Once a month, art-agenda and TextWork, editorial platform of the Ricard Foundation, jointly publish a Meta text. Here, Mike Sperlinger reflects on his monographic essay on Laurent Montaron’s work, “Machine Learning.”

The exhibition I most regret not seeing is “Voids: A Retrospective,” which took place at the Pompidou Center in Paris ten years ago. The show was a restaging of nine works involving empty gallery spaces (Art & Language, Michael Asher, Maria Eichhorn, Laurie Parsons, and others). I bought a compensatory catalogue online: an almost parodically superdeluxe, 500-plus page production. But I regularly wish I had gotten on a Eurostar to walk through those (as I imagine them) repletely empty rooms.

What is the relation between experiencing something (or nothing) and writing about it? It seems, at first glance, incredibly obvious: that whereof we have not experience, thereof we must remain silent. How can you write about artworks you have never seen, for example? And yet we do, all the time, and I find myself asking, less and less rhetorically, what relationship artworks actually have to the meanings and experiences we ascribe to them.

Just over a year ago, I sat with Laurent Montaron in his farmhouse studio outside of Paris, and we had a fantastically involved discussion, looking at his works from the last decade, without any of those works being present. I had traveled to France to meet with Laurent and prepare to write a text on his work; but in the event, life being such as it is, Laurent was between studios and his works were mostly in storage, so we sat in front of his computer and looked at images. As it turned out, that was perfectly appropriate. Laurent’s work is deeply concerned with the paradoxes of experience: images conjuring the limits of the visible, meaning deferred or denied. His 2016 exhibition at Fondation Ricard, which I wrote about for TextWork, involved the whole gallery being sealed behind two viewing windows; another representative work, Isn’t this what we like to believe rather than being left to the night? (2010), consists of a piece of paper almost entirely concealed by an anvil.

The artist Seth Price wrote, in his still-provocative book Dispersion (2002–ongoing), “The power of the readymade is that no one needs to make the pilgrimage to see Fountain”—its effects came precisely from its “dispersion into discourse,” long after Duchamp’s original had been trashed.11
Seth Price, Dispersion, (self-published, 2002–ongoing), page 14 of the 2007 version available online at http://www.distributedhistory.com/Dispersion2007.comp.pdf.
One might respond to that proposition in different ways. Laurent, for example, talks about some of his works as “readymades that disappeared”: fastidious replicas of no longer extant objects, where the gesture of deciding to recreate them itself forms the mysterious kernel of the work. But I also believe in the simple act of pilgrimage, regardless of its object—even (perhaps especially) when the object is inaccessible somehow. I learned a lot from the time Laurent and I spent together, and not only about his work. I wanted to write about his work in a way that acknowledged not only the conditions under which I encountered it, but also how speculative and secondhand most of my relations to contemporary art are.

In truth, I find it increasingly hard to relate to writing about art, whether my own or others’, which doesn’t somehow acknowledge the actual, prosaic conditions of experience (or non-experience). No more Platonic artworks! Last year, I wrote a chapbook about what it would mean to think of films or artworks as “occasions” for aesthetic experiences rather than causes of them.22
Mike Sperlinger, Occasional Criticism (Stuttgart: Schloss Solitude, 2018).
I thought about all the films and artworks that had profoundly affected me without my ever having experienced them firsthand. And I began to look at other writing which seemed to start from a similar premise, such as the French critic Serge Daney’s famous account of never seeing Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1960 film Kapo33
Serge Daney, “The Tracking Shot in Kapo,” trans. by Laurent Kretzschmar, Trafic, no. 4 (1992). Republished in Senses of Cinema, http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/feature-articles/kapo_daney/.
or Contemporary Art Writing Daily, which offers fleet glosses of shows purely from how they are puffed on Contemporary Art Daily, somehow managing to be riskier and more acute than many critics who plod to the gallery only to recycle the press release.

At this point, however, I find myself at the vanishing point where the desire for fidelity to the textures of our highly mediated experience of artworks seems to teeter on the precipice of cynicism. Like the priests of high finance, the more rarefied brokers of cultural capital can always turn any mediation into a profitable new form of immediacy. I recently skimmed Pierre Bayard’s middlebrow manifesto How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (2007), in which an unfunny parody of Derridean reading (“A book is not limited to itself, but from the moment of dissemination also encompasses the exchanges it inspires”) becomes the alibi for treating the dinner table conversation about the book as the primary text.44
Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 40.
And what about the most powerful critical pulpit currently known, the Amazon review? After all, there is no obligation to have purchased (or read, seen, etc.) a product to review it—as has been famously discovered, for example, when fanatical groupuscules were able to leave negative press before a book was even published.55
David Streitfeld, “Swarming a Book Online,” The New York Times (January 20, 2013), https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/21/business/a-casualty-on-the-battlefield-of-amazons-partisan-book-reviews.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0.

There is obviously no formula, or happy median degree of casual acquaintance with your object. In writing, inadvertent inattention is no better than urbanely cynical superficiality—much better go to the other extreme, of almost self-parodic close reading—for example, the poet J. H. Prynne’s incredible 1995 lecture at London’s Tate Britain on Willem de Kooning: “I should really like to know something about the staples that were put into the side of the stretchers to these paintings….”66
J. H. Prynne, “A Discourse on Willem de Kooning’s Rosy-Fingered Dawn at Louse Point,” talk at Tate Britain, London, May 5, 1995. Audio recording available at https://archive.org/details/jhp5-v-1995.
Maybe it is simply the case that, as writers, we need a richer vocabulary of non-experience. Just as modern art came to acknowledge its inextricable elements of non-art, or even anti-art, perhaps contemporary aesthetic experience also has to pay more tribute to its opposite?