Despite the work’s stated intention of bringing people together, Nari Ward’s Untitled Depot (1997), originally commissioned and made for inSITE97, assumes a conspicuously and poignantly militaristic character today. Indeed, the work almost feels like an allegory of democracy in the politically fraught year of 2019. Narrowly hedged in by an oval of concrete walls, it demarcates a space populated by strategically placed doors, which would seem to shield a given individual as he or she advances, close-combat style, toward what appears to be an empty boxing ring in the center of the oval (but which is actually a trampoline). This boxing ring could be read in Rosalyn Deutsche’s work, “Agoraphobia,” as the physical analogue of her reference to Claude Lefort’s much-celebrated image of democracy, the “empty place.” Building on the agonistic political theories of Lefort, Chantal Mouffe, and Ernesto Laclau, Deutsche identifies public space inside of which public sculpture might take place as always already freighted with the conflict of democracy. Deprived of the positive, localized meaning provided by monarchial power, democracy becomes a negative site of mystery, whose meaning and definition are dispersed among “the people.” But which people? To what end? Who owns it? Can it be owned? Or is it, the power of democracy, always contested? Anything but fixed, it is always open to renegotiation. The moment one tries to permanently define it, it forfeits its democratic character and becomes something else. It is for this reason that the physical space of democracy, as per Lefort, is an empty place—an empty place to be temporarily, not permanently, inhabited, but continually open to contestation, conflict, and dissension.
Never, at least not during my lifetime, has this felt truer of democracy. If before there were ever any doubts about democracy’s combative nature, it is now incontestably clear. It is as if democracy has gone on to reveal its essential character as anything but determined and physically safe. We are bombarded with images of American militias marching down city streets with what basically amounts to heavy artillery and bulletproof vests, combat ready for pitched battle. Which is precisely what Ward’s Untitled Depot looks like—a combat zone. The multi-door-knobbed doors become barriers from which the visitor dodges a firefight while trying to storm, occupy, and defend the empty space at the center of his installation. That the entire installation is so constricted by wall-like barriers merely speaks to and reflects the lack of maneuverable margins while one lays siege to the empty space. The fight for that space cannot be avoided. Everything, especially in the United States, but also throughout Western Europe and especially Latin America, feels “political”—has never, indeed, felt so political. As such, the terms of democracy are always at stake. Whom they favor, how and why, are a source of unending negotiation, tension, and even violence. This is the nature of the proverbial beast, and must, by necessity, be tolerated to a certain degree. This is not to say that there aren’t genuine forces of evil at play in this so-called negotiation, but that, despite its obvious violence, there lurks a very dark and uncomfortable truth at the heart of what is generally agreed upon to be the best post-monarchial form of government. And while the social unrest and dissensus that attends it fluctuates, it is getting hard to imagine anything other than a state of upheaval so radical that it borders on civil war. Where before the image of democracy in the West, as promulgated throughout the cold war, was an image of “freedom,” it is quickly being replaced by an image of radical intolerance, armed militias, and injured rage.
This being the case, it becomes difficult not to wonder at democracy’s capacity for resilience. Indeed, it feels as if it has been stretched to its breaking point. Lefort/Deutsche’s celebrated image of an empty space, which one imagines to be periodically restored to calm and emptiness, has been all but completely and permanently subsumed by throngs of warring peoples and tribes. Curiously, what seems to threaten it is not so much its ability to accommodate so much conflict, but rather the assumption that so much conflict is contrary to its nature (and maybe it is? Maybe it has reached a tipping point?). And that, as a consequence, the only way to end so much conflict is to modify the terms of democracy through a kind of absolutism, which is strongly evocative of monarchy (or fascism, which, it just happens, is on the rise, well, everywhere). It feels like we’re at a point in history where the resilience of democracy is being tested by extremism and intolerance. Whether it overcomes that test and the empty place is restored to its periodic emptiness, or whether it disappears altogether remains to be seen.