Saturday, February 28, 2009

The other Giovanni

Giovanni Tiso has been a mainstay of the rambling but often interesting debates about art, politics, and postmodernism that this blog has hosted over the past week or so. Giovanni has played ball with the rest of us, but he has also acted as a sort of referee. He has kept a watchful eye on the complex but occasionally invalid manoeuvres of Richard Taylor, has tactfully ignored the petty provocations of fundamentalist Christian spammers, and has frequently and fearlessly blown the whistle on my breaches of the rules of polemic. Giovanni has even marched me back ten metres when my infractions have been particularly egregious.

In one of his most recent comments on this blog, Giovanni mentioned that he has written a PhD about some of the issues we've been discussing, and justifies this reference by saying that he 'bloody well deserves' a little bit of 'self-promotion'. I agree. You can read Impossible Recollections here.

Giovanni must be one of the best advocates of Derrideanism that has ever put pen to paper. This namesake of his, who is currently enjoying a posthumous retrospective at Auckland's ARTSPACE, might be one of the worst. Giovanni Intra studied at Elam Art School in the early '90s, and was an important member of the loose faction of theory-driven conceptual and installation artists who belatedly came to public consciousness in 2005 when Merylyn Tweedie, aka et al, embarrassed right-thinking Kiwis by exhibiting a toilet that brayed like a donkey at the Venice Biennale. Intra's restrospective covers the years until 1996, when he left these shores for the bright lights of Los Angeles, where he worked as a galleria and curator and continued to produce impenetrable art 'theory'. Intra's death from a drug overdose in 2002 gives the retrospective at ARTSPACE a poignant feel, but the work on display in the sombre white rooms above Karangahape Road fails to convey the energy and intelligence that the young artist obviously possessed. There are dour films, hundreds of photographs of one of the artist's hands, and notebooks filled with drawings and captions that remind me of the doodles we used to fill the insides of exercise books with at school during particularly boring Maths classes. The many drawings of syringes draw our attention because of the artist's tragic fate, not because of any aesthetic qualities. Jokey and anecdotal cartoons entertain, but there are too many second-hand slogans, Derridean non-sequitirs, and self-conscious parodies of other artists' work.

The most visually impressive part of the show is undoubtedly the collection of posters and flyers displayed under the sort of extra-thick glass that slightly old-fashioned museums use to cover their butterflies and beetles. There is something affecting about the way that this ephemera - these energetic, edgy advertisments for long-forgotten exhibitions by unknown young artists at obscure galleries - has been so carefully preserved.

The lack of visual interest in the Intra retrospective would not be a problem, if the ideas which prompted the work were compelling. They are not. Intra's vaguely Situationist belief in the ability of subcultures like the punk and drug scenes to 'subvert' the cultural 'mainstream' seems as jejune as his doodlings. It might have seemed more impressive when it was wrapped up in references to dead Frenchmen. As Giovanni Tiso has taught us over the past week on this blog, though, quoting Derrida and Baudrillard in support of your arguments is like using your mother as a character witness.

Kate Brettkelly-Chalmers' catalogue does a good job of emulating Intra's orotund prose style, and makes sure to quote Derrida in almost every second paragraph. Her claim that Intra's 'skinny drawings' are places where 'power and knowledge' are 'taken apart and left undone' makes me want to dig out my old Maths book and take another look at those doodles. Perhaps when I wrote @NARCHY - SMASH THE STATE! I really did destroy capitalism after all. Brettkelly-Chalmers' conclusion seems to accept that Intra is interesting not as an artist or an art theorist, but as a person:

In many ways, Intra's archive works to continue and amplify the enigmatic impression that surrounds his memory. He had a perceptive awareness of himself, the social position of an artist and the mythology it tapped into. The funny nicknames Intra gave himself and others were just the face of his innate ability to make and maintain connections...It is the clever and intriguing, yet somewhat distant collection of anecdotes surrounding Intra's memory that made a small cardboard box of books and catalogues posted to ARTSPACE much more than the sum of its parts.

Once all of the postmodernist waffle is stripped away, Intra appears to have been, like Philip Clairmont or Tony Fomison, a self-mythologising, self-destructive young man in love with a high Romantic image of the artist as a visionary outlaw. Unlike Clairmont or Fomison, though, Intra didn't have the art to go with the pretension.

It's hard to avoid the idea that the proscriptions of postmodernism might have had something to do with Intra's failure to realise himself as an artist. For all their pretensions, Clairmont and Fomison grounded themselves in the local and the autobiographical; Intra, despite his obvious self-obsession, did not. As the redoubtable TJ MacNamara noted in a decidedly lukewarm review, Intra aligned himself with the self-consciously cosmopolitan trend in New Zealand art, and tried to create works which could be as easily exhibited in Milan as Auckland. It is ironic that what intrigues audiences now is not Intra's pseudo-internationalism or his second-hand Derridese, but the story of his life as a young man living in the unfashionable city of Auckland in the 1990s.

If Giovanni Tiso wants to characterise the impact of postmodernism on New Zealand art and literature as progressive, then he needs to account for the failure of Giovanni Intra.

27 Comments:

Blogger stephen said...

Does one swallow make a summer? That's one compelling anecdote, but only one.

10:29 am  
Blogger maps said...

True. But I think the scene from which Giovanni (Intra, not Tiso) emerged was barren. I see him as a representative figure. I was hoping somebody might try to cite an artist or two to prove me wrong. Mr Tiso has been doing a good job of proving me wrong lately!

11:00 am  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Maps - on the quite recent post (which you saw) on my EYELIGHT Blog I describe how I went into Auckland and quite by chance came across Giovanni Intra's work - of which I have some images on the link -

http://richardinfinitex.blogspot.com/2008/11/room-x-e-z-guess-who-re-started-war-in.html

and if you scroll down - his art was what caught my eye - I had never heard of him before - he mentions transgression which l linked to the other political transgressions of war etc - above ...

I looked at his other images and I liked them – I agree a lot of rubbish or obfuscation is talked by art people – but some of the rubbish is better rubbish than others...

I'm not sure - I certainly liked the images and things I saw - yes his Romanticism probably moved him to becoming a Postmodernist Romantic but...

McNamara is a good critic (and very observant and astute) and has been around for years (I've bumped into him at art gallery openings (but not literally!) ) but seems to work a bit to a formula...

We must all traipse down to Artspace and have a good critical and _independent_ and _unprejudiced_ squiz and form our own views...why shouldn't your doodles have any value?

(BTW I thought that Pliny had committed suicide, but he didn't he was killed...but perhaps Intra believed so also. I don’t know. )

2:52 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

stephen - one swallow doth not a drunk make either! Or a drink...

BTW I have been going to Poetry Live again and reading (sober these days!) - as you may know it is now still on Tuesday nights at 8.pm but at The Thirsty Dog on K'Road - it is a good venue - some crazy stuff going on there - young and old are there. Students to old wheezing (weeing) and whinging old Geezas such as myself...but some beautiful, creative, and alert young things compensate for this deficiency...

[pace Hamish Dewe - long live Pound!]

3:01 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

His mother was his character witness.

5:02 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

I was hoping somebody might try to cite an artist or two to prove me wrong. Mr Tiso has been doing a good job of proving me wrong lately!

You ask me to defend a position I’ve never held, namely that postmodernism has had or is likely to have a progressive influence on New Zealand art and literature. I didn’t make that claim not solely because my knowledge of the local artistic and literary scene is far too narrow, but mostly because it’s such an arse-backwards proposition. The first postmodernists were artists, the philosophers came later. When Barthes and Eco discussed certain characteristics of contemporary poetics, they weren’t advocating what art should become - they were arguing what it already was. Similarly, when Lyotard and Jameson unpacked the postmodern condition, they were endeavouring to describe a state of affairs, not calling for the end of history.

I am not unaware of the feedback that the theory has since had on art and on cultural and political debates, but you seem to think that all that an artist can do is act as a conduit, channel a certain philosophical approach, instead of colouring it with his or her own sensibility and politics, which is likely in turn to be a function of their social milieu and personal history. I have seen a lot of bad art inspired by the writings of Foucault, and some good art too (Chris White’s series on panopticism exhibited at the old jailhouse in Petone some years ago is the only local example of the latter I am able to provide). But now all of a sudden you’re talking about the need for art and literature to be progressive, politically useful, and I cannot help noticing that it’s the exact opposite of what you wrote in defending yourself (and bourgeois art) from the attack of the Garage Collective no longer than two weeks ago. Nonetheless, I guess I could point you to a number of great artists who could be characterised as postmodern - Joyce and Duchamp, who ushered it in, Dziga Vertov, Philip Glass, Thomas Pynchon and a bunch of others. Then we could spend a year or two dissecting the politics of each, and compiling a list of progressive = good or conservative, reactionary = bad. That’s always worked so well for us in the past, ay!

And then what?

I am really at a loss to work out what this diatribe of yours is about. Do you want me to hold your hand and reassure you that it’s okay, that you can go back to practising historical materialism in its unadulterated form (whatever that might be), knowing for sure that it’s the best of all past, present and future epistemologies, and that it was Derrida - that sexy beast, that idol of the masses! - who caused so many people to lose faith in socialism, revolutionary or otherwise, as opposed to the central committees, Messrs Stalin and Mao, the crushing defeats, the constant and mind-numbingly dishonest revisionism (Russia was never truly socialist; China was never truly socialist; my aunt isn’t truly a socialist), the fall of Eastern Europe, the years of lead, the killing fields, the unbearable dreariness of a certain socialist art? I can do that, and then go back to banging my head against the desk whenever I contemplate the future of progressive politics. Because surely, if we do it all again the exact same way we did if before, it’s going to lead to different results. Right.

Alternatively, I could urge you to make better, fuller use of our marvellous instruments of understanding how societies operate and how they can be changed. There is no earthly reason barring me from weaving together my aunt’s beloved Hegelian dialectics together with Foucaultian analyses, Derridean scepticism, Baudrillardian semiotics, Harawayan feminism. I happen to find this empowering, not to mention necessary. There is simply no way to use the old words of my Gramscian youth to critique and combat the politics of the Genome project. We need to broaden our vocabularies, not demonise words in the way you have done with the postmodern.

Now at the cost of appearing to take myself too seriously, I have to say I am not as amused or flattered by this post of yours as its apparent levity and graciousness would invite. I find it actually a little bit distasteful, almost as much as that dreadful entry of yours in the comments the other day about Derrida and DeMan. You invite me to denigrate or, worse, justify an artist whom I don’t happen to know, with uncharacteristic glibness and I thought an undercurrent of antipathy. I really like this blog, and will continue to read it with anticipation and pleasure. The post on the two flags early in the new year, last week’s one on Smythiman - you do consistently brilliant work. Arguing from a prejudiced and poorly informed position really does not suit you.

(While I’m at it: you couldn’t shift that photo of mr Intra closer to where you actually talk about him - it sorts of looks like it might be moi otherwise. I have, in fact, less hair.)

5:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you might try b.s.johnson if you're looking for an example of a combination between 'postmodern' aesthetics and regionalist/autobiographical content. I tend to agree that most art that usually comes under the label 'postmodernist' from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, to conceptual art, John Cage, Pop Art, multimedia installations etc, leaves me pretty cold, wyndham lewis wrote what could be read as an invective against postmodernism as long ago as 1928 [time and western man] specifically a criticism of whitehead, stein, joyce, pound and the new 'everything is in flux, nothing can be grounded in certainty, 'time philosophy' as he called it, claimed he'd much rather live in ancient greece than modern new york. Tom.

9:45 pm  
OpenID artandmylife said...

I am loving these posts and comment streams!

10:32 pm  
Blogger dave said...

I think Maps should find his gun and stick to it. There is fascist art, liberal art, socialist/anachist art (quasi-liberal) and communist art. There are no fascists, liberals, socialists, or communists who practice ART as some transhistorical category.

Historical materialism is a method with an ontology and epistemology so powerful that it has to be smashed by all manner of attacks from physical to philosophical to artistic.

Lots of socialists are scared of revolution so look for a convenient alternative without openly identifying with the bosses. Pomo is such a bolthole.

Anyway here we are in the middle, or beginning of a big crisis of capitalism, and Marxism is re-appearing as THE explanation for this crisis.

As workers begin to emerge as a class force, pomo will be replaced by opportunist currents in bourgeois ideology that revive collectivism while keeping the capital relation intact.

Look to a revival of art that expresses the anger of the masses but is suitably dressed in Chavista red or Morales rainbow colors "speaking" for the people(s) collectivism, but firmly within the bounds of bourgeois constitutions.

Bright note: a born-again Trotskyist outfit called WIVL (all the Trotskyist labels run together) is fighting the ANC in the upcoming election. There's a reality for you to analyise.

2:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'There are no fascists, liberals, socialists, or communists who practice ART as some transhistorical category.'

actually there are, quite a few of them, when they forget what they're supposed to be thinking... and then there's all dem others who don't prescribe to one of those categories in the first place..

4:39 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

"Historical materialism is a method with an ontology and epistemology so powerful that it has to be smashed by all manner of attacks from physical to philosophical to artistic."

Unfortunately, the Historical materialists never quite got a handle on Economics.

5:32 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I wasn't intending to be mean-spirited towards Giovanni Intra - I felt sadness looking at his retrospective, because the work he left behind seemed incommensurate with the energy and intelligence he obviously possessed. When I suggest that postmodern ideas didn't play a 'progressive' role in his work and in the work of the milieu he inhabited I don't mean to refer to politics - I just mean to suggest that some of the proscriptions of postmodernism - or, at least, of postmodernism as it was interpreted by the art and literary scenes here in the '90s - held him back.

As for my references in the last thread to Derrida's role in the Paul De Man controversy: what exactly was so wrong with them? They certainly weren't intended to shut down discussion about Derrida, just to indicate what i see as the failings of his thought.

5:53 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

They were ad hominem and spectacularly ill informed. You started off by saying that his later political writings were essentially posturing to make up for his earlier nihilism - which would be tendentious if it wasn't plain stupid, in light of Derrida's history of political activism - and then moved on to tar his philosophical work on the basis of his defence in good faith of a friend. Apart from the fact that again you seem to ignore Derrida's much earlier stance against anti-semitism, weren't you saying just the other day that Heidegger's work ought not to be judged by his own politics? And yet apparently it's okay to attack Derrida's philosophy for the past crimes of somebody else. Go figure.
There is an extra layer of irony in the fact that the last ten years of Derrida's work were dedicated to the problems of post-colonial amnesties, of decolonisation, of underemployment, and the political and human status of the sans-papier - which happen to be things that historical materialism lacks word to describe, and are therefore largely ignored by most orthodox Marxists. But then why should we care - it's not as if we have a dispossessed indigenous population in this country.

6:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Derrida's 'defence' of de Man should be taken in context, at the time he was himself drawn into the controversy with the accusation that "there were grounds for viewing the whole of deconstruction as a vast amnesty project for the politics of collaboration during World War II" not to mention de Man even sheltered Jewish people in his house who were hiding from the Nazi's, he comes out of it far cleaner than Heidegger does.

8:06 pm  
Blogger maps said...

It'd be absurd to assume a philosopher's politics and philosohical ideas were connected; it's be equally absurd to make the opposite assumption.

I don't see how the detailed stuff about ontology in Being and Time can possibly be inherently fascist, but I don't see how some other Heidegger texts - we could start with his inaugural address as rector of Freiburg University - aren't terribly tainted.

Of course De Man wasn't as bad as Heidegger, who seems to have been a complete bastard, and of course Derrida was never anti-semitic. I pointed to the De Man controversy because I thought it was a case where Derrida tried to apply his philosophical technique to a very political issue and was unable to do justice to that issue. I think that says something about the method. Perhaps 'orthodox Marxism' (whatever that is!) lacks the ability to be as equivocal as it should be; but Derrida should have been less equivocal about De Man.

Is it actually true that de Man sheltered Jews, by the way? I read an account of his life during the war and don't remember that detail.

8:42 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Another point I was meaning to make in relation to the de Man affair is the comparison Derrida made between criticism of de Man and the extermination of the Jews in the article he wrote for the New York Times defending his late friend.

Derrida said that those who condemned de Man because of what he did in the war were following the same method as the Nazis. This seems to have upset many people, and I can see why - it reminds me of Heidegger's (in)famous statement comparing the environmental destruction caused by technology to the destruction of six million Jews by the Nazis.

While Derrida and Heidegger were both making reasonable points - it is wrong to condemn everything de Man did because of his actions as a young man, and modern technology has been used destructively - their analogies were inappropriate.

8:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what Derrida said was: “To judge, to condemn the work or the man on the basis of what was a brief episode, to call for closing, that is to say, at least figuratively, for censuring or burning his books is to reproduce the exterminating gesture which one accuses de Man of not having armed himself against sooner with the necessary vigilance. It is not even to draw a lesson that he, de Man, learned to draw from the war.”

which frankly, is not particularly offensive, certainly not in the same way as Heidegger's comment.

de Man sheltered for several days Jewish pianist Esther Sluszny and her husband from the Nazi's, I believe he was working for a while with the Belgian resistance too, but someone else will know the details better than me. Tom.

9:27 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:37 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

You're absolutely right about the orthodox marxism jab, very sloppy language on my part. I was much too hastily trying to express why I think that Spectres of Marx and Derrida's other writings in the Nineties are of some use, from this humble Marxist's perspective. Accounting for the Others, including those on whose behalf our political, economic and social theories struggle to speak, should be an imperative of any radical political project, and the usefulness in this regard of the thinking and the movements associated with the French philosophers we've been making silly noises about in the last few days seems very obvious to me.

But the noises, including mine, are just getting sillier - and do I detect a whiff of instant knowledge care of Wikipedia? Not that there's anything wrong with it, but cramming in search of hasty pronouncements does not do a lot of justice to the seriousness of the topic nor the usual intellectual rigour of our host. So I'm going to leave it there, whilst reserving the option of making some ancillary personal considerations in a couple of days on my blog - where it's even less likely that they'll make a difference to anybody.

9:39 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

Although I'd still appreciate you moving that picture - I've had somebody email me to say "so that's what you look like".

10:04 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Well Wikipedia does have a way of refreshing memories. My source for the de Man controversy is Richard Wolin's book about Continental philosophers and their links to various kinds of politics, which I read some time ago. I don't completely agree with Wolin - he thinks that everyone in that tradition is more or less damned - but I do find him interesting. He also did some groundbreaking empirical research on Heidegger's rectorship, if I remember rightly.

10:28 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

"you might try b.s.johnson"
we know about B S Jonson

"... if you're looking for an example of a combination between 'postmodern' aesthetics and regionalist/autobiographical content.."

He is interesting and innovative -

" I tend to agree that most art that usually comes under the label 'postmodernist' from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, to conceptual art, John Cage, Pop Art, multimedia installations etc, leaves me pretty cold,.."[These all fascinate me, but that's just me...]
..................................
wyndham lewis wrote what could be read as an invective against postmodernism as long ago as 1928 [time and western man] specifically a criticism of whitehead, stein, joyce, pound and the new 'everything is in flux, nothing can be grounded in certainty, 'time philosophy' as he called it, claimed he'd much rather live in ancient greece than modern new york. Tom."

This a bit confused - B S Jonson was very keen on Joyce. Wyndham Lewis - if he denigrated Stein etc didn't know what he was talking about (he embraced fascism fr some time) -
But his doesn't make sense (not that that matters in this all too postmodern world!)

" I tend to agree that most art that usually comes under the label 'postmodernist' from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, to conceptual art, John Cage, Pop Art, multimedia installations etc, leaves me pretty cold,.."

You mean "Art such as 'postmodernist'...leaves me cold"

...this is an opinion ...but as all (or a lot of) the art and writing under those labels is some of the greatest in the 20/21st centuries - if you are left cold by them - give up literature and art. Wyndham Lewis - who is mentioned a lot in "The Pound Era" by Hugh Kenner - and who I would be keen to read...still doesn't have the influence (and arguably nor the significance) of Stein or Joyce or Pound (anther anti-Semite) as was Lewis I believe)/...

My view - I find writers and artists of all kinds always interesting - by adn large I am relatively indifferent to their politics, philosophy, or mannerisms - Eliot was very right wing, a Royalist, and not keen on democracy but is a favourite writer of mine, Joyce was more or less a-political) he was an entrepreneur always looking for way either to cadge money or make fast buck in some business venture - he even tried starting a film company), Pound who is inf one of the greatest writers, was a fascist, as was Knut Hansen (and many other great writers and artists), Heidegger embraced Nazism for while but did some interesting if confused Philosophy, Shakespeare was an avid 'climber' and a good businessman (he was also probably at base nihilist and an atheist), as were Wallace Stevens and the great innovative composer Charles Ives (not that they were nihilists!), Davis of NZ is an inventive writer but also a business man, Picasso made millions out of art ...

And Derrida did well out of his philosophies etc ... but such strange and eccentric innovators are good to have around...

My feeling is that all these people (many of whom are or were crazy!) contribute to the ongoing stream of ideas and innovations - Marx summated Capitalism, Wittgenstein is useful in challenging certain ideas, Nietzsche challenged society's too rigid views, Russel and Whitehead relied on Wittgenstein to help them to get maths onto a 'logical' basis...Russell became a conscientious objector and wrote some great stuff against the US involvement and atrocities in Vietnam etc (Wittgenstein went back to Germany to fight in the First WW!) - Derrida said some poetical and political things but he was fascinated by ideas - Foucault was a homosexual who had suffered mental illness and was also actually in the Communist Party and an activist in the 1960 French Revolution and alter wrote to counter the 'bad' sides of Psychiatry etc) but then became theoretical...it is confusing - there is no correlation - people also change at different stages of their lives.

I am interested in Postmodernism - mostly I am interested in what I know of phenomenology which rides alongside PMdsm but precedes it with Husserl etc - although I have my own "take" on it - but I have my own views of the Universe independent of Marx or any other philosopher - although -sure - I have learnt from many of them directly or indirectly. Derrida and others like him. If and mostly (except perhaps some of Barthes and Sartre (his novels and stories - and The Outsider By Camus is favourite)) writings) too obscure and not always interesting to me (and much of Marx pretty dull) - what I am interested in is (often) how writers and philosophers etc write - not necessarily what the are writing about per se ... or that is one main thing hat interests me.

Actually I sometimes "like" a certain writer and philosopher one day or week or month but not like him or her so much at some other time - I believe in flux...nothing is constant for me...I keep seeing different ways of looking at things depending often on what I am reading at the time - or who I am talking to.

I also like Perec and Robbet-Grillet

Stein is the greatest writer to have ever lived.

I am fascinated by the language poets - Silliman, Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Hannah Weiner, Watten, Susan Howe and many others... but I also like May Swensen, Roethke, Berryman, WCW, Robinson Jeffers...Reading and Geoffrey Hill of England many NZ poets...and so on. many writers and artists (I like Giovanni Intras' work!) - just reading about Thomas Hirschorn...

1:36 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Side note: Maps I think you've got the wrong end of the stick re Intra.

That particular exhibition isn't representative of his oeuvre, nor does it try to be. If you're not familiar with his more well known work then you might well be leading yourself astray.

6:12 pm  
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1:55 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

I bet you say that to all the blogs.

2:16 pm  
Blogger Giovanni said...

Paul, you handsome man you.

2:21 pm  
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