Something strange happened after interviewing artist Justin Lieberman for his latest exhibition, Salto Mortale, at the Bernier Eliades Gallery in Athens, Greece; I suffered a crippling case of writer’s block. I suspected the fault was one of three possibilities – one being the hours of conversation shared, moving from Koons, and Hirst (and his utter distaste for the two), to Duchamp to Rauschenberg, to Shepherd Fairey, Banksy and Thomas Hirschhorn, and back to Rauschenberg, who Lieberman clearly has a lot of love for. In Lieberman’s words, Rauschenberg is an example of an artist whose work carries infinite possibilities, in comparison to Duchamp, whose claim to fame was a latrine.
The second possibility was the fact that Lieberman is an artist firmly rooted in theory, whose exhibition resume reads like chapters in an ongoing investigation in search for meaning in a world driven by value judgements and contradictions – be they cultural, commercial, artistic or hierarchical. His 2005 show, Time and Money, dealt with topics ranging from art and advertisement, time, memory and premonition, the calendar vortex and its cultural implications, the cult of authenticity, teenage counterfeiters and the popular cartoonist Gary Larson, while his 2006, Agency: Open House show, attempted to find some sort of middle ground between the ‘commodity spectacle’ of Koons or Murakami against the reactive refusal to submit to commercial trends.
However, perhaps the exhibitions that best sum up Lieberman is The Corrector in the High Castle and the Corrector’s Custom Pre-Fab House, exhibited at the Zack Feuer Gallery and Marc Jancou Gallery in 2009. Inspired in part by Philip K Dick’s novel, The Man in the High Castle, which envisages a world where the Japanese and the Nazis won the war, a large Japanese store owner – based on Dick’s character Nobusuke Tagomi – stands before a carefully constructed pile of pop culture memorabilia, with every piece documented on a computer database inside.
The Corrector is a stereotype – with slit eyes, protruding teeth and happy to serve you smile, the title plays on the Japanese pronunciation of ‘collector’. But a collector of what? In a world where knowledge is currency, the work plays on the modern day art collector – whose choices are driven by investment and whose investments are driven by the information that props the work, or artist, up, turning the mass of objects into a crude portfolio of all things ‘popular’. The database also comments on the need for art audiences to understand everything, which for Lieberman, is a way to dismiss the work, or in many cases, accept it despite its lack of any apparent quality. Taking into account Lieberman’s own insatiable need to reference the work of others, The Corrector is at once a stereotypical artist self-portrait, a parody of the art world itself and a comment on the tendency today to turn everything into a commodity, all summed up in a crude joke.
Salto Mortale is no different – the third possible cause behind my block. After all, when an exhibition takes on the subject of artists or writers who have committed suicide it becomes a terrible cliché. And though it’s a morbid subject, Lieberman has managed to instil the same cynical humour that runs through all exhibitions; this time with balloons covered in handwritten quotes taken from the deceased writer’s work hanging from small painted portraits. Missing, an ode to the Jonestown Massacre through a table with cups of Koolaid and trainers renders the picture complete – the punch line appears to be a suicide party celebrating the cult of the suicide artist.
Salto Mortale can be translated as fall to death, full somersault, critical or difficult undertaking, or, as Lieberman puts it, a leap of faith. “There is this Marxist use of it in relation to the value of the commodity. In Marxism, the commodity is not really worth anything except the value projected onto it. If we say the appearance is the reality, then the value is the leap of faith that you make which is almost analogous to the value that you place on society in place of the individual,” he explains. In the case of this show, the leap of faith is the commoditisation of an artist and their work through their suicide. Perhaps that is why this cliché has always been a problematic one; is the suicide the mark of brilliance, or does it create the idea of it? And is it something we should concern ourselves with?
The added narrative suicide adds to the life of an artist is a core theme behind Salto Mortale, a theme that took Raymond Roussel as its starting point. A psychologically-troubled musician, poet, writer and playwright who developed a method of creating narrative structures based on homonymic puns, he was a writer who would later inspire artists and writers though unappreciated in his lifetime (Michael Foucault, whose only book on literature, Death and the Labyrinth, was based on Roussel’s work). Nevertheless, Roussel revealed the secret behind his self-created methodology in How I Wrote Certain of My Books, published shortly after he killed himself in 1933.
“If you look at it, that book both reveals certain things about Roussel’s entire body of work, yet at the same time conceals even more,” Lieberman speculates. “Sometimes people find it necessary to commodify the meaning of something in order to get it, and the book weeds those people out; it offers this kind of false way out, or false closure. For me - and now I’m romanticising – upon writing the book, Roussel found a perfect asymmetrical jewel-like quality for everything in his work – certain things are explained, certain things are not – the oeuvre is complete. So then he decides he has to kill himself.” In part a reflection on the concept of teleological development as defined by Aristotle, where the inherent or essential nature of something lies not in its origin. But in its end, what Lieberman suggests is that in summarising his work, Roussel had reached a finality that had been inherent all along. Considering the Greek word for teleia, meaning ‘perfect’ derives from telos – ‘the end’, this suggests that the end is the perfection of one’s existence, or in this case, one’s artistic possibilities.
“I’m interested in the idea that the suicide posits the presupposition of the work,” Lieberman reveals. “So I chose the authors based on that idea. At the beginning it was this idea of the finitude of their authorship. For instance, Sylvia Plath’s work is so misanthropic; the misanthropy somehow eases you into the conclusion of her suicide. Her suicide ends up positing the presupposition of her work. The same can be said for Hart Crane, Virginia Woolf and Anne Sexton - in some way or another their work leads to that, and it’s not romantic - their body of work comes out of that interaction – it’s born for the first time.”
There is a palpable sense of admiration coming from Lieberman at this point, though he insists Salto Mortale is a treatise against judging an author’s career by their suicide, a position supported by Riddle, 2010, a steel sculpture with a spinning disc containing images of artists and writers who all commit suicide. Deliberately chosen for not being instantly recognizable, their identity as artists has been erased. In doing so, Lieberman hopes to allow their body of work to breathe beyond the limitations of their deaths. “I don’t put the names on the portraits, or specify so much about the identity of the writers included. You do that in order to save the work. It’s not really a critique or homage, but some other thing,” he insists.
“One thing I was thinking with all of these authors was that there are certain artistic processes that posit themselves as something that can be infinitely expanded on. If the artist were to live forever they could go on and make work that would constantly change – you can say that about Rauschenberg. But there are other artistic processes that are finite and the author’s work posit them as finite from the very beginning; certain processes are limited, there can only be so many examples.” This finite/infinite dichotomy haunts Lieberman. When an artist runs out of ideas, is suicide the only way out? The Lost Bookshelf (redacted), 2010, a bookshelf tightly encasing literature on suicide including Suicide in the Middle Ages by Alexander Murray, Voices of Death, by Edwin S. Shneidman, and Emile Durkheim’s Suicide, a sociological study that takes the statistics of suicide and uses them as a lens to view society, touches on this.
Amongst the books are slim, black, book-shaped blocks that somehow fill the gaps between spaces. Lieberman admits they have become mysterious to him. “I thought of it in terms of these black books being the redacted texts, but then I thought; what would you possibly redact from a book shelf that was such a final solution? In this bookshelf, everything would already be contained because it’s the end,” punctuating his exclamation with a sharp, incredulous laugh. In many ways, those smooth black shapes represent the opposite – and could represent both the void that leads to suicide, and the void created by the act. When something has no clear answer or explanation, is it ever fully resolved? Without any formal closure or true explanation, no book will ever explain suicide. As such, the act becomes an infinite space, or black spaces amongst theoretical books that generalise what is essentially an individual act.
The books represent a need to explain suicide in the general (or universal) sense so as to accept it, encase it and thus keep a distance to it. The same can be said for the need to understand an artist’s work. It is easier to write artists off as specific breed, as expressed in Platypus (Ornithorhynchus Anatinuns), 2010, an animal Lieberman describes as the iconoclast of animals.” Neither mammal nor reptile, the platypus is a family of animal unto its own; existing in its own animal family, the monotreme. Lieberman’s use of specific conventions in wildlife painting adds to the remoteness of the platypus, an animal simultaneously isolated by its own natural, inherent individuality and by the relegation of its external definition. Lieberman added a single teardrop to the painting specifically for the show, setting the tone for the exhibition itself; artists are one of nature’s curiosities – a group unto itself.
“Salto Mortale is getting closer to my being more open,” he divulges. “I’m trying to get to that place where I might assume my role as a subject. In the past I was really trying to be objective and to base the work in theory – to place myself outside of understanding things as an author. The audience either wants you to be the crazy artist, the romantic poet or whatever, there are all these clichés. Eventually, I decided the job of the artist is not to stand aside and critique those clichés, but instead to assume the role of one of those clichés and not acknowledge the fact that it is a cliché.” It seems Lieberman would like to become an artist who accepts the inherent relationship between art and commoditisation. Maybe that is why he has included his own portrait amongst the dead in the exhibition. Then again, maybe Lieberman is the platypus, too.
As cemented as Lieberman’s opinions may seem, they are constantly developing into something entirely different. Monument (Sylvia Plath), 2010, expresses this standpoint eloquently. A sculpture made from a group of coffee tables Lieberman created seven years ago using the logos of favourite high school bands originally to comment on their increased commodification, he describes the work’s evolution as an illustration of what happened to those emblems and logos. “I made it, then later I thought, was I illustrating what had already occurred or was I participating in that commodification? At the time I think I had a more cynical attitude.” In response, he stacked the tables and cast them in bronze. “Now it doesn’t even resemble those logos, it’s an abstract thing. Then it becomes what I want – re-sublimated and mysterious again,” he explains. “But if I tell you what it is, then you do know, and it’s not mysterious.” It also describes his own evolution.
Though on the surface Salto Mortale seems finite, like the bookshelf - a complete narrative encased within itself - it is not. By focusing on the phenomenon, Lieberman turns celebrated artists into grotesque products if their value is defined by the morbid act, as much a comment on society as it is on the art world itself. Equally repulsed and attracted to commercial success, Lieberman accepts the cliché in order to escape it, but there is a sense that he might capitalise on it too. Considering this is one artist with a lot to say - or posit - it’s interesting that Lieberman’s audience is always imaginary. If that’s the case, every exhibition Lieberman puts on represents an artist deep in conversation with himself, troubled, fascinated, terrified and astounded by art, the world and his relationship with both. Though he has rightly earned a reputation for being a subversive artist, the subversive label comes too easily. If Lieberman is being subversive, it is only because he chooses to subvert himself; the same for when he is being contradictory. You have to accept that in order to ‘get it’.
Now I know why I got writer’s block. After all our hours of conversation, I’m right back where I started; salto mortale. I’m trying to solve something that does not want to be solved. Or perhaps should not be solved at all. Maybe it is something we cannot solve – there are too many individual possibilities to draw any universal conclusion. Maybe I don’t want to solve it. Maybe that’s the point. After all, an answer creates limitations, because it leads to a dead end.