A Look into the Blind-Spot of Love: A Meditation on Leigh-Ann Pahapill’s Exhibition “Likewise, As Technical Experts, But Not (At All) By Way of Culture”
By Creston Davis
There is an old story about a Native-American who had visited a Church in England and when he returned home he told his friends that the English worship eagles, lions, and oxen. Of course this Native-American was not conscious of how these symbols in Christian worship space function as symbols derived from the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel (which in turn is analogous to the Egyptian sun god Horus and his four sons). An image is symbolic when it refers to something more than its literal and immediate meaning—that is, it has a wider “unconscious” meaning that transgresses its literal one; indeed it is even impossible to exhaust its meaning. And this is the point: the meaning of a symbol cannot be grasped or contained—for by its very nature it is inexhaustible—infinite—infinitely transgressive.
And let’s face it, from time immemorial Human civilization has been an unstoppable march toward a mastery over the uncontrollable: Nature, God, other ethnicities, and even ourselves—this has been our object of control, and in this precise sense we are moved by a fantasy of control that we can never have.
In my mind, this is the ground-zero level of genius that the renowned artist, Leigh-Ann Pahapill exposes to us in her exhibition, Likewise, As Technical Experts, But Not (At All) By Way of Culture. What happens here is like what happens when someone approaches trauma. For by definition trauma is that which cannot be experienced because the experience itself is too much to digest and so one represses it. Here the trauma that Pahapill exposes to us is the trauma of our collective death-drive motivated by our control fantasy located in the very heart and soul of culture as such.
And, of course, the temple par excellence of culture is the modern museum in which the objects of art seamlessly mirror back to us the satisfaction (repressed, unconscious as it is) of our teleological drive to historical mastery bewitching ourselves into thinking we have achieved it. Art in this sense is double-edged: it is not simply a materialization of an object of historically significant beauty, and the sublime, but in its very sublimality it hides from us our own desire to capture and control the infinite and to be the master of the genius (the one who transgresses the norm). Thus the art museum can be seen as the policing of genius, the arresting of the beautiful, and the sentencing of the sublime to the cellblock otherwise known as “the museum.”
And this is why ideology and art have always had an intimate relationship, which explains why the Nazis systematically destroyed what they called “Degenerate Art” because these so-called “degenerate” forms of art failed to mirror back to Nazis ideology a reflection of its fantasy-control symptom.
And this is also why Pahapill’s exhibition is an installation that calls into question the very existence of the boundaries that circumvent the modern temple of culture, the museum; indeed her work is the very phenomenological appearance of the unarrestable sublime—the art-form that is literally beyond the LAW of culture. In this sense, what we experience in the space of Pahapill’s exhibition is what Freud called the “return of the repressed”—the sublime of cultural disorientation, and the experience of the lack that tarries with a cultural hubris of forgetting that we will never exhaust the meaning of art precisely because art itself cannot be contained but rather points to the trauma of our symbolic lack in trying to master history, otherness, and ourselves. If you will, Pahapill invites us into the unconscious where the Ego is no longer in control of its own house right in the heart and soul of the museum/culture itself.
It is in abiding with each other in the midst of her exhibition that we confront ourselves in a cultural fragility and limitation (even brokenness) that we become more than our determinative desire to control, to master the universe. What then takes place is something of an obscene paradox that my teacher Slavoj Zizek introduces to us in his work, The Fragile Absolute “…even if I were to possess all knowledge [mastery], without love I would be nothing [and this] is not simple that with love, I am ‘something’—in love, I am also nothing but, as it were, a Nothing humbly aware of itself, a Nothing paradoxically made rich through the very awareness of its lack. Only a lacking, vulnerable being is capable of love: the ultimate mystery of love is therefore that incompleteness is in a way higher than completion…. [O]nly an imperfect, lacking being loves: we love because we do not know all.”
It is in this way that what Leigh-Ann Pahapill gives us is an exhibition that challenges us to walk in love, in our lack, in the great fear that we are not masters of our own destiny.