Drape and Drift: On Marc Lafia's "In What Language to Come"

I'll say this from the get go: when you see Marc Lafia's latest work — a site specific installation in his Park Slope brownstone — you want to be there. If you saw it through the window from the street, you'd find a way in. It is deliriously seductive — sumptuous, sensuous, beckoning. The word that comes to me is enchanting with its mystery and captivation, the way enchantment at once disarms, infuses, and engages. That is this work: it takes you up.

The colors might be the first thing to grab your attention — purples, whites, pinks, blues, greens. But then there are the textures as silk, neoprene, latex, rubber tubing, cloths, zippers and such make their way. With the fabrics enjoying a variety of opacity, your experience of the space is relentlessly changing, the works interacting with each other as well as with you, with the sun, with what lies behind them (paintings, house objects, framed photographs as these fabrics frolic in their freedom, draping over other art, acting as filter, as veil, as liberator — and as executioner). This creates a persistent visual hum, a shimmering of ever shifting intensities, a billow of affect. The space is alive.

Lafia has taken the object of art — the thing we behold, the thing we hang on the wall, the thing we fetishize as we interpret ad nauseam, the thing often of codes, references, and representations  — and draped it about. The object has lost its rigidity — and gained vibrant plasticity. If the framed object of art is bound, even as it bleeds (pace Derrida etc), this fabric enjoys a conspicuous state of becoming as it refuses to settle, all shimmer and hang.

Of course, the Abstract Expressionists (among others) tried to elude the signifier by creating art that was an action not a representation. But they still framed it, turned it into a fixed object, a new piece of information but information nonetheless. They took a living action and nailed it to the wall, lepidopterists pinning a butterfly's wings in place. The framed object that sits securely to be viewed linearly — see this one, then the next one, then the next one — performs signification even if the objects themselves refuse signifiers as content.

This work has no frame. Even the edges of the fabric are often frayed, as if they're always coming to, or out, of existence. This work is unbound. And yet it enjoys discretion. In fact, it proliferates borders, internally and externally. That is, each piece is a thing, for sure (even as it frays). It is an object. But this object drapes and reflects, folds, pleats, moves, filters, interacting with its environment in ever changing ways. It is what I call a bound infinity, drifting this way and that — sort of like a Calder mobile (or, rather, a mobile that's actually mobile! It's insane to me the way museums halt the mobility of those metal gossamer dances).

In much of his past work — there is a lot as he's been creating for almost 50 years — Lafia has reckoned and recorded the very act of seeing. He gives us the seeing of seeing, making film and photography and painting the very thing he films, photographs, and paints. We usually find him playing with instrumentation, the technical and conceptual apparati, of image making — the camera, "photography," the network, Tumblr, algorithms, Command-Shift-4, Chatroulette, watch cameras.

But here he is doing something different. If in the past he proffered a seeing of seeing, here he gives us just seeing. The work confronts the viewer not through concept or even affect but as the very stuff of seeing, a material haecceity. This! Lafia delcares. This! This! And that! And all this! Our act of seeing is taken up and for a ride — folded, pleated, reflected, draped, filtered, titillated, danced with, spun every which way, a veritable carnival of seeing.

As with a Calder mobile, our movement inflects the work while the work inflects us. We move around; it changes; which changes us; and so we move around; and on it goes, an endless, beautiful dance. It is not a hermeneutic circle of understanding; it is a sensual moving-with. We don't see the contingency of seeing, we experience it as seeing-bodies. This is what Merleau-Ponty calls the chiasmus or the intertwining: seer and seen have always already been swapping positions. Unlike an object that's nailed to the wall, this work is ontologically contingent — with viewers, with light, with wind, with the other pieces.

And all this takes place in and with what Merleau-Ponty calls the flesh — the stuff that fills the void, the materiality and palpability of the invisible, the stuff between stuff as well as the stuff itself. The world is a plenum, Merleau-Ponty suggests (and Leibniz maintains), filled with itself. "In What Language to Come" is a delicious encounter with the flesh. (I was going to say that this work is generous. But it's not. It's actually dictatorial; it immerses you, take you up, enchants you. But, while not generous, it is kind, luxurious, and giving.)

Unbound, this work inhabits space rather curiously. You first confront it in a domestic living room. The space has not been arranged to mimic a gallery. On the contrary, it luxuriates in itself as a private living space as we see the things of a living room behind and between the fabric. This is not a statement about the domesticity of fabric (even if it points to the everdayness of art). It is, rather, a flexing of this work's reach. A rhizome, it can and will live anywhere — on city streets; among trees, bushes, and plants; as discrete window pieces; even isolated and nailed to a wall (paintings, after all, are fabric, too; photographs, too, just plastic and paper. And so these works can sit joyfully on a wall, truly hanging just so).

In this intertwining of the sensuous — an experience joyfully free of information, of the signifier, free of the economy of meaning — Lafia gives us a different way of going in the world. He proffers a different way of speaking, of communicating. It is a language that has at once come and will never come, a language we're always already speaking and will never speak. It's the language of an experience — perhaps the language of all experience — that's always happening and hence never finally here. This work speaks in what language to come, sans question mark, an enchanted tongue of drape and drift.

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