‘Mise-entre-Places’ - Reflexions on viewing and presenting Jorge Macchi’s work
If something claims for itself that it is real,
but that it really touches people, then it encounters an anti-realism of feeling.
Feeling doesn’t like things that really touch people, so it denies reality.
And it’s exactly this mistrust of reality that forms the motive for its fascination’.
Alexander Kluge (1)
While writing this text I realised how difficult it in fact is/was to write about the work of Jorge Macchi (born in Buenos Aires in 1963). Searching for possible reasons for this I seemed to be repeatedly confronted with the same key word characteristic of Macchi’s work, so in order to understand this frustration I started to view it as an absolute and inherent quality: namely, ‘uncomplicated openness’.
In my opinion this openness characterises not only his work but also his character as an artist and a person as well. He simply refuses to be categorised in little boxes and to be subdivided into all sorts of things, something that belongs in the usual box of tricks used by many art critics in these kaleidoscopic times in which contemporary art currently finds itself. When writing about art these days it has after all become ‘the thing to do’ to provide each text about a work of art with a so-called viewpoint; a possibly thematic/content-oriented framework that must be used to view or in this case literally read the work.
And it is just this kind of ‘opinionated writing’ that the lion’s share of Macchi’s artistic production inherently escapes. There is simply no clear-cut frame of reference through which Macchi’s work can be viewed, which is by no means to claim that it cannot be understood or sensed.
One of the stumbling blocks a viewer might experience when looking at Jorge Macchi’s work is the fact that he, better than anyone, understands how – generally speaking – to generate a maximum number of possibilities of perception with a minimum of form, which invalidates each attempt to find a workable approach in advance. As part of the question of whether Macchi’s work can be catalogued as ‘post-conceptual’ or not, Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro wrote the following in ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’:
If the term post-conceptual art exists, it would apply perfectly to Macchi’s work. Growing up in 1980s Buenos Aires, the artistic panorama was split between the inheritance of earnest political Conceptualists grouped around Jorge Glusberg on one extreme and the large-scale expressionist painting epitomized by Guillermo Kuitca on the other. At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, we could say that Macchi brings together the expressive and psychologically charged content of the painter and the pure and clear visual language of the conceptualist. (2)
Pérez-Berreiro seems to be referring to Macchi’s tacking between the minimal use of form and maximum possibilities of perception, though I don’t ultimately agree with his use of the term ‘post-conceptual’ in relation to his work. In the imitation of conceptual art that made a furore in the 1970s, in my view the term post-conceptual art remains fundamentally linked to the pre-conception of a generally theoretically inspired idea that may involve minimum form (usually textual in nature), which in turn makes it clear that the idea itself takes precedence. In many cases, (post)conceptual art is also interpreted as art that must communicate ‘meaning’ in the semiotic connotation of the word. What is more, since the emergence of post-conceptual art, it seems quite simply that a great deal is expected of contemporary art, that it must semi-purely communicate a certain substantive and literally ‘significant’ message to the receiver.
The work of Jorge Macchi also skilfully escapes these two inherent aspects of post-conceptual art – on the one hand the ‘sequence’ (idea takes precedence over form) that determines how the two poles must be read or viewed, and on the other hand the role of purely communicating a meaning, from which a great deal of art is now viewed.
But a way can indeed be found ‘between’ these regularly occurring viewing frames, a way which seems to have much in common with the way Jorge Macchi plays on the relationship between idea and form. While viewing the many stripped-down, almost sober forms that Macchi uses in many of his (semi)sculptural pieces, it immediately strikes me how much concentrated but almost baroque emotion is involved in these pieces. In my view the emotional ‘gut feeling’ that the viewer experiences when looking at Macchi’s work has a lot to do with the fact that in the conception of his ideas he seems to have complete disregard for the so-called (post)conceptual sequence of idea and form mentioned above. On the contrary even, during the creative process Macchi seems above all to follow the feeling that automatically excludes the relationship between idea and form and makes them both secondary. Idea and form no longer exist in relation to each other – as in a lot of contemporary art – but both serve a ‘higher purpose’ in an equal manner without depending on a specific conceptual sequence.
In my view, this feeling, or this ‘higher purpose’ – without any desire to pretend to analyse personal feelings – has a lot to do with the way Jorge Macchi views reality. He seems to possess the inherent natural ability to view the world about him in an atmospheric, hypersensitive and empathic manner without losing the necessary objectivity. He possesses as it were a sort of sixth sense whereby he detects, places and creates atmospheres in the ‘non-atmospheres’ and the ‘non-places’ of our daily reality that lie ‘in-between’. In between dreams and reality, emotion and rationality, sleep and wakefulness, etc. Macchi looks at the go-between and in-between of things, at the flipside of reality. It seems as though he constantly wanders, daydreaming, through reality, out of the corner of his eye, and from his state of mind quickly and efficiently distils his ideas for his art.
It is this inherent mentality that Macchi’s work exudes which makes it difficult, even for an experienced viewer, to set aside his own viewing framework and to literally try to adopt this mentality as his own.
Another important frame of reference familiar to contemporary art, one which Jorge Macchi seems to play on in his work, is the so-called view between or presentation within opposites. As early as the beginning of the 1970s, in his ‘Notes from the future of Art’(3), the Polish art critic Jerzy Ludwinsky described all the dangers that were connected with the ‘each in turn’ view of the different and usually opposing layers that a good piece of art comprises, instead of looking at the zone in between, in which these different layers complement each other. Prophetic words it seemed, because in Europe at the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties there were many exhibitions of contemporary art that borrowed their concept from this sort of thinking in terms of contrasts. Exhibitions such as Open Mind/Closed Circuits, Chambres d’Amis, etc. regularly played on this constant back-and-forth thinking between two poles of perception to which contemporary art was expected to relate. This dialectic thought continues today in viewing and presenting contemporary art. A curatorial premise such as ‘to be able to understand the art of politics we must look at the politics of art’ (4), read in the concept text of the last São Paolo Biennale (2010) can be considered to be illustrative of this.
As far as I’m concerned, the majority of Jorge Macchi’s work is found precisely at the turning point between two opposites, in the twilight zone between the actual and fictional form of reality, between the denial of rational reality and the confirmation of its instinctive opposite. Viewing Macchi’s work
– i.e. representations of this twilight zone – therefore has much more to do with feeling rather than interpretation.
But then how are we to think about presenting this type of work, which constantly falls in between existing frames of perception and which appeals purely to the emotionally inspired zones in between these frameworks? And this within the strict setting of a museum’s white cube architecture? As is generally known, the idea of the white cube, which appeared in the seventies, was to create an optimum environment for presenting contemporary art, viewed at present more as a burden than as an effective tool. This is why many monographic exhibitions of contemporary art in Europe nowadays use an adapted architecture, architecture within the museum architecture as it were, grafted on to the specific requirements of the content of the artistic piece on display. In principle this is a good move, but a very common problem here is that such architecture usually involves a ‘white cube within the white cube’, even if it is custom-made. In my view the work of Jorge Macchi only partially supports this kind of architecture.
As previously suggested, Macchi’s work thrives best in the ‘non-place’, but then in the type of non-place adapted to the specific properties of his work. The term ‘non-place’ was first defined by the French anthropologist Marc Augé in 1992, with a more pejorative meaning. He described it as a sort of universal place, free of any social and societal bonds or specifics and totally mutually interchangeable (5). In principle this general definition could also apply to the museum’s classic white cube architecture.
Because of the specific atmospheric and instinctive qualities of Macchi’s work, by which it constantly positions itself on the interface between the rational and the emotional side of reality, this architectural filling of a non-place is not enough. On the other hand, Macchi’s non-place could in my view be a place that lies between an actual place and a dream place and that these places, in relation to each work, are then charged with atmosphere, becoming a sort of instinctive in-between zone, instead of architecture with a rational presence (as in the case of the white cube). Macchi’s work must be put ‘in between’ the spaces: ‘put in between places’ instead of in the usual picture-hanging motto ‘put in place’.
In the exhibition ‘Music Stands Still’, held in the SMAK in Ghent, Belgium, an attempt was made to cluster a number of Jorge Macchi’s pieces around several instinctive aspects of his work – such as Music, Light, Shadow, Blurring, Displacement, (Dis)Orientation, Openness, Unheimlichkeit, etc. and to underpin these in an experience-oriented way by a specific, atmospheric ‘non-place architecture’. In so doing, as much account as possible is taken of the specific, constantly changing relationships between idea and form, so characteristic of Macchi’s work.
Jorge Macchi produced many small pieces whose form is inherently highly fragile, but which illustrate a more obvious theme that you could describe as ‘disagreeable’. A work like Incidental Music for example, which is made from large sheets with what at first appear to be empty staves, but which on closer examination appear to be composed of sentences cut from different newspaper articles reporting murders and accidents that occurred in inner London. In between each line of news there is a small gap. The ‘silent’ staves are accompanied by a piece of music that is based on empty intervals.
The piece called 5 Notes, in which an empty sheet of A4 is brutally pierced by five steel cables, is also in the same mood. At the same time the aggressive penetration of the steel cables results in the creation of the piece of music.
In these kinds of pieces, Macchi makes a subtle connection between the frail stillness and almost literal ‘blind’ aggression, where the two emotional poles are not in opposition with each other, but fuse together fully within the piece as complements to each other. By opting for an atmospheric backdrop consisting of ice-cold light and bare white spaces, the frail form of these pieces is ground down by the environment in which they are presented, through which their disagreeable, almost aggressive theme is, in all its blindness, subtly drawn out of the works into the surrounding space.
One of Macchi’s latest pieces, The longest distance between two points, which was specially conceived for one of the rooms at the SMAK, also required a different atmosphere for its presentation. In this work, made of around 200 of the barrier stanchions usually found at airport check-in desks, Macchi seems to be looking for the turning point between complete (physical) limitations and (mental) openness. The stanchions are positioned in such a way that the viewer is obliged to take the longest possible route between two diagonally opposite points. This means that he literally almost physically creates a sort of forced herd mentality, a universal sense of limitation that everyone in this over-structured consumer society has undoubtedly experienced. Though at the same time Jorge Macchi succeeds, by using clever, subdued lighting for this work, to enable this oppressive feeling of restriction to transform unnoticed into the opposite pole of complete openness. Navigating between the hundreds of silver posts, with their greenish-blue belts, the viewer unexpectedly experiences a completely different ‘longest distance between two points’, namely the distance between a spectator watching from the edge of an immense azure-blue sea, and the farther point on an endless horizon.
The above examples are just a few that perfectly illustrate the skill with which Macchi, armed with an uncomplicated openness, fuses two apparently opposite substantive meanings in one piece, creating a single overarching, converging, confusing and poetic emotional zone that makes all your well-established frames of interpretation unexpectedly blow up in your face. And in fact, in all honesty, the above text is just one long-drawn-out attempt to evade these polarising traps within which art is currently (too much) viewed or presented. By contrast, the work of Jorge Macchi seems to easily avoid such dialectic frameworks for viewing and presenting, and by itself already offers the opportunity to seek purely instinctive non-viewing and non-presenting. Simply turning between things that have already been thought up and places that have already been visited...
(Regarder au milieu des choses et se mettre entre les places.)
1. Alexander Kluge, Das Loch in der Wirklichkeit, 2009, p.23.
2. Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro, The Anatomy of Melancholy, CGAC, Santiago de Compostela, 2008, p. 145-153.
3. Jerzy Ludwinski, Notes from the Future of Art, Veenman Publishers, Eindhoven, 2007, p. 38-45.
4. Agnaldo Farias & Moacir dos Anjos, There is always a cup of sea to sail in, Catalogue Biennale de São Paulo, 2010, p. 19-20.
5. From: Marc Augé, Non-Lieux: Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité, Le Seuil, 1992.