As far as disgraceful social injustice and disgusting political corruption go, 2014 was a vintage year. So for me, two of the most significant works made by artists in 2014 were not artworks. The first of these, Laura Poitras’s film CITIZENFOUR, is an astonishing historical document, recording the days and weeks during which Edward Snowden’s revelations about electronic government surveillance became one of the defining political stories of our age. Whether or not CITIZENFOUR is a ‘good’ documentary in the aesthetic sense is neither here nor there. Since the film’s release in October, I’ve had numerous arguments with people who think that Poitras could have ‘done more’ with her footage. I think they are missing the point. (What do you want? A nine-channel HD video installation featuring the complexities of electronic surveillance explained through a Judson Church-influenced dance sequence, sound-tracked by Miley Cyrus, and accompanied by a collateral programme of talks and film screenings?) What CITIZENFOUR makes clear is how few documentary films actually record a story of global proportions unfolding in front of the director’s camera. Here is a subject that needs no embellishment, no artistic lace doilies. CITIZENFOUR will be seen in the future as an exceptional piece of primary historical evidence. I left the cinema stunned by the courage of those involved in breaking the story, and in the production of this film.
Perhaps CITIZENFOUR felt all the more urgent because 2014 was a miserably grim year in world news, and Poitras’s film was just one particularly explicit expression of our frustration at the current shape of power. Which brings me to the second notable non-artwork by artists this year: The W.A.G.E. Certification campaign by New York-based artist group Working Artists for the Greater Economy. In the organization’s own words, ‘Certification is a voluntary program initiated and operated by W.A.G.E. that publicly recognizes non-profit arts organizations demonstrating a history of, and commitment to, voluntarily paying artist fees that meet a minimum payment standard.’ In October, New York’s Artists Space was the first non-profit gallery to sign up to the scheme, an important gesture in a town held in the vice-grip of unchecked real estate greed and increasing economic disparity. (‘People like you lose all claim to respect the first time they pay anybody rent,’ remarks Crocker Fenway, a ruthless businessman in Paul Thomas Anderson’sInherent Vice. Both the film and the Thomas Pynchon novel it is based on are set in 1970, but that’s a line aimed right between the eyes of 2014.)
‘But c’mon Fox,’ I hear you cry, ‘we’re here to read about art not the price of eggs!’ OK, fair enough. 2014, for me, often seemed to have its gaze fixed on the past rather than the present, and notable retrospectives and surveys were thick on the ground. ‘The Heart is Not a Metaphor’, Robert Gober’s ‘this is your life’ moment at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, may not have been quite the immersive experience as his 2007 career overview at Basel’s Schaulager was, but I rarely tire of seeing his sculptures and installations. Gober’s work serves as a gentle and often moving reminder that Surrealism is the one art movement that never really disappeared or lost its power to disturb and entrance. I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed ‘Night and Day’, Chris Ofili’s victory lap at the New Museum, New York. In Britain during the 1990s heyday of Young British Art, Ofili’s work was so often reproduced in the media that it lost some of its pizzazz through overfamiliarity, so perhaps absence has made the heart grow fonder. (Protests erupted in New York when his 1996 painting The Holy Virgin Mary was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. In 2014, we’ve got far bigger problems to worry about than offending the sensibilities of a few iconodule Catholics.) Amy Sillman’s survey show ‘One Lump or Two’ at the Hessel Museum of Art/CCS Bard (which toured from the ICA Boston) was not just funny and imaginative, but a testament to the possibilities of painting, and ‘The Production Line of Happiness’ – a wonderfully titled retrospective of Christopher Williams’ photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and MoMA, New York – was as crisply milled as the glass on a Leica lens.
Many of the past year’s retrospectives were dedicated to the sadly departed. We had Sigmar Polke’s inventive mischief at MoMA, New York and Tate Modern, London; Sturtevant’s pioneering work in the field of appropriation – also at MoMA – and a moving exhibition of painting by Leonilsson at the Pinacoteca do Estado São Paulo. And I mustn’t forget the small but knockout selection of small paintings by US artist Albert York at Matthew Marks Gallery, New York; bucolic landscapes, still lifes and allegorical works suggesting what Giorgio Morandi and Odilon Redon might have painted had they lived on Long Island.
HISTORICAL PASTICHE IS ONE OF OUR MOST important art forms, cutting across all media. We come to know it best through what we might call “decade-ism,” the artistic practice of parceling out history in ten-year spans. There is a menu of decades to choose from, and an audience with sophisticated tastes in recent period detail waiting to sample the latest clever, self-aware tweaking of classic ingredients. That TV serial set in the Sixties? It’s as rich as it looks, but the bitter aftertaste tells you the chef is sending up the clichés. Perhaps you’d prefer instead something from the Fifties (meaty, starchy) or, if you need something lighter, the Eighties (faintly metallic, a bit too sweet)? It doesn’t matter that these are simulacra. That knowingness only results in a finer appreciation for the precision and flair with which the results are prepared.
Not everything on the menu has been craved, though. The Seventies, that ragged decade, tends to be fodder for easy comedy. The details that attach to it — the polyester-and-feathered-hair-and-Moog-synthesizer aura — haven’t seemed ripe for mythic reinvention or idealizing treatment, more because of their banality than their unattractiveness. Images from the Seventies seem like meaningless citations without any larger significance, funny only because of their weird hollow particularity. Wasn’t the decade a dead end? Aren’t its details purely hermetic and self-regarding, artifacts from a time capsule no one would have intentionally preserved? Who would want to revisit that? Even Fredric Jameson, anatomist of our nostalgias, once commented that the specificity of the Seventies was its lack of specificity (ah, dialectical criticism! — one might almost think it an artifact of the very time it diagnoses). You can have a sincere or ironic taste for that trashy style, but you can’t pretend that anything world-historical gave that taste its alibi.
Everyone knows now how decades come back into fashion with motiveless regularity. That’s what pastiche does: it supplies styles for a market that craves novelty, even the refurbished kind. But the recent burst of fictional resurrections of the Seventies — the most acclaimed novels of recent years among them — doesn’t just represent the establishment of a new consumer market. The novelists who have lately returned to the Seventies seem to be making a stronger claim: that there is something uniquely vital to the decade, and in fact uniquely to be missed. In a bid to transcend our knowing cynicism, as well as the shabby reputation the Seventies have had, these stories hold up that moment for complicated admiration and longing. No small melancholy attends that task of historical recovery. Few people, Flaubert remarked to a friend after writing Salammbô, could guess how sad one had to be to want to resuscitate Carthage. How sad does one have to be to want to resuscitate the era of stagflation?
Here is the territory the novels evoke: a mythic late summer, spacious, unsupervised, a little druggy, a little restless, hedged only by the feeling that everything is about to end. The actual location varies. It could be an upstate New York commune, a legacy of 1968, finding itself a victim of its own success (Arcadia); it could be a college campus in Rhode Island, a quiet refuge from Indian political turmoil (The Lowland); it could be a duplex community in Roanoke, Virginia, a turnout on the highway of downward mobility (Sister Golden Hair); it could be SoHo as the artists first move in (The Flamethrowers) or a Queens apartment complex as the immigrants start to move out (Dissident Gardens); it could even, in a slightly more literal version, be a Massachusetts summer arts camp (The Interestings). These are temporary, ramshackle utopias; no one ever quite gets over them. They are all, strikingly, collectives of one kind or another. Communal mourning saturates these stories: Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies gives us a literal funeral, where college friends grieve over a dead friend and their mid-Seventies college days — but none of these novels is ever very far from a feeling that a group is coming or has come to an end. This feeling can take the form of wistfulness or, in the case of the professor of “Nixonology” who narrates A. M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven?, a barely respectable obsession. Put it in the terms of the tag-line leading in to one of the decade’s most famous guitar riffs: close your eyes and it slips away.
This can all seem very archetypal, just a middle-aged generation mourning its youth. But what’s being mourned is even smaller and sharper than a decade: the post-OPEC-embargo, pre-Iran-hostage-crisis détente years on the American scene, as encapsulated in some landscapes that, however topographically different, share a family resemblance. Passive and wide-eyed protagonists, without obvious talents other than their sensitivity, drift through a world where grandiose hopes — for liberation or equality or world peace — are receding, but seem perhaps more realizable in the wash of their retreat. It’s not a moment to which any piety is owed: it’s “a world of fuckers,” as Meg Wolitzer’s teenagers see it; “a Ponzi scheme of herpes and divorce,” as one of Jonathan Lethem’s disillusioned ranters puts it. But there was space and time, we’re told. “We felt like we could play around,” one of Rush’s mourners recalls. It’s not that it was bliss in that dawn to be alive — more that it wasn’t all that bad to laze around in that late afternoon. Not much to miss, it seems; why might we miss it now?
The author who writes under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante responded to written questions via email through her longtime Italian publisher, Sandra Ozzola Ferri. The following is a translated transcript of that interview.
Q. You insist on anonymity and yet are developing a cult following, especially among women, first in Italy and now in the United States and beyond. How do you feel about the reception of your books in the United States in recent years, and your growing readership, especially after James Wood’s review in The New Yorker in January 2013?
Q. Do you feel your books have found the following they deserve in Italy?
A. I don’t do promotional tours in my own country or anywhere. In Italy my first book, “Troubling Love,” sold immediately, thanks to the word of mouth of readers who discovered it and appreciated the writing, and to reviewers who wrote about it positively. Then the director Mario Martone read it and turned it into a memorable film. This helped the book, but it also shifted the media attention onto me personally. Partly for that reason, I didn’t publish anything else for 10 years, at which point, with tremendous anxiety, I decided to publish “The Days of Abandonment.” The book was a success and had a wide readership, even if there was also a lot of resistance to [the protagonist] Olga’s reaction to being abandoned, — the same kind of resistance faced by Delia [the protagonist] in “Troubling Love.” The success of the book and of the film that was made from it focused even more attention onto the absence of the author. It was then that I decided, definitively, to separate my private life from the public life of my books, which overcame countless difficulties and have endured. I can say with a certain pride that in my country, the titles of my novels are better known than my name. I think this is a good outcome.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the Italian literary tradition?
A. I’m a storyteller. I’ve always been more interested in storytelling than in writing. Even today, Italy has a weak narrative tradition. Beautiful, magnificent, very carefully crafted pages abound, but not the flow of storytelling that despite its density manages to sweep you away. A bewitching example is Elsa Morante. I try to learn from her books, but I find them unsurpassable.
In the introduction to the 1995 reissue of his 1973 masterpiece Crash, J.G. Ballard discusses ‘the balance between fiction and reality’. ‘We live,’ he writes,
in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.
The paragraphs that follow are a little disappointing, as Ballard unquestioningly endorses some rather conservative beliefs about writing: first, a psychologism (the writer ‘offers the reader the contents of his own head’), then a positivism (he must ‘devise hypotheses and test them against the facts’), then a moralism (his novel’s main purpose is cautionary, a warning against a brutal technological future). But there’s still something important here, hinging on that word ‘invent’. Ballard doesn’t tell us that novelists should ‘discover’ or ‘intuit’ or ‘reveal’ reality: they must invent it. Reality isn’t there yet; it has to be brought forth or produced; and this is the duty and stake of writing.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about reality in fiction, or reality versus fiction. Take the many articles about the ‘true’ writings of Karl Ove Knausgaard, or the huge amount of attention paid to David Shields’s polemic Reality Hunger. Time and again we hear about a new desire for the real, about a realism which is realistic set against an avant-garde which isn’t, and so on. It’s disheartening that such simplistic oppositions are still being put forward half a century after Foucault examined the constructedness of all social contexts and knowledge categories; or, indeed, a century and a half after Nietzsche unmasked truth itself as no more than ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms … a sum of human relations … poetically and rhetorically intensified … illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions’ (and that’s not to mention Marx, Lyotard, Deleuze-Guattari, Derrida etc). It seems to me meaningless, or at least unproductive, to discuss such things unless, to borrow a formulation from the ‘realist’ writer Raymond Carver, we first ask what we talk about when we talk about the real. Perhaps we should have another look at the terms ‘the real’, ‘reality’ and ‘realism’.
Let’s start with ‘realism’, since it’s the easiest target of the lot. Realism is a literary convention – no more, no less – and is therefore as laden with artifice as any other literary convention. Ford Madox Ford, in a passage from Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, brilliantly skewers the claim that a certain prose style – that of realism – faithfully and objectively captures historical events and mental activity:
Life does not say to you: in 1914 my next-door neighbour, Mr Slack, erected a greenhouse and painted it with Cox’s green aluminium paint … If you think about the matter you will remember, in various unordered pictures, how one day Mr Slack appeared in his garden and contemplated the wall of his house. You will then try to remember the year of that occurrence and you will fix it as August 1914 because having had the foresight to bear the municipal stock of the City of Liège you were able to afford a first-class season ticket for the first time in your life. You will remember Mr Slack – then much thinner because it was before he found out where to buy that cheap Burgundy of which he has since drunk an inordinate quantity though whisky you think would be much better for him! Mr Slack again came into his garden, this time with a pale, weaselly-faced fellow, who touched his cap from time to time. Mr Slack will point to his house-wall several times at different points, the weaselly fellow touching his cap at each pointing. Some days after, coming back from business you will have observed against Mr Slack’s wall … At this point you will remember that you were then the manager of the fresh-fish branch of Messrs Catlin and Clovis in Fenchurch Street … What a change since then! Millicent had not yet put her hair up … You will remember how Millicent’s hair looked, rather pale and burnished in plaits. You will remember how it now looks, henna’d: and you will see in one corner of your mind’s eye a little picture of Mr Mills the vicar talking – oh, very kindly – to Millicent after she has come back from Brighton … But perhaps you had better not risk that. You remember some of the things said by means of which Millicent has made you cringe – and her expression! … Cox’s Aluminium Paint! … You remember the half empty tin that Mr Slack showed you – he had a most undignified cold – with the name in a horseshoe over a blue circle that contained a red lion asleep in front of a real-gold sun …
Once we’ve stopped snickering at the conjunction of the words ‘Slack’, ‘erect’ and ‘Cox’ (which, given the coy erotics of the passage, the way Millicent moves and stirs beneath its link-ups, strikes me as far from accidental), we have little choice, whatever our aesthetic disposition, but to surrender to Ford’s argument. This is, of course, exactly how events and memory both proceed: associatively, digressing, jolting, looping.
William Burroughs makes the same point when discussing his cut-up technique: ‘Take a walk down a city street … You have seen a person cut in two by a car, bits and pieces of street signs and advertisements, reflections from shop windows – a montage of fragments … Consciousness is a cut-up; life is a cut-up.’ He’s right as well. We don’t walk down the street saying to ourselves: ‘As I walk down the street, comma, I contemplate the question of faith, or adultery, or x or y or z.’ It turns out that the 20th-century avant-garde often paints a far more realistic picture of experience than 19th-century realists ever did. But it’s also the case that realism’s founders – if not their descendants – fully appreciate the scaffolding of artifice holding their carefully wrought edifices up, and take delight, from time to time, in shoving poles and ladders through the parlour windows. Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary, often held up as one of 19th-century realism’s triumphs, but he also wrote Bouvard et Pécuchet, in which two semi-educated men try to translate a series of cultural paradigms (‘being’ a gentleman gardener, ‘being’ an aesthete or a lover) into experiences that they might live (or re-live) in an ‘authentic’ manner, even re-enacting the postures from book illustrations in their bid for this imagined authenticity – with effects as farcical as those produced by their 16th-century predecessor Don Quixote. Balzac generated all the counts and countesses of his Comédie humaine – rounded characters who are so often admired for the way they seem to live and breathe – but his novella Sarrasine is a ruthless laying bare of the very mechanism through which the fantasy of the ‘natural’ operates. In mistaking a castrato – a simulacrum that has no original – for the most genuine and unadulterated embodiment of woman, the sculptor Sarrasine enacts the error at the source of realism itself. When his error is revealed, both he and Balzac’s readers are confronted with the fact that, as Barthes put it in 1970, ‘realism (badly named, at any rate often badly interpreted) consists not in copying the real but in copying a (depicted) copy of the real’; it ‘copies what is already a copy’. It is no coincidence that Bouvard and Pécuchet are trained, like Melville’s Bartleby, as copy-clerks.
It’s an interesting paradox that the 19th-century realists took the counter-realist impulse much further than the 20th-century anti-realists. Ford and Burroughs put forward a claim to have helped pioneer new and radical ways of depicting lived life accurately. But Balzac and Flaubert whip the rug out from under the very possibility of doing this. What opens up beneath the place where we wrongly thought a solid floor lay is an abyss, endlessly regressive, of convention on convention, code on code, reading of reading of reading. (It’s telling that Flaubert’s last text, the end-point to which this trajectory carries him, is a dictionary: the Dictionary of Received Ideas into which Bouvard et Pécuchet tapers off.) That such blatant and splendid take-downs of naturalism are written into the core of the realist tradition makes the naive and uncritical realism dominating contemporary middlebrow fiction, and the doctrine of authenticity peddled by creative writing classes the world over, all the more simple-minded.
Anybody visiting Paris between now and 8 February 2015: go see the Garry Winogrand retrospective at the Jeu de Paume. And read Geoff Dyer, possibly the only critic who gets away with not going to see shows he chooses to write about, on Winogrand. It’s the same show, and Dyer almost certainly hasn’t seen its Paris incarnation either, so this piece is fresh as ever:
I didn’t make it to the huge Garry Winogrand retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco but if the very large catalogue is anything to go by the show was obviously … not nearly big enough!＊ How could it have been? Winogrand is inexhaustible. There’s probably more to look at in a Winogrand photo than in one by anyone else (part of the attraction of a wide-angle lens was the way it enabled him not only to get more people in the picture but also to cram the frame, so to speak, with the space between them) and still we want more photographs. He shot more film than almost any other photographer, so much that he was unable to keep up with the editing, gradually gave up trying to do so and, by the end, had pretty much stopped looking at – or processing – what he’d shot. The much quoted claim that he photographed ‘to find out what something will look like photographed’ became, effectively, ‘to not bother finding out what something will look like photographed, to photograph for the sake of photographing’. Or – this was the high-stakes wager – had he so internalised what photography did to things that he no longer needed to look? John Szarkowski, then the head of photography at MoMA in New York, considered the man he had championed so enthusiastically (‘the central photographer of his generation’) wholly profligate in his last years: a profligacy that was also a symptom of a desperate loss of direction. As the curator of the new show, Leo Rubinfien, points out in the main essay in the catalogue, we can’t properly speak of a late period in Winogrand’s work; he became ill and died too suddenly, at the age of 56, for that. If he had lived longer would what we regard as his last work have proved to be a phase through which he passed on the way to a properly developed ‘late’ period? Or should one speak of terminal overproduction in the way that one speaks of terminal illness?
Part of the idea behind the show is to reconsider the work made in Winogrand’s final years. The enormous deck is reshuffled, the cards are arranged in a new way and the verdict is more nuanced, but the conclusion is not so different from the one Szarkowski came to in the 1988 retrospective: a much smaller number of successful pictures resulted from a larger reservoir of images. And our response remains fundamentally unaltered too: we wanna see ’em anyway! More from the early years, more from the mature period, more from the last years even if much of it’s not worth seeing. Winogrand, the photographer as addict, is the addict’s photographer. The more you feed the Winogrand habit the more Winogrand you crave.
Partly this is because of the sheer quantity of data amassed by Winogrand, the mind-blowing amount of information he provided about the social landscape of America in the 1960s and 1970s: suits, dresses, jackets, lapel widths, hairstyles, body shapes, faces, drinks, food, cigarettes, architecture, airports, pets, cars – everything. But it’s far more than the thoroughness and extent of this animate inventory that makes Winogrand so important. Taking his lead from Georg Lukács, George Steiner wrote of Balzac that when he ‘describes a hat, he does so because a man is wearing it.’ Granted, in photography hats are forever being verbed – worn, carried, tipped – but it’s helpful to see Winogrand as a visual novelist whose work was a sprawling human comedy. Or perhaps as a dance to the stilled music of photographic time, with a cast of thousands, that stood no chance of ever being completed. (Winogrand admired Norman Mailer, rivalled him in scope, energy, ambition – and in a disdain for any internal system of brakes. As it happens, he photographed Mailer at his fiftieth birthday party in 1973, on the receiving end of a finger-wagging lecture from a guest, so that the picture seems silently captioned by the Winograndian imperative: ‘Look!’)
Winogrand turned the canyons of midtown Manhattan into a white-water flow of people, rapids of entanglement giving way to pools of unexpected calm. But he wasn’t simply a New York photographer-novelist. Convinced that Robert Frank had missed out on the real story of America in the 1950s – the story of the suburbs – he made his way across the country, and his travels put him in an entirely different relation to photographic and physical space. He left New York for good, settling first in Austin, Texas, then Los Angeles.
So you look at this wonderful, sumptuous catalogue and feel simultaneously replete – and curiously short-changed. Where, for example, is the colour work glimpsed in the book put together by Trudy Wilner Stack, 1964, the year Winogrand was on a roll, driving through the States on a Guggenheim Fellowship and making brilliant image after brilliant image? Wasn’t there more colour stuff in the vaults of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson? (How fitting that Winogrand’s archive ended up there, as if only the vastness of Arizona could accommodate the sheer mass of material.) If there’s colour work in the show, how come it’s not in the catalogue?
It’s inevitable but slightly disappointing that many of the pictures that are in the catalogue are already familiar. Naturally, in a retrospective we expect to be treated to an artist’s greatest hits. And part of the reason for the moreishness of Winogrand is that there’s always more to see in – and learn about – an image that one already knows well. Szarkowski’s claim that Winogrand’s best pictures were ‘not illustrations of what he had known, but were new knowledge’ holds good for the viewer too. A few years ago, I wrote about a picture of Winogrand’s in which a hip young woman is putting coins in the cup of a blind and deaf African-American on a crowded street in midtown Manhattan in about 1968. There’s a lot going on in this picture, and I felt pretty smug about having noticed so much of it. Then the photographer Tod Papageorge – an informal pupil of Winogrand who became his friend and who has contributed an essay-memoir to the new catalogue – pointed out that I had failed to spot one very striking thing: the woman is the actress Ali McGraw, a couple of years before she broke the world’s heart in Love Story. So this picture is, along with everything else, a celebrity portrait. Winogrand papped Ali McGraw! (Thus alerted, I went celebrity-stalking through Winogrand’s pictures. Although his face is partly obscured, the guy kissing his girlfriend at an airport – location and date unknown – on page 51 of the posthumously compiled Arrivals & Departures – looks incredibly like the young Bob Dylan. He even has a pen in his shirt pocket! During this deranged phase of research I was also struck by the way that Winogrand himself looked, for a while, rather like Dave Eggers.)
Minimenta: Topography for Anselm Kiefer
The topography of ruins. One wave
of grass covers everything. I have seen
a woman bending over a stone.
Everything around her was green.
The desire is to leave everything alone.
The difficulty is knowing what to save.
I am a wreck, says one, but not
with his mouth. Where are his organs
of speech? They’ve been wrecked
by the huge wind that blows, now hot
now cold. Too late to protect
a body fraying at the margins.
The smallest things move me. The rain
as it shakes the leaf. The sound of laughter
in the street. I’m easy to please.
Give me fine particulars, he says,
the microfiction of pleasure. A train
passing. The silence after.
Somewhere within his chest
a crow was croaking. Somewhere not far
from him bodies were decomposing.
Everything in the world was for the best.
Outside leaves lifted. The sky was closing
round a tree on a distant star.
The terrain of grief does not grow any smaller.
The bush fires spread. The dead keep interrupting.
A crowd shouting in the park meets a crowd
shouting in the street. Shouting turns to shooting.
Turn off the film. The soundtrack is too loud.
We don’t need sound. We don’t need technicolour.
But here is colour: hands, eyes and lips,
magnified as if for real, then vanishing
into the sinkholes that punctuate
I don’t say anything,
says the mouth. You are too late,
say the eyes, hands, and fingertips.
You build ruins we can live in.
You hide our bones in concrete.
The bomb shelter is inside the bomb.
Here is the car we arrive in.
Here is what remains of the street.
Here it all stops. Welcome home.
On the second night of the Woodstock fruit festival in upstate New York, long after dinner had been cleared, I stood in the dining hall and waited with other festivalgoers for what was rumoured to be a “fuck ton” of durian, a large, spiky tropical fruit famous for smelling like dung. Thick bass pummelled the air from the rave-style DJ in the corner. It was mid-August, and with the nearness and number of other peoples’ bodies I was overly warm, almost sweating. Beneath the buzz of long fluorescent bulbs, small children limboed under a piece of string to the sloppy clapping of adults, and somewhere in the hall a drum circle stuttered to an entirely different rhythm. It was too bright, too noisy, and everywhere I went there was the slight whiff of fruit-rot, a sweet, sticky smell whose origin was decay.
It was the first of the festival’s many “Sweet Durian Nites”, a dance party that climaxed with the consumption of hundreds and hundreds of ripe durian fruits. The dining hall was packed with exemplars of health and youth and whiteness. There were lean kids in T-shirts and shorts, hippie chicks with rippling hair, sporty-looking guys wearing toe shoes – snug, rubberised foot-gloves that swaddle the foot in hi-tech materials in order to mimic the conditions of running barefoot. Everyone looked comfortable. Everyone had good posture. Everyone was attractive, or more precisely, all the attendees looked so well that I felt like I should be attracted to them. Even the older attendees seemed young: I had the experience many times of walking towards a girl with long hair and skinny legs only to discover up close that she was well over 60.
A narrow-headed man with arms like an action figure introduced himself as Jay and asked if this was my first time trying durian. I told him I’d only had it cooked in puddings or cakes, and he assured me that raw, fresh durian was a completely different thing. He said I’ll go nuts for it, especially if I stuck to a fruitarian diet. “The cleaner you get,” he said, “the more your body craves that sulphur flavour. And you’ll be able to taste more in it – coffee, ice cream, whiskey, lemon. If there’s something you miss eating, durian starts to taste just like it.”
I was first introduced to fruitarianism by a close friend who crashed with me for a weekend in 2012. I opened the door and watched her roll a carry-on suitcase into the entryway, set it down, unzip it, and remove two 40oz plastic containers of red globe grapes, which she rinsed off and consumed in their entirety while standing in the middle of my kitchen. When she was done, she put the spindly grape-skeletons back in their plastic clamshells, and the clamshells back in her suitcase. She had been on a fruit-based diet for just a couple of months, but was already reporting astounding changes: an end to the stomach pains that had troubled her for years; bursting, glowy levels of energy; sharpened concentration; happiness. “I love it,” she told me. “It’s like the whole world is made of delicious, dripping sugar.” Her diet didn’t sound safe, but my friend looked well. She buzzed with intense wellbeing and her skin looked enviably great, although she took frequent naps.
Most faithfully described as a “plant-based raw vegan diet” (the term fruitarian is preferred among practitioners, although only a fraction are on an all-fruit diet), fruitarianism largely adheres to a nutritional regimen known as 80-10-10. This is a high-carb, low-fat diet in which at least 80% of one’s calorie consumption is expected to come from the simple carbohydrates found in fresh fruits and vegetables, with at most 10% each coming from protein and fat. As a point of comparison, the Atkins diet begins with a recommended ratio of 10% carbs, 29% protein, and 65% fat. Because fruits and vegetables naturally contain small amounts of fat and protein, Dr Doug Graham, an unlicensed chiropractor and the man behind 80-10-10, claims that you can thrive on a diet composed entirely of fresh raw fruits, raw leafy greens, and only occasional supplements of nuts or seeds. For a fruitarian, breakfast might be 1lb of kiwi blended with 1lb of orange juice, with 1lb 12oz of peeled bananas wrapped in romaine leaves for lunch, and a three-course dinner consisting of 1lb blended tangerines and pineapple; 1lb of tangerines, celery, and red bell peppers blended into a soup, and a side salad.
This diet is not easy to maintain, but raw fruit experts promise a vast array of benefits. In testimonials, fruitarians claim that going raw has done everything from curing cancer to eliminating body odour and changing the colour of one’s eyes from brown to blue. Unlike other diets, 80-10-10 promises to transform your experience of your body, revealing levels of thriving that you didn’t know existed. In this way, “going raw” breaks with the traditional function of diet as rudimentary medicine (seen even in early Hippocratic medical texts) and becomes a lifestyle. A diet tells you what you should eat; a lifestyle tells you how you should feel about it.
The history of recreational dieting is fairly brief. Until the rise of natural-food communities in the 1970s, it could be argued that for most secular people, diet and lifestyle were imagined as distinct, compartmentalised aspects of daily life. Diets were faddish, seasonal, geared towards achieving a specific goal and then abandoned once they were no longer needed. They were not supposed to rearrange social ties or create new communities, only help you to succeed within your existing community by becoming a slimmer and more attractive version of yourself. From the 1880s onwards, after the discovery of food as a composite of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, most diets emphasised eating the right amount of existing mainstream foods in the right proportion to satisfy nutritional needs. That changed with the leftist utopian food communities of the 1960s and 70s – a precursor to today’s fruitarians – and the age of negative nutrition, which sought to reduce or eliminate foods that had previously been part of a nutritious standard American diet. Negative nutrition spurned sodium, cholesterol, sugar, and fat – and the suspicions it raised about the standard American diet lent momentum to the growing natural foods movement.
In the natural foods movement of the 1960s and 70s, activists and hippies combined diet, politics, and community, to provide a vision of how one could live a life that matched one’s diet. Foods were eliminated not only for health reasons but in order to cultivate a desirable personality – meat-eating, for example, was denounced as an impediment to spiritual growth and a cause of aggressive behaviour. Groups such as The Diggers in San Francisco gave food away for free and popularised wholewheat bread baked in emptied coffee cans as part of a broader experiment in creating a miniature society free from capitalism, while the macrobiotic Zen diet proposed eating your way to enlightenment through 10 different stages, each more restrictive than the last, until the eater reached an apex where she sustained herself on brown rice alone. The fruitarian lifestyle shares the narrative structure of the macrobiotic diet, its emphasis on eliminating toxicity within the body, as well as its ethos of restrictive decadence. Where it differs from macrobiotics is in its fixation on a utopian past. Like those on the nutritionally inverse “paleo” diet, fruitarians eat in hope of returning to a past that predates the primal wound of agrarian society, but whereas paleo dieters hark back to the era when humans were hunter‑gatherers, fruitarians look back to an even earlier time, when we were simply gatherers – equal, undifferentiated, and deeply in harmony with nature.
Exciting line-up of events launching next week at Raven Row, including a talk chaired by future Fitzcarraldo Editions author Brian Dillon on 16 December, with Tom McCarthy, McKenzie Wark and Janice Kerbel, on ‘Artists, Writing and Literature’. Another one to look forward to is Helen DeWitt, Chris Kraus and Jeremy Akerman on 15 January ‘about the forms of publication best suited to writing in an expanded field’. The full programme is available on the Raven Row website.
Organised by John Douglas Millar, David Musgrave, Luke Skrebowski, Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams.
Raven Row plays host for six weeks to a series of public events that mine the contested space between contemporary literature and art.
Taking this space as a starting point, the participants – including leading writers, visual and performance artists – reflect on the possible overlaps, parallels, tangents and interferences between some of today’s most adventurous forms of writing and art making. The variety of formats reflects the diversity of the contributors, spanning readings, performances, panel discussions and publishing experiments.
A companion display entitled Marginalia with artworks by Eleanor Antin, Isidore Isou, John Murphy and Philippe Thomas, curated by Antony Hudek, will be on view during events and upon request.
At each event, the pop-up bookshop Luminous Books will present a selection of titles written by and related to the speakers in Plastic Words. For the final event in the series, Luminous Books will join forces with Publication Studio for its first London appearance.
All events are free. Except for the opening event, reservations are encouraged. Please click on the links to the events for more information.
In the new issue of the New Yorker, D. T. Max, David Foster Wallace’s biographer, profiles Hans Ulrich Obrist. It’s a somewhat ambiguous portrait, with some back-handed compliments (from Ed Ruscha, for example). The story of how he started out is particularly impressive:
Obrist was born in Zurich and grew up in a small town near Lake Constance. His father was a comptroller in the construction industry, his mother a grade-school teacher. An only child, he found school “too slow,” and other Swiss found his vitality off-putting. “People would always say that I should go to Germany,” he remembered. His parents were not particularly interested in art, but on several occasions they took him to a monastery library in the nearby city of St. Gallen. He admired the antiquity of the books, the silence, the felt shoes. “You could make an appointment and, with white cloths, touch the books,” he said. “That’s one of my deepest childhood memories.”
When he was around twelve, he took the train to Zurich, where he fell in love with “the long thin figures” at a Giacometti exhibition. Soon he was collecting postcards of famous paintings—“my musée imaginaire,” he calls it. “I would organize them according to criteria: by period, by style, by color.” One day, when he was seventeen, he went to see a show by the artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss at a Basel museum. He was engrossed by their “Equilibrium” sculptures—delicately balanced metal-and-rubber constructions. He had been reading Vasari’s biographical sketches of the artists of the Renaissance, and it struck Obrist that he could try to meet creators, too. He reached out to Fischli and Weiss with this rap: “I’m a high-school pupil and I’m really, really obsessed by your work and I’d love to visit you.” He told me, “I really didn’t know what I wanted. It was just this desire to find out more.” Fischli and Weiss were amused by the precocious Obrist, and welcomed him to their Zurich studio. They were filming their now famous short film “The Way Things Go,” in which an old tire rolls down a ramp, knocking over a ladder and setting off a chain reaction. On his visit, Obrist discovered a sheet of brown wrapping paper on the floor with the entire Rube Goldberg schema drawn on it. “It was almost like a mind map,” he said.
Soon afterward, Obrist was entranced by a Gerhard Richter exhibition in Bern, and asked Richter if he could visit his studio, in Cologne. “That took courage,” he said. He travelled on the night train from Zurich. “When I arrived, he was working on one of his amazing cycles of abstract paintings,” Obrist said. They talked for ninety minutes. Richter was astonished by Obrist’s passion: “ ‘Possessed’ is the word for Hans Ulrich,” he told me. Richter recommended the music of John Cage. “We discussed chance in paintings and he said he liked playing boules,” Obrist recalled. A few months later, Obrist was in a Cologne park, playing boules with Richter and his friends.
Obrist doggedly arranged to meet other artists whose work he admired. He went to see Alighiero Boetti in Rome. The feverish Boetti may be the only person ever to complain that Obrist didn’t talk fast enough. (In his new book, Obrist writes with delight, “Here was someone with whom I had to struggle to keep up.”) When Obrist asked him how he could be “useful to art,” Boetti pointed out the obvious: that he was born to be a curator.
Obrist wasn’t sure what the job entailed, but he was intuitively drawn to the power of organizing art. As a teen-ager, he visited an exhibition at the Kunsthaus in Zurich: “Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk,” or “Tendency Toward the Total Work of Art.” It highlighted four selections from the past hundred years of modernism: Duchamp’s enigmatic glass construction “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even,” and one painting each by Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich. The works had been placed at the center of the Kunsthaus, heightening their effect. Obrist was struck by the intelligence of the man who had organized it: Harald Szeemann. Also a Swiss, Szeemann was one of several curators who had begun to bring a new inventiveness to the age-old job of selecting art to illustrate a theme. Obrist saw the show forty-one times. (Later, of course, he interviewed Szeemann.)
Obrist did not yet feel qualified to put his stamp on the art world. He had the autodidact’s anxiety about not knowing enough. For all his energy, he was not a revolutionary; he was an accumulator of information. But how to find out what artists were doing? “There wasn’t then a place to study,” he said. “I knew of no curator schools.” So he designed his own education. He enrolled at the University of St. Gallen, and majored in economics and social sciences. When not in class, he set out to see as many shows as he could.
Switzerland is well situated if you want to make impulsive trips around Europe. Obrist spoke five languages: German, French, Italian, Spanish, and English. (His English was given a boost by Roget’s Thesaurus, and he still keeps a vocabulary list in a blue notebook that he takes with him—among the latest words are “forage” and “hue.”) He took the night train to avoid hotel bills and arrived in a city the next morning. “I would go to every museum and look and look again,” he remembered. Then he visited local artists. He found that he could improve his welcome if he brought news of what he had seen, plus other artists’ gossip and opinions. “I would go from one city to the next, inspired by the monks in the Middle Ages, who would carry knowledge from one monastery to the next monastery,” he said. At Boetti’s suggestion, he also inquired about unrealized projects, as every artist had some and felt passionate about them. Above all, he listened. “I was what the French call être à l’écoute,” he told me. His youthful intensity sometimes raised concern. Louise Bourgeois, after meeting the teen-age Hans Ulrich, sleep-deprived and suffering from a cold, called his mother in Switzerland and urged her to take better care of her son.
In 1991, Obrist, in his early twenties, finally felt ready. By then, he estimates, he had visited tens of thousands of exhibitions and knew more artists than most professional curators. He chose to hold his first show in the kitchen of his student apartment. “The kitchen was just another place I kept stacks of books and papers,” he recalled. The minimalist gesture seemed appropriate, both as a reaction to the engorged art market of the eighties and as a reflection of the economic slump across Europe. It was also a playful homage: Harald Szeemann had done an exhibit in an apartment.
The idea of the show was to suggest that the most ordinary spaces of human life, cleverly curated, could be made special. Among the friends he included was the French painter and sculptor Christian Boltanski. Under the sink, Boltanski projected a film of a lit candle; the flickering could be seen through the gap in the cabinet doors. “It was like a little miracle where you expect it least,” Obrist remembered. He publicized the exhibit through small cards and word of mouth; still, he was relieved that only thirty people came over the three months it was open. “I was still studying and couldn’t have coped with much more,” he said. Among those attending was a curator from the Cartier Foundation, a contemporary-art museum in Paris. Soon afterward, Cartier offered Obrist a three-month fellowship. Obrist took it, leaving Switzerland for good.
Obrist quickly became a figure on the European art circuit. He was a clearing house for news and relationships, and he was generous—no sooner had he met someone than he helped that person connect with others in his widening circle. If he stayed in a hotel, he cleaned out the postcards in the lobby and mailed them to everyone he could think of. “He had these big plastic bags,” Marina Abramović, who met him in Hamburg in 1993, recalled. “I always wanted him to empty them and list all that was inside. . . . He would have information of every single human being—every artist living in a favela!” She remembered him as astonishingly innocent, an adjective that many still use for him. Many artists saw his unchecked commitment as a counterpart to their own. The French artist Philippe Parreno said, “For me, there is no difference between talking to him and talking to other artists. I am engaged at the same level.” Obrist once conducted an interview with Parreno while driving him from the Dublin airport to Connemara, and became so deeply absorbed that he didn’t realize he was on the wrong side of the street.
Obrist continued to set up shows in unusual locations. He put on an exhibit of Richter’s paintings in the country house where Nietzsche wrote part of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” and a show in a hotel restaurant where Robert Walser, the Swiss writer, used to stop during long walks through the mountains. A third took place in Room 763 at the Hotel Carlton Palace, in Paris, where Obrist was then staying. In one part of the exhibit, called “The Armoire Show,” nine artists created clothes for the closet. With Fischli and Weiss, he toured the Zurich sewer museum. “They had toilets and urinals on plinths and had never heard of Duchamp,” he marvelled. This inspired him to put together “Cloaca Maxima,” which featured art about lavatories and digestion. The show opened in 1994, in and around the Zurich sewers.