Michael Snow, So is this, 2009, installation shot, mother’s tankstation; image held here

As the curtain falls on a fragile year, and by the look of things, a collapsing decade, the ubiquitous phrase  ‘highlight of the year’ doesn’t quite fit the editorial. In saying that, ArtForum have optimistically published their annual ‘best of’, and after scanning through the critics’ choices, serendipity strikes again, as the subject of this review, Michael Snow, comes in at Number 10 in Martin Herbert’s Top 10, for Solar breath (Northern Caryatids), 2002, at the Southbank Gallery, London. [1]  At mother’s tankstation, Finola Jones has taken Snow’s ‘seminal work’ from 1982, So is this, and situated it in the modest framework of a fabricated theatre.

En route to mother’s tankstation you cannot but reflect on the recent changes on Dublin’s art scene. The Liffey divide between North and South Dublin is where pockets of art activity have found their awkward homes since 2005. If FOUR separated itself from its location, almost floating above its awkward neighbours of sex and charity shops on Capel Street, thisisnotashop, relished in its location on Benburb Street. The Lewis became its timetabled audience; rubber-necking a heightened activity. It was with these reflections on site and art that I viewed Snow’s work.

Once again, procrastination led me to mother’s tankstation on the penultimate day of screenings of Snow’s So is this (1982). I was prepared for a film that tested the viewer’s attention span and resolve. The prep work included watching a degraded version of Snow’s Wavelength (1966) earlier that day. The exercise was not a waste of time. In fact, it set-up a series of internal questions about the importance of seeing – experiencing the ‘real’ work in the context of curatorial and site. What I noticed first, with a smile, was the A4 page in isolation on a 2 x 4 wooden joist that backs the MDF compartment in the gallery. Jones mentioned after the screening that the ‘theatre’ was partly recycled from the previous site-specific work by Brendan Earley. Fortunately, this ad hoc construction added to Snow’s film – leaving nostalgia in the cold by navigating the gap of 27 years with sheer modesty, and not museum glorification.  The lone word ‘THEATRE’ printed on the A4 page sets the premise for Snow’s work. Snow describes it better himself:

A silent film of 45 minutes consisting of single words of this script or score placed on the screen one by one, one after another, for specific lengths of time… Several different strategies were employed on timing words / passages of the film. Image quality changes too, and the situation of an audience reading a film is a special one, not to be duplicated by reading this. [2]

Michael Snow, So is this, 2009, installation shot, mother’s tankstation; image held here

It is key to take on board what Snow says about the pseudo-duplication of an event;  “by reading this,"  rather than being there, with the work; in the work. Whether experiencing art through the fickle nature of the photograph, the degraded YouTube version, or the subjective art statement or review, in situ experience is a must. The former false sites and prophets are not grounded, they are “precarious," the word that Hal Foster coined recently for “the art of the decade." [3]  The site discloses the fragility of the art work in real space; whether the site is a success or failure in relation to the art inhabiting the space. Snow’s work arrived at mother’s tankstation by FedEx. I bet a FRAGILE sticker was pasted on the package.

When writing on art you are always tempted to use quotes to situate the artist’s work in some critical context. However, just as ‘highlight of the year’ doesn’t quite fit the times, language as a descriptor of Snow’s work ends up being the poor cousin. Trying to describe the work or event to others after the fact seems an injustice; the act is rather damaging. Snow’s So is this has a perfectly measured amount of self-reflexivity to adequately take the piss out of the trendy conceptual practice of the ‘phenomenological self’ from the 1970s and ’80s. There are moments where you pick up on imagined tone when Snow says in text “…this   is   entertainment…"  But, we have to take into account that although the ’70s and ’80s were a fertile time for confident, conceptual work, there was always that fragile relationship with the audience. Wry humour invariably exposes the insecurity of the artist. This is not a sleight on Snow’s work but accidently places him in a critical context that was shaped by the time.

Michael Snow, So is this, 2009, installation shot, mother’s tankstation; image held here

In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard’s La condition postmoderne was published. The book was originally written as a report to the Conseil des universités du Québec; Canada is Snow’s native soil. [4] This may be another stroke of serendipity, but just like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘word games’ were at the root of conceptualism, Lyotard’s philosophy of the end of the grand narrative was in the shadows of influence.

The press release mentions that “Snow’s agenda in ‘So is this’ was, perhaps, prompted as much by the censor’s increasing interest in his work as its art-world chronology." Ontario is mentioned in the textual narrative and Snow does afford some text blips to reveal an opinion on the subject of censorship in Canada at the time. These measured acts of juvenile defiance, self-reflexivity and revelations on place and context do not date the work. In some ways, So is this is a work for the present age of the text message and e-mail.

Michael Snow, So is this, 2009, installation shot, mother’s tankstation; image held here

Communication has become a series of textual short cuts that reveal tone through exclamation marks and abbreviations. In So is this, Snow tries to capture presentness through the word ‘this’. In the Stansford encyclopedia of philosophy it states by referencing Hegel’s Phenomenology of spirit (1807) that:

because subject and object are both instances of a “this" and a “now," neither of which are immediately sensed. So-called immediate perception therefore lacks the certainty of immediacy itself, a certainty that must be deferred to the working out of a complete system of experience. [5]

‘This’ and ‘now’ maybe as close as we can get through the limitations of language to describe the experience of presentness. In my experience, good art seems to transcend this hypothesis by revealing the fact that language is limited as a descriptor of experience. Snow’s work is a meditation on the loss of the meta-narrative and the importance of seeing the work through one ‘system of experience’, the  real thing. Snow achieves all this with humour; for that reason, ‘meditation’ should be replaced with ‘celebration’.

James Merrigan is an artist.

[1] Martin Herbert, Art Forum, ‘Top 10 2009′, December 2009, p 203

[2] Michael Snow,  http://vernissage.tv/blog/2008/08/29/michael-snow-so-is-this-manifesta-7-fortezza-franzensfeste/

[3] ‘Precarious: Hal Foster on the art of the decade’, Art Forum, December 2009, p 207

[4] Frédérick Bruneault, ‘Savoir scientifique et légitimation’, Revue PHARES vol 5 (Autumn 2004)

[5] Standford encyclopedia of philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/" http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/