A painting is a material whose materiality is repressed. It becomes forgotten, background, a no place, a blind spot. We look at the paint, not the canvas. We can say the same of photographs and film: the material — the paper, celluloid, code — are quieted by the play of significant and signifying content. What matters is the image freed from its materiality, an image that can somehow exist anywhere. Sure, we might focus on the paint or the exposure time, comment on the density of a painting's paint. But we rarely, if ever, see the canvas, paper, and plastic.
This has of course been amplified by the digital network. Images are no longer tethered to any material other than ones and zeros, interpretive algorithms that transform those numbers into an image that can be seen but not touched. It's as if the image has finally been freed from its body, pure soul manifesting here and there. The materiality of art has responded by becoming monumental, the stuff of stories — think Koons or, in film, Michael Bay — or conceptual, rarely taking root in thingness. Or else it's all petty bourgeois craft, people relishing the feel of wood, of rope, of clay — which is great. But it's not art. It's not creation as such; it's delicious commodity, a decadent relishing of stuff.
Marc Lafia's work often focuses on the terms of image making and distribution — on photography, on narrative, on algorithms of sense making, on the always-on network (which, as Lafia makes exquisitely clear, is a ubiquitous camera and screen). In his work, he has made semiotic content secondary to the production of semiotic content which, in turn, becomes the semiotic content. Which is to say, it's not that his work is absent signification; it's to say that what he signifies is the very terms of signification.
In this new work, he has shifted from the means to the stuff. If in earlier work, he presented the seeing of seeing, in this work he presents seeing as such — an absurd claim, perhaps, and one I am making, not Lafia.
This is not to say that fabric is free of significance. On the contrary, it is mired in it. But this mire creates a miasma that belies ready reference or any direct didacticism. The referential trajectory is blurred, veiled, drifting and draping this way and that, blowing with the wind, wrinkling and pleating, often a folded mess of a pile, multicolored and multi-textured. It is not quite babel but it is polyglottal, alternately and simultaneously euphonious and cacophonous.
Fabric is at once something and not something. It is usually a means, a vehicle, an ornament and not something in and of itself. For centuries, it was a currency, something of value, yes, but something to be exchanged. And, no doubt, today it retains a certain value, the stuff of consumerism.
All the while, it is saturated with association. It is the stuff of clothes and bed, of fresh from the shower and cuddling on the couch, the softened ground beneath our feet, the surface of our sitting. It surrounds us, encloses us, and while we might pay this or that version of it our concerted attention, the fabric as such tends to remain secondary.
And then there is the phenomenology of fabric. It is technically a solid but it shares an affinity with liquid, almost filling its container. It is fundamentally pliable, plastic, as if awaiting use, scissors, stitching, glue. In this sense, it is akin to the digital, a file always awaiting manipulation. But unlike the digital, fabric has an immediate tactility — it is seen and touched before and as it is manipulated. It is not just palpated; it is the stuff of palpation.
In this work, Lafia does not use fabric as a backdrop. It is fabric and nothing but: fabric on fabric, fabric with fabric. And not to create an image as, say, Rosemary Trockel does. Nor to act as symbol or a means as Joseph Beuys did. And it's certainly not the fine craft of, say, Turkish kilim. Rather, Lafia engages fabric as fabric, using fabric perhaps as a painter would use paint — only, in this case, the painter paints painting.
There is, then, this sumptuous redundancy in Lafia's work. Rather than zoom out or zoom in on the means of image making — as he has so often done in the past — here he remains thoroughly and completely within the realm of the seen, within the realm of seeing. He creates an orgy of fabric, bodies mixing with bodies in all sorts of relations and juxtapositions and with no desire other than this — this frolic, this play, this drape and drift, these folds, this billowing. It doesn't add up to anything; it goes nowhere. It doesn't try to point to meaning or to an experience other than this — a tautology, an haecceity, a redundancy, the world touching itself everywhere, a polymorphously perverse onanism, a plenum of palpation.
This is surely a new language freed of signifiers and signifieds, free of Saussure's semiotics, Lacan's algebra, and Derrida's deferral. Untethered, this is a language free to roam (like all poetic languages). Unlike the language of stretched canvas and pinned art, these fabric works occupy their territory with grace and aplomb. They can live anywhere (I accidentally typed "love" anywhere, a fortuitous mistake).
There is a certain aggression, no doubt, an aggression implicit in any territorialization. These works not only take over a space; they want to take over a space, indoors or out, big or small. They do not stay nailed to the wall, discreetly out of the way, only to be looked at now and again. No, these works inundate, spread, drift, drape, get in your way.
But not all territorializations are created equally. This occupying tongue is passionately languorous, generous, joyous; it softly but insistently spreads the word — which is to say, it spreads itself. This is not only in what language to come. It's in what language is always already coming.
(This essay was fueled and helped by discussions, feedback, and insights from the inimitable Kia Meaux.)
Two weeks ago, I find myself at Orr Hot Springs — I love the passivity of "I find myself there," not I went there or I was there; French has that great reflexivity — I call myself, I seat myself, etc — in which the subject is also object; English does this all too rarely. I love it because it expresses that middle voice in which we actually find ourselves all the time, more or less, at once elevating and then refusing the ego as subject — anyway, two weeks ago I find myself at Orr Hot Springs, a naked resort tucked into the hills in Mendocino County in Northern California. It's hot out. I'm lying in the shade on a wooden deck next to a cool spring fed pool into which I occasionally plunge. I'm alongside a beautiful, brilliant woman who, like me, is naked. We are not entirely sober, as it were, and are feeling plain old good. There is no cell reception, no WiFi, no clients, no work, no kid, no hassles, and nothing to buy. I turn to my lovely cohort — my lover — and say something like, "Ah, this is so decadent. All I need now is a cocktail." To which she replies: "Isn't this good enough?"
I was, needles to say, humbled.
Like many people, if not most, I have a fiend in me. I find myself in a situation, which is to say I situate myself here or there, only to find myself wanting for something. And immediately I reach for a remedy — a cocktail, an edible, a book, a TV show, my phone, sex, something or someone or some experience that is not present.
Often, this is a fine and good reaction. I know how to steer my experience into my pleasure zone, that place where everything suits my constitution. If say, I'm at a boring event for my kid's school, I may sneak a swig from the flask tucked into my back pocket. This is not a lack of contentment; it's good planning and self-awareness. I know my needs; I know the world; I know how to play it — a rhetorician's coup.
Usually, I am able to avoid any such experiences as I've engineered my life so that I am able to say Yes often and No ever so rarely. No one invites me to dinner parties that I feel obliged to attend. No one invites me anywhere, in fact, that I feel obliged to attend — except, occasionally, an event for my son's school. I've developed a world built around my particular inclinations, around and with my way of going.
But this can of course lead to an ever tightening knot in which I fold in on myself until I'm this tightly wound bundle of self: me, all me! I submit to my habits because I can and because they feel good or, rather, because they are good. I have, for the most part engineered a life of me. Which is fantastic. But this me becomes a habit which can, and will, inevitably not be satisfied. My me will not have its way. This is the condition of life: it is a flux that exceeds me, takes me up. Which is all a fancy and long winded way of saying: sometimes, I'm somewhere where I really would like a cocktail — or quiet, my pillow, fresh bread, my friends — but it's not attainable. Despite my best laid plans, I am not, nor will ever be, totally in control.
It is insane to wish things other than as they are — that there was always a cocktail, always quiet, no traffic, no assholes, no rent due, that she always loved me, that the train is on time. This doesn't mean one doesn't work to engineer that the same thing doesn't happen again. I am not suggesting that we can ever live in a pure now free of all social ills or that we'd even want to. Or that just because shit sucks, we have to only live in sucky shit. We are not just of time; we are time. Like the now, we are not immediate. We are folds of pasts, other presents, and futures. But to say, here and now: Damn, I wish that what is happening were something else is a kind of madness and certainly the basis of neurosis.
And is the very fuel of the American, or at least Western, liberal capitalist world. It is propelled by a constant desire for something else — new shoes, new house, new job, new phone, new boyfriend, new restaurant. Imagine, for a moment, if we were all content with our lives. Imagine, for a moment, that we wake up and say: This is good enough. Then we get out of bed and go on with our days, all along our mantra is, This is good enough. How would Amazon ever survive?? While I reach for my cocktail, most people reach for a new pair of shoes. Or a another date. This guy's pretty good but, well, is he all that? Our entire economy — financial, social, and sexual — is propelled by a pervasive lack. Something is missing. I need to fill that hole. (And it's not that capitalism made us this way; it's that we are capitalism. We are this will, this breed of life, this way of going, this will to power.)
We relentlessly yearn for, and in fact demand, something more. Something else. This is how we interpret that cryptic right to pursue happiness. Out of my way, loser, I see a better guy over there! I'm swiping left on your sorry ass! This — all this — is never enough.
Would you ever feel like you should settle for good enough? Don't you feel that you're entitled to more than that? You're entitled to the best, goddamnit! And the best sure as shit isn't this! Gimme another blouse! (Yes, I know no one says blouse; I do because it's funny.) Gimme another boyfriend! A better girlfriend! Sure, this one is good enough but how could I — why would I — ever settle for good enough???? We even have conversations about having it all! How to Get It All is a not uncommon headline.
Think about how insane that is! It's hilariously deranged. What will, what breed of life, would even ask such a question? How could such a line of inquiry even find itself expressed, not to mention seriously discussed? To me, the most deranged thing about this is that the question is asked by those who wouldn't know what to do with it all! They have plenty and are still lacking — and so they want more? In fact, they want it all???!! Really? How about first do something beautiful with what you have before asking for everything. Jeez louise. It's a will that, as Nietzsche would say, is ill constituted.
Wanna know how to have it all? Stop asking! Stop looking for something else! Stop swiping left or right! You already have it all, you deranged nincompoops!
And, please, know that I count myself among the deranged nincompoops. After all, there I am at Orr Hot Springs with an incredibly beautiful, lovely woman who loves me and whom I love; it's the perfect temperature and, if it's not, there are pools to warm and cool me; I have nothing whatsoever to worry about. And yet, without thinking, I want something else, something more. I want a cocktail.
But isn't this good enough?
What propels me to seek more, to seek something else, to reach for that cocktail? It seems to me that that dissatisfaction comes from a sense of lack, a fundamental belief that life is not enough — that I am not enough. Nietzsche calls this nihilism. It oozes from a being incapable of affirming this life, incapable of loving this life, incapable of loving itself. And we certainly live in a world premised on this lack of love for life. For Nietzsche, it began with the slave revolt of Judeo-Christianity who found perfection outside life, in God. I see it in liberal capitalist America where we are told, from day one, that something is wrong. Pregnancy, for fuck's sake, is seen as a medical condition. The very birth of the species is a disease! And then it continues — you shit wrong, you're too loud, you can't spell, you can't read, you can't do that, stop playing with your food, put your clothes on. You are wrong! All this, in fact, is wrong! So we keep grasping for the thing that will make it right.
And the only thing we believe capable of setting it all straight is something outside of life — the ego or god. Both, alas, create and propel relentless dissatisfaction as they create a split within life, a split between the world and me. I am here; the world is there; I can control the world. But this is a false dichotomy. After all, aren't I constitutive of the world, as much stuff as the sky, planets, widgets, and squirrels? I am not in traffic; I am traffic. To be groaning about traffic is to be groaning about myself.
So what if rather than looking elsewhere, we exhale and say: I am good enough. This is all good enough. Life is good enough. Such is amor fati. Such is love.
Should I find myself at the altar, the eyes of friends upon me, my sweetie before me, all I want to say, all I want to hear, is: You, my love, are good enough. What expression of love could possibly be greater?