23 April 2009
'Coked Up in the Club' (The New Fragrance for Men and Women)
"Once I had seen the photograph of [Tony Oursler's] The Influence Machine, and started to think about the way it spoke to our present utopia of information, I could not stop coming up with points of comparison for it from the art of the last 150 years. I thought of the end of modernism in the late 1960s, and of steam, in Robert Morris, as the figure of that ending. I read Morris's steam piece as essentially a literalization of the previous century's pursuit of abstraction, reduction, and dematerialization – its wish to give art over to the moment, the event, to pure contingency. I had my doubts about what Morris's literalization of these impulses did – whether to literalize them was to banalize them – but at least I understood, or thought I understood, where Morris was coming from. And I knew he knew he was at the end of something, so maybe even the banality of the metaphor was deliberate – it showed us what modernism amounted to by 1968. This still left me with the problem of what Oursler achieved by giving Morris's steam a face. That is, by projecting onto modernism's emptying and dispersal enough of an apparition, a suffering subject, a stream of words.
"Then, of course, I began to realize that steam, in the art of the last two centuries, was never unequivocally a figure of emptying and evanescence. It was always also an image of power. Steam could be harnessed; steam could be compressed. Steam was what initially made the machine world possible. It was the middle term in mankind's great reconstruction of Nature. Rain, Steam, and Speed. The speed that followed from compression turns the world into one great vortex in the Turner, one devouring spectral eye, where rain, sun, cloud, and river are seen, from the compartment window, as they have never been seen before. Steam is power and possibility, then; but also, very soon, it is antiquated – it is a figure of nostalgia, for a future, or a sense of futurity, that the modern age had at the beginning but could never make come to pass. Hence the trails or puffs of steam always on the horizon of de Chirico's dreamscapes. A train races by across the Imperial desert. It looks as though the Banana Republic is producing the requisite goods. Or are we already belated visitors here, tourists, gawping at ruins half-overtaken by the sand? Is modernity spreading and multiplying still to the ends of the earth – setting up its statues and smokestacks, having its great city perspectives march off into the distance as far as the eye can see? Or is this a retrospect, a collection of fragments? A cloud of steam in de Chirico is often glimpsed between the columns of an empty arcade. Once upon a time the arches led to the station, and people hurried to catch the express. Not anymore. Once upon a time people gloried in the vastness of the new perspectives, and built themselves dream-houses devoted to the worship of cog wheels and tensile strength. But modernity was always haunted by the idea that this moment of dreaming, of infinite possibility, was over."
– TJ Clark Modernism, Postmodernism, and Steam