through transnationalism. Philippe Parreno describes Morris’s films as a “series of stochastic situations,” and in the identification of a random or radically distributed set of image events he has recognized the mechanism of Beijing.3 In its indifference to questioning, in its indifference to individuality, the film, like its megalopolic subject, simply reframes city life. This withdrawal of information and refusal of denouement suggests that something else is at stake besides the reparative insistence on the power of global architectural-grammatical structuring. Morris has said that she “lets events themselves, and the bureaucratic limits of those events, control the process,” and whilst in this she is describing her technique of image collection, she is also defining an aesthetic.4 Critique Morris has said that “critique” is “superfluous” and this is evidenced in her approach to Beijing.5 By this she refers to a certain hypothesis of critique in which distance and/or objectivity is assumed. The concept of revealing an underexposed truth via art, or the staging of a dialectic, does not occur in this work, nor indeed in Morris’s previous films or in her paintings. Whilst previously Morris has said that she wants her work to be “[n] ot a description of the surface of things, but an exposure of their structure” in the Chinese capital, she meets global paradox head on and has found a blankness to deal with it.6 She says: “Is [China] hypercapitalist? Yes. Is the government a supreme authority? Yes. It’s not yet certain what the country will become, and so today it is not even clear just what we are seeing when, for instance, we look at something like Rem Koolhaas’s tower for China Central Television.”7 Rather than confusion, however, Beijing asserts the fact that ‘not being clear about what we are seeing’ is simply a contemporary truism. Famously, Morris has named her production company, Parallax Corporation, for the secret organization that trains assassins – political and otherwise – in Alan Pakula’s 1974 film The Parallax View. She says, “I like the idea of working for an organization that you’re not really sure where it’s headed […] which is definitely similar to being an artist […] you can think you are in control, but it’s not necessarily clear whether you are in control or not, and I like that play of sort of degrading yourself in the process.”8 Such a ghosting of authority and control is, of course, a dominant Western perception of China, one in which, in relation to the Olympics, Morris suggests “[i]t’s still debatable whose event it was – and who was the ultimate author.”9 But Morris’s is not an art that is interested in exposing the camouflaged operations of power at work in China or elsewhere: it is an art that takes such a situation as a given. There is here perhaps a nostalgia for what is often termed the heightened paranoia of 1970s America and the cold war, often seen as the context and subject of Pakula’s work at that time. As has been pointed out regarding previous works, there is a consistent air of conspiracy staged in the work. But Beijing, in its lack of identification, narrativization, individuation, also suggests a readiness to attest to the fluid capabilities of global capital on a quotidian and informal level. “I think this film, Beijing, is about failure, but it is also about an extreme level of optimism too. The amount of projection there was remarkable. Again, there are two sides to projection. There’s the projection of the West onto this event, which is supposedly in the East – but that, too, can be debated, the question of where the event is actually taking place. And then there’s also the 3 4 5 6
7 8 9
Philip Parreno, ‘Echolocation’ in Sarah Morris: Los Angeles, op. cit., p. 40. Morris quoted in Tom Vanderbilt, ‘Empty Nest’ in Artforum, December 2008, p. 242. Morris in conversation with Louisa Buck, The Art Newspaper, op cit., p. 71. Sarah Morris interviewed by Michael Tarantino & Rob Bowman in Sarah Morris: Modern Worlds, op. cit. Morris quoted in Tom Vanderbilt, ‘Empty Nest’, op. cit., p. 242. Christopher Turner, ‘Beijing City Symphony’ in Modern Painters, July-Aug 2008. p. 59. Morris quoted in Tom Vanderbilt, ‘Empty Nest’, op. cit., p. 242.
projection of the East upon itself, about what it thinks it’s achieving. There are always these multiple, vying perceptions of the same moment that can be very much at odds.”10 There is every sense in Beijing evidence that Morris’s technique continues to exploit her viewer’s easy identification with spaces, habits and socialities that they only know through ongoing media coverage (the president, the Oscars, the Olympics). So where does this insistent repetition lead us? What is, as it were, beyond or after, the parallax view? Morris could be sure to find the material for a parallax in Beijing 2008. Displacements of view are the architecture that forms, finances, and publicizes the paradoxes of such massive transnational cultural production. On a literal level, observers watched from many angles in the summer of 2008 as the creative economy geared up to the Games. The contradiction at the base of China’s staging of the Olympics was not only produced by the Chinese Government and masterminded by the transnational IOC. It was also produced by a transnational public of viewers, by those of us that wanted to be there, those of us that admired the design, those of us that found it a ‘way in’ to China, and those of us who would wish to eradicate the contravention of human rights as a prerequisite to the global publicity earned by such an event. Here, high profile globalized humanitarianism meets the mores of national dictatorship keen on capital accumulation and becomes implicated in the set of compromises that ensue. It is a theatrical standoff, and maybe politically productive as such, especially when high profile actors step in. Interviewed by the press before and after his perfectly staged exit from the design credit of the Bird’s Nest, one such actor, the artist and architect Ai Weiwei articulates this paradoxical position. On the one hand, before his exit, he termed his collaboration with Herzog & de Meuron a “perfect model for society”. The steel lattice structure, which features as a consistent filmic motif in Morris’s Beijing as in her paintings, is symbolically and practically transparent; organized not only to produce an accessible viewing platform for as many fans as possible, but also to suggest the openness and freedom that such transparency indicates in other terms. “From whatever direction you look at it, you share the power. There is no decoration. The concept looks simple, but it provides the best watching experience for everybody because there are no pillars.”11 On the other hand, after his exit, he reads the building differently. Referring in an interview in The Guardian to the Chinese Government “covering up its faults,” the Bird’s Nest becomes a symbol of weakness: “To show your weakness is power. You don’t need to pretend. No one is perfect in this world. Telling people the old system is not working is not shameful. We all know that.”12 Vulnerability There is no objective position. None. So therefore there is no criticism that is objective. Certainly there is no interesting art that comes from being objective. To admit how complicit we now are with these very late capitalist forms – and it must be said in crisis – this seems to me like the most vital place to position ourselves.13
to Beijing.14 Wordless, some figures emerge at a different temperature to others, retaining an odd focus precisely because their faces express something other than boredom with the mundane. At one point, a very young Chinese gymnast is filmed talking to an interviewer just as she has finished performing and her face has an intensity that is impossible to read. She may be about to cry with anger, pain or joy at what she has or has not just achieved; she walks off with the faintest gesture of resignation, a glance back over her shoulder that is indecipherable. In another, two well-manicured and informally-uniformed women work behind the luxurious reception desk of the Bank of China, discussing something that makes them tense, diffuse. The shadow of an expression of irritation crosses one woman’s face before it dissipates in the physiognomic-architectural environment. In another (and if there is a dramatic moment in the film this is it, casually placed), a man attempts to persuade or cajole a young woman as they are walking through a pedestrian underpass past an advert for McDonalds, and she turns and struggles and pushes him away, crying, resisting. He tries again, and her exasperation and/or petulance appears to be worn down. The shot simply shifts to the CCTV and other buildings of Beijing’s downtown: beautiful, austere, unsanctimonious. In these human instances, the action appears to be cusping, on the edge of something or somewhere. It is no accident that Morris is drawn to people and places where things are in transit or services are provided to ease transition (airports, terminals, roads, buses, subways: locations so literally understood as ‘non-places’ that the category ceases to have any critical meaning). This is the effect of capital that Morris illustrates. These moments where we might otherwise say, “but we need to know why that girl is crying – is she being abused?” and “are the workers being exploited?” are surpassed by the transnationalism of our view. Thus, as the artist indicates, the politics in the work need to be found elsewhere. On one level the weakness of this position is evident (that picturing complicity is not a strong method of producing change), and yet Morris works in a milieu of art (and political philosophy) that would propose exactly that: an acknowledgement that there is no outside to capital and so one must find, often collectively, different ways to work with a concept of the political. As an example, it is easy to find in Beijing Morris’s pleasurable focus on the ways in which the ‘anarchic’ steel nesting of the Bird’s Nest is an alternative to the ubiquitous verticality of international-style cityscapes so dominant in her previous city films (and as material for her paintings), as much as it is to find an architectonic question about freedom of view. Aesthetics are consistently crossed with politics, and the camera’s equanimity is readily mistaken for equality in contemporary art. But Morris is not pretending to be even-handed, neither can this work be dismissed as cynical. On the contrary, she consistently allows us to see that neither evenhandedness nor cynicism is an option, as we are all wrapped up in this image production. What to do, she asks circumstantially, with complicity?
Writing for Parkett in 2001, Joe Klein observed that “[n]o one appears to be very comfortable in Sarah Morris’s film Capital,” an observation that could be extended to all of her works, including, perhaps with increased nuance,
The evident evasion of questions of rights abuse and autocratic recidivism in Morris’s film configures Beijing as a rhetorical space whose political and aesthetic logic is structured to usher in novel, post-oppositional, forms of politics. This coincides with recent retorts to the exhausting conclusions of much contemporary left-leaning political philosophy. Writing on the prospect of progressive politics in transnational space, Bruce Robbins
Morris interviewed by Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, Art in America, December 2008. p. 149 Jonathan Watts, ‘Beijing Olympics: Police state wastes goodwill, says stadium designer’ in The Guardian, 2 August 2008 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/ aug/02/china.olympicgames2008 12 Jonathan Watts, ibid. 13 Pierre Alexandre de Looz in conversation with Sarah Morris, ‘China 2008 and other Power Plays according to Sarah Morris’ in Sarah Morris: Lesser Panda, op. cit. p.22
14 Joe Klein, ‘Capital–The Formal Seat of an Informal Country’ in Parkett 61 (New York: Parkett, 2001), p. 108. 15 Bruce Robbins, ‘Progressive politics in transnational space’ in Radical Philosophy 153, Jan/Feb 2009, p. 38.
criticizes those that cynically define the interventions of Non Governmental Organizations in the name of human rights as self-seeking and ‘proprietorial’ and thus dismiss forms of political action that, however comprised or complicit, continue in his view to change the language of global debates. “Cynicism,” he says, “is a sort of defense mechanism, allowing us to maintain our daily routines without interruption. But in the long run, it does not defend us well enough.”15 Whilst Robbins acknowledges that there is a concern that NGOs and human rights organizations do participate in the “symbolic legitimation” of the “system as a whole”, particularly in the instrumentalization of foreign policy, there is nevertheless a “cumulative effect” of emancipatory language that occurs over an extended period of time that might be a better measure of effect. Robbins says: “new forms of action are coming into being, in which politics and humanitarian neutrality in their traditional senses enter into previously unimaginable syntheses.”16 This assertion is complex and might be directly related to Morris’s work and its implicit requirement to be understood as productive beyond old – or cynical – forms of critique. There are some obvious provisos that have been rehearsed above, such as the difficulty of neutrality – aesthetic of otherwise – being mistaken for complicity, and the occurrence of artistic production being factually and symbolically related, always, to the production of many forms of capital. But, if we are to work at what Robbins calls the necessity “both to enrich and to displace what we understand by neutrality”, perhaps we must get over these easy descriptions of art.17 For Robbins, the NGO is distinct here, and in orthodox political terms it certainly has what might be termed moral authority over the artist. Though perhaps contemporary art can come up with other definitions of the neutral as an aesthetic by-product of transnationalism. Whilst an (evidently controversial) comparison could be drawn between the functions of an artist, working across a transnational milieu of compromised and opportunistic sites, and an NGO doing much the same thing, and there are many artists’ collectives that see themselves working in this way (certainly in Beijing in the summer of 2008), Morris is clearly not aiming here. This vulnerable eventlessness of Beijing, a film made about an expectant space in which nothing happened, with its lack of drama and its concomitant emptiness of specific action in the intensities and flows of, for instance, any rights debate, suggests attendance to new forms in which neutrality produces new use-value: forms in which art demonstrates what it might mean to be both a producer of, and stakeholder in, now common typologies of the global. Here, rather than displaced, neutrality emerges in its full political sense as a state of play that is neither completely auspicious nor totally complicit, and perhaps useful in being both Morris works on this neutrality, beyond politics, looking for specificity rather than equality.
16 Bruce Robbins, ibid., p. 39-42. 17 Bruce Robbins, ibid., p.44.