The Logic of Parerga
Catalogue essay by Erdem Taşdelen
Over the past century, there seems to have been a growing consensus on the idea that what defines a work of art as art is the context it appears within. It no longer seems productive to ask what conditions have to be met for a work of art to be defined as such, as these conditions are contingent on the contexts in which the work exists, as well as the parameters set by an artist’s body of work. This is why the question “But is it art?” has become a cliché; what is of importance is not whether a work is or isn’t art, but rather what it does, given that it is already presented as art. Contemporary art discourses tend to accept that the status of a work of art as art is a pregiven condition, and analyze how the work functions retrospectively. Such analyses do not attempt to provide prescriptive frameworks, but rather try to understand the specific ideas and relations represented and produced through the work. Therefore it is not surprising that more and more artists have been turning to the question of context as the main preoccupation of their artistic activities.
It seems appropriate, then, to seek to understand the physical and cultural contexts which allow the work to be perceived as work, instead of looking for artistic qualities that exist within it inherently. Derrida’s approach to thinking about art in The Truth in Painting is along such lines, where he draws from Kant’s Critique of Judgment in thinking about what frames a work. This question is employed by Derrida at first in a literal sense (and then turns into a metaphorical and epistemological inquiry by extension): When looking at a framed painting, the frame is part of the wall, whereas when looking at the wall, the frame is part of the painting. The function of the frame, then, is to separate the interior from the exterior.
But what is the frame itself? It seems to provide a liminal space that cannot be pinned down as of the work or outside of the work, so it must have a logic of its own. This is what Derrida calls the parergon: “Neither work (ergon) nor outside the work (hors d’oeuvre), neither inside nor outside, neither above nor below, it disconcerts any opposition but does not remain indeterminate and it gives rise to the work.”1 The function of the parergon, then, is to create a framework that contextualizes (and recontextualizes) what is being framed.
This investigation of the frame (both as a literal picture frame and a metaphorical concept that denotes context) forms the core of Vancouver-based artist Babak Golkar’s new series of deformed frames entitled Parergon. Much of Golkar’s work draws attention to physical and cultural contexts that are utilized in making meaning, and this is more strikingly evident in his new series where frames are enlarged to dramatic proportions. At first sight, Golkar’s frames can literally be seen as broken parerga, no longer framing enclosed entities but opening up to the rest of the gallery space. Since these frames are not closed, the viewer is able to view their cross sections and recognize that they are extrusions of architectural silhouettes, such as the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The physicality of the frames begins to function as a metaphorical allusion to religion and architecture.
There is a complexity that arises through linking these architectural structures (whose religious contexts have shifted) to the picture frame, since the frame is largely a legacy of Western art history and therefore Christianity. Although enclosing borders were used in the art of Ancient Egyptians, it was in Europe that picture frames became a widely accepted norm in painting.2 It is also interesting to note that before the advent of the movable picture frame, paintings were built into altarpieces with unmovable frames that referenced the exteriors of churches.3 This indicates that in its inception, the picture frame was seen as part of religious architecture, and its function was to establish a visual relationship between a painting and its surroundings.
What could it mean, then, to frame the frame in a cross-cultural context of religion? It is important to remember here that Golkar’s choices of architectural reference involve buildings that have been recontextualized through different ideologies, which serves as a reminder that architecture itself is a means to frame the built environment. This is echoed in the writing of Elizabeth Grosz, where, following Deleuze & Guattari, she argues that “[t]he emergence of the ‘frame’ is the condition of all the arts and is the particular contribution of architecture to the taming of the virtual, the territorialization of the uncontrollable forces of the earth”.4 If we perceive architecture as a framing device, buildings will be understood to function as parerga that bridge spatial perception with cultural notions.
Within this framework, many political readings of Babak Golkar’s frames immediately seem possible. If the picture frame itself is accepted as an essentially Western device, the implication might be the domination of Western culture over the East. Or, conversely, as the frame is being used in an Islamic context (in the transformation of the Hagia Sophia from a church to a mosque, to cite one example), we could say that Western entities are being appropriated by the East as a means of agency. But these hasty interpretations take the binary opposition between the West and East as a priori, hindering other more complex possibilities. It seems more productive to keep the fluid nature of these framing devices in mind, and to realize that the same devices can be used in framing different ideologies. This approach can also help us understand the metaphorical dimension of Golkar’s broken frames; although still recognizable as frames, they are unable to encapsulate and exhaust all of the possible elements that will constitute the entity being framed. As such, they will necessarily contain a multiplicity of cultural contexts blending into one another, making it impossible to fit them into stereotypical categories. Perhaps, then, the function of parerga will be to draw attention to the act of framing itself, rather than what is being framed.
1 Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987) 9.
2 Diane Day, “A Survey of Frame History, Part 1: Panel Painting” in Picture Framing Magazine, August 1998, 82-84.
3 Tracy Gill, “Frames of Reference” in Picture Framing Magazine, May 2000, 85.
4 Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) 11.