The S.A.W. Show, former Finnieston saw doctors, installation view, Glasgow, 2007

It’s summer and Alex Gross is on a road trip in the US with friend and fellow artist Sandy Smith. They are collaborating on works as they go, and have already had ‘hit and run’ shows in Las Vegas and Seattle. At Central Utah Art Center, their show, The Object Moved By Its Own Success, opened on 3 October. In December this year they are going to present some of this latest stuff in the New Work Scotland programme at Edinburgh’s Collective Gallery.

‘When we were starting this road trip’, Alex writes from Utah, ‘Sandy and I talked a lot about what kind of a relation with the environment we would put ourselves in… We actually started observing tourists at sights [sic] of interest, and how they approach the touristic prop and try to understand it, or just straight away make a photo in front of it and move on… In terms of my own practice, I seem to focus more and more on the relation between spectator and sculpture. The set up between the tourist and touristic prop seems to fit into that quite well.’

Driving and amateur photography, road trips and tourism: I want to follow Gross’s lead and sketch some of the effects these leisure activities might have on the conditions surrounding the production and reception of art, and consider how they might encourage characteristic modes of attention, and promote particular forms of subjective experience. The following is offered hesitantly as a preliminary framework for these questions.

In the early 1950s, the American artist Tony Smith experienced an epiphany while driving on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike. ‘This drive was a revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art.’ (Tony Smith, Artforum, Vol 1, No 4, 1966)
The meaning of Smith’s experience was subsequently much discussed, notably in Michael Fried’s essay ‘Art and Objecthood’, 1967. Fried’s scepticism led him to deny the artistic value of the car ride, finding in it only an ‘abandoned situation’, an empty stage set (note Gross’s repeated reference to the ‘touristic prop’ as a feature of his own trip). The relative values of subjectivity and objectivity had become scrambled; that was part of the problem, according to Fried.

Experiences such as Smith’s drive on the turnpike do not allow, Fried claimed, for the full exercise of unfettered subjectivity because the subject (the experiencing individual, Smith) is always conscious of ‘the sheer persistence’ of the experience. Such persistence ‘establishes the experience itself as something like that of an object’ which, in turn, ‘makes him a subject—makes him subject’. Rather than producing the triumph of subjectivity (transcendence), the dominance of the object produces only an experience of ‘distancing’ and isolation, a mundane and dreary literalism. (According to Robert Smithson, Fried’s real problem was that the Smith’s experience occurred in the real time of the world, rather than in the arrested time of the art gallery.)

Alex Gross and Sandy Smith, Untitled, 2008, green lightbulbs and clay, Las Vegas
Alex Gross and Sandy Smith, Untitled, 2008, green lightbulbs and clay, Las Vegas

It is also possible to think of amateur photography in terms of the surrender of subject (the sensibility of the individual photographer) to object (the ‘objective’ norms and expectations provided by photography-as-social-institution). One might reasonably assume that the widespread availability of cameras would result in an outpouring of individual creativity. On the contrary, one is struck by the narrowness of the resultant creative expression, by the amateur photographer’s adherence to a restricted range of subjects and tropes. As Pierre Bourdieu observed, the rule of amateur photography might be: ‘One cannot photograph what ought not to be photographed’.

The fact that it is so easy to drive almost anywhere and ‘capture’ a scene with a camera leads to other considerations. Photography can easily turn a scene, a complex place, into a thing, an object, a ‘prop’. Thus reality is diminished and ‘de-realised’ (stripped of its subjective dimension) through the act of its mechanical recording. ‘There is no doubt that nature, as it manifests itself to the camera, is different from nature as it manifests itself to the human eye; different above all, in that for a perceptual space permeated by human consciousness is substituted one which is not.’ (Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol 2, Harvard University Press, 2001) The camera and the car offer too many possibilities, too much potential material.

‘This plurality of places, the demands it makes on the powers of observation and description (the impossibility of seeing everything or saying everything), and the resulting feeling of ‘disorientation’… causes a break or discontinuity between the spectator-traveller and the space of the landscape he is contemplating or rushing through. This prevents him from seeing it as a place, from being fully present in it […]

‘Travel … constructs a fictional relationship between gaze and landscape … [W]e should … remember that there are spaces in which the individual feels himself to be a spectator without paying too much attention to the spectacle.’ (Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity, Verso, 1995)

The effects of ‘subjective distancing’, along with those of de-realisation, fictionalisation and spectacularisation, encourage a new perceptual sensibility, one that responds to new forms of address. This is surely what Alex Gross recognises when he states, ‘I want to challenge the spectator a bit by putting an element of failure into the environments and structures’. Perhaps this ‘element of failure’ might be identified as something akin to Bataille’s concept of the informe, characterised by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss in Formless: A User’s Guide, Zone Books, 1997, as ‘a de-classing in every sense of the term: in the separations between space and time (pulse); in the systems of spatial mapping (horizontalisation, the production of the lower-than-low); in the qualifications of matter (base materialism); in the structural order of systems (entropy)’.

At least three of the central and recurrent features of Alex Gross’s works—an apparent structural instability in their fabrication and presentation (an uneasy balance between vertical stability and the threat of horizontal forces to pull low); a use of formless base materials, such as clay and earth (cf shit); a disregard for the distinction within ‘the structural order of [cultural] systems’ between natural forms and architectural forms—could thus be understood in terms of the deconstructive, ‘de-classing’ relation of the informe to the ‘structural order’ of binary oppositions in general.

Drive-by spectatorship and tourist photography produce particular kinds of relation between the binary pair ‘experiencing subject’ and ‘object of experience’, foreclosing these relations too hastily in favour of the subject’s submission to the ‘sheer persistence’ of the object. In Gross’s work these relations between subject and object are re-staged with an outcome that is left open. Alongside lower-than-low elements of informe there is often an equally significant element of glossy material (sleek and shiny painted surfaces; polished and glinting steel rods) that adds a fetishistic, seductively spectacular character to the work.

The consequent disjunction between base repulsion and fetishistic attraction in the sculptural object thus provides a divided experience in the viewing subject. The experience does not position the subject as either wholly passive or wholly active, but as unresolved. As such, the failure achieved by Gross through his work becomes the failure of the work to impose itself as an over-determining object of experience. In other words, there is a freedom here.

Did I mention that these works are also disarmingly playful and absurd?

John Calcutt is a writer and lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art