The serial artist does not attempt to produce a beautiful or mysterious object but functions merely as a clerk cataloging the results of his premise. – Sol Lewitt
Operating on logical relationships that rule out unpredictability, seriality, as Jean Baudrillard argued in decades past, is a phenomenon inextricably tied to industrial production and modernity. To those who live in the twenty-first century some half a century later since Baudrillard’s pronouncement, seriality is the comfortable, complacent but reassuring – if not mundane – lull of continuity that contains few, or if any, unexpected surprises. The examples of seriality are many and remain constantly unquestioned: weeks-long drama serials that do not always have an end in sight, the serial numbers found on the outer packaging of daily necessities that hint at the gargantuan processes behind their mass production – all of them caught in continual (or endless) processes of production whose beginnings or the ends few people have the opportunity to witness.
To artists like Andy Warhol and Sol Lewitt, seriality meant a rebellion against a romanticized standard of art as a wholly distinctive and non-replicable product of an artist’s personal vision. Consisting of the repetitive, patterned production of images or objects that reflected the mechanics of mass production and the sterile, impersonal processes that formed the backbone of twentieth-century society, serial art’s modular, homogeneous precepts provided a semblance of order and routine through measured logic and its subsequent rational output. Lewitt’s series of drawings and obsession with cubic structures for instance, consisted of the repetition of basic forms and lines in systematized arrangements adhering to strict patterns in an effort to serially reproduce images. Neither illustrative nor denotative, Lewitt’s forms were meant to be intuitive, prioritizing ideas that spawned it above its physical nature. To Lewitt’s contemporary Andy Warhol, seriality was spawned in the multiplication of images via the silk-screening techniques of mass production, his works of replicated soup cans and images of celebrities parodying mechanization’s threat to artistic uniqueness.
But to destroy notions of seriality might just be akin to the destruction of coherence and structure, releasing a wave of arbitrariness that sweeps through the repetitive and ordered mainstream, as suggested in Serial Killers: From Tate Modern to TAKSU Singapore, a fusion of works by several contemporary Filipino artists as they consider the consequences of deconstructing institutions of order.
Artists like Jayson Oliveria and Condardo Velasco seem to unanimously conclude that the elimination of structure and method is to introduce randomness and unpredictability, coupled with the excitement of layering a new – and not necessarily sensible – narrative atop that which already exists. In Oliveria’s Ten Shit (2010), Velasco’s Metallurgy of Desire (2010) and Argie Bardoy’s mixed media collages, the perfunctory canvas – whether they are the backdrop of an advertisement of a branded item or an aged photograph – is defaced by a collision of forms that obscure strategic features of the original background, deterring the formation of any coherent narrative.
In these works, a superimposed series of images and forms hint at what each might represent to the individual viewer – an already arbitrary move in the work – but remain sufficiently devoid of reason so as to reject the axiomatic principles and rational intellect that are resonant in serial art. Gary Ross Pastrana’s Stray Bullets (2010) is not unlike Bardoy’s collage, a work that invites stabs-in-the-dark kind of guesswork – attempts that invariably end in an intellectual cul-de-sac. Take for example, Pastrana’s canvas’s (imagined) right half could appear to resemble the top-body collage of a male office worker in a suit and a tie, or even an over-stretched artist’s palette; such subjective and flawed interpretations are merely concessions of the infinite possibilities of meaning that puncture the monotony and knowablility of seriality. If the role of the artist is to empower the viewer to gain access to a particular aesthetic vision, the process of discovery here, is halted before it even begins.
The alternatives to serial killing do not always however, involve tentative steps through unchartered territory; the intense, Dionysian elements running amok in most of Serial Killers exhibits are curiously absent from Norberto Roldan extremely ordered Quelques Fleurs: Assemblage with found objects (2010). In each box, Roldan’s found objects recur in an almost predictable, composite arrangement: a sepia photograph is tacked to the center of a larger brand advertisement, like a sentinel guarding an unknown reality beyond our reach and comprehension, surrounded by common, locally available objects (cosmetic tubes, a toy figurine, empty bottles). Roldan’s mathematically calibrated grid-assemblage is itself a troubled text in pursuit of layered metaphors of continuity and change, mass-production and individuality. As it maintains a dialogue with or even reinforces the discourse of seriality and consumerism that engaged Lewitt and Warhol half a century ago, the assemblage’s strange beauty sidesteps the brilliant hues of Pop Art or the visceral abstraction of Conceptualist Art in favor of muted nostalgia.
Simply put, the divergent paths of aesthetic convictions that Serial Killers leads us through are polemical and unanticipated. If the uncertain terrain that we are escorted into by the works of these artists who try to delineate the limits of seriality is as much dependent on our sustained engagement, the elusive meanings behind them leave us in an unreferenced mire of artistic wilderness.
Serial Killers: From Tate Modern to TAKSU Singapore was brought to the TAKSU gallery in Singapore after a run in the No Soul for Sale Festival at the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, London, earlier this year. An exhibition program started in 2008 by independent artist-run initiative Green Papaya Art Projects in Manila, Serial Killers explores parallel themes of seriality, non-seriality or counter-seriality – producing art works in groups or series.