My father doesn't understand contemporary art, either.
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Grace Chung, My Mother, and the Disappearance of The Real

So you find yourself at the Baja to Vancouver exhibit (B2V). That is, if you happen to be in Seattle, San Diego, Vancouver, or San Francisco when the exhibit is in town. The implied exclusiveness is not incidental; indeed, it is likely indexical to how you react to what you experience.  If you live in a big city – and maybe even more so, if you live in a big city (like the ones cited above) whose electorate is largely responsible for its host State becoming indelibly branded “blue” in the minds of anyone who has watched TV or picked up a newspaper in the wake of the recent election – well, you probably do not need to have contemporary art explained to you.

Take the piece “Grace Chung Financial,” made by Vancouver based artist Ken Lum in 2001, and included in B2V. At the most, I might have to offer a brief explanation of why the piece speaks to me. Even if you don’t agree, you probably will understand.

But what if you are my mother? I still remember standing with her in front of an early 60’s silkscreen painting by Robert Rauschenberg and extemporizing a dissertation about what there is to see in the work. For her, like so many people, the art she can make sense of is representational. I can also still remember the girl in my high school art class: “It’s not a barn, it’s not a tree, it’s not anything.” As mind boggling as it still is to me, the fact remains that these are people for whom the significant cultural developments of the last, oh, one hundred years or so seem to have passed them by.

Like Semiology. As has been observed by Jean-François Lyotard – who for lack of a better sobriquet one might call The Popularizer of Post Modernism – a significant feature of those last hundred years is a preoccupation with language. Certainly, in “Grace Chung Financial,” that’s all there is, in the literal sense of the word. Looking at the piece, we are confronted with an industrially manufactured sign advertising “Grace Chung, Financial Consultant.” At the bottom is a space reserved for prefabricated letters to be slotted in to compose additional text – think of the marquee on a movie theater. Only this text does not announce a Coming Attraction nor, as one might expect in this instance, a Discounted Service or Testimonial. No, on this sign the text reads: “PLEASE LEAVE /MY FAMILY ALONE/WHOEVER YOU ARE/DEAL WITH ME.”

Certainly, if a preoccupation with language has been an abiding feature of the last century, then a piece like this must be “of the moment.” But back to my mother. Mom, I imagine that you think along Cartesian Rationalist lines. Who doesn’t, really? Cogito Ergo Sum is a no-brainer – of course you exist. You are the Subject, and what you perceive is the Object. And language, such as what I am using now – this is a tool by which to communicate my a priori thoughts arising from stimuli from the a priori world. Here are objects, let’s name them.

That’s a worldview little if at all changed since it was articulated in the 1600’s. Fast-forward a few hundred years, to the early 20th century. Latin is no longer the scholarly language of choice, and here comes one scholar, Ferdinand de Saussure, the nominal originator of the study of Semiology, to make a comment many would still find Vulgar: language is a Closed System – it does not refer to anything, only to itself. That is to say, in plain English, how can a word or phrase like “MY FAMILY” have any meaning except in relation to other words or phrases? Like a house of cards, take away one part, one indivisible unit of the structure of language – the Sign, as Saussure designated it – and the whole thing falls apart.

And what would be left? Professional Thinking Types in the wake of Saussure have suggested that language is all there is. You can’t reduce a person to some pure essence. Jacques Lacan said famously “the unconscious is structured like a language.” From that and the tangled body of work from which that phrase has been torn, one can extrapolate that a person does not “come into being” – have an identity, exist – without language. Indeed, consider even the aforementioned notions of the Subject and the Object – these are parts of speech! Even their habitual arrangement in the English language – Subject/Verb/Object – could be said to determine how we look at the world.

So there is a world to look at, right? It’s hard not to yearn for some kind of primal, pre-lingual Garden of Eden. One is again reminded of Lacan, and his concept of “jouissance,” and the eternal lack or longing its loss produces. Then too we have Jean Baudrillard (more from him later) repeatedly couching his observations in a kind of nostalgia: Now things are different, now things are irrevocably changed, we can’t get back to how, you know, things used to be. Coincidentally, one might observe the same kind of yearning or evidence of Lack in “Grace Chung.” If one considers the text at the bottom, one might get a sense that Things Were Not Ever Thus. Indeed, a whole narrative unfolds. Grace Chung went into business. But something went wrong. People in the public eye, those who announce themselves as Grace is announcing herself through this sign – those people can become targets. Think John Lennon. Give Peace a Chance. The sign he made (literally a billboard) with Yoko Ono years before he was murdered read: “HAPPY XMAS/WAR IS OVER/IF YOU WANT IT.” The mind continues to boggle – the cultural detritus of that era demonstrates that people were actually offended that (dressed all in) White (Boy Wonder) Lennon took up with an Oriental sorry I mean Asian woman. Might Grace Chung herself be the object of racism? In any case, the implication is one of a fall – from, well, grace. Someone is harassing her family. She implores them to stop. “DEAL WITH ME.”

But what are we dealing with? This little narrative, is this a part of the piece? What racism? What harassment? The information (if it can even be called that) is so sketchy, it’s practically nonexistent. The idea of “racial intimidation”is just supposition. What it is a part of is not the piece per se, but documentation about the piece found in the B2V catalogue – that’s where I got the idea. And yet this is how the piece “pushes” us. This is one of the ways in which it works. In an era of rampant signification, with signs – not necessarily in the Saussurian sense, just literally: signs, like the one Lum offers us – proliferating seemingly of their own accord, “Grace Chung” provokes a not unfamiliar sensation, a kind of vertigo, a feeling of being in limbo. Baudrillard speaks of things “become orbital.” Derrida references a chain of Signifiers. Are you still with me, Mom? The Saussurian Sign is bipartite. It contains a Signifier – literally the material of language, the marks on this page that look like SIGNIFIER or the sound that comes out of your mouth when you say it – and it also contains the Signified. This latter component is harder to pin down. Many have interpreted it to be the concept – the thing that pops into your head when you reach for or come upon the Signified. Quick – what is “FAMILY” – you know what that means, right? But be careful – “FAMILY” is a sign. The Signified component of the sign “FAMILY” is not its meaning – that is something that arises from the sign’s syntagmatic and paradigmatic relationships with other signs. Like my stepfather once said when my mother and I were chiding him about his limited vocabulary (by our perhaps elitist standards), “What’s the point of looking up the word in the dictionary? It’s only going to give other words you need to know the definition of.”

And so on. Infinitely. This is what Post Structuralist, Post Modernist, Deconstructionist, whatever–you-want-to-call-him-he’s-in-a-class-by-himself Jacques Derrida was getting at by his term “différance.” Damn Microsoft spell-check – don’t correct the spelling of that sign, er, word! It’s a conflation of the French words meaning (in English), difference and deferring. Derrida was getting at the idea that my stepfather intuitively grasped: that meaning is achieved through difference – the play of differences, if you will, embodied in signification – putting or pitting one sign against another. And then also, that meaning is always already endlessly deferred. It’s not something you can get your hands on and possess, like the wax Descartes famously fingered, but rather arises from, or perhaps more accurately simply is, the process of signification that … I just described above.

In other words, language is all there is. One of these days I will read all of Saussure’s “Course in General Linguistics” to see if he himself coined the term “referent” – the thing to which a Sign refers. I hope not. I like to think of Saussure’s Semiological, Structural model as perfect, and all so-called “Post Structuralist” attempts at refutation or modification (or in your case, Monsieur Derrida, Deconstruction) to be simply amplification or elucidation at what was (always) already there. If language is a closed system, as I have always been given to believe that Saussure contended, then the term “referent” is meaningless, and the original Saussurian Signified suffices. What is the difference, anyway? Is not the Signified an object in your head? To return to “Grace,” what is the object to which its text refers, the Signified for its Signifier? That whole narrative – that’s just fiction. Who indeed, or rather what, is “Grace Chung?” She/It is nothing more than words, just as is “PLEASE LEAVE /MY FAMILY ALONE/WHOEVER YOU ARE/DEAL WITH ME.” This gives rise to the same kind of feeling you might have had looking at a stop sign – sitting there, waiting for the other cars to proceed, already hypnotized by the endless procession of traffic and proliferating signs (literal or linguistic – take your pick), that word “stop” can start to seem increasingly foreign, alien even. It’s meaning, its place in the firmament of signification formerly taken for granted, it starts to feel disconnected, meaningless … weird. Just white marks against an octagonal red field – or is it red marks surrounding a white field? This is of course why Rauschenberg titled most of his ’62-’64 silkscreen paintings (many of which, coincidentally, feature the disconnected image of a stop sign) with one word: Shortstop … Shaftway … Creek ... Whale ... Persimmon ... Kite ... it's just one more layer of decontextualized signification, another sign on top of a group of pictorial (what Pierce, the American Saussure, identified as iconic) signs that together comment on this process of signification that dominates our ... whoops! Wrong lecture.

Back to “Grace.” It’s the same effect. And without recourse to a comparison such as the one I have offered above, how might we describe that effect? Well, we could say that it is the effect of a Third Order Simulacrum. Whuzzat? Baudrillard, remember him? Rooted like the other theorists I have mentioned in Semiology/Structuralism, Baudrillard widens the field and applies the model to all nature of cultural phenomena – much as does Roland Barthes, but with more of a sociologist’s bent (a sociologist come of age in the wake of Paris 1968). As for Barthes, his insightful discourse on “The Text” could easily be considered relevant to “Grace.” Barthes said, in essense, “The reader produces The Text.” And of course, by “Text” he meant something much more broad than, say, “Grace Chung.” Once I read the B2V catalogue, it became essentially impossible to separate its author’s interpretation of “racial intimidation” from how I see the piece. This is the effect Bathes was commenting on, and it’s what  “Grace Chung” indexes. No author. No signified or referent. This is where I think a critique of Saussure (specifically Derrida’s) might have some validity. Why the binarism, Ferdinand? What I am seeing is free floating Signifiers, that’s it. If the idea of “referent” seems ridiculous then so too should the Signified. “There is nothing outside of The Text.” That’s actually Derrida speaking. And if it can feel confusing, where one theorist leaves off and another begins, that is once again precisely the point. As Barthes argues (and Jorges Borges so eloquently illustrates in his “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”), authorship of fiction could itself be considered a convenient fiction, no less in this case of attribution; Barthes and Derrida are saying the same thing, only in different ways.

And Baudrillard. Perhaps arbitrarily (like the Sign), I’ll borrow his terminology to further help me explain “Grace Chung.” Baudrillard’s conception of the Orders of Simulacra (from Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1975) goes something like this: 1. It masks or perverts reality (the cheap knockoff of an expensive Swiss watch), 2. It masks the absence of reality (what is “the original” in a series of mass produced watches?), and 3. It has no relation whatsoever to reality. “It is its own pure Simulacrum.” Even in the Second Order, the watches have an origin, of sorts. You know there is a blueprint, a design, an Ideal Watch, if you will. But the simulacra of the Third Order, belonging to the age Baudrillard says we are “now” living in (it’s of course not the simulacra that have changed, but our perception of them), these have no origin. With respect to art, we could return to the first of the cultural theorists I invoked, Lyotard: there are no original or objective aesthetic criteria by which a work of art can be judged anymore. To the first order of simulacra belongs Christian Iconography. There is an absolute reality, God, and glorifying Him is the yardstick by which artistic quality can be judged (secularize it up a bit and you’ve got Renaissance three point perspective – now we’re talking your language, right Mom?) To the Second Order belongs Modernism. Mondrian’s abstract “Compositions” compose a Series that is its own reality, but it nevertheless references Reality with a capital “R” by being a Departure From It. The espoused raison d’etre of another maker of compositions, John Cage, could just as well represent Mondrian, or any Modernist: “To imitate Nature not in Her appearance, but in Her manner of operation.”

And then there is “Grace Chung.” I might be able to help my mother to “get” Mondrian or even Rauschenberg, but I think I would have a harder time with Ken Lum’s piece. I can easily imagine her and many others getting stuck on Lyotard’s anything goes: “So ‘the only yardstick is the marketplace’?  Yeah, I guess if They say it’s Art, then I suppose it is, but I don’t get it” (don’t get it? Or can’t “DEAL” with it?) Ah, but this exactly what “Grace Chung” is commenting on! Another piece might give you a queasy feeling of having no firm ground to stand on, but as a very literal sign, this one has the distinction of referencing the feeling provoked by the rampant (or, once again, “orbital,”as Baudrillard would say) signification that is a facet of contemporary life. Indeed, while it departs from Second Order Simulacra by not imitating Nature in her manner of operation, but imitating that imitation, making Nature (or reality) irrelevant, it is also pushing us to articulate for ourselves how that increasingly prevalent process is carried out. Of course, it does this not just by being itself a Sign, but by pushing the Sign to an extreme.  Without the disturbing implications of the text in the bottom half, this sign would likely be interchangeable with the endless procession of signs that constitute our “reality,” and thus it – and what it pushes us to perceive – would be well nigh invisible. What did I just say? The text in … the bottom half? If we apply the clichéd criteria that Art hold up a mirror to Nature, then “Grace Chung,” by its very structure, could be seen as holding up a mirror to Saussure’s linguistic Sign. Like the latter, “Grace” is bipartite. On the top is the materiality of this person, this thing, “Grace Chung.” As Pierce observed, the person is herself a sign – it is a series of Signifiers that make up “Grace Chung”: “Financial Consultant … Expertise You Can Trust …” Look, there’s even a way to contact her. But look below – both literally and figuratively, beneath the bland veneer of what is permanently etched in the outward appearance of “Grace Chung.” Significantly, it is the top half of the sign which is permanent, manufactured to specifications, while the lower half is mutable, a product of a set of interchangeable letters: “PLEASE LEAVE /MY FAMILY ALONE/WHOEVER YOU ARE/DEAL WITH ME.”

“ME”? Who is that? “Grace Chung”? Vertigo increases – how can we really be sure that the titular “Grace Chung” is that to whom this “ME” refers? So great is the contrast in tone between the sign’s top and bottom, it pushes that feeling of disconnectedness, puts us in touch with the free-floating Signifier. And we see how, confronted with this condition, it is impossible not to want to make meaning, or at least find ironic resonance in the sign’s elements. “Expertise  … Trust” -- “PLEASE LEAVE /MY FAMILY ALONE …” It hardly seems like trust has been established.  Again, not an unfamiliar feeling … these days. Once can almost hear Baudrillard’s nostalgic sigh: it’s not the way things used to be. We used to know the grocer, the milkman … didn’t we? We used to be able to leave our doors unlocked. As signs proliferate without origin, and thus with anonymity, so too can people (“WHOEVER YOU ARE …”) It’s already been explored (as in the infamous Yale “Obedience” experiment, when unwitting test subjects, bidden by an authority figure, were willing to give fatal electric shocks to an unseen person in the next room), the idea that with increasing anonymity and “distance” between people can come greater degrees of cruelty. Then too, as identity becomes less something “known” or “felt” and more a construction of the institutional signs of identity, like credit cards and records, or the phone number associated with “Grace Chung,” it becomes easier to undermine. It’s a so-called (and significantly called) urban myth, the person whose records are wiped out from all databases, and so effectively ceases to be. It was even made into a Hollywood movie. Starring Sandra Bullock! Featuring Grace Chung! Financial Consultant! Expertise You Can Trust!

“DEAL WITH ME.” This is what the Sign demands of us. Not simply this sign, but The Sign. This is the Signified belonging to the Signifier that is “Grace Chung” – not some story about “the covert harassment of an Asian family … racial intimidation as the catalyst” (I’m quoting from the B2V catalogue here).  Sure, that story works; any one could. That is the nature of reality: its lack. Ah, hello again, Monsieur Lacan. I suppose your famous mirror could be a Simulacrum of the First Order. But if “Grace Chung” is the proverbial mirror of art, what does it reflect? None other than the reality of The Sign.