Art & Development, Research

Camp

Just re-read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), which you can find here. Though the essay is showing its 40+ year wrinkles, if you can look past some of the anthropological blanket statements, it’s a great read.

I especially enjoyed:

Making connections with Paul Martin’s Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure (Harper Collins, 2007).

Sontag considered Camp to be “modern-day dandyism,” and described how dandies were driven by a fear of boredom. Martin examines this fear at great lengths, citing the reckless hedonism of Nero and Lord Rochester. Interestingly, Martin points out that boredom often reveals more about the bored person than it does about the world around him or her.

Further, Sontag sees Camp as a means of accessing pleasure. She seems to align with Martin’s thoughts on the importance of modest pleasures in daily life.

Sontag:

The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy. … Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated.

Martin advocates becoming a “wily hedonist,” who pursues “more of the Modest Pleasures of everyday life that many of us tend to take for granted. … They should also be cheap or free; pleasure should not be the preserve of the wealthy.”

Q. Why is it that old things look so cool?

A. Sontag:

This is why so many of the objects prized by Camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé. It’s not a love of the old as such. It’s simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment—or arouses a necessary sympathy.

Sympathy!?

[Camp and the attraction of everyday materials]

Just last week, I noted in a previous post that British sculptor Eric Bainbridge appreciates cheap materials because they “elicit a kind of sympathy, an identification with the viewer that this is what we are.”

Sontag:

Another effect: time contracts the sphere of banality. (Banality is, strictly speaking, always a category of the contemporary.) What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic. …

Sontag’s talking about Campy aged materials; Bainbridge is concerned with cheap readily-available consumer-grade items. I think they’re one and the same now, because of levels of mass production. Bainbridge’s fake fur is immediately obsolete, destined for the landfill even before it reaches the retailer. To give you another example, cheap toothbrushes packaged for an Arabic-reading market and sold in a discount shop in post-industrial northern England are simultaneously new and old.

Sontag:

Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.

Christine Wong Yap, Pounds of Happiness (installation), 2009, mixed media, pound shop items, 8 x 8 x 5 feet / 2.4 x 2.4 x 1.5 m. Produced in the Breathe Residency at Chinese Arts Centre.

Christine Wong Yap, Pounds of Happiness (installation), 2009, mixed media, pound shop items, 8 x 8 x 5 feet / 2.4 x 2.4 x 1.5 m. Produced in the Breathe Residency at Chinese Arts Centre.

This hyper-compression of time seems to allow objects to be ultra-mundane in ways that are variously witty, arrogant, simultaneously dull as a doorknob and smart as a whip. I’m thinking about Pounds of Happiness, and also of Chu Yun’s Constellation. I really like Constellation because it’s so matter-of-fact: it consists of a dark room loaded with electronic appliances, so you see a field of standby lights. Interestingly, NG, whose tastes in art usually diverge from my own, liked the work as well. She imagines it to be quite spooky and poetic. I appreciate the nerve of calling incessantly humming electronic detritus art.

Chu Yun, Constellation No.1, Installation, 2006. Source: Vitamin Creative Space web site.

Chu Yun, Constellation No.1, Installation, 2006. Source: Vitamin Creative Space web site.

Failure.
For the past few years I’ve been obsessed with failure in art. I wondered, How can art convey the ineffable, yet still have to be materialized (and thereby be subjected to the constraints of semiotic systems, formal considerations, material limitations, etc.)? It seemed art was doomed to fail, or would be vaguely metaphoric and inadequate at best. I responded by embracing failure in projects like Soft Sculpture for Brougham Hall—a constantly-deflating inflatable sculpture.

Sontag describes Camp as an unintended avenue through which failure is viable, and even pleasurable:

When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant. Time can change that. Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility….

Thus, things are campy … when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt.

Currently, I’m following up the Cheap and Cheerful and Pounds of Happiness series with further investigations of modest ambitions, lightly-recombined cheap objects, and the decorative impulse. Here’s a sneak peek of a recent project:

Christine Wong Yap, detail, not yet titled, 2009, hankerchief, placemat, thread, 18 x 18 x 2 inches.

Christine Wong Yap, detail, not yet titled, 2009, hankerchief, placemat, thread, 18 x 18 x 2 inches.

I’m working, for the first time in a long time, very visually and reflexively. But I suspect that my conceptual inclinations are still at work. Perhaps, by way of embracing modest pleasures, I’m embracing exuberance, a step towards the extravagance of Camp:

Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style — but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not.

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