– Autumn/Winter 2011

The Allegorical Impulse, Revisited: Emily Wardill, in Fragments

Dieter Roelstraete

Emily Wardill, Fulll Firearms, 2011, video projection, c.90min. Courtesy the artist

Emily Wardill, Fulll Firearms, 2011, video projection, c.90min. Courtesy the artist

1.Object Attachment

It is true that the overbearing ostentation, with which the banal object seems to arise from the depths of allegory, is soon replaced by its disconsolate everyday countenance. — Walter Benjamin1

It is not easy to make out, with absolute certainty, the title of the only book that offers something akin to a panoramic view of Emily Wardill’s work to date: at first glance, it looks like it is simply titled ‘We are behind’ — at least, that’s what both the cover (a view of four women ascending a staircase, seen from the back, ostensibly echoing Oskar Schlemmer’s famous Bauhaustreppe (Bauhaus Stairway) painting from 1932: we are behind them indeed) and the first page appear to be telling us. On the second page, however, in the same flowing, skewed font known colloquially as a ‘captcha’ — short for a ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart’, or the challenge that is given on web pages to weed out spambots — this title continues, announcing: ‘We are behind the object.’ The object, to be sure, is a major issue in Wardill’s art. In a (sort of) introduction to the book, the artist informs us that

This is a lecture in seven parts. I am going to talk about the object. I am not just going to talk about it, I want to make us feel it, with our flesh. The seven parts are ordered under the following titles: 1 The Object 2 The Rational Mind and The Irrational Mind 3 The Diamond (Descartes Daughter) 4 The Daughter 5 The Irrational 6 The Irrational Daughter: Stay 7 The

  1. Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (trans. John Osborne), London and New York: Verso, 2003, p.185. 

  2. Emily Wardill and Ian White, We are behind, London: Book Works, 2010, p.18.    

  3. Ibid., p.24.    

  4. See http://www.theshowroom.org/programme.html?id=44. Indeed, in an online conversation with Mike Sperlinger, Wardill noted: ‘I want to shoot it like airline food, so you have this sense that everything is separate and nothing ever touches.’ See M. Sperlinger, ‘Artists at Work: Emily Wardill’, Afterall Online, 27 January 2009, http://www.afterall.org/online/artists.at.work.emily.wardill. Franklin Melendez, in turn, observes how ‘throughout the film, objects are allotted monumental weight — perhaps as much as the characters themselves — whether it is a Nintendo Wii, a limited edition pair of Nike’s or a designer teapot’. See F. Melendez, ‘Emily Wardill’s Game Keepers Without Game’, ArtSlant, 12 April 2010, http://www.artslant.com/sf/articles/show/15521 (all last accessed on 11 July 2011). Melendez compares the film’s aesthetic to something like ‘Lars Von Trier’s Dogville re-staged in a high-end Ikea’. Finally, in the aforementioned conversation with Sperlinger, Wardill remarks on the protagonist’s struggle with this opaque, semi-hostile object-world: ‘when she comes back into the home she doesn’t understand the objects the house is full of, which are built up as status symbols but then have the status of props and finally of evidence’. 

  5. M. Sperlinger, ‘Artists at Work: Emily Wardill’, op. cit., p.102.    

  6. The most authoritative definition of the uncanny remains that proposed by Sigmund Freud in his classic 1919 essay ‘Das Unheimliche’, in which he refers to the preparatory research undertaken by Ernst Jentsch: the feeling of the uncanny is related to ‘doubts as to whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate.’ S. Freud, The Penguin Freud Library Vol.14: Art and Literature (trans. James Strachey), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1985, p.347. This wilful doubt is an integral component of the aesthetic strategies deployed in Game Keepers Without Game (see also note 4): in her review of Wardill’s film, Gabrielle Hoad has noted that ‘the status of real people and inanimate objects is blurred from the start — both seem to be commodities, both capable of communication. An object might speak of its owner’s class, wealth, taste — or even their paranoid state of mind. A person might be possessed, exploited or discarded.’ See G. Hoad, ‘Emily Wardill: Game Keepers Without Game’, a-n Magazine, 29 March 2010, http://www.a-n.co.uk/interface/reviews/single/617966 (last accessed on 12 July 2011). 

  7. W. Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, op. cit., p.179.    

  8. How is Game Keepers Without Game ‘based’ on Life Is a Dream? In the former, in Wardill’s own words,

    the narrative ‘traces the difficult return of a child who has been banished from the family home’
    (E. Wardill and I. White,We are behind, op. cit., p.150); in the latter, the king of Poland has his son imprisoned after it is prophesised that the psychotic prince, should he be allowed to roam freely, will cast the country into catastrophic chaos — which he does, once his remorseful father allows him home. 

  9. Pedro Calderón de la Barca, Life Is a Dream (trans. Gregary Racz), Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2006, p.116. 
  10. W. Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, op. cit., p.166.    

  11. Ibid., p.178. Other commentators have noted that the publication of Calderón’s masterpiece well-nigh

    coincided with that of Descartes’s Discourse on Method (1637), the ghost of which also animates The Diamond (Descartes Daughter). Certainly, in positing a hyperbolic doubt as the archè of all philosophy, Descartes revealed himself to be a quintessentially Baroque thinker. 

  12. Ibid., p.176.    

  13. Ibid., p.175.    

  14. See Douglas Crimp, ‘Pictures’, October, vol.8, Spring 1979, pp.75—88.    

  15. Craig Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse’, October, vol.12, Spring 1980, pp.67—86; reprinted in Brian

    Wallis (ed.), Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984, p.205. 

  16. Ibid., pp.206—09.   

  17. It is worth remembering here that, according to another great philosopher of the fragment (although he prefers calling it a trace), ‘the idea of the book is the idea of a totality, finite or infinite, of the signifier’, and that the book, therefore, is ‘profoundly alien to the sense of writing’. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, p.18. Derrida’s landmark 1966 text deals extensively with the hieroglyphic nature of all textual activity — a well-known image of Thoth, the patron saint of pharaonic scribes, adorns the cover of the English edition.