11 Nov 2001
Labours of Love
True confessions of a spare parts freak
Here I am again, sitting in my chair, looking at magazines. I'm comfortable, I'm having fun, I'm looking at the pictures. Wow! Just look at the shape of that one! I'd love to get my hands on it. I have to admit it, I'm queer for this stuff. Let's just get one thing straight - these magazines I'm looking at, they're not from the top shelf. We are talking strictly middle shelf: you know, the ones with all the hobby magazines, rows and rows of them. My particular kink is motoring magazines. What do I like about them? I like to read about the discovery of parts like the Gurney flap, the first quickly detachable wheels or the Tilton carbon clutch. I like the pictures of disassembled engines, the exploded drawings and the adverts for spare parts. Sometimes the adverts are the best bit. They border on the arcane - just photographs of pieces of metal, or really bad drawings that only make sense if you happen to know what they are in the first place. Sometimes they are just lists that you can read and think about. Sexy, sexy, sexy.
You don't agree? Let me assure you, I'm not alone. Some years back I was in my favourite bike shop. Jeff (the owner) had just finished a bike for himself - an early 1950s Harley Panhead. Most people overdo rebuilds but Jeff hadn't allowed himself to add extras; the parts most people pretty up a bit were just painted black (there was a shortage of chromium in the years after 1945). He had traced all the correct parts for this particular model and assembled them into perfection. It made me feel like selling my soul to own it and I was almost drooling on his paintwork. But Jeff wasn't satisfied. 'It's good', he said, 'but if I could find one just like it was fresh out of the factory, I'd come in my pants.' I knew what he meant. Such a discovery would be unbelievable - a bike over 40 years old but factory fresh, every part brand new, untouched. Jeff would be able to look at it and take it apart in his head. Think of the sheer aesthetic pleasure in that: not only the beauty of the machine's appearance but with it a profound conceptual understanding of its underlying form. If he chose to, he could be the prince to awaken this sleeping beauty from its long slumber. Those middle shelves might be filled with hobbies, but each of those hobbies offers completion and resolution in a way that the real world will not allow, in a way that even art cannot achieve.
I am waxing a bit too much on the lyrical side, but is there really that much difference between this and the fetishism of the museum, or the fantasy of stumbling across a Mondrian in a junk shop? Perhaps there is something serious in all of this. But let's deal with what hobbies are and why an artist might go on about them. The word itself is derived from old French (hobi, hobin), meaning a nag or horse, and is used to denote something that a person pursues with pleasure but which is not their main occupation. This would seem to be at odds with the current notion of the artist, which is curiously akin to our notion of the athlete - a total dedication to success, although with a somewhat more indulgent attitude towards drug abuse and health issues. Artists might be allowed to have enthusiasms, but hobbies ... surely not.
Let me tell you a tale: in 1988 I was in Korea. They were hosting the Olympics and there was an art event to go with it, which was why I was there, to site a sculpture. It was a very weird event. One of the bonuses of such exhibitions is that you get to meet some interesting artists. I met Dennis Oppenheim and one day, while we were having a meal together, he told me something that amazed me. We were talking about 'smart art', which was the big thing just then, art which knew so much about itself there was hardly any point in
actually thinking about it yourself because the artist had made sure that the work was already completely explained. It was an essentially 'Classical' position, which meant that the work existed, or seemed to exist, as a product of reason. Dennis was advocating 'dumb art', which I took as meaning mute, which was just there and you just had to face up to it and work it out for yourself. He then began to tell me a story about Dan Flavin. I don't know if it's true, but other artists have corroborated it since. According to Dennis, Flavin had lots of hobbies: watercolours, making models, all sorts of things. Apparently he would pursue these activities, then throw away the results. Dennis seemed to be suggesting that in order for Flavin to maintain the purity of his work he had to purge all extraneous creative or psychological needs which the work might contain but which would contaminate it. And he did this through hobbies. True or not, I like the story; it suggests another way of looking at the way art is made. In fact, it suggests why some people find spare parts sexy and some don't.
Before getting on to that I want to go sideways a bit. Oppenheim and Flavin are both artists I admire. Yet their position and approach are seemingly oppositional. Oppenheim's work is loaded with meaning - not that this meaning is explicit or ever fully explained. Jack Burnham in his book Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art (1974) describes one of my favourite works by Oppenheim: Violations (1971-72), which was shown at the Sonnabend Gallery. A gallery full of hub-caps lifted on the West Coast and shown on the East Coast: '... it became obvious that there was considerable uneasiness in discussing some works. While these perhaps were made in the form of public confessions, there were details still too painful to reflect upon. For instance, a piece dealing with the removal of hub-caps is obsessively repetitious. The gallery floor is strewn with automobile hub-caps, while a set of hands on a TV monitor repeatedly removes a hub-cap with a tire iron. The click-click of the tool against the tire rim is an absurd mechanical counterpart to the prolonged chanting accompanying the investiture of a shaman. Such chants are never discursive; they appeal neither to the mind nor the emotions, but draw the participant inward towards his own natural powers, the source of his strength and vitality.'
Oppenheim continually shifts the context and form of his work, whereas Flavin's work is known for its lack of change. Yet prior to the production of Flavin's signature work, The Diagonal of May 23 1963 (to Constantin Brancusi), his work had shifted between figuration and abstraction, drawing and watercolour, between assemblage and found objects. After The Diagonal ... of 1963 this stopped and the work assumed an incredible purity. However, the curious thing about Flavin's work is that it is made out of spare parts: standard light fittings. To return to Burnham again in reference to Flavin: 'The components of systems whether these are artistic or functional have no higher meaning or value. Systems components derive their value solely through their assigned context. Therefore it would be impossible to regard a fragment of an art system as a work of art in itself as say, one might treasure a fragment of one of the Parthenon friezes.'
This would seem to be a contradiction, however. The fragments of the Parthenon frieze are parts of a broken work of art and therefore are no longer part of a system, they are just fragments. The hub-caps from Oppenheim's Violations, if separated from their context, are simply hub-caps, but he could repeat the work (if he wanted to) by repeating the system. The lighting units of Flavin's work are just standard architectural fittings. There is just the sheer beauty of the light, the ultimate metaphor, and the way that light metamorphosizes the space. Separate from that are the actual units which deliver that light, which are nothing in themselves until activated. If in looking at Flavin's work you focus too much on the fittings then you lose the work. Sure there are interesting issues relating to them, as ready-mades and so on, but the work is actually in the way the light and colour changes the space in which it is installed.
This is where my lovely spare parts come back into the story. The divide that I'm describing is one of 'Classic' versus 'Romantic'. The love of spare parts is symptomatic of a 'Classic' sensibility or aesthetic, and is to do with underlying form as opposed to the 'Romantic' aesthetic, which might be described as being about the surface of form. Take the computer I'm writing this on - in this field I'm a 'Romantic'. I want it to be nice to look at and I think it is: it's an iMac. I want it to work, but I absolutely do not want to have to find out why it works or how. With cars, motorcycles and most mechanical things I'm 'Classic'. I just love the logic of how the thing is the way it is, and the economy of how all the little bits work gives me aesthetic pleasure. I love the way function gives something a form. The reason that Burnham could so clearly state that the parts of a system could not be art, is that in themselves they have no function. The art is in the 'surface' the system achieves. Let me try to be clear about this. Sitting in my chair looking at my magazines, getting off on those parts lists, I can look at parts that will make things better. If I buy this exhaust my car will go faster, if I buy that one it will look better. Can you imagine buying improved light fittings to make a Flavin brighter, or more compact fixtures so it could fit into a smaller space? No, it just doesn't work.
I suspect that within the world of art production, and of looking at art, there is a kind of squeamishness, of not wanting to know. You can see this in the way studios are usually pictured in photographs: they are romanticized, and of course the artists collude in this romanticization. This is something common to all aspects of modern secular life. We need the technology - in fact we can't survive without it - but it horrifies us. We don't want to know where it came from, how it works, who actually made it. We want to be in the car looking at the countryside, not in the countryside looking at the car from the inside of the bonnet. I want to avoid that too, but when I'm sitting back in my chair looking at those magazines, or actually hunting down an elusive part, this Classic/Romantic divide is beautifully reconciled. I can admire the external surface of the machine and I can enjoy the logic and function of its underlying form. What's more, it all makes sense - it's a doubt-free zone. You get the part and you fit it where it goes; nothing very new has happened, but it feels good. It's even better than that because there are two basic types of spare parts: functional and decorative. The reason for this is that design, unlike art, has three basic functions: economic, symbolic and ergonomic. Art has the first and second but not the third; ultimately art has to be ergonomically useless. In the case of spare parts, the economic function is fulfilled by the laws of mass production. Then you are left with parts that meet or improve the ergonomic functions of the machine and those that simply make the machine more attractive and personal to its owner - these are the custom parts, symbolic decoration. Both types embody complete and contained aesthetics. For me custom parts or racing parts are the best. Custom parts are pure modern Baroque, folk art excess and Romantic. Racing parts are Classic, their beauty derived from pure engineering function, and they exist in a style-free zone. I love this stuff so much I've started making my own. But then I'm greedy, I've always wanted that little bit more.
As for my conversation with Oppenheim, well I wish I'd asked him if he had hobbies. And when it comes to the story about Flavin, I'm just not sure ... Part of me wishes it were true, then the other part thinks it seems a bit to close to some kind of puritanical purging. Then again, in his seminal text The Dialectics of Decadence (1993) Donald Kuspit establishes how the concept of aesthetic purity, as posited by Donald Judd, is dependent upon its opposite: so-called decadent art (in this case the example given is the work of Sandro Chia, of whom Judd held a less than favourable opinion). If Flavin had hobbies then maybe he really reconciled or contained that dialectic. I seem to remember that Flavin was once thought of as the conscience of the art world. Perhaps he was.
I don't know, But did I tell you about how I spent nearly ten years tracking down a replica air box for my XR? I did? Maybe you know where I can find another oil cooler ... I mean, I have one, but it needs two. What do you mean you have to catch your bus?
1. Jack Burnham. Great Western Salt Works: Essays on the Meaning of Post-Formalist Art, George Braziller Inc., New York, 1974, p. 141.
2. Ibid., p. 21.
3. Donald Kuspit, The Dialectics of Decadence, Stux Press, New York, 1993.
First published in Issue 63