Lee Lozano and The Unknown Line


Angela Garrick

Briele Hansen, Untitled (2003-07), digital projection, queen size futon bed, white sheets, 3 minutes, 2003-07. Courtesy the artist.

Briele Hansen, Untitled (2003-07), digital projection, queen size futon bed, white sheets, 3 minutes, 2003-07. Courtesy the artist.

 

The documentation of an art object, or an attempt at understanding and further representing a ‘real life’ event, is often imbued with senses of loss, confusion and ephemerality. The act of retracing can render such movements and legacies simply unknown. The encounter between object, event and spectator can be metaphorical and purely representational, the actual ‘movements’ behind the work unknown and undocumented. For the audience, this often presents a conundrum. A feeling of the subtle horror, or awkwardness, as one of knowing the unknowing. A certain uncertainty. The transience of human life initiates an existence of mysteries that remain upheld. In lives and objects in many instances, the gap is almost too wide to bear, provoking curiosity, stereotypes and derision, or what Freud labelled The Uncanny. This reflects the instability of knowledge and memory, the blurred boundaries between art and life, and the nature of the unknown having its own trajectory or parallel ‘life’.

A certain curiosity abounds as engagement with the work or event leaves many questions unanswered. This reception is almost transgressive in its nature, as a gap must be bridged and a certain belief or conviction in and around notions of truth, the unknown, mystery and authenticity must be engaged. The fact often lies that that not everything can be quite mapped or explained.

American conceptual artist Lee Lozano’s final work, Dropout Piece (begun c1970) defined her attempts to exclude herself from the art world of New York which she was accustomed—from creating physical works, engaging in social environments and public exhibition. She slowly turned her attention from painting to text works based around the imposition of physical activities to be undertaken by the artist, often increasing or decreasing the self-imposed challenges over time. The works involved practices such as smoking marijuana, masturbation and social boycotting; the artist was ‘arguably attracted by the idea that they were unsaleable and democratic’.[1] Her movements from the moment of enacting each work are somewhat unknown—the text within her notebooks and the testaments of friends and colleges the only indication of their eventuation. With Dropout Piece, Lozano’s eventual death ten years after the initiation of the work exists as her final statement, a continued lineage of the work correlating with the parameters set out at its outset—not to evolve but to devolve, to dropout or to disappear. Lozano’s movements are presumed, yet solidified by real ‘facts’ such as a movement of geographic distance (New York to Texas) and the temporal measure of ten years. The spectators’ understanding of the work must maintain a certain acceptance of the artist’s movements as unknown, the challenging nature of its lack of documentation and its complete inability to be packaged.

In her notebooks that outlined the premise of the piece she stated, ‘What I am looking for is some kind of fusion between art and life’.[2] This presents challenges to archivists, biographers, and those interested in her work as this work is undefinable, untraceable and revealed through notes alone. As noted by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, ‘Dropout Piece took her out of circulation as art-world currency’ and thus from that moment Lozano enacted Dropout Piece, she entered a world unseen—a world that the audience was unable to be follow, trace or catalogue.[3] Her work’s representation and subsequent presentation as “art” is made all the more challenging.

Evelyn Juers’s essay The Recluse documents the life of Eliza Donnithorne, a historic Sydney resident whom was the subject of much interest regarding her movements (or lack thereof). Like Lozano, Donnithorne’s existence was noted through her absence, relating a kind of dissonance into popular consciousness. Donnithorne, the daughter of British expats by way of Calcutta, inherited Camperdown House, which stands on what is now Newtown, Sydney.[4] It was rumoured that Donnithorne was the inspiration for Charles Dickens’ notorious character Miss Havisham—the image of the jilted bride, and the table still set anticipating the groom’s return haunted and dominated talk of the time.

A subject of derision, gossip and ongoing speculation through her noted absence rather than presence, her life constructed as an oxymoron to itself—a memoir, or an exploration of biography without any sense of character. Like the challenge to discern movement from Lozano’s cryptic notebooks, Juer’s challenge to find what remains from Donnithorne’s unknown life is revealed through subtle detective work—family lineage, receipts and objects left behind. Using the metaphor of a ‘cabinet of curiosities’, we see through and into Donnithorne’s life and realise that the lack of movement and the quest for documentation is something of extreme creativity, the curator or archivist’s ultimate challenge, to make something of nothing, or where there is no work to speak of. Objects begin to tell the tale as they are all we have left: life actions blurring conceptual and performance art limitations and a certain ‘surrender.’ Juers reflects ‘Reclusion resists historical recovery. As it closes the door against the world, or in some cases leaves the door enticingly unlatched, reclusion also attracts voyeurism and ignites speculation.[5]

Henri Lefebvre’s book The Missing Pieces lists creative works missing, or destroyed: ‘the Library of the Louvre, burned in 1871’ or ‘The Messenger, the first film of Sergei Bodrov, Jr., disappeared with it director and film crew in an avalanche in a valley in Caucasia’.[6] This one book amasses a such a large void, it is almost impossible to comprehend the wealth or scope of such loss. Such  cultural ‘riches’ are now almost completely imperceptible. The works are commonly unrecoverable or unable to be understood or explored in any way—they are lost. French writer and artist Edouard Levé embarked on a similar project, entitled Works, chronicling unwritten works he was yet to create. Levé died in 2008 without realising any of the projects contained within. Planned works such as The letterboxes inside an apartment building bear the names of famous dead writers and artists never eventuated.[7]The contrast here highlights historically ‘real’ cultural production destroyed, versus intended or imagined works.

Levé and Lefebvre’s conceptual underpinnings create an oeuvre of unrealised and destroyed projects.  Compared to these lost or speculative works there is a ‘realness’ to Dropout Piece that enhances its meaning and reception. The difference with Lozano is that her project was enacted, but the details as to what it contains are subject to speculation. Despite the differences apparent, there is a sublime depth to what is lost. Dropout Piece explores notions of mystery, coercion and struggle in the documentation and action of movement within structures of art. Boundaries between motion and stillness and life and art are blurred.

Looking to an Antipodean landscape, Harold Holt and the Sommerton Man weave in and out of popular consciousness. A prime minister: vanishing while in office, the other an unknown corpse: unidentifiable with an unknown origin. Natalie Wood, whose skeleton was found in July 2011 inside a derelict house in Surry Hills. The coroner estimated that she had laid there for up to 8 years. ‘That the death of a life long resident of a high density housing area should remain undiscovered until after all the flesh had rotted from her frail bones caused public disquiet’.[8] The death, like Lozano’s, marked a discovery and instantly raised questions about the unknown, untraced, and most of all, unnoticed. Legacies of mystery and loss that envelope a continent and artists attempt to bridge a gap between the unspeakable, the unhinged and the unknowable.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) by Peter Weir, a cinematic presentation of a group disappearance, is framed by the Australian bush—oppressive, unknown, expansive and vast beyond belief. Metaphors are made of the mountains, boulders and trees, the silence of nature reflecting the inability to understand the chain of events that pass. The lack of explanation or resolution is astute in its elegance: a quest to map the un-mappable. Implication and memory are intangible and we mirror this experience onto our own. The sublime nature evident in the film, idyllic yet mostly devoid of habitation.

Legacies of Lozano continue in the work of artist Kate McMillan, who explores similar imagery and content within her screen-based installation The moment of Disappearance (2014). The work is composed of five interlinking films that narrate a ‘ descent into madness as the past erupts from three island sites around the world combined with particular geographic sites including Pontikinisi, Greece, Wadjemup (Rottnest Island), Western Australia, and Port Arthur, Tasmania—islands subject to colonisation and banishment.[9]The correlation of the public and the personal presents fascinating intonations of collective historical memory. There is a duality that lies behind every landscape, and in this work it is paralleled with a sense of loss and the silence of an aftermath. The inability to map historical movements and the personal nature of memory presents unanswered challenges within looking at site as a metaphor.

 

Briele Hansen, Untitled (2003-07), digital projection, queen size futon bed, white sheets, 3 minutes, 2003-07. Courtesy the artist.

Briele Hansen, Untitled (2003-07), digital projection, queen size futon bed, white sheets, 3 minutes, 2003-07. Courtesy the artist.

 

Briele Hansen’s video installations confront loss and memory. There is a supreme transience and ephemerality to her work. Her installation Untitled (2003-2007) presents a double bed, seemingly silent and still. Over time a projection presents the figure of a body moving slowly across its surface in some kind of sleep or rest. There is a subtle indication of movement, although there is nothing there. The familiar subject of the bed and the undoubtedly human figure that almost ‘haunts’ it surface is unnerving as it presents movement as a hoax. The movement is implied, and it isn’t really ‘there’. Despite the familiarity of the subject, the idea of intimacy presented in a public forum is unsettling. The figure is completely imperceptible through its strangeness and the sensation of implied movement. The ability for works like McMillan’s to trigger memories, movements and emotional responses is presented here as a ghostly reminder of mortality, intimacy and closeness. The absence of a longterm lover, the sleeplessness of worry, the memories of the day that haunt us in dreams.

 

Briele Hansen, Untitled (2003-07), digital projection, queen size futon bed, white sheets, 3 minutes, 2003-07. Courtesy the artist.

Briele Hansen, Untitled (2003-07), digital projection, queen size futon bed, white sheets, 3 minutes, 2003-07. Courtesy the artist.

 

Andrew Cowen’s Photographic study Adelaide 1966-1999 examines a presentation of place akin to McMillan’s. However his subjects, notably Swamp Road, Near Truro, and Airstrip Road, Kersbrook initially present a scenario that at the outset presents a scene of the everyday, or banal. On a deeper consideration, the sites presented in this work are all locations of crimes occurred throughout South Australia. The realisation of this history is highly unnerving. Alongside the criteria laid out by Lozano’s notebooks, the photograph is presented as a ‘map of the territory’, a simple presentation of a complex set of events that we, the audience, cannot perceive at all. As the artist states, ‘There is a palpable sense of danger on Adelaide’s empty suburban streets. This has been the dominant enduring feeling about the city and seems to lurk, not just in the back of my mind but in the minds of a generation of people who grew up in Adelaide at the same time as me‘.[10]

In a contemporary context preoccupied with documentation and the archive, it is of interest to examine works that cannot provide a kind of background that our curiosity requires. The movements, unknown, like traces, instigate our own imagination and create a landscape that cannot be quite invigorated or described. Lozano’s movements within and without Dropout Piece will never be able to be quite measured. The work exists within the realm of speculation.

Our own memories fade going in and out of life, and art, and into other realms of being and concerning the mystery of our own existence. Therein lies a cultural importance within the symbolism of a figure lost, as there is a sublime depth to what is missing. These art encounters present many issues of derision and of witness responsibility, curiosity and community. The quest of documenting such challenging movements, or categorising within frames of art or life weave in and out and around. The contradiction of an information filled world has perhaps generated a resurgence and interest in what may never be recovered.

 


[1]Smith, Roberta Lee Lozano, 68, Conceptual Artist Who Boycotted Women for Years, http://www.nytimes.com/1999/10/18/arts/lee-lozano-68-conceptual-artist-who-boycotted-women-for-years.html (Accessed July 5, 2015).

[2] Lehrer-Graiwer, Sarah Dropout Piece, (London: Afterall Books, 2014), 32.

[3] Ibid, 53.

[4] Juers, Evelyn, The Recluse, (Sydney: Giramondo Publishing, 2012), 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lefebvre, Henri, The Missing Pieces, (Semiotext(e),) (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), 53.

[7] Leve, Edouard Works, (London: Dalkey Archive Press, 2014), 93.

[8] Barnes, Michael, 2014, Findings of Inquest into the Death of Natalie Wood, State Coroners Court of New South Wales, 1.

[9] McMillan, Kate Current Projects, http://www.katemcmillan.net/CURRENT+PROJECTS/ (Accessed July 5, 2015).

[10] Cowen, Andrew Adelaide 1966-1999, http://timemachinemag.com/past-issues/issue-five-elegy-2/andrew-cowen/#1 (Accessed July 5, 2015).

Angela Garrick is a Sydney based artist, writer and musician. She has worked on art projects with MCA Art Bar, Laneway Festival, Bondi Pavilion among...


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