I'm going to play you a portion of this film, called Le Revelateur, directed by Philippe Garrel in 1968. And while the film plays I'm going to tell you the story of how I came to think about this work. And as I tell you this story, and play this film ( and film is intrinsically narrative) I ask you to think about not story. I mean, not to not think about story, but to think about the opposite of story, which means you will, by extension, be forced to think about story as well.
When I looked at Dault's work online, before the show opened, the phrase “Zombie Formalism” surfaced first. My initial reaction was that yes, the work falls into this category. It has a lot of the signifiers that are often in work described this way. It works with aesthetic and formal guidelines that were used in minimalism. I see a lot of Stella, Judd, Flavin, and Morris in her work. Dault herself says that she likes and tries to emulate that aesthetic. However, she also denies theoretical connection to the movement. How then, are we meant to think about the work?
I'd like to talk about this initially dismissive term coined by Walter Robinson in a more generous framework. In the essay in which he introduces “Zombie Formalism”, he asks “Do I need to prove that formalist abstraction is a walking corpse?” Rather than initiate the term as one to describe a movement, he uses it as a straightfoward metaphor for work that he feels is empty, aping modernist abstraction, a “simulacrum of originality”. Even though it has an “ism”, this term is a perjorative adjective, not a useful way of looking at a trend that is currently sweeping in its volume. This type of work is happening on a huge scale. And it is being made by artists who are art-school educated, and painfully aware of modernist art history. This work cannot and should not be entirely dismissed with a mere adjective.
The next word that came up for me was “Skeuomorphia”, which is a beautiful word, describing a complex relationship between stages of technological progression. In a way, it describes the same thing in design that “zombie formalism” is attempting to describe in art history. When I learned the term, formica was the first example of it that I was given. So I found it highly ironic that this is also the primary material that Dault uses for her sculptures. The “marble” formica bench in the next room is a perfect example of this term, especially when compared to Shannon Bool's piece outside.
Now I'd just like to wax poetic a bit about zombies. I have noticed that monsters have come up often in recent philosophical texts. They elucidate the concept that the world is full of ideas of terror that we cannot name, cannot even conceive, and that these therefore do not affect us, are only hints of darkness on the edge of our existence. Lovecraft is the herald of these texts, and his oft-cited monster, the Chthulu, exemplifies this approach. “Dead but dreaming”, the Chthulu is only really described as humanity's most basic nightmare. Zombies, everpresent in popular culture, speak to me of this same concept, but one that exists inside each individual. I wrote an email to a lover a few years ago, defending the zombie, and I'd like to read a selection of the argument.
what i like about zombie movies is the feeling that there could always already be the undead arriving on the scene. that at any moment the space around you could be overwhelmed with these carnivorous blockages. The danger in them is a weird variety, the enemy moves so slowly and their condition necessitates that they cannot be cunning as individuals. It is a biological danger. they are slowmoving viral amoebas. The "infection". When you die, the disease reactivates your brain. only life and the thin boundaries of skin can prevent you from its harsh takeover. once you have reached the unknowable, the metonym of your existence is used to destroy those you hold dear. Is this A terribly trite metaphor on loss or a beautiful atomization of the idea of decay? There is something pretty happening on the razor suspense of these movies, beyond the simple plotlines which consist merely of societal examples and extremes. Surrounding you are the spectres of humanity, reanimated by another species, a virus whose motives we cannot understand. There is no known evolutionary endgame. We give them faces and bodies, marked but still real, to mask this remote creature consisting of many colonies, which are coordinated, cooperative; are amassing for a reason that is never elucidated. but it amasses nonetheless. it is amassing all around us, and we could be caught in the tide at any moment. do not let the drama distract you.
Aesthetically, I find Dault's work very hermetic. The eye has no line of flight, there is no escape from the tableaux that she has set up. This seems very purposeful to me. The double mirror and its infinite regression in the hallway speak to this. She has literally hung her work up in a space that has no horizon, that infinitely gets more and more inside of itself. This gesture is one of the escape. Escape being a state of mind set in motion by fear. Separated from a larger narrative, it is precursored by an unknowable terror, and has no destination in mind, no solution to a state of emergency.
Now, we come to this film. When I first encountered it, I was immediately seduced. My film professor at the time chided me that I only liked the film because of its style, that the politics involved in its making were of no concern to me. I actually tend to agree. Athough it was made to be a reaction to post-war politics in France, and the student riots in Paris, ( a reaction against the vichy regime, the what I like about this film (other than its obvious beauty) is the palpable state of escape that it portrays. The object of the fear is never stated, and there is no resolution, no place of safety presented, just an endless flight.
I think, in the end, I have to argue that work deemed “zombie formalism” is a gesture of the same. It is an escape from the story of the avant-garde. From the story that consists of the emergence of the new in rebellion with the current state of the art. It posits no new solution, it empties past forms while denying even the act of revolution. But it is aware of the pervasive radiation of fear, and in the act of its existence it does provoke further examination of the prevailing conditions of the moments and environments in which we find ourselves. It is an escape without the story that surrounds it, because it implicitly denies continuing that narrative, either in rebellion, or in resolution.