"We do not nowadays refute our predecessors, we pleasantly bid them good-bye". George Santaya, Character and Opinions in the United States.
Behaviour and performance share a common trait; they are the pendular swing between antithetical emotions, between ritual and spontaneity, archetype and clichéd, conflict and harmony, etc. That being the cased, behaviour and performance must be the terms that best define Oliver Whitehead's oeuvre.
All of the artists work derives from a tenacious suspension of tensions at their point of maximum complexity, a perpetual avoidance of easy reductive solutions. This became especially evident in the mid-eighties when Whitehead, rejecting the dictates of mainstream thinking of the period, kept two lanes of investigation open in his work, one abstract and one figural.
Links to religion, mythology, design and architecture
Whitehead, born in 1947, currently the vice-rector and professor of Media Studies at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts, has been included in many international exhibitions. His current works (recently shown at the Hippolyte Gallery - Helsinki, and the International Photographic triennial - Oulu) are comprised of drawings and photographs in installation form. These configurations, as the artist points out, attempt to establish the mechanisms, which govern the behavioural character of each individual image. The wider theme of Whitehead's drawing and photography is not determined by any one segment or scene. The theme becomes the frustrating process of trying to make sense of the disparate parts. In this way the artist's moral position is distanced from the discreet images and the viewer's participation in the process of forming connections is more active. He thinks and works in terms of natural forces, the determinants of possibility and actuality, behaviour and performance. For Whitehead the notion of behaviour is responsible for creating structure and patterns; it functions as a constituent link to religion, mythology, design and architecture, etc. The structure and patterns deriving from the above have been one way for the artist to confront and satisfy his existence, his sense of consciousness. Just as much as the need to possess or identify with images and objects is necessary to project one's identity with the incorporeal. The oscillatory tension that he creates in his work (diptychs and the like), is not necessarily the object ness of «painting» but the ambivalence in relationship between object (or environment) and image/surface. Whitehead's works (Ritual; 1990, 5 Concentric Circles II; 1990, Response II; 1990, for example) demand consideration in terms of these relationships, for these variables carry the burden, in a new and significant way, the intellectual structure (aesthetic and ritualistic) of the objects created. The artist intentionally distances himself from the intended meaning of the objects. While he embraces the art of liturgy - the act of ritual - the essence of his approach does not resort to codified visual expressions. So inherent is the partiality between concept and technique, that it becomes necessary to discuss one in order to show the reciprocal action of the other, their joint reason for being.
Analysing contemporary imagery
Whitehead's credo for working is based on a highly evolved logic, one that is dependant on various conceptual processes. That a high aesthetic quality stamps all that he touches is the result, not of intention, of the artist's high degree of sensibility. He identifies this means of working, the creative enterprise, with life itself, considers it to be as necessary to life as breathing, synonymous with the process of living. Moreover, there is an implied attempt to come to terms with the notions of cause and effect as a concept, to establish a vital and meaningful interpretation between art and life, to activate the variables existing in natural living process. Merging the impulse of procreation with that of artistic creation, there occurs a sense of universal corporeality, which interpenetrates the daily routine of living. Just as a child often terminates a drawing he has made by running a brush across it, Whitehead questions the seriousness of his own inner motivation by running it through with skepticism. Possessing a restless inquiring mind, the artist postulates his responsibility to himself and to society, but, under the influence of his own philosophical detachment, disclaims such a liability. His is the core of the inner drama, the conflict between acceptance and rejection that is the basis of Whitehead's philosophical and aesthetic rationale. He resolves it by accepting both sides as concomitant parts of reality. Capitalizing on the ambiguities (or equivocations) derived from the notions of mistake, accident, ineptitude and capacity, he expands the functional significance of his drawings and photographs. They become a paradigm for analyzing contemporary imagery and mythology, mystery-provoking fetishes. The oscillation, which exists between these two disparate modes of representation, is intended to augment the issues discussed above.
The act of ritual
Ritual, the «liturgistic way» of accepting something, has made it possible for Whitehead to attempt a synthesis. Instead of accepting the alternatives of annihilation or of living in a vacuum, he has worked out a process that has produced a new atmosphere in which ritual functions like an activating element, causing a pendulum-like oscillation between acceptance and rejection, affirmation and negation - rendering them both dynamic and productive. To begin with, these mixed media works are not the total result of technical manipulations, nor are their contents produced through appropriation. They are, in the language of art photography, a record of intermittent associative memories, an elaborate restatement of what has come to be accepted as photography's iconographical status and designation; at one and the same time both sign and symbol - a behavioral index which is both motivated (i.e., cause by its referent), hence natural, and in its representational codes, altogether conventional. In this context the artist's photographs manifest a double identity; a picture a representation - that acts as a prerequisite for analysis (or critique). Impeccably printed, exquisitely detailed, obviously transcriptive - but transcriptive of what? Whitehead's photographs elevate the act of the ritual - implicit fetishism - to a prominent position that permits it to be apprehended critically. In Whitehead's words: «The drawings I do are concerned with revealing certain behavioural and performance patterns... which are part of me... these configurations are used to awaken the viewer's modes of representation... inherent or learnt. The intention is to observe what happens... what transpires, when the disposition of the approach is brought into conflict with the imageobject...»
These behavioural patterns, however, need to be further clarified. In the more confined sense of the term, they are patterns which play upon the image/images, a connoisseurship which in the art of photography highlight the nature of the print and drawing process. But in the more profound sense, it is a photographic prototype, a representation, a representation per se. Accordingly, it is a performance that is manifested through drawing and photography's visual plenitude - a sign to be seen - and the absence (of the referent) it inscribes. This has natural incorporated the questioning of styles, clichés, habits, etc., factors which have prompted Whitehead to expand his ability to discriminate between certain accepted norms. These norms have, of course, ranged from empirical observations to ritualistic practices, which he has collectively defined as a «behavioural form» of activity.
Denying conventional patterns of models
Chance is a sub-category of ritual in the work of Whitehead, its use springs from an iconic point of view, its application highly charged with distortion. Selection enters before and after the act. Anomalous as this may sound, the artist uses chance intentionally. Through its use he arrives at a «new unit of measure», finding forms independent of the hand. As such, the artist immediately prompts the viewer to supply a meaning (be it literal, as in spectacle, or metaphoric and effective, as in deportment/behaviour). This instability of meaning within the image, and the opposing desire of the spectator to both produce and fix a meaning is a dynamic that structures all encounters with visual representation. Whitehead, however, is not simply making aesthetic capital out of image/drawing ambiguity as would a traditional mixed media artist. Rather, he is concerned with investigating the alternating image/drawing representation in which the meaning of appearances and the appearance of reality can both be seen to founder. Whitehead has tried to use familiar modules such as «grids» for their comparative purposes, drawing attention to qualities that are often overlooked or taken for granted. By employing comparative or polarised elements, he has tried to make us more aware of our own physical and psychological structures. In addition, meaning in the artist's work has been brought into being by denying conventional patterns or models; for example, his drawing processes have been programmed as predetermined trajectories; some of the works have been executed in total darkness or physically sensed - that is, the essence of the conception «felt into realisation». Hence the approach has allowed the artist/manipulator to deform his creative activity and formulate an image directly related to its source.
The image of affirmative terms
In as much as the ideology of aestheticism is rooted in privatistic, contemplative, and quietistic definitions of art, the «real» of the social world is taken to be a point of departure, if not a scenic backdrop, rather than a transformed point of arrival. There is naturally an element of depiction or portrayal to all this, but the point need hardly be elaborated, much less belaboured. Moreover what needs to be emphasized is Whitehead's attempt to challenge and expand on certain accepted practices. Conceptually, he is profoundly aware of the seductions, persuasions, and blandishments of the image world. Nonetheless, as a conceptual artist his awareness of the «politics» of representation - partly the representation of behavioural illustration - determines the urgency with which he reckons with his visual powers. But while the Post-Modern conceptualist is largely concerned with articulating the textuality of such images, Whitehead attempts to subvert their phantasmic power through a kind of counter-insurgency. He draws attention to the differences between his sources - sometimes oppositional - to create visual tensions. Unlike other Post- Modernist practices that batten on the play of absence/presence through spectacle, his recent works - Civilian Damage; 1993, Illegal Intrusion; 1993, Escalators; 1994, for example - propose the image on affirmative terms - at once the measure of experience, encounter and memory. Such an enterprise operates to consolidate or buttress the functional reciprocality of the artist's thought processes.
The information infrastructure
That Whitehead's aesthetic sensibility has enabled him to do this on a physical plane adds immeasurably to the stature of his achievement. Perhaps, more than many of his contemporaries - Alfredo Jarr, Nabyoshi, Jamelie Hassan, etc, - he has discovered the magic of the «object» and its esoteric relation to life. This is no eclecticism, but a varies activity of a creative nature all too large to be confined to any one movement. Basically his art is not a definition, and, even pictorially, lacks the visual cohesion to be found in much deconstruction theory. Its core seems to consist in a sense of opposition rather than a statement of objectives. The artist is fully aware that art is part of an information infrastructure, one that is continually revitalising itself. Overwhelmingly, the need is for a greater appreciation of objective fact rather than an eloquent demonstration of personality.
The critical intent of Whitehead's art has thus been to separate the ready-made in quantity (and quality) from the already assembled. What we have observed in his critical approach as a whole, is the degree to which social reality has taken on a more specifically cultural form stereotypes, collective images, codified rituals - elements which recover a kind of allusion (or referent) to behavioural thinking. While Whitehead touches on issues dealing with behaviour and performance in his work, he does so with the conviction that our culture is living with a hermetic obstruct of its own: namely, the void in which encapsulate antithetical emotions. To move the horizontal a little, it is necessary to shift and dislodge things, to find a vantage point that is «outside» - for, in Whitehead's words, «the limits of one's own language can be interpreted as the limits of one's world».
The artist does this when he confronts the viewer with an «outside»: an «inside» that kicks the viewer out, as it were, to discover that there is no escape from what is inside oneself.
Dr. Michael Casey
Government of Ireland Fellow
National University of Ireland