Many consider Don Quixote, published in 1605, the first modern novel. If you're the sort of reader who prefers not having things spoiled for you and you haven't read Don Quixote yet, that's okay, there's a 99% chance you're going to forget what I'm about to say before you decide, what, months, years from now (if ever) to read the book. (You should, it's my favorite.)
Miguel de Cervantes' many innovations in Don Quixote include:
- A fake, imagined princess being the protagonist's love interest
- Unreliability of text (the story is said to be the translated version of a translated version)
- Buddy comedy (Don Quixote and Sancho Panza make hilarious foils)
- Metanarratives (stories within stories)
- In Part II, having his characters rip apart a (real life) rival author's imitation Part II
- Inserting himself, as the author, into the book and providing commentary
Those who would dispute this list should understand that I am not playing the game of literary scholarship, although the broad thesis that DQ inspired significant changes in authorial style is hardly contested. Nevertheless one item here remains of particular interest for our purposes in this review: the concept of meta. Greek for after or beyond, meta has enjoyed a fruitful evolution through the entire gamut of artistic media. Las Meninas, for instance, was painted a mere forty years after the ingenious hidalgo cast at last aside his armor. Witness:
Like the Quixote, this painting contains multitudes of innovation, though I won't bother denoting them as I had above when more skillful eyes have done so already. Focus solely on the meta. Diego Velazquez, not one to fall behind his literary counterpart, transposed meta into the form of painting; one cannot look at this without also feeling looked at, as the characters gaze beyond their royal chamber and into–or so it seems–you. Intriguing not so much anymore, perhaps, but then the act of calling attention to the form of art as part of the content was still young, fresh, alive.
Clever executions of this concept continued through the ages, as above: Norman Rockwell painted a painting of himself painting a painting of himself (eat your heart out, Xzibit). And as new media were introduced, so followed meta:
Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera is a documentary conscious of its own production. It is also, provided you have the patience to sit through an hour of anything nowadays, one of the highest expressions of the cinematic form ever produced.
For decades since inception, comic books had mostly been self-serious morality tales, then Deadpool came along and messed things up, doing to comics sort of what DQ did to novels. But the comic form itself, and this is important, remained a niche interest: for nerds, weirdos, and outcasts until aughts Hollywood sanctioned America's closet escapism and superhero flicks became the new Westerns, nerdy the new normie.
Let's be clear about one thing. When the culture industry gets away with centering on these techniques in blockbuster movies (read: conduits of mass appeal) like Deadpool, in which (if you couldn't tell from above) breaking the fourth wall is literally the hero's selling point, and Guardians of the Galaxy, which is self-conscious of its superhero movie tropes, meta finds itself transformed from curious oddity to crystallized tradition, subversive technique to mainstream moneymaker. What is an artist to do?
In my view, what makes someone a true artist, as opposed to a mere artist, is not the simple creation of another painting, book, or [insert noun here]—which may by all means be accomplished and enjoyable in their own right—but formal innovation, the creation of new ways to create within the constraints of a given medium. Though any novelist, even today, is bound by the page, it is undeniable that people like Cervantes come along from time to time to revitalize the medium with fresh insights into, for example, narrative construction. Books like Principia Discordia and House of Leaves are books, insofar as a book is a spine-bound collection of pages, but they force the reader to rotate the page in order to read their words. My favorite example has to be, of course, Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace's behemoth magnum opus. Among other things, it is a detective story. Like most detective stories, there is a definite solution. Unlike most detective stories...
- The reader is the detective
- The reader never learns this, so he has to figure it out himself
- The solution is literally not in the book
- It's up to the reader, upon finding the solution (if he gets so far as to even understand he's the detective), to understand that it is, in fact, the solution
Regarding forms of formal innovation, two come to mind. One is to discover new techniques by listening to the voices of the Muses, the Genii, and the Future. On this front, for mysterious reasons, literary fiction usually precedes other media. Another is to accelerate existing techniques to their logical extremes. And now, nearly six hundred words later, we've finally prefaced what you came here to read.
Just because you can doesn't mean you should. But occasions do exist for which you should precisely because you can, and Kusama capitalized on one such kairos to accelerate the exhausted meta by launching into orbit her rooms of reflection.
Obvious to anyone living in a first-world urban metropolis is the proliferation of a sort of global culture, which I hesitate to term cosmopolitanism because I associate too many positive connotations with the word to have it in any way tarnished by what it has, in effect, become. This includes Starbucks. This includes McDonalds. This includes AirBnB. This includes Uber. And now more than ever, this includes a big little zeitgeist one writer terms avidity. Liberal elites, let's call us (face it, the only type of person who'd bother reading this far), find themselves fully subservient to every trend that so much as skirts the surface of their bubbles. The Atlantic magazine is one such shibboleth. Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrors exhibit is another. Combine the two and you get Sarah Boxer's:
Yayoi Kusama's Existential Circus: An Artist for the Instagram Age
Sarah Boxer is, of course, completely clueless, being the sort of person to read Proust on her Android and then write 3,000 words about the experience, as if this were something worth revealing to the world, not concealing, not hiding away in that dark, recessed corner of the mind called shame, among the appel du vides and Freudian fantasies and all such miserable monstrosities for which that domain is the only proper habitat. She also calls it Remembrance of Things Past, a crime which ranks in severity just ever so slightly less than the crime of reading Alain de Botton, which she also, you guessed it, commits. No, I won't do her the dignity of linking the article, and no, you really, really shouldn't Google it, because, let me tell you, you avid consumer you, that that exact impulse, the one you're feeling right now? Is the reverberation of a bell, the bell tolling the death of civilization as we know it.
This your beloved blogger found himself, like a beam of light in the middle of space, being dragged by the impossible gravity of a black hole, past the event horizon; virtue of his membership in the demography of the Millennial class; and no, I assure you, mechanism of free will, I really do, into attending Yayoi Kusama's Infinity Mirrors exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. Two hours in line: not nearly as egregious as queueing for barbecue, especially when you have a companion with whom to debate the fundamental tensions between technocracy and liberty. Which, depending on who you are, is either entirely beside the point or the point entirely.
The following is my field report.
Make no mistake, the absolute focus in Kusama's art is the incarnate Narcissus, finding himself drawn not to a single reflection in a forest pond, but an infinite number of equally seductive doppelgangers—none of which, of course, can be actualized—like some species of Buridan's ass stuck not between a bale of hay and a bucket of water, but stuck, still stuck, in a space where every conceivable two-dimensional force vector pulls with equal and unrelenting ferocity. Each reflection of a reflection, each succeeding simulacrum, is a barrage of photons slamming your retinas some infinitesimal time apart, a visualization of the Heraclitean adage, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man," a reflection of what was, what might have been, what could have been, but wasn't. And you see this woven line of shades and spectres, right
behind in front of you, extending frontbackwards into (out of) infinity.
Mirrors and copulation are abominable, for they multiply the number of mankind.
Mirrors. Phalli. The horror, the horror.
What option is there but to take a selfie? A refusal would be the same as not having purchased a ticket. Experiencing art on its own terms is itself a lost art, reserved for saints, and besides, who's to say that taking a selfie isn't part of this art's own terms? Certainly not those who consider having the sort of thing art can do, for one, the silly animists. But heedless of Kusama's intentions, as Barthes well knew back in the sixties, the author went the same way as God. All in all, to witness this piece sans photograph would be, indeed, nonsensical as buying a nice pair of headphones and only ever listening to 4'33. Similarly, I suppose it is possible to take photos of the floor and ceiling, but this would represent, more than anything, a failure to rise to Kusama's challenge, a closure of the eyes and mind to the grave philosophical import outlined two paragraphs earlier. Willful ignorance is no solution; the selfie must be taken.
The most powerful idea in the universe, no question, is amor fati. We must understand that if things are and can only ever be as they are, an attitude of gracious acceptance is far more amenable to being well than prolonged bemoaning. But love, amor, requires something more than mere acceptance, it requires a transformation of the spirit, an idealization, as it were, of the case in every moment in which it is. Ergo, changing the modality of interpretation is the only tractable solution, which, as you can see, I have here manifested through the usage of a 360-degree camera (let's call him Billy). This entails a rejection of all possible universes—represented by the black circle of my infinite reflections (now banished to the periphery, each irrefutably smaller than actuality)—besides the one that is. This approach affirms Kusama's indictment of narcissism and totalizes it, effectively wresting power from the artist to relocate it in the self. The product being, of course, a veritable Übermensch.
Aftermath of Obliteration of Eternity
Tōrō nagashi. Scattered through the mighty winds that course through our world are souls, the lost souls of the departed, seeking safe harbor with their ancestors on the far shore of eternity. But they cannot find the way on their own, no, for one last time they will require the aid of those still living. Summer grows late; night descends. It is the festival of Obon. A child lights a candle and a soul approaches, guided by the flickering luminescence. She places it inside a paper lantern, a waiting room of sorts, and sets the lantern afloat on the gentle ebbs of the Sumida river. Alas, home awaits.
Eternity, let us remember, is the indescribable ocean that precedes, insofar as such a term can be applied, history. Its obliteration is no laughing matter. What sort of being could possess such impossible power as to shatter this timeless void? To, ex nihilo, reverse entropy, cosmologize chaos, and illuminate the universe? Only God. So like the birds in Attar's mystic poem, we must be as God, must unite our souls to once again restart the cycle of life and death. Apotheosis. Indeed this is what occurs as the lights in the room flicker before turning off, leaving only primordial darkness. Yet there you are. And then, slowly but surely, the room grows brighter and brighter, bit by bit, like a million fireflies swirling through the air to inaugurate the rebirth of history. Life begins again: Let there be light.
Yet make no mistake, this exhibit, contained inside an opaque white box, is a sort of contraption or machine into which you enter. Cleverly hidden are the wires powering the lanterns and the code that determines their shuttering time and flickering frequency. Thus by stepping inside one becomes not Deus per se, but Deus ex machina. Thus in the last analysis was this pet universe no more than simulation.
If we are to believe that the title of a piece bears any resemblance to its contents, then it becomes our challenge to connect perceived qualities of the exhibit with our conceptions of the titular words. Many an artist has expressed a desire to escape the prison that language irreversibly is, however how else would we specify an instance of their work? The fact that "Untitled" is nevertheless a title must annoy said artists to no end; if meta has grown tired with age, language is and by all indications will remain an aesthetic in perennial fashion. The absurdist response, of course, is to name your artwork something random or ridiculous and laugh as vacant neophytes ask—as they inevitably will—the question. "What's the meaning of this?"
But I don't think Kusama quite takes this approach. Warm, love is warm, lights are warm, and mirrors, infinity, forever, duh. Sticking your face into this exhibit which is chock full of multicolored LED bulbs certainly simulates, to say the least, what I imagine to be the experience of sticking your face in a microwave. In other words, as my visage introduced itself through the window of observation, heat was felt. But love? Nay.
Dots Obsession–Love Transformed into Dots
This room right here? If you expected me to have anything to say about this room, anything at all, I'm afraid you're mistaken beyond the pale. But if I did, you better believe it'd be saucy.
This one, on the other hand, demands a fair amount of explication. For the most part, what you're staring at here is light captured by a camera after being reflected by a square mirror at the rear of this curious construction, the principle no different from that of the standard bathroom mirror selfie, my most excellent generation's primary contribution to the annals of art history. Apart from the dangling mirror-spheres, you will notice a round, circular opening near the center of my image; from there the picture is shot. And while the camera occupies the ocular slot—so small it is—the eye is totally restricted from access. Not only must you bend your back and crane your neck to peer through this peephole, you must also close your unoccupied eye to experience the full spatial effect. So in contrast to the previous rooms, where you're free to move around and rotate your head and scream and shout, if you so desire, this singular miniature forces your perspective in a rather absolute sense, a point which enters clear relief as you observe the line of persons behind you, each of whom waits patiently to perform the exact same action, the sole variance amongst them being their chosen period of observation.
I reject, of course, such totalitarian fascism. The true artist cedes not the possibility of freedom under even the most airtight of constraints. True art maneuvers, challenges, deterritorializes. Weaves its way into existence. To what, I am sure, had they caught me in the act would've been the horror or dismay of the ossified attendants, I inserted (with due care, so that only moral damage was done—if that) that paragon of exploration Billy through the so-to-speak looking glass, and out emerged this hyperbolic wonderland:
Lastly, we have the obliteration room. Participatory art par example. Every erm, guest, I suppose, is provided a set of six or seven circular stickers of varying color and diameter to place at their whim anywhere in the room, originally white and pure as snow. Trying to leave without placing my stickers, I was accosted at the exit by a bouncer, who insisted I present my sticker sheet so he could verify that I had indeed slapped them some arbitrary where. Needless to say a spring of embarrassment welled up inside me (friends, pro tip: never let the Big Other affect your affects) as I contemplated the prospect of extracting my pristine sheet from its coat pocket seat, reaching apex saturation whereupon with great reluctance my hand reached for, grabbed, and produced the still-dotted little critter, much to his visibly unbridled glee. "Sorry, you have to stick the stickers before you can go. No, you can't just stick them on your hoodie, it has to be in the room."
I must admit. Kusama deserves due credit for this particular architecture, suitably macabre, which ensures no hapless guest ever forgets the fact that simply existing is just about the most immoral violation one can inflict on maternal Gaia.
Ergo the true obliteration, the radical obliteration, lies not in the symbolic obliteration of the polka dots but in the obliteration of the self, the subject-supposed-to-sticker. By sticking Billy far above my head I've vanished my entire body save my hands, reduced to a pair of floating signifiers, partial objects, organes sans corps, disembodied affectations of what once was but is no longer; even the staunchest of Theseus' shipwrights would be hard pressed to argue this collection of fingers still maintains the essence of my character.
Contra Barthes, is in this case very much alive, and while some may consider it poor form to comment on the author as such, they must accept, firstly, that art never arises from a vacuum, and, secondly, that it is never the person but always the persona upon whom such remarks fall. Foucault who stated that a life in itself could be considered an aesthetic phenomenon thus broke open new vistas of critique.
still from nowness
still from nowness
From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.
88, lucky number, is the age at which the legendary Hokusai became one with the aether and the age at which Yayoi Kusama now at time of writing lives. From youth the two were obsessed with art, the former taking lessons from his father while the latter persisted in spite of severe pressure to quit from her mother. Why should anyone practice so diligently for so long? Surely perfection was exposed for the myth it was long ago, being, after all, a human determination. A calling, perhaps, could be more accurate, something to be answered and approached for the length of its duration. But try on for size a simpler answer: to get better. I practice to get better. "But why do you want to get better?" Oh, but is not that reason sufficient? You look for a coin where none exists. And you will continue looking until either you cease believing in it or hallucinate one into being.
For Kusama, who's resided in a mental hospital for some 42 years now, "to get better" is more than a mere matter of craft; art binds her to sanity, or so it goes. The dots of her art are the realized manifestations of her visual hallucinations. My instinctive response is to conjure the tortured artist trope, which...
As a verbal construction I know that’s a cliché. As a state in which to actually be, though, it’s something else, believe me.
Exists for reasons and is likely to stick around. But there is, along these lines, no path of commentary which has not been tread a thousand times, so let us attend instead to the artist's own words:
By obliterating one’s individual self, one returns to the infinite universe.
I want to become more famous, even more famous.
Artists, it is known, are full of contradictions such as these, but what is perhaps less understood is that they believe, truly believe, such apparent folly with total conviction. A lesser mind would scoff at what it perceives to be inconsistency. You, on the other hand, dear reader, are better than that, are you not? Where others throw up their arms in resignation, you soldier on, looking for that coin, knowing none exists, knowing that it is your search which produces its existence, knowing, O quixotic soul, that it is through your search that others will come to create it for you. You see the language game for what it is and you say no, you will be solved.
Fame is self-obliteration.
At the end of the exhibit visitors are welcome to watch a recorded interview in which Kusama speaks about her art, its genesis, its import. At the end of this recorded interview Kusama delivers a personal message to each guest (viewed, of course, en masse) expressing her gratitude for their coming to experience the fruits of her labor. Though she will never personally meet her millions of pilgrims, she can at least rest assured that each of them will have seen something, indicated her work has value, and become for her, in some sense, a dot of love. The highest of all human values, you see, is to be known. What is love? You heard it here first.
Having concluded, in the final reconciliation, that these terms set the stage on which modern existence is performed, I have created, following Pessoa, a slew of personages which I exhort each of my cherished readers to also, in turn, follow:
If at any point in this review you found yourself believing I knew what I was talking about, I'm afraid it's you, in the end, who are out of your mind. But it's not as if you needed me to tell you, in any case. And it's not as if you'd have it any other way.