Untitled (Clock) (2014) by the Perth-born, Melbourne-based artist Stuart Ringholt is modelled on an antique mantelpiece clock, stands three metres high, and completes a minute in forty-five seconds. I’ve only ever experienced the work as part of Today Tomorrow Yesterday: the almost absurdly lazy four-year-long exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia, on show to July 2020. Because of the sculpture’s prominence in a show catering mostly to drop-by tourists wandering around Circular Quay, I usually see the work incidentally, on my way to other shows in the same building. In my mind, at least until the exhibition closes later this year, Ringholt’s clock is a permanent public-art object, heavy with everyday context yet recurrently passing its 18-hour days as if in a zone of its own. With its present yet-alien headspace, Untitled (Clock) can’t help but invoke the artist himself, whose idiosyncrasies, however amiable, have been noted by just about every writer or curator who has worked with him.
Something is happening in Ringholt’s world, but we don’t know what it is. Marching to the tick of a different clock, life perhaps goes by faster for Ringholt than it does for others. Or should that be slower? Does the artist come off as old and wise—like the Indian spiritual gurus he admires—or as naïve as a child? For many commentators, the basis of Ringholt’s practice is his desire to help others. Charlotte Day states that Ringholt “wants his art to be helpful and cathartic.” For Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, art for him is “a means to create situations where people can confront their fear of social embarrassment.” Michael Young echoes such claims by declaring “aesthetics is of secondary importance” for Ringholt.
Yet, apart from his performance projects—the naked gallery tours, embarrassing interactions (Embarrassed, 2001–03), fear workshops (Funny Fear Workshop, 2004), Laughter Workshops (2012–ongoing), and Anger Workshops (from 2008)—Ringholt produces so much that doesn’t even remotely convey a cathartic impulse. In fact, the artist admits that many of the aforementioned projects were conceived after being thrown by a question posed to him in 2004 by Frantiska and Tim Gilman‑Sevcik, after which he realised “my work wasn’t practical for others.” In my own encounters with Ringholt’s work, I’m often surprised at just how procedural, formalist and “factual” it can be, conveying what Justin Paton describes, in a passing commentary on Untitled (Clock), as “sheer thereness.”
Paton cites Dada artist Hana Höch as a precedent for understanding Ringholt as a “collage artist,” reiterating Robert Leonard’s assessment of the artist’s “collage logic,” which balances a propensity to juxtapose with a yearning to heal. For Höch, collage was unquestionably a transgressive medium, well-suited to the political chaos of the newly formed Weimar Republic, after the First World War. Ringholt’s approach, in comparison, is far milder, to say the least. It’s telling, for instance, that even his go‑to porn in the collage series Nudes (2013) is of the nostalgic, inoffensive variety. This is one of the reasons why Leonard thinks Ringholt “ultimately holds out for the possibility of some future reconnection, restitution, and reintegration” in his work. Just as the circular cuts‑and‑pastes in Circle Heads (2005) are disfiguring yet look as if they’ve adapted surprisingly well to their new contexts, Untitled (Clock) disrupts as well as connects.
Beaming “a parallel universe […] into our own,” the work transports viewers, conceptually and emotionally, to some cosmological point of origin—bringing us together only after first severing us from earthly time, from what we habitually know.
Leonard finds correspondences between the artist’s collages and his naked gallery tours because “it is as though naked people taken from another context or genre have been collaged into the art gallery, generating a surreal effect.” The problem is, apart from the “surreal” part, Leonard’s account defines the entire basis of modern and contemporary art, which continually finds ways to place bodies, forms or genres from “another context” into the domain of art’s hermeneutic lineages. Better, then, to think of Ringholt’s practice not in terms of a “collage logic” but as a comedy of collisions—a conceptual form of slapstick whose “sheer thereness” attests to its contemplative, rather than laugh‑out‑loud, character.
This is especially true of the video works Merri Creek (2007) and Helen Lane (2009) which, despite comprising looping, protagonist–victim procedures—the former involving the planting of a tree, the latter an earth compactor with a tree attached—are introspective and aporetic. The American comedian Andy Kaufman, who was himself an exponent of Transcendental Meditation and a follower of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, looms large over this terrain. Like him, Ringholt is a spiritual outsider who isn’t afraid of mixing attention‑seeking stunts with a refusal to “act” or to mindlessly occupy the roles expected of him. Ringholt’s refusal to play the role of the artist who passively shows their wares to the visiting international curator is precisely what first impressed Christov‑Bakargiev, who curated him into the 2008 Sydney Biennale and penned an essay about this refusal for Artforum.
Works such as Starring William Shatner as Curator (2010), CUR8OR (Mitsubishi Magna) (2017) and CRITIC (Nissan Pulsar) (2014), point to Ringholt’s navigation of artworld expectations, employing inadequacy as his operative aesthetic. For H. Peter Steeves, Kaufman’s own reliance on failure in his work “is not our failure as an audience or as knowers—it is a failure of epistemology, of identity itself, of space collapsing until there is no outside.” Just as Kaufman’s “this is the real me” schtick reveals the fictional necessity of realism, part of the charm of Ringholt’s work is in not being able to get a sense of who he really is. The more he exposes himself, the less we know.
In underlining a procedural dimension to the place where seriousness and humour butt heads, Ringholt also echoes Kaufman in knowing the value of a good gimmick. By this, I don’t mean “something that isn’t of real value used to attract people’s attention or interest temporarily,” but in the sense Sianne Ngai describes: the gimmick as a performative trope constitutive of the slippage between “wonder” (positive) and “trick” (negative) in modern and postmodern societies. Art gimmicks, from Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to Maurizio Cattelan’s banana, flit between positive and negative judgement, providing philosophical transparency along regressive lines. To name a gimmick is to see it, in method and effect, as uneasily revealing the logic of how something does what it does.
After receiving the e‑invite for Ringholt’s inaugural naked gallery tour in 2011 (as part of Leonard’s group exhibition, Let the Healing Begin, at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art), I remember thinking immediately of Andrea Fraser’s notorious Untitled (2003): a 60‑minute video of the artist having sex with an unidentified American collector. I like both pieces, but, when they first came to my attention, I was instantly suspicious. Firstly, I wondered if the artists were cheapening their practices to make contributions to conceptual art history that mum, dad and maybe David Walsh would find risqué as artistic one‑liners. Secondly, I was amazed that no one had done it before, and I wanted to see the works.
Of course, knowledge of tricks as tricks does little to dissipate our attachment to them, and may actually strengthen their power. Ngai, in Theory of the Gimmick, doesn’t reflect much on the phenomenon of the initially perceived gimmick that, on further inspection, turns out not to be so. If she did, she might come up with a better word that would retain the gimmick’s paradoxical character and temporal instability (gimmicks are both novel and passé, forward looking and dated, timely yet follow a repeatable logic) but not its ties to “judgment[s] of cheapness.” In trying to abbreviate the world—to time, to bare skin, to the social sphere, to primal psyches—reduction, for Ringholt, leads to greater expansion and complexity.
In his self‑published PhD exegesis, A Problem Smile: Workshops, Tours and Discos (2016), he analyses his practice primarily through two concepts: “reduction” and “compression.” Writing on Anger Workshops (which incorporates Osho Rajneesh’s AUM meditation practices created in the 1970s), “compression” is used to describe: 1. The pressure exerted on subjects to recover painful memories; 2. The gathering together of participants in a restricted institutional space; and 3. The use of hugging exercises at the conclusion of every workshop. Within this framework, art for Ringholt entails applying certain pressures to certain subjects and situations, in the hope of reducing bad thoughts and feelings, such as anxiety. His best analogy for this approach is the massage or pottery‑wheel scenario, where “compressive force [is] potentially a stress‑reducing activity.”
Although not the most coherent of arguments, it reveals the artist’s vigilance about the psychophysiological powers and pressures in his work. A successful artwork in these terms is not one in which viewers experience therapeutic freedom but one that creates eustress (or “positive” stress), stemming from the right amount of pressure being exerted. Time is compressed in Untitled (Clock). It is the inverse of Ringholt’s first clock sculpture, Wrist Watch (19 hour) (2004), in which an analogue wristwatch with altered numbers promises two 19‑hour cycles instead of two 12‑hour ones. Oddly, in spite doing opposite things, both are equally evocative of Jonathan Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (2013). Whether time compression or time extension, in a culture that needs to be permanently awake, more time will likely be as anxiety‑producing as less.
When conceiving of these sculptural timepieces, Ringholt’s thoughts were with the alternative possibilities of living with much shorter or much longer days on earth. But, with the advent of Amelia Barrikin’s fantastic 2014 essay, “Time Outside of Time: Stuart Ringholt’s Club Purple And Untitled (Clock),” the artist’s ideas have shifted to time travel, or, more specifically, to the temporal and physiological conditions of earth about a billion years either side of now. His latest work, another monumental timepiece, Nuclear Clock (2019), is this time scheduled on a 33- rather than an 18‑hour day. In her essay, Barrikin points out that the 18‑hour cycle of Untitled (Clock) might be an accurate portrayal of one complete rotation of the earth 900 million years ago. From this, Ringholt wanted to create another clock that would have less to do with the earthy effects of non‑stop 21st‑century capitalism and more with astronomical evolution.
Both Untitled (Clock) and Nuclear Clock have exposed rears that invoke time as a planetary system‑maker, but, whereas Untitled (Clock) relies on an antique trope, Nuclear Clock is more futurist in design, with a more sophisticated automation system and more elaborate, even drolly, pedantic rules for viewer participation. Exhibited at the 2019 Aichi Triennale, Japan, Nuclear Clock has at its rear visible earth and moon balls that drop at regular intervals in the clock’s base, where they collide with a large rotating yellow ball (sun/neutron) before dropping randomly through a hidden hole onto the dark carpet of the exhibition space. Viewers are invited to participate in its operation by placing very small materials of their choosing into empty gelatin pill capsules. These are then entered into the clock’s mechanics, grinding them down to almost nothing.
Barrikin claims that one of the possible lessons of Untitled (Clock) “is that self‑regulation, including psychological regulation, requires us to remain in sync with ‘normative’ behavioural coding. This includes temporal coding.” Time regulation, and its exhilarating symbolic release, is a key component of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 1992 science fiction novel Red Mars, which imagines colonists on Mars who regulate a 40‑minute period outside of earthly 24‑hour time to counteract the red planet’s marginally longer solar day. Barrikin summarises: “Revelling in the gift of ‘time outside of time,’ the colonists organised celebrations and festivals to coincide with the temporal break … [enabling them] to lose their personal inhibitions while cementing their collective independence from earth as ‘outsiders.’”
The time slip is, for Barrikin, useful in understanding other works by Ringholt that implicate time, including his naked disco, Club Purple (2014), in which participants have spoken of their sense of time being radically distorted. She also considers one of his earliest works, C3PO at North Innaloo Primary School (1995), which, on 16-mm film, documents the artist’s naked visit (in a Star Wars C3PO mask) to the grounds of a primary school in Perth, associated with the time he was consoled after his eight‑year‑old sister’s death. Stripping off during a visit to the site of a traumatic childhood memory on a public holiday (so as not to be arrested), the work becomes “a kind of officially sanctioned time slip … [and] a way of being naked outside of time.”
Slips in time can only be named as such against a backdrop of time’s regulation, so that the “slip” can be registered as anomalous or diversionary. Instead of an absolute release, Barrikin hints at the time slip as another form of temporal conditioning. With this, Ringholt’s desire to compress or expand time must also be seen as a desire to re‑regulate it. We know through figures such as Michel Foucault that it is not just a question of resisting regulatory measures, because even in resistance subjects are always in some way branded or formed by them.
Regulatory mechanisms can set in motion a proliferation of what is intended to regulate: industrial time gives rise to new demands for leisure time, the “control” of sexuality leads to new forms of sexual pleasure, etc. We could therefore read Ringholt’s time‑themed works less as platforms to be “naked outside of time” and more as collisions of temporal regulation, where speculative pressures press against the pressures regulating our bodies. Another way of saying this is that all conditioning is a form of temporal conditioning—all storytelling a form of recollection and a way of reconciling ourselves to a past.
Conceptually abstract yet heavy with “sheer thereness,” the thematic distance of Untitled (Clock) intensifies its local significance. The work asks viewers to negotiate some other time with a day‑to‑day one—an abstraction with the milieu in which it sits. In fact, both Untitled (Clock) and Nuclear Clock don’t say much about time as a central subject at all, presenting it instead as the pressurised by‑product of negotiations among entities. In the words of Bruno Latour: “Time does not pass. Times are what are at stake between forces. […] There are as many directions as there are agents capable of making their positions irreversible.”
Ringholt’s cognisance of how reduction doesn’t reduce is precisely what gives depth to his collision comedies, even if arriving here by way of Osho Rajneesh rather than Latour. As singular as they are, every piece in the context of the artist’s practice is also generative, a chance not for the artist to hone a script but to listen and respond, even to confront the limitations informing his conceptions. From this, it follows that a Ringholt workshop may say more about him than it does you. A regressional project may say more about you than it does him. A collage may say more about harmony than disruption. And works that speculate on extraordinary astronomical pasts and futures may say a whole lot more about their own immanent settings.
- ^ Charlotte Day, “Introduction,” Stuart Ringholt: Kraft, Melbourne: Monash University Museum of Art, 2014, p. 5.
- ^ Carolyn Christov‑Bakargiev, “On Anger, Fear, Laughter and the Art of Healing,” Stuart Ringholt: Kraft, p. 18.
- ^ Michael Young, Stuart Ringholt: A Naked Truth,” Art Asia Pacific 79, 2012, p. 87.
- ^ Stuart Ringholt, “Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh in Conversation with Stuart Ringholt, 20 March 2014,” Stuart Ringholt: Kraft, p. 39.
- ^ Justin Paton, “At Odds: Opening remarks on Kraft by Stuart Ringholt, Monash.edu, 15 February 2014.
- ^ Robert Leonard, “The Artist Will Be Naked,” Stuart Ringholt: Kraft, p. 30.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Ibid., pp. 26–27.
- ^ Christov‑Bakargiev, Carolyn, First Take: Carolyn Christov‑Bakargiev on Stuart Ringholt, Artforum (45:5), January 2007, p. 199.
- ^ H. Peter Steeves, “Quantum Andy,” Angelaki, 21: 3, 2016, p. 115.
- ^ Sianne Ngai, “Theory of the Gimmick,” Critical Inquiry 43, Winter 2017, pp. 469–70__12 Ibid., p. 495__13 Stuart Ringholt, A Problem Smile: Workshops, Tours and Discos, Melbourne: self‑published, 2016, pp. 12–13.
- ^ Ibid., p. 495.
- ^ Stuart Ringholt, A Problem Smile: Workshops, Tours and Discos, Melbourne: self‑published, 2016, pp. 12–13.
- ^ Amelia Barrikin, “Time Outside of Time: Stuart Ringholt’s Club Purple And Untitled (Clock),” Stuart Ringholt: Kraft, p. 36.
- ^ Ibid.
- ^ Ibid., p. 33.
- ^ Ibid., p. 33.
- ^ Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, trans. Alan Sheridan and John Law (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 165, 135.
- ^ Bruno Latour, The Pasteurization of France, (trans. Alan Sheridan and John Law), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988, pp. 165, 135.
Wes Hill is Senior Lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture at Southern Cross University, Lismore.
Upcoming exhibitions featuring Stuart Ringholt include:
Screen Space – Stuart Ringholt, Art Gallery of Western Australia, 14 March – 27 July 2020
Great Movements of Feeling, Mildura Arts Centre, 7 May – 12 July 2020
Stuart Ringholt: The End, City Gallery Wellington, 26 September 2020 – 17 January 2021