the art & gothic psychogeography of Venice II: much to do about boredom, canals, sardonic oversaturation, Lee Rourke, Christian Marclay & Sorrentino's must-be place
[ ... continuing from where i left off, putting bricks in my mouth in Venice] another thing, there's no denying, is that's there lots of art to see in Venice. As if there isn't enough eye-candy already to attract tourists. You'd think a place like Lagos, Nigeria or Yellowknife, Canada might be a better place to put museums—to give people a reason to go to a place they otherwise might not. Like how they put halls of fame in random out of the way places. The problem with all this art to see in Venice is all the tourists that flock to see the art who otherwise wouldn't give a rat's ass. We spent our last full day at the Bienniale, which like Palazzo Grassi is mostly a bunch of massive, over the top & gimmicky art installations chosen for their overblown wow-factor more than for what they inspire or bring out in you. And the art is segregated by country, like it's the olympics of art, a competition, with space given typically to one gold medalist from each country deemed worthy of representing the artistic ideals of an entire country. Even though at times it felt like walking through an olympic expo, the spaces themselves are incredible. Half of the show is in these old 'arsenal' buildings along the harbor, the other half in the expo-like gardens on a canal. Standouts for me were Uruguay (a collaboration by Alejandro Cesarco & Magela Ferrero), Portugal (Arturo Barrio), Christopher Wool & the muddy footprints leading through one of the exhibits that i don't think we're supposed to be part of the exhibit. My tastes seem to be skewed lately towards information art (or art that is informative or archival), so i also liked Dayanita Singh's file room photographs & fellow Roman Elisabetta Benassi's room full of haywire microfiche machines (anyone else old enough to remember these?).
There was a stuffy out of the way hall in the back for Italian artists, jammed pack, every square inch, like a flea market. I did spot a piece by Simone Pelligrini (featured in Sleepingfish iX) in the hanging clusters of paintings. Besides the Italian room, everything else was displayed on a monumental overwrought scale. Makes me want to work even smaller & smaller, as if index cards aren't small enough, maybe postage-stamp-size art? The way things are going, it's becoming more & more of an elitist privilege to be an 'artist' & even to view art (20-euro entry fee at the Bienniale). I look at most of this stuff & only think of how much it must've cost to make or the waste of resources that went into it or how many minions they must have had helping them or how the hell they physically got it into the museum. Much as i like Richard Serra, is he to blame for this trend of having the logistics of getting the art object into the museum be the main attraction (rather than the object itself)? Or is it Matthew Barney who perfected the art of putting 'art' on a pedestal so high that no ordinary person can see it, raising the bar so that no ordinary person can become an artist in his footsteps? Or Damien Hirst, for sinking more & more into the materials going into the object, purely as investment strategy to recoup more & more at auctions? Just like the economy, something's got to give in the art world. Matthew Simmons recently posted this clip from Robert Hughes' 2008 documentary, The Mona Lisa Curse, on HTMLGiant—to finish the apt title quote: «I’ve seen with growing disgust, the fetishization of art, the vast inflation of prices, and the effect of this on artists and museums. The entanglement of big money with art has become a curse on how art is made, controlled, and above all—in the way that it’s experienced. And this curse has affected the entire art world.»
Granted it only fuels the fire to criticize as this is the reaction the artist is expecting (what other reaction could there be?)—it's this absurdity, this contradiction, this simultaneous self-nullification/celebritization through ironic waste, which has become the meaning. And perhaps this is the only meaning left in this world. This world that just passed 7 billion. Over-crowded, over-saturated, over-spent—it's all overwhelming. How do we get over all this? In the last post i asked where in the world can we go to get away from Americans. Well, where in the world can we go to get away from all people? From tourists, from government, from commodified social networks, from rich people, from poverty, from the art world, from ironic writers, from the rising waters, from the mounting garbage?
The one piece that gave me hope was Christian Marclay's The Clock. I couldn't agree more with the Guardian in calling it a masterpiece of our times. Sure, it's staggering to think of what he must've gone through to put this mother of all clocks together, but it is all for good measure. And rather than throw a lot of money or hype into it, Marclay throws time. My first exposure to Christian Marclay was as a musician/video artist that collaborated with a lot of the NYC noise bands i admired in the early 80s. He pioneered the use of turntables, before the advent of hip-hop, to make noise & sound collages out of thrift-store records. And the same with his video & visual art—sampling from others (before 'sampling' existed) or from found objects to create something not his own, but ours. As such, The Clock is the opus culmination of all this—a timepiece intricately collaged from our perception of clocks—through & at every minute of the day—as portrayed in cinema & TV. The idea is genius & the execution is genius, at least from what i've seen of it, which was around 4 hours. We went straight to it when the Bienniale opened around 10 a.m. for about an hour or so. Then we watched another hour before & after noon. Then we went back around 4 o'clock & watched, mesmerized, until we were kicked out at 6 pm. It's far more than what you think it might be from the description—a movie compiled of references to that time as shown in existing films, synchronized (with the time in your time zone) to be it's own 24-hour clock. The way it's edited it becomes a sort of montage sequence that summarizes every movie ever made. And whether it's the intention of Marclay or the intention of every movie maker that has ever lived on this planet, the overall message i took away, the unifying sentiment, is that at every moment we live with death right around the corner. You'd think it might be boring, lacking in structure or plot, but time flies when you're watching it, as if you are always expecting the next moment to come & go. Now i really want to see the entire thing, without sleeping or eating if i have to. Better yet, i'd set it up as a clock in our house, on an infinite loop. Serendipitously, as we were walking away from The Clock right about noon, the last words i heard from over my shoulder were «... infinite jest»—i'm assuming a clip from Hamlet. Obviously to show a clip from it would defeat the purpose. Perhaps one day someone will host a 24-hour stream of it (specific to your time zone).
Afterwards we ate at La Vedova. I had spaghetti with squid ink. It was tasty, but served up with attitude, like they knew it was good. The next morning we went to see the TRA exhibit at Palazzo Fortuny, which has to be one of the coolest museums i've been to, not based on what's in it, but how it is housed—the experience of the collection as a whole is the primary work of art. It's in an old decaying palace that has been fixed up in a way that is more Asian than Italian—Venetian gothic with zen flair. Mixed in with the art are artifacts, and it's often hard to tell the difference. You'll have a centuries-old Egyptian hieroglyphics tablet next to a minimalist modern sculpture. A Buddha next to a Giacometti. Some installation by a Swiss physicist embedded in an installation by a Japanese architect. An old Moroccan rug next to a Rodin, flanked by some Serra iron slabs. Some sort of African nail-ridden voodoo bed next to a video of Marina Abramovic sleeping in surfwaters. All the while, music by Phillip Glass (from a Shirin Neshat video), the sound of waves, or the choreographed music by Belgian composer Mireille Cappelle echoing subtly through the museum to tie it all together. Nothing's really labeled so if you want to find out what's what you look in a book that has diagrams of what's where. Even then, a lot of the art is anonymous. Mixed in with it all are artifacts showing process—an easel with paints, a loom, or a bureau full of strange & wonderful found objects. My favorites were a piece by Alighiero Boetti & the wonderful light box by James Turrell that you couldn't capture on film or in words even if you tried. Why TRA? «TRA was chosen for its many meanings. Firstly, it can be read inversely to spell ‘art’. In Italian it is a preposition that signifies ‘in-between’ and ‘inside’, and also connotes an action that goes ‘beyond’ or ‘ahead of”. TRA is also a common suffix in many Sanskrit words such as ‘mantra’, ‘tantra’, ‘yantra’.»
Wandered around Venice some more on the way to the train station. It had rained some & it must have been high tide because San Marco was flooded in spots so they had to set up these ramps to walk on. And i guess right after we left they got hit with more rain & now Venice is under a meter of water. Everywhere seems to be flooded these days. Bangkok. Genoa. Tuscany. Where is all the water coming from? This is what Venice looked like in our wake—just a bit more flooded than usual. No one lives on the ground floor in Venice anymore & they already get around on boats, so not anything out of the ordinary for them.
Which is not a bad start for a book & being that i was still digesting some Beckett, who obviously had an influence on Rourke, i was in the mood for it (or was, when i picked up the book in Sussex). If you stop to consider anything long enough, even boredom, you should be able to find interesting connections lurking beneath the otherwise banal surface. «When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you,» or whatever it was that Nietzsche said. Thing is, Rourke gives up staring into the canal after the first few pages. Shit happens in the book & he loses sight of the initial boring premise. Which perhaps is the point—if you embrace boredom, shit will happen. Boredom is only boredom if you are afraid of being bored. And boredom is in the eyes of the beholder. I found myself disappointed that The Canal wasn't boring. Not that it's particularly not boring—which is to say it's somewhere in between, a bit boring, which i guess qualifies as boring, because how can something be really boring? Being really or very boring disqualifies itself from run-of-the mill boredom. But in another sense, it felt real, contemporary. But sometimes reality is boring. So either i'm going in circles, or the claim that the novel is about boredom allows Rourke to deflect all criticism because he could just say that was his intent. Yes, it's a novel. It says so on the cover. I don't understand why sometimes novels need to declare themselves as such—is it to keep people from confusing it for something else? The book is published by Melville House, known to me primarily as Tao Lin's publisher. And I guess there's some similarities with Tao, as well as with Shane Jones, who blurbed the book. The book was short-listed for The Guardian's Not the Booker Prize, which is no surprise considering Rourke writes for The Guardian.
It's the kind of book you'd expect a book critic to write. He's obviously well-read & connected & able to draw on a lot of writer's before him. Besides the comparison to Beckett, at first i felt like it was being set up like Crime & Punishment. And there's the obvious nod to Tom McCarthy (whom he interviews here) though to compare the two belittles McCarthy. The stark dialogue reminded me a bit of David Mamet or Harold Pinter, though Rourke does this annoying thing where he'll just have a character repeat the same thing over & over (at one point a woman asks him "Do you like the canal then?" 14 times in a row—i can't imagine that happening in real life or on stage without someone slapping her after 3 or 4). The Guardian blurb on the back of the book (am i the only one who notices these blatant conflict of interests?) says: «Leading light of the self-styled Off-Beat generation, Rourke stakes his claim as heir apparent to greats such as Ballard, Joyce or Houellebecq.» Joyce, Houellebecq? Whitey, please. Maybe that's what he ... er ... i mean ... 'The Guardian,' means by 'self-styled'—Rourke is trying to style himself after these fine folks. Ballard, yeah, sure you can see where he tries to mimic Ballard with some success. In fact, there's a part where his female love interest runs over a stranger in her car in a just-for-the-hell-of-it Ballardian way (with a Camus twist). The object of his desire also has a fetish for suicide bombers. «Those extraordinary young men. I often dream about them, their brown skin. I speak to them in my dreams, I caress them in my dreams, I fantasize about them during the day,» she says. Ballard & others can get away with writing about sick anti-social things, but when Rourke tries to mimic him, it comes off as forced & not believable (not to mention racist). It's like how some comedians can go on a warped racist rant on stage because they are confident in their delivery or they are somehow justified & don't question themselves. It's not a talent everyone is born with.
What i didn't say in my disclaimer at the beginning of the last post about mean-spirited criticism was that people are often most critical of the faults or weaknesses they see or fear in themselves. If i tried to write dialogue or a book like The Canal i could do no better. I can't tell jokes. I admire funny people, but if i hear something funny & then try to repeat it, it's not funny. Rourke kept mentioning 9/11 throughout the book, but i'm not sure what relevance it has to the book, or what justification he has to throw in such cheap references except for the sensationalism of it, to have it be labeled as a post-9/11 novel. I'm not saying if you weren't there or experienced it firsthand then you have no business writing about it, but it sure helps to have some sort of original inside angle or reason to put such references in. It's a hard thing to write about such things as war or terrorism. There were lots of writers that served on the frontlines in WWI & WWII & Vietnam & then effectively wrote about it, but nowadays it seems there's a widening gap between artists & those on the front lines.
Not that i know my place in the world, but reading the likes of Rourke is a reminder of what not to try at home. The criticism here, not journalism but my journal, is a private note-to-self that perhaps other like-minded individuals might find useful to heed. I write only for myself. No ones paying me to say or not say these things, in fact i'm only shooting myself in the foot because Rourke is a critic & as a writer & publisher i should say nice things so he might one day say nice things about Calamari books. And it is this very thing that helps to shield Rourke from criticism, because most critics are themselves writers or involved in the publishing industry. The pedestals that 'popular' books are placed on are towering further up from common people.
Besides cushioning himself with his high-brow, existential & nihilistic posturing, Rourke strips down his language to it's bare bones, as if to further deflect criticism. At the beginning of the book he says through his narrator: «I often wonder how the feeling of boredom was expressed before we had the language to express it.» Keep wondering. Rourke can fall back & say he uses boring language because the book is about boredom. And sure the lack of gimmickry was refreshing—it was calming & soothing, but perhaps it was because i was riding a train in the wake of our zen-minimalist experience at Palazzo Fortuny. The only time it's interesting to read about boredom or nothing, is when the language is interesting (i.e. Beckett), and Rourke's delivery is not nearly that—it's only calculated mimicry. Beckett was genuine. Granted, in the wake of Joyce, there was a bit of white towel throwing—surrendering to writing about nothing because it had all been said & you couldn't say it any better. But with Beckett you feel his narrators are truly mad, that Beckett was truly mad. Like the narrator of his book, i kept picturing Rourke, bored, sitting on a bench wondering what to write about. Or Rourke, bored, in a Guardian-sponsored writer's workshop about Beckett & Camus & Ballard & this was his workshopped glossy-covered product of it.
Much as i don't like the books of his Melville house-mate Tao Lin, you got to hand it to Tao for being wholly original & unique. He self-styles himself after only himself & now it's everyone else that are styling themselves after him. It seems natural for Tao to write like how he does—i can't imagine him writing (or talking, if you've met him) any other way. And while in my mind Tao's language often fails, it fails interestingly, like a car-crash you can't help but to watch. If i don't get it it's my failure, a generational-gap thing. There's a big difference between 'good bad' and 'bad good'. The prize-winning Rourke fails & it's not even interesting in it's failure, made even less interesting in that the world perceives it (thanks to his marketing abilities) as a 'good' book.
Not that language always has to be exemplary. There's nothing exemplary about McCarthy or Thomas Bernhard's writing, but their ideas or story-structure makes up for it. You have to be innovative one way or the other. Even if it's by design, the storyline of The Canal is about as boring as it gets—this guy sits on a bench & stares at a canal, a woman comes along & conveniently sits on the bench next to him (as if...), after the requisite hemming & hawing he gets up the nerve to speak to her, he tries to be a hero & save her from a gang, he gets beat up, etc. & sorry to spoil the ending if you haven't read it, but having her die mellow-dramatically with a dead swan in her arms?! Whitey, please.
I didn't mind this book so much while i was reading it, and i had more things to say about it, some 'nice' (i liked the passages about dredging & about the guys moving the boats through the canals by laying on their backs & 'walking' on the roof of the bridge), but now that i'm thinking about it & writing about it, it sort of disgusts me. It disgusts me that successful books these days, books that win 'prizes' only win prizes because the authors themselves are the ones giving out the prizes, or they are blowing the people giving out the prizes. Just like the aforementioned art world, the publishing world is a big farce driven by vanity & greed.
Speaking of boredom, right before going to Venice we saw This Must Be the Place, whose premise is basically the same as The Canal (a man coming to grips with boredom) only This Must Be the Place is executed to perfection. Granted Paolo Sorrentino had the benefit of Sean Penn (whom he wrote the part specifically for) to act it out. If you read the screenplay you might think it was dumb & when i first heard about the movie i wasn't sure what to think, but when you get into the rhythm of Sean Penn's delivery as Cheyenne, beyond just a few out of context lines from the trailer, it's a beautiful thing to watch. And speaking of Tao Lin, Penn's deadpan sardonic delivery reminded me of a mix between him & Andy Warhol & maybe even a grumpy Michael Jackson. Beneath the brooding irony & eyeliner & aquanetted black hair is a brutal honesty that ferrets out the best in the people he encounters once they get past their initial superficial impression. It's not at all realistic, but it's nice to think that such a place could exist, both boring & magical. As David Byrne says in the song which the movie is named after (worth it alone for his performance of it in the middle): «Home, is where i want to be, but i guess i'm already there.»
The only thing that bothered me about the film was that during his cathartic change in the end he sheds his skin—he cuts his hair, stops wearing make-up & stops dragging around the roller-baggage. I know it's a symbolic gesture, but it implies his manner of dress is not just superficial. I guess why it really bothered me is that Sorrentino was inspired to make the film because of Robert Smith. Per this interview: «Here was a fifty-year-old who still completely identified with a look which, by definition, is that of an adolescent. But there was nothing pathetic about it. There was just this one thing that, in the movies and in life, creates an incredible feeling of wonder: the extraordinary, a unique and thrilling exception."». If he was so fascinated, why in the end does he have Cheyenne shed this singular trait that fascinated him about Robert Smith—not the attire, but the fact that he was still wearing it? Whether you like it or not, this is what makes Robert Smith Robert Smith, now, forever.
When he was younger, Robert Smith told his fans that he would kill himself when he was 26. That time came & went & then he started making happy pop music even though half his fans (me included, not knowing any better at the time) cried foul, saying he sold out. But he still dressed the same—he went through his own inward transgression, yet remained the same outwardly—all the while not giving a shit what other people thought. To freeze-frame himself at the age of 26, to self-embalm his image, ridiculous as it may seem, was the solution to his predicament, that has kept him alive—he's living out the superficial image that he will be remembered by, even after he dies. But for now he can live out his second life, happily, as himself. Happily ever after.
I never embraced boredom like the narrator in Rourke's The Canal, but i've embraced depression in a similar way, more like Cheyenne in This Must Be the Place & in fact Robert Smith was largely to blame for my embracement of depression (or the figure i most latched to). Almost 30 years after the fact, The Cure's depressing opus, Pornography, still stands for me as the greatest album ever made, or at least that has had the biggest impact on my life. I think what has happened, though, between my generation & this newer prozac generation is that most depressed kids these days are given mood-enhancing drugs. When you medicate depression, it strips away feeling & meaning & leaves you with nothing but boredom. I'm not talking about clinical depression but your standard pensive broodiness that pharmaceutical companies have convinced are diseased feelings that we need to medicate, consequently lobotomizing us—isolating us from the search for meaning of anything else except the leftover boredom. That said, i'm not sure i know what boredom is, i'm only familiar with depression, but i suspect the two are somehow linked by the inability to overcome a pscyhological barrier in your own mind. As Dorothy Parker said: «The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.» The Cure is the cure in this situation—true unobstructed art.