Daniel C. Blight
This essay was written to accompany the exhibition Jeremy Millar.
Installation view, Jeremy Millar, Chandelier Projects
Roland Barthes asked in his 1978 lectures The Neutral, which took place at the Collège de France in the casual serenity of a series of Saturday afternoons, whether there might be a second place. Whatever the obviousness of such a proposition, if taken in the most general manner – which of course in Barthes could only be an allusion to the intellectual labyrinth to follow – there is also a clarification and a complication to be had.
Barthes lists through the idea of the painter’s studio as a second place for work aside the home; his desire to have a second, secret dwelling unfamiliar to him in which he can simply be; his fantasy to have two places to write, perhaps a hotel or a beach house; and finally onto the thing that made this proposition rest, at least momentarily: that which impresses him.
Perhaps that is why he turned to Proust: the, as Proustian scholar Adam Watt puts it, ‘writing of an ironist, a pasticheur... and a humorist’. In all the intellectual charisma apparent in The Neutral, as I read it in its translated and annotated form, it took the unraveling of a myth – the way in which Barthes came to Proust – for him to find his impression. The meaning of the myth, as Barthes puts it, is ‘precisely, that which impresses me.’ It is also a retreat for Barthes: the impression of his second place.
Jeremy Millar, 286 (detail), Vintage French laundry tape, suspended, 286 x 0.9cm, 2013
Impressions might be a distraction from precision. George Eliot thought so of Harold, her wealthy land-owning character in Felix Holt, the Radical (1866): ‘Harold, like the rest of us, had many impressions which saved him the trouble of distinct ideas.’ More precisely with regard to the object of art, impressions for Alberto Giacometti were described so: ‘once the object has been constructed, I have a tendency to discover in it, transformed and displaced, images, impressions, facts which have deeply moved me.’
The difference between these two references is nothing essentially: impressions are, at least in this case at their most subtle level, the alienating of reasoning from feeling. For Harold, a general desire for money and a wife overpowered the reality of him not being Esther Lyon’s ideal social or intellectual suitor (instead she runs off with the working-class sympathiser Felix Holt, who, in order to live-out his admirable social interests, discarded a medical career for life as a simple watchmaker).
Jeremy Millar, Neutral (Diluted), Diluted ink on paper, 25.4 x 17.8cm, 2007 ￼￼￼￼￼
For Giacometti, it is the release of the finished object into the world that creates the possibility for his displacements, images and impressions, not before, but after the object’s construction. Perhaps, like Harold – but under different illusions – Giacometti was also hypnotised by the material prospects of his practice: materiality before meaning; objects that might – with a need to be examined – give way to precision in some form.
What do distinct ideas look like as objects? Jeremy Millar knows. Within Millar’s practice ideas emerge from objects, places or situations, or are incited by them. At first materiality is emphasised; offered to us as deeply textured forms. What follows is the way in which an object might suggest a manner in which it can be approached. This in itself should allude to something more: one is not met by images of some of the world’s most notable historic objects or places without some thought of their distinction. Millar offers the viewer an impression and the challenge to look for a reason for it. This is the best kind of toing-and-froing between image and concept. It is the artist perhaps acknowledging the myth that there can be any precision without distraction; any object without an impression, be it in the form of irony, pastiche or humour to return to the example of Proust.
What if, however, these stylistic tones are not immediately available, or impressions are not made, nor made well known? What if we’re looking at something altogether blander in the case of Millar’s work, not to its detriment, but to its service as engaging and compelling?
Another resting place for Barthes during his lecture series was on the influence the Eastern mystics would have on his concept of the Neutral, particularly the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. Barthes travelled to China, but according to François Jullien, did not fully comprehend the extent to which the Neutral could find further explanation through the breadth of Eastern thought on the subject of blandness. To this end, Jullien offers balanced criticism of Barthes in the early pages of his 2004 book In Praise of Blandness: ‘Barthes knew nothing of the motif of the bland as it has evolved within the Chinese tradition. But he did notice something that he develops provocatively, within the limit of those pages, as his guiding theme. China is not “colorful”; it is “flat,” “pale.” There, words harbor something “silent,” and “amiability” remains “distant.” In short, for this lover of rhetoric, China is “Prose.”’
Eastern aesthetics would actually have us think the impression of blandness to be taken positively, as the fundamental beginning of all things. It is not a dulling brown tone or an unseasoned potato, but as François Jullien has it, as ‘the embodiment of neutrality, the bland lies at the point of origin of all things possible and so links them.’
Jullien’s study extends Barthes’ while offering a manner in which to consider Millar’s work here, with its references to both Western and Eastern aesthetics and thinking. Millar’s work seems full of the Neutral, whatever it might be. It also appears suspended between two places: objects and prose. Materiality is foregrounded, but meaning, through a certain blandness, is strikingly present; one just has to remember that, as Jullien concludes of the thing that is everywhere: ‘blandness is, of necessity, fugitive... It evades all who would pursue it through methodical, intentional searching; you will not grasp its hand in order to keep it with you.’
Millar knows something of the motif of the bland. Materiality with meaning; objects that might – with a need to be examined – give way to precision in some form. It impresses us: the impression of a second place.