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True Lies, Tired Hedonists

By: Ginny Kollak

Don’t coop yourself up all day in the library. It is a perfectly lovely afternoon. The air is exquisite. There is a mist upon the woods, like the purple bloom upon a plum. Let us go and lie on the grass and smoke cigarettes and enjoy Nature.

The first lines of Oscar Wilde’s The Decay of Lying break my heart. It’s all Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby’s fault, and though it is indeed a perfectly lovely afternoon, the purple bloom upon the plum I had with breakfast will have to do for now.

Goldin+Senneby, as the two Stockholm-based artists call themselves, have found a way to rope me into their web of production. True, I may have entangled myself, telling them that I had been reading some Wilde and saw a few connecting threads between his text and Headless, their own ongoing project. And I did say that I thought I might write something about it. However it started, I’m now in the library, commissioned to write an article at the behest of the artists, who were invited to contribute to a new journal of contemporary art.

Let’s start with the most superficial of similar circumstances: Oscar Wilde’s Vivian has been writing an article, too. The Decay of Lying, from 1891, takes the form of a dialogue between two invented characters: the rather flamboyant writer Vivian and the more malleable Cyril, who is alternately scandalized and amused by his friend’s acrobatic criticism. Vivian presents his splashy theory to Cyril and the reader in the draft of an article, also called “The Decay of Lying,” written for the charmingly named Retrospective Review, journalistic arm of the society of Tired Hedonists (of which Vivian is a proud member). Under this guise, Wilde develops his own ideas about the status of art and aesthetics in the Victorian era. Vivian’s article—ostensibly a protest against the stifling trend of realism in art and literature—begins with a sweeping statement: “One of the chief causes that can be assigned for the curiously commonplace character of most of the literature of our age is undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art, a science, and a social pleasure.” Why wallow in the crude, the mean, and the dreadfully boring, Wilde later asks, when art can transport us to places beyond what we know? Why not let life imitate what art intimates?

When excessive realism becomes a problem in art and literature, it might make sense to seek out the abstract in more unlikely locations. One such space might be the global financial system, a focus of keen interest for Goldin+Senneby. Headless, initiated in 2007, is their long-term research project investigating the shadowy yet legitimate realm of offshore finance. Offshore itself is an almost perfect encapsulation of Goldin+Senneby’s preoccupation with social, corporate, and legal structures, virtual spaces and economies, and strategies of masking, secrecy, and withdrawal. The infrastructure of offshore finance is by definition evasive, offering a handy method for concealing the true nature of a company’s business dealings. All transactions are decentralized, making any company registered offshore into an elusive body, one that moves without any visible means of control—a headless organization.

Headless Ltd, a real company registered in the Bahamas, is the organization at the center of Goldin+Senneby’s Headless. Among the hypotheses raised by the project is the rather far-fetched notion that Headless Ltd could represent a contemporary incarnation of the political group-turned-secret society Acéphale (from the Greek word for “headless”), which was founded by Georges Bataille in the 1930s. In an autobiographical statement, circa 1958, Bataille describes Acéphale in this slippery way: “Of the ‘secret society’ properly so-called it is difficult to talk, but certain of its members have apparently retained the impression of a ‘voyage out of the world.’  Temporary, surely, obviously unendurable; in September 1939, all of its members withdrew.”  Legend has it that the members also took an oath indicating their willingness to be decapitated for the cause; none, however, would volunteer to be the executioner. Though improbable, the connections between the concealment and withdrawal of offshore finance and the secrecy of Bataille’s sect are tantalizing, especially when considered in light of the author’s later texts on economics and materialism. Could the two be related? And what would it signify if they were?

Headless has been presented publicly in a number of incarnations: so far, the project encompasses a worldwide tour of lectures and readings, a series of free newspaper interventions, a number of critical essays, a scattering of stage-like tableaux, a documentary film, and a novel-in-progress. Of these, the novel is perhaps most responsible for driving the project forward. Called Looking for Headless, the novel’s plot hits on all the major conventions of mass-market thrillers (surveillance, double agents, paranoia, and so forth) while tracing the actions of artists Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby, who have enlisted author John Barlow to help them investigate Headless Ltd. Barlow, in turn, is writing a detective story of his own—“a work of documentary fiction”—based on the raw material unearthed by the three figures’ inquiries. And the whole thing, it seems, is the brainchild of a “fictional author” known as K.D., formerly an employee of Sovereign Trust, the corporation that handles the day-to-day administration of countless offshore companies, including Headless Ltd. There are others involved, too—emissaries, spokespeople, consultants. As curator Kim Einarsson says when discussing the authorship of Looking for Headless in a staged interview with a mysterious figure sent on Goldin+Senneby’s behalf: “It’s all very confusing. Who is actually the person holding the pen?”

Which brings me back to Oscar Wilde and his similarly evasive authorial strategies. Assigning characters to represent various responses to his argument gives Wilde license to nestle his ideas in a safe haven of comedy and hyperbolic claims, but the format also serves an important conceptual purpose. The creation of character is a key factor here, forming the backbone of Wilde’s argument about the transformative power of art. Referring to Shakespeare, Wilde suggests that his plays are populated by imaginary characters who have since become templates for every possibility of human disposition and behavior. Later on, when Vivian relates the story of a young woman who couldn’t help but follow the disreputable path of a literary character she resembled, he is, in a way, pointing out the impossibility of ever being “true” to oneself. Character is paradoxically reflexive and intrinsic—and for the most aesthetically sensitive, it is part of an ongoing dialogue between art (and artifice) and reality. Character can be a person’s core or his mask; Wilde would find the mask infinitely more engaging.

But can character really be a learned trait, one copied from the pages of a book? This could be an explanation for some of what takes place within Goldin+Senneby’s Headless: the tropes of detective novels, film noir, and bestselling thrillers teach investigators, criminals, and conspiracy theorists alike. The tidy roles of these clichés can become self-fulfilling prophecies. It is possible that all of the players engaged in the drama of Headless have absorbed these expectations or possibilities (whether consciously or not), and are now negotiating a terrain somewhere between fiction and everyday life. Offshore finance, according to its daily administrators, is a mind-numbing enterprise—mostly piles of paperwork. Its fiction subsumes that reality in a way that mirrors Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby’s staged withdrawal. Forsaking their authorial roles makes them a new entity, a corporation complete with a design-firm name, a slick website, and a roster of outsourced producers (including characters like myself).

Role-playing of this sort also makes room for productive exaggeration, which may be what Wilde means when he elevates the “fine lie” to an art form. Of course, not all lies are created equal: some even constitute society’s foundations. Take money, for instance. The economies that most would consider concrete are in fact based on what could be called true fictions—immaterial assets (for example, intellectual property) and symbolic equivalencies (like banknotes, coins, or shares). As the last year—in which the terms “bailout” and “Ponzi” entered everyday vocabulary—has made startlingly clear, there’s not much backing up this system besides the consensus of its constituents. Surfaces count for a lot in the financial world, perhaps even more than for art. It seems then that combining the two, as Headless does, might amplify the artifice even more. The project’s style turns any investigative genre on its head. It makes me wonder: is Goldin+Senneby’s performance of a particular form of self-conscious fiction (authors like Thomas Pynchon come to mind) where the project’s real goals lie? Is its style its substance, revealing Oscar Wilde’s great secret—“that Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style?”

In The Decay of Lying, everything of importance is expressed through the way it is written, through its style. Following this surface-as-substance mandate to its logical conclusion leads to the doctrine: “Art never expresses anything but itself,” or the more pithy “Art for Art’s sake.” Suddenly one is dealing with the mantra of the Decadent movement, an aesthetic theory that is two-faced at its core—referring both to beautifully useless indulgences and the social, cultural, or political decline associated with a perceived lapse in morality—and signaled in the very “decay” mentioned in the title of Vivian’s article. In reality, decadent societies are often characterized by outward prosperity that hides severe discrepancies between economic and social classes. Wilde contributed to the discussion on both sides, writing economic treatises that offered a libertarian reading of socialism alongside his more familiar satires.

The Decadent movement that Wilde championed was driven by excessiveness, which—to tie together a pair of hanging threads—was also a concern of Georges Bataille. The writings of Oscar Wilde and Georges Bataille and Goldin+Senneby’s Headless intersect at the level of the global economy, making the two-headed monster of money and excess the lowest common denominator here. Bataille’s book The Acursed Share introduces the concept of “general economy,” which states that a certain part of wealth is always unrecoverable: growth reaches a limit and must then be inverted into giving. This “accursed share” can be spent in two ways: luxuriously, on spectacles, the arts, and non-procreative sexuality, or destructively, on conflict and warfare. A similar excessiveness is behind certain themes in Headless, including decapitation (which is a symbolic act, not a logical way to kill) and the entire concept of offshore finance (those wealthy enough to consider using its services can certainly afford to pay their taxes). What we have here, with Wilde, Bataille, and Goldin+Senneby, is a bunch of tired hedonists, trying to turn society’s collective hangover into something more productive.

It is the true lie that remains to loosely binds these ideas—its reach stretches to financial structures and offshore finance, to shifts in authorship and authority, to the imitative qualities of art or character, to the primacy of surfaces and style, to paradox and wordplay, to metafiction and more. In the end, the true lie is a claim difficult to prove but, more importantly, impossible to refute. It is a poem, a building block of mythology, which, if nothing else, provides the script for a more vibrant life.

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