November 12, 2011 through March 31, 2011
Interviewer: You mean, before you do a work you want it to express something?
Ray Johnson: Well, it might be its function to not have meaning. I mean people might be grasping for meaning but meaning is not grasping for the people who are grasping for meaning.
(Sevim Fesci interviews Ray Johnson, April 17, 1968)
I crashed a seminar on Aby Warburg the weekend before I visited the Ray Johnson exhibition. I only saw two talks. The first one was in German, so I only got the gist. It was about Warburg’s desk. The second one was in English, a woman railing on about the current trend of curators using Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas as a theoretical framework for organizing exhibitions, according to their superficial understanding of his idiosyncratic iconology.
According to her, it was imperative to understand and really investigate how images related to one another beyond the fact that they just resemble one another; the Warburg Atlas was a series and therefore should be understood like series in the work of Darwin or Haeckel. Were the relations between the images he placed together “evolutionary” or “archetypal”? Did they grow like embryos or copy one another from some fundamental blueprint?
I don’t know a ton about Aby Warburg, and I don’t know a ton about Ray Johnson. One thing they have in common though—that I see despite my limited knowledge of them or anything else—is that they have their very own twisted rigorousness in ordering their images, objects and relationships. Traceable origin? Their rhizome brains.
Not sure about Ray Johnson’s desk, either, if he even worked at one, but he was apparently in the habit of moving his furniture out before inviting someone over for the first time. Visitors anticipating piles of envelopes from his correspondence art, junk and detritus pinned to the walls would encounter empty spaces, where he would bring out collages one by one, and determine the next one to bring out depending on visitors’ reactions to them.
Umberto Eco suggested that saying your desert island book was Collected Works of Shakespeare or something like that was kind of lame. After a while you’d memorize it. His desert island book, he said, would be the phonebook. Right, ooooh, Umberto Eco under the shade of a lone palm tree, portly inclined over all those finger-ink-staining numbers, lists and lists, grids; he licks his finger poison black like a monk as he peruses addresses in the sea breeze.
We don’t have a lot of phonebooks around these days anymore, white or yellow, and I don’t have a baby, but it makes you wonder what they use now for improvising booster chairs. Imagine putting my non-baby at Aby Warburg’s desk, in Umberto Eco’s library; the palm tree gently trembles its coconut, and the envelope on which the non-baby is slowly drawing a crude bunny—a self portrait—is addressed to me. Between her and the desk, and the chair below: a pile of phonebooks.
I’m opening the envelope as the academics at the seminar are raising their hands. They certainly agree, 100%, we do have to rigorously, theoretically explain how images relate to one another. Meanwhile, Ray Johnson photocopies my non-baby and invitations to attend his “nothing” that is (not) happening in his temporarily empty flat in the Lower East Side and then Long Island. The coconut grows wizened through time as an embryo forms—in an elegant series marked with neat block letters—into the baby I don’t have.
She grows up (or disappears), in my shadow, my SILHOUETTE, let’s say. And the outline of that silhouette becomes the basis for collages… of Lou Reed, of John Cage, of Ed Ruscha, of Andy Warhol, of random art critics. The collages are added to over the years with bits of mail, though they can sit in hidden boxes for decades before they come together in the same city as a computer-beamed JPEG of Aby Warburg’s desk.
It takes Ray Johnson drowning himself in a river in 1995 for the collages to come together to make it to Berlin in a solo show by 2011, and it appears that, as I am looking at them, there are phonebook-ink stain fingerprints and faded photocopy-toner blueprints all over me. I don’t raise my hand, though. The historians rifle though Ray Johnson’s desk drawers, and he washes up on that little island, at Umberto Eco’s feet.
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Mara Goldwyn is a Jane of many trades and mistress of none. Amateur detective, shrine-builder, pop ethnographer, field sound recorder, skeptic, trash collector, installation artist, paranoic-critical method illustrator, analog photographer, accessories designer, anti-capitalist, art writer and radio personality are among some and none of the adjectives and nouns she applies to herself. Further Mara-originating verbal and sonic commentary can be found at http://www.maragoldwyn.com