This article was originally written for the badatsports website and was later included as a Coda in Psycho Dream Factory.
SMELLS LIKE A MOVIE STAR
Celebrities always line supermarket check out lines, always peering at you from glossy magazines dedicated to the torrential madcap folly of their lives. Their faces, bodies, lifestyles wallpaper not just culture but also the basic practice of obtaining foodstuffs. The ubiquitous presence of persona/brands like Jennifer Aniston, Johnny Depp etc., reinforce particular moirés about success, beauty and sexuality. Where repetition and familiarity elicit desire, the repeated surface of the celebrity remains the poster child of consumer society, reinforcing the criteria with which non-celebrities (that’s us) measure their own legitimacy, accomplishment and worth. Celebrity provides a filtered perspective through which we view and interpret immediate experience, history and cultural production. The celebrity exemplifies a model for success which, while applauding the individual in an immediate sense, further stabilizes predominant hierarchical structures of society. To consider the influence such a model has on the contemporary art world is of particular interest because of its function as an historically transgressive and transformative force in culture.
Despite the art world’s (partially self-inflicted) reclusiveness, it has an inextricable relationship to the economic market. That relationship is no doubt reinforced by the ever-increasing number of art students who graduate from secondary institutions and, understandably, expect their respective art practices to afford some semblance of a “career.” The very idea that one’s status as art marker can be ‘taught’ is already far from the modernist perspective of artist as a vessel of inspiration. Similarly the sense of the struggling, starving, or “crazy” Van Gogh type-artist also feels old hat, a dusty model which, while adopted by some, nevertheless has been replaced by a new concept, i.e. artist as entrepreneur. Today the artist is expected to negotiate practical obligations in the world, she is encouraged to make a website, to show up on time, to write courteous letters to gallerists, and even develop—consciously or not—a public persona. While I tend to prefer the latter attitude of art as ‘learnable’ (because as a learnable occupation it is denied some of its precious mysticism), it is all the more difficult to see how art can provide new ways of thinking if its modus operandi is dependent on the closed system career-ism of work-as-commodity.
Negotiating the pressures of financial stability places any artist in the midst of a hyper-personal process in which one must decide where to locate oneself and one’s practice. That decision, deliberate, accidental or by absentia is unavoidable. Yet also the decision is bound between two poles: one either works with the system of economy or against it. One either makes ‘goods’ (i.e. paintings, films etc,) or non-goods (i.e. washing dishes as a form relational practice), either a non-profit or a for-profit. Neither pole provides a real sense of agency for both are dictated by the criteria of the market, defined with or against predominant modes of success and, at least in the case of LLC’s vs. 501c3s, in prescriptive terms that not only dictate the agenda of a given space but also ideas of ownership. In this essay, I hope to explore the ways in which those play a part in artwork, focusing on two films about Revolutionary France and the more contemporary work of Doug Aitken and Francis Alys, before making an attempt to shift the paradigm of thought such that we might see at least conceptualize a new trail head—a path that goes through and beyond the closed system of canonical legitimacy. One, perhaps, incongruous with celebrity.
Recently, I saw Rohmer’s 2001 film The Lady and The Duke, a film that takes place around The Reign of Terror, describing the way in which personal relationships shift during times of political upheaval. Having shot the entire film in front of a blue screen, each scene takes place within a highly elaborate, period, Trompe l’oeil stage—the handiwork of Jean-Baptiste Marot. Outdoor scenes evoke soft-wash vintage postcard paintings from the time, and the figures within them are still at first, like dolls, before suddenly coming to life with the pan of a camera. Interior scenes also take place on “stage,” where old historic rooms were recreated to embody and contextualize a reenactment of history. Those interiors stand like residential museums, alive only for the dialogue of characters. Even the lacy detail of costumes was recreated via painting and digital effect. That self-aware staging calls attention both to our relationship to historical events and film as a medium of investigation. The Lady and The Duke seems to argue that our understanding stems from an active and artificial recreation of situations versus a passive and perhaps more “true” understanding of the events themselves. And yet the allure of the camera, the deliciousness of each object, placed just so in the frame, the liberty one presumes as a contemporary so-and-so looking back, affords a tremendous sense of luxury and power. Yet the self-acknowledged device of staging checks that luxury. Our ideas of history stem almost entirely from the decorations (frames, paintings, rugs, furniture) of a given time, and artifacts—text pieces, letters, journals: mediated instances of experience. It is impossible to grasp the reality of historical conflict.
Where his sets confess the artifice of the film, Rohmer nevertheless tries to overcome that apology, resuscitating the conflict of socio-political strife by focusing on a memoir from the times, Journal of My Life During the French Revolution. The main character is an English woman, Grace Dalrymple Elliot, an aristocrat whose royalist tendencies increase as those she is close to are executed. She represents a kind of humanist, with unabashed loyalty, particularly for the King and Queen. Well-educated, articulate, powerful, single, she nevertheless has servants, wears satin dresses, hats, gloves, and conducts her life in a series of parlor meetings with various political figures who, like her, are navigating the rapid changes of their socio-political context. Robespierre makes a few appearances. As do heads on stakes, the rabble, the idealist, the reformist. What is intriguing is how Rohmer captures the difficult and perhaps unnatural balance between political beliefs and human affection. The Duke, bound by pressures of his own political party, condemns his cousin and King to death. Elliot, a former lover and great friend, takes down the Duke’s portrait by way of response. She describes the day of the King’s execution as the darkest day of her life. Nevertheless, her friendship with the Duke endures, pointing to the mutual respect each guards for the other. It is that respect, ultimately, that guides them through the helpless complexity of social change.
In the political sphere, these individuals have little power, like many of his peers; the Duke is bound by way of obligation to the people and other vague political figures, in such a way as to eventually condemn himself. Elliott, similarly, remains a small cog in the greater machine of society, powerless to either save or convict herself. It is providence that saves her, a haphazard force which, ultimately, has almost nothing to do with her political position—what stands in direct conflict to the terrific and terrifying energy of a new democracy.
I couldn’t help but compare Rohmer’s version to Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Equally rich in color and setting, the sympathy and context for the main character is nevertheless vastly different. Antoinette is a young woman cast into a situation over which, Coppola seems to argue, she has no control. Perhaps the funniest moment is when Antoinette passes from Austrian territory into France. She is forced to undress in a kind of ritual shedding of her old country/loyalty. She is forced to leave her dog behind. A nurse maid insists, taking it from the young Queen. It’s the first time that Kirsten Dunst speaks and suddenly after the silent solemnity of old settings (a kingdom, a carriage, a ball gown), the Hollywood starlet says something to shatter the illusion of the past, calling out with an American accent, (I can’t remember the name of the dog but) “Dingbell.”
Coppola’s Antoinette finds power in fashion, cakes, the ability to spend money and lose herself in social gatherings. In Coppola’s vision, Antoinette appears a rock star, subject to the structure of royalty which she has no choice but to inhabit. Her frivolity is a kind of rebellion, with the Clash playing in the background—the film itself is more suited to a music video.
In contrast to Rohmer, Coppola’s view of the times feels more America. Insensitive to the intricate depth of a country’s aristocratic history, she seems to identify with Antoinette, revealing more about Coppola’s own position of celebrity; using the surface of French history to describe the pangs of a Hollywood Temple. (i.e. Coppola was born into a dynasty that comes with its own unavoidable responsibility. Nevertheless, that dynasty is one belonging to a very young country and is situated in the simulacra world of film.) To Coppola, Antoinette is just a girl, lost in a sea of too much money and the pressures of public performance. Disconnected from the weight of history and prominence, Antoinette becomes herself a surface. A petty heroine. Someone, perhaps, more in league with the “One Dimensional Woman” that Power addresses in her work of the same name.
Providing clear and reasoned insight into the pitfalls of contemporary feminism–a title that, according to Power, further commodifies the woman, making her values complicit with consumerism such that the contemporary woman celebrates her independence via purchasing power and decadent selfishness. “I think there’s a very real sense in which women are supposed to say ‘chocolate’ whenever someone asks them what they want,” (Power, p. 37). Rather than fulfill herself, however, the contemporary feminist further distances herself from herself, her body, her peers. “They, the breasts, and not their ‘owner,’ are the center of attention, and are referred to with alarming regularity, as completely autonomous objects, much as one would refer to suitcases or doughnuts. Constantly fiddled with, adjusted, exposed, covered-up or discussed, contemporary breasts resemble nothing so much as bourgeois pets: idiotic, toothless, yapping dogs with ribbons in their hair and personalized carrying pouches.” Much like Antoinette’s feet. Her wigs. Her ennui. Coppola’s Antoinette is far away from herself, it seems. The sort of woman who inhabits scenes as a picturesque object, pretty and pink; who levy’s her power through sexual exploits, drunkenness, and, ultimately a half-conscious abnegation: She says from her balcony to a torch-wielding rabble, “Let them eat cake.”
Rohmer meanwhile presents a woman on the edge of aristocracy. An expatriate (it’s interesting that Coppola, as an American, chooses someone so central to French history, while Rohmer as a Frenchman, chooses an expatriate peripheral to the cause), Elliot nevertheless exerts constant influence on her surroundings, making deliberate decisions, discussing politics with great awareness and clarity. Elliot is connected to a sense of consequence. She is more powerful than Antoinette, despite the powerlessness she struggles with (i.e. that she is not in control of the world in which she lives, that those she cares about are being executed, that the removal of a portrait is the physical scope of her influence, even that she loves and admires a ruling class). Ultimately, Elliot’s articulate grace elicits more sympathy for Marie Antoinette (whom we never meet in Rohmer’s film) than Kirsten Dunst does as her punk rock embodiment. Just as Elliot’s counterpoint, The Duke, evokes profound sympathy for the pitfalls of democratic idealism.
Both films investigate the surface, just as both explore the decadence of setting and stage, the impregnable fortress of history and yet Coppola’s becomes an homage to the disassociated celebrity, celebrating the pangs of privilege suffered without choice, where one is drawn to sympathize with the beautiful party and decadence that, like that Titanic, will soon end. Rohmer, meantime, embraces the post-modern condition in another way, drawing out from it the spectre of human complexity—providing, perhaps the beginnings of an antidote to surface. That is: while admitting the artificiality of his depiction, he resurrects the human condition within those historical settings, teasing out the complexity of lives thereby contained.
I found myself thinking about the relationship between celebrity, film and contemporary art once more when I saw Doug Aitken speak at the Art Institute. Over the course of his talk he went through the development of his practice, starting with his latest film, a story about an old man who’s’ sense of reality unravels. The film is impeccable, glossy and glistening color-rich images, perfectly calculated and shot, the effect of the production value alone makes Aitken’s aesthetic contribution undeniable, a pleasure to experience, to be “wowed” by. And yet the impact of that “wow” was what made me suspicious—because it seemed so complicit with the expectations of commercial, artistic success.
Like artists of old, he too is a monument maker. Aitken has made four-story kaleidoscopes with mirrors set overtop at forty-five degree angles that follow the sun. The interior mirrors reflect an ever-changing (and no doubt, astounding!) abstract of the city inverted. He has also designed buildings sheathed in television screens featuring videos of the ground that existed before the building’s construction. It makes the building itself look invisible, and Aitken seemed to feel, was a way to create land art without devastating the land it incorporated. The building reminded me of a walk I took with a friend who told me that militarists had devised “invisible cloaks,” shields one could wear which reflected its surroundings digitally, like a chameleon—they almost worked perfectly (according to this friend, whom I realize is not the most reliable source). We of course made endless jokes about how a) cool a cloak of invisibility would be and b) dangerous. Seeing Aitken’s buildings, I remembered that imagined cloak. I suppose because some of his sonic installations use technology divined by militarists. The tools he uses to create seductive, aesthetic environments subjugate the viewer, whether those tools are cinematic devices or relational military speakers installed in a white room to create perfect and impenetrable silence. I wonder, here, if Aitken isn’t subtly critiquing that process of seduction, making flashy mouments that astonish, while using dangerous materials.
The famous people he uses in his films—Keiffer Sutherland, Cat Power, Tilda Swinton—themselves are emblematic of a lifestyle. A lifestyle no doubt coveted by any number (if not all?) of the citizens of the world. Why wouldn’t someone in America—not to mention someone from a third world country—desire such power as that which he wields in the execution of his fancy? His evident proximity to known celebrities, symbols of his own status in the world, whereby those known quantities of Movie Star are not simply people, but signs.
In contrast, it’s interesting to consider Francis Alys who places himself in an entirely other context. Again, perhaps like Coppola, Aitken simply suffers from an inborn American-ism—one invested in larger, unconsciously self-centered, gestures. Meanwhile, Alys lives in Mexico city, cultivating his own persona (accidentally or otherwise) on a small scale, walking through a city with magnets tied to his shoes, pushing a block of ice over the course of a twelve-hour walk until the ice melts, or, even, chasing small tornados.
There is something I find more subversive in Alys’ work, precisely for its smallness. In a world where everyone is clamoring to get attention, building taller and taller skyscrapers all the time trying to make more and more and more money to accomplish more and more, to leave a deeper mark on the surface of history, Alys seems quiet, like a spider, building a very small web. His work appears like a wink, gratifying to witness, precisely because it would be so easy to miss.
That is not to suggest that Alys is the solution to the art-star market. Like any and all of us, he too is invested in the economic structure of art and persona as commodity. It just so happens that his persona has become a marketed whisper. Nevertheless, it is perhaps a beginning. Nevertheless, and with admitted bias, I am comforted by its human scale.
I happened onto a conversation recently in which someone, in one of those rare instances of off-handed academicism, supposed the Copernican Revolution to be the most significant revolution in the history of humanity. In it, humanity’s concept of its context shifted dramatically from the Ptolemaic system (in which the earth is the center of the universe) to we now take for granted, that the sun is the center and the earth orbits around it. I want to strain for a similar perspectival shift. Just as the Copernican revolution did nothing to change the physical conditions in which we live, it impacted the theoretical identity of humanity. Similarly, the solution, it seems to me, is not in a rejection of the current system, but rather a new sense of its structure; a way to assume a new position.
That inkling came to me again when I came uponThe Divine Horsemen. There Maya Deren mentions that according to the Haitians, when adding two and two, the action of addition is itself an additive principle, thus the result of such an equation would be five, not four.
2 + 2 = 5 2 + 2 + 2 = 8 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 = 11
The proposition makes sense. It’s actually quite sensible and imagining that one can add two things together with changing the principle units reveals something peculiar about the Western European approach to the world. The founding principles of Western logic are based on the assumption that units can be combined and separated without a trace of that action. It supposes that those units are therefore stable, that the addition is an invisible action—an action without a trace.
You can think about it in terms of the contextuality of art. Supposing that the meaning of a work of art is itself stable and unchanging—a unit; exempt from the accumulation of associative, contextual meaning. Take Rodin’s Thinker, for instance. “At approximately 1am on March 24, 1970, the Cleveland Museum’s version of Rodin’s The Thinker was irreparably damaged by a pipe bomb. The bomb itself had been placed on the pedestal that supported the enlargement and had the power of about three sticks of dynamite.” (click here to read the rest of the article). The museum director had a choice after that—send The Thinker back to be refurbished? To restore the legs, returning the piece to its original wholeness? Or let it remain. Surprisingly, the city was asked to weigh in. Even more surprisingly, they preferred to leave their Thinker damaged. In letting the work remain destroyed, the piece garnered new meaning. Suddenly it’s history is tied to an, albeit anonymous, act of violence—one specific to American history and, most likely, the Vietnam War.
Here too, an action took place with a mathematical character. The legs were lost. What was added was an historical tracing—a mark of trauma and transformation. Suddenly this Thinkerhas gone beyond the context prescribed by Rodin and the disaffected passage of his work through time. That monument has become contemporary, added to by an action with a value that gloms on to the original unit. It demonstrates the influence of the present on the past, as well as the impossible task of preserving something “as it always was.”
2 – 2 = 1 2 + 2 – 2 = 4 2 + 2 + 2 – 2 = 7
These last months I have found myself again and again in conversations about the myth of stability and permanence as it manifests in works of art. On the one hand I cannot help but sympathize with the chronic need to refurbish and protect famous works of art. On the other, I also see that the task is ultimately fraught. Similarly I participate in the culture we inhabit, invest heavily in it, and relate to the desire for success and recognition. I read headlines of celebrity life over and over again when buying food. Of late I have accidentally encountered a reality TV show in which B-movie celebrities go to a halfway house to get off drugs (Sober House); in other words I’m as entrenched in my sense of the surface, in my understanding of legitimacy as a codified process, as anyone else. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder if perhaps there is another strategy to satiate those impulses, a strategy which might perhaps shift, if only slightly, the ever flattening surface of cultural production and dissemination.
A friend mine said, out of nowhere, the other day that he didn’t feel he was the same person he was as a child, or even the same person he was a few years ago. With peculiar earnestness he looked me in the eye and concluded, “The only reason I think I think I am the same person is because I remember things I did when I was someone else.” In this moment too, I feel Deren’s additive principle makes sense. Like any work of art, we are not the same, just as a public persona cannot simply be dealt out like a stable commodified veneer. Surfaces crack and fall apart; they are not dependable despite our most insistent hopes. The illusion that something, or someone, can be simplified and projected onto a surface, as Coppola’s Antoinette, Aitken’s old man, or his kaleidoscope pattern of New York City reflected—those are dangerous illusions in so far as they evade any sense of consequence or complexity—elements, I feel, are essential to the human condition. Thus, perhaps this additive self can be the beginning of that trailhead, the one easily missed, with small missteps and unobtrusive failures. The robust and generally uncelebrated life—not the wizened fool sitting by the river, but rather the modest cousin who bakes his own bread for family and friends alike, and perhaps in the course of that communion, discovers a new sense of legitimacy, a new means to measure success.