Essay by Abbas Daneshvari for his book Amazingly Original: Contemporary Iranian Art at Crossroads. Vol. 1

 

The Free Play of Signs: Of Flux and Deconstruction[1]

 

“The conceptual determination of the end, limits the free play of the imagination.”

Jacques Derrida[2]

 

Babak Golkar is one of the most interesting of Iran’s contemporary conceptual artists. His art, as in The Return Project (2013-2014), LeCorbusier Derivatives (2009-2013), Grounds for Standing and Understanding (2012) and Parergon (2012), displays the free-floating, unpredictable and chaotic  life of signs in praxis. His work’s foci are, to a great extent, about the metaphysical instability of art, the impossibility of a pure ground of creation,  and the derivative  character of all expressions. Moreover, he demonstrates, to borrow a term from Nietzsche, the “affirmation of signs” as they undergo multifarious, value-transformations without truth and without center, mostly because of the unpredictability of  contextual operations. Through it all,  Golkar’s works, at times in a vein similar to Golshiri’s,  are fitting examples of Derrida’s deconstruction as they undermine notions of mimesis, originary cause, purity, and absolute value.  Tactically, many of Golkar’s works entail reversal of hierarchical oppositions;  confirm parergon (framing, labeling, signature, venue, etc.), rather than essence  as the force that  produces value;  and assert that the  dissemination of ideas (mimesis and diegesis) is a path of uncertainty and undecideability.

Golkar’s  Parergon series consists of partial frames that bear at their end tips such structural identities as the church of Hagia Sophia, the Azadi Borj of Tehran (formerly Shahyad), the Green mosque of Istanbul and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem—clearly, all labels of various textual significance (plates 1-5). The idea that significance lies within the frames and not in what is framed parallels Derrida’s texts on parergon. Derrida’s parergon, the second chapter in his book, The Truth in Painting,[3] is to a large extent, a deconstruction of Kant’s idealism in his contemplations on aesthetics.[4] For Derrida, the focus of Parergon (parasite or dependency, and ergon=work),[5] is the marginalization of the framed and the privileging  of the frame as a source of value and, likewise, its reversal. Kant had treated the frame as a supplement (clothing on a statue, columns, frames, etc.), but Derrida widens this horizon to include  the cultural, institutional, individual, economic, historical and contextual factors as frames also. [6]  Parerga in Kant  not only separate the work from its outside environment -wall or background- they are also separate from the work itself.[7] In Derrida, however, parerga delimit the work and establish a border within which lies the aesthetic value or the message. This border while on the outside, is also the identifying sign of its interior territory (the ergon). Therefore, the frame, with all of its implied values, while on the outside and not the inside of the ergon, is also on the inside and outside of the work.[8] The frame thus suffers or benefits, depending on the context and the observer’s point of view,  from a neither/ nor and likewise, an either/or significance. An example is the signature of the artist which is both inside and outside the work; both related and unrelated to its intrinsic value.  Other parerga are the location of a work, such as a museum versus a gallery, the quality of a collection, or the price fetched, as well as  the religious, philosophical, and nationalistic narratives that the object exemplifies and the identity that  it evokes.

In Golkar’s Parergon Series, the frame clearly bears and conveys  the identity of the  work, be it cultural, philosophical, or any other. Golkar’s exquisite frames carry the images that are the subjects of the works. For example, Hagia Sophia, Azadi Borj and the Green Mosque are, both the frame and the framed. In this sense,  the parergon is privileged and contains the “ergon” which signifies that the context as a frame or the text as a frame determines the significance of the presentation.[9] More so, what  Golkar has done is to write on the frame (in Derrida’s words: écrit sur le cadre), and this causes a dislocation which “turns its internal limit into external limit,”[10] and clearly  vice versa. In other words, in Golkar’s Parergon Series, it appears that the frame bears the weight of it all and the frame is both the supplement  and the content as much as it is also neither the content and nor the frame.  In many ways what Golkar has done is deconstruction at its best for he neither rejects the content nor he accepts it as an entity separate from the frame, thus rejecting the subject’s essential character and purity of purpose.[11] In addition, by uniting the framed and the frame Golkar has undermined the presence of any teleological ends. The works are now quite discursive and carry open-ended and multifarious significations.

Another  critical implication of Parergon is, that no work or statement or expression may claim, as Derrida puts it, “the metaphysics of presence,”[12] a trait that is quite clear in Golkar’s Parergon. It is easy for us to see that in his works, because of the impact of the frame (the social, cultural, theological, etc.) upon the framed, the subject may not be communicated as a pure or as an unadulterated originary phenomenon.  This point is in fact a critical corollary of the Derrida’s concept of parerga. And this is so because parerga carry traces of the past mental and physical phenomena and above all, they are intertextual presentations. The intertextuality is clearly because of  the juxtaposition  of the frame and the framed, as exemplified in Golkar’s works.  The absence of purity as a result of intertexuality is numerously explained by Derrida:

“The enterprise of returning ‘strategically,’ in idealization, to an origin or to a priority seen as simple, intact, normal, pure, standard, self-identical, in order then to conceive of (pour pensor en-suite) derivation, complication, deterioration, accident, etc…is not just one metaphysical gesture among others; it is the metaphysical exigency, the most constant, profound and potent procedure.”[13]

But here we must also think of the relation between Golkar’s aesthetic expressions and the philosophical implications of his forms. These partial frames are so refined and so elegant that each and every frame projects a sense of spacious beauty and suggests a massive release of energy because of its open and closed spaces. The open (absent) segments of the partial frames rigorously assert themselves, thus giving rise to a dance of what is and what should be; to a play of open vistas and boundaries- all in measurements  suffused by luminous and luxuriant  colors moving in oblique directions.  These works are marked by a conflation of ideas and beauty.  

This notion of the absence of purity is also well exemplified in one of Golkar’s monumental works, Ground for Standing and Understanding (plates 6-10), where monuments of the purest forms stand upon the complex and highly historical ground of a Persian carpet;  filled with patterns  that bear the structured grammar of a culture as both symbols and signs.[14] At first, the works’ lyricism and beauty masks their  intellectual rigor and philosophical implications.  But soon we may see that in these works actuality and pure ideas conflate and exchange attributes; be it from the limited and the culturally defined forms of the carpet to the boundless and opaque visions of Golkar’s architectonic and architectural forms. I often wondered, looking at this work, how is it possible to have within such harmony and geometric equations  the  unbounded flights of imagination?[15]

In The Return Project (plates 11-13), Babak Golkar  plays on a well-known American custom of returning bought goods to the store for various reasons, as long as the store-issued receipt and the item’s identifying mark is intact.  Golkar  has bought  such objects such as an African mask, a candle and a toy fighter plane and has restructured them by cutting a piece or pieces from their bodies. The remade items, now transformed into art, are returned to the store and re-shelved for sale, clearly once again as quotidian items.  

Golkar keeps a partial record of this process by making a photograph of the store-bought item along with its restructured piece (now art). The photograph is also accompanied with a sculpture fashioned from the severed or extracted parts of the store-bought item. However, there cannot be a record of the released end product back placed back onto the shelves of the store and its dissemination into the public arena.  Its final fate is inaccessible.  Thus, the end-point (telos) of the art and its dissemination as Derrida has pointed out makes for infinite possibilities and “the free play of imagination”[16]  To put it differently, “Dissemination,” Caputo wrote,” shows in concreto the drift, the slippage, the instability in the chain of signifiers…releasing it into its free play.”[17] This fact alone, that the final product is no longer owned and controlled by institutions or that it is not an institutionally framed art is the most authentic manifestation of an aesthetic expression. Because, it is after all beyond control and, therefore, full of possibilities. It has a magical presence as it is free of language, institutional determination and also free of the frame that traps it  in a procrustean bed of meanings. No wonder Golkar sees these works as Alchemy.  In fact, Golkar’s The Return Project reminds me of the magical performances of Joseph Beuys as a shaman, where neither the healer,  nor the healed are aware of their powers. Moreover, to enjoy art without an awareness of its institutionally generated  aesthetics is also magical. Golkar’s  objects, now floating in unknown and inaccessible  locations, are disseminated only to be metamorphosed by various hands and minds and places. It is a Kafkaesque path of radical transformations, a Kafkaesque place of flux and unpredictable change. On another level this dissemination, this release of objects by Golkar into the winds of time and into the shifting spaces of human unfolding; into the undetermined forces unraveling;  into the infinite manifestations of human will manipulating the mythic plays; and  into the mysterious flux of Being,  reminds us of Meister Eckhart, of Heidegger and of Derrida’s notions of Glassenheit.[18] For Eckhart the world is without “why” and for Heidegger it is “openness to the mystery.” Here we have in such a serene system of making art, of recording and of releasing it without any labels into the world,  the kind of flux and anti-metaphysical stance that  Caputo describes as the tremblings of Kierkegaard and the Husserlian realization of annihilation and deconstruction of the world; and of Derrida’s ébranler.[19] It is all flux and beyond knowing and control.

From a different perspective, given that Golkar is not concerned with the end product or the signified content then the work reveals how the artist’s choices were governed by the institutional and the structuring principles of our time (i.e. modes of trade, concepts of art and junk, etc.). Here, in manner that is reminiscent of Christo’s art and of Derrida’s discussion in “The Conflict of Faculties,” what matters is not the signified content (the end product) but, in any given time,  the processes and the possibilities that history and the institutional structures make available to us all thus, resulting in certain teleological conclusions. On this point, Derrida wrote:

What is somewhat hastily called deconstruction is…a way of taking a position, in its work of analysis, concerning the political and institutional structures that make possible and govern our practices, our competencies, our performances. Precisely because it is never concerned with signified content deconstruction should never be separable from this politico-institutional problematic and should seek a new investigation of responsibility, an investigation which questions the codes inherited from ethics and politics.[20]

Derrida’s point regarding the questioning of the codes inherited and the institutional structures “that govern our practices” is fully at play in The Return Project for Golkar  shows that the idea of parole is only possible within its langue.[21] That, to put it differently, the structure of the institutions (the commercial grammar or the langue) in a certain time and place makes possible certain aesthetic expressions (paroles). 

Golkar’s selection of common mass produced objects and the transformation of these objects into art is not new. Duchamp is one well known example. What is new and quite fitting of deconstruction is the dissemination of the art objects  back into the commercial stream as quotidian items, with only a trace of the process recorded as a photograph and a sculpture. Once returned and resold, they  are bought as non-art, the buyer is wholly unaware of the mediating powers of the artist and  the object’s transformation.  Not only the buyer does not view the item as art or knows the artist but he or she does not see himself/herself as a collector. Here, Golkar has released the work from the narrowly defined, the procrustean bed of what makes art. He has released it from its intellectual, economic and elitist parergon. It is a truism that art is not art unless it is institutionalized by the artist and society. Above all, that  the dissemination of art into public hands without the abracadabra of parergon erases its artistic privilege and yet allows for objects to remain either quotidian objects or an have an aesthetic presence depending on, either the venue of its dispersal, or the subjective ontological bent of the buyer’s grace.  Many ideas follow this seemingly simple transaction. Firstly, that the Kantian idea of absolute aesthetic value is a myth; secondly, that the value of art is not based upon an indubitable foundation but  is a function of its parergon as a work of art. In fact, the proof that parergon determines the value may well be established by reminding oneself that a  genuine work of art,  when once considered a fake, loses its value and even its aesthetic appeal. Thirdly, if the frame for the work of art is a local dispenser of quotidian items, and if the declaration of the artist is not known, then the frame of utility will be its destiny and art becomes an irrelevant issue.  

Above all, the transformation  of a mundane item into art and back into a mundane item is a reversal of hierarchy. This reversal of the junk turned privileged  and once again turned marginal is quite revelatory. Through a reversal of hierarchy Golkar has shown that art is art because of tropological games and not  because it is transparently art. In other words, the differences between art and junk are because of the frames that declare them so. Moreover,  interestingly enough, Golkar’s art is supplementing junk and junk (in the frame of junk) supplements art. If Husserl sought the end of writing and Wittgenstein the end of philosophy, then  here at last we have the end of both art and writing. Golkar’s art in its last station of reception has lost its privilege as art and is no longer metaphysically positioned.  Moreover, The dissemination of the  work into inaccessible spaces places it out of the reach of the exegetes and thus puts an end to writing about it. In fact, as the end of philosophy is when it ceases to generate more writings or supplements, the end of art too is when it ceases to generate more institutional art and more interpretations. This art is no longer about getting it right, and is not about the process that generates more art. Its destination within the public arena is its end for it will not generate an art historical or critical  frame of continuance.   In this last station we may also speak of Barthes’s “death of the author”[22] as a paramount manifestation of Golkar’s work.

Once again, this is Derrida’s dissemination at its best where we have the end of certitude, collective and consensual meaning or philosophical criticism. Missing are the critics and the historians as the sources of meaning. Missing are the interminable chain of interpretations, each seeking to offer the work its final destination.[23] The absence of the author’s signature is also the end of hermeneutics. As Derrida points out in Otobiographies, the absence of a signature is also the end of a perverse readings of a text (mimetic perversion).[24] All productions within an institutional frame are supplemented but Golkar’s final destination (unknown and inaccessible) is free of supplementation.

Golkar’s works show that there is no metaphysical stability, especially the kind that Husserl sought. His sculptures, Le Corbusier Derivatives (plates 14-21),  based on le Corbusier’s drawings for the stadium in Baghdad, are quite interesting as they exemplify notions of integration and disintegration; beauty and horror within the same panoply of signs.  The stadium designed in the late 1950s by Le Corbusier and  built in 1980 during Saddam’s reign[25] was used by Uday Hussein to torture athletes who did not fulfill his expectations of an optimum athletic performance. Golkar’s beautiful sculptural objects,  based on Le Corbusier’s drawings, once closely examined, are instruments of torture. The images of Le Corbusier Derivatives have dual and clearly oxymoronic characters and strangely enough, even morphologically,  reveal the medieval nature of modern signs. The aesthetic values of these works are as congenial to the primordial as they are to the transcendental.  These images evoke the oblique pathways by which beauty turns outrageous and demons surprisingly emerge from deified spaces.

Abbas Daneshvari

 

 

[1] Given that this article cannot possibly cover every facet of Golkar’s creativity, I have thus focused on the  free play of signs and parallels to Derrida’s deconstruction  in his works. 

[2] The Truth in Painting, tr. By Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, p. 104.

[3] Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, pp. 37-82.

[4] Emanuel Kant, Critique of judgment (1790). For Kant, parerga lay outside the work and were mostly adornments and aesthetically pleasing because of their forms.

[5] On parergon as hors-d’oeuvres, supplement, accessory, aside, remainders,  see Derrida, The Truth in Painting, p. 54-64. Also for parergon as “exceptional and strange and extraordinary” see Derrida, ibid, p. 58.

[6] Also see Jaques Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” in Margins of Philosophy, tr. with additional notes by Alan Bass, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, pp. 307-330.

[7] Derrida, The Truth in Painting, p. 61.

[8] Derrida, The Truth in Painting, p. 54 and 57. For a discussion of Derrida’s  “invagination,” see also  Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and criticism after Structuralism, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, pp. 198-199, 241.

[9] For similar ideas in western postmodernism see Ligon, Kosuth, Krugger, etc.

[10] Derrida, The Truth in Painting, pp. 73-74: “The reflective operation which we have just allowed to make itself writing on the frame or have itself written on the frame…(is) but a certain repeated dislocation, a regulated irrepressible dislocation, which makes the frame in general crack, undoes at the corners in its quoins and joints, turns its internal limit into an external limit, takes its thickness into account, makes us see the picture from the side of the canvas or the wood, etc.”

[11] As Derrida writes: “Deconstruction must neither reframe nor dream of the pure and simple absence of the frame. These two apparently contradictory gestures are the very ones and they are systematically indissociable  of what is here deconstructed.” The Truth in Painting, p. 73.

[12] Writing and Difference, tr. With an introduction and additional notes by Alan Bass, Chicago, University of Chicago Press,  pp. 280ff. Also see Culler, On Deconstruction, p. 92.

[13] See Culler, On Deconstruction, p. 93 quoting from Derrida’s  Limited Inc. Supplement to Glyph 2, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1977.

[14] See also, for a similar idea, Sadegh Tirafkan’s essay in this book,  where carpet patterns are formed by human images.

[15] This work requires an article of its own which this limited venue does not allow.

[16] See note 2 above.

[17]John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics: Repetition, Deconstruction and the Hermeneutic Project, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, p. 148 

[18] For the ethics of Glassenheit, see Ibid,  pp. 264-278.

[19] Ibid,  pp. 268-278

[20] In Culler, On Deconstruction, p. 156 quoting from Derrida’s “The Conflict of Faculties,” Languages of Knowledge and of Inquiry, ed. Michael Riffaterre, New York, Columbia University Press, 1982.

[21] See Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale ( Paris, Payot, 1973, pp. 45ff), wherein utterances (paroles) are made possible by the system of langue (the structure or grammar of language). 

[22] Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, tr. By Stephen Heath, New York, The Noonday Press, 1988, “The Death of the Author,” pp. 42-148.

[23] See Derrida, Of Grammatology, tr. By Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Baltimore,  John Hopkins University Press, 1976, chapters 2 and 4 on supplements.  

[24] In Christopher  Norris, Derrida, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, p.  201.

[25] The flow of petro dollars in the 1950s led to many commissions for modern buildings in Baghdad. Among the architects hired to design various public buildings were Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, Gio Ponti and Marinus Dudock. Of Le Corbusier’s ambitious design for an Olympic city, only the gymnasium was built in 1980.