March 9, 2006

by Norman Fischer | January 09, 2007 at 3:31 PM

From Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 57 January 9, 2007 On an airplane

New York's for and about art, art and fashion. Even the natural world there, the human world certainly, exists as what's said and written about it, what's signified and discussed, scarcely exists otherwise. Went to Chelsea of course, to Oliver Kamm's 5 B Gallery, to see (our son) Noah's show, the purpose of our trip. This the day after we arrived in town, January 4 (having spent January 3 waiting around for Kathie's missing luggage, then on to Brooklyn Museum with Lewis Hyde — on that see below). K. burst into tears when she saw the show. When I asked her why she said, three reasons: first, because it was a beautiful and tragic piece; second, because she knew how much Noah had worked and sweated over it; third, because it was so much the essence of who Noah is and who (as she and no one else could know) he's always been. The piece had been well reviewed, critically successful, though nothing had so far sold. It consists of two white rooms. In the first room a series of pedestals arranged in two diagonal lines converging on a center. On each pedestal an object crudely made: a television set made of wood, a pathetic paper mache eagle, a cardboard tank, a paper bullhorn, a plywood arm, a plastic movie-projector. In the center, tiny near the floor, small figure of a man standing on a miniature podium. A soundtrack with music, sound effects, snatches of speeches by Presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Johnson, in high rhetorical form, each paired with a popular song that corresponded to the period in which he was in office. Along with various sirens, alarms, gunshots etc. As it all went on the objects on the pedestals became activated one by one, casting images and colored lights on the walls. Airplanes zooming by. This part ended with Bill Clinton speaking of the promise of the new (Twenty First) century, in which he saw that America would lead the world from "chaos to community" and from war to peace. At this Whitney Houston began to sing her anthem "I, ah I, ah I, will always love you, oo, oo," as the eagle, suddenly bathed in light in the pitch-dark room, began slowly flapping its bedraggled wings. 

Now the show moves to the second room in which we see the Rhetoric Machine itself, a large white monolith, seven or eight feet high, topped with a white vertical cylinder that slowly turns, player-piano like, and you realize that it is activating the show's many intricate Rube Goldbergesque mechanical parts. Inside the machine a horizontal black cylinder at some point begins to light up and spin, causing dramatic shadows of black birds to fly by on the walls, and you hear their distant cries. Now and then the machine lights up in an alarming glaring way, like interrogation lights, or (as John High said) high intensity lights in a prison that are flipped on suddenly when there's a break. In this room also two lanterns, one suspended from above, at nearly floor level, covered with painted film stock dense with transparent human images that flash when activated, casting lurid furtive shapes on the walls. A second lantern on the other side of the room, higher and suspended from the ceiling, spins furiously with gears and lights. Here the soundtrack was dominated by Ronald Reagan's (master rhetorician) mellow voice, praising — with emotion, to thunderous applause — a man who said he'd rather see his five year old daughter die while she still believed in God, then live a full life under Godless communism. 

The piece seemed to be indicating the agitated addled and destructive power of American political rhetoric, independent, almost, of any of its speakers; and this destructive power somehow coming out of, or co-existing with, an appealing American innocence, sentimentality, and idealism, so that the politics of the piece seemed not harsh or strident but oddly sad, even tragic. No one was being blamed particularly. Yet the situation was laid bare emotionally in all its terrible color. Met Bob (Perelman) and Francie (Shaw) at the show and they both liked it too. Afterward we had lunch and Bob gave me a copy of the first book of the Grand Piano series, an experiment in group autobiography that he and several of the other language poets have been writing collaboratively, all about that period (late 1970's) when the Grand Piano poetry readings were going on and the language movement was being formed in San Francisco. Though that was the time I was practicing at Tassajara, I'd come up for interim periods, and read at Grand Piano twice (as the book's careful chronology by Alan Bernheimer testifies). 


With Lewis Hyde went to the Brooklyn Museum to see works by Ron Mueck (name probably misspelled), an Australian sculptor who works in hyper realistic figurative forms, using fiberglass and various plastics to make disturbingly life-like figures. He puts a tremendous amount of effort into craft, hand drilling, for instance, tiny holes, into which individual hairs are painstakingly stuck, for five-o'clock shadow beards, say, on male figures, eyebrows etc. His famous and notorious work "Dead Father," which caused a sensation and made him famous when it was shown in a Saatchi show in London at the end of the 1990's (this might be the same show that introduced the works of Damian Hurst that used slices of animal bodies). "Dead Father" is a hyper-realistic portrait of the artist's father's corpse, lying flat on its back, completely nude. I thought of Burger quoting Benjamin on the "aura" or lack of it in modernist works in the "age of mechanical reproduction." The dead father certainly has got an aura. What's most stunning about it is the scale: while the proportions are perfect, the figure is about four feet long, maybe less, a miniature person. The show also included a depiction of a newborn baby, smeared still with blood, its face screwed up for its first good cry, and with the umbilical cord still attached: but the figure is maybe twenty feet long, again perfectly proportioned, and therefore monstrous. Another colossus was a woman in bed, with perfectly natural hair and skin (that's multi-colored and variously mottled, as human skin is) pulling the covers up around her face, looking rather shell shocked and stressed out about something. Or mentally ill.

Coffee with Lewis: he's still working on his commons book, which seems to have a lot to do with Benjamin Franklin, who created much valuable intellectual property around the time of the founding of the republic, and believed that he ought to own none of it (he never took out a patent) because he felt that a personal economic interest in his work would stifle the openness of his curiosity and investigation. And this is exactly the issue Lewis is working with (and that has occupied him from the beginning, with his great book "The Gift," about how art making is essentially beyond commercial exchange): creativity as essentially an offering, the common property of us all. But in the age of information almost every idea is owned by someone, and there are continuing legal hassles about this, as we try as a culture to define what "intellectual property" and "fair use" are. Lewis was interested in the case (our son) Aron was involved with, with his judge last year, in which Jeff Koons won the right to use post card images in his paintings.


Norman Fischer