Photo by Yvonne Venegas
Twenty years ago this summer, in advance of the Wexner Center’s official opening later that fall, plans were put into place for the production of a book intended to document in part its inaugural programs in exhibitions, media arts, and performing arts. That book, Breakthroughs: Avant-Garde Artists in Europe and America, 1950-1990 (Rizzoli, 1991) remains the most ambitious catalogue the Wexner has to date produced, casting a backward glance over the post-war artistic landscape as well as looking forward to and beyond the contemporary moment.
For the media arts program, one form that took was commissioning a handful of artists to produce “Projects” for the printed page – five film/video producers being given carte blanche to fill four blank pages any way they chose to. Of course, in identifying these five producers, we wanted to favor those whose work was as interested in printed words and still images as much as the moving image of the film screen or video monitor.
One of those artists was Steve Fagin, a San Diego-based video producer of inimitable sensibility, careering compulsively between post-Freudian theory and Borscht Belt shtick, a global fellow-traveler as much as a non-deracinated son of Chicago’s west side. For Breakthroughs, Fagin produced Casanova’s Homecoming, subtitled, “The most imaginable film in the world; in fact the only film I couldn’t make would be The Son of Shoah.” Consisting of frame enlargements from Journey into Fear (Norman Foster, 1943), Strange Cargo (Frank Borzage, 1940), and La signora di tutti (Max Ophuls, 1934), along with his commentary on these images taped on cards alongside them (“Hollywood is like a kosher butcher. Only those cuts above the waist are suitable for public consumption [the lower half of the anatomy is unceremoniously devoured]”), Fagin’s project purported to be pre-production material for an intended feature, in the event unrealized. Subsequently, Fagin would in the 1990s continue to produce long and short video works of singular precision, making several visiting artist presentations here as well as having working residencies in our Art & Technology studio.
Cross-fade twenty years forward, to West Hollywood, late in the afternoon on the last Sunday in April, and a crowd has gathered on the carpet-sized lawn of the MAK Center Schindler House, the still-breathtaking 1922 experiment in modernist domestic architecture by the Vienna-born Rudolph Schindler and now operated as an event space by the Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, Vienna. The gathering was on the occasion of the premiere “performance” of Fagin’s latest project, The Last Book, the event itself structured into three “acts”: from 4 to 5 p.m., “Cocktails,” from 5 to 6 p.m., ‘Performance,” and from 6 – 7 p.m., “Book Private Viewing.”
Officially, the event was a production of the haudenschildGarage, a shape-shifting entity formed in 2003 by the prescient and engaged impresario Eloisa Haudenschild, the president of inSite (which commissions and presents cultural interventions within the border region of San Diego and Tijuana) and a catalytic collector and supporter of contemporary Chinese and Latin American art. Fundamentally sui generis, one of the haudenschildGarage’s endeavors is to reconceive what in the 19th century had been the salon and in the 20th the alternative art space. Under the haudenschildGarage umbrella, she and Fagin forged the SPARE PARTS initiative in 2006, a renewable three-year cycle of projects intended to encourage “the juxtaposition of the crucial, the trivial, and the arcane.” Earlier embodiments of the SPARE PARTSmandate include 2008’s A Crime Has Many Stories, a day-long exquisite corpse-styled extravaganza taking place throughout Buenos Aires and involving a wide range of younger and older visual artists, writers, and musicians, not to mention the residents of the various neighborhoods through which the events moved, with the effect being one of literally “performing” the continuities and disruptions across a spectrum of Argentine culture. Another project catalyzed by SPARE PARTS remains ongoing: Decolonizing Architecture, their collaboration with London-based architect and theorist Eyal Weizman and Bethlehem-based architects Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, a multi-vectored inquiry into a West Bank settlement near Ramallah, envisioning its possible post-evacuation future as a Palestinian public space; this project was included in the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale but continues to evolve; consult their website for updates.
Hence the lineage of The Last Book, not repeating closely either of the first two SPARE PARTS productions, but congealing more exactly into a one of a kind convocation, alternately or simultaneously a performance, a reading, a controlled party, a reunion, an architectural tour, and a product launch.
Mainly drawn from various art and academic scenes in Los Angeles and San Diego, the hundred or so attendees (including former Wexner curator Melodie Calvert and such former Wexner visiting artists as Adrienne Jenik, Rita Gonzalez, and Jordan Crandall) socialized outside during the first act, where it became clear that most of us had only the vaguest idea of what we were in for, other than being told that at five o’clock we were to gather inside, in the alarmingly small main room opening onto the lawn. Consulting the programs we were handed upon entry, we learned that the performance itself was in three parts, each featuring a different excerpt from Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls Fat and Thin, who’d given her consent for her texts to be part of the performance. Once inside, literally shoulder to shoulder, the audience was greeted by Fagin, in compère mode (think the Peter Ustinov character in Ophuls’s 1955 Lola Montes), explaining the order of the evening, centered on the readings of three separate books
The launched product was precisely the trilogy of three large hand-made books, each one containing one of the Gaitskill texts, and physically rendered as illuminated folios about eighteen inches high, thirteen inches wide, and three inches deep. Each in turn placed on a low pedestal in the center of the room, with the Garage’s managing director, Monica Jovanovich, doing the honors as page-turner, the books bore the burden of sustaining the resonance once inhering within medieval illuminated manuscripts, pre-industrial artisanal objects in which sacred formal texts intermingled with often riotously colored imagery. But here, Gaitskill’s words, given in calligraphic form, shared page space with drawings by mixed-media artist Davina Semo, and with small, GPS-scaled flat screens upon which played a variety of moving images, six segments from Leslie Thornton’s epochal Peggy and Fred Go to Hell film serial, and a sampling of six YouTube appropriations (Greg Landau’s retrofuturist music mix upping the ante).
In effect, a triangulation was set in motion among the sacredness of the book to the quasi-abject secularity of Gaitskill’s and Thornton’s flesh-bound girls to the banality of random electronic imagery now having supplanted text itself as the default collective communicative channel. A comparable declension was carried out in the three successive oral reciters of the texts: the first live performance by Shanghai’s incomparable “bad girl novelist” Mian Mian (whose writings were officially banned in 2000 and whose latest novel, Panda Sex, is forthcoming in English; all things – about a million of them -- being otherwise equal, Mian Mian and Mary Gaitskill inhabit a certain same continuity of souls, alongside Thornton’s timelessly spectral figures of Peggy and Fred), who narrated with, as Fagin described it, “a halting relation” to spoken English; the second by the Garage’s Jovanovich, more neutrally but with a veneer of professionalism; and the third, via the entirely disembodied circuitry of a Kindle, held by Fagin as “it” recited/emitted Gaitskill’s final words, Kindle the very emblem of the post-book moment to come.
The event’s third act, “Book Private Viewing,” took place in an even smaller adjacent space, where we could examine the curious volumes up close, with Jovanovich carefully opening up with pages to reveal the concealed mechanics of the moving imagery, this concluding gesture suggesting the moment within liturgical gatherings (Jewish and Christian, at any rate, certainly) after the book has been “performed,” its text having been exercised as the book resumes its status as uniquely spectacular (secular? divine?) fetish object. As one of modernism’s touchstone dwellings, the Schindler House was the most congenial space imaginable to witness The Last Book’s descent, a structure aspiring to transcendence through the material and the proportions of the mundane.
Beyond that, it struck me as a remarkably light-touched advancement of the haudenschildGarage’s agenda-free agenda, other than the one to make real (and social) the insight evinced by its founder that one way to support the art of today is to act on the belief that all the elements should be put in place and then be encouraged to collide.
Click here to see more photos from the event.