Who Would Have These Bookshelves?

Review of Tunnel Vision by Kevin Breathnach. The Stinging Fly, 27 May 2019.

Lines, and more generally the notion of linearity, play an important part in Kevin Breathnach’s Tunnel Vision, which is hardly surprising given the title of this singular masterpiece. In one chapter the railway lines in a movie run parallel to lines of mephedrone snorted off the cover of a Susan Sontag, themselves echoed, in a later piece, set in Paris, by lines of coke on a carefully selected Henry Miller paperback. There are also the blurred lines between the two Goncourt brothers, whose voices merged in their journal to the point of being indistinguishable (until Jules started dying, that is). The most striking example is provided by the closing essay — the only one not to be primly justified — where the text erodes away, as though gradually swallowed up by negative space. Eventually a thin vertical line is all that remains in the middle of the last pages, mimicking the skyscraper the narrator has been observing and finally enacting the eponymous tunnel vision.

This bravura piece owes its name — ‘Cracking Up’ — not only to the breakdown of sorts Breathnach was experiencing, but also to a Mondrian that caught his attention, at the time, in Madrid’s Reina Sofia. What he focuses on in this painting is the ‘off-whiteness’ of the white, ‘shot through with cracks’ — the kind of palimpsestic blankness exemplified (although it would be too obvious to point out) by Erased de Kooning Drawing. Elsewhere in the book, an overexposed window in a photograph by Stephen Shore is described in terms reminiscent of a Rauschenberg monochrome: ‘Whatever went on outside in Idaho that day has been effaced by that white abstract panel of light with a claim on the spiritual’. ‘Closer Still’ features four reproductions of Elizabeth and I, a picture that André Kertész cropped in radically different ways. Or rather it does not: the actual portrait never appears owing to copyright issues. Instead, the four versions are illustrated by black squares of varying sizes, highlighting the cropping process, but also, inevitably, conjuring up Malevich. As Breathnach puts it in ‘Death Cycles’ (quoting without naming, thus simultaneously invoking and erasing, another writer) ‘erasure is never anything more than a particularly profound form of preservation’. This oscillation between inscription and effacement — permanence and flux, figuration and abstraction, totality and fragment, long take and montage, not to mention pedantry and profundity — lies at the heart of Tunnel Vision.

Horizontality and verticality too, with the text a battleground between the two. The lines I found most puzzling, causing me to retrace my steps on several occasions to check if they had not changed position, appear (conspicuously enough) at the beginning of the first essay. Breathnach is describing Berenice Abbott’s Self-portrait with a Large-format Camera (1926) in beautifully granular detail: ‘The geometry of her cardigan is echoed in the ridges of the open door behind her, while the busy horizontal lines of her skirt rhyme with the camera’s bellows, that accordion-like box between the lens and viewfinder, which enables the lens to be moved with respect to the focal plane — for focusing’. The emphasis on the latter word is ironic, however, as the busy horizontal pleats on Abbott’s skirt are very much vertical. The reader (and indeed author) need only refer back to the picture reproduced two pages prior (or any other pleated skirt for that matter) to see that this is patently so. I find it difficult to countenance that such a meticulous writer — who, of his own admission, was once given to underlining in red ink the ‘errors of grammar, judgement and tone’ perpetrated by ‘a particular Irish Times literary critic’ — could have overlooked this error, however insignificant it may be. Whether deliberate or not, Breathnach’s misreading of the skirt is a synecdoche of Man Ray’s misprision of Abbott herself (as a mere assistant and ‘fetish object’ despite her obvious talent and subversion of gender stereotypes). It also acts as a nice little estrangement effect, which I like to think was planted there quite on purpose.

*

Tunnel Vision never coincides with itself: it is always somewhat distanced through reflexivity or dispersal (just as the narrative voice undermines itself through self-deprecation). Chapter titles, for instance, appear in fancy square brackets. The rationale behind this idiosyncratic presentation becomes clear in an essay called ‘[Square Brackets]’ (literally, a mise-en-abyme squared) where we learn that David Rieff used these symbols to embed his editorial notes within the text of Susan Sontag’s journal. Their presence, here, signals that Tunnel Vision comes ready equipped with editorial notes: it is a book and its own exegesis rolled into one. This is exemplified by the ‘editorialising effect’ Joan — one of several girlfriends — has on Breathnach, prompting him to redact from recurring anecdotes whatever elements did not meet with her approval on first airing: ‘I was never conscious of what I would not say until I heard myself not say it’. The entire work retains a similar air of provisionality due, in part, to its confessional tenor — its Augustinian quality. Assumptions are made, often as a result of cultural pretensions, which later turn out to be totally erroneous (the Telefonicà skyscraper bears no relation to art nouveau; the foundations of the Ehrentempel were never demolished; Shakespeare and Company’s well-furnished essay section contains no glaring omissions). All manner of sins are depicted in these pages, but they are redeemed by virtue of being confessed, so that two realities end up coexisting duckrabbit-fashion. Breathnach both is and is not a compulsive liar and pedant addicted to drugs and pornography, in the same way that Proust’s work can only be narrated by a reformed snob. The Breathnachian narrator is, crucially, an accomplished writer, whereas his younger iteration lies about being hard at work on a novel (‘I didn’t even have an idea for one’) and struggles to complete a simple email.

Self-dispersal often takes the shape of duplication. In Madrid, which is described as another Paris, the author is constantly mistaken for a British or American citizen when in fact he is, of course, Irish. The Spanish capital becomes the stage for a re-enactment of the most famous passage in Leaving the Atocha Station. At the beginning of Ben Lerner’s celebrated debut, the protagonist (whose mythomania and cultural posturing mark him out as a forerunner of Breathnach’s textual avatar) fails to experience the anticipated rapture in front of a painting in the Prado. Something very similar happens — or fails to happen — here in the selfsame museum, where Breathnach seeks out the work of Ribera precisely because it ‘seemed charged with the kind of dramatic intensity [he] usually had trouble identifying in Old Masters without first being directed to it’.

In ‘Death Cycles’, where he pays homage to his great-uncle — Liam Whelan, one of the eight Manchester United players who perished in the 1958 Munich air disaster — everything seems to be a simulacrum of something else. The German city is a ‘reproduction’ of its antebellum incarnation. There are two accidents, two memorials and even two footballers. Breathnach — who, I hasten to add, has the good taste to be a City supporter — was once groomed to follow in his late relative’s footsteps: ‘I was very much aware even then that I was taking part in the reconstruction of Liam Whelan’. It is almost as though the author were exploring the road not taken; visiting an alternative version of himself in some parallel universe.

There are many other instances where I is another. When reading out loud a message he has painstakingly drafted, Breathnach realises all of a sudden that he is channelling his ‘father’s reading voice’. At the cinema, he observes himself as though he were ‘some hypercritical version’ of Eleanor, who is sitting right next to him. In the last pages of ‘Veronica’, ‘you’ seems to refer to Colette and ‘I’ to the narrator until ‘I’ reminisces about ‘you’ being caught short on a coach trip, ending up ‘with the bottle-neck wrapped so tightly around your dick’ that ‘the piss just wouldn’t flow’. Either some hitherto undisclosed information about Colette has just been revealed in passing (and indeed pissing) or pronouns and identities have shifted along the way to the point of undecidability.

The author’s observation that the ‘first-person speaker grows increasingly unstable and fragmented’ is made apropos of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, but he could just as well be talking about his own work — which, no doubt, he is. The subjectivity on display in Tunnel Vision is so tentative and malleable that it always requires an audience. In Madrid, for instance, he wanders through sundry ‘major cultural institutions’ in a manner ‘somehow faintly suggestive of sex having already taken place’. He spends a great deal of time in Café Commercial ‘trying discreetly to be observed, reading books, large ones, held at such an angle as to place the title in clear view’. In church, he smiles ‘a private smile, intended to be seen’ before performing — for the sole benefit of a student of his he has spotted and is feigning to ignore — a hilarious ‘looped montage of strange facial tics and expressions’.

Roland Barthes’s theory, Breathnach reminds us, is that the writer’s journal fell out of fashion at the time of the nouveau roman ‘because the “I” no longer recognised itself as a stable and singular entity’. Paradoxically enough, it is probably for the very same reason that autofiction and essayism are flourishing today. As Rachel Cusk put it, ‘autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts’ — a process that Barthes was actually instrumental in initiating. With its blend of memoir and criticism, Tunnel Vision is an attempt at producing a self-portrait through the study of self-portraiture, so that what we end up with is the portrait of a self-portrait. From this perspective it is reminiscent of the aforementioned Berenice Abbott picture, which turns out to be a portrait masquerading as a self-portrait. What it resembles most, however, is the glass skyscraper, described at the beginning of the book, which is ‘camouflaged by the surroundings reflected on its mirrored façade’. Part of Breathnach’s self-portrait is indeed hiding in plain sight; concealed by all the quotations that are an integral part of the work rather than mere adornments. This is particularly the case throughout ‘But I Did That to Myself’, where a lengthy excerpt from Malina on the verso is mirrored by the author’s own presentation of Bachmann’s novel on the recto. By curating this personal canon — which also includes the likes of Walter Benjamin, Djuna Barnes, Clarice Lispector, Stéphane Mallarmé, Robert Bresson, Claudia Rankine and Thomas Mann — Breathnach is placing himself within a lineage; constructing a ‘cultural identity’ for himself. Although he claims to be someone ‘whose sense of identity and self-worth has for years been grounded in the conspicuous and frequently unfelt enjoyment of high culture’, he is in fact rewriting these authors’ works within the text of his own life. What he is showing off is not so much that he has read all these books, but rather how they have read him.

*

Perhaps what Tunnel Vision really aspires to be is a self-portrait without a self. The second essay — ‘Tunnel Vision’ justement — hints at this latent desire for unselfing. It revolves around Train Ride Bergen to Oslo, a Norwegian movie consisting of ‘a single shot filmed on a camera inside the driver’s cabin of the no. 602 to Oslo, inhabiting a train’s-eye view for all seven hours, fourteen minutes and thirteen seconds of its running time’. Through this ‘train’s-eye view’ the spectator ‘is given to identify with a subjectless gaze’. Similarly, in a quote which closes the ‘Shape of Silence’ chapter, Lynne Tillman casts Peter Shore’s Uncommon Places as a visual memoir that dispenses with all traces of interiority: ‘That kind of journal is similar to displaying the contents of a refrigerator. The question occurs: who would have this refrigerator?’ Which, in turn, begs the question: who would have these bookshelves?

Colette, we learn, keeps an old Libertines poster on her bedroom door as a ‘token of nostalgia’ — which goes to show how much of a young person’s book Tunnel Vision is, with its sex, drugs, travelling and millennial nostalgia for the early noughties. Significantly, it is a young person’s book that refuses to come of age; a book that wants to begin and only begin, ‘like a painter’s eternally fresh canvas’ (a Robert Bresson quote used as an epigraph). When the narrator turbocharges his sex life with mephedrone, he confesses: ‘It was not an orgasm I was seeking, but the continued build-up to one’. Under the influence of this stimulant, he pleasures himself ‘in fragments’ — Colette having become largely surplus to requirements — watching, in succession, a virtually identical ‘titfucking’ scene from up to ten different films all opened in different tabs on his computer. The revelation that the beginning of one of the essays was deliberately misleading is followed by the following flippant remark: ‘So chalk up my introduction as a false start if you like’. Tunnel Vision — which is divided into three parts, each containing three chapters — is introduced by three prefaces entitled, somewhat provocatively, ‘Not I’, ‘Not II’ and ‘Not III’. These ‘false starts’ are akin to a musical overture containing themes that will be developed later. They are also reminiscent of Berenice Abbott’s ‘false exposures’: in order to put people at ease, the photographer would begin sessions by taking a few pictures without any plates in her camera. A self without a portrait; a portrait without a self: Breathnach’s work hesitates between the two.

Like Eleanor’s smile, Tunnel Vision always strives to look as though it means something else. It is a book without qualities that comes in flat-pack form, refuses to settle into a definite shape and shuns univocal meaning. It begins with the evocation of a gigantic bust of Karl Marx that was disassembled into ninety-five pieces, in 1971, and transported from the Soviet Union to East Germany, where it was put back together again. ‘Considered alone,’ the author muses, ‘how many of these parts were recognisable as Marx?’ This is precisely the question that hovers over his own text, in the making of which he unmakes himself, resurfacing in disseminated form (to paraphrase Barthes). This is what the author admires in the Mondrian and what the reader will admire in the author: ‘I liked the strict division of parts and the way these parts seemed to balance, without me knowing how or why’.

Additive Subtractions, Or the Impossibility of Erasure

Brian Dillon, “The Revelation of Erasure,” Objects in this Mirror: Essays 2014

… Erasure is never merely a matter of making things disappear: there is always some detritus strewn about in the aftermath, some bruising to the surface from which word or image has been removed, some reminder of the violence done to make the world look new again. Whether rubbed away, crossed out or reinscribed, the disappeared entity has a habit of returning, ghostlike: if only in the marks that usurp its place and attest to its passing. But writing, for example, is already, long before lead hits pulp, a question of erasure, an art of leaving out. Every painting, said Picasso, is a sum of destructions: the artist builds and demolishes in the same instant. Which is perhaps what Jasper Johns had in mind when he said of Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) that it embodied an “additive subtraction”: after a month’s sporadic destruction, and forty spent erasers, what is left is a surface startlingly alive, active, palimpsestic (pp. 309-310).

… A painting — at least a figurative painting — which is, as it were, too deep, risks becoming a glutinous mess, erasing itself by its very urge to completion. In Honoré de Balzac’s story “The Unknown Masterpiece,” the great painter Frenhofer labors for years at a picture of a young woman, until she disappears, leaving only a tiny, perfect foot looming out of the surrounding chaos: “Colors daubed one on top of the other and contained by a mass of strange lines forming a wall of paint.” By unintentionally erasing his painting, Frenhofer has in effect produced the first modernist monochrome, but he has done it by larding his canvas with too much significance, not too little: excess is a form of erasure too (p. 312).

… If the erased face always conjures the image of some primal violence, the expunged word inevitably attests to a repression of some kind, whether psychological or political. In the coy ellipses with which, in the novels of the eighteenth century, readers were invited to imagine undescribed erotic adventures, on the blacked-out pages of classified documents, or in the cancelled lines of a prisoner’s censored letter, the lost word denotes the intercession of authority (p. 311).

… Two works by Joseph Kosuth, entitled Zero & Not and One (1985, 1986) point out both the psychoanalytic attitude to language and the tendency of Freud’s words to assert their authority despite our efforts to wipe them out. A Freudian text is printed on the gallery wall, then struck through with black tape, so that it is erased but still insists, remains more or less readable: its lesson — the lesson of psychoanalysis — a lesson, after all, about the impossibility of erasure — simply won’t go away (p. 312).

The fondest, least plausible dream of modernist art and literature was of a world without memory: a cultural tabula rasa from which all trace of the styles of the past had been erased. The arts of evacuation imagined by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Yves Klein, and John Cage aspired to a deliberate vacuity: a vacant stage, an empty gallery, a silent orchestra. But in each case the project is impossible: some sound, image or word will intervene to recall the world left behind. …

“What we require is silence, but what silence requires is that I go on talking,” declared Cage in his “Lecture on Nothing”: the silence dreamed of by the art of the last century is always expectant, about to be spoken into. In 1996, the artist, writer, and curator Jeremy Millar interviewed the novelist J. G. Ballard, set to duplicating the tape before getting it transcribed, and accidentally erased hours of the great man’s thoughts. The ruined cassette, one long pregnant pause, could only become an artwork: Erased Ballard Interview (1996–2001). You listen, heart in mouth, just as Millar must have done, hoping that Ballard’s cultivated tones will, any second now, interrupt the hiss. And at the same time, you hear everything in this piece: the whole history of the avant-garde affair with emptiness, the dematerialization of the work of art, its evanescence into pure idea or gesture, up to and including Rauschenberg’s erasure of de Kooning’s drawing: all of it, suggests Millar’s blank tape, merely an absurd error (pp. 315-316).

Maybe the total erasure of a work of art, or the making of a work that had an utter absence at its heart, was never possible to begin with, or maybe it’s simply a fantasy to which contemporary art is no longer willing to give itself over, except playfully (p. 316). …

A Grin Without a Cat

Brian Dillon, “At the Hayward,” London Review of Books 2 August 2012

[‘Magic Ink’ by Gianni Motti, 1989]

Stare long enough into the void, Nietzsche writes in Beyond Good and Evil, and the void stares back at you. The trouble with nothing, no matter an artist or writer’s aspiration to the zero degree, is that it tends to reveal a residual something: whether a sensory trace of the effort at evacuation or a framing narrative about the very gesture of laconic refusal. In the case of the Hayward’s survey of half a century and more of invisible art (until 5 August), the void was filled in advance by a lot of tabloid mock-horror at the thought that a publicly funded gallery was about to charge £8 so that one could turn one’s gaze upon that vacancy, the air. The BBC ran a sneery piece on the Six O’Clock News. Actually, they phoned to ask if I’d comment, but my take on the show (which fittingly I hadn’t yet seen) must have sounded drearily accepting of its premise, because they never called back. The silence seemed right.

In truth, Invisible is both a bracing provocation — there really are empty rooms here, and notionally circumscribed gobbets of air to be wondered at — and a modestly meticulous story about the ways artists have found to approach, but perhaps never really achieve, complete invisibility. As Marina Warner wrote in the 5 July issue of the LRB, while reviewing Damien Hirst along the river at Tate Modern, the Hayward’s is an exhibition that courts attention above all else: attention to surfaces and atmospheres as much as, maybe more than, the works’ conceptual content. This last is all that such art’s detractors like to claim is going on, or not going on: the mere idea of emptiness left hovering, a grin without a cat.

The exhibition shuttles between the sublime idea of absolute nothing and the engaging reality of almost nothing. This oscillation has a prehistory, broached as much in certain artists’ attempts to articulate it verbally as in their near absconded works. Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) is the record of a month’s careful rubbing out and therefore not exactly a pure void, more a palimpsest in reverse — in Jasper Johns’s words, an ‘additive subtraction’. Such a work has also, of course, to live in a world that may fill it with meaning or form; John Cage had already observed of some white paintings of Rauschenberg’s that they were ‘landing strips’ for light and shadow. Cage, whose 4’33” is just the most notorious instance of an apparently silent work filled with inadvertent sound, liked to tell the story of visiting an anechoic chamber at Harvard, and in the absence of all other noise hearing the roar of his bloodstream and the electric whine of his nervous system. It’s more likely that he was experiencing mild tinnitus, but his insight holds: ‘What silence requires is that I go on talking.’

At the Hayward, this notion of a full or replete invisible art is introduced via Yves Klein, whose empty exhibition known as The Void seems uncompromisingly committed to vacancy, but also reveals how much aesthetic, even occult or spiritual content could be projected into a pallid abyss. Klein mounted four exhibitions deserving of that title, though he only attached the word ‘void’ to the third. For the first, at Galerie Colette Allendy in May 1957, he painted the whole interior white so as to create ‘an ambience, a genuine pictorial climate and, therefore, an invisible one’. In a brief snatch of film, Klein hams up the suggestion that paintings have fled, leaving only their aura. He frames with his hands the spaces they might have occupied, then sits on a radiator, looks around quizzically at the white walls and an empty vitrine, and walks off. The second version, staged the following year at Galerie Iris Clert on rue des Beaux-Arts, was a more provocative affair. Thousands thronged the street, and Klein happened on a young man playfully drawing on the freshly painted gallery wall; he called security and demanded: ‘Seize this man and throw him out, violently.’

The third void was installed, if that’s the word, at the Haus Lange Museum in Krefeld, Germany, where Klein’s small empty room may still be viewed by appointment. The fourth version returned to the conceit of disappearing artworks: the artist and friends removed all the paintings from one room for the Salon Comparaisons at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1962. Klein had by this stage devised an elaborate and alchemically inflected theory regarding ‘zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility’; he was willing to sell these zones, though he only accepted gold as payment. If the buyer — not quite a collector — agreed to burn the receipt, Klein would throw half the gold in the Seine. An art that seems at first all about nothing was as much concerned with value, exchange, material and transmutation.

As the Hayward’s director (and the curator of Invisible) Ralph Rugoff points out in a suitably svelte catalogue (Hayward, £5), later artists have responded less to the mystical urges latent in Klein’s voids than to the institution-baiting gesture of stripping the gallery or museum of actual artworks. […]

There and not there, giving away very little but not quite nothing, such works seem like examples of Duchamp’s concept of the ‘infra-thin’, like mist on glass, or the warmth of a seat just vacated. […]

Nothing At All

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This review of Jean-Yves Jouannais’s Artistes sans oeuvres: I Would Prefer Not To appeared in the Times Literary Supplement dated 25 September 2009 (No 5556, p. 30):

Nothing At All

With his bovine-sounding surname, Félicien Marboeuf (1852-1924) seemed destined to cross paths with Flaubert. He was the inspiration for the character of Frédéric Moreau in L’Education sentimentale, which left him feeling like a figment of someone else’s imagination. In order to wrest control of his destiny, he resolved to become an author, but Marboeuf entertained such a lofty idea of literature that his works were to remain imaginary and thus a legend was born. Proust — who compared silent authors à la Marboeuf to dormant volcanoes — gushed that every single page he had chosen not to write was sheer perfection.

Or did he? One of the main reasons why Marboeuf never produced anything is that he never existed. Jean-Yves Jouannais planted this Borgesian prank at the heart of Artistes sans oeuvres when the book was first published in 1997. The character subsequently took on a life of his own, resurfacing as the subject of a recent group exhibition and, more famously, in Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas’s exploration of the “literature of the No”. Here the Spanish author repays the debt he owes to Jouannais’s cult essay (which had been out of print until now) by prefacing this new edition.

Marboeuf has come to symbolize all the anonymous “Artists without works” past and present. Through him, Jouannais stigmatizes the careerists who churn out new material simply to reaffirm their status or iinflate their egos, as well as the publishers who flood the market with the “little narrative trinkets” they pass off as literature on the three-for-two tables of bookshops. In so doing, he delineates a rival tradition rooted in the opposition to the commodification of the arts that accompanied industrialization. A prime example is provided by the fin-de-siècle dandies who reacted to this phenomenon by producing nothing but gestures. More significantly, Walter Pater’s contention that experience — not “the fruit of experience” — was an end in itself, led to a redefinition of art as the very experience of life. A desire to turn one’s existence into poetry — as exemplified by Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady — would lie at the heart of all the major twentieth-century avant-gardes. “My art is that of living”, Marcel Duchamp famously declared, “Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.”

Jouannais never makes the absurd claim that creating nothing is better than creating something: like Emil Cioran, he has little time for what he calls the “failure fundamentalists”. He does not dwell on the Keatsian notion (also found in Rousseau and Goethe) that unheard melodies are sweeter, or wonder why the attempts at a merger between life and art have so often resulted in death. Jouannais’s “Artists without works” are essentially of a sunny disposition. They are dilettantes, driven solely by their own enjoyment; cultural skivers who never feel that they owe it to posterity, let alone their public, to be productive. They let time do its work and are often militantly lazy — like Albert Cossery, the francophone writer of Egyptian origin who, on a good day, would fashion a single carefully crafted sentence, or the American artist Albert M. Fine who is quoted as saying: “If I did anything less it would cease to be art”. It is this divine indolence which differentiates Artistes sans oeuvres from darker essays on the subject.

Some of the most interesting passages in the book concern those larger-than-life figures (Félix Fénéon, Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché, Jacques Rigaut, Roberto Bazlen) who entered the literary pantheon as characters in other writers’ novels rather than through their own. Cravan, Vaché and Cassady — who embodied respectively the spirits of Dada, Surrealism and Beat — published virtually nothing during their lifetimes. Naturally, phantom works abound here, from Stendhal’s numerous unfinished novels to the unpublished manuscripts of the Brautigan Library (modelled on the library in Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion) through to Roland Barthes’s criticism, which provided him with the perfect excuse not to write the novel he dreamed of. Jouannais also considers summarizers such as Fénéon, whose “elliptical novels” were no longer than haiku, or Borges, who compiled synopses of fictitious novels so that no one would have to waste time writing or reading them. In fact, the Argentinian’s entire oeuvre — haunted as it is by the possibility of its own silence — is reinterpreted as a paradoxical “pre-emptive production” designed to spare the already overcrowded bookshelves of the Library of Babel. Borges’s Pierre Ménard (along with Bouvard, Pécuchet and Bartleby) is, of course, one of the patron saints of the copiers, another category surveyed in these pages. The destroyers (Virgil, Kafka, Bruno Schulz et al.) who seek to cover their aesthetic tracks only get a brief look-in, Jouannais being more interested in the long line of erasers starting with Man Ray’s 1924 “Lautgedicht” (an obliterated poem) and including such works as Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning Drawing”, Yves Klein’s infamous empty exhibition or Walter Ruttmann’s “blind” film. The author argues convincingly — in a style both eloquent and elegant — that Cravan’s proto-Dadaist provocations, Rigaut’s suicide or Brautigan’s notorious kitchen shoot-outs should be construed as poetic gestures in their own right. Deliberately misquoting Flaubert, he concludes that the works of these so-called “Artists without works” are “present everywhere and visible nowhere”, which may explain why they are so often misunderstood.

Can Artists Create Art By Doing Nothing?

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This appeared in the Art and Design section of the Guardian website on 1 June 2009:

Can Artists Create Art by Doing Nothing?

Félicien Marboeuf, a fictitious author who never wrote a book, is the inspiration for a new exhibition. Andrew Gallix celebrates artists who have turned doing very little into an art form

F-licien-Marboeuf-001

More than 20 artists will pay homage to Félicien Marboeuf in an eclectic exhibition opening in Paris next week. Although he’s hardly a household name, Marboeuf (1852-1924) inspired both Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust. Having been the model for Frédéric Moreau (Sentimental Education), he resolved to become an author lest he should remain a character all his life. But he went on to write virtually nothing: his correspondence with Proust is all that was ever published — and posthumously at that. Marboeuf, you see, had such a lofty conception of literature that any novels he may have perpetrated would have been pale reflections of an unattainable ideal. In the event, every single page he failed to write achieved perfection, and he became known as the “greatest writer never to have written”. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter, wrote John Keats.

Jean-Yves Jouannais, the curator of this exhibition, had already placed Marboeuf at the very heart of Artistes sans Oeuvres (Artists without Works), his cult book that first appeared in 1997 and has just been reprinted in an expanded edition. The artists he brings together all reject the productivist approach to art, and do not feel compelled to churn out works simply to reaffirm their status as creators. They prefer life to the dead hand of museums and libraries, and are generally more concerned with being (or not being) than doing. Life is their art as much as art is their life — perhaps even more so.

Jouannais believes that the attempt at an art-life merger, which so preoccupied the avant garde of the 20th century, originated with Walter Pater‘s contention that experience, not “the fruit of experience”, was an end in itself. Oscar Wilde’s nephew, the fabled pugilist poet Arthur Cravan — who kick-started the dada revolution with Francis Picabia before disappearing off the coast of Mexico — embodied (along with Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady) this mutation. Turning one’s existence into poetry was now where it was at.

“I like living, breathing better than working,” Marcel Duchamp famously declared. “My art is that of living. Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.” The time frame of the artwork shifted accordingly, from posterity — Paul Éluard‘s “difficult desire to endure” — to the here and now. Jouannais celebrates the skivers of the artistic world, those who can’t be arsed. “If I did anything less it would cease to be art,” Albert M Fine admitted cheekily on one occasion. Duchamp also prided himself on doing as little as possible: should a work of art start taking shape he would let it mature — sometimes for several decades — like a fine wine.

Phantom works abound in Jouannais’s book, from Harald Szeemann‘s purely imaginary Museum of Obsessions to the recreation of fictitious exhibitions by Alain Bublex through Stendhal‘s numerous aborted novels or the Brautigan Library‘s collection of rejected manuscripts. There is of course the case of Roland Barthes, whose career as a theorist was partly a means of not writing the novel he dreamed of (Vita Nova). One of my favourite examples is Société Perpendiculaire, co-created by Jouannais with Nicolas Bourriaud and others in the early 80s. This “hyperrealistic bureaucratic structure”, dedicated to the “poetry of virtual events”, had no other function but to produce reams of administrative texts pertaining to projects that would never see the light of day.

The Société Perpendiculaire would have provided a perfect working environment for Flaubert’s cretinous copyists Bouvard and Pécuchet, whose influence looms large in these pages. Just as Jorge Luis Borges‘s Pierre Menard rewrites Don Quixote verbatim, Gérard Collin-Thiébaut set about copying Sentimental Education in its entirety in 1985. Sherrie Levine also reduced artistic production to reproduction by signing famous paintings or photographs by other artists. Erasure is an even more common strategy. Man Ray set the tone with Lautgedicht (1924), his painting of a poem with all the words blanked out, which anticipated Emilio Isgrò’s Cancellature of the 1960s. The most famous examples here are Robert Rauschenberg‘s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) and Yves Klein‘s infamous empty exhibition (1958).

Jouannais’s artists without works are essentially of a sunny disposition, totally at odds with the impotent rage of the “failure fundamentalists”, as he calls them.

Displaying a wealth of material — paintings, sketches, collages, photographs and installations — the exhibition focuses on Marboeuf the man rather than the author. Marboeuf as a beautiful child; in middle age, bald as a coot, with a creepy-looking smile on his face; Marboeuf looking suspiciously Proustian on his death bed; Marboeuf’s grave … This biographical angle is hardly surprising given the author’s limited output, but rather more so when you consider that he is purely a figment of Jouannais’s imagination.