Musings on Chance

18Mar11

You know you’re going to have a contentious relationship with a book, (‘Chance’ from the Documents of Contemporary Art series), when you’re disagreeing with George Brecht 30 pages in, and so this book was for me, a battle. I discovered several things in the process however. One, if you title a book with a one-word summing up, readers (at least, this reader) are going to expect a concise portrait, or at least coherent picture of what this concept means. Two, as our understandings of the world, science, psychology have changed, this has affected our understanding of a concept like Chance. Hence, when George Brecht, in 1957, suggests nature is ‘irrational’ and you-know-who ‘rational’ and quotes Arp who states ‘reason has cut man off from nature’ you feel annoyed because nature actually proceeds pretty deliberately through it’s own systems, and maybe its just because we’re more aware of it with the advent of satelites, and everything, but still. That’s when a little context might be useful and simply presenting essays, statements, interviews without that, becomes disorienting.

This book is probably best read as a reference, by looking at specific essays over time. It’s difficult to read straight through as you’re inevitably faced with artists whose work is unfamiliar, which gives you little background to hang your gained knowledge on. It’s difficult to switch contexts between art forms, time periods, movements and the wide variety of ways chance is used. Gerhard Richter and Sophie Calle are both included in the section ‘Repetitions, Retracings, Relapses,’ where he talks about ‘letting a thing come, rather than creating it,’ and ‘above all, it’s never blind chance: it’s a chance that is always planned, but also surprising.’ Then you switch gears to Calle who talks about following strangers on the street, one of whom she ends up running into later at an opening.

If two things seem so divergent that labeling them the same thing seems crazy, then the whole usefulness of the term loses meaning. Richter’s use of chance seems closer to intuition: unpredictable moments that occur while making a painting and take you in another direction. If this phenomenon is in fact, chance, then it seems to me the concept of Chance pre-dates the earliest concept in this book, (Duchamp and fluxus) by several hundred years, no? (thousands?) Because ultimately this kind of chance becomes what defines much art-making, that mystery, that force, the ghost in the machine, the muse. Ahem. All of this is to say, in my own opinion, while I appreciate Iversen’s attempt to make this an expansive volume, I think it might be clearer and more concise to focus on works where chance is a conscious choice: Cage, Calle, Fluxus, the Surrealists, etc.

Let me end by relating an exchange between Fran Holstrom and I, in our discussion of the book that illustrates why art book club is so awesome. I was complaining that if this was chance and that was chance, then what was chance in the end? If its too broad, it becomes meaningless, blah, blah, I needed a definition. And, Fran asked why I needed that definition. I cheekily replied that naming your book something and not defining it was annoying. But I left the meeting perturbed, pondering Fran’s question. Why did I need a clear definition or picture of Chance? The answer I came up with was that defining it allows me to react to it, to find my place in it as an artist. In the end, I think that’s why I was disappointed in this book, there’s not enough focus and context to connect.

-Gina Beavers

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