Published November 21, 2013 by Andrea Williamson in Visual Arts
In her book Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai references Herman Melville’s character Bartleby the scrivener as a near complete example of political and emotional inertness. In the story, a while into his new job as a wealthy Wall Street lawyer’s scrivener, Bartleby politely refuses to do his job with each renewed request. He also declines to move from his small office corner until finally, he is imprisoned. The scrivener is known to scholars of short fiction as a classic embodiment of clinical depression that results from powerlessness and suspended agency in a modern bureaucratic world.
There is a sense today that we are at a loss to change the face of government policies, our cities and even our daily lives. We seek retreat from the mechanical churning of ordered production to something personal, heartfelt and honest. These feelings of dysphoria are felt ever more acutely by artists attempting radical political change using a language that is incompatible or untranslatable within today’s political systems.
Steven Cottingham, in his literature-soaked exhibition at (the fittingly equivocal) Untitled Arts Society, makes his subject this very incapacity to speak one’s truth in a world with no ears for it. The artist provides a simple pamphlet as a guide of sorts, reminiscent of Christian salvation propaganda found littered on the sidewalk, which bares the exhibition’s title: All My Faith to See. On the verso a quote by D.E. Ofullnaegjand offers, “I know your tongue yearns like a beast from a cave to find an unknown burrow, a new language, a new love.” Though the works referenced inside the pamphlet and exhibited in the small Beltline gallery are made from various materials and processes, each of them expresses this yearning, like the scrivener’s, to “break through” bureaucratic limitations.
In a bold gesture that brings the above-mentioned metaphor back to a physical instance, the front window is taped up as though a rock broke through it. A cardboard piece used as temporary repair was once a mailing package; postal stickers reveal that it contained a meteor rock shipped to the artist c/o the gallery. The metaphor is clear: in place of the real rock breaking the window, the action exists as idea, conveyed in language and circuitous administrative processes. The involvement of the postal service, Internet vendors, gallery administration and even gallery architecture within the making of the work draws attention to the invisible and ubiquitous institutions that govern our movements even within the art world. At the heart of it, the physical meteor as the cause of all this administrative work is nowhere to be seen. Unknown whether the meteor was actually thrown through the glass or not, this piece titled “Even here, even now, fate will find us out” stacks reality upon idea and questions the relevancy of real action in an abstract world.
The other works in the show, arranged minimally and carefully under the guidance of feng shui’s spatial awareness, further this comparison of passion and inaction: a Kafka quotation from the unfinished novel The Castle is written in invisible ink; a Gabriel Garcia Márquez quotation is written on cardboard in precise and artful calligraphy by a dispossessed and homeless man Cottingham met on the street ; a cyanotype of personal items is made somewhat illegible by the inexact process of sun exposure; hearts are carved into a tree branch that was felled by the flood. The tragic romantic figure who inhabits each of these pieces expresses unrequited love that falls through the cracks of a concrete world, like the charged words of a formal letter between speech writer and politician, on a page covered in magnetic paint, in a piece called “I Know a Place in Santa Fe.”
For a show that positions itself as a yearning for love and personal expression, there is little trace of the artist’s own words or hand. Instead, all of the pieces enlist or appropriate the work or skills of willing or unknowing collaborators. Cottingham’s decision to portray himself as arranger or curator of his show, rather than creator or maker, potentially betrays a lack of faith in his own personal expression. But a more accurate assumption would be that he arranges world objects and processes because he seeks in others what he already knows in himself. Sincerity of emotion is plentiful within the art world — the problem is elsewhere, in the world beyond art, we might say. This move from personal material to that of other people’s reveals that this show has political questions, if not intentions.
So what, if any, actions are proposed by the exhibition? Do the works chart a course for finding love in all the wrong places or does it simply say that love conquers all? Like his piece that frees Untitled Arts Society’s wifi network for any and all public use, the exhibition shows that bureaucracy is everywhere. But so is love.