William S. Wilson: Reference and Relation
(In: Ray Johnson Ray Johnson, Between Books, New York, USA, 1977, ed. by William Wilson)
Allowing that we remain in the quandries of nihilism, the artist, living two lives, the life that makes no sense; and the life of art that makes sense out of the other life, has the choice of going for everything, to fill up the emptiness, or going for nothing. The apparent choice of Ray Johnson's work, whether in collages, correspondence, or meetings, is everything. For two thousand years in several civilizations complex systems of correspondence were set up, analogies were established, until the great fragmentations of the modern period. Ray Johnson's first response to this nihilism is to include references to everything: his work would eventually mention everything in the world through a chain of resemblances, although the resemblance might be arbitrary, not socially established. This chain of resemblances constructs a structure that has no foundation, it stretches across emptiness, but it stands, a fullness that eerily reminds one of the emptiness it is supposed to divert attention from. The more minute and concrete the cross-references of the dense specific references, the stronger the construction, but it remains groundless. One could, in some desperation, argue that a construction such as Ray Johnson builds constructs its own ground under it, but that would be a premature attempt at consolation and would falsify the meaning of groundlessness, which in Ray Johnson's work is the ultimately groundless emotion, love.
Now if Ray Johnson's work on the surface is a tissue of resemblances and references, in its depths it is abstract relations, and the relations of relations, and these abstract relations, which interrelate in more and more complicated relations, recede toward an infinity, which is empty, or toward a oneness, which is the same as nothing. So the nothingness or emptiness, obscured by the references to references, is found again in the relations of relations. The everything of references includes the truth of the nothing of relations. In the 1960s Ray Johnson did some performances which were entitled "Nothings" ("an attitude as opposed to a happening", as he defined a "Nothing", January 10, 1977), and he mailed out printed sheets called "The Book About Death ". At the most abstract level of meaning, his work is about love as reciprocal references, an emotion constructed of references to references, and his work is about death as the most abstract of relations, and so his work defines life as correspondences between love and death.
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