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Laird and Singh’s Desecration of “Wihaan”

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Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird's Wihaan at Alten Reserve Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird's Wihaan at Alten Reserve Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird's Wihaan at Alten Reserve Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird's Wihaan at Alten Reserve Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird's Wihaan at Alten Reserve Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird's Wihaan at Alten Reserve (detail). Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird's Wihaan at Alten Reserve (detail). Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird's Wihaan at Alten Reserve (detail). Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird's Wihaan at Alten Reserve (detail). Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird's Wihaan at Alten Reserve (detail).

Laird and Singh's failure to critically engage Wihaan's escape from their intentions suggests, surprisingly, that the artists do not take the shrine seriously on the spiritualistic or traditional grounds they claim as their work's premise. According to Wikipedia's entry for “spirit house”: ‘[t]he house is intended to provide shelter for spirits which could cause problems for the [local] people if not appeased.' Taking Wihaan seriously qua spirit house, on the terms of the tradition to which it belongs, could not spirits themselves have caused or invited the vandalism?

EyeContact Essay #6


Not long ago I was greatly disturbed by an interview I heard on Radio New Zealand with Tiffany Singh and Tessa Laird, discussing their sculpture Wihaan (1). My problems with the interview’s content have driven me to write this essay; but first let me give some background.

Wihaan is a “spirit house,” a variety of shrine belonging to a particular Southeast Asian tradition. Specifically, the Thai Buddhist Association in Kelston, West Auckland is said to have given ‘assistance’ in Wihaan‘s production; and Thawee Khampantip is the name of its builder (2). Wihaan was commissioned as part of Auckland Council’s 2010 Micro Sites public sculpture series, initially installed at central Auckland’s Albert Park, but removed to nearby Alten Reserve after being vandalized at its first location. Apparently, what makes Wihaan an artwork - its point of difference from regular, “purely” traditional spirit houses - is its provenance, having had its construction and its installation into public space organized by Laird and Singh; along with the conceptual gimmick of its being painted a new colour every six months.

The October 2013 interview with Singh and Laird discusses Auckland Council’s unwillingness to continue funding Wihaan‘s maintenance at Alten Reserve, since, as the artists admit, the sculpture was only ever supposed to be installed temporarily. Nonetheless, Laird and Singh object to their sculpture’s removal since, they claim, Wihaan has come to ‘serve a community.’ Surprisingly, and unfortunately, the interview does not explain the precise nature of the sculpture/shrine’s ‘service,’ or the make up of the ‘community’ it is said to serve. The supposed community of Wihaan‘s attendants is invoked in vague, largely unsubstantiated rhetoric: Singh says she will gather ‘a certain amount of signatures’ on a petition calling for Wihaan‘s continued presence at the park while Laird asserts that the ‘community that’s […] grown to cherish’ Wihaan ‘really wants [it] to stay.’ Admittedly Singh’s claim that Wihaan has become a ‘working temple’ is partially supported by Laird’s listing some concrete examples of the kinds of offerings left at the shrine over the years. However, even if the community of attendants invoked by the artists exists in precisely the way they claim it does, this goes no way to solving the problems with the artists’ linguistic treatment of Wihaan that this essay examines (3).

More important than the presence in the interview of a rhetorically invoked yet largely unsubstantiated community of Wihaan‘s attendants is an absence that shadows it. No voice from any of the actual Southeast Asian communities to which the spirit house tradition belongs is heard. The interview even almost misses including an account of the tradition by the artists, with Singh providing only this short gloss: ‘the spirit house tradition is an Eastern idea of really creating a safe space for spirits to reside in for prosperity.’ Hence the interview provides close to no education for uninitiated listeners as to what a spirit house is or does in its typical setting. Here Singh and Laird miss an obvious opportunity to instantiate their aim, as articulated in one publicity statement, for Wihaan to provide reflection ‘on the sacred and spiritual resonance [sic] of […] many cultures’ (4) (my emphasis). Far from reflecting ‘many cultures,’ the interview is essentially monocultural, failing even to reflect the specific Thai Buddhist culture Laird and Singh appropriate into their art practice with Wihaan.

In the interview, as in publicity statements and news reports on Wihaan‘s vandalism, the artists’ stated multiculturalist intentions are presumed to coincide with the actual effects produced by their artwork, a presumption that does not stand to reason. The interview turns to the artists’ intent when Singh describes how she and Laird decided to contribute a spirit house for Micro Sites because, although ‘there was a marae […] a fale and multiple churches’ in the designated area, ‘there wasn’t really anything specific for anyone of Eastern context so [she and Laird] really wanted to provide a space for people to be able to share and feel like they were represented within a spiritual capacity within the’ vicinity. Singh posits Wihaan as the answer to a counter-logically stated problem: that there was nothing specific for the community of ‘anyone of Eastern context’ - a linguistic construction devoid, and in denial, of specificity. In a speech act of quiet violence, Singh homogenizes a diverse range of cultures linked with the Asian region into a monolithic ‘East.’ I wonder if the Indonesian congregation of St Andrew’s - directly opposite Wihaan, across Alten Road - might not consider themselves people of ‘Eastern context’ who are ‘represented within a spiritual capacity’ by the church they choose to attend weekly. This suggests that only certain versions of ‘Eastern’-ness and ‘Eastern spirituality’ count for Singh: precisely those that are visibly exotic and exoticizing for a Western audience.

Singh claims to have answered the local lack of a ‘specific’ ‘anything’ for ‘anyone of Eastern context’ with a spirit house whose culturally particular link to the Thai Buddhists who assisted in Wihaan‘s production she elides. Hence Singh’s rhetoric produces the opposite of multiculturalist effects, in complete departure from her stated intentions. The aim of providing ‘representation’ for ‘anyone of Eastern context’ is rendered in cruder phraseology in an earlier account of Wihaan‘s inception by Laird: ‘We thought: “Let’s do something with a strong Asian flavour.”’(5)  This too was presented as some kind of achievement when Laird’s glib wording circulated as the headline for a newspaper story about Wihaan: “Artwork Brings Asian Flavour.” Intentions and effects are once more conflated when Singh’s claim that Wihaan ‘fuses together cultures of Thai, Indian, Maori and Pacific peoples’ is published - online and in the aforementioned newspaper story - without explication. Yet how this fusion occurs is far from self-evident. While Wihaan is essentially Thai via the artists’ collaboration with the Thai Buddhist Association, I would like to know how, specifically, the other named cultures are fused into the work, particularly where the supposed Maori and Pacific elements are concerned. I do not see it.

Instead of taking the proposition that Wihaan is a spirit house seriously, the crux of its multiculturalist purchase as “artwork,” the interview quickly turns into an account of the artists’ individual emotional responses to the vandalism. Laird states that ‘it was actually a very painful experience […] it did feel like we’d been personally abused’ (my emphasis). Yet surely, if there was ‘personal abuse’ implicit in the vandalism of this work, with its ‘strong Asian flavour’ in Laird’s words, the abuse was aimed at Asians, not Laird, a white New Zealander whose racial privilege precludes her precisely from ‘personally’-directed experiences of anti-Asian racism. Despite some attempts by the interviewer to nuance the discussion, Singh and Laird use the interview to produce a conservative, moralistic indictment of vandalism. Singh reveals that Wihaan‘s initial location was ‘actually notorious for being quite a dodgy spot in Albert Park, which was the basis as to why’ she and Laird installed Wihaan there: ‘to see if we could transmit, or translate the energy of that site into being more of a safe, positive place, rather than a negative place like it’ had been. Admitting that this attempt was ‘unsuccessful,’ neither Singh nor Laird offers any critical reflection on the possible reasons for their project’s failure to achieve this “energy translation.”

Laird and Singh’s failure to critically engage Wihaan‘s escape from their intentions suggests, surprisingly, that the artists do not take the shrine seriously on the spiritualistic or traditional - that is, precisely the multiculturalist - grounds they claim as their work’s premise. According to Wikipedia’s entry for “spirit house” (I cite Wikipedia to make it clear that I have no special knowledge of the tradition being discussed - the interviewer could easily have done this level of preparatory research too): ‘[t]he house is intended to provide shelter for spirits which could cause problems for the [local] people if not appeased.’ (6)  Taking Wihaan seriously qua spirit house, on the terms of the tradition to which it belongs, could not spirits themselves have caused or invited the vandalism? If Wihaan is a spirit house, should we not ask how the local spirits are interacting with it as much, if not more so, than we ask about the interactions made by local people? This, to my mind, is the crucial question that should have been asked in the Radio New Zealand interview, and should still be put to Singh and Laird.

It is telling that the very questions asked about Wihaan privilege its Western categorization as “artwork”/sculpture over its (as Singh would have it) ‘Eastern’ categorization as “spirit house”/shrine, instantiating monoculturalism while simultaneously relying on Wihaan to underpin false claims to the success of a multiculturalist act. Curators (Rob Garrett, in this case) and artists (certainly Laird and Singh) often seem content to make superficial gestures in the name of multiculturalism rather than attempting actual engagements with non-Western traditions, a problem concomitant with the already described tendency to pass off artists’ declarations of intent as isomorphic with the intention’s actual achievement. Sadly, it seems that pseudo-multiculturalist gestures are accepted in place of the real thing because they allow engagement with other cultures to remain on the level of ornamentation. Embellishing the view in a park with an Orientalist sculpture, incorporating Asian-ness on the level of a ‘flavour’ merely added to (and thus, ultimately, subtractable from) New Zealand’s white-privileging status quo is far different from engaging the hearts of others’ traditions, where things don’t just look different, but where things are different, where reality itself is conceived from within an alien framework. For their failure to take the tradition they appropriate seriously, and although they may believe the veracity of their own words, I totally reject Singh’s and Laird’s claims that Wihaan works as a point for intercultural ‘fusion’ in the way they intended, while the whole framework of their complaints that their sculpture was not ‘respected’ grossly simplifies the stakes of cross-cultural communication, suggesting that in fact Laird and Singh are not the experts in multiculturalist strategies that they take themselves to be.

A further question stands out to me. Does not Wihaan‘s vandalism constitute an authentic response to the artwork, albeit undesired by the artists, from (a subgroup of) the local community? In the interview Laird’s facile reduction of the vandals to ‘louts with nothing better to do’ elides the sociology of vandalism: so-called vandals by definition evince a level of alienation from predominating social norms, and are therefore often among the more vulnerable members of society. Simplistically casting Wihaan‘s vandals as unenlightened Philistines who just don’t ‘respect’ art, or Singh’s and Laird’s conceptions of spirituality, dismisses even an elementary critical reading of the statement being made precisely through and by Wihaan‘s vandalism, which may prove to be the most interesting thing about the work in its Western sculptural dimension. Laird tellingly states that she and Singh ‘never really fully understood why people would’ vandalize Wihaan, demonstrating a lack of sociological imagination.

Exercising cultural paternalism on two levels, Laird and Singh prescribed for the Micro Sites vicinity a spirit house - although this was not directly called for by the communities to which spirit houses actually belong - while they have further prescribed the types of interactions people should make with their sculpture, interpreting the community’s departure from their prescription as ‘personal abuse.’ Finally, I reject the view of Wihaan‘s vandalism as negative. I claim that Wihaan qua sacred object, in its traditional dimension, has refused complicity with Singh’s and Laird’s attempts to appropriate it into their art practices. If Laird and Singh label Wihaan‘s vandalism as “disrespect” they fail to see that disrespect is precisely what they - and those who condone their work - practice when they turn Wihaan into merely the pivotal device for their own self-congratulatory declarations of multiculturalist achievement, all the while declining to take the sculpture seriously in its cultural otherness, which is to say its sacredness, as a spirit house. Here is the real act of desecration that needs addressing.

Daniel Michael Satele

(1) Interview originally aired on Arts on Sunday, 13 October 2013. 
(2) Rob Garrett, “Public Art Plan: Auckland’s Learning Quarter.”

(3) When I visited Wihaan in late-December 2013 it certainly did not look well tended, as the artists’ statements suggest. Instead it was dirty and cobwebbed, with its paint chipping; adorned only with three fake-flower lei, one tattered and discoloured with age. However, as stated above, proving or disproving the factuality of the artists’ claims about a ‘community’ being formed around Wihaan is beside the point of this essay.

(4)”Learning Quarter Micro Sites” page on the Auckland Council website.

(5)  Rhiannon Horrell, “Artwork Brings Asian Flavour,” Auckland City Harbour News (30 July 2010). 

(6) I am fascinated to observe that the types of spirit residing in the spirit house are portrayed by Singh as somehow vulnerable, with Wihaan said to provide a ‘safe space for spirits to reside in,’ while the Wikipedia entry directly contrasts this claim, suggesting that spirit houses keep people safe from the problems non-accommodated spirits might cause. However, being unversed in Southeast Asian culture I can draw no conclusion about this difference between the two accounts.

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This Discussion has 15 comments.


Daniel Webby, 1:06 a.m. 11 January, 2014

A tough analysis, damning even. But I wonder if the lack of explication is an indictment not solely on the artists but on the media in which their comments have been carried.

Considering the invisibility of particular traditions, spiritual or otherwise, within the inner city seems to me a coherent and relevant approach to the work. And while there is little to go on in the media bites cited, this does not automatically assign the project to a category of opportunistic tokenism. As argued, statements of intent cannot be read as synonymous with an outcome. Or to reverse the proposition the outcome can, and in my view should, be considered the primary articulation of intention.

So what is the experience of the site, the situation described by the introduced object? The questions posed by Satele are potent – is the insertion sacred or profane? Sincere or superficial? An interface for the community or purely ornamental?

From where I stand (male, Pakeha, secular, somewhat educated, low income) I feel these oppositions should be valued and permitted to co-exist in the work. Just as the practices, rituals, traditions which establish collective social significance come about through an uninterrupted interaction of ideas and forms - a discordant, uneven, accelerating process resulting in overlapping and at times conflicting world views – artists should be provided with sufficient autonomy to trial new relationships with these same ideas and forms.

This is not to suggest absolute impunity, as Satele’s essay attests the activity of art often takes place in contested territories, but perhaps there is room to consider such provocations an incitement for an enlarged and not diminished conversation? Constructed from an imperfect amalgam of intentions Wihaan marks an uncomfortable site, but one which, to my mind at least, speaks of a desire to recognise, not disavow, the other.

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Miriam Harris, 3:49 p.m. 15 January, 2014

Daniel Webby's comment that Wihaan is "constructed from an imperfect amalgam of intentions" and "speaks of a desire to recognise, not disavow, the other"is a perceptive one I believe.

Although Satele has written a well-argued, eloquent essay, the premise upon which its argument is based rests on shaky foundations. To what extent can soundbites gathered from a radio interview accurately reflect the complexity of an artistic project? How can such soundbites not fail to seem rather glib and insubstantial, especially when they are deconstructed and interpreted through the format of a footnoted essay offering strident, detailed observations?

It would be appropriate to also give Laird and Singh the forum of a short essay in order to elaborate further upon their project. Laird is a writer and artist whose work bears testimony to the ability to encapsulate complex themes and ideas that jostle together, provoking an expansion of the field of discourse. While Satele makes some fair points, I'm not convinced that the Wihaan work can be castigated in terms that describe the outcomes in such a binary manner.

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Ginette Pohlmeier, 11:01 a.m. 3 March, 2014

On Yuk King Tan's 'The New Temple - I give so that you give, I give so that you may go and stay away.'
"It became much bigger than a work that outed Auckland's latent Chineseness; it was not about daubing objects in communist red, nor was it a giant good luck charm. Tan was demonstrating our social interconnectivity, like any good relational artist, but she was also talking about the mutability of things. Her blood red cauldron was quite literally a melting pot, in which our individual identities were subsumed by the blood red that binds us all...I returned to the artist's studio after pack down, only to find my treasures long gone. I had to suffice with reddened leftovers - a knitted toy with floppy ears; a small seated Buddha; a comb; a picture frame; and a necklace of beads...with this collection I was able to make a portable mini-shrine. Other people have kept their trophies too, and display or store them as a memory of a moment in which we were all participating in something. We weren't sure what, exactly, but it had to do with the way we choose objects to represent ourselves, the way we imbue these objects with had to do with blood, and connection, and divinity, and color."
- Tessa Laird, A Rainbow Reader, published by Clouds 2013, p.28

 In reply

John Hurrell, 11:14 a.m. 5 March, 2014

So Ginette, you are implying that this quote from Tessa's book is a counter-argument to Daniel's charges. But us humans are not always consistent, are we? Or is it the media (radio) that is at fault here?

Ginette Pohlmeier, 12:32 p.m. 5 March, 2014

It isn't really about arguing, just another point of view. I think Ms. Laird's work consistently attempts to represent social interconnectivity and her interest in cultural anthropology, philosophy, religion, and the power of symbols. I'm not an artist or an art critic, I'm a student of anthropology in Southern California who happens to appreciate Ms. Laird's art work.

John Hurrell, 10:08 a.m. 6 March, 2014

I think it is about arguing. To think otherwise is to be like an ostrich. Within those disciplines you mention are embedded various issues that a hawk-eyed intellectual like Satele can pick up on and discuss. The artworld desperately needs stroppy individuals prepared to rock the boat, speak their minds and not be affected by the dominant kissy/cuddly politeness that suppresses intelligent conversation.

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Ginette Pohlmeier, 2:37 p.m. 6 March, 2014

Alright then... Let me brush the sand off my head. Yes, humans are inconsistent. I believe our inconsistencies stem from our complexity. When my 95 year old grandfather-in-law's house gets tagged on, I get annoyed. Does that mean that I don't empathize with the socioeconomic issues that come along with the low-income neighborhood that he lives in? As a human I'm capable of experiencing both annoyance and empathy simultaneously... Though when I'm looking at a piece of bad graffiti on my grandfather's wall feelings of annoyance trump empathy at that very specific moment in time. Overall, day to day, I not only understand what's going on with these kids, I care about them. Humans are highly emotional animals, we generally feel the need to defend ourselves (thus my response to you Mr. Hurrell) and our creations. It is hard for me to believe that the author of a book like A Rainbow Reader is ignorant of the socioeconomic challenges facing the community she lives in. I think it's more likely she felt hurt by the attempts to destroy her creation and used poor wording to express her annoyance, but how could I possibly know that for sure?

Perhaps Wihaan's spiritual inhabitants did get pissed off at Laird and Singh's appropriation of a religious symbol for their own purposes. Or maybe the fragility of the material used, wood, invited its destruction. The artists could've produced a replica of Han Solo's millennium falcon and ended up with a similar result, though I shudder at the thought.

I'm not arguing with Mr. Satele because I can't say that his perceptions of Wihaan or Ms. Laird are wrong. They're his perceptions based on some quotes derived from various interviews. My perceptions of Wihaan and Ms. Laird are also based on some quotes derived from various sources. For all we know, we're both wrong.

Most importantly, I've never even been to New Zealand. I can't say whether or not Wihaan should stay or go, that's for your community to decide. You could end the argument here and send Wihaan to me... We can see how she does at my local park.

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Ginette Pohlmeier, 5:50 p.m. 6 March, 2014

I cannot believe that I almost forgot one of my most important points... One of my favorite aspects of the project was Wihaan's trip through six colors: red to violet. Mr. Satele perceived the artists' use of color as a "conceptual gimmick". Ms. Laird's doctoral thesis, A Rainbow Reader, is all about color. The amount of research that went in to that book is astounding. I doubt the decision to use color on Wihaan was arbitrary.

As a practitioner of yoga (including Kundalini yoga) I thought their use of color was meant to symbolize spiritual evolution. Kundalini refers to the "latent female energy believed to lie coiled at the base of the spine" or the base chakra which is associated with the color red and our baser instincts. As the coiled serpent (kundalini) is awakened in the base chakra (red) it slowly travels up the spine through each chakra (color) until it reaches violet or spiritual enlightenment. Okay, I'm done.

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Owen Pratt, 7:34 p.m. 6 March, 2014

For the sake of brevity I will stick to one point. Satele posits the vandalism as an authentic response from a part of the community. That kind of moronic musing ends in book burning and censorship of 'degenerate' art.

Public sculpture usually takes this into account and is often compromised by efforts to foil vandals (big plinths, overly robust design etc) and yes, to put a fragile artefact in a dimly lit hang out, it is pretty delusional to think the spirits will protect it, but that does not legitimise the reaction.

Vandalism is not robust critique.

 In reply

Dan Munn, 10:49 a.m. 20 March, 2014

The change in tone between these two articles seems to relate to your point there Owen

"The site “is now coated in toxic paint while the insulation foam garbage left behind by the defacer(s) blows across the highway and into the landscape”, the organisation says. While Ballroom Marfa says it welcomes engagement and criticism of such public art, “the large-scale defacement of the structure overwhelms this forum and shuts down the dialogue”. "

"could this be viral marketing?"

Vandalism is not critique at all.

Dan Munn, 10:52 a.m. 20 March, 2014

Don't know how to delete that last bit of the comment. I mean, maybe it is critique, but as soon as it is accepted it becomes subsumed?

Owen Pratt, 3:05 p.m. 21 March, 2014

...yeah perhaps the Buddha is the same as Prada and big enough to accommodate vandalism, that's if you see Buddhism as being another consumer brand; but some people see it as a sacred way of being.

If Prada has raised the bar and wants art vandalism to function as some kind of distressed designer chic, those Texas boys are going to have to man up and use dynamite to get their point across.

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John Hurrell, 11:58 p.m. 6 December, 2014

This morning Janet McAllister in the Herald had an in depth discussion of this piece by Daniel.

Here is the link:

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Andrew Paul Wood, 2:54 p.m. 8 December, 2014

Orientalism never was valid in the first place. Laird consciously refers to herself as an orientalist. It was a creepy trend of that group back in the 1990s that was never questioned and the attitudes seem not to have dissipated. Can you imagine Dan Malone trying to get away with half that stuff these days?

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Daniel Webby, 3:13 p.m. 10 December, 2014

What this article makes quite explicit is Satele’s calling into question the authenticity of the practitioners' beliefs. Correspondingly, the line of interrogation pursued by McAllister starts to become quite uncomfortable with its passport based approach to substantiating belief authenticity.

Sadly what is lost in the article is the more substantive content of Satele’s argument, that of multicultural rhetoric as the embedding of claims to universality which are made by dominant, abstracted formations of power. What I don’t see in either the original essay or in the recently published article is any serious attempt to examine how this rhetoric came to be foregrounded – to go further on this front it seems the curator, the City Council and the media, among others, are far from disinterested parties in the formatting of the work. Highlighting the ways in which individual agents are complicit with networks of power may offer a useful point of departure, but assigning culpability to particular agents only obscures the structural conditions which give form to, and necessitate, their complicity.

All of which brings to the surface some very pressing questions in relation to the Contemporary Art paradigm. Had the Contemporary modality been adopted in this instance – perhaps in the manner of Christopher Kulendran Thomas’ practice – with Singh and Laird reformatting the original object alongside a corresponding discussion of the market orientated “migrant” image (David Joselit’s term), it’s hard to imagine how the project could have been singled out for attention. That is, the singular ethical demand to create an open, reflective space for the production of aesthetic judgement would have been satisfied. Making a claim as to Wihaan’s consistency with a very specific tradition, while potentially naïve, is more fundamentally transgressive precisely for its attempt to become located.

Satele’s essay, alongside McAllister’s article attests to the desire for a more rigorous ethical framework for the image – I fully support this and would only contend that such a framework not be limited to the site of production but extend outward to the site of reception in the formation of critique.

Given this long winded response, perhaps I could suggest an alternative moot to that offered by McAllister, one lifted from the work of Amanda Beech:
“To take the image seriously is to understand how images exact force, as concept, and insinuate new languages, require new comprehensions of what it is to think and to know. This is not a modification of art under the name art, but an interrogation, traversal and a leaving behind of the name itself, the name as we know it. This is to understand its power of semblance, through a practice that operates as representational action as a force that meets us.”

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