The Importance of Failure

The Importance of Failure


by Jo Melvin


There’s something about the creative act, the endeavour of making work, work we call art, that is predicated on the possibility of failure. It is the possibility of failure, and ensuing vulnerability, that are key components in Devlin’s practice. In these films he sets up a series of challenges to tackle the paradoxical moment that defines a decision.

He draws direct attention to the thin cusp between an either/or possibility and we could identify it as a split second of stasis. For a work to be worthwhile, whether it’s conceptual or actual, to be worth doing there’s the risk that it may not work out as planned, the plan itself proves unfeasible, or other unpredictable elements thwart an expected outcome.

Maybe when Daniel Devlin was planning his re-enactment of Bas Jan Ader’s Fall at the Serpentine, as when we see riding his bike along the path beside the lake past some passers-by he does the unexpected and continues his ride by steering the bike straight into the lake, for a split second of decision-making he did not know what would happen.

At the moment of confrontation, or rather just before it,  is there a way out and for how long is the option available to turn back and say it doesn’t work, I can’t do this, I can’t follow this act through, and to accept instead the disappointment of failure. The instinctive reaction of avoidance is subverted by an act that is both comical and ridiculous.

There is a more complex participation in the possibility of failure in this work, the recreation of Ader’s Fall in Amsterdam, and in the conversation of art and its objects. There is a deliberate recognition of the age-old paradox between an ideal and its expression. At each moment of a possible high point or the exhilaration of heightened sensibility, at that moment the inevitability of failure kicks in. Here the comic but salutary dousing, either immersion, falling in, or simply having a bucket of water chucked in your face.

The passers-by at the Serpentine may not even have remarked on the event other than to recount it as humorous. A man rides his bicycle in the lake-splash. In the busy bustle of everyday metropolitan life where the individual struggles to assert radical autonomy, Auden’s poem about Icarus’s fall identifies the stark vulnerability of an event that begins with hope and ends in despair. Auden’s account takes us to the core of the moment of simultaneity when there are both possible and impossible events taking place, a boy flies in the sky, the terrestrial being becomes aerial. He says that though the bystanders may have heard the splash and ‘the forsaken cry’, for them ‘it was not an important failure’.

There is a lightness of touch in Devlin’s work. We encounter it in the use of conversation for instance in Drazen where Devlin and a friend sit at a café drinking coffee and discussing the nature of coffee and the performance of its making. His friend speaks of a coffee maker whose reputation draws people to seek him out to taste the magical combination of flavours and to experience its philosophy, by implication becoming something of a quest. He speaks with a persuasive authority lightly subverted when we discover he himself has never tried it, only heard about it and been drawn by the allure.

In another work the dialogue continues. This time it’s a simultaneous duality of internal thought processes, we see two Devlins side by side drinking coffee, defining an idea of art’s ideality, its absurdity and in frustration the reaction, dousing with water, another splash and the dream dissolves.

In Window Tate we see the artist sitting in a room with a window behind him. Our view through the window is of the slope down into Tate Modern with the Frida Kahlo banners hanging above the entrance. And again the gentle play on artistic projection sets us following Devlin, whose figure we see through the window approaching the entrance. We watch while the action takes place behind his seated figure: he remains sitting, and behind him he walks purposefully down the ramp to the entrance as if recessed in his own mind, the thought seen simultaneously with the action. Then as with a blink, the name on the banner changes for a second or less to Daniel Devlin before returning to Kahlo as he himself turns to walk back up the ramp, back to and through the window.