Mark Clare ‘One Man’s Terror is Another Man’s Freedom’, Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin, 16 March – 19 April 2007.
What Can We Do In Here? In Mark Clare’s video work, The Perfect Human, 2006, we hear clearly from the narrator that the ‘perfect human can move in a room. The room is boundless and radiant with light. It is an empty room. There are no boundaries’. But we see something else entirely. Strangely at odds with the text, Clare stands on a wooden box in a cluttered, dimly lit, claustrophobic room. The paradox renders plaintive the categorical statements of the narrator. The soundtrack is doleful from the start. By the end, the whole episode is tragicomic.
Similar pathos is to be seen in A New Kind of King, also 2006. The narrator returns with the same impossible declarations. This time, Clare is a pretend gymnast, raised up by a collaborator, circus-style, only to fall down moments later. ‘Look at him fall, this is how he falls’. Once again, the action is inane, the voice-over strangely sententious, the soundtrack humorously mournful. These two short videos borrow from Dane, Jorgen Leth’s 1967 film Det Perfekte Menneske, and their engaging success owes something to the original.
But Mark Clare’s presence in these works augments Leth’s film and brings new meaning and emphasis. And both pieces become touchstones for an understanding of the artist’s ongoing practice. At the heart of the videos is a powerful existential theme, one which appears and reappears across much of Clare’s output. The Perfect Human gives us the artist in his pyjamas. This is the human being just after dawn – or just before bed: full of potential or as good as dead. A Homo sapiens in his small earth-bound space, surrounded with bits and pieces of technology; some light, some power, some space. With limited resources, wonders Clare, how might this human being make an impact, how might he effect change, ‘what can he do?’
The conflicting impulses which are felt by this functioning ‘perfect human’ are cleverly captured. Clare choreographs a witty combination of vain posturing and committed karate. He is representative of a species, ours of course, which is still in the first moments of life but, seemingly, already determined to effect its own terminal retirement. Clare as typical human actor is at once ineffectually aesthetic and compelled to act: two components of an existential dilemma felt by most of us but most acutely by the artist.
Jean Paul Sartre might be called upon briefly to help us understand this core of Clare’s work. Sartre famously made reference to a paper knife to argue that the human being does not have an essence. A paper knife, he said, is created by an intelligent designer expressly to cut paper. It thus has an essence – to cut paper. Not inclined to believe in a divine creator, Sartre saw humans, therefore, as having no essence; no divine creator has installed defined purpose through our design. Ours is a purposeless lot, then, we have no paper to cut, no equivalent essence: but for Sartre and Clare our lot is not one without purposiveness. And this subtle point about meaningfulness within an absence of essence helps us see through The Perfect Human to the most fundamental concern of Clare.
As an artist he is continually asking of himself, and us, what is the purposiveness of human life in a purposeless context? What can we do? What should we do? Motivated by this existential restlessness, Clare looks with a kind of neutral fascination at those humans who have a clear sense of purpose, of political drive, conviction; those who have an unimpeachable sense of essence, of higher purpose. In the exhibition One Man’s Terror is Another Man’s Freedom, Finland 2006, we saw two adjacent screens. On the left, caught on CCTV, a Palestinian woman tries in vain to detonate her explosives belt so as to blow herself up for her higher purpose. Her essence is to exist so as to then die for the god who is her intelligent designer. On the right, we see Clare as a ‘cutter’, a self-harmer, a less certain human being than his neighbour, one who searches through pain for an essence beyond a more painful sense of purposelessness.
Similarly, for the short film One Man’s Terror, 2006, he takes the part of the political activist – not to showcase the specific cause, but to wonder about the psyche of the individual so driven. And maybe that wonder is everything. Clare is an artist who shoulders our existential burden. He is not a finessed and refined relational artist who seeks to educate the viewer in the particularities of a political cause – or the niceties of the contemporary art world for that matter.
Instead, he wants us to feel the core conflict between the vain aesthetic posturing and the determined karate action. To do this he places us four-square in the claustrophobic room, because that is where we are, that is what is ours. And with us hemmed-in here, ultimately he asks us not about the Troubles or Palestine or 9/11, he asks us, following Sartre I’m sure, to accept the boundaries of the dim room and to find purposiveness in something which doesn’t beget strife over essences. As soon as we contemplate what our purposiveness might be – and we cannot help but contemplate this in the face of the Perfect Human his actions being so far from perfect, so close to us, and so absurd, we honour ourselves by becoming momentary artists.
Pyjama-ed and doltish, yes, stumbling and falling, yes, but this time we are ready to enjoy the day anew, reunited beyond anything partisan or essential with all of our tragicomic fellow sufferers – or should that be, all of our fellow wonderers. Maybe, given time.