THE ‘THEN’ AND THE ‘NOW’
In conclusion I want to bring together some of these thoughts about the relationship between the sixties, typography, and liminality by analysing how contemporary artists like Margreiter in works such as those involving the Leipzig typography, manage to create a dynamic relationship with the recent past.
As Nicholas Boudreaux puts it in the catalogue to the recent Tate Triennial, Altermodern, which he also curated, such an engagement ‘is only possible from the issues of the present, and assuredly not by an obsessive return to the past, whatever its attributes.’ But how might such genuine engagement with the past actually be enacted?
In two much cited essays written in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, the American critic Craig Owens drew on the writings of Walter Benjamin and suggested that the most challenging art of that period was informed by what he called an ‘allegorical impulse’. This, in other words, was an art that directly critiqued the modernist preferences for essentialism, the immediate, the pure and the Real. Historically, the importance of allegory was that it aimed to ‘rescue from historical oblivion that which threatens to disappear’, wrote Owens, and had emerged as a powerful artistic preference in the seventeenth century during a period in which artists had a profound sense of estrangement from tradition. ‘Throughout its [allegory’s] history’, he noted, ‘it has functioned in the gap between a present and a past which, without allegorical reinterpretation, might have remained foreclosed’. As a result:
In allegorical structure…one text is read through another, however fragmentary, intermittent, or chaotic their relationship may be……Conceived in this way, allegory becomes the model of all commentary, all critique, insofar as these are involved in rewriting a primary text in terms of its figural meaning.
The dominant form of the new allegorical postmodernist work was thus the palimpsest, argued Owens, and contemporary artists drawn to this mode were likely to indulge in a general confusion of traditional categories, using fragmentary and appropriated imagery, preferring strategies of impermanence, repetition, accumulation, the sequential and the discursive.
Much of what Owens identified as important for the understanding of this neo-avant-garde of the late seventies and eighties still seems important today, especially in relation to the kind of art Nicholas Bourriaud has dubbed ‘altermodern’. But while pinpointing the need for a renewed engagement with history, Owens’ version of an allegorical impulse in contemporary art continued to be premised on a vision of the past as something ‘petrified’. He quoted Benjamin: ‘In allegory the observer is confronted with the facies hippocratica [a face as it appears near to death] of history as a petrified, primordial landscape.’
Indeed, the central weakness with Owens proposition is that it still ultimately remains premised on a modernist paradigm that could see only two possible relationships to the past. The first - the modernist preference - required that the past be put to death in order to embrace the future, while the second - preferred by the reactionaries - engaged in nostalgic re-creation or returns. The allegorical postmodernist, according to Owens, rejecting both these options as no longer valid, was left only with the melancholy task of shifting through ruins and fragments, of which the original meanings and values had been lost. As Bourriaud puts it, in the postmodernist world-view:
forms are no longer indexed to a narrative defining them as belonging to precise historical moments, but rather embedded in the ‘text’ of culture, with no reference save to themselves. Palimpsests, pastiches, textuality….Signs have lost all contact with human history and are self-generating in an infinite Brownian motion, a labyrinth of signs…….Postmodernism is the philosophy of mourning a long melancholic episode in our cultural life. History having lost its direction and ability to be read, nothing remained but to come face to face with an immobilised space-time in which, like reminiscences, arose mutilated fragments of the past.’
But can another relationship to the past – in particular the recent past – now be envisaged - a relationship that while manifesting an allegorical impulse bent on pursuing a complex and critical engagement with the past can nevertheless succeed in bringing the past back as something alive and even subversive of the present?