Doing the Dead Author Deadpan

John Marriott

“Umberto Eco once remarked that it is no longer decent to say to somebody ‘I love you’. The words have to be qualified by some reference to a great romantic example from film…”1 If you kill an idea do you create a ghost?

When Roland Barthes declared authorship dead in his 1977 essay, “The death of the author,” he announced an absence that artists couldn’t look away from because it threatened to engulf them. Barthes had penned a critique of authorship and the authority ascribed to ‘the “message” of the Author–God’^2^ where he asserted that to read is to interpret and shape the meanings conveyed; the author is dead, long live the reader. That current of critical inquiry soon included thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, and Jacques Derrida, whose anti-authoritarian analysis was uncannily in sync with prevailing Art Historical trajectories, from Duchamp’s assault on the status of the art object through to Clement Greenberg’s rules against representational art.

Theorists, artists and critics developed aesthetics aimed at questioning the basis of empirical knowledge and perception; artists began to make art that looked-like and was spoken of as though it were science –- artworks that demonstrated artists’ awareness that knowledge is uncertain and communication is rife with artifice and manipulation. The ‘new art’ was explained as ‘investigations’ or attempts to alert viewers of their own roles in determining the meaning of the culture before them. Many believed that their vanguard moment confirmed the inferiority of prior aesthetics that attempted to offer experiences of beauty or emotional revery.

On January 14, 2004 a single-engine airplane weaved its way across the skies above Guelph, Ontario, pulling behind it a trail of red letters pronouncing: “WISH YOU WERE HERE.” Visible to thousands of people in the surrounding communities, this 30 minute fly-by coincided with the opening of artist Laurel Woodcock’s exhibition play, pause, repeat at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. I missed seeing the airplane that day, for even though it was a highly public act it was brief, a tiny window in the exhibition’s span. Poignantly ephemeral, the gesture was echoed at the gallery’s front desk by uninflated balloons available to viewers. Light blue, they were emblazoned with a simple line drawing of a receding airplane towing a blank banner gracefully behind it. Modest, reductive and revealing it alluded to the airborne overture and deliberately omitted the melancholy message. That transition –- from enigmatic spectacle to memorabilia that selectively forgets –- could serve as a memorial to the Author’s death (and to the rise of Narrative Theory and ‘the Narrator’). Why? Because the components of wish you were here³ turn together upon the conspicuous ‘absences’ of that message’s unknown speaker and intended recipient, and because memorials compel cultures to connect their ‘present’ consciousness with stories of their ‘past.’ wish you were here³ “ seemed ripe with such possibility, navigating common-space and art historical subtexts.

When we look at the “neo” and “post” iterations of recent art we see spin-offs of the Dead Author’s legacy: consider the ‘Deadpan’ sensibility affected by assorted arts intelligentsia and aficionados. The term ‘Deadpan’ describes a general lack of responsiveness –- one need be ‘expressionless, impassive, unemotional; detached, impersonal,3 it aptly describes the dispositions of Conceptualism and Deconstructionism. Built upon the Modernist paradigm of art-as-critique these Deadpan vanguards were promoted as quasi-scientific critical inquiries, artists strove to appear as impartial and detached as their scientific counterparts; those who sought to express emotion were considered regressive and ‘oh-so-yesterday.’ The Deadpan mannerisms of remote, unemotional seriousness became de facto adjuncts of the aesthetics; a new and heady visage for Mastery.

Today the Deadpan vanguards are fair targets for veneration and artful mischief as contemporary artists review and revise the aesthetics of the past. Artists like Laurel Woodcock develop artworks that expand upon the Dead Author Deadpan by appropriating archetypally Conceptual approaches, liberating them from ‘Classical Conceptualism’s’ constraints. “Cultural appropriation has been used quite effectively” write Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright,” by artists seeking to make a statement that opposed the dominant ideology.4 In their book Practices of Looking, Sturken and Cartwright observe appropriated cultural codes are fluid and tenuous:

“images themselves can be said to resist the oppositional readings that some viewers may wish to confer to them. In other words, meanings that oppose the dominant reading of an image may not “cling” to an image with the same tenacity as meanings that are more in line with dominant ideologies.5

What this implies for artists reworking Conceptualist approaches is that viewers may still interpret works with altered conventions as if they are true to ‘Classic’ Conceptualism. Woodcock addresses this intuitively by embracing and cultivating the theatricality of Deadpan codes and mannerisms, contextualizing dramatically and alluding to something more. The exhibition play, pause, repeat began with an intervention into public/commercial space, while the artworks inside the gallery referred beyond the exhibition to the domain of popular culture. Woodcock’s titles and subject matter directed viewers’ awareness towards the methods of commercial cinema, to specific Hollywood films, and to aerial advertising –- that low-rent, ‘larger-than-life’ spectacle that enables ‘non-celebrities’ to rise above obscurity long enough to make monumentally fleeting declarations in public. Working with those relationships the artworks’ appearances and concerns connected them to art historical discourses.

The work Location Shoot presented a video shown continuously on a wall-mounted LCD screen hung near an impressively modern red chair (a remake of a red Pierre Paulin segment chair). Its video revealed an evenly-paced succession of interior and exterior “locations” each occupied by an empty chair against a wall, facing out towards the viewer. These ‘locations’ share similar montage and mise en scene, resembling a Conceptual homage to Joseph Kosuth’s Chair and three chairs of 1965 in which he presented a chair, a life-sized photo of the chair and a dictionary definition of “chair,” side by side. Woodcock’s installation mischievously blurred the lines between ‘location’ and display –- the inviting chair was uncomfortably close to the video screen and faced away from it so that anyone who sat in it became part of the installation looking out at other viewers instead of at the artwork.

The ‘locations’ are devoid of actors, yet Woodcock provides “action” through off screen sounds and a few comic intervals such as a “Congratulations” party banner that comes unglued and slides down a wall; dogs that loll about happily with tails a-wagging; and a balloon that floats across a room to the sound of dishes crashing to the floor. These incidents move the piece away from High Art Deadpan towards Deadpan humor, the confounded narrative owes a debt to Samuel Beckett as much as Barthes for the way it confronts viewers with their own story-telling impulses, such as the temptation to ‘read into’ situations –- to become the Author.

Woodcock’s video “a favourite film from each year since my birth” and “a favourite film from each letter of the alphabet,” features two lists of film titles that scroll silently upwards, side-by side. They are shown on a spot-lit video monitor placed directly on the floor, with two LED signs in front, like mini-marquees extolling the title of each list in pixilated letters.

Huddled in the darkened gallery this little cluster of technology and its radiant texts seems oddly emblematic of the ‘theatricality’ that critic Michael Fried decried in Minimalist sculpture^6^ — and while the LED signs dimly echo Jenny Holzer’s Truisms series of the 1980s, today they are prevalent in corner stores, faded novelties rather than the disembodied voice of monolithic power.

The list format is evocative of how movie-fans seek community by swapping trivia, and how personal information is used to create character profiles to fit ‘ordinary people’ into marketing demographics or to chart the actions of ‘deviants.’ More potently, the lists imply a remote portrait of the artist that we infer from the films she has selected. This indirect voyeurism uses pop culture as a prism of associations to suggest a person while pointing away from her; its play of references engages our belief that we locate our identities by identifying with things beyond us –- people, places and things.

With “wish you were here^3^” the artist included works inside the gallery in addition to the airborne message and imprinted balloons. Along one wall hung a sagging procession of fifteen shroud-like items made of red fabric. These anthropomorphic ciphers were in fact duplicates of the letters used to spell the airborne message, but these hung rumpled and unreadable. The collapsed red letters, along with the balloon drawing’s blank banner, establish a motif of cancelled text, an iconoclastic aesthetic also favoured by Joseph Kosuth, whose work mines the Dead Author discourse on textuality and its limits.

Down the hall in a darkened installation, two enormous red pillow-chairs lay intimately before a free-standing video projection of a blue and mostly cloudless sky. It beckoned promisingly, only to be pierced by an engine’s roar as an airplane entered and exited the screen. In the distance it criss-crossed the expanse of blue, towing the phrase “Wish you were here” in red lettering.

While this artwork features a common colloquial term, the act of choosing that phrase and investing such effort to present it ‘elevates’ the cliché ‘text’ and gives it an ambiguous personalized aura –- and the possibility of emotional investment. Its strength, beyond the poetry of its open-endedness, is that it functions as a free-floating utterance that compels viewers to interpolate its potential meanings. To interpret it in this oddly personalized context we are moved to consider what cultural moorings it might have in Pop and High Culture, and as we will see, both paths lead to the self-conscious and reflexive media literacy of contemporary audiences, to whom “wish you were here” may speak in multiple, even contradictory voices.

Woodcock’s art compels us to not be deterred by the power-plays of Deadpan methods. Through her exhibition we see how ‘Neo-Deadpan’ hybrids orchestrate the possibilities of authoritative presentation and formalist reserve alongside slapstick, mystery and drama. These shifts of perspective from overtures to undertones coax viewers from what is shown to what may be implied. The artist’s ‘Neo-Deadpan’ approach responds to the reality that skeptical awareness is a commonplace sensibility. According to Sturken and Cartwright average citizens/consumers recognize that advertisers target them with ironic appeals and free-floating signifiers: “Postmodernism signals the rise of a generalized self-consciousness, which can be seen in both the reflexivity and the metacommunication of postmodern style and in the constant questioning of traditional narratives in all facets of everyday life.7 This form of awareness is not the result of schooling, but a learned response to commercial media: “cultural products assume that viewers are media literate and a bit jaded by contemporary popular culture. They posit viewers who are informed about the conventions of popular culture, who know enough to understand intertextual references to other popular texts.8

While Postmodernism and Deconstruction aimed to expose hidden mechanisms of meaning, Woodcock’s art bridges historic tensions between Conceptual detachment and emotional involvement, her works invite viewers to ‘read between the lines’ and be aware of how meaning is subject to our own wants and needs –- while they also engage the intuitive, emotional forms of knowing that were driven underground by empirically-prone aesthetics. From her works’ initial Conceptual demeanour she moves our attention to dramatic allusions and emotional tensions.

Her impulse to rework Conceptualism’s legacy places her within a rich array of artistic practices discussed by essayist Jörg Heiser in the article “Emotional rescue.” He discusses the historical rift between Conceptualism and emotional content and does so with an eye for Conceptually-informed works that engage viewers on an emotional level. Heiser points to noted departures from Conceptualist orthodoxy in the works of artists Bas Jan Ader, Douglas Huebler, Hélio Oiticica, Sophie Calle, Rodney Graham, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Hans Haacke. Provocatively he refers to this work as “Romantic Conceptualism,” its purpose being “to break the deadlock of contemporary art (analysis versus beauty, thought versus desire) and turn it into alchemy.”9 Heiser offers a compelling insight regarding these historical tensions, to illustrate his thesis he discusses the works of Bas Jan Ader, whose “entire, if small, body of work invests the Conceptual with what appears to be its antithesis: romanticism…” He describes it as characterized by “[a] highly abstracted, formalized concern with the atTribute s of romanticism historically ascribed to artists, adolescents, women and the insane: feelings of alienation, solitude, unfulfilled longing, self-mutilation and melancholia.10. While this reads like an expose of Contemporary Art’s ‘Dirty Little Secret” it sheds necessary light on the way modern aesthetics turned away from emotion, and the implications for artists such as Woodcock in the years that followed.

Beneath Conceptualism’s mask of detachment, Heiser sees an aesthetic that is unconsciously romantic: “The melancholia and yearning of romantic production are engendered by the tragic absence of the beloved. Applied to art, as far-fetched as it may seem, this absence of the object of affections seems linked to the absence of the art object, from Marcel Duchamp to Conceptualism…11 Heiser points to the artworld’s preoccupation with Duchamp’s ready-mades, which have become “…more than anything else the manifestations of the loss of a particular object of desire” In a statement that speaks directly to the notion of the Dead Author Deadpan, Heiser declares, “In Conceptualism, mourning this absence has been successively sublimated into irony, or completely replaced by stern-faced intellectualism.”12

Refreshingly, ‘Neo-Deadpan’ artists now explore alternatives to stern, authoritarian practices, especially while engaging with art history to create art experiences that move beyond boundaries established by prior aesthetics. In this spirit Laurel Woodcock’s art treats critical inquiry as an emotional process, she opens the Neo-Deadpan demeanour to perspectives only accessible by experiencing humour, uncertainty, familiarity or sadness. Consider the way in which Woodcock establishes ‘Absence’ as an undertone in her Conceptually attuned artworks, in “Location Shoot “ with its loaded procession of empty chairs, and in the “a favourite film…” video-lists that have us readily constructing a person using a list of films. Absence is given a voice in “wish you were here³” with the unknown “you” that the airborne text spoke of, with the airborne message that was barely there before it was gone, and in the message left off of the balloons. Revisiting their Conceptualist influences, these artworks speak to us as feeling, social beings; Woodcock’s artful ‘absences’ create subconscious stirrings within the self-conscious semblances of postmodern detachment.


  1. Pauline Terreehorst, “Shaken not Stirred: The Cocktail of Visual Culture” in The image society: Essays on Visual Culture, (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2002), p.24
  2. Dani Cavallaro, Critical and Cultural Theory, (London: The Athlone Press, 2001), p.51.
  3. New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
  4. Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An introduction to visual culture, (New York: Oxford Community Press, 2003), p. 59
  5. Sturken, p. 63.
  6. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood” in Art and Objecthood, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
  7. Sturken, p.277.
  8. Sturken, p.270.
  9. Jörg Heiser, “Emotional rescue” in Frieze, Issue 71, Nov–Dec. 2002 ,p. 75.
  10. Heiser, pp. 72.
  11. Heiser, p. 73-74.
  12. Heiser, p. 74.

John Marriott would like to extend his thanks to Steve Reinke, Katie Bethune-Leamen and Kelly Jazvac for their insightful feedback.