A READING OF GUILLERMO TREJO’S
“IT IS ABOUT PLANTS, MODERNISM, AND OTHER THINGS”
TEXT BY LITAL KHAIKIN
back to the first
And the first light
A Vast Confusion
In a self-contained world of experiments in origin, Guillermo Trejo’s It is about Plants, Modernism, and Other Things sketches out an abstracted language through multiple series of lithographic prints. The geometric designs on paper and canvas relate to each other in the manner of a compendium—the serialised approach to Trejo’s prints speaks to a desire for coherence, for adhering to a total, logical system. The presence of original woodcuts creates a relationship between the works, where each motif may be seen as a work-in-progress. The geometric patterns in the exhibit reflect the inspiration of ‘plants blooming in spring’, as a language that is in formation. In this raw demonstration of process, Trejo considers the historic role of printmaking, but asserts broader questions that relate printmaking to its explorative, contemporary identity.
From his critique of monument and protest iconography in S’endormir près du monument pendant la revolution (Galerie UQO), to the memorial project for missing students from Guerrero, Mexico at Montréal’s Art Souterrain (2015), Trejo’s practice is entrenched in a critical awareness of print as a method by which to determine, disturb, and transform social relationships. It is about Plants, Modernism, and Other Things borrows from Walter Benjamin’s negative theology – a theory of pure art – discussed in the essay “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). Benjamin refers to the lithograph as an example of the increased reproducibility of art, which “emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual”. It is this capacity for reproduction, this divestment from the ritual of the artist’s touch, that is enabled by the mechanical process in printmaking. The idealised language of the machine follows a system, copying and translating information independently of the artist’s singular interpretation. Through the reproduction, the artist’s material becomes a kind of pure data that may be copied an infinite number of times, and with as many variations.
While embracing the machine for its potential to realise an ideal of objectivity, Trejo is critical of this objective substitution: “At the cost of what?” he asks, “The value of art? To question the validity of uniqueness?”
Trejo’s reference to the most persistent tenets of Modernism is explicit. The medium reflects the burgeoning of industrialisation and capital, collectivity and uniformity, which defined a greater part of the 20th century. Trejo revisits the connection between the written language and its formation from graphic illustration; language is abstracted back to its origins, as simplest geometric shapes – an alphabet that appears to superse the intimacy of human impressions. This abstraction, with the intent to distil an essential form, is found in De Stijl. Artists sought a ‘relationship of equality’ between the communal and the individual, assuming this to be possible through a dissociation of their expression from the impressions of sentiment. Social conflict was believed to derive from too much emphasis on the individual, from the dominance held by the personal upon collective environments and modes of expression.
We see in Trejo’s series a revisitation of this abstraction attempted within De Stijl: an experiment with the root of all systems of information, be they hieroglyphics, mathematical expressions, computer code. Used to constrain the geometry of It is about Plants, Modernism, and Other Things, Trejo’s autonomous, self-contained system translates into the realm of ‘generative art’ – which brings printmaking into a contemporary discourse that parallels the behaviours and social concerns of digital media. Most evidently, Trejo makes a deliberate reference to the closed systems of typography: within the borders of his autonomous language, symbols conform to rules that are particular only in relation to each other and the space in which they are exhibited – to a logical system for their formation, their patterns and behaviours.
By suggesting this linguistic system but leaving its translation in mystery, Trejo leads us directly towards cryptography. For the symbols we encounter do follow a particular system of laws and relationships, but they exist outside of our scope of understanding. The otherwise benign decision to leave many of the serialised prints untitled shows a resistance to the power-play of language within an art exhibit – the title-as-definition does not exist as such in Trejo’s show. The ciphers of the exhibition are a challenge to interpret, but they also reflect the invisible, inseparable role of encryption in the languages of data systems that contain and disperse information. In all the secretive data of Grid and No Title, there’s a cheerful humour about the contemporary tension and malleability of language: between the artistry of communicating data in print, while the most democratised, accessible data is invisibly flitting between digital codes and algorithms that approach an untouchable universality, if not complete autonomy.
Any failure of ‘pure’ abstraction, however, occurs when even that negation relies on maintaining legitimacy around meaning – around the signifier as ‘something-to-negate’. Language, as it is, constricts the experience and being of the world into compact forms that serve our needs. Coming out of the 20th century, abstract art attempted to remove meaning from image, to destroy the sign and express essence. This negation of representation, however, relied upon the same semantic system it sought to demolish – the crutch of polarity upon which ideas of reality are still carried – a crippling legacy that maintains human experience, signs, and the negations of these, as determinants of what is inaccurate or what is objective. The contemporary argument – the ‘anti-humanism’ explored in philosopher Levi Bryant’s A Democracy of Objects, for instance – is that this division and motivation for abstraction is already coming from a perspective that is inaccurate. As we see, the ideal with which Trejo experiments is a non-semantic language that is independent of human motivations.
The exhibition space is occupied by fragments and attempts at constructing a language, in what Trejo calls an ‘enclosed universe’. This universe, in the truest spirit of abstraction, has no steadfast representation, and so it is not communicating for us based on such representation. In A Democracy of Objects, Bryant is immediately critical of a ‘reality for us’, which “condemns philosophy to a thoroughly anthropocentric reference” . This kind of worldview cannot imagine that it does not contain or require human presence. It is as if the world of objects, beings, experiences, has no independent existence, and is made known only by our human relationships and values. This ‘anti-reality’ is necessarily based upon division—that of ‘true representations’ and ‘inaccurate’ imaginings—a validation of a distinction between an objective reality and subjective experience. As Bryant notes, this reality is a ‘consensus’ – where multiple impressions of an objective reality collide at a single intersection where we choose to agree to a single system of interpretation.
It is in this way that we remain ‘anti-realists’ in a futile pursuit of truth while stumbling over the very illusory systems that leave us forever entangled in humanist interpretation. Most violently, this standard denies the legitimacy of a reality that may be constructed from a non-human perspective, and carries implications upon the relationships we have with other beings and spaces – relationships that are determined through a linguistic cosmology. We identify in Bryant’s argument that such an objective reality would rely on the relationship of humans and objects through an availability of knowledge – and thus, through the privilege of that access, and the power of having that knowledge. Bryant writes, “At issue was not the arid question of when and how we know, but rather the legitimacy of knowledge as a foundation for power.”
We enter into a world that is by all appearances incomplete, but which has a self-sustaining structure upon which we are non-determining viewers. Outside of directly relating to the practice of printmaking as a contemporary form of media, Trejo’s experiment connects to a timely, radical discourse around the power-structures within language that determine social and environmental relationships. In the graphic net of It is about Plants, Modernism, and Other Things, the alternative model – the democracy of objects – is suggested in the presence of a system of knowledge in which the human participant is a visitor, not the centre from which reality is determined. This anti-humanist revolution in information systems requires a reconstruction of the ways we actually relate to language, how we experience it and the resilience of social and environmental oppression within our systems of communication.