The Sense of an Ending
Dane Mitchell’s complex, multipart project, Post hoc (2019), inscribes itself in a specific art historical tradition — Western conceptualism — while helping to mobilise and manifest that tradition’s latent political content. Indeed, it could be argued that Post hoc retroactively confers upon it an unsuspected critical coherence and sociohistorical significance. How does Post hoc do this? In order to begin to answer that question, I must state that at the heart of Post hoc is a staggering catalogue of things that are no more. This catalogue comprises a vast and radically diverse assortment of categories which include everything from extinct animals to dead languages to burned books to lost art to former kingdoms to disappeared rivers, and much, much more. At the time of writing, these multifarious lists contain over two million vanished, obsolete, lost or destroyed things, ideas, procedures, et cetera. Throughout the duration of the Venice Biennale, they will be systematically enunciated by an automated voice in a tapered anechoic chamber and broadcast from the New Zealand pavilion to receiving antennae (stealth towers) situated throughout Venice, which are themselves fake, industrially constructed pine trees. However, for the sake of this text, let us stick to the lists. For the mere existence of these lists speaks to the many paradoxes that richly texture and animate this artwork.
The first and most important paradox of the lists is how they inscribe Post hoc in the world and tradition of Western conceptualism precisely through erasure, assembling it through absence, abundantly consolidating it as a thing, an idea, conceptual architecture and machine, through abundant loss. These lists are therefore characterised both by inscription and erasure, almost at one and the same time, a figure, or paradox, which has a particularly loaded and significant pedigree throughout modern and postwar literature and art, and, in particular, in Western conceptualism. Few thinkers embody this paradox more succinctly and expansively than the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. Indeed, in considering Mitchell’s catalogue of lists, I often find myself reflecting, as if in knee-jerk reaction, on its ‘Borgesian’
character. I state this in full and complete cognisance of the fact that Borges, and something being allegedly ‘Borgesian’, is one of the more taboo figures of art-speak in contemporary art discourse. This is due, firstly, to the extent to which Borgesian, as an adjective, has been abused in the past decade or so; and secondly, to its vagueness, its lazy lack of precision. And yet, I can’t help but think and acknowledge that Post hoc is nevertheless demonstrably and even quintessentially Borgesian. Now that I have committed the first critical crime, let me see if I can avoid falling into the second, and possibly redeem the first, by attempting to define what Borgesian is. Indeed, just what does Borgesian signify beyond, say, erudite, sophisticated to the point of pretentious, and possessing a penchant for literary hijinks? I would say first
and foremost, a morbid tendency toward the encyclopedic. Yes, morbid. For the encyclopedic chez Borges is never innocent, never without a palpable measure of vanity, pathology, and even a touch of evil. It’s as if he were always looking at the encyclopedic from the perspective of Greek tragedy, in which any will toward omniscience was always already a punishable act of hubris. But at the same time, Borges is fully aware of the non-negotiability of this very human tendency, for he himself knew that he — one gets the feeling, regrettably — suffered from it. This culpable quality can be seen in everything from the Library of Babel (a library which allegedly contains every book ever written) to the Aleph (a single point from which the entire world and history may be seen).01 Meanwhile, I would say that another crucial component of the Borgesian is vanitas, or, to put it in another term, erasure. This acute awareness of the ephemerality of life, and of human effort, is doomed by the brevity of life, by its being if not eventually forgotten then superseded by other developments (either good or evil — indeed good and evil are highly mutable qualifications in Borges’ work), and ultimately rendered inconsequential. This is dealt with in different ways in an almost dizzying number of stories, ranging from ‘The Immortal’ (1947) to ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941) to perhaps most importantly, ‘The Book of Sand’ (1975) — a story about an infinite book whose
pages after being read can never be relocated upon reopening. The book, it just happens, of erasure. Indeed, in many ways, Borges’ work exists exactly between this paradox: total inscription and total erasure.
Now that I have attempted to define Borgesian, it is possible to ask whether or not Post hoc is indeed actually Borgesian. I would and will emphatically say yes, it is. For not only are we faced with the encyclopedic, we are so from the perspective of pure erasure, of a prodigious, ongoing and all-encompassing withdrawal: the encyclopedic from the precipice of, if not the Book of Sand, then the Library of Alexandria. Of conflagration. Of decimation. Of a vast, virtually unending inventory of loss. Borges, and the Borgesian, take on a renewed importance insofar as he constitutes one of the earliest — along with Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History 02 — and most incisive, not to mention economic, critiques of the Enlightenment project and the various notions of progress associated with it — though ‘critique’ is perhaps too strong a word. It is probably much more of the order of a scepticism, even a proleptic weariness. Mitchell’s Post hoc enters this discussion from an even more neutral, if elegiac perspective. Where the likes of these specific precedents gazed out at a progress-obsessed horizon with suspicion, Post hoc acknowledges that we are clearly living in the horizon’s aftermath, and, from our retrospective regard, it has become clearer than ever that a history of progress is actually a history of obsolescence, destruction and loss. In many ways, Post hoc could be seen as an Anthropocene 03 version of the Library of Alexandria,
and an inverted one at that, in that Post hoc, like the origins of written poetry, which are said to allegedly come from the inventory of ancient shipping lists, is an inventory of that which is no more. The inversion of the lost library of Alexandria is located in the fact that what has been lost here is much more than books. And yet that which has been lost has been transformed if not into books, then lexical traces — stand-ins for books — passing indexical invocations of the bygone, as in when John Ashbery writes, ‘All things seem mention of themselves’,04 except for here they do not seem, but they are, precisely because they are no longer. As such, they have become nothing more than mere mention and in being so, they become part of and reveal one of the darkest, most haunting truths of modernity — modernity’s ghost.
It is perhaps no coincidence that this ghost, and the epistemological systems of vanity and futility which propel it, assumed a heightened visibility in the late 1960s, just after the crime and madness of colonialism became most apparent 05 — a historical moment synonymous with the culmination of modernity. These systems are reduced and rendered their most transparent in the great amount of art being produced at the time, ultimately constituting the conceptual tradition in which Post hoc directly and elegantly inscribes itself. Nothing characterises this tradition better than — it just so happens, again — inscription and
erasure. From the retrospective, organising telescope of history, the conceptual tradition could be said to begin at the very origins of writing as well as the Library at Alexandria, and extend on up through modern literature and the recent history of historical conceptualism.06 If Borges’ work sought to allegorise the hubris of humankind, and especially modernity and the Enlightenment, historical conceptualism could be said to illustrate this hubris in its particularities, to map it out, less as a place than as a procedure — a procedure that inevitably allegorises the procedure, the unravelling set into motion by modernity itself.07 And what better way to do this than to represent it through humankind’s greatest, most singular capacity and medium of hubris — language.
One thinks of everything from On Kawara’s One Million Years (1999), both as a series of books, performance and broadcast recording, to Robert Barry’s book One Billion Colored Dots (2008). Instances of sustained lexical folly, they are preceded and dogged by German artist Hanne Darboven’s vast Konstruktionen (1966–67), or ‘daily arithmetic’, which she later converted into Mathematical Music (1980s), complex numerical systems in dizzyingly large-scale installations. A similar act of deliberate quixotry was carried out by French-Polish painter Roman Opalka, whose goal was to paint the numbers 1 to infinity
throughout his life. By the time of his death in 2011, aged 79, he had painted up to 5.5 million. In 1968, Opalka began recording with a tape recorder his voice speaking each number as he painted it. Beyond their linguistic, numerical, and lexical affinities, one thing that Opalka and Mitchell have in common is the impossibility of finishing their respective projects. But where Opalka’s project necessarily concludes with his mortal cessation, Mitchell’s Post hoc implicitly comprises a future in which there is no longer anyone who initiated it into existence. In a way, Post hoc could be seen as a machine, speaking figuratively, a mechanism, or maybe better, protocol to articulate and register erasure and withdrawal indefinitely.
Two more key, and incredibly significant instances of this conceptual tradition are worth mentioning. One is Marcel Broodthaers’ film La Pluie (Projet pour un texte) (Rain (Project for a Text)) (1969); the other, Christine Kozlov’s, Information: No Theory (1971). Broodthaers’ well-known film consists of imagery of the Belgian poet writing with pen and ink on paper in the ‘rain’ (a deluge of water is dumped on him). He tries repeatedly to write a text only to see his efforts washed away. I can think of no better metaphor for what we’re discussing — except maybe for Kozlov’s lesser known work. In this work, American
conceptualist Kozlov uses an analogue tape recorder to record the ‘information’ (ambient noise) of a room. Once the tape reaches its end, it starts over, necessarily recording over, and therefore erasing, what it recorded before — that is, inscription and erasure. The loop is potentially infinite. It leads nowhere and reveals nothing, but its own procedure, which, with its interest in ‘information’, becomes a succinct and cutting indictment of modernity, gesturing invisibly and eloquently toward its ghost. Indeed, the era’s preoccupation with ‘information’, including the eponymous exhibition organised by Kynaston McShine in 1970
at the Museum of Modern Art and Hans Haacke’s live time-based installation, News (1969), in which the day’s news was printed on reams of paper as if it were so much piled up and meaningless information, is no mere coincidence. The epoch’s preoccupation with information and its banal reductiveness becomes a perfect cipher for the radical, almost endgame logic of Enlightenment epistemology that historical conceptualism continually sought to mirror and embody in its most reductio ad absurdum form. The surfeit of knowledge becomes little more than a surfeit of information, as insignificant and forgettable as the day’s news (few images resonate more in today’s information-saturated world).
Following and building on this tradition, Post hoc both ups the ante and — at the risk of indulging in even more hubris — gestures toward a terminus. This gesture can be found both in the artwork’s machine-like status — the fact of potentially encompassing a future of loss — and in its sheer breadth. If the modernist literature of, say, Borges and historical conceptualism sought to allegorise the hubris of modernity, then Mitchell’s Post hoc quite literally catalogues modernity’s impact, for better or for worse, and meticulously indexes its aftermath. The sense of an ending, of a terminus, is compounded by the fact of the catalogue of lists of loss being enunciated by an automated voice and transmitted via fake pine trees (two aspects which suggest the post). And although I have mapped out and located Post hoc within a tradition which is critical of modernity, a tradition, what is more, that articulates the latent political content of Western conceptualism, it must be said that Post hoc itself is ultimately less a critique than an elaborate constat, an observation, or better yet, a registration. Its business is not to enjoin us to change our ways or condemn the hubris of its origins, but to state the facts: this was a thing which is no more, and this is another
which is also no more. Ad, as it were, infinitum.
01 See Borges’ short stories ‘The Library of Babel’ (1941) and ‘The Aleph’ (1945/1974).
02 From Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1940), Benjamin famously wrote: ‘His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the
angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back his turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.’ Walter Benjamin, Harry Zohn (trans), Illuminations: Theses on the Philosophy of History, Schocken Books, New York, 1968, p 257.
03 Anthropocene because what is lost is not a library and everything it contains, but rather the world, which that library would seek to describe. In this version of the Anthropocene, the traces of humanity, their fatal mark upon the world, replaces the world itself.
04 John Ashbery, ‘Grand Galop’ in Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror, Penguin Books, New York, 1974, p 140.
05 I am thinking in particular of Algerian War of Independence (1954–62), itself a symbol of the death throes of colonial occupation.
06 The beauty, irony and paradox of being ‘inscribed’ in a long history of ‘erasure’ does anything but discredit precisely what Post hoc sets out to do. It merely compounds it, underlines exactly how it elegiacally functions.
07 Make no mistake about it, this is a thoroughly political position. It may not seem like it upon first glance, but it is a position which is highly critical of the Cartesian binary of nature vs culture, and the ideology of progress initiated by the Enlightenment. What is more, the further we move into history, the more political this position will become, transcending concerns of nation states, political ideology, and even ultimately, issues of class. The wrath of Olympus, incurred by Prometheus, does not discriminate, nor does the hubris it essentially inaugurated.