Desanctifying the Monastary of Modernism

Desanctifying the Monastary of Modernism: a Multidimensional Exploration into the Conjoined Processes of Construction and Destruction that the Application of the Philosophy of the “Modern” Generates.

A Performative Meditation on the creation of “Modernity” November 21, Ryerson School of Fashion

Mark O’Connell

“We are weighed down, every moment, by the conception and sensation of Time. And there are but two means of escaping and forgetting this nightmare: pleasure and work. Pleasure consumes us. Work strengthens us. Let us choose.”


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I am exploring the seductive quality of minimalism and peak modernism and how it is, in fact, an impossible ideal. Looking at the Oscar Niemeyer buildings in Brasilia, these pristine, proto-modernist concrete structures in the tropical Brazilian landscape, surrounded by bald patches of land stripped bare of the native jungle foliage. But the jungle will always re-colonize and take apart what has been built.

The inscription of the philosophy of the evolution of modernism-one that can be seen in the International architecture style of Mies Van der Rohe, The symbiosis of creative and industrial processes of the Bauhaus school, or the minimalist art practices of the 1970’s-the creation of which is a fundamentally nihilistic undertaking. This reductive process consists of the elimination of anything extraneous to the object, and causes a corresponding negation of meaning in the art or design piece.

The politics of the philosophy of history also comes into play as the whole concept of “Modernity” becomes highly problematic as it is relating to a multitude of meanings that are contradictory.

In his paper: “Modernity is a Qualitative, Not a Chronological, Category” Peter Osborne explores the multiple meanings associated with the “Modern”. Osborne identifies that art and design historical narratives are engaged in an ongoing: “dialectic of modernization and modernism” (Osborne 1992: 66). Identifying the historical process of identifying and creating modernism as a process causes a “homogenization through abstraction of a form of historical consciousness associated with a variety of socially, politically and culturally heterogenous processes of change” (1992 66). Modernity can be seen as a: “historical periodization” as well as a “quality of social experience” (67). There is a “reflexivity of historical experience: modernity has a reality as a form of cultural self-consciousness, a lived experience of historical time, which cannot be denied, however one-sided it might be as a category of historical understanding” (67). There is an active process of creating and maintaining a “dialectic of modernization and modernism” (Osborne 66):

“Modernity, then, plays a peculiar dual role as a category of historical periodization: it designates the contemporanaeity of an epoch to the time of its classification, but it registers this contemporanaeity in terms of a qualitatively new, self transcending temporality, which has the simultaneous effect of distancing the present from even that most recent past with which it is thus identified” (73).

This process of creating a “temporal matrix” can also be seen in the cyclical nature of fashion production and consumption:

“The temporal matrix produced has three main characteristics:
1. Valorization of the historical, present over the past as its negation and transcendence.
2. Openness towards an indeterminate future
3. A tendential elimination of the historical present itself as the vanishing point of a perpetual transition between a constantly changing past and an as yet indeterminate future” (73).

Unlike fashion however, the introduction of differential temporality by distinction of modern from earlier times, creates a distinction that it is in fact an extra-temporal evolution wherein the: “next is not necessarily the new” (74).

Osborne expands on his identification of this process in Anywhere or not at All calling the application of modernism as: “A radically distributive- that is irreducibly relational – unity of the individual artwork across the totality of its multiple material instantations, at any particular time”. (Osborne, 2013: 48). The unity of the piece is connected with not only its own iterations, but also the stylistic and philosophical arcs of comparable artworks that may not precede or follow in a linear succession.

My creative exploration takes excerpts from my novel in process “Jardin” and juxtaposes them with different processes of both inscription of, and contrast with, modernist philosophy.

The studio/creative part of my philosophical exploration is a deconstruction of my wall collage: “Exquisite Butterfly” 5’x4’ (2012). Cutting it into distinct discrete parts. The butterfly is a symbol of chrysalis, metamorphosis, and final re-birth as something beautiful, a symbol of freedom. The disassembling is a form of deconstruction that allows for re-interpretatations of this now-divergent composition. The fractioned sections become abstract by disassociation and can only read as a whole when they are re-assembled in the form of a narrative. A process of tactile pixelation that is reminiscent of a J-Peg. Where an image is entirely code based and assembled in real time when the viewer engages the “data”; in this case, the cut fragments.

This process is contrasted with a textual exploration of these ideas around the mutual processes of colonization, excerpted from my novel Jardin:

“Jungle thick and lush dripping with wet humidity, soft foliage, warm to the touch. A musky scent of undergrowth, fertile and ripe, everywhere buzz, hum, chirp and low murmurs. Light filters through layers and layers of interwoven leaf canopy. Mute shafts.

Dripping water slowly trickles down warm trunks sheathed in moss, glistening. Sappy resins congeal and collect in nodes and gelly protuberances; thick and fecund.

To enter into this jungle is to become a part of this jungle, to be of the jungle. Leaf, vine, stem, fern, moss will climb to grow. The moist air will fill your lungs, sporange, viral and reproductive suffusing you with interpenetrative new lives. Pervasive cloying warm damp will collect in orifices and pores. A liquid heat and a second skin” (O’Connell, 2015).

Contrasted with the urban experience:

“People who live in cities, people who are living lives that go between spiritual, emotional, and physical considerations. People living in apartments and condos and houses. Having kids or not. Dogs, things, new things, old things. Cultural life, history, generational changes and flows, parents and grandparents. Health and disease, truth and lies, death and rebirth, love and loneliness” (O’Connell).

“Relationships are how people relate to each other, an emotional siege on the external façade of personality. The invasive fear that we may be living the wrong life. The hope that the things we overlook in order that we may be able to live together in harmony aren’t warning signs that we are with the wrong person…doing the wrong thing…living the wrong life…or that we are somehow fundamentally wrong. The shame we feel, the need to be distracted. Stuffing our faces, stuffing our feelings, stuffing ourselves into our clothes, stuffing ourselves into each other” (O’Connell, 2015).

“Nature may have cause to create and maintain pristine white cubic geometrics, but not these architectural marvels. Monolithic, static, rigid. From the minute they are complete, the edifices are under attack from shifting earth and precipitation and fungal growth. These utopist landmarks of peak modernism are an anachronism in the jungle, and nature ever asserts her prerogative to shape and mould her landscapes as she sees fit” (O’Connell, 2015).

An exploration of the peripheries where nature and civilization overlap, where nature has been dug up and built upon, where the:

“Vines curl and coil onto each other and up and over. Spilling here and there with baroque ecstatic abandon. Massive green heart shaped leaves block the sun, crowding up for sunshine. Curling vines wrap and twist into each other forming a dense canopy. A botanical Darwinism of a very fast creeper. The orderly beds of seedling plantings are rapidly being covered by the rapacious vines” (O’Connell, 2015).

And the awesome, incessant power of natural reclamation continues unabated:

“Mositure will always find a way to get in. A smooth surface will suffer abrasions. Droplets will collect and erode, drop by drop. creating fissures. Each subsequent soaking opens the crack that much further, until the air can enter. Drifiting sediment and residue collect and spores adhere. Green with chlorophyll generated from the sun. seedlings take root and enlarge the intrusions into the surface. Moss, vine and grass sprout and creep, colonizing the pristine white stucco surfaces. The humid damp contributes to the stain and weedy proliferation” (O’Connell).

Also the syncretic processes of layering new colonialist-imposed religions over older indigenous faiths and their subsequent archetypal re-inscription onto inter-reflexive evolutions:

“The chapel was located deep in the forest. The original indigenous community had been abandoned, having long since migrated. The excavation had begun with cutting away the vines in the trees had grown over the entrance to the old chapel. At the altar once it been uncovered there was a statue of a Mary. She had multitudes of ropes of beads hanging around her neck and hanging off of her arms, arms raised high in benediction. The remnants of reams of paper maché flowers that had long since disintegrated, were piled onto the floor around her, lying where they had fallen. Her lovely face turned to look at the stained-glass windows; eyes raised in hopeful expectations And under the chipped and peeling paint, inserted into the wooden socket: glass eyes inset with Topaz” (O’Connell, 2015).

Interweaving the conflicting interpretations that inevitably result from the imposition of a strict interpretation or structure on an amorphous process like faith. Subverting a specificity of purpose, causing it to splinter and fracture with the procession of time.

Upon convergence when these disparate elements are experienced as a part of the new experiential “book” exploration, the piece becomes an experience of autonomy. A re-inscription of meaning through performance and live engagement. But what to wear?!

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Further to this spirit of de-sacrilizing liturgical vestments and showy church collateral, I create a mantle that could contain the scattered aspects of the book and then be worn during the exposition of the materials. Starting with the trope of crimson silks, fabric that would have cost a fortune during the renaissance, I explore what it means to cover a book, and to cover a person. I crochet “chains” and join them to fabric by stitching. Creating my version of scarlet clerical robes, that are simultaneously medieval, byzantine and bizarre. Taking apart the notions of fine stitching and workmanship, and subsequently piecing together a Frankenstein monster. Bringing the lowest bordello aesthetic to something help up to be sacred. My creation begins to resemble a holiday craft from a demented church basement sale…in hell. I end up with a ceremonial toga for an officiating officer at a decadent bacchanal during the era of the collapse of the late Roman Empire. A vestment fit for a Pope…specifically a Borgia Pope, who would greedily assemble riches and treasure from his impoverished flock, fleecing them for his gaudy, vulgar raiments and bejeweled velvet slippers.


Velvet slippers worn by Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), Northhamptons Shoe Museum.

My fashioned mantle is shaped into a lustrous robe suitable for a louche Zurburan Angel, long fallen from grace, incorporating a Watteau pleat from an oblivious French aristocrat, generations away from the agony of guillotine…

Jean-Antoine Watteau – The Two Cousins, c.1716. Musee du Louvre

Jean-Antoine Watteau – The Two Cousins, c.1716. Musee du Louvre

My scarlet Caligula-esque vestments at the ready, I present a “reading” of my work. Upon convergence, all of the elements are experienced as a part of a new experiential “book” exploration, the piece becomes an experience of autonomy. A re-inscription of meaning through performance and live engagement. Piece by piece the disparate parts are distributed through the audience, creating a collectivization of the experience of reception and interpretation of the piece.


Images from the performance of: “Desanctifying the Monastery of Modernism” Nov. 26, 2015. Ryerson University.

Special thank you to Tanya White for inspiration and guidance, and Laura DelGiacco for photo-documentation.

Ans as a final act of rejection, a denial of permanence and an embrace of the true spirit of “now”, the fragments of “Exquisite Butterfly” are symbolically destroyed…the creative reclamation has come full circle…

Mark O’Connell 2015


Baudelaire Quote:

O’Connell, Mark. Jardin. (unpublished) 2015.
O’Connell, Mark. “Ephemeral Exhibition – An Exploration of Ontological Anxiety Surrounding Digital Painting”. 2015: Ephemeral Exhibition- An Exploration of Ontological Anxiety Surrounding Digital Painting
Osborne, Peter. Anywhere or Not at All. Verso, New York, London. 2013.
Osborne, Peter. “Modernity is a Qualitative, not a Chronological, Category.” New Left Review 192, no. 1 (1992): 65-84.

“Desanctifying the Monastary of Modernism” @ Mark O’Connell 2015. all rights reserved, no unauthorized reproduction




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