(The above image was copied from http://wolfevonlenkiewicz.com/index.php?type=photo&id=166)
Going through my recent E-Flux RSS feeds, I came across the work of British-based artist, Wolfe von Lenkiewicz. He has a great personal website and has a new exhibition at AVA (All Visual Arts) in London.
Lenkiewicz is fascinating to me because, as stated on his website, "He is known for his artistic reconfigurations of well-known imageries from art history and visual culture to create ambiguous compositions that question art historical discourses."
Readers of art history know that, from Michelangelo and Raphael reconfiguring ancient Greek and Roman imagery to Picasso literally repainting the masters preceding him to Takashi Murakami's super flat deconstruction of Warhol, almost all major art is, in some way or another, a reconfiguration of the past.
But what about those instances when, as in the case of Lenkiewicz, reconfiguring the past is not about replacing it with a specific future? What if the goal--pace Derrida and Foucault--is to rewrite the past, just slightly enough, so that our unconscious reliance on these iconic parts of our culture is no longer so easy?
I am thinking, here, for example, of ethnomethodology. The goal of this type of research is to examine the rules and social order of everyday life by just slightly changing the situations in which people live; not enough to make it apparent that "things are different," but enough to have things feel suddenly anthropologically strange. A good fun example is the group Improv Everywhere--click here
I am also thinking, here, of Heidegger's famous quip, "We have too much culture!" As the last hundred years of Continental philosophy, anthropology and sociology have gone to great lengths to demonstrate, we walk around engulfed in the past, relying, falling back upon, bounded up in dualisms, metaphors, cosmologies, philosophies, theologies, ideologies, ways of thinking not of our own making, handed down generation after generation across thousands of years. So thick they are that we cannot see outside them.
Mind you, this does not make these multiple "pasts" wrong. Nor is there any other way of being. We live, after all, in time/space. Shaking the tree, therefore, is not a matter or simple right or wrong. It is more a matter of therapy, a sort of sociological or philosophical therapy, if you will--as in the case of C. Wright Mills' call for fostering in people a sociological imagination. Better yet, it is like Zen Buddhist practice in meditation: helping people awaken to reality; the world in which they live; here now, right here, right on this spot, right here as you are breathing, sitting, standing, living; right now with the people around you, and with the socio-bio-physical context encasing you, and with the larger, global, orbiting plant you are on hurling through time/space.
The trick with this sort of therapy, however, is that you cannot do it by simply replacing the past with what you think people's futures should be. Instead, pace Foucault, you have to get out of people's way to let them fashion their own future. This is what a good teacher does. They do not necessarily lead; instead, they help facilitate people's own internal leadership; help them determine their own cosmologies, compositions, futures, etc to create new histories of the present. I tell my students all the time, I want them to learn how to think for themselves, whatever their perspective be. It is an idea--ironically enough--as old as the ancients: we think better to care better for ourselves and those around us. As Foucault says, "A critique does not consist in saying that things aren't good the way they are. It consists in seeing on just what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established and unexamined ways of thinking the accepted practices are based... To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy..."
To me, this is what Lenkiewicz's work is trying to do.