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Published May 14, 2024

Notes from the Emergency Room: Disaster and the Avant-Garde in the Work of Florian Meisenberg

By Elliott Mickleburgh

Elliott Mickleburgh is a writer and artist based in London. His texts have been published in online journals and print publications such as THE SEEN, Notes on Metamodernism, and Art in Print. Recent exhibitions of his visual work include Future Archive at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, XX.XX.XX (Under the Scene) at the Salzburger Kunstverein, and the online presentation ART MATTERS 5 by Galerie Biesenbach in Cologne.

Still image from Florian Meisenberg's "The Anti-Prophet, in love of Cioran", 2023. Shown in "What does the smoke know of the fire?" at Kate MacGarry, London. Video still courtesy of the artist.

Feeling resigned to the tranquility of a winter midnight, have you ever looked towards the skyline through the portal of your bedroom window and wondered this: why does it have to be this way? There was no news on the Rialto today, your ships haven’t come in, nor have they ever, nor will they ever. Your fortunes haven’t changed. How has this happened? The colorful points of light emanating from the horizon smear across your field of vision because, like the medieval friar contemplating some theological mystery in the confines of a monastic cell, your eyes are filling with tears. But you must go on. You have no choice but to go on. Is there something other than this, anything else at all? Although perhaps not with words, you have to wonder if it’s even possible for the brutal consistency of this situation to ever feel the interruption of something exceptional, something profound. Your final thought before sinking into a dreamless sleep: how would it have happened if it had happened later, or differently?

If we can pardon the existential ennui summoned by the language above, we might arrive at the enunciation of an enigma that courses vitally through such a miserable line of inquiry, a dilemma that has relevance to both art and philosophy. Now dry your eyes, choke back the last sob rising in your throat, and speak the riddle clearly, defiantly: how can something become other than what it already is? You can’t lose your mettle now. Scream the question until your voice is hoarse and your eyes well up with tears of rage, and make sure to address your doubt directly to the regime of aesthetics this time: how can an artist create something liberated from the myopic reiteration of influence and style? That is, how to create something bold and new?

Let’s address the magnitude of all these italicized questions as they pertain to the arts, first. Aesthetic discourses have for some time been interested in grappling with the intentions, means of technical production, and historical interpretation of those artworks that are deemed to be avant-garde. While the term is widely overused, the avant-garde fundamentally refers to an art that breaks from its encapsulating zeitgeist in a gesture of stoic refusal. In every conceivable aspect, these works seek to sever associations with both their predecessors and contemporaries. If such a radical alterity is indeed its solemn commitment, the avant-garde might very well be a promising device for emancipating the arts from all those practices that have crystallized into loathsome, boring standards. Here is our antidote to trends, the remedy to an art that has become all too fashionable, sighted from lightyears away and then cool to the touch when it finally does show up on the scene, dead on arrival. Critical vivisections of the avant-garde are thankfully abundant throughout a number of scholarly disciplines, but before we approach these, it will be useful to articulate exactly what it is that we desire from the art of the vanguard. To this end, we should turn to the philosophical implications inherent to the emphasized queries at the top of this account.

Philosophically speaking, what we’re yearning for in the avant-garde is an art that defies our capacity to rationally anticipate its arrival, an art that cannot be correlated in any way whatsoever to the stale surplus of all those modes of practice that already exist. We’re desperately searching for something genuinely creative, something that embodies the most renegade variety of what philosophers have christened emergence. Within metaphysical discourses, this notion — described by the object-oriented thinker Graham Harman as “the relative independence of objects from their constituent pieces or histories” — allows for things to take flight from the constraints of destiny and to embody an existence that could not have been prognosticated from observations or knowledge of what that thing already is or was. (i) No mere contortion of the vernacular, no subtle recapitulation of ennobled art history. Not even the distillation of a revolutionary style within an oeuvre, since even this would establish criteria against which something could be foreseen, prepared for, welcomed. No. Emergence, and emergence alone, is the property that we long for in our incipient art of the avant-garde.

While a number of academic fields have vigorously studied the vanguard, nearly all of these explorations have succumbed to devising their theses with one or two limited methodologies, neither of which fully lives up to the promise of real innovation suggested by emergence. The first of these critical strategies involves an impotent attempt to uncover the machinations of the avant-garde by cleaving artworks into their most elemental components, whether those resultant granules are units of matter or technique. Under this rubric of analysis, paintings might be subdivided into pigments, grounds, and fabric substrates; musical compositions into dynamics, accents, rhythms, and notes; or films into scenes, lines of dialog, sounds both diegetic and non-diegetic, and still frames. This procedure of parsing the work into increasingly smaller particles is rarely used in isolation by thinkers in the discipline of art theory, but it’s recurrently applied in the field of media studies. As such, Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that the medium is the message can be seen as an exemplary distillation of this first methodology. (ii)

With the second deficient strategy for unfolding the art of the avant-garde, an artwork is observed as an effective component of some larger aggregate of objects and relations such as an archive, the Internet, a subcultural group, or as is most often the case, an entire human society. This mode of examination understands the work of art as a matrix for phenomena that take place across a broader and more complex nexus of relationships; as such, the artwork itself is trivial in comparison to the course of action it alleges to instigate in the collective body that it is a mere piece of. This tactic is far more common in critical discourses pertaining directly to the arts, as is the case with Peter Bürger’s investigations of Dadaism and other modernist art movements. In his writing, Bürger stubbornly resists conducting case studies into individual artworks. Instead, his strategy is to scale his critical focus upwards into the institution of art, a term he uses to refer to the sum total of both real and abstract apparatuses that produce, circulate, and interpret art within a society. (iii)

Each of these methods can indisputably tell us something insightful about aesthetics, and for this reason, they are not entirely futile ways to study or make art. But if what we’re searching for are emergent properties, then their efficacy in scrutinizing the avant-garde is somewhat hobbled. To borrow again from Graham Harman’s philosophical parlance, the first strategy undermines the objet d’art by dissecting it until all we’re left with are scattered fragments, the tiniest isolate flecks of what art is made of. The second strategy overmines the artwork, expressing a preference to ignore art itself in favor of looking only at what it does as an actor within other compound networks of meaning. It might seem like combining these two substandard templates might provide a sufficient mode of analysis, but two negatives do not make a positive in this case. The result is simply what Harman calls duomining, a doubled failure to see objects — art objects in this case, avant-garde art objects — for the mysterious things they are. (iv) Emergence won’t take place in any of these critical schemes, and this is because each establishes its own deterministic parameters through which art can be predicted, standardized, explained away in advance as a reductive correlation of causes and effects.

Our hermeneutic getaway vehicle has failed: sunk, crashed, broken down at the side of the road in a desert where we might not make it through the night. As soon as we attempt to speak critically of the avant-garde, we eliminate the hope it once provided, the hope that art might change in some glorious eruption of emergence. In speaking more, we do not reclaim the wish, but merely disperse it farther into the depths and heights of oblivion. We’re overcome with a passivity in which we have no language to soothe the crisis all around us, because every time we speak, we only make matters worse. But perhaps, just perhaps, this crisis is the solution. Perhaps it is escape itself. The philosopher and literary theorist Maurice Blanchot writes of the despair at the end of criticality as the very affect we’re overcome by in the midst of a disaster. (v) When disaster strikes, and it always does, we become halcyon and speechless, unable to rationally determine or articulate a reason for why this catastrophic thing is happening. But in this silence, a new form of communication becomes possible, a way of speaking that can only be heard after everything else has been said: an emergent voice uttering something from inside the emergency itself.

Blanchot, a passionate disciple of the written word, locates the intonations of disaster most often in literature, for instance in the plays of Samuel Beckett, the short stories of Franz Kafka, or the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. There is a surreal feeling in these authors’ texts that everything that’s happening is happening after the end of the world, after all critical reason has collapsed and only a sustained intuition of eeriness and melancholy remain. I would like to suggest that the literary phenomenon Blanchot describes in his aphorisms on the disaster can also take place in the visual arts, and that the occurrence of just such a visual disaster could outline exactly the sort of emergent avant-garde we’ve gone looking for everywhere. To explore this in practice, we should turn to a pair of exhibitions by the New York-based artist Florian Meisenberg.

Installation images of Florian Meisenberg, "What does the smoke know of the fire?", Kate MacGarry, September 15 - October 21 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London. Photos: Angus Mill

Upon entering Meisenberg’s 2023 exhibition What does the smoke know of the fire? at the London gallery Kate MacGarry, it is difficult not to first notice the HDMI breakout box resting on the floor, a component of a larger installation titled A short history of decay (2023) that also includes drawings and a video. Snaking out from the interior of this black cuboid is a long cable that runs across the length of the space’s walls. As this thin dark line of data transmission traverses the gallery, small drawings realized with a 3D printing pen grace the low horizon that the wire forms. With what appear to be roots below and flowering buds and leaves above, these graphic images roughly resemble illustrations of plant life. The cable finally dips towards the floor and slithers into a small monitor playing a video titled The Anti-Prophet, in love of Cioran (2023). This moving image piece is relatively short in length, lasting approximately eight minutes. In it we see a slanted horizon populated by the branches and leaves of trees rendered in contre-jour, that glaring state of contrast that occurs when an object is thrown into silhouette by a bright light behind it. With the sun fixed to the composition’s center, the image shakily zooms in and out, and the blazing star is riven into diffraction spikes. The digital sensor in the camera struggles to compensate for the ferocity of this illumination, and a number of artifacts soon detonate throughout the image. As the video progresses, the daytime sky seen in the first frames of the work dims into a shade reminiscent of darkest night.

The Anti-Prophet, in love of Cioran is no maudlin depiction of a sunset. The blackened “void of the sky” and the artifacts flickering across the screen are both results of the camera’s internal mechanics slowly giving up; like its biological counterpart, the camera eye is jeopardized by overexposure to the sun’s piercing light. (vi) Within this installation alone, we can observe the passage from criticality into disaster and finally into emergence. The elaborate drawings that divide the length of the HDMI horizon resemble entries from a taxonomical study, a critical method of organization that undermines life itself by subdividing it into genera, species, lines of filiation. This horizon ends in an image of the sun, the very source of nourishment for a vast range of organisms. But remember: this video is no cheery salutation to the sun, but an ode to Emil Mihai Cioran, the 20th century French-Romanian philosopher whose works cover such pessimistic subjects as despair, anti-natalism, decay, and agony. This work stages a disaster by exploring how the light that feeds photosynthetic life is a harbinger of quietus and the cessation of vision for the photographic apparatus. And from this disaster, a shimmering flourish of colorful artifacts and fluttering lines, something oddly beautiful emerging from the camera’s death throes.

Just as death is not the end, A short history of decay is not the terminus of this exhibition. Spatially above and metaphorically beyond the HDMI horizon is a sequence of paintings that leap upwards from the extended black line. Building on colors from the dazzling shards of digital noise in the video below them, these paintings are executed in an expansive palette that ranges from gangrenous pastels to vitalic primaries. No default treatment of the figure can be found throughout these pieces. Some of the human inhabitants of Das Erste Mal (2023) have elongated bodies contorted into abnormal postures, but others are compressed into lumps that more closely resemble the cats menacingly lounging throughout the composition. Similarly, there is no one category of action or sentiment that dominates the moods these paintings effuse. There are moments that read as compassion and tenderness, as in MAMA & PAPA (2023), a piece in which two figures, presumably parents, trunk-nosed and crosseyed, gaze lovingly towards the viewer as if it is we that are their brood. There are also moments of unsettling ruthlessness that cut through all the playful colors and goofy figuration. In Research Research Research Research Research Research Research Research Research Research Research Research Research Research Research Research Research Research (2023), cartoonish inquisitors violently probe and immolate a naked figure manacled to a wooden scaffold. Far from leavening this scene with a little silliness, the googly eyes of the torturers read here as the leering stares of tormentors that take great pleasure in their barbarism.

Installation images of Florian Meisenberg, "What does the smoke know of the fire?", Kate MacGarry, September 15 - October 21 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry, London. Photos: Angus Mill.

No single underlying schema would appear to dictate the composition or content of these paintings. Nor does there seem to be an overarching narrative that gathers the pieces into a cohesive story about anything at all. But it is because and not in spite of these absences that the works are incredibly captivating! Each painting scorches your eyes from iris to optical nerve and astonishes all those sensibilities that had been worn into submission by both the ceaseless patterning of so many uninspired aesthetics and the self-same doldrums of life itself. The paintings in the show emerge from the disaster brewing throughout A short history of decay — itself already a poignant meditation on the disaster — as well as from their own denial of a reductive grounding in any of those critical mining procedures that would otherwise corrupt and quell the potential of an avant-garde art.

We should note that the disaster and emergence in What does the smoke know of the fire? both transpire in a rather specific way. This is a disaster of decay, as the title of the installation piece in the exhibition suggests. In the midst of such a calamity, something enters a state of entropic decline before finally expiring with a barely audible sigh. The disaster sets in as the silence that follows, and if we tune our attention to that omnipresent emptiness, we’re rewarded with a passion that appears unexpectedly from the depths of the inert nothing. This is not the only way Meisenberg has staged the disaster within his work, however. If what we bore witness to in the exhibition at Kate MacGarry was the disaster of deterioration and passing, we can’t help but grow curious as to the possibility of a disaster forged from excess, profusion, and even decadence. To observe this alternate approach to staging the disaster and the emergence that follows, we should turn to an exhibition by the artist that took place at the Los Angeles gallery François Ghebaly in 2018.

Installation images of Florian Meisenberg, "The Taste of Metal in Water", François Ghebaly, March 17 - April 14, 2018. Images courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly.

As in the exhibition at Kate MacGarry, the artwork that first awakens our curiosity in The Taste of Metal in Water is arguably the smallest. Stationed slightly off center on the floor is a planter equipped with a framework of metallic trellises. Emitting the psychedelic purple of ultraviolet radiation, a single grow light dangles from the high ceilings over this modest plot, and a sporadic drip of water falls from a leaking pipe in the gallery’s infrastructure onto the soil below. Sown into that little patch of earth are a variety of seeds: strawberries, zucchinis, melons, beans, several species of flowers, and grass, amongst others. If you go back and forth from looking at this artwork — titled Department of Internal Affairs (2018) — and the space as a unit of architecture, you’ll notice that the planter is indeed a scale representation of the gallery’s floor plan. The trellises themselves even mimic both the marks in the surrounding paintings and the aluminum pipes that crisscross the exhibition space’s floor and walls. But more on these gestures in a moment.

The forms of vegetal life in Department of Internal Affairs are diverse but all are alike in one way: these are species that grow best with an ample supply of light and water, neither of which is adequately given by the circumstances around which the work is organized. As such, this planter is less of a garden and more of a gladiatorial arena. Berries and legumes are thrown into a kind of ecological combat in which each life form spars with all the others to secure a sufficient quantity of nutrients for germination. Choose your fighter, but remember in your choosing that all the players are losers in this coliseum. And in any case, what would it even mean to win? An existence that owes its perpetuation to supremacy and domination over another living entity is principally appalling. This is all to say that what at first might appear as a wholesome and rustic micro-allotment is in fact a jarring metaphor for contemporary living conditions. Existence is fecund, resources are dwindling, and the predominant modes of ideology groom us to believe that triumph over others is the paragon of a good and examined life.

Oddly enough, it’s in this frugally sized sculptural work that we receive our disaster of abundance. But while Department of Internal Affairs is spatially designed as a scale replica of the surrounding gallery, the works that populate the rest of the space — the aforementioned pipes and paintings as well as a sonic component — do not duplicate the catastrophe unfolding in the dismal garden below. They emerge from it. The abrupt sound of a metallic hiccup resonating through the aluminum rails launches us forth from the disaster unfolding at our feet. This sonic blip careens around the space and dilates our attention so that we might take in something special, something important. Collectively titled San Pellegrino (2018), the paintings in The Taste of Metal in Water are much larger than those that appear in the exhibition at Kate MacGarry, and unlike those that will later emerge from the disaster of decay, these works are uniform in size. Far from making the works feel repetitive, there’s something calming in the paintings’ dimensional consistency. Likewise, the compositions throughout San Pellegrino are tranquil. The typographic symbols for currencies such as the yen are transformed into simple and endearing stick figures that bask in the sun or snuggle into one another to watch what looks like a filmic projection. In what I read as the most enchanting of these works, two figures, drawn from horizontally flipped euro and dollar signs, swaddle a small euro sign, their baby I’d like to think, and the three look together into the pages of a book, a children’s book I’d like to think. From the disaster of nimiety emerge these images of a “stoic serenity” that could not have been predicted from the surfeit that preceded them. (vii)

Florian Meisenberg, From the series: “San Pellegrino (The taste of metal in water)" 2018. Oil, transparent gesso, white gesso on canvas. 96 x 84 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and François Ghebaly.

In What does the smoke know of the fire?,  something rambunctious and animated springs forth from the crisis of decay. In The Taste of Metal in Water ,something peaceful remains after the crisis of excess has dissipated. In both cases, Meisenberg’s exhibitions do something marvelous for their viewers. They eloquently capture the way in which the disaster might augur the emergence of an avant-garde, the arrival of an art that dares to stand in relief to the pervasive and threadbare vogue. This is not to say that Meisenberg fetishizes catastrophe. We don’t walk away from this work with the ghastly expectation that we’ll be meted out something refreshingly new if we invoke hurricanes, tsunamis, wildfires, and earthquakes. Nor is it the ambition of this writing to suggest that things like oil spills, bioterrorism, and famine should be greeted cheerily under the assumption that they’ll be redeemed once we receive their offering of an art that is both “bereft of destiny” and unfettered by the past. (viii) That sort of apocalyptic zeal isn’t just pitiless, it misses the point entirely: not every disaster will necessarily produce the avant-garde. To think with such irreverence just reconstitutes the axiomatic logic of cause and effect we were so desperately trying to renounce. And so the disaster ensures nothing and entitles us to even less.

For similar reasons, I’m reluctant to hazard a concluding statement that would yield the inverse of the merciless logic that’s cautioned against in the paragraph above. I cannot declare in good faith that even if every emergency won’t reliably produce an avant-garde, every avant-garde does emerge from a disaster. It would just be that exhaustive deterministic reasoning all over again, and it’s at the precise moment we venture to formulate a model for rallying the vanguard that we liquidate the potency and verve of its emergence. The relation between the disastrous and the avant-garde is real enough; of this there can be no doubt, and if I’ve convinced you of anything, let that be it. But this union is fragile, precarious, contingent. And the vanguard’s very signature is contempt for rules and regulations, so why subject this art to the indignity of being described as the product of a neat formula? Perhaps this makes you a little anxious, so let me suggest a better way to see you out.

When the vicissitudes of the world crush us into resignation and an extraordinary aesthetic appears before us anyway, we are witnessing nothing less than the “profane miracle” of art, actually new art. (ix) Profane because this miracle is no sacrosanct event that announces a law and demands obedience forever after. No, it’s a fleeting, intimate, and uninhibited communion with something that isn’t just us and isn’t entirely ours. To describe it in too much detail would be like supplementing a joke with both a preface and an appendix, only what’s spoiled in this case is far more profound than a jot of wit. But… you could hear it in the couplets of a poem your best friend will read to you, softly, at your bedside in the grayest room of the loneliest hospital. You could taste it in the cake, the one your niece and nephew will bake for you and present as succor after the last rejection letter arrives in the mail. You could feel it in the way your partner will take your hand to slow dance with you in the kitchen on the day you’re made redundant from the job you hated, the job you only accepted in the first place to support your unborn child. Then like the disaster it emerges from, the secular revelation of this art is gone. It was never meant to last forever. So relish it now. You’ll be back at the window soon, emptied and wondering, searching for the next miracle.

(i) Harman, Graham. Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016. p. 9.
(ii) McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Abingdon: Routledge, 2001.
(iii) Bürger, Peter. Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
(iv) Harman, Graham. The Quadruple Object. Alresford: Zero Books, 2011.
(v) Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995
(vi) Ibid, p. 146.
(vii) Ibid, p. 75.
(viii) Ibid, p. 85.
(ix) Lotringer, Sylvère and Paul Virilio. The Accident of Art, trans. Michael Taormina. South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2005. p. 63.

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