Lyndal Jones At Sea



'Lyndal Jones at sea' Art Monthly May, 59: 21-22 (1994)

If England were swallowed up by the sea to-morrow, which of the two, a hundred years hence, would most excite the love, interest, and admiration of mankind, -- would most, therefore, show the evidences of having possessed greatness, -- the England of the last twenty years, or the England of Elizabeth, of a time of splendid spiritual effort, but when our coal, and our industrial operations depending on coal, were very little developed?

Matthew Arnold Culture and Anarchy Cambridge University Press, 1932, p. 51 (orig. 1869)

More than a hundred years hence, the answer to Matthew Arnold's question seems irrelevant. It is not that economy has been seen to triumph over culture -- it's far more serious than that. The irrelevance of Arnold's question lies in the difficulty we have believing in a `mankind' who might operate as an imagined arbiter of greatness. Our answer to Arnold's question today is likely to be: who cares?

Matthew Arnold's imagined test of time opposed culture to technology: culture operates within a universal realm while technology provides the energy for the day. Today, particularly with a postcolonial sensitivity, culture seems tied more closely to specific interests. One of the reasons for the collapse of a transcendental culture is the death of `mankind' as a universal audience for great historical deeds. It seems much harder now to imagine a future generation that will necessarily share the same values as our own: our duty is to dismantle frames of reference rather than build them.

Paradoxically, as the idea of national `greatness' has cracked, the imperative to conserve seems to have accelerated. Unlike the idea of a `national treasury of great deeds', the modern storehouse cares for information not inspiration. In ecology, the extinction of a species and subsequent loss of bio-diversity is seen as a far greater tragedy than the death of its individual members. But this business of conserving information has its danger: the technological activity of reserving the world's data denies those alive today with the opportunity of living fully in the present. This was Heidegger's question concerning technology: what happens when subject of technology extends its activity beyond the manipulation of the world to the transformation of itself into a network of energies? Our question seems to be how to maintain a line of thought which is more than a conduit for information.

Performance art promises to break open these conduits of information. Lyndal Jones' `Prediction Pieces' are a fine example of this. In a highly disciplined lack of discipline, her performances gingerly avoid the traps for consciousness that are contained in habits of information processing. Repetition is one of the methods she used to forestall expectations of logical development. As lines of dialogue re-emerge at different times and through different voices it becomes impossible to sustain the narrative forms that would contain the action within a specific point. Her work has the effect of barring exits and forcing the audience to reflect on the moment itself.

It is with some irony then that the Contemporary Art Archive of the Museum of Contemporary Art mounted an exhibition of Jones' ten Prediction Pieces (MCA, 1992, and exhibited also as Monash University Gallery, 1993). Has the wild beast finally offered itself up to inevitable capture by the trophy hunters?

This question brings to bear two different kinds of attitudes. One is the kind of anxiety that pervades attempts to conserve fragile works of art, and the other is a kind of abandon that is happy to accept the performance medium as a thing for the moment. I don't need to elaborate these arguments -- I'm sure you can play them out in your own head right now. What is perhaps more interesting is to think how those arguments might be contained inside the performance itself as part of its hidden agenda.

The theme of Lyndal Jones' works is prediction in its various manifestations from science to astrology. Jones never seems to privilege the rational over the magical, or vice versa -- both are seen as houses for wonder about the categories of space and time. This kind of levelling appears in a very particular cultural moment at the background of which are ideas like the `death of the author'. For Roland Barthes, this death involved a recognition that the origin of a text was not to be found in the private consciousness of its author but in the structures which organise the language that gives it expression. What this enabled Roland Barthes to do was to speak about himself in the third person and, in effect, level the difference between private and public. It is upon such an even ground that Lyndal Jones might bring together the ephemeral moments of everyday experience and the grand narratives of historical change. This expansive dimension of Jones' work has its echo in the performance work of Laurie Anderson, and at a popular level in the spate of Hollywood dramas such as Kramer vs Kramer and Ordinary People.

Lyndal Jones' archival exhibition presents itself as a final release from the powers of authorship. This is in harmony with the seventh point of the artist's manifesto offered in the catalogue: `The relationship of the viewer/audience is with the art work, not the artist'. In carefully constructed lacquer boxes, Jones' has gathered together the repertoire of objects and scripts which would enable any of her ten pieces to be reproduced.

To sustain a ten year project of such complexity is a feat of artistic control. Finally to give away its secrets for all to see seems a act of disengagement which is comparable in scale. But its effect is dubious. That this genuinely represents an opportunity for the `viewer' to enjoy for her- or himself the fruits of Jones' labour seems to ignore the degree to which the pieces are held together in the body of the author. The function of this democratic story seems more to hide the fact that these works have been `saved' from the winds of time. While this statement seems to accuse the exhibition of false consciousness, I think it suggests the more positive possibility that the struggle to preserve is somehow reflected upon by the work itself.

By the end of the prediction series, a curious paradox is revealed. As an activity, prediction can never realise itself: like a performance, it destroys itself in its realisation. How then is it possible to hold onto prediction as an activity in-itself without the guarantee of an outcome? The most direct solution would be to halt time itself. Here you might note a strange logic at work in Jones' final Prediction Piece #10 (As Time Goes By).

The structure of As Time Goes By was taken from Stephen Hawking's idea of the reversal of time. Hawking's hypothesis was that time would in the distant future turn back on itself: like some giant accordion, Hawking claimed that the universe would begin to play its tune backwards as it contracted. In discussing this possibility, actors imagined scenarios such as: `Rivers would flow uphill, and the water would eventually drip up to form clouds.' Here is a means, finally, to rescue prediction from outcome. Repetition in this performance no longer provokes anxiety about marking time: it is given a cosmic plausibility within a frame of time's elasticity. Time's reversibility enables the final recuperation of performance in the face of its incapacity to objectify itself.

One of the pivotal points of the performance was a joke about the Titanic. An on-board magician is constantly undermined by his parrot who informs the audience of the secrets of his tricks: `The card's up his sleeve', `The woman's behind a mirror', etc. As the Titanic sinks to the bottom of the sea, the magician clutches a piece of driftwood on which is perched the garrulous parrot. The parrot finally admits defeat and says: `I give up, what did you do with the ship?' At the end of the last prediction piece, the audience might indeed ask, `I give up, what did you do with the art?'

The answer to this question lies in an object which despite its banality is given pride of place in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue: the cup. In the final prediction piece, the flow of time was partly represented in the flow of cups between performers on and off stage. The anxieties about the progress of time are easily focused on the fantasy of reversing time to save the precious cup from its disastrous fate as it crashes to the floor. This is perhaps the most poignant item in the exhibition -- not the conservation of the performance materials per se, but the representation of the consciousness of mutability that frames how an audience might digest the event.

For a performance artist, the retrospective exhibition may not be necessarily an act of bad faith which tries to put spontaneity on tap. Its purpose might in fact be to formally extinguish a particular line of work. It's quite easy to see this exhibition as way of clearing out the office for a new set of ideas. The importance of this event is less to preserve the past than make a break with it.

But the matter does not rest there. The question that raises itself at this point is: what will Lyndal Jones do next? Of course, the real question lies behind this one: what kind of future will Lyndal Jones do next? It is cause for thought that Lyndal Jones is about to visit the sites of the famous journey on the Beagle by Charles Darwin. Evolution is the kind of prediction that learns from its mistakes. Here perhaps Lyndal Jones might be able to address questions at the other end of time: what will happen -- not in the future, but in the past; and how did evolution itself evolve? With Lyndal Jones at sea, we might begin to wonder how her disciplined lack of discipline might cope with the happy accidents of evolutionary theory.