Just Begin, Daniel Devlin!

Just Begin, Daniel Devlin!


by Jennifer Viviani [2006]



One must not spend time doubting, one must just begin’ is the opening slogan for one of Daniel Devlin’s films, and yet Devlin never really begins any art. In fact, Devlin habitually avoids making any art, preferring rather to languish in the Ur stages of the art process. He frets not about what artwork he will make but rather indulges himself in neurotic self-analysis about what art itself is. In the video Conversation, Devlin and his Doppelganger (the artist plays both characters) sit around drinking coffee, one of the Devlins boring the other with rhetorical questions regarding the definition of ‘art’. Devlin 1 ponders one such definition he has read as ‘culturally significant meaning skilfully encoded in affecting sensuous medium’, a phrase he muses over until he drives Devlin 2 so crazy that he throws a glass of water over him. With a background soundtrack of canned audience laughter, booing and hissing, the philosophical questioning here is reduced to the slapstick humour of an American sitcom. Devlin is not really interested in finding answers; if he were, then he would have to get on and make some art, not lazy conversation.

Devlin is a self-confessed cynic. His videos are full of references to belief, and more specifically his inability to believe in himself as an artist or really to believe in art. He suggests that if he might only pretend to act like an artist, he might successfully pull off the illusion of being, or at least feeling, like an artist. In Window Tate, for example, Devlin Photoshops his name over the entrance to Tate Modern, replacing for a brief moment the existing exhibition banner for Frida Kahlo. He has also created a bogus magazine advert publicising the upcoming Recent Paintings exhibition of Herzog Dellafiore, a fake artist created once again by Devlin. In both cases, he neatly sidesteps the responsibility of making his own work, in the first instance allowing his name on the exhibition banner to stand in for any real exhibition, in the second passing off a badly disguised Bruce McLean painting as his, or rather his pseudonym’s, own. Each time, Devlin conceives of a seductive and plausible decoy to deflect the attention of the audience away from the gaping absence of his own work.

Devlin is, then, an expert in making meta-artworks: objects and statements that explain art or function as its accessories or souvenirs, but can never be taken for the artwork themselves. He has even created his own wikipedia entry with links to his publishing company Susak Press and Susak Expo, an annual ‘art event’ on the Croatian island of Susak initiated by Devlin last year, and which, despite the grandiose internet statement (since erased) favourably comparing the latter to the prestigious Venice Biennale, will probably not have a second outing. Adding to the smokescreen of misinformation, Devlin also claims to be part of a group called the Young Chelsea Artists (note that this neologism doesn’t receive wikipedia legitimisation). Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, Devlin attempts to expose the gullibility of art aficionados when in fact the humiliation should be his – for having nothing to show but empty promises and an aptitude for self-aggrandisement.

In another attempt not to make any art, and in fact sadistically to stop others from doing so, Devlin asked the artists he’d invited over for Susak Expo to paint all the wheelbarrows on the island. Taking advantage of the goodwill of the artists in his charge, he also demanded the gratitude of the locals: he made them pose for photographs alongside the new garish orange wheelbarrows that they had never asked to have decorated. Devlin has reversed the well-meaning (if often misguided) intentions of Relational Aesthetics: he constructs scenarios that cynically mimic the utopian model of reciprocal inter-human relations, all the while rendering the model completely meaningless with useless gestures and the exploitation of others for personal gain.

Fortunately for Devlin, he has just enough charisma, just enough hint of vulnerability, to fool his audience into believing in the sincerity of his soul-searching, the real agony behind his tormented artist act. In the first scene of Dokumentary, we find Devlin sitting in a darkened room, face obscured in the shadows. With muffled voice, Devlin makes a pathetic plea of victimhood like the reformed criminal in a crime investigation series: ‘I never intended to cause any harm to anybody… It was never my intention to mislead anyone.’ In a society that raises the bar ever higher for personal achievement and ambition, failure becomes an acceptable, even desirable outcome to hopes and dreams, and Devlin’s work relies on our ability to empathise with his constant failures. Yet when, like Devlin, one tries very little to achieve anything, failure becomes a reassuringly inevitability, an effortless alternative to the stressful expectations that result from accomplishing goals.

When Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history in 1989, he also exposed the inherent limitations of postmodern art, an art doomed to recycle itself. All that had been hailed as achievements of postmodern thought – an end to the tyranny of originality, an end to fascist ideology – was revealed to have an unpleasant corollary: an end to the possibility of change. In the 21st century, then, it’s no longer feasible to appropriate postmodern strategies wholesale without appearing to support the status quo, a position increasingly untenable in a new century blighted by violence and intolerance. Devlin’s practice, however, relies on pilfering and recycling art from the past. He re-enacts past artworks – Bas Jan Ader’s Fall, for example, in which the artists cycles straight into a canal – in the manner of the worst pop music cover version: as a vulgar marketing ploy. He usurps the romantic, tragic status of Jan Ader in order to win the compassion and respect of which he is so undeserving.

Devlin appropriates the nihilism of late postmodernism. Like many art students, he wants to be as cool as Martin Kippenberger: liberally helping himself to other artists’ work, taking control of his means of distribution and communication. Yet while Kippenberger’s anarchic production of his own catalogues, invitation cards and posters showed up, by comparison, the conservativeness of art design, Devlin’s imprint, Susak Press, is a tightly controlled propaganda machine that attempts to close off any critical dialogue about his work. Like the inflated wikipedia entry written by himself, Susak Press’s publications contain mostly essays about the artist commissioned by the artist – lofty words and flattering references that seek to fill out the bare bones of Devlin’s emaciated practice.