The Two Horns of Phaedrus 

Rebecca O'Dwyer -  Paper Visual Art Journal: Cork Edition II April 2013

Mark Clare's The Two Horns of Phaedrus (2012), recently on show at the Crawford Art Gallery, takes as a starting point the iconic counter-culture Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974), by Robert Pirsig. I remember the book well, its meandering treatises on the central problem of 'quality' and my general inability to understand any of it. I had just started in NCAD: having received a reading list over the course of that last summer at home, I arrived in college, well-meaning and naïve, having read every last book on the list, Zen... being one of the more arduous challenges. No one else - being infinitely more urbane and grown-up - had even bothered with the list.

The book washed over me: I got a sense of its thrust but most of its pop-philosophical minutiae remained a mystery to me. Perhaps it is something I should revisit. Now some eight years later, the thorny question of quality remains a central concern for me when I now write about art; where that quality is located; what I, as a critic or viewer, impart to the situation, and whether that might in turn impact upon the object of interest. It appears Mark Clare shares these concerns, creating for this exhibition a material interrogation of the very question of quality.

But first I should attempt some description of the piece, and the importance of the context into which it is placed. The work is a new commission, which was exhibited in Into the Light: The Arts Council - 60 Years of Supporting the Arts, which took place at Crawford Art Gallery from 4th December 2012 - 23rd February 2013. The exhibition itself is an exercise in the explication of quality: surmising the role the organization has had over the course of its lifetime in fostering and supporting the arts. Here, key artistic markers in the life of the council are presented together: included are works by Gerard Byrne, Caoimhe Kilfeather, Niamh O'Malley and of course this new commission by Mark Clare, amongst others. Clearly, the works are there due to an intuited presence of quality, but what Clare's piece queries is the actual site of such quality? What makes a work endure? Could it, playing Berkeley, be merely their perceived quality which enables their intuited quality, there being nothing in-themselves which might explicate this quality? Is it, in short, all in the mind of the apprehender, the curator, the collector or viewer? What if these objects are simply and really only dumb matter, running wildly amok by virtue of mind? 

The term 'quality' is two-pronged: on a basic level, it describes what makes something good, effective, or superior to other things. This can be applied in differentiating art objects from other ones; say, when selecting works for inclusion in an exhibition. On a deeper level, however, the art object's 'quality' has nothing to do with whether it is subjectively or objectively 'good' or not, but rather as to whether it is classified as art at all. The art object's 'quality', here, is simply what makes it 'art'. Being included in a curated exhibition that seeks to explicate a particular definition of quality, and additionally shirking traditional medium-based demands of art, Mark Clare's work seeks to interrogate this question of quality on both of these difficult levels by refuting the work's autonomy, and situating the viewer at the heart of this dichotomy.

The work itself involves three[i] spatial components. In the centre, a makeshift tarpaulin flag, bracketed to the wall, bisects the installation. To the left of this, a rotating structure roughly hewn with primary-hued parcel tapes; and to the right, a floor-based fan that shudders through the space, causing the flag to waver in its wake. On entering the space given to the work, at the entrance to the exhibition, the rotating mechanical wheel appears to come to life; on continued engagement with the work in the space, however, this viewer-activation is slowly problematised: I failed to work out what role, if any, I played in the work's activation. I am not quite sure whether this was the intention behind the work - in the accompanying notes the work's activation by the viewer appears foreshadowed as crucial - but, accident or not, this uncertainty seems to me a more apt means of operation. For one cannot be wholly sure of the role one plays in the meaningful activation of an art object, or its resplendent 'quality': the situation is never clear cut, but wavering between here and there.

Thus the mechanical form and the parallel fan work in union, by some vague means of viewer activation, to bring the central flag form to life. Comprising a large tarpaulin affixed to a shovel handle in turn mounted at a diagonal onto the wall, the flag cuts a striking figure in its meticulous haphazardness. Mirroring the colours of the makeshift form to the left, its grid-like application of black lines, accompanied by blocks of red, blue and yellow, speaks utterly of Modernism; more accurately, the kind of Modernism as purported by Piet Mondrian. This is a Modernism resolutely untainted by externality; its form given by an almost ascetic engagement with colour and line within the parameters of the flat canvas. By choosing to engage with Mondrian - of all of the modernists - Clare deliberately attempts to tackle their classical legacy, and critique the wisdom inherited from them: that is, the art work as the site of an untrammeled artistic autonomy, containing a quality in-itself not beholden to human experience. The flag, in a relationship with the viewer and the surrounding mechanical forms, literally wavers through their effect: it, and the ideology it purports, is never (and can never be) pure.

The Two Horns of Phaedrus is a kind of illustration of the ideology it seeks to critique. Modernism, and especially Modernist painting, sited the aesthetic experience in the formal characteristics of the work: no speculation or projection (interaction) could make a work more or less so. Clare problematises this conception of the art work by inserting the viewer into its space, in so doing unfurling its mutative nature. But it does not fully relegate Modernism's view of the artwork, either: the question of its essential autonomy remains a lingering presence. The role of the viewer is indeterminate: though the curator puts forward a notion of viewer-inaction, there always remains a doubt that things would continue like this, or more or less so, in our absence. Clare's work appears to say that to come at the work from the other way - to understand the work as a product of a relation - misses the point also: both approaches are didactic, and external to the actual obfuscation that accompanies any interaction with the art work. Like philosopher Graham Harman's 'third table', the 'two horns' of the work are flattened by the possibility of a third[ii]: more fidelitious and apt to the discussion of quality. There exists yet another player in this binary: somewhere in the interplay of mind and matter, yet structurally discordant to both. The artwork, in this light, cannot be thought of solely in terms of autonomy or relationality: it creates another self, another object, somewhere between these two fraught understandings. This new object is where one sites the actual 'quality' of the work: given to neither mind nor matter, but the preserve of somewhere in between.


[i] Not, as the curatorial notes state, two: there is no mention of the presence of the fan, which seems a key part of the work. This curatorial discrepancy serves to problematise and muddy the work's intellectual rigor. Another error of judgment, which I do think the work suffers from, is the decision to site the work within the main exhibition space.

[ii] See Harman's text The Third Table in Documenta (13) Catalogue 1/3: The Book of Books (2012), Ostfildern/DE: Hatje Cantz, pp. 540-543