The sun shines, having no alternative, on the living and the dead – a misquote
between Joyce and Beckett, but in any case a sniff at the curious difficulty of
dying. Death isn't the end, and if you're medieval Christian or technopagan, and
if the afterlife looks like a painted paradise on a church wall or cyberspace,
whether you're looking forward to your own death or backward to another's, death
just isn't a terminus. The dead we have always with us.
It's no longer iconoclastic to say that postmodernism was bad sociology (who is
this 'we' who live in the postmodern?), and bad history (just when was the
dividing line between 'now' and 'then'?): but it's also bad psychology. Parents,
lovers, friends who we've mourned don't disappear: for good or ill they hover in
the edges of conversations, whisper stereo echoes when you talk, guide the
cursor as you write, slip behind your eyes to share the view and ease themselves
into your ears as you listen.
So the problem of dead art isn't the museum/mausoleum, which is just a kind of
urn to hold the cremated ashes, its the nature of the afterlife that dead art
Me, I look forward to disintegrating gently from the memories of friends, more
rapidly from students' thoughts, and almost instantaneously from the written
world where I earn most of the credit that appeals to me. From where I will be,
the whole process will be in reverse: the world gradually and inexhaustibly
dismantling me and leaving the separated atoms nothing more than dispersed
fluctuations in the endless math of space-time.
That is what art should do: die gracefully into a pagan and material world, wave
a grateful farewell to its isolated integrity, and takes its place in the vast
and endless (let's hope) conversations of the race. Only by surrendering its
identity, even as art, can it ever recirculate in the business of our species,
which is, I think, today, anyway, to make meaning.
I saw yesterday Rita Keegan's installation at the Lovebytes festival in
Sheffield, a lovely cycle of hands, translucent, waving like fronds, holding,
letting go, all the colours and textures of water and glass, and all the fluid
gestures which move and because they move must disappear. Recording them only
makes their disappearance more total – behind the picture, no more real hands,
but only the repetition of hands across the screens, a touching that is never
complete until the world touches back, as it never can, across the flow of time.
That's the transience: not necessarily of the artwork, but of the art
experience. You wouldn't want to repeat the same experience – when I went back,
a half-hour later, the same images, and a different experience, more feminine
and more exclusive – me excluded from a cycle of passing and hand-ing on.
Artworks die, and have an afterlife. Perhaps Art will die, but it will lurk,
behind and around us as we make whatever might take its place. Experiences die:
they have to, to make room for the next experience. And to do what art is part
of anyway: to revivify this experience of living that we have to have, so that
it hurts less, because, in a way, a small way, it has some kind of meaning –
for a moment – and then dies too.
Really, to become the compost that makes the next spring possible is not a bad
fate after all.