As I Told You; Meg Cranston

The Pleasure of Obvious Problems
Artspace, Auckland; Dunedin Public Art Gallery
4 August - 15 September 2007; 1 December 2007 - 31 March 2008

Walking upstairs into the Dunedin hanging of this show, all I can see is a huge flesh-coloured ball, suggesting that I must squeeze my way into the gallery. That is an optical illusion; there is plenty of space, but the claustrophobia remains. The ball’s contents are equivalent to the amount of air exhaled while reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Is this a reduction or is it a mad acknowledgement of the sheer mass of materiality that art in its path to abstraction ignores? Multiply this quantity by the number of people over the centuries who have read the book, all breathing as they did, and something weirdly Aristotelian starts to occur—shared atoms, shared dust, the interpenetration of bodies, the unavoidability of physics and matter in everything we do, not to mention reading’s contribution to greenhouse gases.

Meg Cranston’s raw material is the balance between pathos and bathos that is half situated in intention and half in the stickiness of things and their material reluctance to abandon claims to our attention. Her genealogy in conceptual art is clear from the contexts in which she exhibits in her home state of California, and conceptual art’s paradoxical relationship with the object is one of the undercurrents here. I am reminded of Bruno Latour’s table comparing ‘what objects say they are’ with ‘what objects do’. The first comparison reads thus: ‘indifferent to human passions/make all the difference’. Objects, he argues, have their own agency; we need to understand our relationship with them better. Meg Cranston’s earlier works deal explicitly with matter and its archiving, evaluating cultural products not by the effects of their immediate presence but by secondary qualities.

So, for instance, As I Told You (1989) is an artist’s book, infuriatingly placed here on a table with a sign asking one not to touch. It is yellow and simply titled. But I ask for, and am given, gloves and read a paragraph describing what would happen after the writer dies, when another ‘person would see and find and have to locate some place for this: accordion file of correspondence from 1982-1984’. And the list continues through many pages, to end ‘…and that is what would stand between us, all these things which I fear at my death would remain to be sorted out and considered as I told you’.

Just reading the lists does the job: a person emerges with all sorts of claims, who has made all sorts of choices, and abandoned, but kept, letters and lists, that in the end didn’t work but led to something else, or didn’t. The subject implied by that list reads and thinks richly, and is concerned with archives; the artist, who of course may or may not be the subject of the book, continues in Library Book (1993) to record the shelf space occupied by individual subjects of other texts in the University of California Library System.

Material culture of the kind capitalism has swamped us with sneaks in between our ribs, somewhere between the heart and the stomach. Wanting things is all. Obvious locations for desire occur in the doubled nature of performance. So Meg Cranston sings Over the Rainbow more sincerely than Judy Garland did, as sincerely as any imitator who imagines what she might be if she were what Judy Garland signified, but wasn’t; but then, this is a performance, and in another Meg Cranston offers wigs to enable others to be the Meg Cranston who, for example, sings as Judy Garland. She films ice-cream cones dripping, their summer colours unlicked. She writes lists of what artists can and cannot claim from the world. She collects soft focus black and white poster images of films stars, singers, and other heroes of the adolescent and imagines a new life for Marvin Gaye. She stamps finger prints, and other kinds of indices, on other people’s images. Touching, drawing, modelling, all imply the kind of everyday ownership of those objects that slide like knives into the minds and hearts of people who are apparently thinking about other things.

The carnivalesque is a working tool here and hanging in the room is a piñata in the form of the artist ready to be burst open during the exhibition. Maybe what spills out will be toys of the gritty, hand-modelled kind hung on the wall opposite, One of Everything. In As I Told You the lists indicate a voracious concern for connection, with obvious and not-obvious texts, artworks, people and events. The connection that remains in this work as it approaches the kind of synthesis any such collection must produce, is that the intention of art is to connect and understand and continue despite the necessary evacuation and rejection of the ever appropriatable, durable, beautiful artwork. Cranston’s most recent book is Good Morning, Evil Genius. E.G.’s partner documents this film star’s familiar and unredeemable self-centredness, characterised by thirty-five appalling traits, but, as the thirty sixth and last states: E.G. ‘demands unconditional love and gets it’. Something art does, as well. 

notes: 

Meg Cranston, As I told you, Mark Richards Gallery, Los Angeles, 1989.

Meg Cranston, Good Morning, Evil Genius, Meg Cranston and 2nd Cannons Publications, Los Angeles, 2007.

Meg Cranston, Library Book, 1993.

Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature, how to bring the sciences into democracy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 2004.