The Absent and the Museal

by Philip Kavanagh

For those who value the communal, live art has, temporarily, ceased to exist.

Its traces continue to make the rounds, but documentation’s ability to communicate anything of a performance beyond taxonomic secondary use is doubtful. It is the virtue of immediacy for live art, of its flesh and blood engagement, that ensures its current hiatus is unavoidable.

I find myself thinking more and more about those altogether strange things housed in our more naval-gazing museums. That lot that is gilded, mounted, stuffed, preserved. While these stewarding institutions resort to virtual tours and similar projects in this time of closure, when we consider the objects within and the relationship we as a public have with them, it feels somehow like business as usual. These things indifferently persist. Seeing them isn’t necessary. We know they’re there, and somehow, that suffices. They enjoy continuity in their objecthood within those walls. Uneffected. Unaffecting. If live art is fragile then we might consider these artefacts and their cultures antithetical to such fragility. My problem though is this one: why is there so little in their sense of authoritative permanence to draw on, given that a sense of stability might be useful in these times of such uncertainty?

Douglas Crimp’s On the Museum’s Ruin (1983) opens ominously with Adorno discussing the German term museal, meaning museumlike’. “[It] has unpleasant overtones”, he notes. “It describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. They owe their preservation more to historical respect than to the needs of the present”. If our relationship to these museal objects was ‘dying’ then, I am tempted to suggest that it is has now expired. There seems something absurd in positing, given our current situation, the sort of disinterested engagement these embalmed things demand.

It is not a matter of priority, that people have more important things to be doing and don’t yet realise how much they miss these artefacts. In fact, at the time of writing, other than a concern for the more vulnerable in our society and an anxiety about global stability (if such a thing existed to begin with), one of the most organic global solidarities we see manifesting is that against boredom. If ever people had time, they have it now. My gut feeling is that we understand, whether consciously or otherwise, that dwelling on such sepulchral aesthetic relationships offers us little in a time when the unique fragility of life becomes heightened. If there is a practice to sustain the aesthetic relationships we deem vital to us, it should be a practice of life. Should you find there is a sense of restlessness, of anxiety, even of loss in its absence, is that not telling that live art might approximate such a practice?

Live art needs people, it needs life. As long as it requires this of us, we will irreplaceably require it.

Philip Kavanagh is a writer on art based in Dublin

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