Believe It or Not

Sara Marcus on Gregg Bordowitz’s Testing Some Beliefs

Left: Writer Gregg Bordowitz. Right: Writer Lynne Tillman. (All photos: John Arthur Peetz)

“I’M HERE TO PRESENT some of my beliefs,” Gregg Bordowitz said as he began his performance-talk Testing Some Beliefs at Murray Guy gallery last Thursday evening. “Some of these beliefs will be familiar to you, since they are common beliefs, and one of the things I’m testing is whether we actually still share them.”

This is more or less what he said. He was speaking extemporaneously, from the barest outline, and his delivery was gentle and slow; but even so, the string of propositions passed by very quickly.

Two months earlier, at a late-night reading at the Poetry Project in New York, I had seen Bordowitz read from his recent book Volition, which consists entirely of questions. Strikingly, the parade of interrogatives in their unremitting doubt had conjured an unmoored but unmistakable sensation of faith, much like the ghostly dark rectangle that appears after we look away from a white movie screen. So it felt fitting to hear him now presenting beliefs, and to see how, conversely, the credo format lent itself so naturally to doubt. Indeed, many of his statements of belief—we can make something (in a gallery context) that exceeds the terms of the profit motive, there’s a moral basis for art, the highest form of culture is critique, art and freedom are necessarily related (“and by necessarily I mean essentially,” he added, just in case he hadn’t been provocative enough)—seemed to be begging for rebuttal, or at least argument.

I mentioned this to him after the Murray Guy lecture, as the gallery was emptying onto the sidewalk. “Absolutely!” he said. “To declare belief is to mobilize doubt. And I saw doubt on people’s faces when I was talking—like when I said that objects contain emotions. I’ll probably talk about that with others later. But maybe that’s just my paranoia.”

Left: Artists Kristine Woods, Matt Keegan, and Fia Backström. Right: Murray Guy director Jacob King.

It was about ninety-nine degrees in the space during his presentation, with only a small fan in the adjacent gallery office meekly nudging a bit of air around. Perhaps two dozen people, including writer Lynne Tillman, art historians Douglas Crimp and Rosalyn Deutsche, and artists Kristine Woods and Moyra Davey, had nabbed chairs. Thirty or forty more—poet-critic Corrine Fitzpatrick and artists A. K. Burns and Katherine Hubbard among them—sat crammed on the floor; if one fidgeted enough one could keep finding new, still-cool spots of floor to press one’s legs against.

“If we’re looking at a sad painting,” Bordowitz was saying, “where is the sadness located? Is it located in the painting, in the painter, or in the viewer? I believe the emotion exists in all of these places. And I believe that the sadness is a material component of the painting. Some people in this room initiated the critique of Abstract Expressionism. Many of us inherited it. The critique is that the mark is not an authentic expression of an emotion in the maker but merely a sign of an emotion. I believe the mark is a transcription of a sensation that was taking place for the maker.”

A copper sculpture by Leonor Antunes, suspended from the ceiling, swayed slightly toward the head of a seated woman. Across a small aisle from her sat Yvonne Rainer, listening with intent, her head in a subtle and continuous nod.

Bordowitz discussed a moment in Rainer’s 1980 film Journeys from Berlin/1971 in which she addresses the camera as if it is her mother. “It’s a raw eruption of emotion in an otherwise carefully scripted and choreographed film,” he said, his blue and white checked shirt increasingly mottled with sweat. “And it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to believe Yvonne’s tears,” he went on, connecting this to the importance of what he called radical skepticism—another way of saying doubt, really.

“I still believe that art can change the world.” A murmur of interest arose from the assembled. “I don’t know why I believe this. There is absolutely no factual basis for this belief!” A few giggles in the room. “I have been involved in a lot of activist art, and at one point I believed that art could change government policy. However, we cannot draw a direct line from one work of art to any specific policy changes. . . . But I believe that art is capable of altering proportions, altering attachments, and changing the way we see the world.”

There’s what we see, and then there’s what we make of it; and what is belief, anyway, if not the selective importance we assign to aspects of a complex reality? Bordowitz ended with an anecdote: “Yesterday I decided I was going to go to the beach. I checked the weather online, and there was a symbol containing all the possibilities—a storm cloud with a lightning bolt and rain coming out of it, and a sun peeking out from the top. It was the Everything sign. I said to myself, ‘It’s gonna rain!’ I didn’t go to the beach. That’s it.”