Is Conceptualism Doomed for Failure as a Principle? (Taking Cues from Jérôme Bel’s Method)

by Shinichi Takashima (age 34)
“An idea can be like nothing but an idea” – George Berkeley


Can the value of all works be uniformly judged under the singular name of ‘art’? Or is ‘art’ a mere label for the convenient trash can where cultural diversity, the various values which might actually be mutually contradictory, can be lumped and preserved together? Conceptual art has turned some pertinent questions about art works into themes of work: how a work is positioned and received, with what criteria it is rendered significant, as well as what defines and regulates a ‘work’ or ‘art’ in the first place. Jérôme Bel, known as a choreographer who introduced the methods of conceptual art into dance, therefore takes the smart move of problematizing the very criteria that determines whether a dance is good or bad, instead of simply trying to make a ‘good’ dance.

For instance, in Veronique Doisneau (2004) commissioned by the Paris Opera House, Bel placed one supporting dancer in the middle of the stage playing herself. By thus framing a component which has never been central to a work, he makes the audience imagine the rest of the parts which are not visible to them. At the same time, by having a dancer talk about the usually hidden mechanism of ballet companies or her private life, he foregrounds what is excluded from, or remains in the background of, theater, in order to subvert its hierarchy. In Pichet Klunchun & Myself (2005), two dances belonging to different cultural contexts—Thai traditional dance and contemporary dance—are juxtaposed, thus revealing the social background that constitutes each genre, along with the discrepancies between them.

There is no pure, neutral value such as ‘the innocent eye’; nor is anything ‘as it is,’ or ‘in reality.’ We always judge according to some concept/schema, and thereby construct a ‘seeming reality.’ Concepts/schemas are not ‘reality itself’—‘reality’ can only be measured as a gap from posited concepts/schemas. The only things that exist are several incomplete expressive forms, and the gaps or incommensurabilities between them. Such is the common recognition behind the method of conceptual art in general.


3 Abschied, a collaborative work between Jerome Bel, Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Ictus Ensemble, can be seen as an endeavor that extends the tendencies just outlined. This piece takes as its motif Mahler’s Der Abschied, the last movement of his Das Lied von der Erde. The primary setting is a self-referential mechanism of Keersmaeker telling the anecdote of an Opera singer diagnosed with cancer singing the song which Mahler composed anticipating his own death, the series of events which led her to pick up the song, and how the collaborative piece was made. At the outset, the members of Ictus Ensemble appear on stage but they do not start playing, and Keersmaeker sitting on a chair by the wings of the stage only plays a recording of the song and listens to it silently, without any sign of commencing the dance. As is customary, the existence of ‘the work itself’ is postponed by delay and interruption.

The fundamental desire of conceptual art, what it seeks to manipulate, is always related to temporality or causality. What is aimed for is the erasure of dichotomies such as theory/practice, plan/document, instruction/description or criticism (endowment of value), that emerge from, and are rooted in, temporal differences. Special focus is placed on the irresolvable gap between the process of making a work and the process of its distribution. The question here is how to render the very act of objectification that everybody engages in, into a manipulative object, so that one may finally escape being objectified.

But what gives a work its actual values? Is it the components (or the work itself), or the various relationships that accompany it? This type of question may lead one to the tautological thesis of ‘art as/for art,’ longing for the absoluteness of the work’s existence (which is not dependent on whether it is seen by audience), and demanding for its autonomy, unity, and completeness. Conceptual art instead seeks an ‘art about art,’ remaining humble about its parasitic existence, using art only as a means and never as an end. The mode of work it seeks is that of an unfinished (necessitating active involvement from the audience to be completed), or unexecutable preposition that maintains its form as a insignificant fragment (there is never a ‘work in itself’): a fleeting event never to be fixed, a plan yet to be realized, or a document of something that has already taken place.


The self-referential utterances in 3 Abschied, however, are there to incorporate neither the vivid struggles to solve problems which are irreducible to a predetermined plot, nor the process of making a piece that brims with indeterminate events and unforeseeable happenstances. They are introduced merely to tell the audience what they should focus on—nothing more than an easy-to-follow presentation device (generous description of one’s own work). This is true in the part where Bel, who had been sitting in the audience seat until that moment, goes up on the stage. He then comments that this is the part Keersmaeker had trouble deciding how to dance, and proceeds to present three different ways to express ‘death,’ which is the subject of Der Abschied. The gesture of relativizing the inherently irreversible event of ‘death’ through repetition (rendering it to something that can be tested out multiple times), can only be enacted by regarding it as a representation.

But if dance, an art form which has been considered as symbolizing life, has always excluded its counterpart, death, how can such critical limit of an expression form be displayed inside a work? Certainly, it is no simple task to bring death itself onto the stage, instead of a mere mourning about death, or the anthropomorphizing death as a ‘character,’ as in ‘Danse Macabre.’ Death is the ultimate completion that befalls onto everyone of us, totally unrelated to any process of life. Even the way one dies is merely a part of how one lives. On the other hand, if one were to embody ‘death as process,’ by thinking that life is always already on a gradual way to death, and attempts to materialize ‘death as process,’ the repetition of artificial interruptions or failures would rather emphasize the arbitrariness of the frame enwrapping individual events, of manipulations on meta-level (instead of rendering contingencies into a necessity through repetition).

The program of Conceptual Art began by dissecting the analogy between the autonomous art work and the autonomous subject (individual), an analogy that implicitly supported the very notion of ‘work.’ If I did not exist in the first place, I would never die. If the work cannot be identified in the first place, it cannot be objectified, and its values therefore cannot be determined. The establishment of work precedes any judgement of whether it is good or bad. For the very unit of ‘work’ is made possible only by a certain value judgement. Therefore, one could bracket out the unit of ‘work=individual’ and start thinking instead from a different unit pertaining to another scale—for instance, that of ‘cells.’ One could suddenly foreground a fragment of the production process, the obscure part hiding beneath the tip of an iceberg, like exploring the domain where art becomes “more of an activity and less of a product” (Bruce Nauman). Or one could leave behind the neutral yet constrained space of the studio, and work instead at the intersection of various networks, or the distribution processes (media), turning the entire world into one’s open studio.

But these extensive developments may have only been possible because conceptual art evaded “death,” a phenomena that stands parallel to the establishment of the individual subject, absorbing itself instead into the (approximately infinite) proliferation process similar to that of unicellular life forms. The difficulty lies in the following fact: even if the judgement of “whether it is a work or not (human or not)” precedes that of “whether it is a good work or not (a good person or not),” the reversed judgement of “only good works should be called works,” or “a bad work is not a work” constantly emerges in actuality. Such exclusive nature of art and culture becomes concealed, however, when what had been presupposed as a dead work or individual, is re-addressed as an individual through the revoking of the author/creator.

Jérôme Bel, who has been presenting a series of works which takes dancers instead of dance as its main motif in the recent years, seems to be stumbling over his own act by turning his methodology (the manipulation of concepts as a meta-rule) into a trademark. In other words, Bel’s method of criticizing established schemas has itself become established as yet another schema. This recent tendency has brought him far away from the radical attitude displayed in his early works such as Jérôme Bel (1995), for instance, in which he excluded all elements that could be associated with him biographically, and attempted to reduce his own proper name into a mere function equivalent to general names (it even included a section where the performer erased his name written in chalk by urinating on it).


The method of Jérôme Bel which brings inside the theater what lays outside of it, ultimately relies on the simplistic schema of criticizing the theater or fiction from the side of everyday life or reality. But this “reality of everyday life” is after all the identity of the ego regulated by social environment; it is yet another institution no different from (or more rigid than) that of theater. Neither is better than the other. The words of Der Abschied are written from the standpoint of a dying person entrapped in a state of slumber where the border between life and death merges with flashbacks from one’s life. This grey zone escapes the ‘reality’ which bases itself upon the fact that Jérôme Bel is Jérôme Bel, and Keersmaeker is Keersmaeker.

Jérôme Bel, who has criticized the fictionality of theater by foregrounding social relationships, is thus avenged by another fictionality (or the ultimate reality), which is determined to happen sometime but the specificities of when and what is left for chance, and always incomprehensible—namely ‘death,’ which is forever a fictional matter for life. The theme of ‘death’ is indeed banal and common, but it could be used to advance the methodology of conceptual art if it ceases to be dealt as a mere ‘representation,’ and treated instead as something that addresses the exterior of both the social context where the artist belongs and the art historical context where the work belongs.

One of the core methodologies of conceptual art consisted in making the irony of ‘the positioning (interpretation) of the work precedes the work itself’ stand on its head. We need only to think of ‘works’ that do not require to be seen, or that is comprehensible (or perhaps more so) through secondary information or hearsay, even without ‘actually’ experiencing it in a gallery or theater. For instance when a “Time Machine (a real thing!)” is sold at an internet auction (which actually happened in Yahoo! Auction in 2000), the focus becomes placed on the series of exchanges between an avalanche of questions and answers provided by the seller—these exchanges fill in the absence of the work (‘time machine’) itself, thus revealing the institution of credit/trust that art and culture rely upon endlessly (and which assures the distribution process). By intentionally confounding “not worth bothering to see” with “not possible to see in the first place,” what is exposed here is the politics that intervene in the procedure of recognizing (rendering recognizable) something that no one had seen, and whose existence is indeterminate. In other words, the issue is how to utilize positively the evocation of imagination that directly connects to the depth of skepticism.

But we need not to revoke such an allegorical example, for currently there is a much more blunt model at hand. A threatening existence which no human can perceive, something that can only be recognized vaguely through indirect data, and whose effects on the body are latent, requiring a long period of time to manifest (the causal relationships are thus difficult to prove). The radiation that is still leaking out from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant this very day, easily surpasses the ‘flaws’ of conceptual art, the misfortune of never being able to do away with the feeling of exercise, or case-study. This flaw resides in conceptual art’s inability to treat facts as anything other than an example, or a sample, among a group of possibilities that can be listed up; an incapacity that stems from it being a method of criticism that emphasizes discrepancies between conceptual boundaries. Whether intrinsically (to relativize a given concept, preconception, or belief, by driving the concept/schema to an extreme until it contradicts itself) or extrinsically (to relativize a given concept, preconception, or belief by juxtaposing it with another concept/schema), criticism of concepts cannot be executed without assuming something that transcends a given concept/schema (something impossible to render into a concept or schema). But the question of where that ‘something’ could be searched for if not in ‘this reality,’ still remains an open question.