilyn. [Silksceen and acrylic on canvas, 350 x 400mm] Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London, England.

In Hillel Schwartz’s 1994 book The culture of the copy: Striking likenesses, unreasonable facsimiles he posits that a copy can be created as a re-enactment or as an appropriation: defining these as when a copy is created stroke by stroke versus when it is re created in entirety, such as when it is photographed or photocopied (p.223). Sturtevant’s art was produced as a re-enactment. But in the re-enactment a subtle transformation in meaning occurs: “This is not so much about producing objects as it is about understanding how they circulate and come into being as objects; or, more specifically, how they are produced, received and understood as art” (Downey, 2012, p. 102). The image itself was trivial compared to the true meaning of the work, which was its conceptual concerns, the questions she had: What makes an artwork? What is truth? Authenticity? Originality? Authorship? When copying someone like Warhol, what did it mean that her work was in fact a copy of a copy?

Repetition was Sturtevant’s way of thinking. The slippage in the work is not only in the inexact copy, but also in the meaning. “My work is the immediacy of the apparent content being denied” (Downey, 2012, p. 105). When Sturtevant produces her copy she is not only creating meaning (her true artwork is the thinking), but she is inevitably challenging, and perhaps irrevocably changing the perception of the meaning of the original work.

This is what copying does: it alters.

What sets apart a copy is not its similarities but its differences. Where better to examine difference than with trompe l’oeil (translated as ‘fool the eye’) as covered by Jonathan Clancy’s chapter in Art and Authenticity (2012) which analyses nineteenth century American painters William Michael Harnett (1848 – 1892) and John Haberle (1856 – 1933) whose paintings of American currency excited a debate about the possibility of counterfeiting, as well as questions around what constituted art.

Clancy explains how these paintings were linked to deception: whether it was the object itself (one critic insisted this was real currency simply given a thin top coat of paint to appear as though it were a painting), or the idea that such convincing likenesses could encourage forged bank notes. Viewers often dislike feeling fooled, however the true success of trompe l’oeil depends on the revelation of the deception, so its trickery must necessarily be short lived. Clancy describes it as a three-part behaviour on the part of the viewer:

First, one must believe (even if fleetingly) that the image is real. Second, there must be a moment of revelation, typically in which the viewer must disengage from the illusion, come to one’s senses and realise the illusion. Third, the viewer must navigate the tensions that exists in the fine line that separates the real from the represented, which ultimately leads to a heightened awareness of the artists ability.” (Clancy, 2012, p. 156)

So the copy in this instance serves to question the real versus the representational. For the viewer it means an adjustment to the initial deception: the viewer must pass from being fooled by it, to being complicit in it. Ironically, the triumph of trompe l’oeil is in the failure of the trick, but only after its initial momentary success. “It must simultaneously fool viewers while reminding them they are being fooled” (Clancy, 2012, p. 157).

John Haberle

John Haberle, c. 1889, U.S.A [Oil on Canvas, 216 x 305mm] Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN.

Ultimately, these works brought up questions of whether this was art or mechanical skill (Clancy, 2012, p. 158). There was an interesting twinning in the idea of value, through the debate about paper currency as a representation of wealth, and whether to value these painstakingly detailed images as artworks and their creators as artists. Habberle himself played on this debate by including a clipping of a critique of his painting Imitation (1887), calling it a clever artistic mechanism, in a number of his subsequent paintings. The idea of a clever copy being equated to “mechanical skill” is an interesting one that somewhat denies the authorship of the painter by comparing their skill to that of a machine. Does this mean that a copy that is too close is no longer art?

Schwartz suggests that copying underwrites everything that we do, right down to the biology of how we are created, and further to language as the reproduction of particular sounds, and how culture is propagated and passed on. Perhaps it could be said that it is in our DNA to copy. But inherent in all forms of copying is slippage: “Copying is ultimately imperfect, our errors eventually our heirs” (Schwartz, 1996, p. 212). Can two things ever be perfectly alike?

Extinction (disappearance) threatens anything that is one of a kind, and our panic at the risk of losing things propels us towards copies (think replicas of artifacts shown in museums, notarised copies of original documents, prints of original artworks, photographs of precious memories). To copy is to keep. Conversely: “An object uncopied is under perpetual siege, valued less for itself than for the struggle to prevent its being copied” (Schwartz, 1996, p. 212). Copying could be seen, paradoxically, to both dilute the original AND preserve it. A copy is a powerful thing, because it unsettles meaning, it threatens and protects the original in equal measures. The existence of a copy draws attention to the original, but it also opens up questions in our understanding of value and representation.

The easiest mistake to make with the copy is to see it as an inferior substitute for the original, or to assume that its purpose is to somehow be or replace the original. Repetition is not backward looking but a linear and resolute marching into the future. Copying is not a perfect art; it doesn’t pretend to be. The beauty in a copy is not that it is mistaken for the original, but that it refers to it while becoming something else.