Bruce Hainley

Bruce Hainley talks about his book on Sturtevant

Left: Cover of Bruce Hainley’s Under the Sign of [sic]: Sturtevant's Volte-Face (2013). Right: Sturtevant, Muybridge Plate #97. Woman Walking (detail), 1966, gelatin silver print, 10 1/4 x 12 5/8”.

Bruce Hainley’s book on the artist Sturtevant is published this month by Semiotext(e) for their Native Agents Series. In addition to being the first monographic study of the artist in English, Under the Sign of [sic]: Sturtevant’s Volte-Face surpasses the promise of formal ingenuity already established in Hainley’s previously published books of poetry and his co-authored Art—A Sex Book. On December 7, Los Angeles’s Ooga Booga will host a reception and discussion with the author at 3 PM.

FOR A LONG TIME, I thought I was writing a book on Warhol. Two things scotched that idea: Wayne Koestenbaum dropped his A-bomb, Andy Warhol, and I saw Sturtevant’s epic exhibit, “The Brutal Truth” (for which the entirety of the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt was given over to the artist’s work). Soon after, I was at dinner with a bunch of friends, and the Lady herself turned to me and inquired, “Hey, what’s up with that Warhol book?” I confessed, “Absolutely nada.” “Well, then, what are you going to do?” Without really thinking, I snapped, “I’m going write a book about you!” Little did I know where that hasty answer would lead.

Because Sturtevant’s art works the way it works, the book wouldn’t be a biography—although, certainly, there’s a delicious one to be written—or a hagiography, nor could it meaningfully probe her entire oeuvre. I also couldn’t launch things with a straightforward chronology: Sorry folks, no beginning at the beginning. There were many false starts, i.e., when Twitter launched, I was convinced that part of the book had to be written in exact, 140-character tweets; another version leaned too hard on the conceit of the eclipse. Thankfully, without a deadline, a contract, or the possibility of tenure hanging over my head, I had plenty of time to think and to try things out only to abandon them. So much of contemporary existence militates against such luxurious headspace and necessary failure. However much an initial mistakenness remains a crucial dynamic of Sturtevant’s methods, I did know it was time for someone to care enough to verify, with witnesses both for and against and a corroborating paper trail, every artistic move she made, the facticity of all the actions during her first, elusive decade of fun in the frenetic heyday of the 1960s and early ’70s. Of course, the book had to face up to the onslaught of right now as well, since Sturtevant maneuvers in two time signatures at once: the untimely and the instamatic.

Her various catalytic conversions prove that art can be (at its best?) an impetus for action—aesthetic, cerebral, insurrectionary. I wanted the writing to surf her energy waves, wiping out as infrequently as it could. With no words on the front cover, the book looks like Sturtevant’s Haring Tag, and the reader must flip it over to get the title and any other data, turn it over again to proceed. Divided into three parts and a coda, the text takes on a different form in each. What’s that great Grace Jones line, “Feeling like a woman, looking like a man”? Here, cohesiveness feels like reckoning with a single prismatic artist, but looks like discordant multiple genres. The first part, about her troublemaking in 1967, has three sections, and it opens with an in-your-face puzzle of two of its sections facing-off against each other: verso, and on every left-hand page until the section ends, a confrontation with the artist’s The Store of Claes Oldenburg; recto, an examination of her two Relâches. When those two sections conclude (clearly, but with little fanfare), the third section, on her Study for Yvonne Rainer’s “Three Seascapes,” kicks in, and the pagination becomes more regular. Genet, specifically his bracing text on Rembrandt, also from 1967, was the tutelary spirit, and I liked forcing the issue of two-different-things-at-once, a strange, syncopated forward movement and then a return to where one started—repetition and beginning again; illegibility and difference-production: sameness and homo-ness. Continuing the dance in another register, the second part delivers a Wildean dialogue going down, recently, at the Chateau Marmont, and concerning, among other things, her Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (Go-Go Dancing Platform). Part one uses no first person narration; in part two, mostly fictional personages speak, and the text operates like a script. It is only in the final, third part, dealing with the most mysterious period of the artist’s pursuits, from 1970–74, that an “I” appears to cause problems.

While the title nods, sempre, to Susan Sontag, I put matters under the sign of—in every patois—sick to grasp at as-is-ness and produce a psych. More than performing any mimetic relation to the artist’s work, I wished to terrorize how art history organizes itself, question how thinking sounds and the status quo of its forms. Hedi El Kholti at Semiotext(e) remained a fierce ally in his design of the book and in his spirit of adventure, allowing it all to be as bluntly elegant as possible while enacting many key Sturtevantian forces. Fingers crossed that the result happens to provide something like the anxious rush of a detective novel and/or of a game of hot potato played with a toy grenade.