Boris Groys is an exceptional writer, because more than being an author, he is a thinker, of highest order. Even though most of his work is in the realm of art criticism, but his insight into theory and philosophy marks and makes his writing distinct and exciting. In addition to that his profundity of concepts and clarity of expression turn his books, article, essays, and reviews original, elaborate and extensive.
His latest book, Particular Cases is an example in this regard. A collection of essays on various artists, perhaps is one of his most unusual publication, because compared to earlier books, either collected essays or one book, this focuses mainly on individual artists of various generations – from Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, Piero Manzoni, Andy Warhol to contemporary practitioners, mostly from former USSR. Introducing the collection Groys explains: “When a theorist writes about individual artists and artworks, the reader’s first expectation is usually that the theorist is applying his or her general theory of art to certain particular cases. As the reader of the texts collected here will see, that is not my approach. The reason is simple enough: I do not have any general theory of art to apply.”
In fact, the text certifies this claim – or disclaimer. Because Groys approaches his personalities with an openness; treating each artist as unique professional, instead of viewing them from a rigid and consolidated vision. However, his text is added with references from philosophy, cultural studies, history and literature. Deconstructing Duchamp (probably a favourite pastime of many art critics, from Calvin Tomkins to Arthur C. Danto, and Octavio Paz) in the context of his readymade, Groys enlightens: “If we look more closely at the figure of Jesus Christ as described by Kierkegaard, it is striking that it appears to be quite similar to what we now call ‘readymade’.”
The insight and the originality of analysis astonishes a reader, almost grips him/her. Boris Groys in his mesmerising and captivating prose captures the essence of an artist’s practice. Which somehow is a difficult task, since – unlike an exhibition or a project, an artist represents – rather contains diversity of his/her ideas, imagery, positions and strategies – notwithstanding style. Often quite contradictory in terms of varying phases and stages of his/her career and oeuvre. So, writing a monograph, or an extended essay poses the problem to blend different streaks in one ‘coherent’ framework. It is almost curating the retrospective of an artist’s lifetime production and trying to make links – sense in the works created with many years’ gaps.
An intelligent curator or author, solves this issue, by concentrating on the recurring imagery, repeated themes, and re-emerging concerns. Boris Groys attempted to do so, in a brilliant manner, when he writes on artists such as Martin Honert, he examines his works from different phases and concludes: “Most of Martin Honert’s works have their source in memories that bring the artist back to his childhood”. But he is not satisfied with the statement, because Groys elaborates: “Of course, he is not unique in this respect, neither in the history of art nor on the contemporary art scene. But the way he treats images from his past is thoroughly original.”
Actually, Boris Groys’ text offers a thoroughly original approach in reading art – and artists. From the Western canon to a relatively periphery – Russia, he provides his opinion on their art, but endowed with supporting comments from philosophers and theorists. You come across Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and many other philosopher, whose contribution is crucial to comprehend contemporary and modern art. About modern art Boris Groys observes: “After Walter Benjamin, everyone knows that modern art, insofar as it can now be reproduced, has lost its aura. Accordingly, photography above all has no aura because of its potential for infinite reproduction”. Yet he also confesses: “Art has achieved an unparalleled speed in the last century. I am not talking about the representation of speed in art – an issue that was explored, for example, by the Futurists – but about the speed with which art is produced.”
Speed, oh, what a point, because today the world of Pakistani art is inflicted with speed. Of production, exhibition, commentary on it, projected internationally and getting works in collections. However, in a strange sense we fail to realize that in these efforts, we would always remain on margin, because our tactics and aspirations would lag behind the main course and discourse of mainstream art, which moved from modernism to postmodernism. Boris Groys critiques the divide between the two: “Western postmodernism was a reaction against the modernist canon – against the emergence of a new type of salon and the establishment of normative rules for the production and appreciation of art. In other words, postmodernism was a reaction against the academization of modernism.”
In his text Boris Groys, does not represent multiple points of views, but his own narrative in relation of art of present, with its history paved and presented through the works of different practitioners. So, the ‘Particular Cases’ – apparently, the book on art is about the book on artists, reminding the opening line of E. H. Gombrich from the Story of Art: “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.”