Left: The cover for Jake Chapman's The Marriage of Reason & Squalor (2008). Right: Page views from The Marriage of Reason & Squalor.
Jake Chapman is widely known as one-half of the artistic duo Jake and Dinos Chapman. The pair came to prominence with the ascendancy of the Young British Artists movement in the 1990s, and in 2003 the pair were nominated for the Turner Prize. That same year, Jake Chapman also published his first book, Meatphysics. Here Chapman talks about his second book, a novel titled The Marriage of Reason & Squalor, which was published by Fuel Publishing in the UK on October 20.
I FELT LESS INSPIRED THAN COMPELLED to write this book. I quite like the idea of writing things badly, and the idea of picking on an already impoverished genre, the romance, seemed perfect.
It’s a novel with very bad teeth—it has some abscesses and nasty little diseases inside. It’s really about diseased thinking, about occupying the death drive rather than taking a position of critical responsibility. It’s a kind of analogue for the visual work that I make with my brother, and I guess the best way to describe it would be as a cure for insomnia, or a good book to prop up a wonky table.
I think the idea of writing a book with the intention to be unfriendly to the reader is probably in and of itself original. I like the idea of writing something that has less to do with embracing the reader as a collaborator in a process and more to do with causing them to drift off into sleep. It’s a kind of polite maliciousness in which you actually bore someone to death—but there’s still death involved.
My brother described The Marriage of Reason & Squalor as being like a feral child that’s crawled out of a hole and tried to use language. The metaphors eat themselves up—rebounding metaphors that repeat themselves. There’s one passage that goes something like, “Chlamydia Love takes to therapy like a duck to water, and the therapy’s gains roll off her like water off a duck’s back.” The metaphors begin to collapse into psychotic fractals. You embark with good faith at the beginning of a sentence, thinking it’s going to deliver you to the end, and it spirals out of control. I was interested in how you could write a story without really telling it. It’s more about how language doesn’t work, language’s molecularization, than about delivering a story.
I tried to be playful with some of the book’s features. There’s a PO box used in letters written by the character Helmut Mandragorass—and the PO box actually exists. So does the e-mail address belonging to the protagonist Chlamydia Love, which is given toward the end of the book. They’re possible wormholes. Books in my experience have been these self-reducing objects that seem to be bound by a notion of coherence, by an idea of linearity. I like the idea of doing something that does have an overall coherence to it, inasmuch as it has a story, but which is also porous; there are many lines of flight from the thing.
I’ll be manning the other end of the e-mail address and PO box. Who knows? The responses could constitute the sequel. It would probably be rare that anyone would actually read all the way through it, but it would be interesting to see whether there is any kind of feedback. Thinking in a Deleuzian sense, there is some sort of machinic interface, which is to say that the book is already being drawn into fabrication through the feedback. I do leave the book open for a sequel at the end. It’s a very ostentatious ending; the idea that this thing deserves or will ever get a sequel is absurd.
I think my drive to write the book had much more to do with digesting all of the writers that I’ve read. The book is in a sense a total of all the entities and voices that have animated me over the years. I guess if you’re reading people like Deleuze and Guattari and Freud, you’re not really trying to prime yourself to write something that’s full of sincerity and earnestness.
I like to think I have a proximity to Burroughs, to Vonnegut, to Beckett—at least inasmuch as they write from misanthropic places. Reading Burroughs becomes an act of being abused. Or with Alain Robbe-Grillet, you get this fantastic sense of never really getting anywhere. Just a description of the same thing over and over, just slightly shifting—it becomes about the reader’s entropy. I obviously like those kinds of writers. But I’ve got an edge on them because I can’t actually write.
The book took me so long to complete that any kind of spontaneity, ability, or talent is skewered by my talentlessness. I know I can’t write, but it’s nice to sit down to do this thing you can’t actually do, but you do it very unnaturally, so that the thing that you employ as a virtue—its unnaturalness—is what makes the work work. Hopefully.
Artist, curator, healer, and writer AA Bronson is the executive director of New York’s Printed Matter and the NY Art Book Fair. This year, the third annual fair, at Phillips de Pury, runs October 24–26, coinciding with the ARLIS/NY Contemporary Artists’ Books Conference, which takes place October 23–26. Here Bronson talks about artists’ books and the purview of the fair and conference.
BECAUSE THE NY ART BOOK FAIR is a nonprofit fair, our idea from the beginning was to be as inclusive as possible: We wanted to include everything from Taschen to the independent, poverty-stricken artist. We gave out a lot of free stands to people who couldn’t afford them, and charged as little as possible. This year, there are quite a number of antiquarian or vintage book sellers; there are DAP and RAM, both major art distributors; there are a number of small publishers from all over the world; there are quite a few alternative institutions that have publishing programs; smaller nonprofit spaces; and also independent artists and artist groups—people like Red 76 from Portland, for example. If we could find another category that wasn’t being represented, we’d make every effort to jam it in.
This year, there are 143 exhibitors; it was 123 last year and 70 the year before, which means it’s now double the first year. A number of things have happened simultaneously to make the field more salient. One is that book and art-book designers have been influenced a great deal by artists’ books, so we’re getting used to seeing mainstream catalogues that are quite unusual. The format of the book has become much looser over the past five to ten years. But more than that, I think there’s been a generational shift. For example, here at Printed Matter, two-thirds of the people who shop are under thirty-five. The norm at book fairs is that everyone’s over fifty—when you go to a book fair and look around, it’s all old people. When you come to the NY Art Book Fair, you see a huge population of young people. I think that bodes very well for the publishing and art worlds in general. But it also says something about young people themselves—they have a level of interest in books that nobody was quite aware of before.
New York used to be a center for art books, but over the years we’ve lost a number of great bookstores: Wittenborn, which used to be across from the Whitney; Jaap Reitman, which was a great bookstore in SoHo in its day; Hacker Art Books on Fifty-seventh Street—we don’t have any of the great bookstores of the world now. We have the shop at MoMA, where the number of titles has decreased; the shop at the Whitney, which is pretty sad; and the shop at the New Museum, which is very pretty, but it has nowhere near as many titles as it used to. We felt we needed to resituate New York on the map as a center for art books.
In Los Angeles in 2005, there was an ARLIS conference on artists’ books. We sent a person from Printed Matter, and she came back and said it’s ridiculous—you have to drive everywhere, and it’s totally inconvenient, and yet the conference was a huge success. LA isn’t exactly a center for art librarians, so we thought we should be doing that here in New York. She pulled together a group of librarians from MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum, and the New York Public Library, and we chatted about this possibility. At a certain point, we forgot about it, but in the meantime those librarians kept talking, and suddenly it reemerged, and they came back to us again and said, “OK, now we’re ready. Will you join us?” We agreed, and off it went.
The initial group of four began inviting other librarians—one from the Metropolitan, one from the CICP, etc.—to join a steering group. Each one then devised a session. It’s put together in a funny patchwork sort of way. Printed Matter’s proposal was for the keynote, which is Hans Ulrich Obrist talking with Rirkrit Tiravanija and Joseph Grigley. Somehow it’s become a coherent program; librarians are a pretty collaborative group, so it cooked well.
The explosion of the visual zine in recent years has been amazing. It’s possible to produce them cheaply, in smallish quantities, without it costing an arm and a leg—and people buy them. This year at the fair we’re doing an exhibition of queer zines. It’s the biggest exhibition component we’ve taken on in the three years of the fair, and we’ve produced a 270-page catalog to accompany it. There are over one hundred titles in the show, and the catalog is very inclusive. There’s also a special section of queer-zine exhibitors—it’s sort of the theme of this year’s fair. I think the popularity of queer zines may have something to do with Butt magazine; Butt proved it was possible to do something that situated itself midway between being obscure and being mainstream; it also proved that there was an audience that would buy something like that. It’s interesting how many there are: Kaiserin from Paris, Dik Fagazine from Warsaw, Piss Zine from Milan, Kink from Madrid, Handbook from San Francisco (one of my favorites), and then of course all the New York ones—Pinups and Pin-Up, Straight to Hell—and then individual artists' zines, like Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s Shoot. It’s become a big field.
What artists are doing today is prompting us to revise our thoughts on what’s been done in the past. For example, the output of Ed Sanders’s Fuck You press on the Lower East Side, which involved quite a number of artists (Andy Warhol did one of the covers; Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts is its most famous edition), has been totally overlooked as an artists’ publication. Because we’re used to looking at the Ed Ruschas and Bruce Naumans, there’s a lot of material that hasn’t received historical attention. Today, we’re revising the history of artist publications; what is happening right now is extremely diverse, it’s no longer a single field.
Adel Abdessemed, Practice Zero Tolerance (retournée), 2008, terra cotta, 14' 5 1/4“ x 6' 10 7/8” x 3' 11 1/4".
For nearly a decade, the Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed has produced provocative artworks in numerous media, many of which take the form of actions on the street outside his home in Paris’s seventeenth arrondissement. “Situation and Practice,” an exhibition of new and recent work, opens on October 11 at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
ONE OF THE NEW WORKS for this exhibition involves David Moss, the Berlin-based singer with whom I worked on my earlier video Trust Me . For the new piece, called Hot Blood, I asked him to sing a simple sentence of my devising: “I am a terrorist, you are, you I, am I, am I a terrorist?” I put him, singing this little tune, on the sidewalk outside my home, like a piece of red meat. Perhaps luckily, there were not so many people out that day, whereas some of my past street actions—especially the one involving a lion—drew a lot of attention. For another new piece, I have re-created, in terra cotta and at a one-to-one scale, the hulk of a burned car that was impounded after being found on the street in the banlieues of Paris in late 2005. For a third piece, a sculpture, I paid prostitutes to copy out by hand the texts of the Koran, the Bible, and the Torah. As we face social and cultural forces that are increasingly dogmatic—contemporary religion being a prime example—we, as artists, cannot play games. We have a very important responsibility, perhaps now more than ever, to speak to the pressing social and political issues of our day. Presenting an exhibition in the US at this critical juncture in the country’s history speaks to my belief in artistic responsibility.
Being an artist-in-residence here in Cambridge this autumn has been a wonderful experience. Noam Chomsky and I discussed art and politics—a transcript of the conversation will appear in the exhibition catalogue—and now I am leading students in a series of workshops. One of these will play off of an annual MIT ritual; the students will have to find a piano located somewhere on campus, destroy it, and put it back together. The last part, I think, is the key lesson for them to learn: Art today should be about building something new, not only destroying what is unjust or what you do not like. To destroy is easy, to build is quite hard.
Left: Cover of Edmund White's Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel (detail; Atlas & Co., 2008). Right: Étienne Carjat, Portrait of Arthur Rimbaud at the age of seventeen (detail), ca. 1872.
A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Edmund White is widely known for his essays and novels on gay and artistic life, as well as for his biographies of prominent writers. In 1993, he published Genet: A Biography, for which he won the National Book Critics Circle Award. White’s brief Atlas biography Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel will be published October 9.
RIMBAUD WAS a childhood hero of mine, and it was interesting to revisit him for this short biography. I found him less heroic as a person and maybe even more interesting as a writer. I think I wrote more about him as a gay figure, about his love of Paul Verlaine, than previous writers had done. I don’t think I exaggerated its importance; as far as I know, they were the first really prominent gay artist couple in history. I think it’s quite clear that Rimbaud was the top in the relationship, and I think that’s something that straight people don’t usually grasp very well. They often see the younger boy as being a sort of stand-in for a girl—maybe that comes out of the classical Greek model. But this idea of a tyrannical younger boy frightening and controlling an older married man is something that people who are gay and who’ve lived in gay life recognize as a possible variation of that situation.
There are plenty of older men, even older men who are writers, who are tyrannized by their younger hustler lovers. But what’s unusual about the Rimbaud-Verlaine and the Bosie–Oscar Wilde pairs is that all four of them were writers, and each had this peculiar relationship where the younger one was the top. (Perhaps Don Bachardy and Christopher Isherwood are kind of an exalted and kindly version of this model.)
I say in the book that Rimbaud essentially invented obscurity. I think Rimbaud’s greatest poem is “The Drunken Boat”; certainly people in his own day would have thought it was obscure, although it was not nearly as obscure as the kinds of things he was writing toward the end of his brief career, like the Illuminations. The Illuminations are as difficult as John Ashbery poems. They’re strangely utopian, though it’s a utopian vision that you wouldn’t actually ever wish to see come true. They’re very hard to follow, and you have this feeling you’ve entered into the world of the poem a little bit too late, after whatever it was that it was supposed to be about was already announced. There’s nothing comparable in English at that date, and there’s very little comparable in French until quite a bit later. When you get to figures like Valery Larbaud or Pierre Reverdy or Tristan Corbičre—those are all difficult poets, but they’re poets of the 1890s or even the beginning of the twentieth century, arriving thirty years after Rimbaud. Rimbaud really scoops everybody as far as obscurity.
I don’t think Rimbaud’s “systematic disordering of the senses” is very useful for a novelist—or at least an ordinary novelist like me. I try to write relatively straightforward, realistic fiction, and even though the subject matter might be quite bizarre or in some cases unprecedented, the method is not revolutionary. Perhaps it would be useful for somebody like André Breton writing Nadja—but usually I think a novel is a very long project that you have to keep chipping away at every day for a year or two. Whereas a poem or painting is something that you can do in a day or even an hour, and I think there oftentimes is an emphasis on formal innovation as well as thematic originality. I think poets usually do like to get drunk and get kind of crazy, and a lot of painters do, too. I think that’s gone out of fashion, though, this romantic notion of the artist.
The bad boys are very intriguing; in the case of Rimbaud, he has a fantastic, highly compressed career that is unprecedented. I can’t think of another writer who revolutionized poetry by the age of twenty and then abandoned the whole thing. Rimbaud had a very exalted notion of what poetry was and what it could do to the world. I think he really thought it had transformative, magic powers, and when it turned out that it didn’t, he gave it up. It was easy for him to give it up, because he was so deeply disappointed. When people would come to him in his later years as a gunrunner in Africa and say to him, “How do you feel about being the founder of the Symbolist school?” he would say, “It’s all hogwash.” He had no interest in it; he was embarrassed by it. He was worried that his colleagues in the trade would find out that he’d had some gay sex. You gotta love him.
I’ve recently been toying with the idea of a novel based on the lives of Goethe and Kleist. Kleist was a young poet who admired the much older Goethe, and among many other things that Kleist wrote there was a comedy—there aren’t many comedies in German—and Goethe admired it and said, “I’ll direct it and put it on here in Weimar.” Kleist was thrilled, but there was one problem: Goethe couldn’t direct, he knew nothing about it. He made a complete botch of the play, and it was a flop. So Kleist was very angry with him, and Goethe was angry that he was angry. (Anyway, Goethe didn’t really like talented people who were unlike him; he’d rather meet less talented people who were exactly like him.) So he pushed Kleist away, and Kleist committed suicide; I find it very interesting, this relationship between the older, careless mentor and the overly earnest, neurotic follower.
Anyway, I think I used to identify with Rimbaud and really admire him and want to be him. Now I think he seems like a horrible brat. I wouldn’t even want to know him now—though he looks kind of hot. But other than that, I think he must have been a real pill.