Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 1, 2018
Anna Dezeuze Almost Nothing: Observations on Precarious Practices in Contemporary Art Rethinking Art's Histories. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017. 344 pp.; 72 b/w ills. Paperback €19.99 (9781526112903)
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Anna Dezeuze’s ambitious book Almost Nothing: Observations on Precarious Practices in Contemporary Art establishes a lineage for work from the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s that engages with the issue of precariousness. Dezeuze compellingly argues that, beginning in the late 1950s, artists began to mine a conceptually fertile vein of lived experiences at the margins—whether actual or assumed. She understands the term “precarious” as established by the artist Thomas Hirschhorn—whose works of the 1990s and the following decade are considered in the book’s introduction and later chapters—as having to do with human actions and decisions and thus vulnerable to the will or decisions of others.

The term thus defines a temporary state of existence, always under threat of being revoked. Consequently Dezeuze is interested in materials, states, and actions that nearly evade recognition—for example, daily activities, banal objects and situations, even rubbish—demonstrating that sometimes the precarious disappears completely. As such she questions, along with the artists who serve as her case studies, the emergence, maintenance, and disappearance of human constructions and endeavors. Given that the precarious is exposed to risk and thus liable to fail, Dezeuze queries the very ways in which we establish “success” or “failure.”

Dezeuze’s study begins with the assemblage-based practices of artists in the 1950s, especially those of West Coast figures like Bruce Connor, whom she compares with better-known East Coast artists like Robert Rauschenberg. She juxtaposes, for example, the ways in which “junk” objects that appear in Conner’s works become deformed beyond recognition, while those in Rauschenberg’s remain legible, if recoded. In this she follows William Seitz’s characterization of assemblage (in the catalogue for his seminal 1961 exhibition Art of Assemblage at the Museum of Modern Art, New York) as a set of ideas and attitudes rather than a clearly defined style or movement.

This is an effective way for Dezeuze to focus the conversation on specific historical moments and events, which are made complex and nuanced for the reader through her consideration of archival documents that reveal the rich discourse around these practices at the moment of their emergence. It is a methodology that grounds the author’s arguments, and I would have liked to see it utilized more often in the book’s other chapters, where she makes much less recourse to historical documents in favor of statements by artists and the writings of theorists and philosophers—which Dezeuze often simply cites as statements of fact to shore up or stage her arguments, without adequately extrapolating from or contextualizing them.

Dezeuze relates the use of detritus by artists like Connor to the ever accelerating cycle of consumption and obsolescence encouraged by the late capitalist society that emerged in the West after World War II, and whose effects were documented and analyzed by Hannah Arendt in her 1958 book The Human Condition. Arendt is a touchstone for Dezeuze. Arendt’s writing serves the author doubly—as both a document written in response to the same historical pressures that Dezeuze sees as leading certain artists to explore precarious practices, and also for how it recasts the much-maligned project of post-Enlightenment humanism. Arendt argues that we should not so much attempt to overcome the human condition as focus on working through it by embracing its everyday manifestations as work and action. She thus insists on an attempt to reconnect with biological and other natural cycles from which we have become alienated in modern times as work is replaced by labor, through which consumption­—its principle outcome—is made possible.

The second chapter of Almost Nothing was the most revelatory for this reviewer because it effectively positions artists like George Brecht and Allan Kaprow in advance of, and then alongside, the so-called “dematerialized” practices of Conceptual art that would take hold later in the decade. Dezeuze also locates this work together with a set of international tendencies, primarily the globally oriented Signals gallery in London, and the Latin American artists Mira Schendel, Lygia Clark, and Hélio Oiticica, all of whom exhibited at Signals and contributed texts to its journal. Dezeuze shows, for example, how Clark and Oiticica moved over the course of the 1960s from ephemeral works to precarious ones that reflected the place of the spectator in a world of things and in society. While touching on race, gender, sexuality, and nationality, this chapter, however, misses the opportunity to reflect more deeply on how those issues played into the development of these particular precarious artworks. For example, the fact that David Medalla (who co-ran Signals) is a gay Filipino artist living in London undoubtedly affected his engagement with precariousness in his art, and his embrace of the issue in the programming of Signals and its journal.

The third chapter finds Dezeuze expanding on the notion—introduced in the first chapter—of the Beat and bohemian revolt against the 1950s “corporation man” through the precarious figure of the “good-for-nothing” who was willfully itinerant, unemployed, and not engaged in any sort of meaningful productivity. He (this figure is almost always male) is thus for Dezeuze pitted against the values associated with capitalism, which she has already posed as increasingly constricting and controlling of every facet of life. This is most evident with Robert Filliou, the French Fluxus artist, who sought to live poetically rather than productively. Kaprow returns in this chapter as well, through his emphasis on “useless” work, such as washing cars, building mountains of ice, and a wall whose bricks were pieced together with bread and jam. Here the notion that the subject can him- or herself be precarious emerges more forcefully, especially in the case of the vagrant, whom Dezeuze paints as the most radical dropout, with no place in capitalist society since he does not possess any capital and is thus essentially disposable. This case extends by inference to the marginal spaces that such figures inhabit.

While generally convincing, underneath this sketch there is the problematic suggestion that late capitalism has foreclosed some sort of ideal existence that presumably was possible before capitalism eradicated it. This is imagined, pace Arendt, as a space where people were in touch with natural cycles and involved in working to make useful goods from which they directly profited, and that they perhaps even used themselves. An example would be the bodily subconscious that Lygia Clark wanted her viewer to re-experience. Such a utopian vision seems highly fantastical, and of course never truly existed at any point in history, and thus cannot be reconnected with.

By often uncritically following her artists to the letter, Dezeuze risks making missteps similar to those that they made intellectually, and also ignoring the radicality of work like Clark’s that exceeds the artist’s own understanding of it. It is this sort of pitfall that leads Dezeuze to repeatedly make characteristically grand, ultimately indefensible claims such as “the good-for-nothing not only resisted an alienating field of productivity and work: he or she also tried to check the advances of these alienating forces into the field of leisure, by transforming this free time into a space of action and creation rather than consumption” (160). It seems too big a step to argue that such supposedly nonproductive figures were nonetheless in fact covertly highly productive and even tactical on a political and theoretical level.

This extends to the picture Dezeuze paints of capitalism, which is treated in an almost anthropomorphic way, as the force against which the artists did battle. Capitalism is posited as monolithic, overpowering. Certainly many readers will likely be sympathetic to such a characterization, and yet this characterization is so unspecific, undeveloped, and ahistorical, despite the nods to history, that Dezeuze’s analysis of the artists she considers cannot gain much traction against capitalism given her all-consuming picture of it.

After concluding her study of the 1960s, Dezeuze inexplicably jumps to the early 1990s, ignoring, in my opinion, a whole set of compelling precarious artistic practices that emerged in the politically and economically fraught decade of the 1970s—such as the nomadic activations of André Cadere and Stanley Brouwn. In the book’s closing chapters Dezeuze is primarily concerned with the works of Francis Alÿs, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Gabriel Orozco as fighting for survival, struggling to exist and endure. Martin Creed, Dezeuze’s eloquent examination of whom I found especially enlightening, is positioned as exploring the balance between making and not making, the moment between appearance and disappearance, between something and nothing—where something becomes art, pace Briony Fer, almost by accident.

Dezeuze anchors her analysis of the 1990s and 2000s in sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of “liquid modernity.” This is logical, as Bauman updates and extends Arendt’s critique. In liquid modernity capitalism has become weightless, buoyant, fluid, lean, liquid. Correspondingly, power is mobile, shifting, and slippery. In such a world those who travel lightest win. Dezeuze is right to see the practitioners of precarious practices in the 1950s and 1960s as anticipating this concept by embracing those qualities in their work. With little change in sight to the continued global spread of precarious conditions, Dezeuze’s book, despite its flaws, is timely and important.

Alex J. Bacon
PhD candidate, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University

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