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Conceptual Can Opening


Jan Nelson’s objects and photographs appear to be inauthentic and inadequate props that offer little in the way of coherent meaning. This is the crux of her strategy - to load art with multiple references that contradict and cancel each other out and to display these as proof that absolutes are unattainable modernist ideals.


“Untitled” is an ossified turd, both in terms of its matter and its meaning. Nelson has used her conceptual can opener to disinter one of Manzoni’s naughty cans of artist’s shit. Removing the contents and placing “it” on a pedestal, the mystery of the original object has been spoiled and the gesture revealed as ordinary.


The benefits, however, are numerous. It smells okay, has a regular consistency and a degree of permanence. The object looks good on a pedestal and the curator does not have to fret about maintaining an “active” turd. A small price to pay for fabricating a canon of art history. "Incident" is similarly presentable, sitting in ruins like a broken artefact. Like “untitled” it is a simulacrum that exists where the original does not; an archaeological fragment for those prepared to believe that this can enhance our understanding of modernism. These pieces, Nelson suggests, are physical evidence of Yves Klein’s infamous “Leap into the Void” – broken flower pots fragments that supposedly resulted from the jump. Exhibited as a footnote to the main event they assume a life of their own and are presented as “art”.


Certain conventions of museological display suggest that taxonomic rationality can secure the meaning of objects allowing the information to be processed and disseminated as an absolute historically determined fact. The museum actively promotes this interpretation precluding any doubt as to the legitimate power of the object. Nelson subverts these institutional conventions to dissipate their modernist authoritative energy while sanctifying Manzoni’s and Klein’s transgressive strategies. Yet in her museum artefacts all signs of avant-garde resistance implicit in the original cans of shit or “the leap” are removed and therefore appear as tame and quality humorous gestures.


The question thus arises as to whether Nelson has set out to undermine the aura of these objects and images, and the strategies of their construction; or does she seek to be a bit player in their history?


By careful manipulation of the visual and the historical codes, she is appeasing both agendas by making the conditions of Objecthood provisional. Problematising the notion of an absolute truth she invents her own and assumes the guise of an avant-gardist. Nelson proposes that the unfortunate problem of avant-gardism resides in its nature as a “boys only” pursuit. This is a problem only insofar as the patriarchal order controls who wears the uniform. With the benefit of hindsight, Nelson suggests a different purpose for the uniform, one which recognises its utility as “fancy dress”. It is not adopted as a prescriptive device and serves instead as one possibility amid a more pluralist conception of identity.


Nelson seems to revel in the incompatibility of various narratives and avant-gardist – like the subversive object sitting in the museum – have their own intrinsic contradictions. Everything is compromised and beauty (the conventional aesthetic) dies. In trying to make sense of this cycle, Nelson traverses’ ambivalence, nostalgia and paradox on a path that leads to her own artistic irresolution. She does not self-consciously admit her limitations in crossing this divide, instead, new and innovative advances are to be made by the viewer. And overwhelming temptation to tell the story, and thus reveal the analytical intricacies of her project, is suppressed between the temporal dimensions of the narratives and the static object - between the signifier and the signified and its largely problematised signification.


In place of the historically validated modernist object, Nelson offers refuse and human excrement. What separates this approach from the earlier avant-gardists is that her strategies remain both literal and open-ended.


The turd seems to be a representation of the snake my brother told me lived in our toilet bowl always waiting to bite me on the bum. What does it mean to you?


David Cross

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