THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF ART
- I think of going to a performance by “Blackie,” an improvisational band, in the basement of the Speedboat Gallery in St Paul with a friend. There were more people in the band than in the audience. We sat on a flea-ridden couch. The many instruments made a ruckus and a man dressed up as a typical all-American boy in drag (baseball hat, preppy clothes) yelled “We’re in Spokane! We’re in Spokane” and filmed himself while writhing around on the ground. It was like watchng someone masturbating in a hotel room: I felt filthy with Art. Afterwards my friend and I got in the bathtub, as if to get rid of the filth. After a while I realized that the water had gotten cold because I saw my friend shivering, he had goose-skin. Art is like sperm, as Artaud realized a long time ago, in the greatest poetry for the 20th century: “Sperm is not urination but a being who always toward a being advances to toerrfy it with itself.” Or: “Not a fiction, this sperm, but war with torn-crowned cannons which churn their own grapeshot before churning the ONE entry.”# Sperm as a numbling quality. It makes your lips tickle if you kiss a girl who’s just given you head.
- (You can also find insights about sperm in horror movies such Hellraiser as well as Matthew Barney’s sperm-covered art.) (After all, Art is a house that wants to be haunted, as noted by the greatest poet of all, the Spinster of Amherst. And that is why there are so many bleeding idiots locked in its attics, so many scissors left by its telephones, so many birds without teeth in its orientalist exhibitions.)
- Art is often most affecting when it’s not admireable or tasteful. When it’s ridiculous. Right now my wife Joyelle is downstairs reading a Kurtz-monologoue into a tapeplayer while playing the Doors’ “This is the End” and watching napalm blossom out of the jungle (aka “the zone”). This fall Tarpaulin Sky is publishing her book Salamandrine: 8 Gothics, which will ruin all of American literature for at least 20 years. The term “prose poetry” will finally be retired.
- I think about this one-man play I saw on the lower east side some time in the late 90s. It was spoken by a guy who had been mistaken for Hitler by an underground Hitler-cult. I watched it in one of those basements beneath a storefront on the Lower Eastside. As he told the increasingly absurd and therefore true story of his abduction and consequent physical ordeals and pleasures, the ugly, middle-age man grew sweatier and sweatier. I thought he was going to have a stroke. A pig stroke. But he survived grotesquely and spetacularly. The walls were covered with newspapers and the air was stale. We didn’t survive. The cult didn’t survive. That man with his pig stroke had infected the entire velvet underground.
- When I was a kid my father would read me nighttime stories about the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags from these big coffee-table books full of photographs. He thought it was important that I understand Europe, he said. But it told me more about Art than history. My dad also showed me tons of movies. He had wanted to become a film director but failed and become a journalist. Now he wanted me to become a filmdirector, so he showed me all these films that he thought were great: Hitchcock, John Ford, Bridge Over the River Quai. I could never sleep at night so I stayed up watching news reports with him. Often he was in jail in Eastern Europe, then I stayed in my mom’s bed, but I was still afraid, so I imagined this elaborate, sarcophagi-like contraption whereby we would sleep in an underground beneath the bed and to not arouse suspicion in our killers, we would have these effigies of us on our bed, effigies that would bleed when cut. I still sometimes think about this invention, and i wonder if I could get it patented still. I think that plan was my greatest work. I think I was inspired by Arabian Nights, which was my favorite book at the time.
- Inger Christensen and Jackson MacLow reading her book “Alfabetet” in NYC around 1994: For weeks afterwards I felt their entrancing and entranced voices in my head: “Doves exist.” That poem is an incantation to Art. Academics and canonical thinkers fall back on very dull versions of “originality” to define their greatness, but it’s contagion of Art that makes for the greatest works: Art is not the singular but that which constantly infects and causes its own repetition. It’s a dance craze at the occupation. They dance the pony dance.
- I think about this Basquiat show I saw at the Tony Schafrazi Gallery in Soho back around 1997. My girlfriend at the time was working as a copyeditor at some design magazine, and she called me from work breathlessly telling me that she had found an artist whose art was just like my poetry. She had seen one of his scrawled anatomical paintings in the spread for some rich person’s house. It just so happened that the exhibit was up at the time. I went there and was totally enraptured. Sat for hours staring at those sabotaged, vulnerable bodies, penetrated by art. The readymade of a door decorated with a baroque series of martyrs: retinal art taking back the streets for and with Art.
- Or this great show I saw in Brussels with Congolese artist, Bylex Puma…. Named after the Bylex camera… All Enlightenment Theories turned occult brilliance… Afterwards snacks at the Café Congo….
- If I’m talking about visual art, I also have to mention the book-version of Joseph Beuys’s Arena, a series of photographs as relics of a performance that seems to immense and extensive that every part of the world might in some way be transformed by it. I hate the reductive urge to “document” as a way ot avoid the kitsch of Art, as if to get at Truth by avoiding Art. In Beuys’ he documents the Art: Everythign is already Art. The magic of the camera!
- Or the Nathalie Djurberg show The Parade, which was just at the Walker in Mpls. Or the Kara Walker show I saw at the Walker back in the 90s. In both of these shows, the Art totally messes with scale, with the spectator’s position in the gallery. I went to Walker’s show not knowing anything about it and at first I was like, “Oh great, some silly sillhouettes,” but then I looked and saw the horrific amazing images and by then I was already caught, already too far into the room. In Djurberg there’s a similar dynamic with all these color-coated birds forcing the spectator to the sides where we see these claymation films about bodies being penetrated by Art.
- Or this Eva Hesse show I saw at the Walker: it was sketches for her whips and stuff. The opposite of Beuys’s imaginary souvenirs. Her whips are perhaps best incarnated in that sci-fi movie Cronenberg made in the 90s: where they use Hesse’s whips to connect to different computer games.
- Actually, probably the greatest art I ever experienced was the Guthrie’s production of Jean Genet’s “The Screens” when I was 16. It’s this long, long play set during the demise of France’s colonial reign of Algeria. The main character (played by an actor I recognized from the television show “Fame”) shudder-danced throughout the many-hours long play, at one point carrying his dying mother on his shoulders. The colonialists wore amazing costumes with huge boots. I don’t want to re-read it or watch it again; I carry it inside of me: the power of Art, how it can be found in the wounded main character, in the costumes of the colonialists. So often people want Art to be good, to help them be good, but Hitler and Stalin loved Art too, and Ronald Reagan was a cowboy actor.
- I was carried to America by a crowd of men wearing Ronald Reagan masks and nightgowns. We walked through a woods that was decorated with plastic deer. When we got to America, we turned on the spotlights and shot the deer into pieces. Then we nailed our clothes on the trees and shot at them. Then we placed the remains on newspapers.
- I feel like I am getting this image of shooting exercises from Sara Stridsberg’s wonderful novel Darling River, which retells the story of Lolita. But it’s many different Lolitas. The girl is so fake, she becomes many. She dies in childbirth. In another of her novels, Drömfakulteten, Stridsberg tells the fake biography of Valerie Solanis in a series of theatrical mis-en-scenes. The mis-en-scene reminds me fo the Beuys piece I mentioned above. But it’s the Art of the woman who shot Andy Warhol.
- Another pillar of greatness:
“Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row.”#
- I’m really interested in pageantry. It’s of course to be found in Genet’s other plays, in particular the brilliant numb show “The Blacks,” and in his amazing novels, such as Our Lady of Flowers, which is probably my favorite novel of all time. When I read Genet, I am constantly writing down sentences and words that I later use in my own writing. I do the same with Nabokov. Lolita is probably my second favorite novel. In both Our Lady of Flowers and Lolita, there is a criminality surging through the baroque style. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. In detective novels, the prose style must be direct or we would doubt the detective’s urge toward truth and crime-solving.
- Of course this pageantry can also be found in Jacobean plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi or The Changeling. I love how these plays are tragedies that always verge on becomes travesties, farces. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Once a friend and I recorded a movie adaptation of Duchess of Malfi at a shooting range. She had a very violent beauty about her. She knew how to operate the most horrible instruments masterfully. When we were done, my body was bruised and my clothes – my beautiful teenage clothes – were ruined, absolutely ruined. One must be absolutely ruined. I mean modern. I mean obscene. I mean a virgin.
- This pageantry is of course also the mode through which in the beautiful 1960s trashy underground cinema of Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith and Werner Schroeter was concocted. Or even in Godard’s masterpiece Weekend. Or in the 1970s trash of John Waters. Or Hitchcock’s trash period (Psycho, The Birds etc.) I love all that stuff. The film becomes so fragile, worn, vulnerable – like gossamer, tulle, ornate orientalist death-veils – and yet it’s powerful, violent, hilarious. We’re in the apocalypse; we need to wear the right costumes as the shit goes down.
- I started writing poetry soon after I came to the US when I was 13. At first I translated pop songs, such as the decadent pop of Imperiet. Pop music has always been important to me. Speaking of pageantry, I remember going to a Depeche Mode show with my dad when I was in 5th grade; what impressed me the most was not the music but how beautiful all the fans looked in their Berlin-inspired garments and dyed hair, their black trenchcoats and leather boots. I started affecting that look (and I use the word “affect” with total respect). When I started junior high school in the US, this costume ellicited an extreme and extremely violent response: I was constantly tackled and attacked in the hallways, classrooms and on the way home from school. This was a fascinating experience. It taught me that costumes and violence go together (like milk and arsenic). In Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible” Part 2, Ivan has his secret guard dress up the pretender prince in Ivan’s robe and crown while they dance a riotious pony dance. The pretender, in drag as Ivan, is then stabbed by Ivan’s would-be murderer, a virgin priest. It just so happens that Eisenstein used Stalin’s own personal Red Army dance troop to act the part of the secret service. This was proof to Stalin that Eisenstein was criticizing him.
- I also love “Horses” by Patti Smith. Why do we always want to massacre the horses? Horses are amazing in that they are both authoritarian and pretty, both powerful and vulnerable. When we get on a horse we have to be concerned because it might take off and it might throw us off (broken neck, concussion, miscarriage etc) and yet it’s so pretty. Girls like to put bows in its mane, boys like to wraps barbwire around its throat. Its physique is so powerful and muscular that the muscles and bones almost push through its skin, which makes it vulnerable.# In my head I always see horses as tortured due to their strange inside-out anatomies. I see them littering a field in the Midwest, killed by toy arrows. They are the waste, the by-product of that grand exercise in America, making the virgin land productive. How do you deal with all these dead bodies? You build a hotel (Overlook, The Great Northern). In Smith’s awesomest song, the horses horses horses come back from the dead, they erupt in the same teenage violence that turns Johnny into Rimbaud, turns “The Twist” or the “Watuzi” into extremist torture-dances. Johnny Rotten hated it. Smith had used his personal dance troop. She had fucked them up good.
- Of course I have plenty of regular Great Authors I could add to this list. Most of them are 19th century druggies like Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Lautremont, Stagnelius (“Till Förruttelsen”), Poe, Kleist etc. And their 20th century descendants, like Lovecraft, Bataille (the essays, Blue at Noon, the encyclopedic entries, the jokes) and Artaud (both the theater and the poetry, to the extent that one can make a distinction). I think Bataille’s “expenditure” interacts wonderfully with the trashy pornos I mentioned earlier. And Artaud’s plague is certainly present in Djurberg’s polluted birds.
- For me Lovecraft, Bataille and Artaud come together most feverishly in the contemporary Swedish poet Aase Berg and the contemporary Korean poet Kim Hyesoon (translated by Don Mee Choi). In Berg’s Mörk materia (I translated it as Dark Matter, forthcoming from Black Ocean this fall), Berg brings together schlocky sci-fi exoticism, grotesque horror movie kitsch with Blakean apocalyptic visions. Both Kim and Berg work in an ultra-violent, ultra-montage-y way akin to how art critic John Kelsey has described the methodology of the fashion design brand Rodarte (which consists of a horror-obsessed twin sisters straight out of a horror movie):
“Rodarte attack materials at the molecular level, devising ways of transforming and combining them into strange, unorthodox complexes—“vinyl birdskin,” “wool cobweb,” “metallic mohair,” and so on—before submitting the results to an intensely labored reconstructive surgery–cum-couture. The research-and-development phase of their process may involve fraying a material with pinking shears, hand-dyeing it, or burning fabric with acid or a cigarette lighter before elaborating the labyrinths of knit loops, Frankensteinian assemblages, and multilayered architectures that fit on bodies. Sometimes criticized for an indifference to structure or for a certain inarticulateness that accompanies their wizardry with materials, Rodarte, we could argue, relocate design in the fingertips, the eyeballs, and that part of the brain most exposed to and shaken by the world—away from the more academic, silhouette-oriented values that rule the traditional houses of Europe.”#
- About Dark Matter, the great English fantasy (is that what you call that kind of graphomaniacal writing?) writer China Mieville says: “’Extraordinary and urgent, a coded warning smuggled out of dark.” I think this is very apt: A lot of the art I like has the urgency of a warning, a vision of the apocalypse, but the art is thick like a “code”, like something that is “smuggled.” It is both totally “accessible” and curiously, perversly heavy and “dark” with art. You have to move into it, you must let it corrupt you: you have to read it. You will not make it to the other side. In “Silk Road” Kim Hyesoon writes:
Suddenly the fever came for me and pounded my insides and left
leaving a few words on a thin piece of silk that could melt
but later… later… as I ripened to mush
Out of the blue, after many decades, I went to visit my fever
- Other books in this genre might be Blake’s Auguries of Innocence and Plath’s Ariel.
- “We haven’t paid a damned thing. We’re the Pearls of Stockholm.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i78vfbeX4ZM)
- There are a bunch of Swedish poets from the last few decades that I love: Ann Jäderlund, Eva Kristina Olsson, Lars Noren (before he became a playwright, he wrote some amazing halllucinatory poetry, such as “Revolver” from 1968), Öyvind Fahlström (the first poet to use the phrase “concrete poetry”) and the early work of Bruno K Öijer (his later stuff seems a bit too new-agey for me). And while I’m talking about Sweden, can I also admit that I love Strindberg, especially his Spöksonata: the horrible architecture, the sinister cook. Or the ghosts of Ibsen (from “greater Sweden”): the way that genes, contagion and breeding all overwhelm the tragedies, the way Peer Gynt is crowned in a madhouse in Cairo.
- I’m running out of steam here for this performance. I have a headache and my hands feel strangely trembling. Perhaps I have drunk too much coffee, perhaps I’ve smoked too much opium, perhaps it’s a cracking its head against my window. Nijinski says one must be nervous to create Art. In the Heart of Darkness, the trading company’s quack doctor instructs Marlowe how to survive in colonial Africa: “In the tropics, one must before everything keep calm.”… He lifted a warning finger… “Du calme, du calme. Adieu.””
- I feel like I should mention Kathy Acker – I’ve read all her books but I can’t tell them apart. Like with Guy Maddin’s brilliant films or Beuys’s imaginary exhibition, they seem part of an endless work of art. Like Acker or Berg or Kim, Swedish poet and dramatist (Teater Mutation), Sara Tuss Efrik works like “termite” artist, chewing her way through texts (‘Tis A Pity She’s A Whore etc) or old shitty pictures found in a flea market like Manny Farber’s “termite artists.” It is flashy, adorable, grotsesque, violent and fascinating; it does not have any of the American experimental puritanical iconophobia, the morality of restraint. It saturates.
- Like I said, I love a lot of 19th century writing. Shelley’s Alastor. Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale.” Tennyson’s “The Palace of Art.” Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Jane Eyre. Wuthering Heights. “The Sandman.” Huysman’s interior decorating. Etc. But I also love a lot of 20th century canonical works like Breton/Soupauts The Magnetic Fields”, Parland’s Idealrealisation, Björling’s Där jag vet att du, everything by Celan, Michaux, Mina Loy, The Baroness, Majakovskij, Cesaire, Vallejo, Raul Zurita (in every translation), Etc. I hope I’ve mentioned enough books because I’ve gotten sick and must go take some medicine.
- This should all be performed before an audience of saints. Make them hungry, make them hott, make them sweaty make them nott. This should all be performed in the dark, by teenagers who smell bad or who wear extravagant perfumes made from the sperm of roses.
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.