If I didn't need
to do anything,
Would I oscillate
or three dimensions?
Would I summon
and change chirality
-"Chirality," Rae Armantrout
Have you ever been to an art fair? Perhaps your body has, but it’s sometimes difficult to ascertain whether or not your brain tagged along for the trip. From the depths of a new tent or old warehouse boomed cacophony’s adante, you remember, amplified by the kind of blaring color and insidious branding that inspired eyerolls in even its slickest, long-grizzled participants. You were told art lived on floating, perpendicular walls that boxed each other like bad Tetris, but most of those objects fit the contours of corporate clauses, instead, and the thick expectation for artists to fetishize their own marginalia felt... noisy. Noisy like guilt, noisy like Times Square, noisy like the alt-right meme content on your uncle’s Facebook timeline. If Sontag is right, and “art is not consciousness per se, but rather its antidote—evolved from within consciousness itself,” creativity requires mystic, charged compression to thrive, a rhetorical vacuum where time can fold in and away from itself in equal measure. This compression generates a new, almost spiritual transcendence beyond the realm of embodied thought... so what becomes of the artistic need for silence in reaction culture? What are the political implications of stillness, and how do those transmit alongside increasingly tokenistic optics in a neoliberal economic model?
In her book, Disquieting: Essays on Silence, poet Cynthia Cruz ruminates on a praxis of refusal in this too-loud world, wielding her tandem histories of displacement, selective mutism, and anorexia as metaphors for “living inside the question,” for walking the tightrope between cultural withdrawal and ideological performance. “In thinking about silence,” she reflects, "in the many forms and iterations of silence... the space between in which what cannot be said remains I have wondered why we so often insist on one or the other—yes or no—on alliances, on determinations, and why we become uncomfortable in the not-knowing. This insistence on knowing has traces of fascism in it—the inclination to align or avow rather than to stay in the question, rather than to step back and wonder.”
Her tonic for the malaise endemic to late capitalist hyper-consumption starts with the possibility for pause; one is reminded of Bartelby the Scrivener’s firm but polite insistence on non-productivity in the workplace, or comedian Maria Bamford’s quick rebuttal to the Damoclean “what’s next?” question that defines entertainment networking in L.A.: “I’m done.” If art is the antidote to consciousness, then so much of its current landscape suffers from a glut of presence—uber-consciousness, or, if you’ll pardon the pun, Uber-consciousness, contractual, commodified, dispatched at the behest of the convenience economy’s millennial precarity.
Popular pushback to the algorithmic age is already under way, albeit free from much authentically liberatory radicalism—Marie Kondo encourages us to clean our closets through trickle-down mindfulness, for instance; artist Jenny Odell posits place as the solution to the decontextualization of a digitized existence via book tour, and Swedish researcher Carl Cedestrom insists that the Western myth of individualistic happiness has contributed to rising conservatism and economic inequality. You can’t swing an Instagram-famous cat without hitting a tiny house testimonial, as it were. But as we mine the wreckage of neoliberalism’s malfeasance for something whole to hold, it’s impossible to separate the patina of representation from corporate self-actualization modalities. Institutional critique has been absorbed into the major language of the market under the guise of inclusion, and its casualties are invariably artists of whom the greatest personal and creative risks are required. Queer, trans, black, disabled, and non-Western artists must routinely put their identities on the line for the sake of white consumption, and the price paid for non-participation in their own tokenism is staggering. It’s an activistic catch-22: to launch a statement through refusal is to be robbed of the platform that renders that refusal political. Professional pontificatory nihilist Anna Khachiyan put it well in a piece for SF MoMA’s Open Space blog last March: “...As long as art remains a prestige economy of the free market —a glitzy barnacle on the side of global finance—it cannot be an effective tool for political change”.
The alternative to further aestheticizing dissent might very well be the refutation of change as a paradigmatic necessity. Back to Sontag for a second. “...By silence,” she continues, "[the artist] frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.” Freedom isn’t a function of narcissistic bliss-chasing or concerted political antagonism, then, but instead a sublimation of the self through practice language, a phenomenon author Adrienne Maree Brown describes in her new book Pleasure Activism. When speaking to her younger self, she tomes, “It will take years, two decades, for you to become sober, to learn to meditate, to be able to just be. Alone. With yourself. To cross the threshold from loneliness to solitude... To learn there is a difference between hedonism that enables dissociation and disconnection versus joy and pleasure that enables... intimacy.” Brown’s reframing of pleasure as a grounding method rather than an escapist indulgence can help us unlock silence’s import in the contemporary art world. A caesura contains multitudes while rejecting signification, effectively up-ending the object-subject dichotomy of viewership without giving into its bromidic toxicity. Plus, as John Cage pointed out, “there’s no such thing as silence... If you stop the sound from coming from the inside, then what you hear is the sounds that are coming from the inside.”
Here are five artists whose work says ‘no’ to outside noise.
In a moving essay for April’s issue of e-flux, NYU professor Noel Anderson posits the performative act of “darkness-in-darkness” explored in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as the philosophical key to David Hammons’ oeuvre. “The double performative of advance and retreat... demands we investigate the promise of black peoples withdrawing into a hole into obscurity, invisibility, non-being—as a necessary point on the continuum of black resistance.” The evasion of capture sits at the foundation of emancipatory diasporic dialectics, and it is this denial of viewer expectation that enlivens materialist withdrawal en route to a larger, uncomfortable commentary on class and upward mobility. Nowhere is this tension sharper than in his 2014 piece Untitled, which consists of sheet-rock nailed to a tall, cheap mirror. The body evoked, but not admitted, a long-entrenched historical condition of black experience in America. Hammons’ low-brow materials juxtaposed with his elegant gestural intervention deny the viewer any opportunity to center his or her gaze, igniting quiet, immersive cogitation on white flight, the black middle class, and the potential for real reflection under the tyranny of animistic objects.
Piper’s solo retrospective at MoMA last year displayed the bristling brilliance of a artist-philosopher allergic to external definition. Spanning every imaginable medium from video to her iconically pithy business cards, Piper mapped the ontological outskirts of visual communication over the last fifty years in the largest exhibition on record for a living artist, but never actually attended “A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016.” In fact, she hasn’t set foot in America since 2006. She “retired from being black” in 2012, and stopped talking to the press about her work in 2015. Notably, she has not allowed her work to be exhibited in all-black shows since the year 2000, since she considers themed shows another means of “ghettoizing” disenfranchised voices. Piper also hasn’t had sex, eaten meat, or touched liquor since 1985. In an email exchange with Thomas Chatterton Williams for a New York Times Magazine profile in 2018, Piper clarified what she was up to during the opening. “I did make myself dinner, but then went back to work on [my sculptural installation]. This felt like the best way to ward off a really bad attack of regret, longing and self-pity for not being able to be present at the most important event that will ever happen to me. I kept reminding myself that this was the price of the choices I had made, and that I stood by those choices.” Whether cynical, innocent, or reflexive, Piper’s life and work bypasses generosity to arrive at total osmosis, highlighting the absurdly porous nature of racial, sexual, and cultural categorization.
Vo’s 2018 Guggenheim survey, entitled Take My Breath Away, marked one of the best ever utilizations of the museum’s unique space; his deployment of found-object gesture through historical artifacts imbues his precise, relational tableaus with a minimalist attitude, one that courts silence as its substrate. As viewers circled upwards through the Guggenheim’s coffee-cup architecture, Vo’s quietly gutting poems against colonialism began to cohere into similarly circuitous narrative, one that underscored the stark inevitability of American miltaristic residue. Vo’s engagement with the geopolitical tectonics of the Vietnam War doesn’t focus on personal anecdote or the pornography of trauma; instead, he refashions Kennedy and Kissinger ephemera as reliquaries to destruction. Negative space feels charged with death; stillness belies harbingers of carnage to come.
Berlin-based installation artist Eichhorn has long made it her mission to pull back the curtain on the complex networks of labor required to keep institutions afloat. While her practice manifests in a wide variety of genres and media, she is best known for projects that challenge public perception of seamless staging or invisible production. In 2016, her solo undertaking for Chisenhale Gallery, entitled "5 weeks, 25 days, 175 hours," required gallery staff to take a paid leave of absence for the duration of the exhibition. The gallery was closed, locked, and inaccessible to public view. The show’s opening consisted of a symposium on art world labor conditions, effectively outlining the artist’s post-Marxist raison d’etre. This conceptual mediation spoke directly to the legal, social and financial mechanics of leisure capital, asking the simple question, “what is work, and is it inherently arbitrary?”.
The portmanteau “hauntology” was coined in 1993 by philosopher Jacques Derrida to describe the disjunctive moment in which apparent presence is replaced by deferred non-origin, a specter that is “neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive,” an “always-already” condition of language tethered to historical chronology. Later, critic Mark Fisher used the term to describe art that trafficked in a nostalgia for a future lost to environmental apocalypse or economic disaster. When approaching Shahryar Nashat’s current exhibition at the Swiss Institute, the vocabulary of haunting seems appropriate; these works nod in the direction of lexical antecedent but shirk its mantle, simultaneously conjuring thematic habitation without claiming responsibility. The results are unsettling. A body was here, a body might still be, and symptoms of modification abound, but the silence in which these synthetic sculptures reside takes on its own impermeable plasticity, leveraging inscrutability as its stake in identity preservation.