Of various ways of wasting one’s life.

Texto sobre Desaprovechamiento de 123.845.796 cm3. Málaga. 1999

Miguel Cereceda

1.- Crossing the line

A line of sulphur on the ground seems to mark a territory, to delimit a space. Usually delineating the limit between the ground and the walls of some buildings, it is generally intended to protect the building from dogs’ urination. The smell of sulphur was the stench said to emanate from hell and, in this way, the sulphur outlines, primarily, an area of smell. The city dog marks territory with his urine, recognises those of his kind by the smell, and will urinate in those places where another dog has previously done so. No one would take this for a work of art. It is only a line of sulphur on the ground, in front of the facade of the building where the exhibition takes place. How odd! What dogs are to be driven away with this line? Does the line of sulphur on the ground work as a sort of negative advertising, announcing to the animals “beware of man”? «Cave hominem». What is here is dangerous, it stinks of hell. But what the hell does it stink of?

A line of sulphur is, first of all, also a line, a trace of colour emphasising and calling our attention to something previously outlined and drawn: the joining of the wall with the ground, the precise limit that separates the building from the street. To trace a line like this over the line of the architecture is to make a sort of double underline or drawing, in which a meditation über die Linie is introduced. The line is a limit and a frontier, its trace runs the course of the discourse, in the same way as writing also runs along a line. To reflect upon the line, to write about the line is not only to let the cursor run its course – as no one writes by hand anymore – but also to force the writing to meditate on what it writes and on the way in which it is being written: on the line. Linear writing, linear reasoning, linear conception of history and linear conception of time and the life of men. The very Destiny traces itself in a linear way and thus lets itself be read in the lines of the hand.

But the line is a limit and a distinction in space. It establishes a “this side” and a “beyond”, fabricates space and gives us a place (locality, site) and references: inside/outside, public/private, art/nature. He who marks a territory with the line, designates it as a differentiated area. Unlike a simple animal appropriation, the line establishes a symbolic dimension: he who enters here is transgressing a limit. Beware oft.

It is not the first time that Fernando Baena draws a line of thought upon architectural lines. In 1996, he re-drew all the structural angles of the exhibition space employing steel rods. The result was a sort of drawing that repeated the architect’s design on a scale of 1:1. That work was a highly problematic one for the history of contemporary art. On the one hand it was certainly a drawing, as it repeated the outline of the room. But on the other, it was a sculpture. A sculpture which, did it fully identify itself with the space in which it was found, and were it exhibited outside of this space, would have been a representation or image of the space. But, finally, that drawing, which is sculpture, also identified itself with the architecture, as it was nothing but a reproduction of the structure of the room itself. Thus, in this fashion, a simple intervention could break through all the sensible limits between the different plastic arts. And however, in reality, it was no more than a line: a drawing. It is for this reason that in his Critique of Judgement, Kant grants to painting the primacy among the arts of form, «partly because, as an art of drawing, it is at the base of all the others” (§ 53). In this sense drawing, which is at the same time painting, sculpture and architecture, is a sort of condensation or emblem of fine arts.

But a line is also a limit. To reflect upon the line, then, is also to reflect upon the limit. Reflecting upon the limit is the ultimate task of philosophy, in so much as it attempts to conceive that beyond which it is not possible to think. The reflection upon the limit is also, and since long ago, the general problem of art, in the persistent effort not only to extend its limits, but also to give an answer to the general question of what is art; that is, what are its limitations. «Is it possible that art come to our meeting – asked Isidro Herrera – in the form of open grooves in a wall, or wire outlining of the edges (arrises) of an exhibition space?».

To conceive the limit is, then, to conceive all that beyond which no thought is possible, but also to take thought to that extreme where it stops being thought to become something else. The same happens to art when it reflects upon its own limits: it oversteps them, stops being art, and becomes something else (another thing). Baena puts us in a like state of distress (anguish) by simply drawing a line of sulphur next to a wall. “Is this art?” the critic, the aficionado (the enthusiast of the arts), and even the common mortal ask themselves. It could seem to many that this is nothing more than a joke, a sterile and absurd waste of time and money.

2.- Wasting time.

But if we cross the line, if we penetrate into the exhibition area delimited by the line of sulphur, paying no attention to our naturally cynical instincts that would lead us away from there for the smell, the feeling of having ones leg pulled, of a deliberate waste of time and money, grows. What we find inside is an exhibition space disused. Such wonderful exhibitions could be done here, instead of this foolishness! “Disuse» is a word which Baena uses to refer to his work on multitudinous occasions. The first disuse made by Fernando Baena took place in the Zona de Acción Temporal, in Madrid, from February 18th to March 4th of 1998, under the following title: «Disuse of 128.948.580 cm3. of exhibition space». The justification of such a waste was the following:
With the use of a great screen, a part of the exhibition area is closed off for the spectators. The wasted exhibition space corresponds to the quantity indicated in the title. The intervention attempts to overcome «the closure of the space of representation», through which the artist refuses to continue feeding the all-assimilating monster of communication, presenting the space of representation itself.

The “disuse” and the subtraction of the space mark, with their negative presence, a voluntary taking of sides for an art understood as the remainder that allows a distancing from life in order to serve it from that distance . It is worthwhile to point out that the artist understands art as a remainder – not as a subtraction, but as what is left after the subtraction – which allows a distancing from life in order to serve it from that distance. Art, then, in the service of life.

What is art in the service of life? Medicine? Is there, then, a therapeutic or curative end which justifies the very absurdity, the very inanity of art? Is the ribbon of sulphur, then, a sort of sanitary cordon of disinfectant thrown at the foot of a building that accommodates the institution of Art, so as to in this way purge it, disinfect it, perhaps redeem it for life?

If art has a cathartic, a purging function, this has been accepted from time immemorial. But the novel thing here is the attempt to convert art into a “remainder” removing it from its proper space. A remainder of what? A remainder of what is left when its very own space has been taken away from it, when it has been dislodged from that space. And what is there left when art is dislodged from its space? Life? Or perhaps only the question of where has art gone? What is left is the remainder, and it is upon that remainder that Fernando Baena intends to meditate.

How odd! If we consider this, it is about, in the first place, meditating upon a line, and then, upon what remains on the other side of the line. It is, then, not only about a remainder but, in a more appropriate sense, about a subtraction. Perhaps the title of the exhibit makes us think this: «Of economy». Economy is something that for us is fundamentally linked to money, capital, consumption, to the means of production, to the exchange of commodities, etc. The study of the economy appears to us as a highly mathematised sience of the management of resources. Thus, the general principle of economy is that of consumption or that of utility, of benefit or profit for mankind. But what Fernando Baena presents us in his exhibition is, fundamentally, «disuse». Not only waste, in the sense of leftovers remaining from the things we consume, but specifically disuse. That is, his intention is that of rendering demonstratively (obviously, manifestly) useless something that could, in principle have a function or a use, clearly turning it against this function or use or, better still, impeding the possibility of the said function or use. This is what Fernando Baena specifically undertakes to do in the two main installations of this exhibit. The first is this disuse of space that we have already spoken of. The other is a clear waste of time, consisting of unplaiting a good number of meters of rope. In this way, space and time are no longer understood as abstract categories, nor as physical, nor metaphysical entities, but rather as the two privileged modes upon which the productive economy of consumption unfolds itself: space understood then, as useful space, in square meters and cubic centimetres; and time understood as productive time, in hours, minutes, and seconds.

Marx had already defined the value of use of commodities as the time socially necessary for their production and, without meaning to, had thus broken with the abstract categorisation of time typical of Kantian transcendental idealism. Deliberately working on this socially productive conception of time, Baena once again proposes to re-think this concept in its relation to life. This work of de-construction of time was first presented by Fernando Baena in his exhibit in December of 1998, in the Madrid gallery Valle Quintana, in an exhibition entitled «609 m. of rope undone by hand». Exhibition in which the artist presented the result of undoing by hand the 609 metres of rope that give the exhibit its title on the walls and floor of the gallery. Here, as well, it is of great interest to us to examine the description that the artist gives of his own work: The first thing that claims our attention in this text is that it sounds apparently contradictory with the objectively pursued end. If the end pursued is to de-construct the socially productive idea of time through an apparently sterile and non-productive activity, that is, through a systematic and deliberate waste of time, this seems to be in contradiction with the advice for working » in an orderly fashion and employing the minimal time and effort» or the «optimal» measures for the work. Why minimise the time employed in an activity that is in itself a deliberate and systematic waste of time? Who, and for what reason, is interested in «optimising» the labor of systematic waste and destruction of work already done? Does one want to gain time in order to waste it more conscientiously? Or does one want to be most productive in the least possible time? And in what sense is the term ”productive” used here?

Heidegger was the thinker who has insisted most in linking plastic arts with poetry, and poetry with a certain type of “production», the creative production which is the proper of poiesis, radically different from the mere technical fabrication of objects and utensils. According to this conception, what the artist deliberately and systematically carries out would be something like a systematic production of «poetry». But this line of argument will surely lead us away from our objective, which does not consist but in trying to bring to light what is the relation between this waste of time and effort with economy.

Baena’s activity of unplaiting rope could be understood as mere sumptuous spending, as squandering. His artistic attitude would seem to thus actively link him with the critique of the classical political economy made by Georges Bataille in The Accursed Share, demonstrating how the general principle of all economy is not, in reality, productive consumption, but rather the sumptuous spending and squandering. To waste time would thus be a way of formulating a critique of the manner in which people “waste their time” devoting themselves to a falsely productive life.

3.- Wasting life.

This is clearly exemplified by the third major iconographic element of this exhibition, or the fourth, if we count the line of sulphur. This fourth element, perhaps less aesthetically surprising or, if you prefer, an image of something which we could vaguely recognise as «artistic iconography», is what Fernando Baena calls a vanitas. This vanitas is formed of nothing less than the juxtaposed images of the faces of several hundreds successful executives, as published weekly in some of the major national daily newspapers. The artist has limited himself to collecting these images and composing a sort of polyptych, in which there appear their faces and their names. Here, too, the justification of his work that the artist proposes to us is particularly pertinent to figure out his general intentions:
It is clear that the publication of their photographs turns these people into successful and identifiable public personalities, a situation that will momentarily gratify their vanity in spite of the fact that the end pursued is publicity for the companies for which they work. These persons, who have for a moment escaped anonymity, grouped with their equals and given their great number in the on-going series, once again form a homogeneous whole. There is something frightening in the idea of any listing or «stocking up» of human beings as, they end up reminding us that we are frequently treated like things. The non-differentiation and the anonymity of the skeletons of Spanish baroque painting, or the decorative ordering of skulls and bones in certain cemeteries and catacombs, sought the effect of renunciation of the world as the vanity of vanities. The people presented in this work are alive, and not anonymous; it is their number and the smallness of their destiny within the socio-economic framework that makes them form a twentieth-century «vanitas» .

In this installation, the relationship that every exhibition maintains with the theme of economy is underlined. In the first place, the object shown is nothing less than economists and businessmen, men successful in the world of finance and business, whose portrait is publicised by the firms that contract them as news of the economy. We know, then, that here the economy is spoken of in a specific sense. But it is evident that ,juxtaposing the images of these «successful men and women» against each other, the idea of the social and media triumph is diluted. Their momentary and perishable fame is dissolved in the innumerable quantity of those who enjoy the same momentary and perishable fame – those who have attained the mortal glory of the newspapers –, and this obviously leads us to a certain distancing with respect to their idea of success. This is something even more obvious in a diagram of the general idea of the exhibition sketched by Fernando Baena. While next to the words «line of sulphur» there appears the word «disobey», next to the word «space» there appears «disuse», the word «undo» next to the word «time»; the first thing we can read in his outline is the word “waste” next to the word «vanitas» and, in parentheses, the word «life». Therefore, what the artist wants to express with this vanitas is a certain repulsion toward the mercantile way of wasting ones own life.

The general idea of this exhibit is the critique of a certain productive conception of the economy, according to which everything appears to be governed by profit and benefit. Given this conception, the vanitas works as an image of someone who lives his life falsely, of someone who, in a way, wastes it. The other forms of unproductive production are, once again, forms of wasting time or space but are, in the end, critiques of this productive conception of time and benefit. In this sense, the fact that the exhibition space is, in the last place, covered by a sort of “waste” rubber (remnants) which, to drive a point even further, have all the appearance of excrements, would underline this desire to criticise which rules the logic of the entire exhibition: waste opposed to commodity, residue opposed to value added; in sum, art as distance from life, to serve it, perhaps? However, it might be asked whether the same upsetting sensation would not result from the juxtaposition of the images of hundreds of successful artists, in the manner of a vanitas, and whether this would not be contemplated with a certain glee on the part of executives, who would certainly delight in the stinging satire of the falsehood of the artist’s life.

The critique suggested by Fernando Baena’s work, due to its radicalism, is very reminiscent of that which Guy Debord formulated against the society of the spectacle, but suffers its very same defects. «It is the principle of commodity fetishism – wrote Debord –, the domination of society by «intangible as well as tangible things», which reaches its absolute fulfilment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence» . Similarly, Baena would critique this fetishised production of life, in which it is the false appearance of the true life, of success and triumph that imposes itself, in a merely mercantilist conception of production. One lives, thus, to consume commodities socially produced for consumption. What is desired is that which is socially desirable. The successful executive who has cars, and mistresses, and country houses, and yachts can hardly enjoy these commodities, as he has placed his time in the service of attaining them. His life, thus, becomes socially false. On the other hand, the image of the artist systematically cutting up and unplaiting a rope, is also not the image of a true life. To the executive, the artist appears like a madman who wastes his life, and viceversa. Which is then the true life? It is most likely that both are equally false, hypostasiadas and made fetish. The same occurs in the case of Debord: his critique works in so far as we believe that there is a real life alternative to the life of spectacle. But that is not true. «One cannot abstractly contrast the spectacle to actual social activity: such a division is itself divided. The spectacle which inverts the real is in fact produced. Lived reality is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle while simultaneously absorbing the spectacular order, giving it positive cohesiveness. Objective reality is present on both sides. Every notion fixed this way has no other basis than its passage into the opposite: reality rises up within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real. This reciprocal alienation is the essence and the support of the existing society» .

The same could be said of the critique formulated by Bataille, in The Accursed Share, against the productive conception of life, as he claims that the true life is that of spending, of excess and of squandering, as opposed to the false life of saving, production and sacrifice. «In this way – writes Bataille – the most appreciable part of life is presented as a condition – at times even as the contemptible condition – of productive social activity» . Pleasure, art, libertinism, play and excess as the true life, as opposed to other, alienated forms of life.

Seen from the perspective of death, which is the truest image? That of the successful executive with his country houses, his sports cars, his mistresses and his luxury boats, or that of the artist, shut up in his studio, cutting up and unplaiting rope during hours, days, weeks…?