I was at a concert recently were I saw a piece by the American artist Devin DiSanto performed. It was Devin and my friends Rolando and Gudinni, folding papers, putting them in envelopes, placing the envelopes in certain positions, then doing some other stuff. Actually it wasn’t that exactly, but that was the idea: three guys doing bureaucratic things. I felt like Bartleby a little bit. As in, I imagine that’s what Bartleby’s workplace was like, what it looked and sounded like. Paper pushing, bureacracy. “I prefer not to.” The occasional bell ringing to signal something. I thought it was funny, and appreciated that it was happening. My friend came up to me and said they hated it. “It’s fucking Fascist!” they said. I said, “really?”
I don’t remember who wrote it, and because I never annotate novels, I’ll never find it—it was either Javier Marías or Roberto Bolaño, in a novel—but somebody wrote that Fascist writing is not writing done by Fascists, but rather writing that affords the same possibilities, or lack thereof, that Fascism does. That is, anybody can write a Fascist novel, or a Fascist art review, or a Fascist poem; anybody can make a Fascist composition or perform a Fascist performance.
If a Fascist work is one that allows for the conditions of Fascism within its performance or execution, what are the conditions of Fascism? I don’t know, really. I open one of my favorite books that I’ve never read: What do Rulers Do When They Rule? by Göran Therborn. I open the index to “F.” Fabre, J., Fichter, T. It’s an index of names. No Fascism. I think about what else I might have that might talk about Fascism and think of some books I left in Los Angeles, or maybe that I donated to Out of the Closet before I left—the one in Echo Park, on Sunset. I search Wikipedia: Fascism. The heavily annotated article—you can read it, too, obviously—tells us that there is no precise definition of Fascism, but that “one common definition” is that Fascism is composed of three negations: anti-liberalism, anti-communism, and anti-conservatism. It makes me think of Donald Trump, though: he’s not liberal, not communist, and not conservative. Maintaining this kind of position—I’m not this, nor am I that, and I’m not that either—also seems to me that it would depend heavily on a narcissistic, insistent personality, the kind of person that can lie without effort and with convincing force. “I’m not, but you are!” That kind of thing.
The next part of the Wikipedia sentence: Fascism often carries within it a particular aesthetic, one that vaunts youth, romanticism, violence, and masculinity. I can’t help but think of William Burroughs’s later novels, only a couple of which I’ve bothered to read, overwhelmingly wide in range and full of teenage cocks and teenage blood. There’s a great article online by Luc Sante that discusses whether or not Burroughs was Fascist, an article I found reading another great article, this time by Rebecca Solnit, where she wondered why read Burroughs when you can read somebody who didn’t shoot their wife. Why look at Carl Andre when you can look at somebody who didn’t kill Ana Mendieta. I think of the impressive-seeming Leon Golub retrospective that I avoided at the Rufino Tamayo, huge bleak mottled colors, young male blood, slogans. I felt my brain closing as I wandered in and left immediately. Maybe that’s what Fascist art is: art that makes your brain close. It wouldn’t be, I guess, just art that features beautiful young men, or art that is excessively romantic, or art that features violence; it wouldn’t even be a combination of the three. And no, it wouldn’t be art that makes your brain shut down, either; it would be art that makes you feel a strong sense of denial, art that unmoors something basic in you, something you need, something that you’re afraid of. Art that makes you feel proud, defensive, powerful, anxious.
The wall text introducing Nairy Bagharian’s Hand Me Down, at the Rufino Tamayo, is not helpful. Something about the contradictory legacy of minimalism, something about the visitor as muse, something about activating space or architecture, something about a second hand store. I walked through the show wondering what the contradictory legacy of minimalism is, exactly. The wall text said that it was about reducing sculpture down to its basic elements. I guess I was thinking: where does that become contradictory?
So I was thinking about Tony Smith’s Black Box, the one that got Michael Fried all angry. It’s a box, you know? A black box. I think the thing I’ve always said about Minimalism, usually to myself, is that it’s weird to me that everybody thinks Minimalism is so complicated when it’s really just about being a body in the room with a box. I thought about reading “Specific Objects” while walking into the space and looking at a charming photo of somebody’s hairy legs in yellow socks and sandals, sitting on the ground in a three-quarters metal frame. Reading “Specific Objects” made me feel uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure why. I wonder now if it’s because it takes a simple phemonological idea, like putting a box in a gallery and being like, “yo,” and makes it Very Serious. There’s nothing wrong with being serious, but making a bunch of sculptures that are all about bodies in space and not really talking about bodies at all is kind of weird. Especially when every room in every one of your studio buildings in Marfa has a bed! Come on, Donald! What’s it like to lay down and take a nap in a room with a Specific Object? What’s it like to fuck in a room with a Specific Object, or masturbate, or snore? What’s it like to get home late at night, reeking of campfire and whiskey, and vomit in a room with a Specific Object? That must be the contradictory legacy, I thought as I wandered around the vast empty spaces created by Bagharian’s installation. Objects that create an immediate relationship with the body, but seem afraid of it.
I’m trying to find a citation, another one, this one about the tendency of male artists to favor—nay, to need—abstraction, and how goofy that is, how dumb to think that anything good will come of eliminating the body from one’s work, and that women artists instinctually know that this is a ridiculous position, dumb, self-negating. Maybe it’s Fascist. Anyway, I’m pretty sure I read it in n+1, so I look in the most recent issue. I can’t find it in the review of Maggie Nelson’s new book, The Argonauts, but I find this: “Do castration and the Phallus tell us deep Truths of Western culture or just the truth of how things are and might not always be? It astonishes me to think that I spent years finding such questions not only comprehensible, but compelling.”
I think to myself, ok, maybe it’s in this short story by Ceridwen Dovey, the a letter to Sylvia Plath by a combat dolphin mother who has recently committed suicide—it sounds ridiculous, maybe, but it isn’t, it’s touching, direct, astute, beautiful, one of my favorite things that I’ve read recently—anyway part of what she writes is about Ted Hughes, Plath’s husband, who I guess wrote a lot about animals, vaunting them, vaunting animal-ness like Moretti vaunted machine-ness. “Reclaiming” some kind of -ness by submitting to some sort of “other” energy. But, like the dolphin says in her letter to Sylvia Plath, “human women need no reminder that they’re animals.” And later: “You took enormous creaturely satisfaction in food, in sex, in smells, in your own body and its workings. The smell of your pee first thing in the morning, the texture of your snot when you wiped it beneath a table, the feel of the sun tanning your belly brown and the fine hairs on it blonde, the ‘cowlike bliss’ of breastfeeding your infant son by starlight. You didn’t need any symbolic scaffolding to describe your experience as a female animal.” I don’t need a reminder that I am a machine—that I’m constructed—not because I’m a man, but maybe because I’m queer.
Symbolic scaffolding: maybe that’s the thing, the Fascist thing. The unmooring of something universal and basic but kind of scary, like being an animal, so that you feel suddenly this desperate and violent need to reclaim something that you’ve lost, but that you’re afraid to name. You shout “yeah!” at somebody who tells you something strong, something convincing, something macho and hard. Specific Objects! Yeah! DiSanto’s performance was certainly strong and convincing, self-contained and alienating, but in a way that was hard to notice—”really?”—that made you want to keep watching, keep participating as a viewer or listener or both. DiSanto ripped and walking around in a white t-shirt and jeans. If I remember right, there was a brief semi-participatory moment at the end, but everybody had already been negated and the cue was too subtle, so it didn’t work. Or maybe it did work, maybe the point of the piece was to produce this Bartleby sentiment in the audience so that when they were finally asked to do something, their response was a bewildered, “I prefer not to.”
I don’t know what I can tell you about Bagharian’s show. I had a notebook, but no pencil; I had a phone that wasn’t charged. I took a picture of a funny poem in the men’s room, near the furthest urinal, and then it died. I asked the lady at the front desk if there were papers or anything I could take with me, but she said no, they were only selling catalogs for the other two shows in the museum. I’ve been wondering recently about my relationship with art, and this seemed emblematic. The other day, as I was eating a quesadilla de chicharron, Tina Turner wafted over the market’s soundsystem like the smell of ripe fruit. I wondered, as everybody always does, “what does love got to do with it?” I wondered: do I have a crush on art? When I think about going to openings my hands get clammy and I find some reason, usually a dumb one, not to go. Then I tell myself I’ll go to this museum before the show ends, make an appointment at that gallery before that show ends, but of course I never do.
In the last month or so, I have missed something like ten openings, or complete shows, that I wanted to see. On November 28th, I missed El Aire Entre Las Cosas, the final exhibition for the current SOMA class, as well an opening at LuLu. I haven’t been to Bikini Wax since I went with Mauro, Rolando, and Jordan all that time ago. There have probably been 40 openings, and a bunch of them looked great. I haven’t been to Obrera Centro, even though Nancy invited me, the day after the Bikini Wax night; I haven’t gone to the Jeremy Deller show at MUAC. When I was in Oaxaca, I almost went to Parallel but then I looked at their website and saw they were in Miami. I’m sure somebody was at the gallery, but I didn’t go. Last Saturday, on Virgin of Guadelupe Day, a day for which thousands of pilgrims travel by foot or bicycle or van from all corners of the country, choking the air with fireworks to mark their progression, Jordan and I went to Casa Maauad because I thought the SOMA show was still up. It wasn’t. We walked to the taco cart on the corner of García Icazbalcega and Rosas Moreno, across the street from Luz y Fuerza. I looked at the poster hanging off the door at Lodos and wondered why I hadn’t bothered to make an appointment for that day; I wondered if I knew Francisco well enough to knock. I don’t. Jordan had two tacos de maciza and two de longaniza; I had one each of maciza, suadero, and longaniza. They were out of tripe. There’s a guy frying meat, a guy chopping meat, a woman taking payments, a son fetching bottled drinks, a fat man skinning onions. The chopping meat guy grabs a chunk of meat from the frying meat guy, chops it up wets a pair of tortillas in the grease shakes his hand to get rid of some grease grabs some meat puts in the taco asks you if you want everything on it grabs a handful of onion and cilantro distributes it perfectly pours some of their red sauce on it hands it to you. This all takes, like, one second. Then you eat it. Get some cucumber and radish and salt the hell out of them; put some papalo on there if you’re into it; there’s some onion marinated with chiles. We went for a little walk through San Rafael, a formerly Lebanese neighborhood that isn’t Lebanese anymore, to the Chopo. I wanted to see Martín Soto Clement’s show. The museum was closed. We walked back to the metro.
When I encounter emotional issues, or issues that involve some kind of emotional question—why am I angry right now, why am I happy right now, what’s love got to do with it—I turn to Susan Miller, the astrologist, or Roland Barthes, the semiologist. Spefically I turn to the Astrology Zone app on my smartphone and one of Barthes’s last books, A Lover’s Discourse. The other day, after finishing my quesadilla and my tlacoyo—a smallish paddle of corn masa, in this case filled with mashed fava beans and covered with cheese, chopped cactus paddles, and onion—I returned home and opened A Lover’s Discourse. I wanted to think that I identified with the eighth entry under absence:
8. A Buddhist Koan says: “The master holds the disciple’s head underwater for a long, long time; gradually the bubbles become fewer; at the last moment, the master pulls the disciple out and revives him: when you have craved truth as you crave air, then you will know what truth is.”
I would like to think I’ve been missing all these events, avoiding all these galleries, people, and shows, because I am depriving myself of art in order to “prepare myself for what is Intractable” in it, like Barthes interprets the koan. But really I identify more with the first entry in anxiety: “I pick up a book and take a sleeping pill, ‘calmly.’ The silence of this huge hotel is echoing, indifferent, idiotic (faint murmur of draining bathtubs); the furniture and lamps are stupid; nothing friendly that might warm…” There’s something addictive about making these kinds of bad decisions, doing things that you know will make you feel bad, make you feel negated, cold, the room closing in around you. Decisions that remove the spirit from objects, decisions that allow you to believe that you are isolated from them or independent of them. I think this is what Fascism feeds off of, also: taking a stance that leaves you in need of direction.
There were three varieties of sculpture in Hand Me Down: low-slung white igloo-ey sculptures, each pulled apart slightly to reveal a hollow middle, excessively strong steel skeleton, and a drab interior paint job; pillowy leather-clad sculptures, organic shapes, pinned high on the wall on steel bars that recall a dance studio, with cute-colored knobs on each end; and naked steel sculptures, same kind of thick steel bar, hulking like Bourgeois spiders. I don’t remember how many of anything there were, but I remember wanting to lay down on the leather-clad ones (Chin Up), and I remember a rail created by two parallel bars on one of the naked steel sculptures (what were they called? you’ll have to check) pointing directly at the face of the bored, but kind-looking, museum guard standing behind it. I wondered about the muse part of the wall text. I don’t really understand what a muse is and I never have. When I compose or improvise I think of forms and fill them with content, or I play attention games: when this happens I’ll do x, for the next 5 minutes I’ll ignore everybody, etc. When I write I usually just vomit words for a while, take a break, then rearrange things so that they make sense, kind of. In no case do I receive anything from any supernatural source—are muses supernatural?—although maybe that would be cool. In Dodie Bellamy’s new book she talks about Kathy Acker: “Acker: One thing I do is stick a vibrator up my cunt and start writing—writing from the point of orgasm and losing control of the language and seeing what it’s like.” Is that a muse? The vibrator? Now I’m pretty sure I read that bit about men needing to abstract things in Bellamy’s book, When the Sick Rule the World, but I have no idea in which essay because, again, I didn’t annotate anything. I read half the book in one sitting, on a bus on the way to Oaxaca. Everything bleeds together in my memory. It’s like going to a city where you recognize enough of it that you always think you know where you are, but you never do. A place where you feel a kind of vague familiarity, but you’re still alone and lost.
I’m pretty positive I wasn’t the muse. I’m pretty sure I don’t like the whole idea of a muse, a muse seems like a thing that comes from this idea of geniuses or genii and I’m in general not into that. I don’t want to be part of it. Every old creepy art guy has a young “muse.” It’s like, why bother with the muse thing, just admit you like fucking young men/women. As I walked back through the Bagharian exhibition, after avoiding the Golub and being disappointed by the Heinz Peter Knes, I noticed that each room was at most half-filled, leaving a huge amount of space occupied only by guards and/or their chairs. I noticed, walking around, that the guards stood up from their chairs every time I entered the room. I wondered if that was part of their job description: when somebody enters, stand up. I noticed that, when they stood up, they would mirror me slightly, just to keep tabs. I entered a room and the the guards stood up; I moved and they moved. As I walked around each sculpture, wondering to myself if I look at sculpture like I look at guys in the street, if my art-viewing gaze is the same as my cruising gaze—I guess I’m not really cruising because I’m not intending for anything to happen, and I think cruising is pretty goal-oriented, but anyway, a gaze that is appraising and desirous, predatory and curious—a museum guard would be on the other side of the sculpture, keeping track of me without looking at me, keeping track of the sculpture without looking at the sculpture. I caught one guard looking at me while I stood behind one of the low-slung pulled-apart sculptures and looked at the shadow cast on it so subtilely, so thoughtfully and purposefully, by a nearby window. I moved, he moved, and I thought, “it’s like we’re dancing!” and loved it.
The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations, equilibrium.
â€“ Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!
Last May, when I wrote MAINTENANCE #1, I quoted the interview Bartholomew Ryan did with Mierle Laderman Ukeles, forÂ Art In America in 2009. Maintenance, she told him, “is trying to listen to the hum of living. A feeling of being alive, breath to breath.” That’s still my lodestar for this column.
I write fiction most of the time, at Bookslut I write a reading diary on different themes, and here I write about specific solo publications – the reading I do, and bump into doing, here in Chicago. I write about “the people [the writers, the editors, the publishers] who are taking care and keeping the wheels of society moving.” I try to pay attention. Here where Our Scene is so rad and vibrant but also so segregated by neighborhood, schools, tone, etc., this is something we can always fail better at.