Alternator - Carburetor - Pirate Curse

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

A Brief Introduction to DeLillo, Waste, and Metaphor

This is a taste of the dull diss. talk I'll be giving this Friday (this is part I of three parts; part III is the post below; part II hasn't yet been written):

Waste and Transcendence in the Contemporary Novel:
Studies in Powers, DeLillo, and Wallace

Thank you all for coming today. I’d like to spend a few minutes describing my project and its scope, and then spend my remaining time examining a few issues in Don DeLillo’s Underworld.

The subject of my dissertation is waste – trash, shit, garbage, etc. – what poet Galway Kinnell calls "orts,/ pelf,/ fenks,/ sordes,/ gurry dumped from hospital trashcans." DeLillo himself offers epic catalogs of waste, like this one from White Noise:
I came across a horrible clotted mass of hair, soap, ear swabs, crushed roaches, flip-top rings, sterile pads smeared with pus and bacon fat, strands of frayed dental floss, fragments of ballpoint refills, toothpicks still displaying bits of impaled food. (259)

The challenge, of course, is to ascribe meaning to this overweening mass. But it almost seems beyond our abilities. (It certainly is beyond Jack Gladney’s.) An abhorrence of waste, shit, garbage (what Kristeva would describe as “the abject”) seems natural, almost hardwired into us, and is, I think, rooted in waste’s status as matter that was once a part of us but now is no longer. That is, waste is an unwelcome reminder of our own materiality and our own mortality. I think that for that reason, that waste, junk, trash, etc. plays a primal role in metaphorical thinking, the ability to connect the material and the nonmaterial. Waste is a category we create, but it is also beyond our control. As Robert Lowell reminds us, "Whatever we cast out takes root.”

We could say that waste is making something of a comeback. We’d have to return to the roots of the novel, to Gargantua and Pantagruel, or Boccaccio, in order to find a similar epidemic of excresence. Numerous recent novels, including David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1996), Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997), and Richard Powers' Gain (1998), make the theme central: Infinite Jest is set in a future Boston that teeters on the edge of a monstrous landfill called "The Great Concavity," Underworld's main character is obsessed with waste, and Gain tells the story of corporate dumping of toxins. Similar themes are to be found in Jonathan Franzen's Strong Motion (1992) and John Barth's Tidewater Tales (1988), and, of course, in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, WASTE and its initials becme the passageway for entering a conspiracy-fueled underworld. Looking further afield, we find the topic playing a major role in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, and Tristan Egolf’s Lord of the Barnyard. And I’m sure we could all add to that list. This underworld of waste, of things cast out, of toxins, bones, fecal matter, this world so studiously avoided in our everyday lives, becomes the very matter of contemporary literature.

Critics generally seem to have treated the matter with delicacy, and it is only recently that the role of waste in literature has received any sustained analysis.[1] As Underworld suggests, "it is necessary to respect what we discard," and the topic demands a degree of critical respect, for to deal with waste is to deal with interpretation; waste is that rarity — a category wholly mediated by interpretations of momentary use-value or its lack, and one that calls for conscious mediation. Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard may suggest that trash and treasure are individual decisions, but the larger category of waste is one that is established through some degree of social agreement on what is not recoverable, useful, or salvageable. I would suggest that our methods of dealing with this garbage, this record of our past, show how we handle our own personal histories, and our shared past. This garbage, waste, or rubbish is the unusable element of the past, reified in its material leavings.

The contemporary novel is not the first to thematize the role of waste (Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend comes to mind), but with the rise in production and consumption comes a more than commensurate rise in the “production” of waste material, and thus in the need to examine its meaning. Contemporary novelists have seen in the metaphor of waste a thematic approach for confronting an “anxiety of influence” — be it a literary infulence (as in John Barth) or a familial (as in much of Jonathan Franzen). Waste also offers a thematic framework for investigating democratic capitalism and the connection of culture with technology (as in Richard Powers, and, most notably, DeLillo). At the same time, a grass-roots rise in awareness of the long-term environmental price of the American approach to farming, land-use, and suburbia (Kenneth Jackson’s “crabgrass frontier”) has led to the eco-novel and the growing discipline of eco-criticism.

Criticism of the past half-century has valorized the role of capitalist structures and production in any understanding of contemporary fiction. Such a critical approach is well-advised: in some sense any historical account of the twentieth century must be the story of “late capitalism” (in Frederic Jameson’s phrase) — the mounting incursions of commercial activity into all forms of discourse, including the novel. Rising as it does out of the eighteenth century, the novel-as-genre provides a particularly coherent record of this colonization of discourse. This rhetoric of consumption has been analyzed well and often, but rarely has the importance of the necessary opposite of the culture of consumption, the culture of waste (or what Kristeva calls "the abject") been considered.[2] I think this lack is a simple case of criticism “following the money,” so to speak – a Marxist literary critique will focus on those elements that are valued within a capitalist system. Economist Michael Thompson in Rubbish Theory may as well be speaking of criticism when he notes that “economics by necessity neglects those items that are without value, or that are temporarily without value.”[3]

I think some examination of the manipulation of waste in the novel is necessary, as a much needed complement to what we might punningly call “supply-side” economics as brought to bear in criticism. Garbage is, I would suggest, a uniquely attractive and multivalent metaphor and physical instantiation of contemporary preoccupations with identity, consumerism, and the relation of self to the world. Theorizing waste is an approach that can bring together structures of understanding the novel as diverse as the anxiety of influence, eco-criticism, marxist criticism, and evolving ideas of canonicity. Don DeLillo, Richard Powers, and David Foster Wallace, this school of waste, if you will, provides a lens through which to view larger cultural trends towards creative re-use, be it in the adaptation of warehouses to loft apartments, the conversion of landfills into wilderness and parks, or the re-engineering of our collective past into fiction.

[1] William Little's The Waste Fix: Seizures of the Sacred from Upton Sinclair to the Sopranos (2002) is a notable example.
[2] This is in part because economics has little to say about worthless items. One exception worth noting is Michael Thompson’s Rubbish Theory (1975), an economic and anthroplogical investigation of the term “rubbish.”
[3] There are, of course, exceptions – Stephen Muecke (an Australian critic) has written extenisvely on the topic, cf. particularly the anthology he coedited - Culture and Waste. And we can see the importance of waste concerns with Susanne Küchler’s Clothing as Material Culture and Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities, but significantly, all three critics are anthropologists by trade and training.

Monday, October 17, 2005

part II (the middle bit)


For today’s talk, I plan to focus on how the theme of waste functions in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, how it plays a crucial role as both metaphor and structuring principle, and then analyze the aesthetic strategies at work in the novel that I see as arising out of this concern with garbage. As I read it, Underworld is a sustained investigation of anxieties about commodification — and a consideration of whether anything can exist beyond or outside commodification.
Our reaction to garbage, to waste in general, is, I think, informed by our reaction to human waste. When we talk about shit we are talking about — in the most straightforward way possible — a category mediated by personal, physical experience. The king, we would note with Hamlet, is changed in his passage through a beggar: “the dead are modified in the guts of the living.” It is the corporeal model for dealing with tradition and the burdens of the past: absorbing what one can and putting the rest, so to speak, behind you.
more here
Underworld’s characters concern themselves with garbage throughout the novel (Nick Shay, Underworld’s occasional main character, works for a waste disposal company). And we follow another character, Brian Glassic, as he is transfixed by the sight of New York City’s massive Fresh Kills Landfill (on Staten Island – it’s now full [and briefly reopened to accept the rubble of 9/11]): “He imagined he was watching the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza—only this was twenty-five times bigger...” (184). Within a page, the landfill is also compared to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and it is implicitly suggested that it is the landfill, not the nearby skyscrapers or the Statue of Liberty, which is the defining contribution of man to the late-twentieth century, and the true legacy of the civilization. This waste is a link to the past, a record of all the people who produced it:
He looked at all that soaring garbage and knew for the first time what his job was all about. Not engineering or transportation or source reduction. He dealt in human behavior, people’s habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences but their kindness too, their generosity, and the question was how to keep this mass metabolism from overwhelming us (184).
It is an uneasy burial of all that we try to forget. The landfill is, quite literally, writing human desires into the earth, and this record of civilization is as massive, and far more complicated than, any classical wonder of the world:
This was the challenge he craved, the assault on his complacency and vague shame. To understand all this. To penetrate this secret. The mountain was here, unconcealed, but no one saw it or thought about it, no one knew it existed except the engineers and teamsters and local residents, a unique cultural deposit, fifty million tons by the time they top it off, carved and modeled, and no one talked about it but the men and women who tried to manage it, and he saw himself for the first time as a member of an esoteric order, they were adepts and seers, crafting the future, the city planners, the waste managers, the compost technicians, the landscapers who would build hanging gardens here, make a park one day out of every kind of used and lost and eroded object of desire. (185)
“a unique cultural deposit” - (To digress for a moment, in the dissertation, I plan to examine in more detail how I see this series of shadow monuments, if you will, these “unique cultural deposit[s],” relating to our official monuments of white marble and granite, so I’ll restrain myself here to noting how national monuments, et al. arise out of the impulse to attempt to fix meaning [insert quote from Bataille]. These monuments of garbage, on the other hand, are under-determined – their welter of meanings are too numerous, too complicated, too messy.) We might say that we usually find landfills distasteful because they contain too many meanings, but national monuments frightening because they contain too few. We could even go so far as to suggest that garbage, with its multiplicity of meanings, has much in common with the novel, at least as Bakhtin defines it as a heteroglossic text.
But this trash is itself a communal event. The best example of this is Underworld’s prologue, a technicolor retelling of the 1951 Giants/ Dodgers game in which the Giants’ Bobby Thomson homered off Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca in the ninth inning with the game-winning hit that came to be called “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” It is, of course, almost inevitable that a novel that sets out to chronicle the last fifty years in the United States, what we might call the High American Century, begins with a game of baseball, for as Jacques Barzun said: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”The passage is without a doubt one of the most memorable scenes DeLillo has ever crafted. (the prologue was later published on its own as a novella called “Pafko at the Wall”). It is merely virtuosic on its own, but it functions as an overture for this polyphonic novel; it sounds all the themes and clamor of Underworld: garbage, memory, the cold war, and baseball.
In an effort to distract the Dodgers’ fielders and help the Giants, the fans begin throwing trash, paper, whatever they can find:
Old shopping lists and ticket stubs and wads of fisted newsprint… crushed traffic tickets and field-stripped cigarettes and work from the office and scorecards in the shape of airplanes, windblown and mostly white, and [fielder] Pafko walks back to his position and alters stride to kick a soda cup lightly and the gesture functions as a form of recognition, a hint of some concordant force between players and fans… (31 & 37)
Through this trash the fans are expressing their collective participation in this moment. As the field fills with this quotidian garbage, the fans dig deeper to find things to throw away, from common refuse to treasured possessions:
It is coming down from all points, laundry tickets, envelopes swiped from the office, there are crushed cigarette packs and sticky wrap from ice-cream sandwiches, pages from memo pads and pocket calendars, they are throwing faded dollar bills, snapshots torn to pieces, ruffled paper swaddles for cupcakes, they are tearing up letters they’ve been carrying around for years pressed into their wallets, the residue of love affairs and college friendships, it is happy garbage now, the fans’ intimate wish to be connected to the event, unendably, in the form of pocket litter, personal waste, a thing that carries a shadow indentity — rolls of toilet tissue unbolting lyrically in streamers. (44-45)
[“Rolls of toilet tissue unbolting lyrically,” by the way, is as nearly a perfect DeLillo description as any six words could be – as if all of DeLillo could be reconstructed from that line.]
It is through these tickets, letters, snapshots, suddenly jettisoned and redefined as trash, that the fans enter into and inhabit a truly collective moment. Because what’s interesting here is that the creation of garbage is done at the expense of their personal past, those letters “the residue of love affairs and college friendships” — their sense of connectedness with the present moment is made contingent upon their willingness to abandon these links to their past. However, after the moment has passed it is just such items that provide the only link with the game — the single recording of Russ Hodges’ call, the grainy, dawn-of-television recording of Bobby Thompson’s home run, the ticket stub that the kid Cotter Martin does not have and without which he cannot prove the provenance and worth of the game-winning baseball he briefly possesses. Though the fruitless attempt to establish the ball’s provenance occupies much of the novel and offers (something of) an organizing structure for the narrative, no documentation, however exhaustive, could ever truly establish what occurred, or recreate this or any moment from the past. For DeLillo, I would suggest, the rain of garbage onto the field is a communal expression of the inevitablility of loss, forgetfulness, separation, and time’s merciless arrow. As the prologue concludes, “It is all falling indelibly into the past (60).

cannot dispose of the waste, can only manage it, just as the baseball can’t be transmuted back into that communal experience of watching the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, that collective moment of participating in that “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”

Sunday, October 16, 2005

The Art Underworld

DeLillo offers what may be the most intricate examination of the challenges contemporary culture poses for art. We might find our way into this discussion the way Underworld’s Nick Shay does – by means of a New York City taxicab.

At least it seems to be a cab. At the beginning of Underworld’s Part I, Nick has gone to look up [his old friend] Klara Sax in the desert southwest where she is at work on her latest artwork. The cab appears like a vision or a mirage:

[It was] not your everyday average all-terrain vehicle. It had a roof light and a gleam of yellow paint and it was brassy and jouncing, with a cartoon shine. The happiest sort of apparition, coming down the rutted path like a pop-art object. Less than fifty yards away. It seemed to be, it clearly was a New York taxi, impossible but true, yellower than egg yolk and coming fast. (64-65)

The cab, it transpires, was a gift to Klara from some of the numerous assistants working on “the piece–the artwork, the project, whatever it was called” (66). But notably, the gift is “[n]ot the car itself, which had been returned to the owner in its taxified form, but the paint, the gesture, the sense of her ancestral New York” (66). This presents an interesting metaphor of Sax’s artistic practice, for the gift is the gesture of the taxicab rather than the physical object itself, or we might say, the tenor rather than the vehicle (a pun I think DeLillo invites). [footnote: but see 1994’s John Barth novel, Once Upon a Time, in which Dr. Johnson’s distinction of the two parts of metaphor is more explicitly literalized]. The transport is of an artistic rather than material sort. [footnote: note the status of the taxi as vehicle, with the appropriate punning an artisitc transport, which we’ll also see in Munoz’s work]

So: the taxicab is a borrowed car painted to look like a rental vehicle, as a birthday gift to another artist. But the gift is purely gestural, and to a degree, anonymous: no single member of the artists’ enclave is responsible for the gift, and the car itself is not a part of the gift (in the language of property, it does not convey). Thus the artists, individually and as a whole, cannot claim any authority or ownership over the putative taxicab. That is, it is a gift and an artwork which exempts itself from the economy of gift-giving and, as interestingly, from the economy of artistic authority.

The taxi prefigures for us the artwork Sax is directing out in the desert. She and her crews of volunteers are at work on a massive piece of installation art — their canvas dozens of Air Force bombers decommissioned and brought to rest in a sort of desert graveyard:
I am now dealing with B-52 long-range bombers. I am painting airplanes that are a hundred and sixty feet long with wingspans even longer… planes that used to carry nuclear bombs, ta-da, ta-da, out across the world. (70)

The bombers are among the many once used to maintain the threat of “mutually assured destruction” in the delicate balance of terror that was the Cold War. But Sax does not wish to efface the bombers’ original purpose, to deny the material legacy she works with and works under. As she explains, “we are not going to let these great machines expire in a field or get sold as scrap … we are saving them from the cutter’s torch” (70).

To allow these antique instruments of war to re-enter the economy as nameless, unidentifiable, and undifferentiated scrap would be to contribute to the death of their memory, of the circumstances of the Cold War. Instead she and her group are using them to recover history and the world behind it:
See we’re painting, hand-painting in some cases, putting our puny hands to great weapons systems, to systems that came out of the factories and assembly halls as near alike as possible, millions of components stamped out, repeated endlessly, and we’re trying to unrepeat, to find an element of felt life, and maybe there’s a sort of survival instinct here, a graffiti instinct—to trespass and declare ourselves, show who we are. The way the nose artists did, the guys who painted pinups on the fuselage. (77)

Indeed, she names the project after one of those nose-cone portraits, Long Tall Sally:
And one day I came across one of the oldest planes in the ranks, very weathered, with a nice piece of nose art that was faded and patchy and showed a young woman in a flouncy skirt and narrow halter and she was very tall, very blond, she had amazing legs and her hands were on her hips very sort of aspiring-pinup—you knew she didn’t have quite the skill to bring it off—and her name was lettered under the painting and it was Long Tall Sally. And I thought, I like this girl because she is not amazonian or angelic or terrifically idealized…. I thought even if she has to be painted over, I thought we will definitely have to salvage her name. I thought we will title our work after this young woman, after the men who fixed her image to the aircraft…. Maybe she was a waitress in an airman’s bar. Or somebody’s hometown girl. Or somebody’s first love. But this is an individual life…. Whoever she is or was, a waitress bedraggled you know, hustling a ketchup bottle across the room, and never mind the bomb, I want to keep our intentions small and human despite the enormous work…. (77-78)

Klara models her project on that glimmer of anonymous self-expression, that thin gleam of humanity she recognizes in the gray, uniform, half-scavenged hulks. She hopes to present the bombers as that paradox, an individuated crowd (a masterwork on the same order as DeLillo’s set piece of the baseball game). She sees herself as honoring that legacy: “What I really want to get at is the ordinary thing, the ordinary life behind the thing” (76).

While clearly Klara Sax is the leader of this project, the massive scale ensures that the project is a collaborative effort in both conception and execution. The project is a collaboration among a community of like-minded individuals – and thus the artwork is the record of that collaboration. This is a bridge crossed by Warhol and his so-called Factory in 1963, but Warhol did so in order to emphasize how commodification and reproduction structure our society. Sax does so in order to find that elusive “ordinary life behind the thing” — the underworld obscured by that self-same capitalist commodification and endless reproduction. Here I believe Sax is going one step further than Warhol (or her fellow fictitious Underworld artist, Acey Greene), but at the same time going many steps back, towards a humanist workshop model.

There are further problems with calling this work Klara’s, as author or owner. As with the gift of the taxicab (or, rather, the gift of the gesture of the taxicab), the project exists in a gray area of ownership, and thus in a gray area of artistic control. The planes, though decomissioned, are still the property of the Air Force, and located on government land, though Klara and her team have secured a web of agreements that grant them the access to and use of the planes, and pledges that the desert context of the planes will not be comporomised. These canvases they paint are owned by the U.S. Government, and subject to its whims. Even the paint and equipment used has not been purchased, but donated or stolen. To a very great degree, this is an artwork that is unshowable, dependent on a scale and context that is utterly unreproducible in the art world setting of galleries and museums – it resists circulation in that economy.

If John Berger, following Levi-Strauss, is right, and the rise of oil painting developed in sympathetic response with the rise of capitalism (Ways of Seeing, 86), then the model of unowned, collectivist art that DeLillo offers may be the most since the Renaissance. But this is not a marxist throwback or willful ignorance of the power and sway of “late capitalism,” DeLillo does not make the error of pretending capitalism will simply go away, or that art and its exaltations are naturally above or outside of that (despite art business devotedly proving the opposite). Instead DeLillo offers a portrait of art that is heteroglossic, art that in its depiction and execution foregrounds the role of the individual as part of a larger group, a situation late capitalism has undermined. While not purely gestural, this is art that challenges its own status as material object, as an object capable of being purchased and sold.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Second Battle of New Orleans

This is not a political blog, this is a solipsistic blog. But check out the English Independent & its very pointed questions about the handling of the New Orleans disaster.

Site Nonsite?


It’s easy to overlook, way out in red-state territory, but Mt. Rushmore occupies a commanding position at the intersection of “public” and “art,” and it plays a powerful role in our ideas of civic memory. Rushmore is an important site for the iconography of patriotism, because the site is used to suggest the whole constellation of patriotic American values: uncynical fervor, unsullied country-love, innocence, a belief in the country’s unspoiled expanses, endless resources, and limitless potential. These last three are particularly interesting in how they are used.

They are used, most specifically, to stage(-manage) an ideal that is divorced from the partisan rancor (and the context) of a federal capital. Washington, D.C., is where voters go to make themselves heard (the March on Washington, the Vietnam War protests, the Million-Man March, the Million-Mom March, & cetera), but it’s also the moral swamp on which the rhetoric of “outsider” political campaigns and films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington depend.

In Washington, D.C., the individual monuments to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, et al. are ordered within the fabric of an imperial city in a neo-classical interpretation of ancient Athens or Rome. By contrast, Mt. Rushmore is a “shrine of democracy” placed, not among the offices and bureaus of governmental functions and functionaries, but within a representative western wilderness. It is vatic, oracular; it is delphic.


But celebrating great men and lauding the ideal of democracy while keeping the practice and context of that democracy at arm’s length is a path to fascism and empire. (Julius and Augustus knew to keep the apparatus of the Republic in place while they worked to subvert it, and even Hitler stepped in as the beneficient protector of democracy after the mysterious burning of the Reichstag.)

Above all, Rushmore offers us a fantasy of an America unencumbered by the actual mechanisms of government. That these graven images are of four heads of state is beside the point. They become representative Americans, and we become representative citizens by enacting a trip to visit them. Rushmore becomes purely a vehicle for its own context, and a metaphor for those very people who make the pilgrimage/journey to look upon it.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Didja ever notice... II

That Green Acres (1965-1971) is an obvious inversion of The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971)? Of course, “fish out of water” is itself not a rare comedic conceit (as with the “city folk” guests in Petticoat Junction [1963-1970] – and all three were on CBS together for much of the sixties). The postwar period was marked by increasing dislocation:
The Wall Street Journal reported that a Montgomery Ward executive and his family had been moved twenty-eight times in twenty-six years of marriage. Growing mobility was a fact of suburban life ... the average corporate manager now moved … every two and a half years.

(William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream, 781)

But Green Acres (which harkens back to Claudette Colbert & Fred MacMurray's The Egg and I (1947, as an IMDB reader noted) is just the wealthy at play - it's a hick Arden. What separates The Beverly Hillbillies from the rest of this fondly remembered dreck is the ability of the Clampett family, as strangers in a strange land, to see high society for the delicate, non-contingent social structure it really is. Society becomes a structure that, once money is acknowledged as the only entrée, can't really be forced upon Jed, Granny, Elly May, and Jethro. Behind this is an intense social anxiety attached to the Clampetts' sudden rise. It's played for laughs, of course, with the Clampetts, of "pure" country stock, generally getting the upper hand. But it is not going too far, I think, to suggest that in a time of increasing physical and social mobility, that the show reflects the anxieties this produces. And even, in the year James Meredith integrates Ole Miss (1962) and the time of the civil rights movement, that the Clampetts are stand-ins for a deeper, unspoken anxiety about who might move in next door.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Didja Ever Notice...

Has nobody else noticed that the Decemberists’ “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” essentially lifts the central conceit of Sting’s “Fortress Around Your Heart”? Check out:
and I am nothing of a builder,
but here I dreamt I was an architect
and I built this balustrade
to keep you home, to keep you safe
from the outside world
but the angles and the corners
even though my work is unparalelled
they never seemed to meet
this structure fell about our feet
and we were free to go

And if I built this fortress around your heart
Encircled you in trenches and barbed wire
Then let me build a bridge
For I cannot fill the chasm
And let me set the battlements on fire
I’m not coming up with any other uses of this poetic conceit offhand, tho’ I’m pretty sure there's something from the metaphysical poets. George Herbert’s collection, The Temple, similarly (& famously) uses the architectural elements of a church to structure his series of sacred lyrics (& then goes one further and includes instances of concrete/shaped or patterned poetry, including the always-anthologized "Easter Wings"). This is a similar literalization of a metaphor; Herbert's devotion raises a church of praise the way others would raise one of brick & mortar. Sting & The Decemberists offer this devotion ("In my father's house are many rooms"), but both also immediately recognize that that same devotion is also a barrier. I don't know of anywhere else where love itself is recognized as, from the start, a barrier for the lover, and an imposition upon the beloved.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Kindred Spirits

Elm Leaves Laid on the Wet Trunk of an Elm Tree, 4 December 2000

Unlike Smithson, Andy Goldsworthy’s work is super-fun. How is Goldsworthy different? Both artists manipulate nature in ways that challenge us to define our understanding of ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ – to challenge the extent to which nature is a construction of the activity of man.

What Andy Goldsworthy does differently is that he returns the element of technique to the project. In Rivers and Tides, we’re well awed by both his dedication and the technical expertise. Even those who lack a background in aesthetics can appreciate the techne of, say, Storm King Wall, at Storm King Park in New York state:

Storm King Wall 1999

It's a thing of sinuous beauty, and it doesn't hurt that it positions itself on the art divide - both art critics and landscapers can appreciate it. The artistic project is still the work of interrogating our understating of the limits of “natural” and “artificial,” but it is formulated in terms that, I think, co-opt and work with rather than challenge the romantic associations of his work (reviews of the Goldsworthy documentary seem to implicitly realize this, & couch his work in childlike wonder [Ebert and the New York Times], or the Whitmanesque honest laborer in the fields of art: “Trudging far from human habitation, he communes with local materials, collects what he finds, and organizes rough-hewn objects of contemplative beauty” [The Village Voice, channeling the intro to Lyrical Ballads]). You’ve got to love him, but Andy Goldsworthy, marching out to attach bright elm leaves to a trunk with water or creating a line of dandelions has more in common with the romantic nitwits in the sylvan scenes of As You Like It carving names into trees, than it does with the ecocriticism of Smithson’s pours or nonsites.


That review in the Voice gets to something, tho' - there's something atomic and self-contained about Goldsworthy's work, despite its reliance on the specifics of site and local material, something less socially engaged than the romantics, something more Adamic and Emersonian. Something, yeah, pretty American.