I have been interested lately in the work of a number of artists whose work, for me, shares certain qualities, despite being created in different media. This basic quality is that they recombine diverse materials in a personal way to create something new, or observe some single thing in a way that causes the viewer/listener to see it or hear it in a new way. Some, but not all, of them are explicitly collage oriented, but all of them create new meaning by placing familiar materials in new contexts, or look at things from an unexpected viewpoint. In future posts, I hope to examine some of these artists in detail. For starters, I would like to look at collage in general.
Maybe by now collage is considered old news, as it has been a major, established art form for a century now (Donald Barthelme has gone so far as to assert that the principle of collage is the central principle of all art in the twentieth century), but, as new media are introduced, new artists are always coming along and using the content of these new media as the source materials for collage-based work. Collage is always fresh and always necessary because, by recontextualizing materials, it has the power to shake things up in the eye/ear/mind of the beholder. This is because our everyday existence is predicated on things -- words, objects, sounds, artworks -- all having a culturally determined meaning, significance, or order. A piece of music is expected to progress in a certain fashion. There are unspoken, agreed upon relationships between words and the concepts they signify. These agreements are generally benign, and enable us to communicate, so that when I say "sky," you don't think that I mean "briefcase." Still, it is worth shaking up the complacency that comes with our unconscious reliance on these norms of communication.
When things (images, or sounds, or words) are removed from their original contexts and placed in a new environment, alongside other things from other contexts, the results short-circuit the parts of our brains that rely on those unspoken agreements to make sense of the world, the circuitry that says: "This is called 'table';" "This chord resolves to that chord;" 'That is good behavior;" "This doesn't belong with that," etc. Bits of music sampled out of context do not progress or resolve in the way that music is "supposed" to; this subverts our expectations. Being confronted with works that reorder the world in this way causes us to have to challenge the hegemony of our entire system of order and values.
Challenging ourselves in this way is especially important because those agreed-upon systems of communication are not always inherently benign. To begin with, while language needs to follow certain rules, and there must be culturally determined agreements about words' meanings and about social values, these conventions can seduce us into believing that the world actually corresponds to our perception of it. And the construction of, and belief in, "reality" can have political implications. "Reality is in the eye of the beholder; or rather, what is regarded as real depends on how reality is defined by a particular social group." Alternate interpretations must repeatedly be sacrificed in order to construct the dominant definition of reality, a process which can effectively obliterate our ability to experience anything independently. Once the mind believes in its own perception of so-called reality, abetted by the closed correspondences of language, it tends not only to correlate words with things and concepts, but to aggrandize itself, and then to categorize and systematize, to develop preferences, partiality, "taste."
By subverting our expectations of how things interact, resolve, or behave, collage can make us question our underlying, unexamined beliefs about the nature of reality. Because the materials in collage don't "make sense" in the conventional way, when we experience a collage, we are forced to examine our usual procedures for "making sense" out of the world, and our underlying conception of what constitutes reality. Collage calls into question our entire method of creating meaning, and encourages us to make meaning intentionally, rather than by unconsciously relying on the conventions of our society and our upbringing. By presenting together images or sounds that we might judge individually as having more or less importance or merit, collage exposes to us our hidden prejudices. When we look and listen and read without these prejudices, we can begin to learn how to see and to hear and to think for ourselves. And when the canoe and the vacuum cleaner make love, it is easier for us to love what we encounter.
[I do not have a collage of a canoe and a vacuum cleaner in a forest (and I chose not to illustrate this post with a specific example of a collage), but at the head of this post is a photograph I took of an abandoned boat inexplicably found sitting at the curb of a deserted street in Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York, a neighborhood of warehouses, bus and garbage truck garages, and vacant lots. True, this spot is just a few blocks from a small waterfront area, but still, it blew my mind. And at the foot is an incongruous picture of vacuum cleaners in the grass, from The Heidelberg Project, by Tyree Guyton, Detroit, Michigan (photo found on the Cult Case website).]
1. Oliver Sacks, "To See and Not to See," in An Anthropologist on Mars (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 114.
2. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: British Broadcasting Company and Penguin Books, 1972), 29.
3. Max Ernst (describing collage), Beyond Painting (1948). Quoted in Briony Fer, David Batchelor, and Paul Wood, Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art Between the Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 57.
4. Gunther Kress & Theo van Leeuwen, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 158.