Failure is the strangest thing. It is a great art book that costs only $24.95, is printed only in paperback, and has basically no images. It is a book of philosophy you can read even if you have only two minutes. It has no real narrative, yet it tells a definite story, about the epic human failure to love failure.
Insofar as there can be any "theme" to the Western art of 2010, failure is as good as any. (How's that for a failure to pronounce definitively?) Seattle artist Matt Browning spent dozens of hours this year just whittling pieces of wood into three-legged sap containers that could be held in the palm of a hand and that weighed almost nothing, in stark contrast to the big-shiny-go-go art we've all become used to. These whittled woods constituted Browning's "big debut," his solo show at Lawrimore Project, where they sat on a shelf in a corner of a yawningly empty room; Browning made his point by refusing to make a point. In a world ruined by massive action—this was the year of the BP oil spill, the entrapment of Chilean miners for longer than anyone has ever been trapped underground, the continuation of America's longest war—Browning staked out an anti-ambitious position at his artist talk: "The attempt to do anything major now in a world full of major shit going down just seemed idiotic."
Another of his sculptures, seen at Greg Kucera Gallery in the middle of 2009, was called Leave No Trace. It looked like a small box of matches containing a tiny pile of dark pebbles in addition to the strike sticks. The pebbles were made of lint and beeswax. Browning had repeatedly tested his materials until he'd finally created an object that would burn all the way down to nothing, leaving not even ashes, if you set it on fire. His most successful "studies" were the ones that erased themselves most. As the title of a video by Belgian artist Francis Alÿs says, "sometimes doing something leads to nothing." (In the video, he's pushing a block of ice down the street until it melts.) Art is conventionally seen as a hedge against the pain of mortality—art is long, life is short—but what if there are no hedges? What if "one has to love the world with the suffering included, that's the tricky part," as Mexico City–based artist Eduardo Abaroa says in Failure? He adds, "Utopianism... is not at all positive. The utopian writer is usually a miniature paranoid king."
Failure was released in October. It's the latest installment in a series of 17 books copublished by Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press called Documents of Contemporary Art. Each one picks a theme—Failure, Participation, The Artist's Joke, Beauty, Chance—and the editor (here Lisa Le Feuvre) pulls together a trove of related writings (reviews, interviews, descriptions of projects realized and un-). The entire series is great. But Failure strikes a timely chord. And anywhere you open it, you're striking gold (which is probably too successful a metal in this economy for this metaphor, which has consequently failed): Open to the vague middle and you're inside Jennifer Higgie's re-view of a Matthew Brannon show she can't quite figure out why she liked so much the first time. Her notes said something about hyenas. "What did they have to do with anything? I had no idea. So I lay in a cool dark room and tried to remember every moment of my visit to Brannon's show and then studio where I recalled he had greeted me in friendly fashion, in vivid green loafers."
The book is divided into four sections, "Dissatisfaction and Rejection," "Idealism and Doubt," "Error and Incompetence," "Experiment and Progress." In each one you're introduced to works of art that apply; if you follow Seattle art, you can easily insert related works here, too. Last year's Betty Bowen Award winner, Josh Faught, who recently showed work at Western Bridge, is a tapestry artist who deliberately hires less competent hands than his in order to introduce another element into his craft; Eli Hansen, a Stranger Genius shortlister and perverter of the Northwest glass tradition in the aftermath of his own family's hippieism on the remote shores of Puget Sound, makes photographs and sculptures that feel damaged and bruised—the result of being knocked between idealism and doubt.
These artists have much in common with the subjects in the book, from Martin Kippenberger's attempts to install subway entrances around the world that lead to nowhere to Bas Jan Ader's physical collapses or Renée Green's video on the collective failure to remember the protests and attacks at Kent State (think of Leo Berk's sculptures at Lawrimore Project last year, expressing the failure of maps and information to describe the realities of being trapped in a mine, or to help find Osama bin Laden). The book stops short of declaring failure to be success, since that would be an incurable paradox (in addition to a modernist cliché). And I will stop short of declaring failure to be the zeitgeist, since art and failure are ancient and natural partners—as Le Feuvre writes, each "open[ing] moments of un-understanding which in time can be elucidating." I happily fail to find a way to sum all this up.