“There is neither fate nor misfortune, but forces to overcome.”
~Niurgun Bootor, Siberian folk hero
In the closing moments of Roman Polanski’s film The Pianist (2002), we see the protagonist disappear from view into the detritus of what was once Warsaw. Gargantuan piles of rubble define this war-ravaged landscape, all which remains of the decimated Polish city. A similar passage in The Rings of Saturn by the late German author W.G. Sebald recounts an anecdote about the reconstruction of German cities in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Salvageable bricks were collected from the bombed-out debris and systematically stacked amidst the refuse in perfect piles of a thousand, the one-thousandth brick positioned on end atop each pile, denoting its final tally.
French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet’s meticulous description of a destroyed cityscape in Topology of a Phantom City invites superficial comparison with both Sebald’s passage and Polanski’s film but invokes a decidedly more surreal interpretation of destruction. The residue of destruction is here divorced from immediate human accountability and meditated upon aesthetically. This fictitious aftermath, available as it is for the author’s metaphoric ruminations, suggests an ideologically frozen landscape in which, at least potentially, it may again be possible to creatively intervene. These accounts form a collective and sustained meditation on the ruin and its potential for metaphoric regeneration.
Jason Fitzpatrick’s work addresses notions of ruination peripherally. Through an interactive process of establishing and refining spatio-temporal boundaries, his work seeks to encompass the act of constructing and reconfiguring a place within the gallery where, for all intents and purposes, the activity of work itself is displayed and disseminated. Sculptural and performative interventions are orchestrated to harness, reorder and rebuild a kind of surrogate habitat. In this manner the very process of labour yields a sculptural environment in perpetually sustained, rather than suspended, animation.
The artist has stated that a key component of his research and practice is to formulate an understanding of sculpture’s inseparability from its environmental conditions, where residue and milieu are continually and mutually informed by one another. This raises questions regarding the nature of sculptural exploration. What constitutes the totality of this experience? And might this ‘expanded field,’ as it were, to borrow Rosalind Kraus’ terminology, in turn waylay the boundaries for what has been traditionally considered the purview of sculptural endeavors? By extending Beuys’ ‘social sculpture’ to, in particular, the more situational, performative and interactive exploits of Vito Acconci, Marina Abramovic, and Janine Antoni, Fitzpatrick’s work has sought to marry personal ritual to larger art cultural developments.
This process was poignantly staged in an ongoing work entitled Sartre (2001). The artist, having created wax bricks from a rubber mold, added them continuously to a pile, even in his absence, by shipping additional bricks to the exhibition venue to be supplemented daily for the duration of the installation. Rather like pieces salvaged from analogous ruins located elsewhere, the bricks become the physical manifestation of their own material and metaphoric transformation.
This transformative process — initiated within the studio and brought full circle in the gallery — came to mirror the fundamental principles of chemical alteration affected, in this instance, when applying heat to melt wax. This strategy is already latent in the artist’s statements about his own work, concerned as they are with utilizing the alchemical stuff, or raw materials, that comprise the human body. By integrating basic foodstuffs into his daily interventions, the artist literally employs the carbon or base matter that both fuels and makes up the body proper, and the majority of the elements it subsequently produces or interacts with. One might, in turn, liken Fitzpatrick’s studio process to the American chemist H. Tracy Hall’s discovery of the method for manufacturing synthetic diamonds in the 1950s: a scientific procedure that also affected, metaphorically speaking, a curious symbiosis between the chemist’s own body and the matter generated through it – carbon being an essential component for both human reproduction, and diamond synthesis, as well as the very paper used to issue Hall’s patents for the process itself.
There is an integral forthrightness in this approach to sculpture, a matter-of-fact disposition which is, however, deceptive in that it potentially downplays the transformative potency embedded within the work itself. For Fuel (2010), shown at Diagonale in its inaugural exhibition, the artist in fact recycled the individual wax bricks that collectively constituted Sartre. One hundred eighty pounds of wax were heated, melted and cooled to yield an ontologically different product from the base materials that constitute it.
Simple molecules are combined and subjected to energy in order to produce a new material amalgam and, yet — as the Argentinian author César Aira in his novella The Literary Conference points out — such processes are, in fact, singular if not unique. It is the artist’s personal and particular corporeal interface that determines the trajectory and ultimately the result of any given undertaking, whether studio-based, performative or situational in nature.
Fitzpatrick’s continual envelopment of the gallery and its occupants – in the work exhibited concurrently at Diagonale alongside Fuel – invites comparison with the various tent-like dwellings of nomadic and displaced peoples across the globe, thereby invoking something of a survival strategy, and by extension a proposal for the consideration of alternate modes of aesthetic contemplation. In this work, the artist repeatedly initiates a series of spatial interventions to create an installation using materials continually displaced within the gallery. Fitzpatrick’s actions in the gallery include rolling, folding, shifting, lifting, dragging, leaning and their subsequent undoing by employing selected materials such as steel and copper rods, wax-treated canvas tarpaulins, dulse and the artist’s own body. Moreover, he has previously created video documentation of these daily actions, which in turn become part of the exhibition. In this manner, the effluvial matter produced through labor, in tandem with the materials configured within the gallery, becomes the alchemical stuff comprising Fitzpatrick’s oeuvre.
Not unlike Acconci, Abramovic, or Antoni, Fitzpatrick simultaneously employs his own body as subject and object, progenitor to and interlocutor for his work, but, rather, always in service of it. Never synonymous with the work, the artists’ body ultimately is both the vehicle of and for creative expression, not merely the site of display.
True metaphors are spatial in that they literally encompass the trajectory along which meaning is rendered manifest. What this suggests is that work itself, this traversing from one orientation to another, is vital to the unveiling of metaphor. In Polanski’s film, the aftermath of destruction is precisely that which sustains metaphor. The ruin as metaphor will generate scenarios for building anew because vision itself cannot be sustained without the apperception required to evoke change. In other words, metaphor is the phoenix that will precipitate the resurrection of ruinous structures.
Human enterprise invariably employs aesthetics in the wake of catastrophe. The building of a tower of bricks, not unlike inuksuit, grave markers or temple mounts, serves as both physical marker and visual testament to the potential for metaphoric regeneration.
Moreover, the Inuit have linguistically incorporated this transformative aspect available through metaphor within the very geographic markers erected to denote the human figure. The word inuksuk translates as: “something which acts for or performs the function of a person.” These traces of human endeavor culminate, perhaps most ostentatiously, in the Great Wall, witnessed from a lunar vantage point, like a geographical scar on the earth’s surface.
Jason Fitzpatrick’s work invites these interpretations, by surpassing the inherently corporeal negotiation of space and time, and addressing the specifically peripatetic nature of inanimate bodies existing in tandem with bodies proper. Healing, usually thought of as a process of physical or psychological renewal or regeneration, might here be more generously reinterpreted as the means by which ethically conscious aesthetic action is both possible and sustainable.