Ghislaine Leung – Complicity, Fetish, Agency

Complicity, Fetish, Agency

There is a particular movement, or series of movements, that I always return to. It's like a refrain in music: dissonance, resolution and suspense. Notes played out in the oppositional relationship between the critical and the criticised. The dependence withdrawal has upon presence, intervention upon involvement, independence upon abnegation. The subsequent takedowns, revelations and exposures. It is From A to B & Back Again.[1] It's from institutional critique to the institution of critique and no returns.[2] This is not to say issues have been resolved, or reframed, or, in many cases, that they have even shifted; these critical and institutional labours seem more than ever needed.

In Hannah Arendt’s 1968 essay ‘Truth and Politics’ she writes that, “To be sure, as far as action is concerned, organised lying is a marginal phenomenon, but the trouble is that its opposite, the mere telling of facts, leads to no action whatever; it even tends, under normal circumstances, toward the acceptance of things as they are.”[3] Today it seems that organised lying is likely no longer a marginal phenomenon. In a claused revision of the classic liar paradox, ‘everything I say is false’ becomes ‘everything I say is true, because everything they say is false’. The lie is effective, it is more appealing, more candid and more exciting. Arendt warned of the political efficacy of lying, as well as its capacity for social change, “He (the Liar) is an actor by nature; he says what is not so because he wants things to be different from what they are – that is, he wants to change the world.”[4] As she followed in her 1969 essay ‘Lying in Politics’, “Such change would be impossible if we could not mentally remove ourselves from where we physically are located and imagine that things might as well be different from what they actually are. In other words, the deliberate denial of factual truth – the ability to lie – and the capacity to change facts – the ability to act – are interconnected; they owe their existence to the same source: imagination.”[5] Action, in this sense, is less bound to truth-telling than to the imaging of difference. Agency – our ability to act this difference – is complicit, it encompasses both denial and fabrication.

In working within institutions, critical practices and artworks can often, beyond even simple involvement or advocacy, also be part of a process of revalidation, making the institution appear capable of self-critique. The inverse side of this is that these critical practices and artworks appear, by being placed within the institution, self-instituting. And perhaps I should be clear at this stage that I do not only mean to refer here to the relation between artwork and art institution, though certainly this is my example, but also the general way in which positions of resistance often define themselves in and against the dominant forms they seek to criticise. The master’s house, the master’s tools.[6] In saying this I do not mean to say critique must happen externally. Distance might not be possible to attain, and even if achieved, its broader visibility may still necessitate involvement. Neither is this a dismissal of these forms of resistance, which are very needed and highly effective. The problem is not a lack of externality or a surfeit of internality, it is that these oppositional and identitarian definitions often obscure their interdependence in order to gain a certain efficacy, a certain ability to act. What might be important is not a conflation of ‘us’ and ‘them’, but that we often hold both positions. This is our complicity. To deny complicity apropos of a clean autonomy might seem to be effective, but it is this very efficacy that can end up being the most efficiently instrumentalised.[7] Not only is there is no neutral ground to speak of, we are not neutral, and if we do not use our energy, then someone else will.[8]

Something else must be done. We are always asking how we should resist, what we should resist, what the forms are by which we can resist. We hold great stock in these forms of resistance, whether they are found in a person, a group, a medium or an object, that this will be the thing that allows for critique. We have come to expect that an institution can be criticised through its apparatus, its barriers, frames, display boards and fittings. This is the syntax of the gallery, and foregrounding such things is to some extent rooted in structural and materialist practices, in displacing narrative to reveal construct. Boarding the door to a gallery, exposing the contract of a work's sale, exhibiting the crate used to ship a work – these are all work or have worked at certain times. This does not mean that their efficacy can be used to presume transparency is somehow equivalent to critique. If context is half the work, this should not in any way preclude the organisation, the service, the infrastructure – more to the point, our service, our infrastructure.[9] The assumption that certain objects or ideas are prejudged to be critical per se is based on this subsumption of material conditions into objects of provenance. Institutional critique is complicit with the institution not because it is inside, or because there is no longer an outside, but more specifically through fetishising the apparatus of power and verification.

What I would like to suggest is that it is this complicity with fetishism that might be important. It is in commodity fetishism that “the social character of labour appears to us to be an objective character of the products themselves”.[10] To remove the art object and to reveal the physical components of the institution are both, in some way, commensurate with that logic. As Josef Strau wrote in 2006 of a certain non-productive attitude, “It was maybe a kind of transformed fetishism attitude to live the social life of an artist without actually producing any art, or at least without presenting any art.” A possible by-product of such a non-productive attitude, alongside the critical refusal of certain high production values in objects, is this self-objectifying artist-subject, where product is displaced into practice; work substituted for narrative, expression for organisation.[11] After all, both services and goods are commodities and open to the same fetishisation as objects. At whichever point we use our energies to push fetish away it seems to reappear behind us to push us over, for it is specifically already us. It is not the avoidance of fetish that is important, but our complicity to it, that we are both definers of objects and defined by objects. That we objectify, not only things, but each other and ourselves; as both acting subjects and subject to these actions. Complicity is not a position one needs to get to, it is the position we are already in – there is nothing to get, build on or develop; it doesn't have to be mobilised or made manifest; it is the current and messy state of affairs. Complicity is what it is to act together, it is the nature of being in relationships. To individualistically undermine or ignore these relations would in fact be to ignore ourselves, to take no responsibility for our part in relations and in so doing perhaps to undermine our own agency or ability to resist at all.

Complicity speaks of a we, not an I.[12] This is not a question of oppositions that shape and fix the terms of engagement, nor strict delineations that allow effective measures of failure or success. Violence is not always clear; systemic and structural violence is also soft and insidious. We cannot leave complicity languishing in self-reflexive tautology while we revel in our own ingenuity that we have been so clever as to see that we have tricked ourselves. Nor can we leave it isolated in some conceit that we have escaped through some kind of infinite withdrawal strategy and in so doing relinquish the position by which we can speak at all. To do so would be to miss the fine print on appearance: fetishism is neither lie nor truth, it is “magic and necromancy”, it is where relations between objects appear to take on relations between subjects and vice versa.[13] Critique, in seeing that it too may be an institution, must begin to construe complicity not as a hindrance but as a porous ground for agency, via both institutional critiques and institutions of critique. Every single artist I love that has withdrawn or countered or disappeared has done so publicly, and has laboured hard to maintain their specific mode of non-productivity. It is understanding that work does not lie in the work itself only, but in the bodily labour of practice. Key to the agency of complicity is this position: that we are accomplices, companions, witting partners. This is not about effecting change via denial but imaging our actions differently, self-instituting does not mean self-policing. Critique is not criticism, it is, in the most material sense, love's work.[14]


Talk commissioned for Mind Games, The Thought Menu, Lima Zulu, London, 2012 and edited London, 2018. Note on requests: I am bad at saying no. So bad that, that for years I advocated the Forbes Guide to Saying No as a means of support. I used to have an ‘Say No’ alarm on my phone that went off every morning to remind me. I always accommodated requests, although I generally resented being asked. I remember complained to CB about this, expecting to illicit some form of sympathy or at least indulge in a conspiratorial gripe session, and was surprised to be told that the situation was of my own making - that if I really felt so strongly about it I could refuse to accommodate these requests. This push back was not comfortable, it made me complicit in what I had so readily identified as a wrong, but in doing so it also gave me back some agency to right that, or at least reconstitute those grounds. This text came out of that exchange. Quoted references from: [1] Warhol, Andy, From A to B and Back Again: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, London, Picador Books, 1986. [2] Fraser, Andrea, ‘From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique’, Artforum, September 2005. Sourced from: Also, Hito Steyerl, 'The Institution of Critique', European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, 01 2006. Sourced from: [3] Arendt, Hannah, 'Truth and Politics', Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, Penguin Books, London, 2006, p. 246. [4] Ibid., p. 246. [5] Arendt, Hannah. ‘Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers’, Crises of the Republic, San Diego, New York, London, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1972 p. 5. [6] Lorde, Audre, ‘The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House’, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Berkeley, Crossing Press, 1984, p. 110. [7] Broodthears, Marcel, ‘1972, Düsseldorf, the "Musée d'Art Moderne, département des Aigles", the figure section’, in Jeu de Paume Retrospective Marcel Broodthaers, 14 min 7 sec, Broadcaster FR3, Belgium, 06 January, 1992. Sourced from: “I think that the result that is achieved is an interrogation on art through the artistic object that is the eagle. That is obvious. Eagle and art are mistaken for one another…What I mean is, to separate what is art within an object, for example, here, what is art and what is ideological. Right? I want to show the ideology as it is and to, in fact, prevent art from making this ideology unapparent, and therefore efficient.” [8] Lorde, Audre, Audre Lorde Live at UCLA circa early 1990s. Sourced from: BigMouthGirl, [9] Artist Placement Group, Zentrum für Kulturforschung, Bonn, 1980. This text included APG's 1971 statement that "That context is half the work" as previously premised at Between 6 at Kunsthalle Dusseldorf and the exhibition Art and Economics, APG at the Hayward Gallery in London in the same year.
[10] Marx, Karl, ‘The fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof’, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, The Process of Production of Capital, first published in German, 1867. Sourced from: archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm#S4. [11] Strau, Josef, 'The Non-Productive Attitude', Make your Own Life. Artists In and Out of Cologne, Institute of Contemporary Art, Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania, 2006. Sourced from: [12] WE (Not I) was organised by Melissa Gordon and Marina Vishmidt and took place with a group of participants, including myself, in April 2015 in London, at South London Gallery, Flat Time House and Raven Row, and subsequently at Artists Space in New York in September 2015. [13] Marx, Karl, 'The fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof', Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, The Process of Production of Capital, first published in German, 1867. Sourced from: [14] Rose, Gillian, Love's Work: A Reckoning with Life, London, Chatto & Windus, 1995.