John Knight
Another work in situ

Excerpt from Robert Snowden, “Vacant Possessions,”
in John Knight: Vacant Possession
(London: Cabinet Gallery, 2016)


Ordet, Milan

June 5 – 29, 2019


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Had it been installed, the light would be a financial drag. As Knight told me, collectors would have had to purchase the right to rent the searchlight. They could not buy the work outright. Everytime it would be shown, they would have to call up the company and have them wheel the rental over. By withholding the right to full ownership, the light would undermine either the collector’s or artist’s ability to accumulate surplus value, suggesting an apparent impossibility, the potential for art to engage in meaningful critique within the very financial structures that seem to most aggressively foreclose on that possibility. By breaking conventions, both the convention of abstaining from the market and the convention of participating smoothly within its course of action, what does the proposition offer us? Can we deduce that neither total abstention or complete acquiescence to the market was a real option?

Or that abstaining from the market and selling are both privileges? To my mind, debates between, say, something we might call an endorsement and something we might call a negation or something we might call withholding and something we might call business as usual often become legible only via an unwarranted polarization that Knight’s work not only elides but offers a felt alternative to. The light is kind of negational and kind of ambitious, and it falls neither for the ruse of exclusion nor incorporation. It is nothing other than a constancy, a work of art that is both more and less than it ought to be.

To think of this aspect of the proposal is to live for a time in the contradictions of selling yourself, to feel a profound dismay at the emotional and spiritual strictures of the art market. This proposal, or how I continue to imagine it, is one way to cope with issues that won’t iron out yet need to be dealt with. What at the deepest level we already know, what our steady melancholy in the face of the financial truths of art already expresses, and what our actions have all along been saying in their own language: there is no way to participate in art, to exhibit art, in opposition to the market, though there is something to be done for how we work, and for whom we work.

As time went on, I began to think away from money and oriented myself to other certainties of the Riko Mizuno Gallery. I dwelled on the architecture and Robert Irwin’s skylights. I thought of the other artists and how a gallery is never simply the bones of a place, a plot of land, and its sediments of history—it is also the culture that powers it, it is the trade around it. A site encompasses the gallery’s culturally fortified subjects, the political relationships with the city itself and its money, the class affiliations and the aspirations of attendant parties, the other artists—their legacies and prevailing assumptions about art, the site of art history, I suppose, and the names of the ambitious people, among the knowledgeable others that hoped to be talked about and admired.

It was not impossible—the world of art in Los Angeles was small. The years would bow to them. They would be remembered. Their names like thoroughbreds, horses that had run and won. Few won as much as Robert Irwin did. He embodied Los Angeles. He was its trophy, and his life for a time was mythic. The Mizuno skylights were quintessentially his, and at the time of their installation in 1973, perceptual effects of the architectural sort were unfolding in the creases of what was a kind of origin story. ‘Light and Space,’ they would call it, with almost watery eyes, how natural and prelapsarian it all was to be. The essential, in their view. The story of this art would be told. It would distinguish the city.

John Knight, A work in situ. Courtesy the artist and Ordet, Milan. Photo: Nicola Gnesi 
John Knight, A work in situ. Courtesy the artist and Ordet, Milan. Photo: Nicola Gnesi 
Installation view, Another work in situ, Ordet, Milan. Courtesy the artist and Ordet, Milan. Photo: Nicola Gnesi 
Installation view, Another work in situ, Ordet, Milan. Courtesy the artist and Ordet, Milan. Photo: Nicola Gnesi 
John Knight, Quiet Quality, 1974. 

No doubt Irwin’s skylight gave Knight pause, but the searchlight doesn’t rest there. It carries on seemingly without punctuation. It knows no meaning. Or it is meaning and therefore does not have a residue of meaning which can be talked about. This is the first thing I notice about the idea. It is the first thing I like. The emptiness. The sureness that you can rent the light and shoot it into the sky on anything’s behalf. It is as empty as a hole in the ground. Like a hole, it can be filled with just about anything. You can fill it with significance, if you must, and emerge with ideas of what the searchlight could be about. You can argue that the light was about conducting an investigation of the white cube, then emerging as an architectural mediation. Or the light could prompt you to think about assisted readymades that do not sacrifice their utility in the gallery, functional objects and the insidious moment when a quotidian thing becomes a fetishized commodity. With no objective, nothing to illuminate save the gallery itself, the light could also be about creating a spectacle in, if not its purest form, then its most repressed. The proposal could be a way to embrace the spectacle’s seductive potential even as it scrutinized it. Then again, the light could only be deviant. It could be a total aggressor, something like Francis Picabia’s set for the 1924 ballet, Relâche, where a drop curtain made of 370 audience-facing spotlights, each backed by a metal reflector, blinded the theatergoers at the beginning of the second act. Or the light could be about its own semantics and the endless signification a rentable sign takes on. Just as convincingly, you could argue that the light is about visibility. There is a demanding, but finally perplexing conversation to be had about visibility and the rapaciousness of display. You could even argue that the light responds to the industry demands that one produce to remain visible, regardless of how grueling the rate of production is. Do I believe this? Would the showing of a military grade searchlight, a light so bright you might not be able to stand to look at it, with its piercing and formal wail, have some unproductive attitude towards being a visible work of art? It’s tempting. I would like to write something really plain about the proposal being so extroverted it becomes again private, about his attitudes on visibility, and making a work which destroys its own reception, and even perhaps on the dominance of the visual in art. But it feels difficult to do so, because the proposal, like all of Knight’s finished work, isn’t made plainly, and I feel a little foolish coming at his work in the idiom of lucidity when it has always been defined by incessant unraveling and escape. Deciding on any of these lines of inquiry is irrelevant. In a way, even writing them down feels kind of dull and overdetermined.

A conscientious reader will ignore most of this and accept that over time, the searchlight has communicated in very specific languages to specific audiences in national, if not regional, idioms— inspiring at times the sale of automobiles, Kaufman & Broad tract homes, or honey baked hams in the case of Knight’s Los Angeles childhood, or nationalism and force in the case of militaries who used it to combat incoming aircraft. The spotlight has lived for supposedly different realms, militarism and banal spectacle, which are perhaps each other’s unrecognized halves, and what fascination between them does come to pass is lit up beyond question with awe and terror.

Will Rogers’s famous advice, “Never miss a good chance to shut up,” goes unheeded nowadays among most of us who express ourselves aplenty. Against that trend, Knight’s light is a proposal of strong omission. Through propositions of this kind, Knight establishes authority and meaning through severe withholding. His light is perhaps more remarkable for what it doesn’t say than for what it does. He calls upon the shadows which lay over the material life of the apparatus from the beginning, whose lengthening he anticipates, and transforms the light in a space from something very dense with history and almost dead with so much symbolism to something almost reticent. From his earliest attempts onward, his natural inclination is for the most radical minimization and brevity, in other words the possibility of setting down an exhibition in one fell swoop, without any deviation or hesitation. His ideal was to overcome the force of historical gravity and let the light be only what it is in the strict reality of its physical presence. It is our good fortune, as viewers, to be able to cycle through the light’s long sonata of meaning, to see it for all that it could be directed towards, and pull steadily away.

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