Everyone falls. In fact, everything might fall, depending on the temporal scale. But what does it mean for a white male artist to represent himself falling? We can track the representational pattern of white men falling within ancient western mythologies like the story of Icarus, or religious ideas about the “fall of man,” or even the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. While it will always be true that everyone falls, this exhibition focuses upon a body of work by white men performing a physical fall for the camera.
Can failure be a privilege? What does it mean for able-bodied white men to represent themselves falling? The whiteness and male-centeredness of contemporary art might be invisible to those who speak its codes without intentionality. Through the lenses of gender studies, whiteness studies, visual studies, and performance studies, this exhibition analyzes latent and manifest ideological meanings within a photographic archive of white male gestures of falling. Identifying a pattern of what I call cultivated failure as a practice and a trope in contemporary art, I suggest that the work of white male contemporary artists Kerry Skarbakka and Patrick Craig Manning, in conversation with Martin Kersels, Yves Klein, Bas Jan Ader, and Bruce Nauman, question the need for a stable masculinity by rendering the artist tentatively falling, failing, or floating. Their work develops a visual counter-argument for how a gendered body should function, and performs a cultivated failure that, in varying degrees, interrogates masculinity and throws whiteness into relief.
This exhibition is about falling – kind of. It’s about the possibilities of change within a feeling of disorientation. It’s a project about remembering how to listen. It’s a project about failure. A project about privilege. It’s a project about how one represents the self. It’s about making art, specifically, conceptual performance. It’s about whiteness. It’s about masculinity. It’s about photography and performance. And it’s a gesture toward de-centering and re-orientation.
Manning, Skarbakka, Kersels, Klein, Ader, and Nauman’s work exemplifies and complicates the representational gesture of falling. From leaping, to suspension, to falling via corporal exhaustion, the commonalities and departures between these artists’ works interrogate, reify, and expand commonly held ideas of how white men have historically chosen, and contemporaneously choose to, represent this deeply guarded (and protected) subject position.
While none of the artists I have chosen for this study were or are involved in dance, they use their bodies in that place where dance often goes and takes shape – the tension inherent in a controlled and well-choreographed letting go. A tension between control and surrender. Modern dance, for instance, in rebelling against the strict, rigorous, formal techniques and aesthetics of classical ballet, introduced audiences to among other things, falling as a focus of dance. Martha Graham’s choreographed “falls,” widely known in the dance world, and codified as “Graham falls,” of which, there are many, used the de-centering of gravity, bodily suspension, and surrendering to gravity, to challenge and intervene in the prevailing discourses of dance.
There is a wide spectrum of subject positions that have deployed falling as art. People of color, women, and queer and trans folk have represented themselves falling across artistic disciplines throughout the twentieth century — William Pope.L, Cassils, Carolee Schneemann, Pipolotti Rist, Christine D’Onofrio, Clare Strand, Cornelia Parker, and Wolfgang Tillmans, to name just a few.
So, why a(nother) visual art exhibition with white guys as the focus? Because it’s critical that this subject position be examined anew. Why are some art exhibitions marked with identity and others not? We often see exhibitions focused on queer subjects, women, those who are differently-abled, people of color, and other minorities, but why not mark the other Other that is notably anything but Other? Why aren’t exhibitions described as straight, male, able-bodied, and white? Most art shows are a combination of these very visible positions and yet conspicuously invisible. Whiteness is so all-encompassing and pervasive that it is everywhere, and yet seemingly nowhere – but is only perceptively nowhere to white people. It’s the default way of thinking about the world, the blueprint from which all things are built, the dominant representation of the concept of being human itself — why? Because white men are, and have been, in control. The loud silence of whiteness is ideology at work.
Maybe things aren’t seen until we make them visible — and maybe things that are made visible can be counted, in this case to show an overpopulation of a specific group in the art world. Philosophers Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan both commented that visibility is a trap — but is there a difference in not only making marginalized people visible but also naming and making the dominant just as visible? The framework through which we perceive the world is built upon a scripted foundation, an aesthetic blueprint invested in power and discipline that finds its origins in potentially destructive impulses. What promises were you given, and by whom, and to what end? How do you perceive and respond to the ruptures in these promises?
The artists in this exhibition make us more aware of the theatricality and performativity that underlies whiteness and masculinity by highlighting the artist’s corporeal failure to map the performance onto how white male bodies are normatively represented – or, at least, how they have either depicted themselves or chosen to be visually historicized, e.g. proud looking, solid-statured, strong, intense or serious, muscular, important, etc., in paintings, photographs, sculptures, and performances. Why have the white male artists that I’ve chosen to work with for this project representing themselves in a state of imbalance, vulnerability, lack of mastery, or failure? Why, indeed, do these men of both racial and gender privilege choose to represent themselves falling?
Actively resisting a hegemonic white masculinity, these disruptive gestures provide representational tactics to counter the strategies of straight white male dominance in cultural production. However, while each artist’s individual gestures perform a collapse, suspension, or failure of straight white masculinity, patriarchal and white supremacist institutions remain standing. Still, I would suggest that these photographs attempt a visual rupture of masculine ideals of stability by exposing repetitive gendered acts in a moment of collapse, and challenge dominant notions of how men allow (or disallow) themselves to perform. Ultimately, this exhibition argues that each artist their privilege to perform a spectrum of self-reflexive exhaustion, emptiness, and failure in late 20th century white masculinity – but provides the possibility of ethical performative interventions in the form of what I call cultivated failures, the pause, and the reorientation drive.