Mezzanine – The Engine Room


By Matty Smith

Paul Cullen’s Mezzanine follows a now unfortunately long tradition in Fine Arts academia – it attacks a clumsy, theoretically impoverished strawman of “reason” and “Enlightenment” – symbolised here by rulers and counterweights – and sets up instead a proto-fascistic philosopher and their individualistic mysticism as some sort of savior from the tyranny of expertise and the threat of universal knowledge. Well, usually the philosopher is proto-fascistic – the likes of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, all the irrationalists who were so influential on Nazi ideology and pseudoscience – but in this case the prefix is unnecessary. Cullen’s white knight is Martin Heidegger, a Nazi Party member right up until 1945 when the party was forcibly dissolved. However distasteful, none of this necessarily invalidates what Cullen has to say, but Heidegger’s particular phenomenology is ever-present in Cullen’s work, concerned as it is with absence and the supposed madness of measurement. This is the philosophy of Hitlerian Germany’s petty bourgeoisie who saw in National Socialism the prospect of a folksy unified Volk (culture/ethnicity) living immediately and pleasurably (experiencing what Heidegger called Dasein) without the distractions of modernity and its messy pluralism. However, in Cullen’s work these themes come to the viewer so divorced from their historical context and immediate influences that they appear mundane and friendly, bringing to mind journalist Hannah Arendt’s phrase, coined during her coverage of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s trial, “the banality of evil”. (Ironically, Arendt was instrumental in helping Heidegger preserve his career despite his never recanting his support for National Socialism).

Actually, “mundane and friendly” would be a good description for the materials involved in Cullen’s process: Formica tables, kitchen chairs, linoleum flooring – the exhibition gives off the flavour of a gingham tablecloth, somehow subverted. The objects are disrupted by missing parts – where you expect a chair leg instead there is a cord held taut by a concrete form that sits, itself, within a hole cut out of the Engine Room gallery’s floor. I have to ask myself what it would be like coming to this exhibition “blind”, without knowledge of Heidegger. I imagine it would be much less upsetting – its most charitable reading is as a criticism of bad scientific method – of politicised pseudoscience that is content to copy scientific-looking gestures (eg. measurement) and not to do the more difficult methodological work it takes to minimise prejudices and the theory-ladenness of a scientist’s observations. In such a reading the tension between the working class materials and “the scientific” is important and progressive. Even walking in blind though, I’m not certain it wouldn’t be upsetting, due to the apparent hostility towards rationalism on display.

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