by Mara Goldwyn
“It is this way with sewer stories. They just are.” –Thomas Pynchon, V.
I don’t remember much from Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. My recollections of it now are much like the memories of the Japanese I learned long ago in college: all form, no content. But it’s not quite that; not quite form that I remember. It’s more like, I still have some of the grammatical structure playing in my cheeks, that feeling of fatigue on the sides of my lips that one gets after speaking a few hours in a foreign tongue. I hardly remember even one word of the language, but I do remember what it felt like to speak it when I did, the reorganization of concepts into a different kind of music, a different scale. With the physical book of Chronicle itself, I remember greedily turning pages wondering how it would ever resolve all the problems it had set up, only to realize there suddenly was just one page left, and the story was not done at all.
A book I however never finished, and have no idea how close I was to doing so, was Hopscotch, by the Argentine writer in exile, Julio Cortázar. In that book, the end of each chapter directed the reader to the next and the next, “hopscotching” around the book, so that any number of pages between the bookmark and the “end” were no indication of how much of the story remained.
These days, it’s often the case that my memories are altogether untethered from their source; I no longer read novels and cannot really remember more than the titles of the ones that I did—only perhaps the location of things on pages, or the thickness of pages in the physical book, back from when I held those. I find myself googling fragments of things made hazy with the passage of time, externalizing my internal database, supplementing my memory with digital crutches; meanwhile my virtual reading experiences have no heft—they flit around ephemerally, following associative chains or manic bursts of idle curiosity.
This is the extent to which the “anti-curation” concept, or non-concept, of the Baby, I lost my handshoes group show at Vienna’s Kunsthalle Exnergasse remains with me. Mentally returning to this traveling, consistently changing, self-produced exhibition, made up of four artists who at some point were associated with the Staedelschule in Frankfurt—the artists Donna Huanca (USA), Vytautas Jurevicius (LIT), Lisa Meixner (DE) and Aki Nagasaka (JAP)—is tantamount to the abovementioned confusion about how many pages are left in the book, or a language-stretch in my cheeks.
That is, there are narratives today that are unique to every reader. No two reading experiences are the same, and it’s not just via theoretical speculations about the boundless subjectivity of each individual pair of eyes. With the world of the internet, readers literally choose their own adventure, or “hopscotch” from one concept to another, but without the flimsy limitations of a book cover, and without the inconvenience of an end. As physical experience contracts into something more akin to what a brain experiences in the proverbial jar, the further communication of a narrative in anything resembling its “original” chronology, organization or depth has gone the way of the (wind-up) dodo bird. Baby, in a way, is the new storytelling.
Meixner’s video, Chiron (2010), takes the centaur (a rag-tag hybrid in a bad wig /tail, half human/half cardboard, played by the artist herself) as the central motif of a meditation on the fusing of humans with machines, exploring legs, hands and mouths all as “vehicles” for the evolution of thought from ancient to contemporary times. Hands with opposable, grasping thumbs give the human animal the opportunity to free up the mouth for language and the formulation of complex ideas, a privilege he or she passes onto machines; while the work of the legs is passed onto wheels. Her underwater (2012) a talking diorama-like contemplation of mermaids and sea creatures, visits the human-hybrid once again with the text of a Babylonian story of the creation of humanity, in which the “whole” human overtakes the “monsters.” In these works, evolution and narrative do not progress through time, but rather around it.
A new kind of narrative is also reflected in Aki Nagasaka’s If on a Winter Night a Traveler (2010-2012), which is ostensibly the materialization of a short novel she wrote in correspondence with an older, now deceased, woman while also exchanging objects in the mail. The viewer is told to take off his shoes on entering a series of curtained-off rooms, where chapters of the text (nowhere available written except in excerpts stenciled on the floor) are read aloud—a different one for each room—and some of the objects are displayed, relating obliquely to the text. The experience within the curtains, shoeless and embraced by the soft blues of each chapter, does suggest the immersive-like state one enters into while reading, the story itself spangles off in countless directions, with the only connecting node being the artist herself. The approach does not seem so much a riddle or rebus to be solved by the viewer, nor an attempt to confound, but rather a chance to take that position of the node—to enter the subjectivity of the artist, which can then be abandoned when stepping outside the curtains.
Wo die kätschen wachsen (where the cats are growing) (2012), the installation by Vytautus Jurevicius, takes the viewer to another ephemeral landscape which the artist explains is a throwback to the seaside of his native Lithuania, where a rare plant grows in the dunes—both of which are imported into the exhibition space. As with Nagasaka’s installation, documents and forms buried in the dunes can also seem like puzzle-pieces that only the artist can place in any sort of communicable narrative; the pile of sand in the middle of the gallery space also beckons for the viewer to throw off her shoes and live the experience of the artist. But no bare feet can tread on this one— the sign says so. The monolithic nature of this piece is nice to view from afar, but remains insular and opaque.
A last reference in the exhibition to bodies present or absent, stories told or withheld, are the haunting clothing-totems of Donna Huanca, Sade on DMT (2012). Interacting with (flesh and blood female) forms in an opening, untitled, performance, the sartorial sculptures later ghoulishly inhabit the space alone, much like ghosts use sheets to give themselves form. Crossing crushed velvet, Halloween prints and rag-rugs with the title’s reference to Sade, the installation points toward what might be an autobiographical memory located somewhere in the 80s of the artist’s childhood. But unlike Nagasaka and Jurevicius, DMT does not come off as a code that needs to be cracked, or a memory that needs to be googled. Except for the moving, if expressionless, protagonists of the performance, it is narrative-free, and gives a welcome dose of something approximating beauty in this otherwise anti-aesthetic show.
Baby seems an appropriate moniker to open the title for this exhibition, because one thing that holds the group’s discrete works together is their resemblance to the blithe self-absorption of a new person. But I would venture if Baby is a baby, it is more toddler than infant; it’s not a bald, screeching id, vomiting and hurling food like the Vienna Actionists (whom the group paid light homage to by inviting Hermann Nitsch to a talk as part of the program); but rather curious, developing egos, grabbing at stimuli, making unusual connections between things in a proto-human language.
Immature is not the term for this. Rather, it’s more that as modernism and post-modernism and whatever muck it is we’re in now chip away at consensually agreed-upon reality, in 2012, this is what’s left: a childlike refusal to commit oneself to any legitimately collective project or ideology. Like the ideas and elements of the various individual installations in this show, it seems the artists are bound together by little more than proximity, and the only apparently mutual approach here is via apolitics.
But I would venture, as the art world moves toward pseudo-activism and wildly un-rigorous academicism, there needs to be room for this kind of delirium, for explorations into new, contemporary strategies for engaging with existence on this (semi-)material plane. Like my memories of Japanese or novels past, these separate works in tandem offer not so much united content or form, but loose structures to insert ideas in, or ghosts—better we say spirits—to support the sheets.
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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