Paul Ramirez Jonas

Paul Ramirez Jonas makes success out of failure: down with skinned knees and up with a renewed conviction tempered by a bloody respect for the 'thereness' of the ground. Two steps backwards, one step forwards, suchness from nothingness.

But what does Ramirez make? It's not enough to say that he re-makes objects, events and demonstrations from the history of science and technology, but that is what he does. In 1994 he replicated kites designed by seven turn-of-the-century inventors, including Alexander Graham Bell, who all lost the race for flight to the Wright Brothers. Here, Ramirez constructs the present from the past, and makes crystal clear water from those opaque and deceptive clouds far away. A couple of years before, he reconstructed Thomas Alva Edison's first phonograph of 1879. Here, Ramirez made wonderment from banality; listen long enough, hard enough, and the universe can be heard in a grain of sand. Presently, he's planning to walk the precise distances travelled daily by the English Explorer Robert Falcon Smith, who succeeded in making it to the South Pole, but 30 days after another explorer had already got there. Smith died on his journey home. Here, Ramirez makes laughter from tragedy: tears on a cheek sliding so suddenly to pleasure from pain, to hope from helplessness.

In this show, Ramirez reconstructed a mini version of the Battleship Maine in a bottle for a work entitled Remember the Maine (1995) - the Maine mysteriously sank in a Spanish harbour and was the catalyst for the Spanish-American War. The ship and bottle (yes, he actually made the thing in the bottle) were then set on the ground, dwarfed by a scale-drawing of the ship's propeller measuring over 15 feet in diameter. An artist's book shows government progress reports on the actual ship's construction, interspersed with photos documenting the various stages of completion, the sinking ship, and its subsequent raising several years later.

Perhaps, to get a little closer, it would help to say that Ramirez makes decisions about what to re-make. We can see a dangling label, like Minnie Pearl's newly acquired wardrobe with price tags still attached so the return can be made. Ramirez' label reads: Appropriation Art and its questionable legacy.

What are we to make of this? Sherrie Levine made a decision to re-make the male, pale and stale cannon of great Western artists, and we talked about legitimacy and authority and institutions and criteria. Elaine Sturtevant before her made a decision to re-make her famous friends' art. Story has it that a collector was admiring a Jasper Johns in Leo Castelli's place, who casually informed the art lover that it was actually a Sturtevant. Then, there's Richard Prince making his decision to re-make the white trash, the pulp, the picture catalogues, his great archaeological dig of the underside of pop. And, as with Levine, we talked and talked about authorship, high culture and low, so many problems with 'art'. Yet we continue, with no solutions, perhaps with exhaustion, or waning interest, but nonetheless we continue.

And so does Ramirez. His art is an explicit testament to time - to technological and political time - insofar as it takes these so often as its subject. But it is also an implicit testament to artistic time, in that it asks us gently, almost as an afterthought, to reconsider the relation-ship between the two. Now, by most accounts, appropriation is no longer a gesture, it's just something else people do. To do is to be. It's okay to steal. To be is to do. Do be do be do. Appropriation is just another instrument for the artistic tool box, next to the Crayolas - a neutral representational device which artists use to talk about 'issues'.

Ramirez' issues? At face value, they are the incredibly complex and contingent conditions in which the quest for invention and will of thought become part of history; but they are behind his displays, between the stories' words, underpinning the making of his decision to remake. Ramirez' investment in these issues is not mere 'interest', rather, when looking at his work, when thinking about his work, it becomes clear that this guy is madly, passionately in love with the stuff of invention. It is in this relation, a relation of intense intimacy and conviction, a relation which blurs the distinction between success and failure, where Ramirez makes his art. Society makes the madman mad, and the madman makes society sane - and sometimes, perhaps by design or accident, new things are made.

Issue 28

First published in Issue 28

May 1996

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