Sunday, September 27, 2009

Reading art

“...excerpts from novels like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set the tone at the gallery’s entrance.”

“I’m totally having a Hiroshi Sugimoto moment,” I mumbled in awe, standing in front of Dominique Gonzales-Foerster’s dioramas yesterday at Dia at the Hispanic Society in Washington Heights, Manhattan. My mind immediately went to the Japanese photographer’s luscious black and white photographs of museum displays that meld two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality, replacing artifice with realism. Sugimoto might lean towards realism and Gonzales-Foerster surrealism, but there is a magical quality that links them.

After culling her personal library collection and that of the Hispanic Society, Gonzales-Foerster has inserted weathered paperbacks into naturalistic settings that range from desert to rainforest. Intended to be imaginary landscapes, they are the outgrowth of listening to the music of the Buena Vista Social Club, a personal favourite of mine. It’s simulacra punctuated by realia in the form of books. Are the books discarded arbitrarily or placed deliberately? My guess is the latter, since their selection was carefully curated: each was chosen for its geographical setting or the locale in which the author wrote the book. Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, appears in the desert diorama. Either way, they feel like relics of civilization, like the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. The books are the only inhabitants of these scenes; there is no evidence of animal life. Single pages, curled up at the edges, evoke skin that has been shed or bones that have disintegrated into near-dust. Others appear more animated, such as an open book that is spot lit and suspended, like a bird in flight.

As a librarian, I was drawn in by the collecting impulse. Ultimately, I read the dioramas as a cautionary tale. Being immersed in a college setting where research generally begins online instead of with books, I saw these castoffs as symbols of the decline of knowledge, the side-effect of not evaluating information effectively. These are the survivors, but so what? That’s melodramatic, sure, but excerpts from novels like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set the tone at the gallery’s entrance.

As an artist, I was affected by the implication that creative output can be a person’s legacy. Artworks—traces of who an artist is—persevere for the next generation to ponder, dismiss, react against, build on, or appropriate. The obsession with lineage in art history has fallen out of favour, but it’s still a reality, and very much a seduction. Gonzales-Foerster is quoted in the New York Times* as saying “With a library,” she said, “you slowly build a biography for yourself” and I think the same is true of art making (or blogging, or any creative endeavour, for that matter). Biography becomes legacy somehow, whether intentionally or not.

Upon leaving, I had a strong urge to reread Anna Banti’s fictional biography of Artemesia Gentileschi. In the heartbreaking introduction, the author mourns the loss of her initial transcript, a casualty of WWII bombings. I imagine that Gonzales-Foerster would be pleased that her installation made me want to crack open a book.

For more information: click here.

*Kennedy, Randy. “It’s only natural, this thing for books.” The New York Times. Sept. 18, 2009.

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