A&B, known for their apparently enraged critiques of art, its history, critics (mostly), galleries (not all), practitioners (all, themselves included), buyers and sellers (not all), theoreticians (some) and curators (not Belgian, French, German or Latvian), are often criticised for the opacity, some even say unintelligibility, of their ekphrastic work. This critic does not agree. As they themselves have said, to really get into their work, you have to think, to do some homework. If you do, their work, both written and visual, nailed onto gallery walls or sitting around like furniture, is usually politically ingenious, breathtakingly accurate in its art world barbs, and often very funny.
This work, a large unstretched, painted canvas, is exhibited in their studio accompanied by a series of working drawings, and was ostensibly painted by foot. A note adds that a prosthetic device was manufactured for each artist by a specialised company, such that they could indeed hold a brush between their toes. They assert that by thus “cheating” (their quotes) they not only cast principled assertions upon much art practice, but render impotent any potential criticism from those who, by reason of othered ableness, can only paint by foot. Unusually for A&B, they do not then go on over the top to display a short series of greeting card scenes painted, often for charity, by such artists. Perhaps just as well.
The work is clearly of Gustave Courbet’s Un enterrement à Ornans. But what else does it represent? The inadequacy of the painting is problematical. The greeting card scenes of snow would have been better. But A&B are amateurs in the foot-painting field and as such their technique is much better than most of us could do, handicapped or not by a prosthetic device. Otherwise, and apart from two important departures, the painting is a rough yet faithful attempt to, indeed, reproduce the original. It thus represents what they might call “an attempt at adequacy in art”.
But where Courbet used some of the ordinary citizens present at the actual funeral he painted as models, A&B have replaced (face-morphed in the current jargon, perhaps) the original faces with those of various of their friends and enemies, the priest being particularly drôle, as it is surely a well known atheist and aesthete of their acquaintance. Then there is “a flashing blue light”. Painting can do many things, but it cannot portray a flashing light, which goes on in time. We can see a scene supposedly illuminated in blue, emanating from an emergency vehicle, but we can only know the flash in action, not see it. Or can’t we? Is not all art that is not mere decoration, somehow engaged in ‘getting us to see something’? Be that thing ever so abstruse, such as an absence, or a theory, it is still to be seen in the mind’s eye. So there is… no blue light! No body recovery vehicle. There is no blue in the painting at all. Just as there was little or none in the Courbet original. We are in deep, neither clear nor blue, waters here.
The painting’s size (3.1 by 6.6 metres) is exactly that of the original. It scarcely fits on their studio wall and, stretched, could certainly never have left it. Mack quoted Courbet as saying that “The Burial at Ornans was in reality the burial of Romanticism.” All paintings of burials are of course burials of something else. No proper art is that naive. But of what is this work a burial? Why are the pencil working drawings, squared up for transfer to the canvas, exposed too? A&B never previously did this (disclaimer: your lucky critic possesses one of A&B’s working drawings, that for “Portrait of Kim Jong-un painted in the style of, I don’t know, one of the New York School anyway, usw.”). Perhaps, given our coronavirus times, locked-in, locked-out, buried alive in a way, it is a burial of our previous lives? Or of art, or Art? The painting-within-a-painting is… the painting, more faithful to the original, which seems to have had symmetry imposed upon it. Is the painting itself the subject of its own burial?
There is a small notice tacked to the wall opposite the work. In fact not tacked, it is tromp-l’œil, done by a robot. No one seems to have remarked upon it and it may well be there just by accident, but still I do not think it insignificant: it reads “A&B&backagain”. In pencil underneath, someone has scrawled ABBA. I do not think this refers to the Swedish entertainers, rather to the classical structure of some music and poetry. A-B-B-A. The blue light, present by its absence, is our age’s illuminating both of itself, its own burial, and that of (classic? or, again, all?) culture. Are A&B its mourners, its gravediggers, or its useless priest incanting theory? I think they sit in the blue-light vehicle, laughing. One is excited to think of what they might have done to L’Origine du Monde.