Issue 2/2022 - Hysterien

Dan Graham (1942–2022)

Helmut Draxler

When the collection of Dan Graham’s writings, edited by Brian Wallis, appeared with MIT Press in 1993, most of these texts had already been circulating as copies in interested hands for years. They had – together with a nearly worn-out videocassette copy of Rock My Religion – created an excitement that is only fathomable with material whose unavailability preserves its tendentially clandestine character. The publication of the collection itself may have dampened the excitement, but it represents to this day a milestone in the treatment of Contemporary Art.
The work of Dan Graham between the late 1960s and the early 1990s breaks productively and reflectively with the strict frameworks of interpretation offered by Modernism, the Avant-garde, and Realism in the previous decades. It is not only Graham’s writings that are of interest in this respect, but the work’s forging of an intrinsic link between artistic production and reflection. He made possible an orientation to artistic work that was theme and content based that did not dissolve the work into discourse. Moreover, his work provided an analysis of the rapidly changing urban, media environments, as well as pop culture, without being absorbed by them. The position of the artist, thus, could neither be located inside the general culture nor rigorously placed outside it. Rather, the artist is placed precisely at the intersection of art’s spatial, social, and symbolic [determinations].

It is not only the individual texts that continually turn on the exchange relation between art and design, architecture and utopia, pop and politics (for example, “Eisenhower and the Hippies”). Graham’s artistic approach itself can be understood as work at the intersection of different genres and methods. By intertwining documentary photography and conceptualism, video, performance, and installations, already evident in the 1960s and 1970s, his work clearly departs from the avant-garde logic of transgression as well as from the modernist logic of purification. The conceptual comes to the fore neither through hermetic self-reference nor as a purely critical gesture. Rather, it reflects on its own coming into appearance at the level of its content and media. It permeates the individual works. Whether appearing as magazine articles, slide projections, camera performances, or video installations, the encounter with the audience is always addressed directly. One can already see in the legendary publication, "Video-Architecture-Television" from 1979, in the Nova Scotia series edited by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, the artistic stake of the multiple forms of interaction, mediated by video cameras and monitors, between production and reception. The time-delay, made possible by the new video technology of the time and with the support of a mirrored installation ("Two Viewing Rooms," 1975), above all becomes the sign of a media representation that increasingly confronts the audience with itself. Any form of imagined immediacy, of pure aesthetic experience is undermined. The individual gaze and the singular object are replaced by a collective perceptual situation. The intersection of the constructive and the reflexive, the passive and the active aspects of perception, as well as its individual and shared aspects, become the means through which the artistic projection of subjectivity is itself transformed.

With the work, “Alteration to a Suburban House,” from 1978, the installation is itself displaced into the social field. Existing only as a model, the work proposes to replace the façade of a suburban home with a wall of glass while separating the private interior from the more public spaces by a mirror. In this way, a kind of "chamber play" (Jeff Wall) is created between the external observers and 'internal' inhabitants of the house. This enables viewers to recognize and/ or misrecognize themselves in and through the transformation of the modernist elements of building (glass wall and mirror), the capitalist elements of style, as well as in its corporate form. Shortly thereafter the installations were condensed into self-standing objects, which Graham from 1981 called “Pavilions.” Made of mirrors, transparent and semi-transparent glass, the Pavilions are formally severe, walk-in objects. They have subsequently adorned many exhibition buildings as extended roof, courtyard, or garden architectures. At once functional (as video booths or cafés, for example), model-like, and allegorical, they transform the white cube into a multiply fractured "mirror stage." A kind of realist self-assertion, modernist form, and an avant-garde idea of participation, all coincide in the perceptual act. Interior and exterior relations intertwine at multiple levels: in social-institutional, urban-architectural, and mediatic modes. The observation of observation is always possible in both directions. The process of becoming observed under conditions of constantly changing light initiates a kind of continuous self-observation of the audience. A deeply fractured, postmodern-neoliberal figure of subjectivity, especially in its collective formation as an audience, is here invoked.

Graham has himself, however, always contradicted any unambiguous interpretation of his work. He wanted to keep it permanently open to nuance, to new directions. With respect to his own artistic aims, he often kept them veiled. The work cannot be identified with a genre, format, or style. However, this refusal of identity presupposes the work’s strict identification as art. Only from the perspective of this identification does the various practical engagements [of Graham’s practice] become comprehensible. It is precisely the indeterminacy of art that opens the horizon of possibility for the wide array of efforts at its determination. Method is in every case decisive. Graham’s method cannot be deduced from a particular tradition: neither from functionalism nor formalism, pop or readymade. It emerged, rather, from the systematic imbrication of these traditions. The continuous exchange between the texts and the artistic works is in this regard significant. The texts are neither academic treatises in the sense of artistic research nor strictly art- or culture-critical reflections; rather, they open a field of work or a field of reference which allows for the positioning of each artist’s own work. Content and form interact in them in a way that is as implicit as it is explicit. The pavilions originate from such a field of reference and not from an autonomous-formal determination, even if the latter remains crucial. They are autonomous and heteronomous at the same time.

For the 1980s and 1990s, the impact of Dan Graham's work can hardly be overestimated. Since it was possible to connect to his fields of reference in various ways, positions could be taken up that were opposed to the regressive interpretation of postmodernism. Artistic practices could anchor themselves as much in the culture of the everyday as in a reconstruction of modernism in its utopian as well as dystopian dimensions. It was also possible to localize their conditions of expression within the framework of the structural change taking place in the public sphere, which Graham addressed by directly interweaving social relations with architectural, urban, and media aspects. In this attitude, which is as analytical as self-reflective, one could read precisely in its ironic-humorous deflection an optimism that testifies to the capacity [of art] to wrest a moment of critical-productive distance from the given circumstances. However, in the meantime, it is precisely this fundamental commitment that makes clear how difficult such an attitude, and the working methods associated with it, has become. In the age of the forced fragmentation of the field of art into different individual positions (critical, curatorial, activist, academic, media, or market-related), each with their own absolutized claims to truth – the idea of the intersection as that distinctive symbolic place where social, economic, and cultural contradictions are still negotiable appears obsolete. This is precisely what makes his legacy more indispensable than ever.


Translated by Alexi Kukuljevic