Friday, June 22, 2007

fabulism and pedantry

A few things on my cultural radar at the moment, no doubt indicating my isolation and insularity:

*I've been working my way slowly through Georges Perec's wondrous, labyrinthine, 500 page novel Life: A User's Manual. I've been at it for about two months and am only now approaching page 300 (it's been hot out and I'm lazy, sorry). The book is also difficult to summarize, but I'll give it a shot.

Life centers on a single moment in June 23rd of 1975: that immediately following the death of the wealthy, eccentric Percival Bartlebooth. The man has dedicated his life to a sort of absurd conceptual art project. After a decade of watercolor lessons, he embarks in 1935 on a world tour of 500 ports; in each he paints a scene on paper. Upon completion of each, he sends them back to Paris where they are turned into wooden jigsaw puzzles. He returns to France in 1955 with the intention of spending the rest of his life reassembling his pictures in the same order they were originally painted. Each completed puzzle-painting is to be congealed via an elaborate chemical process, removed from its wooden backing and sent back to its port of origin. There the sheet of paper is dipped in a solvent which removes all of the painted marks. (The point of all this remains unexplained.) Unfortunately, P.B. dies before completing all of his puzzles, a
failure encouraged by the puzzle-maker Gaspard Winckler's escalating gamesmanship.

The book itself jumps around the fictional Paris apartment building where Bartlebooth lived and worked, alongside many of his friends and accomplices. Perec represents the building schematically as a ten by ten grid (helpfully illustrated in the back). The moves correspond to ones possible by a knight in chess, with the idea that the the reader will not return to the same spot twice (a version of the so-called Knight's Tour). We get to visit each flat and learn numerous tales of the colorful people who have lived in them (most apartments consist of multiple units, so we get to return to them several times). Some people are relevant to the central plot, others have more or less disconnected stories of their own. There are numerous flashbacks tracing the history of the building and its occupants back into the 19th century and beyond. (Usefully, the book includes several appendixes: an index of names, an index of "stories" and detailed chronology.) The back-story is revealed only gradually.

The theme of people using absurd, hubristic projects in an attempt to give their lives meaning and structure is repeated over and over. Typically, these projects end in failure; the person becomes old and dies, their dreams unfulfilled. Needless to say, this is a melancholy novel. Art (often visual) is a recurring metaphor for life.

As an art-critic, the thing that impresses me most about Perec's writing is its cooly descriptive precision, its obsessive and sometimes almost pedantic attention to empirical detail. (In at least one case3 pages of small-type cataloging the products of a company selling do-it-yourself hardware tools—it actually is pedantic.) Many of the people, objects and settings described are mundane, but others are aimed towards fabulism. The overall effect—Perec's implied attempt to describe everything in the apartment—is both ridiculous and touching.

I'm exhausted at the moment but I'll put up some quotes later. In the meantime, you can read a 1987 NYT review by the similarly convoluted novelist Paul Auster. Perec died in 1982. He was a distinguished member of the (mostly French) Oulipoa group of mathematicians, writers, and others dedicated to the exploration of formal constraints in literature.

*Local painter-printmaker Treacy Ziegler has an impressive one-woman show at the Upstairs downtown. She is showing both monoprints and oil on panel pieces. There is a strong stylistic continuity between the two due to her use of a roller as the primary means of paint application. (She uses a brush too, sometimes with awkward results.) Her subjects and settings tend towards magical realismforeboding deserted villages and interiors, as well as a series of fanciful "icon" bird portraits. She uses areas of flat color, with a lot of dark and light contrast. The show is up through the fourteenth of July and I will be going back. She gets around; among other places, you can find her work in Toronto and Philadelphia and at the Chase Gallery in Boston.

*Speaking of Boston (or its suburbs anyway), I've also been enjoying the work of Somerville, MA electronic musician cum "sound artist" Myke Weiskopf. I received his recent Retrospective in the mail earlier this week. The disc is all over the place; as the name suggests, it is more of an archive than an album in the traditional sense
. Overall, it suggests a particularly artsy take on 80's synthpop. It is reminiscent in particular of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark's 1983 classic Dazzle Ships, a schizophrenic mix of bubblegum pop, found sound, ambient experimentation, and balladry (a sample). Most of the more accessible material was recorded under the moniker Science Park, a largely one-man "band" with three albums to its credit (I just ordered Disinformation from Amazon, where it can be found for under a dollar). You can also hear several tracks at Myke's Myspace page.

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