Art Seen: International

JONATHAN MONK // I ♥ 1984 AT LISSON GALLERY

by Marianne Templeton

Crossed Pasts

(London) In 1949, George Orwell singled out 1984 as the not-too-distant futuristic setting for his claustrophobic, dystopian, and enduringly popular novel. Subsequently, the year has been employed as a title for—among other things—a 1974 song by David Bowie; an Apple Macintosh commercial; a science fiction magazine; and a 2009 novel by Haruki Murakami (morphed into 1Q84), not to mention numerous film and television adaptations of Orwell’s book.

Each reincarnation draws from the original’s cultural cache, though few retain its political bite. Persistently revisited and revised by these narrative media, 1984 has come to represent both future and past, real time and fictional time: a year cut loose from chronology.

The latest addition to the bloodline is I ♥ 1984, Jonathan Monk’s sixth solo exhibition at Lisson Gallery. By mashing together two clichés in the manner of a cheap t-shirt slogan, Monk sets the tone for an exhibition characterised by unoriginality, well-ordered commercial complicity, and an uneasy nostalgia.

Jonathan Monk; Installation view Lisson Gallery, London

Jonathan Monk; Installation view
Lisson Gallery, London

Unoriginality is an ongoing strategy for Monk, who believes that since “being original [is] almost impossible” the alternative is to work with existing source material, and mine the fertile space between an original and its copy—or perhaps more accurately, its sequel. I ♥ 1984 is filled with remakes, rip-offs, and spin-offs. The less effective works are overly neat and comfortable, like closed circuits; the more interesting works replace preciousness with precariousness.

Blow Up (2013) is a series of gridded photographic prints of cooling towers and gas cylinders, reminiscent of Bernd and Hiller Bechers’ visual catalogues of industrial structures. Yet in Monk’s version, the towers are depicted cracking and falling, mid-demolition: a literal collapse of the Bechers’ crisply ordered typologies. This dissolution of structure is reinforced by the slight pixellation of images printed larger than their resolution: here is a reference to another Blow-Up, Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film about a photographer who believes he has accidentally photographed a murder, and prints enlargement after grainy enlargement in an effort to reach back in time and visually re-inhabit the arrested moment.

Jonathan Monk; Installation view Lisson Gallery, London

Jonathan Monk; Installation view
Lisson Gallery, London

Time measurement and memory are recurring themes for Monk. One of the artist’s characteristic formulae is to summon and combine pasts that ran parallel but never crossed: Same Time In A Different Place (2012) positions invitation cards to exhibitions by Conceptual Artists such as Sol LeWitt and On Kawara alongside family photographs that originate from the same dates. By marking familial coordinates against a roughly equivalent art-historical timeline, Monk asserts a fan-like relationship with the American-centric twentieth-century high-art canon, and revives Conceptual explorations of duration, experience and quantification.

Some of Monk’s more successful works appropriate source materials that are themselves appropriations, fakes, forgeries or facsimiles. For the 2013 series Something To See Something To Hide, commercially designed, AbEx-inspired curtains featured in the artist’s childhood home—and later smeared with real paint while acting as drop cloths—have been salvaged by the artist, photographed, and fed back into circulation as fine art. It’s a neat observation of how objects may unexpectedly develop a complex life cycle beyond their original purpose, bouncing between art and commodity, function and decoration, use and re-use.

Jonathan Monk; Installation view Lisson Gallery, London

Jonathan Monk; Installation view
Lisson Gallery, London

Much of Monk’s work is either factory-made or gesture-by-proxy. The absence of the artist’s hand in I ♥ 1984 is offset by the repeated appearance of the artist’s features. A set of Greco-Roman-inspired sculpted self-portraits have had their noses broken by Arte Povera artists Gilberto Zorio and Emilio Prini (a third effacement was inflicted by the artist himself). Zorio appears to have stuck a bit of snot-green clay onto the wound—a quick, casual touch that is at odds with the calculated forms that make up the bulk of the exhibition.

Criticality is not inherent to art, and there are no dreams of institutional rebellion here. I ♥ 1984 is fraught with (neo)classical homage to the alpha males of Conceptual Art, Land Art, Arte Povera and Minimalism. Yet don’t be misled by the fluorescent tubing and piles of rough-hewn stones: Monk’s real heritage lies in the love-hate relationships and conflicted values of Postmodernism and Appropriation Art.

Jonathan Monk; Installation view Lisson Gallery, London

Jonathan Monk; Installation view
Lisson Gallery, London

Jan Verwoert suggests in a 2007 issue of Art & Research that the difference between appropriation in the 1980s and today “lies in a decisive shift in the relation to the object of appropriation—from the re-use of a dead commodity fetish to the invocation of something that lives through time… from a feeling of a general loss of historicity to a current sense of an excessive presence of history[1]”. Vorwoert proposes that this shift has moved discourse around appropriation away from the constructed nature of the sign, and refocused it on the performativity of language: accordingly, the task of the appropriation artist today is to find a means to perform “invocations” that uncover the unresolved and ambiguous nature of these histories, allowing them to appear as ghosts rather than fixed entities.

Monk seems to be searching for ways to summon these ghosts—to “let them speak”—without being consumed by them. His varying levels of success demonstrate the difficulties of negotiating a relationship with the past without succumbing to nostalgia or Neo-Mannerism. Ever-present is the temptation of the sequel: to minimise risk and maximise profit by betting on the familiar and the formulaic. Perhaps this is the real legacy of the 1980s that I ♥ 1984 confronts us with: an increasing emphasis on franchise culture, in which we seem content to relive the same old stories over and over—albeit each time with better special effects.


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Marianne Templeton (1985) is an Australian-born, London-based arts writer, artist, and curator.

I ♥ 1984 at Lisson Gallery will run until January 17, 2015.


[1] Verwoert, J. ‘Living with Ghosts: From appropriation to invocation in contemporary art’, Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, Vol. 1, No. 2, Summer 2007.

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