I would prefer not to
‚I would prefer not to‘
– Bartleby, the Scrivener, Herman Melville
An art show of Goekhan Erdogan & Jin-Kyoung Huh
‘I would prefer not to’ is the stubbornly impenetrable formula of Herman Melville’s 19th century literary character Bartleby. Bartleby’s polite but unbending refusal to cooperate, or to respond conclusively, and above all his refusal to work, have made him an emblem of radical passive resistance in a world dominated by frenzied movement, effective performance, competitivity and the paradigm of productive efficiency: the functioning machine. But it’s his words that remain most opaque, insistently suspended in a zone that defies decisive interpretation. As such they could not be more contemporary, nor more relentlessly provocative. For what is the status of a phrase that asserts yet simultaneously negates that assertion, opens up towards only to refuse to settle for a significant route over another? How to make sense of this persistent conditional that appears not even to strive towards actualisation but is content with the gesture of quietly polite – but vacant – possibility? Bartleby’s anti-sign, his negative performance, his decisive indecision, his beautiful neutrality, his resolute becoming-object, can perhaps be read as the perfect antidote for saturated beings excessively pressurized no longer to discover but to self-create and produce then to vociferously market and celebrate their own desperately wished-for ‘meaning’, beings overly exposed to and forced to align themselves somewhere on the matrix of omnipresent signs.
‘I would prefer not to’ echoes in the works presented here on a number of levels. For a start, Jin-Kyoung Huh’s Useless Millimeter Paper exposes the almost-but-never-quite neutral grid. It points to the moment preceding the gesture of creation or of design, evoking the early hours of a preliminary draft, the tool of imaginative expression – albeit always already the product of calculus. The paper’s structured frame appears to lend itself to all projections – ‘I offer myself to you’, it beckons seductively, ‘be courageous, let me hold your dreams’ – but its promise is deceptive (and what dreams are they that must fit the norm?). Not only does the paper’s aesthetic exposure reveal an inability to fulfil its putative purpose – the medium here is no longer vector for but object of contemplation –, but its subtly subversive mathematically inaccurate dimensions forbid any functional use. ‘You may try me but I’m afraid I won’t work’.
Goekhan Erdogan’s portraits resonate strongly with a mode of resistance that – like Bartleby’s formula – defies clear determination, residing in a twilight in between presence and absence, positive/negative, barely perceptible, emotively vulnerable yet obstinately enduring. In this vanishing zone, the image of a face, with the strong evocation of the ethical other that necessarily accompanies such apparitions, suggests itself in the manner of a withdrawal into the material. The multi-layered surfaces that the portraits appear to seep into render the images ambiguous and undecidable in nature. Whilst their expressionless neutrality and the chosen format of photography summon cold images of institutional bureaucracy, there is also a sense, both haunting and strangely consolatory, of human presence escaping into the (post-)organic world. Again, like with Bartleby, the no longer quite im/possible process of becoming-object, offers one the chance to step into a different, haunting but never quite threatening, physical and temporal dimension. For when the eyes cloud over, time appears to slow down – even almost to stop. What will be left of you/me when the other is gone? In the face of retracted dissolution, can you befriend the ghost? ‘You may forget me, but I will remain with you.’
Both artists thus appear to gesture towards, inviting us to dare to imagine, a new ethicality of the thing.
– Alice Lagaay, Berlin August 2012
Alice Lagaay is a Berlin-based philosopher currently teaching at Bremen University. A specialist in performative theory, her recent research focuses on ‘negative performance’: not doing and un-doing, silence and secrets, interdisciplinary theories of refrained action and omission, and seinlassen.