In A Secret Service

Catalogue essay, curated Hayward Touring exhibition
Travelling to the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne; De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea; the Whitworth Art gallery, Manchester, UK
Publ. Hayward Gallery

(see curatorial: exhibition details and images)

'...Any window that might have afforded a glimpse of the Merzbau from outside was now whitewashed over...'1

The Hanover Merzbau that Kurt Schwitters considered his life's work probably started as a bricollaged tower in a corner of the artist’s studio. To this he added niches, caves and rooms so that by degrees the work became a complex, architectural environment. Over a period of at least twenty years, until Schwitters' departure from Hanover to Norway in 1937, the Merzbau accreted, layered, shifted, expanded and transformed. Images and objects - often personal, sometimes stolen - were placed, ordered, linked and buried within it: Sophie Tauber-Arp's stolen bra, pencils taken from the desk of Mies van der Rohe and numerous items belonging to Schwitters’ friend Kate Steinitz including, 'a lost key of mine that I had been searching for desperately'.2 The building of the Merzbau, with its sealing off of spaces and objects, meant that over the lengthy process of its construction it eventually comprised a closed archive of its own history. The smooth white volumes and forms that we can see in the photographs that Schwitters published in the avant-garde journal Abstraction Création in 1933 (fig. 1) conceal a great deal of the work's development and history.

As if to amplify the secretive logic of its construction, Schwitters allowed only a few people to see the Merzbau.3 This hesitation to allow it into public view becomes stranger when one considers his talent for publicity and highly modern understanding of it as a condition of success. Schwitters deployed everything from poster blitzes and guerrilla advertising, to newspaper articles and adverts, in order to generate profile and attention for his work and career. For instance, his poem 'An Anna Blum'’ started as an avant-garde succŹs-d'estime but ended up as 'possibly the best known and most popular German verse of the 1920s',4 because 'brash publicity finally catapulted the poem and its author to national fame…'.5 The Dadaist artist Hans Richter said that in the person of Schwitters he had 'never seen such a combination of complete lack of inhibition and business sense, of pure and unbridled imagination and advertising talent.' 6 Despite Schwitters' often commented upon eccentricities - his baggy suits, stiff collars and socklessness - he can be seen not only as a romantic eccentric, but also as an artist who knowingly articulated his activities through branding and a shrewd hard-headed approach to 'getting on'.

The Hanover Merzbau was completely destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943 but our fragmentary knowledge of it, and its subsequent incarnations in Norway and Elterwater in the Lake District -also destroyed or fragmentary - is a result not only of the erasures of war and the deaths of the few who saw it, but also of the intrinsic nature of the work in each of its forms, and the active choice of the artist. The Merzbauten were largely, but not exclusively, private hidden undertakings that took place in 'non-public' spaces: closed worlds. Furthermore, they articulated the world and Schwitters' relation to it in ways that denied easy access, sometimes expressing intimate almost pathological concerns, at others rearticulating the artist's experience in more formal hermetic ways, and making these shifts and changes over a time-span that meant that they were very difficult to get to know in any commonly understood way. Schwitters suspected that only three people other than himself intimately knew the Hanover Merzbau.

A part of a wall from the last Merzbau - the Merzbarn, which Schwitters began building in 1947 on a farm in the Lake District, following his move from Norway to the UK - is now in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle University (fig. 2). It was during a fellowship there that I slowly came to realise quite how peculiar, secretive and awkward the Merzbau was, how it refuses easy understanding, and how vast areas of its intentions and histories remain withdrawn from us. This became the matter of Ghost Houses, a performance and video work that I made in 2003-04, which explored lost architectures and ways that the Merzbau might be imagined and understood. Of particular interest in the shaping of this work and the exhibition that has become A Secret Service was a talk by Roger Cardinal at Elterwater in the Lake District, the village close to the place where Schwitters made his final attempt at rebuilding the Merzbau. Cardinal showed slides of the Hanover Merzbau and the Merzbarn alongside pictures of other outsider architectures: beautiful and complex buildings made by people for reasons beyond, or in addition to, the usual desires for shelter and security, community and status. To see the Merzbau in this context opened up fascinating possibilities and linkages.

I wanted to develop an exhibition that not only showed some material associated with the various Merzbauten but also which used them as a point of departure, taking their secrecy and removal from view as a theme, to explore analogies of the way they crossed discrete orderings, and combined qualities of insider and outsider practice. My aim was to explore ideas of the construction of the secret and the closed world in different ways and to see how these might enhance the understanding of present day practice. A Secret Service focuses on artists whose work, in one way or another, takes on some of the qualities of 'the secret' where the usual exchanges or readings have been replaced with something more difficult and awkward; where the viewer's gaze is refused or made contingent and access is not a given.

We normally consider art and art practice in relationship to an audience, and in terms of one person's (the artist's) act of revealing and making visible for another person (the audience). Post-modern approaches to art production have generally (although not entirely) ignored the obscurities of Marcel Duchamp’s long concealed last work Étants donnés (1946–66) and the hermeticisms behind his piece The Large Glass (1915–23) to concentrate instead on the positioning of the audience and the context of the gallery as necessary parts of the 'contractual' exchanges that constitute an artwork. Meanwhile, more recently, practices linked to 'relational aesthetics' have focused on the discourses and dialogues that are opened up by the interaction of a work and its audience.

With the massive expansion in recent years of the art market, the construction of the audience as consumer has become central to mainstream understanding of art and its possibilities – not only in the commercial art market but also in the arena of publicly funded institutional culture where audience attendance figures and ideas of 'access' are used - sometimes exclusively – to assess the success, or otherwise, of events and initiatives. In view of this it seems that the polymorphous and various relationships that can exist between an artwork and a viewer have been reduced to no more than a mercantile exchange between producer (artist) and consumer (audience). At a time when it is increasingly difficult to draw a line between the commercial and public sectors of the art world or identify any territory - cultural or otherwise - that capital cannot invade, practices that suggest models outside those of utility or commodity take on a particular interest. Despite the visible success of contemporary practice - the art fairs, new museums and glamour - there is a strand of anxiety in contemporary art. It no longer knows quite what it is for. The previous engagement of the avant-garde with the 'political' has been repackaged as radical chic. The ideological underpinnings that allowed the possibility of agency and effect in the real world have melted into air. Is the function of art to be entirely subsumed in providing a circus for the rich, or constructing a new academy?

Yet as the Merzbau suggests, there are other approaches where the relationship of the work to the audience is complex and problematic and might refute or delay the normal articulations. What does it mean when the world that a work is engaged with is removed, in one way or another, from the audience's view? How are we positioned (and how do we feel) when the work has come into being without any idea of it entering into an exchange with us? How can the 'social' (and/or the art world) accommodate or understand the work that has withdrawn itself? And what takes place when - as in this exhibition, which situates work made for private consumption in a public context - one enters the influence of the other?

There is a generative logic at play in many of the works in A Secret Service where cosmologies are developed and mapped. These are often expressed in terms of the paranoid, the utopian, the visionary and the counterfactual. Seen as marginal they offer ways of reading the world (and readings of the world) outside more 'rational' models. Artists may seek connections to the hidden areas of a polity or a society in terms of the conspiracy, the secret or the magical. Sometimes these practices may seem to leave the realm of art behind and venture into a psychopathology, but it is this refusal of normal boundaries and definitions that gives them much of their power and interest. Certainly their ambiguous position between art and life recalls previous roles and functions for art that have become obscured and are often dismissed.

These approaches and practices have particular resonance at a time when ideologies and methodologies linked to Enlightenment Rationalism are increasingly challenged and eroded. We are witnessing all sorts of strange returns: supernatural systems and narratives from pre-modernity, belief in conspiracy and miracles. The most visible opposition to the Western model is seen to be no longer from Communism but from Radical Islam: mystical belief systems centred on canonical law, supernatural belief and miraculously revealed truth. In a 2003 poll taken in the United States for Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, 92 per cent of those questioned believed in the existence of God. Another survey in 2000 revealed 84 per cent of the correspondents believe that miracles 'are happening today'.7 The best-selling book of recent years, The Da Vinci Code, is about the secret hidden for centuries by the Church regarding the succession of the bloodline of Jesus. Many people consider this to be fact wrapped in fiction. Fifteen per cent of respondents to the Fox News survey believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, but 50 per cent hold that the Biblical account is largely correct. This has become the matter of the contemporary world.

As a parallel to this interest in the irrational within the art world there has recently been a return of interest in the figure of the 'outsider artist'. This may, in part, be a result of an attempt to bring new products into the market place, or it may be a symptom of the return to romantic essentialism. But another element lies in the challenges that these practices present to our current understanding of the roles and positions of art and its activities. Some, like the opaque practices of Oscar Voll (explored in this book by Roger Cardinal), return us to the profound mysteries of symbolic expression. Others converge with contemporary approaches and interests.

In recent years, Henry Darger has become one of the most visible 'outsider' artists owing to the way that his works anticipate or prefigure many contemporary approaches and concerns; the exhibition, The Disasters of War, curated by Klaus Biesenbach, showed his work in conjunction with that of the Chapman brothers.8 During Darger's life, however, his 30,000-page novel, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion (possibly the longest work of fiction ever written), remained unread, and the artworks that illustrate the text unseen. Darger's productions came to view when Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, the then owners of the boarding house where Darger had lived for over forty years, started to clean out his room after he had been moved to the nursing home they had found for him. The drawings are of the richly imagined and described world of the seven Vivian Girls – hermaphrodite Shirley Temple-esque figures, represented with male genitalia - as they seek freedom from the atheistic nations that have enslaved all children. The illustrations show the progress of the armed struggle between the girls and the armies of the atheistic and Christian nations, the latter having come to the aid of the girls' rebel army. This narrative of flight and war, violence and destruction, is painstakingly represented in collage and watercolour. Under these delicate, beautiful surfaces, the works have a profoundly uneasy pulse.

Darger's work has been variously identified as the output of a sexual criminal, a victim of abuse, a traumatised innocent, or all of these combined. Certainly it expresses an uneasy dialogue of conflicted urges in the artist's psyche. The drawings are disquieting because we cannot identify a function for them. We can only presume what, or who, they were made for. Are they just expressions of disturbed fantasy as suggested by Lyle Rexer who imagines Darger 'confronting the spectacle of what he had created and indulging in conflated auto-erotic pleasure'?9 But Rexer's lonely onanistic projection does not take Darger's Catholic faith into account. Kiyoko Lerner recalls that one day Darger lost a favourite painting: 'Finally he threatened God. If God didn't return it, he, Henry Darger would join the enemy force in the Realms of the Unreal. So sure enough, General Darger joined the Grand TK Army, and it started to win the war…'.10 The works can be seen as part of a complex web of expression and communication between Darger, his compulsions and the invisible audience of his all-seeing God.

When I was a performance artist in Newcastle in the 1980s, Tehching Hsieh's work existed only as rumour. I was never certain that the piece, in which he clocked-on every hour, on the hour, for a year, did not belong to the realms of art-myth and urban legend (along with the amputation machine built to reduce its maker by degrees in a public suicide or Rudolph Schwarzkogler's castration as a performance). Hsieh, however, did perform this and a number of other extraordinary works as largely private experiments with limited but rigorous documentation and a small number of witnesses. His clocking-on work, entitled One Year Performance, 1980-81 (1981), was recorded in a short film of single frames taken at each clocking-on, and included signed statements by Hsieh's assistant and the clock cards themselves. In 1978, Hsieh lived for a year in a cage built inside his studio. He was fed each day and his waste was removed. An audience was occasionally allowed in to watch. When Hsieh elected to live without making art for a year (One Year Performance 1985-86 (1986)), and then made an action that lasted for thirteen years, the audience was more or less entirely removed from the operations of the work. Instead, there are only statements saying that the act has taken place; the act has been withdrawn from view into a private sphere. As with the Merzbau, Hsieh’s performance works were of the art world but at the same time removed from it, as their internal logic obstructed any easy encounter with, or experience, of them.

Katarzyna Josefowicz's work Games (2001–03) is made up of hundreds and hundreds of sheets of advertising material folded into small cubes and then carefully stacked and arranged in the exhibition space. When our eye passes over these sealed volumes we become aware that we are experiencing only the residue of an extraordinary labour, a labour whose purpose we cannot quite comprehend despite the fact that the outcome is staring us in the face. The work becomes a barrier that, whilst bearing witness to these unseen actions, simultaneously obscures them. Josefowicz often uses repeated actions to make her works. Untitled (1994) consists of narrow strips of newspaper stuck together, then carefully wrapped around a spindle into vast wheels making the printed information illegible. For Carpet (1997–2000) she cut out thousands of figures from colour magazines and assembled them in serried ranks, each close behind the other, to form a massive field of small two-dimensional figures. In each of her projects the audience is made aware of a vast hinterland of effort: unremitting labour and infinite patience, the reasons for which remain tantalising. 'I have become a slave to building', the artist says, talking of the activity that drives her work, where 'she is a mere pawn in the expansion of matter'.11 This ghost of excess labour has a destabilising effect when it comes to understanding. As in the Merzbau, it shifts our readings first into the pathological - the nervous tick, the Tourette's repetition - but then there seems to be a link to mystical practices, where one small act infinitely repeated in a small room in the artist's flat mortifies the flesh and loops the nervous system into patterns of its own making and brings new worlds into being.

Dream Mapping (1974) by Susan Hiller explores the relationships between the subjective worlds of group reality and the scientific and cultural world. A number of people were invited to sleep for three nights inside the fairy rings of mushrooms that grow in grassy fields and which have in folklore, as their name implies, a role as a transition between the everyday world and the fairy realm. To sleep in one is to open up the possibility of travelling into that other world, perhaps, as folktales have it, never to return. In many different cultures - Ancient Greek, Native American and in European traditions - specific places are identified as especially propitious for dreaming - and to go there for this purpose is known as 'incubation' (from the Latin 'incubare', 'to lie upon'). The dreams that take place are considered to be of special significance, providing divinely inspired insights or cures. Incubation was practiced by members of the cult of Asclepius, and is still used in a few Greek monasteries.

Dream Mapping required that each morning the sleepers would map the shape and memories of their dreams in a notebook. These maps were then superimposed, making a survey of the dream space(s) that the sleepers had variously explored, to test if there was co-incidence, resonance or shared event. This search for a collective architecture of these hidden, subjective spaces echoes the desires of twentieth-century psychology and its articulations and representations of the human psyche, as well as the earlier expressions of religion with its mappings of heaven and hell. Freud was certain that he could locate the position of the superego in the volumes of the brain, and the medieval monk had a physical location for paradise.

Dream Mapping is a collective exercise in data collection that refers both to Western science and to traditional approaches in other cultures where dream experiences are shared. It momentarily places dream experience into the matrix of Western research to suggest possibilities outside the normal parameters of science, but does so through an approach that is poetic rather than clinical. The work also quizzes the constructions and operations of the audience in art, specifically in live art and performance. In Dream Mapping, the sleeper/map-maker transcends the usual relationship between artist and viewer. Here the roles are conflated, the map-maker is both the generator of part of the work (the dream and the mapping) as well as the audience: the person to whom the dream happens. Unlike much conceptual practice of its time, Dream Mapping focuses on the visual and the drawn as a means to bring back into view the non-verbal. This material that is not yet shaped by language is more problematic and resistant to articulation. Hiller's use of it is never entirely opposed to rational post-Enlightenment belief systems, or a blunt reflex of the post-modern equivalent, but instead continually tests our certainties and expectations that these systems can fully map the universe.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, American writer and researcher Charles Fort started collecting 'anomalous data'. This was data that did not fit with any of the dominant narratives of scientific methods of the day, so was usually ignored or marginalised. These areas cover crypto-zoology, UFOs, OOPArts (or 'out of place artefacts'), levitation, telepathy, and so on; things that Fort recorded to reveal and test the limits of orthodox modellings.

Artist Jeffery Vallance is a regular contributor to The Fortean Times, the publication that continues Fort's work today. Vallance plays with tales of popular mythology, which he combines with his own invented elements, such as the stain left on the wrapping by the frozen supermarket chicken 'Blinky the Friendly Hen'. His practice celebrates and investigates the extraordinary creativity of mythic, folkloric and religious drives in American cultures. He traces and documents manifestations of the spear of Longinus – reputed to have pierced the side of Christ - which became the 'spear of destiny' in Nazi mythology, luridly described in many popular books about the arcane underpinning of National Socialism. Fakery and the 'real' is a central concern in Vallance's work, and he explores what happens once powers are invested in an image or an object in such a way that they become fetishistic or charged, as for example in icons or reliquaries where the representation itself takes on religious meaning. His deranged tales of satanic clowns and the outline of George Washington found in the Shroud of Turin underline their dark chthonic possibilities and speak of the interweaving of faith and politics that we see so clearly in modern day America.

In a clever articulation of paranoia about the power and operations of 'the State' that is shared by both the right and the left wings of the political spectrum, Vallance’s My FBI File (1981) shows us information that the FBI had collected on the artist. Originally a secret file meant only for the eyes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Vallance was able to gain access to it through the Freedom of Information Act, although some of the information contained is still censored. It describes the sort of behaviour that, as individuals, we might be happier to hold only in our own recollection, rather than it coming to the notice of the State or, through its conversion into an artwork, the audience of an exhibition.

The medicine drawings by Ethiopian artist Gedewon are from the Ethiopian talismanic tradition, and take changed states as their condition, cosmologies as their matter, and spirits as their audience. They play a complex and layered game with actual and supernatural vision appealing to different orders of the world and simultaneously operating as art objects in a conscious and modern sense. Jacques Mercier writes the following of talismanic art:

Talismans are not illustrations of prayer but act by themselves on the spirit through the eyes of the possessed person. Gedewon situated his talismans firmly in the contemporary world, describing them as 'study and research talismans'. He filled a notebook with drawings of talismans for me in 1975 [...]. He set out the classic themes of talismans to the Names of God and of certain angels [...].'What you have to do', he says'‘is to ask the sick person to describe the contacts and visions he had when he fell ill, and to inscribe these colours and forms in the talisman, accompanied by suitable Names of God. The demons take on changing appearances: bees, flies, birds, arms, eyes, flowers, stones, etc.' The aggressive spirit, seeing its own appearances in the talisman, will cry out and flee, as through burned. By proceeding in this way, he is prevented from gaining access to the human body. The talisman is a prohibition. And its form has to do with a strategy of tension. Gedewon's talismans are surfaces that proliferate to infinity, frontiers that bring into being spaces that they simultaneously separate.12

Modern Western medical ideas and authorities increasingly threaten the body of thought and beliefs that animates these drawings.

Mike Nelson uses the fictions of the secret as a core focus of his work. His complex, labyrinthine installations act as the settings and mise-en-scŹnes for narratives that we can only guess at as we are led from one room to another. These constructed, enclosing worlds are a direct descendant of the grotto-like spaces of Schwitters' Merzbau, but with the essential difference that here we can enter and leave as a viewer, trying to construct stories and links from the architectures and artefacts we encounter. The narratives that the works evoke are more of film and literature: where the psyche described is that of a player or character rather than the artist. We can imagine the Merzbau itself appearing as a filmic scenario in a Nelson work, or indeed Darger's room (fig. 3) - the hidden environment of a mad artist.

A room in Nelson's work, Triple Bluff Canyon (2004), combines a close reconstruction of the artist's studio with a video projection of an American right-wing conspiracy theorist to suggest the workshop of a fabulist. However, it is a fabulist using the events of the 'real' world for their narratives and seeking hidden connection in the body politic. It is here that Nelson's work achieves its impact for in one way or another it always alludes to particular social or political realities - the blind alleys and mazes distantly echoing the operations of power upon the subject. These are worlds where individuals and groups have to retreat and hide in contingent spaces that are found outside, or hidden behind establishment structures. For the 2004 Sčo Paulo Biennale, Nelson built a flawless extension of the white curved surfaces of the exhibition space. The construction concealed hidden areas that the visitor was able to penetrate and in which they stumbled upon the abandoned relics of Condomble rituals left behind by an absent population, who had either concealed itself within, or fled the gallery. The audience was presented with clues and traces of actions and activities and, by implication, complex belief systems and understandings of the world that they now had to make sense of in the same partial way that an archaeologist or a private eye might.

Ritual is invoked too in Paul Etienne Lincoln's Purification of Fagus Sylvatica Pendula (2001), which consists of the paraphernalia and documentation of a rite that took place in parkland in New York City at the stump of the oldest Weeping Beech in America. This plant was brought to the USA by Samuel Bowne Parsons, a Quaker and nursery man, in 1847 from Belgium where he had been travelling in search of exotica. Every Weeping Beech in America is descended from this single tree which itself died and was cut down in 1997. This object and history become part of Lincoln's investigation into the origins and narratives of human memory. The components of the piece, and the enacted ritual involving the processes of extraction, distillation and crystallisation, draw on the languages and intentions of alchemy: the transformation of materials and essences and the revealed understanding of the world as a text, as a realm of powers and correspondences which, if properly understood, will allow man to take on transformative power. Beechwood smoke is distilled to obtain wood creosote, which has preservative and antiseptic qualities. When this undergoes another purification process it yields a crystal of a substance named guaiacol, an inducer of nerve growth. Etienne Lincoln's work recalls Duchamp's borrowing of alchemical approaches in The Large Glass. There, the fact that the imagery illustrated a text and symbolic language, which itself was hidden and nonsensical, was crucial. That the text turns out to be a fiction is of itself no concern: this was also true for the alchemists, whose search for transformation and understanding underpinned the first developments in physics and chemistry. A delight in systems and cosmologies is a central theme in Etienne Lincoln's practice, where they are taken from one discipline and applied to another. This perhaps reaches its apogee in New York Hot and New York Cold (1987 and ongoing), where the entire city and its history over the last sixty years is reconfigured as a vastly complex mechanical closed system of electrical generators, pumping systems, sirens, musical organs and heat circuits.

The PAN Museum Project (1999-2006) by Joachim Koester and Adrian Dannatt documents the studio and the apartment of the artist Pietro Antonio Narducci. Narducci, whose cosmological works can be seen in the images here, was not an outsider' in his awareness of the narratives of art, nor indeed in his technical training, but merely in his relationship to the art world: terms that history and circumstance have (momentarily) determined, rather than the artist in a conscious or unconscious act. As outlined in the text by Adrian Dannatt that is a component part of the work (bound into this book), made in association with Joachim Koester, Narducci had been a member of the New York School and a founder of Abstract Expressionism but failed to achieve the acclaim of some of his contemporaries. Rather than allowing this to discourage him, he continued making his work but in private. After his death, the rooms of his apartment and the work he abandoned in it were maintained by his daughters, as a memorial, and in the unvoiced expectation that the life they represented may eventually make the transition from the unknown to the known: the 'undiscovered' being a central theme both in the hopes of artists and in the mythologies of the art world and market. The actions that the rooms provided a context and a setting for - and the histories and desires that motivated those actions - have left only a residue of the baffling evidence presented to our eye. This invites us to attempt a plurality of impossible and poignant reconstructions that makes us aware of the gaps and lacunae between the material presented to the eye and the vastness of that which we are attempting to retrieve and re-animate - aspiration, work, an entire and complex life - and the mechanisms of love and loss as manifested in the preservation of the apartment by Narducci's daughter.

Some of Roberto Cuoghi's activities occupy the electric territory between the aesthetic and the pathological. His practice uses diverse media - video, comic book illustration, painting and drawing - in a multi-faceted body of work that explores ideas and codings of representation. At the core of the practice lies a work - or rather an action - that never fully reveals itself, but which informs and animates the artist's activities; an action that was scarcely documented and exists more as an animated rumour that constantly resists interpretation. In 1998, in his twenties and a student at Milan's Accademia di Belle Arte di Brera, needing to avoid some people in his life, Cuoghi put on weight (increasing his bulk to over 20 stone (127 kilos)), dyed his hair grey, changed the way he dressed and took on the appearance and mannerisms of a man in his mid-sixties. This transformation was maintained for over seven years, a period in which he effectively erased his young self and became his father. He even wore some of his father's clothes and started to develop the heart problems experienced by overweight men in their sixties.

Those who saw this act were the people with whom Cuoghi interacted in day-to-day life. When he was photographed, it was as a snapshot, rather than as an image for a gallery wall. At the same time, Cuoghi did not actively deny the possibility of this act being seen in the context of art, nor did he actively position it as such. In an interview with Massimo Grimaldi he was asked:

I believe that your work, like mine, has been subjected to excessive simplifications, or true misunderstandings. Could you tell me about some particular errors and indicate what should have been said instead?'

To which Cuoghi replied:

I should have prepared something informing people about the fact that I had put myself in the guise of a middle-aged man, with my father's clothing, with tastes and manners that were not my own but would become my own. They asked me to organise material for the occasion of the fourth edition of Manifesta, in Frankfurt. The idea was to make an official presentation of the operation, but that wasn't my idea. A change of appearance is for those who cannot know about it. For me, having to document it to made it seem like an artwork isn't even a compromise, because it truly makes no sense at all. So I've never documented anything. I just left it up to others, and this has meant that meanings have been mixed up, information has been confused, and I have had no control over it.13

Cuoghi's lenticular print, Untitled (2005), is one of the few works that relates to this seven-year period. The video work, Foolish Things (2002), has its genesis in the narrative of the transformation and its relationship to the art world but the work erases and obscures the act behind the footage of a model of a rising sun.

The work of Sophie Calle brings to view the movements of the individual in the city. Famously, Calle has taken the operations of the private eye - a character known through fiction - and applied them to the production of her work. She has gone 'undercover', followed individuals and collated information about them. The actions that would normally be considered part of the private anonymous sphere have been made visible and mapped through space, and these mappings then opened to the public view. The private world that is revealed is not only that of the person who is followed but also that of Sophie Calle. Desires and drives that would normally be held close to the individual, seen as the interior workings of a private pathology, are externalised as a documented action.

In Suite Venitienne (1979), Calle tailed a man she had met at a party in France all the way to Venice, taking photographs and keeping a notebook detailing her pursuit and her observations. In Address Book (1983), she found an address book in the street and copied its contents. She then contacted those listed in its pages and compiled a dossier of information on its owner, which was published in a newspaper. In The Hotel (1981), she took a temporary job as a chambermaid, exploiting the access this gave her to the hotel's rooms. Alone in the rooms, she explored guests' luggage, documented their possessions and went through their wastepaper baskets and bathroom cabinets to glean information on them - an echo of Schwitters' thefts and relocations. Her discoveries and conjectures form the matter of the photo-panels of her works. The work poses difficult questions about the relationships between the private and the public, and between the spheres of art and the pathological. If Calle's actions were not somehow dignified or authorised by the world of art, could we tell them apart from the everyday violence of stalking? To what extent are we made complicit in actions that we would otherwise find very problematic? As 'art', Calle's work is to some extent dignified by the aura of personal expression and systematic exploration. But what are the dynamics and history of this validation and how would we react if, as in the case of Jeffery Vallance and his FBI File, an apparatus of the State had assembled this material?

Mark Lombardi's detailed and beautiful drawings trace overt and covert relationships between multinationals, individuals, criminals and politicians that constitute the operations of the State and the public sphere. The drawings reveal the secrets and linkages that caused the collapse of the Vatican Bank, enabled the Iran-Contra dealings and produced the Whitewater scandal. They outline the relationships between George W. Bush and Harken Energy or Banca Nazionale Del Lavoro, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and the arming of Iraq. They show us how the money was moved and where it went. 'At some point in my development', says the artist, 'I began to reject reductivist approaches in favour of one capable of evoking the complexity, venality and occasional brutality of the times. What emerged was a study of "irregular" financial transactions, with special emphasis on those undertaken in secret by select groups of influential yet silent partners.'14 Although rooted entirely in the 'real world' and exhaustive in their research and their accuracy, the works speak also of compulsion and paranoia. All Lombardi's source material came from books, newspapers, publications and magazines as he was working in the days before the internet. These he found, read, cross-referenced and collated on hundreds of file cards, which he stored in cabinets in his studio. This obsessive archiving then became the engine for the production of the work:

After a careful review of the literature I then condense the essential points into an assortment of notations and other brief statements of fact, out of which an image begins to emerge. My purpose throughout is to interpret the material by juxtaposing and assembling the notations into a unified, coherent whole. In some cases I use a set of stacked, parallel lines to establish a time frame. Hierarchical relationships, the flow of money and other key details are then indicated by a system of radiating arrows, broken lines and so forth. Some of the drawings consist of two different layers of information – one denoted in black, the other in red. Black represents the essential elements of the story while the major lawsuits, criminal indictments or other legal actions taken against the parties are shown in red. Every statement of fact and connection depicted in the work is true and based on information culled entirely from the public record.15

The Speculative Archive expands this tracing of the secret from the social and political sphere into the electronic. It focuses on the ways that government and intelligence services seek to control information through constructions of secrecy and how these are both enabled and denied by the public archive, the electronic universe and the internet. In Possession of a Picture (2005) examines recent cases in which people have been stopped and detained because they were videotaping or photographing particular sites in the USA (bridges, casinos, banks, landmarks, tourist attractions, etc.), or in which people were detained for other reasons and then found to be in possession of videotapes or photographs of particular sites.16 Seemingly anodyne views have been determined to be sensitive and of interest to 'enemy' eyes. They have been made, in one way or another, secret. They have been articulated in a (new) narrative of terrorism, threat and security that we have no access to, but which inscribes a world parallel to the one that we inhabit - and inflects it - but to which we have little or no access. It is a world narrated by the security forces to whom we may be deemed a 'person of interest' or potential terrorist. In the work, this (missing) image is represented through a black square, under which the name of the person who was taking the unseen photograph is written. It is twinned with a representation of the same building or sight that the Speculative Archive has sourced from the World Wide Web or the public record, so locating these images as a meeting, or fault-line, between worldviews and hidden narratives.

At the same time that Western Rationalism is fading, the State seeks increasingly to remove things from our gaze, to pull more and more of its activities back into the shadows. This increased currency of the very idea of the secret, the unknown and the unknowable, and its spread between categories - spiritual, political and social - means that the autonomous areas that we have enjoyed as individuals - personal, subjective and secret - are increasingly interrogated by the social and the politic. The practices in A Secret Service may suggest models and methodologies for engaging with, reflecting or understanding these discourses, their operations and the realities that they are shaping.

Richard Grayson 2006

1. Gwendolyn Webster, Kurt Merz Schwitters, University of Cardiff Press, Cardiff, 1997, p. 270.
2. Kate Steinitz, Kurt Schwitters: A Portrait from Life, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1968, p. 91.
3. The very secret caves were probably never seen by anybody except Walden, Giedon and Arp. See Webster, op cit., p. 222.
4. Jerome Rothenberg (ed.), translated by Pierre Joris, Kurt Schwitters: Poems, Performance, Pieces, Prose, Plays, Poetics, Exact Change, Cambridge, 2002.
5. Webster, op. cit., p. 84.
6. Franćois Bazzoli, Kurt Schwitters, Images En Manoeuvres Editions, Marseilles, 1991, p. 60.
8. The Disasters of War: Francesco de Goya, Henry Darger, Jake and Dinos Chapman, exhibition catalogue, Kunstwerk, Berlin: July – November 2000; PS1, New York: November 2000 – February 2001.
9. Lyle Rexer, How to Look at Outsider Art, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2005, p. 123.
10. Kiyoko Lerner in conversation with Klaus Biesenbach (ed.) in Henry Darger: Disasters of War, (KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, July 2004.
11. Magdalena Ujma, ‘Sweet Captivity’ in The World May be Fantastic, Sydney Biennale, Sydney, 2002, p. 110.
12. Jean-Hubert Martin in Art that Heals, Apexart Gallery, New York City, March 2002,
13. Roberto Cuoghi interviewed by Massimo Grimaldi in M. Grimaldi, 13 E-mail Interviews, PVC, 500 bks, 2005, unpaginated.
14. Mark Lombardi, Press Release,
15. Mark Lombardi, Artist’s Statement, 1998,