Saturday, November 17, 2007

rise and fall

This past Thursday evening, I attended the Cornell screening of a rough cut of a documentary film by Long Islander Jake Gorst. It is entitled The Rise and Fall of Books and is being planned for PBS. (See Wylie Schwartz's piece in this week's Times.) Its title is somewhat misleading, since the main subject is really Cornell professor Buzz Spectorthe man and artistalong with his recent book installation project, the "Big Red C."

I prefer to think of the "C" as an abstract, monumental arc. (C for Cornell? Or for "community," as someone suggested at the screening? This seems like a contrived jingoism and besides, the piece didn't even feel that much letter-like on-site). The piece was made up of over 800 books, all of them supposedly the work of Cornell humanists
professors, students, or alumni. Shapes and subjects ranged from children's books and coffee-table science books to classics (with new introductions) and ponderous-looking theoretical texts (reference). The shape was like a curved staircase: almost touching the floor on one end, the height of a child on the other.

Spector and a group of students constructed the form in a Cornell-owned building in Chelsea during the second week of January this year. The piece was rebuilt on-campus (using the same bo
oks) for an April exhibition. I saw it then at the Kroch Library and I liked it, despite my unease with some its symbolic aspects. (Disclosure: Buzz has been very friendly to me, which is impressive given our relative statures.)

The film was indeed rough, full of awkwardness that could be resolved by better pacing and arrangement. It centers around footage Gorst had shot with the intention of merely documenting the piece and its initial construction in NYC. But Gorst soon realized that he had the makings of a feature length film and so he went for it. The movie also features Buzz interviewed in his office (at Cornell, I believe) talking about some of his past work and how it related to his biography. These segments could be fleshed out and better integrated. Indeed, Gorst told the seated audience that he plans to do another interview.

Buzz as long worked with books, "both as subject and as object." As well as piling books and photographing them, he has worked extensively in altered books. One piece shown in the film was a book from which pages had been carefully torn
nearly the whole first page was missing, with more and more of the page present as one goes through the book. It seems clear to me at least that this is a man as in love with his medium as any painter.

He spoke movingly of his works relation to his biography (perhaps working against his stereotype has a cold, cerebral artist). He spoke of his mother's disapproval of him making art out of damaged books and how she eventually came around after recalling a childhood incident in which he sat by the waterside arranging stones to trace the lines made by the receding waves. He and she both saw an intimate connection between this and his mature artistic expression.

Although not quite justifying the title, he argues for the continuing value of the printed word in an increasingly digital world. He explains that some forms of printed literature will disappear, for example the phone book. But others, such as novels and books of poetry will prevail. The case is made largely based on a emotional appeal to appreciation for the mate
rial and tactile aspects of reading. There were, however, some suggestions that younger generations might not be as appreciative. A longtime friend of Buzz's (whose name I forget, and who is identified vaguely as a "writer") emphasizes the old-fogginess of this perspective. A child at the opening for the C carries what looks like a hand-held video game.

Buzz is also enchanted by analog photography. He owns an impressive large-format Polaroid camera, which he uses to photograph his installations. In Rise, he compares the materiality of the resulting prints to painting. These he considers art (you would to, if you saw them in the flesh) as opposed to the numerous digital shots, which are mere documentation.

The main focus of Rise however, was Spector and his students in downtown Manhattan. They drive around in a van, unpack boxes, sort and arrange books. There is a time lapse sequence in which the sculpture is put together in a minute or two. There are brief interviews with a handful of students, some of them awkward or annoying, others endearing. Some bits seemed to drag on too long or felt out of place, but again, this is a matter of arrangement. The basic material is strong.

The film features a rocking soundtrack by dB's, which effectively conveys the feeling of being young (or young at heart, to use the cliche) in the big city. Some of the songs were newly written for the project. As Buzz explained after the screening, he had designed early album art for their predecessor group, the Sneakers back in the 70's. Their involvement in the documentary was a lovely coincidence. Unfortunately, the music was less suited for some of the more reflective moments.

As I mentioned in the discussion following the screening, my main difficulty was the exclusion of Cornell University as subject. The sense given by the film was Buzz playing hooky with his students in the big city, which is all well and good as far as it goes. It might come off as square or boring to mention the institutional connection. But it does seem awfully willful to ignore the facts: the project was planned by a Cornell prof (formally the director of the art department, now on leave), executed by Cornell students for credit, built out of Cornell books, and presumably funded by university funds. We see an alumni studded reception at the end of the film. Ostensibly, the piece represents the unity of humanities scholarship at Cornell (I'm not sure that I buy this either though). I can understand how personal artistic goals and connection with students are more interesting and important than all of this. Certainly, non-Cornellians like me and Gorst are most likely to latch on to such aspects. But still, it does seem willful. I spoke with Buzz a bit after the event and he did seem receptive to my comments.

UPDATE (11/19/07): Buzz tells me that he in fact rents the camera (of which only around 15 exist) from the Polaroid 20X24 Studio in New York. Apologies. Also, the "writer" mentioned above is Reagan Upshaw, a New York poet and art dealer.

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Blogger D. said...

Nice piece on the piece and the piece about it. I was at the screening and agree on some of the needed fixes.

BTW would you send me your e-mail to talk some more about local art?


5:43 PM  
Blogger arthur said...

Are there any fixes you don't agree on?

6:36 PM  

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