Research Area E
A short reflection on visual artist and scenographer Lawrence Malstaf and his practice
What separates Man from the thing?
A chair from a lap? A cupped hand from a vessel?
When the dead object moves, what is it?
When I experience Lawrence Malstaf’s work, these questions pop up in my head. And as soon as they pop up, his praxis obliterates them – as if they are no more viable. As if the duality between object and man has dissolved and transformed into a dialogue, not consisting of two parts, but a whole.
Art as practise
Art has often been seen as synonymous with production. A production of objects and images. Man is at the chore of this production, and the artwork is the results.
In such a perspective, art is the way man portraits himself. Sees himself. And gives himself to “the other”.
Malstaf’s work makes me question this. This is not necessarily due to the ephemeral or conceptual qualities of his work, rather the opposite. Malstaf’s projects always puts production at its forefront, and as an artist, Malstaf has no need to hide this fact. It is as if the artworks relishes in being a result of a vivid production process. So what is it about his work that implodes the sense of his art being an object or an image?
In his performance “Tollen” – Malstaf sets into movement a series of spinning, wooden tops. They move, quote: … in impredictable ways, sometimes careful and hesitating, sometimes aggresive and determined (https://vimeo.com/243700927).
Malstaf´s work is action. It is an undertaking.
When Malstaf animates the thing, – in this case wooden tops, in others a floor, a rope, a sheet of plastic; – he takes the dead fabric and makes it breathe and enact. His role resembles that of the magician, but the main difference between him and an animator as we usually know it – is that he himself is being moved by what he animates. So the focus is not on the animation, or the result, it is on the interflow between man and matter, subject and object, space and that which inhabits it.
In TERRITORIUEM 2010 space and transformation of the space, is at the chore of the work. Strings hang vertically down from the ceiling (https://vimeo.com/119451391).
They indicate a division of space, and through movement, – the room is being divided.
Malstaf describes the space that occurs in this work as a Euclidean space – moving along axis, constantly changing the size of the room, – and although the walls are nearly immaterial, it behaves mechanically, like a preprogramed projection, a plotter – traversing and conquering the space.
The result is a build up of tension.
The space seems as if it is being conquered, taken over by the machinelike movement, by the strings. It looks like an unstoppable, ruthless process, – but things change as soon as a body enters the space. For – as Malstaf writes: … when a string touches a visitor, it curves and hesitates ...
Immediately one is struck by the change. From ruthlessness to complacency. From pre-programmed to hesitation. The “touch” is soft, almost tactile. It exposes a gentle quality hidden in the material itself, and it is this “event” – that releases the tension.
The build up is surprisingly exciting. It brings to life a kind of flux between forces and entities. Between the human, and the mechanic. The preprogramed and the here and now. The metallic strings, and the softness of the human body.
It starts with the openness of the space itself, then the strings movements cutting through it, invading it and conquering it. Then tension accumulates and increases as a person enters the room adding a new aspect to what seems robotic and inevitable – for then to absolve itself in the soft hesitation, a gently quality hidden in the material itself, and that is being brought to the surface as soon as it encounters an obstacle.
This row of events fills us with anticipation: What is going to happen to this space? Who or what dominates it?
What will stay put, and what will give way?
And as the strings softens and hesitates we ask: What is solid, and what is pliable?
THINKING BY DOING
Buckminster Fuller, the American architect, system theorist, author, designer, and inventor said: Don’t fight forces.
His work bridged the gap between science and poetics, invention and art for arts sake.
For Fuller, to do was a way of thinking, and to think, – you had to accept the unknown. The unknown in you and around you. All through his life, he held on to an environmental focus. He believed in sustainability – and his influence on the art scene has been fundamental. He saw the artist as an inventor, and the inventor as an artist. At the chore of this relationship Fuller placed neither beauty or knowledge, but praxis. He was not looking for a goal outside the deed, but inside the deed itself. In this respect, the artist was just as much as an objective economist or an evolutionary strategist, as an image-maker or a poet.
One can feel the influence of Fuller in Malstaf’s work – but there is also something else present.
Malstaf has, as Fuller – a soft spot for the system. The Matrix. The grid.
And like Fuller, Malstaf’s interests shifts towards processes, constructions and chain reactions.
So his work is definitely indebted to Fuller, but one might say that his gaze is not as Fullers – focused on things to come, but on how things “become”. Or on the becoming of things. Of objects, spaces, situations.
Malstaf is not a Situationist.
His poetics of space, of movements – boarders on events. Events that are there for the event itself. Not to change or influence something outside them. They do not demonstrate or put forward meaning. One could say that they are meaning per se.
He constructs, and he sets in motion, but he often places his works in communal rooms. The “art” is not there for us, or on show. It is not there to impress us. But to be present with us. That is where it happens. Together with “us” – it shows itself. It becomes what it is. It is not Malstaf’s will that is at the chore of his work – it is rather the productive qualities of the work itself.
One could say that there is a feeling of something at play more than on display. A staging of the room. And of the room being a stage.
There is a certain theatrical aspect to his work.
But what is staged is never solidified, it is shifting.
We watch, we interact, we leave it, it leaves us be – and we connect.
This is also true when Malstaf works as scenographer. Even in his stage-designs, Malstaf does not force his will on the viewer or on the performance.
There is no story to be told. No metaphors to unveil. No epiphany, no catharsis – just the event in itself unfolding as objects in space. Pure theatrics. A processes of metamorphis through time. And this is the case even when his work gives itself to the spectacle
and then there is this feeling of thinning out. Instead of adding more, what is left is just what is needed. This is the ephemeral quality of his work. We are left with a possibility of doing everything with nothing.
How to reassemble the globe
So what is at the heart of Malstaf’s work?
I guess there is no right answer to that. One can only speculate. But I can try to put into words what it does for me.
For me Malstafs work is an act of reassembling. It puts together what’s been torn asunder, and that re-assemblage often happens through movement.
In his work, he glues together that which we perceive as mechanical or artificial – and “the natural”. In his work, man is no longer opposed to the machine. Through the natural flow of movement, he breaks up the dualistic juxtaposition between the dead and the living. Things are no longer just things. It mends the tear in the fabric that ties together “the man-made” and “the world”. The synthetic and the real. And when that hierarchy is broken another potential order appears.
In it – the calculated can communicate with what’s random. Duality seizes to exist and we are left to a more complex way of being in the world. A world not constructed and understood in opposites: Man versus nature, the mechanical versus the natural. Ratio versus the emotive. Hard against soft.
And what I am saying here, is not that his work necessarily has a harmonizing quality. It can be hard, mindboggling – even have a kind of cold and merciless quality. But it exposes us – and in doing so, it offers a healing quality. In his own way, Malstaf takes away the shame of being “Man”. He shows us our vulnerability. That we, the industrious species, the killer ape, – the destroyer ecosystems, could be the toolmakers for the world.
That we can put our tools into good use. That the tools we make and the things we build are not just a projection of ourselves, but a way to think and communicate. And that they can communicate back at us.
Yes, we are the obliterators of other species.
Yes, we often do not understand the consequences of our deeds.
Yes, we pollute the air we breathe, destroy the space we live in – but if we listen carefully, we can open up to a new possible world. A world that we are not only living “in”, but that we are “a part of”.
In this potential world, it is our capacity for the artificial, the manmade – that gives us the tools to reassemble the cracks between “that”, the world, and “us”. To mend what’s broken. To see the world as a continuum of ourselves. To see the things we make as a meeting-place between it and us. A place where the world shows itself: The poetics of the metal, the radical force in a piece of wood, the brutality and the voicelesness of movement. And then, as it is rediscovered, turn it into song.
Malstaf exposes us.
He exposes us to matter.
For that which is set in motion.
That we can control, and what we cannot.
He exposes Man to the machine, and to its logics.
He lets the object and the machine be equal to us. He lets us meet in the same room. He lets the tools touch us. The rope, the string, the plastic. Gently. And the experience produces a lust, a desire. We marvel at the manmade, and we are humbled by it. In the presence of it, we rediscover ourselves as human beings. As lumps of flesh, systems of neurons and nerves. Walking, talking, thinking animals exposed. We see “our things”. Our tools. Our golems and prostheses, and we can feel nature move through them. How at the chore of it all there lies the fundamentals of physics, of matter, of that which constitutes the building blocks of nature itself.
It is in the gaze of the “other” we become who we are.
To see the thing moving, see the thing act, to be there with it – is to meet this gaze. This is how we become once more, who we are. What a joy and terror it is to see what we have created staring straight back at us.
An end to duality
In his art, Malstaf rejoins “Man” with what he makes.
He separates it from us – and makes it interact with us.
Through it, he gives the manmade its own worth as a meeting-place.
He reassembles the relationship between the material and the nonmaterial. It’s a matter of bridging the gap. Maybe in it we can see the end of dualism.
In his book “Crisis”, – the French philosopher Michele Serre calls for an end to duality as a way of viewing the world (Michele Serres, Times of Crisis, Ploomsbury Publishing 2013).
If we are going to survive as a species on this planet he says, we have to understand that there are always a third party and we have to start to understand this party as an agent. Because, he writes -we are not living in nature, on the planet and inside a universe. We are living together with it.
We have to understand and accept it as an equal partner, even as an opponent.
The struggle in the world is no longer between rich and poor, slaves and free men – females and males. If we do not recognize the force of the storm, the brutality of the drought, the production of oxygen by the algae’s in our oceans – there will be no battle to win.We, the humans, will be gone.
Serres even suggests to make “the worlds” ecosystems, forests and streams – into juridical agents. So that they can be represented by, and protected by the law. Something we cannot handle at whim, but that are entities treated and protected the same way as we are.
For let’s face it, nature could go on perfectly well without us.
We are only visitors on this giant, living, breathing organism.
As Malstaf writes for his work “Borealis”. “Borealis” a “… matrix of sixty-four tubes is spread out equally over the room. These tubes bend over extremely slowly as if a slow motion wind were touching them. Leaning into one another, they reach out to the visitors like the tentacles of a giant snail. The room continuously transforms from a geometric grid to an unpredictable organic structure and back. Order to chaos to order in a never-ending cycle. We are both welcome and dispensable in this alien forest. Nature accepts us but does not really need us, reorganizing itself patiently.”
Malstafs praxis tears down the divide between what’s being done and what’s being presented. Between the subjective and the material – the artist and what he mediates.
In Malstaf´s work – we as much as the material, is at play.
Let’s call it an interplay. The search for a flux. An immersion.
And in this state of movement – Malstaf makes matter matter.
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