Lines of Resistance: Vattimo and Weakening Philosophy

white cloud marble
White Cloud marble: lines of resistance in nature

Gianni Vattimo is an Italian philosopher who has written on modernity and the metaphysics of being. A Festshrift for Vattimo recently appeared under the title of Weakening Philosophy (2007). Although Vattimo’s philosophy seems heavily indebted to the Italian tradition, including its entanglement with Christianity, his ideas can be used to open up some new considerations on art in contemporary context.


The publisher’s blurb says:

Moving away from Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionism and Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics, and building on his experiences as a politician, Vattimo asks if it is still possible to speak of moral imperatives, individual rights, and political freedom. Acknowledging the force of Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” Vattimo argues for a philosophy of pensiero debole or “weak thinking” that shows how moral values can exist without being guaranteed by an external authority. His secularising interpretation stresses anti-metaphysical elements and puts philosophy into a relationship with postmodern culture. 

Vattimo’s core idea is that although metaphysical power has been weakened under modernity the post-metaphysical world is not completely free and arbitrary. His thought leads away from arguments for absolute randomness, unstructured chaos and indeterminacy. These are important issues for contemporary philosophy, for example in recent thinking on aleatory materialism and radical contingency. No matter how apparently free-flowing thought and moral values might seem, there are lines of resistance which introduce a kind of structure of their own, even though it is not the product of a metaphysical intention (eg the mind of God). These ideas offer interesting perspectives on contemporary art among many other things.

Dense bark on old trees: lines of resistance as protection

We can take his idea of “resistances” and think about the emergence of global art movements, for example. As the signs carved out and organized in different forms by different cultures have been loosened from their previous determinants (beliefs, practices, cultural conditioning) they have begun to deposit a kind of magma which determines their possibilities of flow. Just as the grain in wood or stone makes the material easier to cut in one direction rather than another, so does thought and human expressiveness develop in ways which create a certain conformity even though this is not intended or in any way “planned”. It is a kind of neutral determinism.

If we follow this line of thinking, we might consider that the condition of being human, with all the animal and cognitive capacities this implies, always/already creates the possibility of flows of thoughts, ideas and interpretations, and the existence of deep structures in language makes this even more likely. This argument is notably contra the spirit of Deleuze and Guattari in Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972) and, by extension, much contemporary postmodern thought which argues against any form of “determinism”.

Lines of resistance creating the landscape: Yangpo River, Tibet.

Lines of resistance do not imply that universal laws exist (although at the deepest material level they may do). The productions of human action in whatever form create ebbs and flows which are self-reinforcing, just as a small trickle of water can cut out a creek-bed and finish up as a river. Being should not be thought of as a one-way street, but rather a network of freeways, roads and by-ways which travel in more than one direction. Some result in dead-ends, others become more and more essential, until they dominate the options for existence. But this does not mean that they cannot come to a sudden end. There is no better indication of this than the many recent discoveries of versions of archaic humanity which seem to have appeared, flourished, and then disappeared without trace.

“Hobbits”: reconstruction of hominids found in Indonesia, half human size, long extinct

We can no longer think of the emergence of humanity as a single unified sequence of development with a logic of constant progression and improvement. Rather it seems to have been a winding inconsistent process of genetic networks and climatic outliers only some of which led to the present condition of the species, more or less by accident. But there are species continuities: the recent discovery of a new hominim species in South Africa (named Naledi) seems to have ritualized the disposal of the dead, maybe 2.5 million years ago. But everyone seems to forget that elephants also dispose of their dead, or at least attend the funerals.

mourning elephants

Vattimo’s is a radical critique of universalizing metaphysics like that begun by Heidegger, though in a very different time, context and technological capacity.

Nietzsche, considering European nihilism in the summer of 1887 said that under conditions of post-metaphysics those who will emerge and flourish are the most moderate, who have no need of extreme articles of faith, who concede and even embrace contingency and nonsense, who do not need to ascribe overwhelming value to human Being but do not diminish or belittle its significance.

One very interesting connection with art under modernity is the idea that the weakening of metaphysical power in the West was in a way announced by or even presided over by the withdrawal of apparent communication in the realm of art in modern times. Vattimo speaks of Kandinsky in this regard, but a better example might be Rothko. Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s discussion of Rothko in their book The Arts of Impoverishment (1993) opens up these horizons (to come in a later post).

Mark Rothko
Rothko Chapel, Houston

Ryan Hoffman Paintings: “Third Person”

Ryan Hoffmann:  Liverpool St Gallery Sydney 11th August – 3rd September

Ryan Hoffmann is a young artist from Sydney’s National Art School, one among few to have been given a solo show in a reputable gallery while completing his Masters of Fine Arts degree.

There has been a buzz around Hoffmann for some time, and this show gives him an opportunity to demonstrate why. It doesn’t entirely succeed although the concept is great. But the “hang” and the lack of documentation are a problem. Most pictures in gallery shows exist in their own right, each with its unique qualities, capable of standing alone. Hoffman’s are part of a larger vision and the viewer needs to know more about how they relate to each other and we should care about them.

As pictures they are of varying quality. Overall they seem barely painted, more like gestures, although they look much stronger as photographs for example on the gallery website. The images are thrown together on varying supports, some very small. The smaller paintings are no better resolved than the larger ones, if anything they are even more random and sketchy.

The gallery wall is covered with what looks like cloth or paper or maybe paint in a vague wash of pastel colours. Most of the paintings are hung close together in what seems to be a random array, large and small, bright and monochrome, square and rectangular. A few of the larger paintings – the “hero” pieces- occupy spaces of their own and two of these are especially striking (more on this later). Art lovers like to see paintings in a show as separate entities, each existing in its own terms, able to be translated to a different space, for example to a wall at home or in an office. Diptychs or triptychs are fine, creating a single visual statement, but otherwise each painting is seen as its own entity. Are these images telling a story? Is there something we should know but haven’t been told? Well yes there is, and it is quite complicated.

Installation, Liverpool St Gallery
Installation, Liverpool St Gallery

Hoffman has exhibited these, or related, paintings in at least two previous shows.  While Artist in Residence at the Glasgow Art School earlier in 2015 he offered a similar show with more paintings, at least fifty.  Some of them, many in fact, are also being shown here.  The concept for the hang was the same: a single wall, a lot of pictures jammed up together in seemingly random order.

Later, in a show called RREALITY PROJECTIONS, part of the requirements for the MFA at Sydney’s National Art School, the same layout includes many of the same paintings. An exegesis accompanied the show, called “Readymade digital photographs: Virtual reality as autobiography”.

The show is engaged with digital photography, and is telling a kind of autobiographical story. This story can be told in many ways. No images take any particular priority, they can be arranged in any order. They are not art photography but the kind of images which everyone now shoots on their phone. If they bother downloading the images at all they can rearrange them in any order, make new “albums” from them, send them round the world in various forms, pin them on Pinterest, send them to their Instagram account. These seem to be paintings of casual snapshots on the digital device, to be treated in the same random way.

NAS final show

Ryan Hoffmann, RREALITY PROJECTIONS (exhibited as a requirement of a MFA at the Nation Art School accompanying the exegesis ‘Readymade digital photographs: Virtual reality as autobiography’ )  room #2, 2015; oil on linen; dimensions variable (Photo courtesy of Peter Morgan).

Earlier still a show called The Inter Galactic Image Factory at Liverpool Street brought together four of the NAS 2014 cohort including Hoffmann (with Seth Birchall, Mason Kimber and Conor O’Shea). Hoffmann’s paintings in this show are different to those in the later shows but clearly show the same impulse. An artist’s statement appears on Hoffmann’s website which explicitly connects his practice to the use of smart technologies and the Internet. While this statement is in a rather tortured form, it illuminates what this work is about.

Images are now simultaneously representing, existing and omnipresent as a form of “virtual reality”. 
By regarding the digital image as a form of readymade imbued by its time, place, culture, Hoffmann’s practice investigates the potential for a new paradigm in painting which courts a contest between photographic representation and painterly application. Through the negation of linearity and hierarchy in subject, Hoffmann locates images in painting from this “virtual reality” to form an autobiography. 

And so we see that, without explicit reference, Hoffmann is in Gerhard Richter territory, struggling with the same issues about reality, image, painting and autobiography, now in the digital age.

It would have benefited the Liverpool St show if something to this effect had been made available in the catalogue or on the wall. There is an argument against spoon-feeding the art public but in a case like this the “sense” of the work shifts into a radically new position when it becomes clear that we are looking at deliberate engagement with a specific problem in contemporary representation. There is a difficulty with work which lives on the border between commercial art practice and art theory: how to connect the results of such a practice with the conventions of the art-buying public. Around less than half of these works had been purchased in the first two weeks of the show. Some were the smallest works, barely sketches, priced very modestly. The others were the strongest and generally the most “stand-alone” pictures in the show, with the very strange exception of the main hero-piece, “Penumbra”, which in spite of its striking qualities and painterly aesthetic had not been snapped up.

Penumbra. Oil, polyester, wood and copper.99 x 78 cm

 Penumbra, 2015, oil on polyester canvas, 90 x 78 cms

 By far the most effective works for me were those expressing the manifold possibilities of semi-monochrome. Small works such as Alpine Resort shine with hidden depths as, on the very small canvas lights beam out in pale reflection.

Alpine Resort 2015

Alpine Resort, 2015, oil on linen, 30.5 x 35.5 cm

 Some of the most interesting works feature grids and shadows on windows, or views through windows into empty spaces. In the relatively large-scale I forget where we were there is the sense of the sudden experience of light and dark which opens up to an unexpected which could be anywhere.

I forget where we were I forget where we were, 2015, oil on canvas, 63 x 138cm

In the tiny very sketchy Passing the viewer looks out of a window at a building in a snowy landscape. Inside, there is a sense of enclosure or capture, but also a feeling of relief at being safely in an interior while the outer world is unknown.

Passing 2014

Passing, 2014,oil on polyester canvas, 26 x 31 cm

One of the most effective pieces in the show is the graceful, well-balanced landscape Tracks. The eye moves between the snowy peak on the horizon and the network of traces proceeding from the viewer’s position into the distance. The trees form a kind of entryway into the mid-distance, where the traces disappear. The absence of human figures is contradicted by their presence, the landscape could not look like this had they not been there but now they are evacuated. The subtle colouration in this painting is picked up clearly in photographs although in bright sunlight on the gallery wall it is much harder to discern.

Tracks 2015

Tracks, 2015 oii on canvas, 94.5 x 115cm

Among the numerous small pictures are several sketches which suggest the reality of a journey which could be universal, any airplane, any seat, any destination. The composition in Untitled is very powerful but on such a small scale and with so little depth on the canvas it is hard to feel engaged. If this was a painting on a much larger scale – one which emphasised the abstract aesthetics of these moments of everyday life – it would be extremely effective. As it is, it is easily overlooked.

Untitled 2015

Untitled, 2015, oil on polyester canvas 61 x 89cm

Another striking image is offered in Sniper. In earlier work Hoffman clearly reflects on military themes. But this sniper might not be military. He (or at a pinch it could be a she) is sighting down the barrel at an unknown target: it could be people coming out of a picture theatre or some other expression of the random mayhem in the contemporary world. The thin vagueness of the paint and the limited use of tone and colour in this little picture makes it particularly effective.

Sniper 2015

Untitled (Sniper), 2015oil on linen43 x 56cm

This brings us to the key issue of whether the conceptual qualities of this work can engage with the commercial market. The ideas behind the project are compelling, but the images need to be able to stand alone, unless of course someone chooses to purchase the entire suite of works, which would make best use of them. Many seem to be barely painted, which creates an interesting quality at one level but is not what the art buyer is accustomed to. Hoffmann has a lot of raw talent and strong presence on the wall but the work needs to be re-oriented or harnessed differently if it is to move forward into the fraught terrain of post-art school life.