Wilkins Hill: On the cusp of meaning

Andrew McNamara

 

If contemporary artworks are often considered to be puzzles or riddles, then Wilkins Hill take this to a new level. Their recent exhibition Windows impersonating other windows, confronts viewers with an extremely ludic configuration: a spa bath full of almonds, towel racks placed before photos of Martin Heidegger distorted in neat grids, a video of a water tower in a Hamburg park, wooden cut-out speech bubbles and monitors that continuously play interviews with the artists themselves. What does it all mean? If the speech bubbles suggest a window to innermost thoughts, then the interviews hint at a similar promise—a window to comprehension. As if mimicking an international forum or conference, the artists intersperse English and German throughout the interviews, using speech-recognition software and automated-translation websites. While this encourages viewers to listen intently for meaning, the mixing of the languages makes any such clarification difficult and remote. All one can discern from the artists, as they sombrely drop hints about the exhibition content, is intermittent grabs about almonds, spas and the Hamburg water tower.

The visual elements read like clues, implying that there is something to be deciphered; the inclusion of the artist interviews further suggests that some clarification might be forthcoming. However, these components clarify very little and what becomes clear is that something else is at play in this installation. The artists are obviously intent on being understood or provoking insight, but insight into what precisely? Tantalisingly, there seem to be many different, yet specific aspects—so concrete in meaning—awaiting a Sherlock Holmes-like eye, which will detect these details and unlock the greater meaning of the whole.

In recent years, Wilkins Hill have spent a significant period of time in Europe. This led them to begin experimenting with language translation, prompted by the Babel-like experience of encountering so many different languages, which resound like competing voices—just like the art world. Wilkins Hill’s focus on the inherent gaps and misunderstandings between languages extends their long-held interest in hermeneutic suspicion as a trigger for artistic practice. It leads one to wonder, if art has often been associated with puzzles or riddles, something elusive to be worked out, then what is the enticement when there is nothing to be found out? ’As a trope, we see hermeneutic theory and the philosophical interpretation of meaning as having many parallels with our role as artists,’ Wilkins Hill explain, ‘The hermeneutic philosopher Martin Heidegger is referred to in the exhibition as a way to refer to our own approach to art.’i


Heidegger’s mountainside cabin, ’die Hütte‘ (the hut) as he referred to it, was his sanctuary from modern life. It was akin to a monastery of pure and unimpeded contemplation—in this case, the place set aside to enable the most penetrating critical analysis of modernity to be conducted. Being so removed, the hut permitted the philosopher to think more deeply about modernity’s pernicious consequences. Furthermore, as a building constructed entirely free of its presence and mark, the hut was a mini-monument to non-modernity—a symbolic challenge to its interminable advance into every crevice of life.

Wilkins Hill are fascinated by the windows of Heidegger’s ’hut‘. Not only did these offer grand vistas for the philosopher, but they also allow the artistic pair to elaborate on various analogies for windows, such as Renaissance pictorial perspective. As they explain:

"We like this idea of retreating in order to engage more fully with the world. We also responded to the formal quality of the photographs and the prominence of the windows. The window motif that runs throughout the exhibition (including the speech bubbles and in the background of the video works) represents, for us, the concept of perspective; the window reflects a viewpoint, subjective-self and the essential passage from self to outside world that is implicated when investigating meaning. Following this line of thought, we manipulated the photographs of Heidegger to generate the effect of looking into his hut through glass bricks."ii

Glass bricks permit light, but they fragment the depicted image. Such an approach aptly suggests how meaning does not seamlessly stem from some ideal interior purpose to an outward manifestation and clarification. But this procedure raises a few questions. Is it easier to obscure meaning rather than to clarify it? Can artists proceed on the basis of eluding meaning or does this amount to putting the problem around the wrong way?

Wilkins Hill’s ongoing focus on the particularity of details echoes their interest in minimalism and its phenomenological quest for essential form. By ’echoes‘, I mean that their interest in minimalism, as with the presentation of their photographic portraits of Heidegger, has the effect of looking at its subject through glass bricks. At times, their intricate concern with formal issues takes this fixation elsewhere—to other objects, places and associations—at other times, the particularity of their forms appears hermetically sealed (like Heidegger’s hut). In turn, this intensity of focus on form and meaning echoes art historian Yve-Alain Bois’s similar concern for a materialist formalism, that is, a form of inquiry aiming to uncover the ’object’s specific exigency‘.iii


These pursuits—both those of minimalism and of Bois—are easier said than done. In fact, striving to elucidate the specificity of meaning or of form in such a way proves endlessly elusive. For an art practice to pursue meaning in such a way sets it on a path close to art criticism or art history. This is the paradox within Wilkins Hill’s work. While art critics are usually accused of wanting to be artists, or of being failed artists, Wilkins Hill reverse that charge by acting as if they, as artists, assume the role of art critics or art historians.


When it comes to the pursuit of artistic meaning, art history has always turned on a conundrum, but this does not necessarily condemn it to imprecision. Put simply, its task is to explain the specificity of the object it seeks to interpret as well as to explain the artwork in context. Art history searches for singularity within the context of all other works and determinations (including artistic, social, historical, race, class, gender, etc.). The result is thus always the jostle of the specific and the general. One can liken this pursuit to fitting a square peg back into a round hole, once it has emerged from its context. The ’artistry‘, if you like, of genuinely compelling art criticism or art historical inquiry is to place both aspects into circulation without reducing one to the other. This feat is in fact rarely achieved.

The historian Carlo Ginzburg has shown that in the nineteenth century a range of disciplines emerged that focused on the specificity of the detail or singular case. He called it the ’conjectural paradigm‘ because it arose from the realisation ’that apparently negligible details could reveal profound phenomena of great importance‘.iv ’Conjectural‘ is somewhat of a misnomer, since the key disciplines in this mix were medicine, art history and modern police detection (which perhaps explains how Wilkins Hill’s emphasis on formal specificity ends up reading like clues). Key to this conjectural paradigm was that while knowledge was gained in different ways, it always meant piecing together elements to reach a more complex overall picture, ’infinitesimal traces permit the comprehension of a deeper, otherwise unattainable reality: traces—more precisely, symptoms (in the case of Freud), clues (in the case of Sherlock Holmes), pictorial marks (in the case of Morelli)’.v Giovanni Morelli, who was also a physician, devised a method of detecting forgeries from overlooked details of paintings.

Since Ginzburg mentions Sigmund Freud in this context, it is unsurprising that the father of psychoanalysis has some helpful insights about the dilemmas of interpretation. For Freud the ’conjectural‘ was not simply a case of piecing together a series of disparate facts. Rather, there had to be some counter-balance. Essential to drawing suppositions was challenging one’s own previously held suppositions. As Freud put it, it is necessary to compare everything with oneself, but this is only in order to understand ’something other than oneself‘.vi The two biggest challenges of interpretation are sliding into its ’natural‘ extremes, and Freud thought of the polar positions of interpretation as akin to personality disorders.


On the one hand, there is the paranoid for whom there is no distance, no irrelevance, nothing that escapes being plotted into the big picture. The result is the zealous compiler of facts, who cannot discern that there is nothing that does not fit in. Relating this to dream interpretation, Freud likens this to those who will ’translate‘ your dream, piece by piece, into some equivalent, ’waking‘ meaning. Its art historical equivalent is the method of acquiring as many facts as possible in the vague hope that this accumulation of data will remain true to artistic endeavour. On the other hand, there is the neurotic who lives life as mapped out in advance. Their impulse is to impose some grand meaning or some pre-determined course to their life. This too has an equivalent in the symbolic analysis of dreams; Freud notes that this approach transposes, ’the content of a dream as a whole‘ and replaces it with, ’another content which is intelligible and in certain respects analogous to the original one.’vii In cultural analysis, such as art criticism, this approach, which places a grand hypothesis over the work in question, is often criticised as imposing a completely fanciful projection, or an overly determined one, as if the artwork is simply a pretext for a pre-determined argument. Our most cherished modes of interpretation follow these extremities—though not always so deliriously—because, as Freud suggests:

"There is an intellectual function in us which demands unity, connection and intelligibility from any material, whether of perception or thought, that comes within its grasp; and if, as a result of special circumstances, it is unable to establish a true connection, it does not hesitate to fabricate a false one."viii

The paranoid and the neurotic dispositions form an aberrant, but nonetheless, ideal model of interpretation because they explain everything, but in contradictory ways. This is because the paranoid-neurotic interpretive zeal fills all gaps in knowledge; if something cannot be grasped, then a link will be fabricated and the script written in advance. This is why addressing unwelcome interpretative prospects offers critical rigor; it means dealing with what cannot be contained and incorporated, ’something other than oneself’.

For art practitioners such as Wilkins Hill to embark on the pursuit of meaning places them on dangerous ground. It is not only the terrain of the philosophical, but also that of art historical aesthetic inquiry. There the degree of ’artistry‘ is no less taxing. It is, however, art looking at critical inquiry as though through glass bricks.

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i Wilkins Hill artist notes, unpublished, 2010.

ii ibid.

iii Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model, The MIT Press & October Books: Cambridge, Mass and London, 1993, p. xii.

iv Carlo Ginzburg, Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, trans. John & Anne C. Tedeschi, Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1992, p. 124.

v ibid, p. 101.

vi Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo: Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. James Strachey, The Hogarth Press: London, 1953-1974, vol. 13: 95.

vii Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams: The Penguin Freud Library, trans. James Strachey, Penguin: London, 1990, vol. 4, p. 170.

viii Freud, Totem and Taboo, p. 95.

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published in Column 6, 2010, Artspace, Sydney, Australia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

© wilkinshill 2014