Friday, February 06, 2009

The Fiction is a System to Make the Work
More About Mai-Thu Perret

One of the many things I learned last night in Mai-Thu Perret’s talk at SF MOMA was a new way to think about autonomy. Autonomy came up here a few posts ago in thinking about how writing fiction differs from writing poetry. I imagined the poets to have more autonomy than writers of fiction. But do any of us have autonomy? Mai-Thu referred to The Crystal Frontier, a fiction she has created in letters, diaries and other texts, as an attempt to eliminate the arbitrariness of art practice by inventing a story and characters that would determine her actions. She found she didn’t want to create a mission or biographical reason for making the work and found also that what she could do was determined by all that she knew of art and the art world. It is easy to share her lack of interest in having an overblown sense of mission and to feel happy with the invention of this fiction, but looking at it from afar, as I was working on the interview that is on Open Space, I wasn’t sure how seriously she took her Utopianism or how aware she might be of the issues it brings up.

Last night’s talk and interview put those questions to rest as I realized that Mai-Thu is filled with both passion and an ability and determination to realize the projects she creates, along with unusual honesty and the urge to critique the viability and effectiveness of the practice. In response to the inevitable question about the political meaning of her gesture toward Utopia she freely admitted that the pieces were aesthetic fables about social transformation. She admitted also to being fascinated with the total sense of change represented by revolution, while being aware that such change is destructive to the individuals who experience it. Perhaps there is then the problem that the change is aesthetic, artistic and exists within the market economy of art as well as in your sense of it but she is making no claims for it to be anything else but that. And, in the event, that was and is enough for me.

Much of her work, including the clip of the video she showed, An Evening of the Book (see below) refers directly to Varvara Stepanova and is partly a reconstruction and realization of the oeuvre, some of which is lost or never existed, of this iconic figure of the Russian Revolution. One can look at aspects of Mai-Thu’s practice as being a revivification of Stepanova, a reliving of her life as if she continued to do art instead of turning to the design of textiles and as if the endless catastrophes of her time didn't have the obliterating effect on her that, in fact, they did have.

But to get back to autonomy, in a sense, there was very damn little of it evident in Mai-Thu’s work. This was mostly because she was able to figure out the context in which she entered the art world and to listen to the doubts that come from the excess of knowledge and sophistication that are likely to be the case if, in fact, one has the background and resources to participate in the activity of making art. You can’t pretend not to know what you know. And, further, you can’t pretend not to be entirely in the thrall of the work you admire. You long for adventure, for the new and for an intelligent version of what is possible now. And you want it to include a critique of why what is possible now is never enough and yet is all that we have.

Mai-Thu Perret seems able to create the opportunity (in a practical way as well as in ideas) to fulfill the many possibilities that exist in her project(s) with a sense of energy and questioning that makes the work work. It seems also to lack the grandiose megalomaniacal quality that one associates with a world creator like Mathew Barney. There is an inwardness to it that, in fact, draws one in. Hers is a feminist project that critiques feminism and enacts it. It is feminine and has the qualities – physicality, wisdom, openness – that one associates with our excellent gender. Ultimately, one trusts that she will intuit the objections of her viewer, reader, interlocutor and address them with work in which one will get to take a lot of pleasure.

In her talk last night, Mai-Thu was very frank in discussing the artists (from Busby Berkeley and Robert Smithson to Stepanova) that have influenced her. The nature of her engagement with these figures ended up seeming to me to relate to the work being done by younger writers which can be very derivative and yet is as or more interesting than the work it emulates. It’s as if they are saying, okay, you thought of this or that and I’ll completely do it (good idea!) but what about this further set of activities and results? What about engaging in this practice while being aware of the contradictions? What about doing it with more skill or less apology – or more apology? I’ll have to see if I can think of some examples to back up this idea.

Finally, Mai-Thu’s description of setting up a project, as in the making An Evening of the Book (a realization of a lost Stepanova piece) and allowing the activity of solving the problems created by the situation determine the nature of the piece was an inspiring example of how one works at the best of times. It reminded me that the artist or writer, as opposed to the scholar or critic, most accurately investigates questions of practice of or ideas about art by making it. Activities, like the present one, of reporting and thinking it through, are all very well, (and don't get me wrong, scholars do this better) but when you are actually trying to go forward and get out of some given project alive, that’s where the fun is.

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13 Comments:

Blogger Nada said...

Interesting that the painter Hilary Harkness, whom I saw talk at Pratt this week, also named Busby Berkeley as an influence. A kneejerk response to his films might be to say they are sheer mechanized objectification, yet there seems to be something more compelling that some of us see in them, maybe a kind of seamless Utopian communal action? Oh yeah, and the songs are great.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Laura Moriarty said...

I think it's as if the Busby Berkeleyettes stepped down out of their attractive cinematic bondage into running the show. And really what could be better?

And, p.s., loved your post about winter & getting older. For myself 40 was better than 30, 50 way better than 40.

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