With A Little Help From My Friends
BY JOHN HARRINGTON
Morag Keil is sort of like Pirandello's "one, no one and one hundred thousand". We've all had the experience of thinking we know our friends, our partners or our favorite artist so well that we know what they think, they feel. In a word, projecting ourselves onto them. Morag Keil is an expert in projection, in mimesis. Or rather: in sharing. John Harrington explains this to us, though he's a bit distracted.
So what happens is kind of like Keanu Reeves waking up in the bath. You're not playing the game properly. Fuck you. Who are you? What are you trying to do? I just wanna shoot stuff. Halo 2 is an early piece by Morag Keil, performed when she was still a student at Glasgow School of Art. Playing an online version of the console game with the same name, she upsets the other anonymous users by not trying to kill them and by intoning lyrics from songs by her band Children, an overly fantastical intervention which of course destroys any sense of credibility for the other fan- tasists, dragging them out of the 26th century and back into the mundanity of their adolescent bedrooms. It's not as good as she thinks it is, but it's interesting, particularly when viewed as part of her Children project, as a possible first step towards the more sophisticated parabiography her later practice has become. In itself, it may be a bit obvious and a bit literal; you know how Baudrillard was dismissive of the Wachowski brothers and refused to talk about The Matrix in relation to his work, but was full of praise and admiration for Mulholland Drive. But of course the thing about The Matrix is that it's easier to get it and to feel like you've understood what's going on. I'm sure even Philip K. Dick would have conceded that.
Walter Benjamin identifies the mimetic faculty as being fundamental to a child's development; before language can develop a system of signs, it manifests itself as onomatopoeia. In her short film Fainting for YT, Morag mimics the acting out of reality, the adolescent exploration of the boundaries of existence. Children go free, but where to? Nirvana. Bohemia. Children become adolescents, creat- ing a sense of identity via accumulated cultural symbols. Morag likes to quote Marilyn Manson, and Marilyn Manson can say what he wants, but her endless fascination with him comes from the fact that Marilyn Manson can say what he wants. Marilyn Manson could probably quote Morag on that, but you know that guy, you can't tell him anything. Hell, he'll just say what he wants. But Morag doesn't know what she wants, and youth is something you lose before you've even worked out what it is, right? Childhood. Adolescence. These are recurring themes in Morag's work. She's like Picasso. You can even see some of his bull in at least one of her paintings. What I mean is that she was born into a situation where art was reality, she was born into the Matrix with the aesthetic awareness of an adult, and has spent most of her artistic career trying to learn how chil- dren and adolescents manage to exist so casually. Children go free, children live their experiences, while artists discern no more or less than zeros and ones. Like Baudrillard says, there is no more transcendence, no more divergence, nothing from another scene; it is a reflective game with the contemporary world as it happens. This is why contemporary art is null and void, he tells us. It and the world form a zero-sum equation. Shit. Where do you go from there?
It could be that the story had already begun before she realized it was a fiction; she'd already started on this journey before she realized that Baudrillard was right. And it's difficult to recognize a fiction when it happens to be completely true, or a reflective game with the contemporary world as it happens. It's likely that Halo 2 is more resonant for the artist herself than anyone else because this was the moment that she herself woke up from the Matrix, the moment she rec- ognized that her practice was actually a form of parabiography. But she's less like an author writing herself into existence than a dreamer projecting aspects of herself in the form of those around her.
Collaboration is a consistently fundamental aspect of her practice, and mani- fests itself in different ways and on different levels. With Children, for exam- ple, she worked with musicians, mainly from Glasgow-based band The Low Miffs. Fellow artists Fiona MacKay and Manuela Gernedel are longstanding collaborators; in Glasgow, MacKay and Keil established Flat 01, a gallery in a ground-floor tenement flat, and she frequently makes work and curates events with Gernedel. One of their more ambitious undertakings is OURTV, showing artist's films and videos with the long-term aim of creating a television channel. In 2009, MacKay invited the other two to join her for two weeks of her resi- dency at Wiels in Brussels for a project called "84 Paintings". With the studio open to the public, each artist would make two paintings a day for the whole fourteen-day period; you do the math. These collaborators and other friends often appear in Morag's work in many forms and many formats; many of the friends are also artists, and many of these works are developed and refined in conversations and discussions with pretty much everyone and anyone who is prepared to listen. Another, more nebulous endeavor was Concrete Gallery, initially a group blog involving a large number of participants, evolving into a kind of exquisite corpse, which gradually became less and less exquisite as the contributors deconstructed each other's posts. Morag later curated an exhibi- tion with the same name at Wilkinson in London.
To return to this parabiography, the work of her own in the Concrete show was an installation titled My So-Called Life. Three painted portraits in increasing levels of abstraction, another face projected onto one of the paintings and a vase of flowers placed on a plinth in front. So where does this So-Called Life begin? With her parents, both of whom trained as artists, and both of whose work, from before she was born, has been appropriated and incorporated into her own practice? Morag's projection of other people as herself could actually be a truer representation of Morag Keil than any literal self-portrait. I was thinking of Hegel's assertion that everything is outwardly the reverse of what it is for it- self, that being-for-itself is, rather, the loss of itself, and is self-alienation rather than the preservation of self.
Life is a language, and recognizing vocabulary creates points of entry into shared existence, enriched by distracting moments of misrecognition and mis- understanding. Sometimes one sees what one is told is there, but how much do you know about that element in the first place? How much insight can we ever really obtain into the life of Judy Chicago or Cathy Wilkes? As viewers, we create fictional versions of any artist. Of anyone we meet. Of our friends. Of ourselves. And actually, those fictional qualities are most people's best features. Empathy, compassion and love are consistent considerations. But it's difficult to discern whether these are aspirations or dispassionate philosophical problems. Ostensibly, her work is rarely generous, it doesn't give much away. Is Morag Keil a vampire absorbing the life and creativity of those around her? Or is she selflessly manifesting the true beauty of her friends to themselves and to every- one else? Quoting the quotidian, she endlessly deconstructs herself, her friends, the social and cultural rituals that she observes. In The Politics of Aesthetics, Rancière talks about how the commonplace came to be regarded as important in our knowledge of history through its position as a subject of interest in art. I wonder what sort of history Morag is making, constantly fictionalizing the peo- ple around her as incarnations of herself. She'll probably deny that of course, but her evident self is self-evident.
Take "Group Show", which was in fact a solo exhibition at Wilkinson in 2010. What group? Morag daydreams about what it might be like to be Jill, and gets Jill herself to play the part of Morag daydreaming about what it might be like to be Jill playing the part of Morag daydreaming. An endlessly circular reference, which spirals increasingly towards the signification of its own movement be- tween signifier and signified, an endless pause between thought and expression. Kinda like how Agamben says art detaches itself from both the activity of the artist and from the sensibility of the spectator to posit itself as the fundamental trait of universal becoming. I was about to say something profound about this, but I was distracted and forgot what I was talking about. Daydreaming. I love your bag, by the way, where did you get it? Next to Jill, a mobile phone occu- pies a position of non-activation, waiting for a call. Waiting for something to be expressed, but it will not speak; it is a dummy. It's an art object, tactile and aes- thetic but ultimately useless. Benison listens, inert, to her iPod; Ashleigh stands motionless, holding her bag. Keil the artist is fascinated by how her subject, who may be the friend modeling but is quite possibly the artist herself, is able to effortlessly be herself. Is able to effortlessly be. Her collaborations, appropria- tions and mimicking of her contemporaries could be a device to get them to put themselves in her place, and observe how they get there. What do you think? I get inside your head; it's a weird, alien world; I don't understand a word, yet somehow, the work develops, out of your head. She said it herself in another solo show, at the Embassy gallery in Edinburgh.
There's no morality evident in the work, which is both its vice and its virtue, but trust is a key issue which underpins most of what she does in every context. Many of her collaborators probably don't even know what she's attempting to do, not that she necessarily knows herself. And she's always involving other people, and I mean, isn't that what makes us who we are? The people that sur- round us, friends, family, music, tv, movies. She punctures the warmth and se- curity of love and friendship, emphasizing all the more a need for a sense of self through a sense of shared existence, a sense of belonging. Breaking the habits of speech and action in order to mean what you say, in order to mean what you do. She doesn't deal with any of the baggage this may bring, just presents it as it is, like that photo of Ashleigh, or the printed "flag" at Embassy. Liter- ally as baggage. And whose baggage it is, is never made clear. It could just be the stuff we have to deal with as people, as viewers looking at art. Symbols are arbitrary, they mean just what you use them to mean. Asparagus. Just what do you suppose asparagus means to Morag Keil the artist or the semiotically semiautobiographical subject? It could be a reference to Proust and remember- ing past times; Proust was into asparagus because he thought it made his urine smell like perfume. What do the objects mean? Maybe in order to feel, you need something to touch.
The year my voice broke. I was probably attempting an abysmal karaoke "Smells Like Teen Spirit". An abysmal abyss of adolescent obsolescence. You could view her residency at the Caribic in Frankfurt as a sad, failed attempt to achieve Nirvana. A sad, failed attempt to achieve Bohemia. What's that line in Through a Glass Darkly again? It's so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it. A reflective game with the contemporary world as it happens, as Baudrillard dismissively put it, remember. But he's wrong to say there is no transcendence. We possess nothing in the world, a mere chance can strip us of everything, except the power to say "I", wrote Simone Weil. There is abso- lutely no other free act which it is given us to accomplish, only the destruction of the "I". By involving her friends, Morag does just that; there is no "I" in her world, there is only "we".