Ascension (nothing/Something Good) review

|Art Monthly|

Michael Wilson
Art Monthly, April 2000

Mark Dean: Ascension (nothing/Something Good)
Laurent Delaye Gallery, London
12 February – 25 March 2000

The advertising slogan for a well-known brand of aspirin is based on the contention that ‘nothing works faster’, an exemplary use of that grammatical loophole which, through a simple shift of emphasis, turns a claim for excellence into its exact opposite. In the event of failure and complaint, it becomes the perfect get-out clause. Mark Dean’s video projection employs similarly open-ended linguistics but is no conceptual placebo.

Ascension (nothing/Something Good), 1999, shows seven continuous animated chains of the single word ‘nothing’, rendered in simple white lower case type against a black background. These chains emerge endlessly from a central point and finally disappear off the edge of the gallery wall. A slight jerkiness about their movement suggests the efforts of an overworked computer on one hand, the hesitant but unstoppable proliferation of microscopic life on the other. The accompanying soundtrack is a brief sample of Julie Andrews singing ‘Something Good’, taken from the famous 1965 Rogers and Hammerstein production or The Sound of Music. This is looped so that the words of its title are repeated endlessly, heard against a poignant instrumental backing which concludes with a twinkling xylophone flourish.

The press release juxtaposes the full lyrics of the song with an extract from Roman didactic poet Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (‘On the Nature of Things’). Written in the first Century BC, this was a poetic exposition of Epicurean atomic physics which aimed at releasing humanity from superstitious fear by demonstrating that ‘nothing can come from nothing’. Lucretius argued against the then current tendency to explain away natural phenomena as ‘the will of the gods’, describing a prototypical logic of cause and effect which he believed should take its place. Rogers and Hammerstein’s lyrics also refer to an extended system of event and repercussion, although here the needle swings back towards a romantic notion of karmic destiny: ‘Perhaps I had a wicked childhood. Perhaps I had a miserable youth. But somewhere in my wicked, miserable past there must have been a moment of truth. For here you are, standing there, loving me whether or not you should. So somewhere in my youth or childhood I must have done something good.’

In Ascension, both of these ideas are illustrated in the sparest way conceivable. In the video, nothing (the word) is shown, literally, coming from nothing (the void). On the soundtrack, ‘Something Good’ is made to label itself as such through isolation and repetition. Nevertheless, there is a suggestion of a mandala in the former and a mantra in the latter which hints at transcendentalism.

Dean seems to be directing us inwards and outwards simultaneously; inwards towards a psychological fatalism, outwards towards a resolutely materialist scientific world view. Thus, despite the easy elegance with which the two constituent parts of the work coexist in formal terms, their theoretical foundations are irredeemably – but productively – out of alignment. While both present versions of a causal ideology, these originate in such different cultures that they would seem to verge on mutual exclusivity. However, in bringing them together as he does, the artist successfully wrong-foots any rational expectations of a coherent argument and counter-argument by allowing a hypnotic visual and auditory aesthetic to interrupt continually the construction of intertextual meaning. Listened to for even a couple of minutes, the repeated musical fragment begins to sound like the product of introspective obsession – as if the singers are trying to persuade themselves rather than communicate to an audience. The sound, identifiable as ‘period’ even prior to a knowledge of its precise origin, also comes to assume an eerie, drifting quality. The sentiment may be optimistic, even utopian, but in the end the suggestion is as much one of loss as it is of hope. The song looks forward but is also nostalgic, and this again hints at the inevitability of an ideal of order tripping over half-buried disturbance and distortion. The video too, despite its lack of narrative development, contains enough ‘incidental’ detail to suspend a rigidly ordered summation of Ascension’s purpose. The lines of type, flowering from an invisible singularity, continually threaten to envelop the viewer in a kaleidoscopic microcosm of life and death. The image seems to grow but, paradoxically, remains exactly the same size as one ‘nothing’ disappears only for another to take its place. Dean flaunts a certain archness in risking his work being read as a paean to nihilism, or at least to art as the emperor’s new clothes but, as its title suggests, Ascension rises above such interpretations through subtle allusions to faith and portent. And painkillers.