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Pastmodern art.

“Why Are You There?”
In conversation with two Pastmodern artists: Fred Wilson and Naomi Fisher



Pastmodernism is ‘the ability to look into the past and bring events into the present, even from different eras, all of it as if alive together…’

IF POSTMODERNISM, LIKE high modernism before it, has been eclipsed by the pandemic, as I suggest it has, then we must look at those who push forward to the past.

“Forward to the past?”  Even in Eden, through all its later iterations, through Dante and the Zohar, through Milton and Blake, we still can’t say what literally transpired at our mythopoeic genesis.  Darwin and Freud have helped, and more recently we’ve looked through ecosystems and genomes—all a looking back toward origins.  Evolutionary biology has looked through powerful microscopes to discern the origin of life in the first living cells, yet even there the complexity within a single cell overwhelms us.

Scientists now look at the archaic global virome and ask, Where did viruses come from? Why so indescribably numerous? And how so relatively intelligent or purposeful?

Now the virologists have come upon the scene of those putative first cells invaded by viruses and collaborating with them on a Daedalian detente.  Scientists now look at the archaic global virome and ask, Where did viruses come from? Why so indescribably numerous? And how so relatively intelligent or purposeful?

To begin to answer, those at the evolutionary frontiers must go beyond the living archaic specimens under the microscope and imagine the virus looking back at us, i.e. our cells.  Literally and figuratively, here we are deep in the past in order to construct an evolutionary mirror in which to see ourselves moving into the future.

But scientists aren’t alone at the forefront of pastmodernism, as I coined it in PN Review.  There are poets: Alice Notley turning past into present voices, Anne Carson or Sarah Ruden’s Gospels respeaking Greek, Linda Zisquit reincarnating psalms, Sharon Hass reframing Greek poets in Hebrew.  Artists have begun similar projects, cultural theorists sure to follow.  In this literary assay (as Kenneth Rexroth had it in his Assays: A Book of Essays), I invoke my immediate local experience of two well-known young artists (i.e. under 60!), one conceptual and the other visual, who may be considered among pastmodern pioneers.  I’m not engaged with theory or art criticism as much as the personal experience of confronting these artists in my current hometown of Miami.  Their work, as I describe encounters with it, looks into the past—not to observe it, not historically, but to see the past looking back at us.

MUSEUM INTERVENTIONIST AND Mac­Arthur grant installation artist Fred Wilson came through Miami for a talk on museum amnesia and his “memory art” project in Savannah.  The new art museum abuts a former plantation where slaves made the bricks for old Savannah’s buildings; many of those bricks are now part of the museum, which is a restoration of the old railway station.  Wilson intends to research the lost names of slaves from the plantation so he can engrave one on each of the building’s bricks.  In that way it becomes a pastmodern work.  Except when up against them, we won’t see the engraving; instead, we see the railway station as a presence brought newly alive—now, along with its builders.  The past is brought into our present alive, as if looking out at us from the station.  We are waiting there, ready to be seen waiting.

Later, my wife, Rhonda, asked Fred—who noted that several of his conceptual projects in museum self-awareness are in Europe—if he’s made any Jewish memory connections.  “No,” said Fred, “I’d have liked to, I made memory works in Polish museums, but they were interested in mainly their history of being surrounded by enemy countries.  Nothing internal.  I’d have liked to visit Auschwitz but nobody suggested it’d be useful to me.”

“If the camps are like Jewish museums in Poland,” I asked, “couldn’t the exhibits there be considered horrific conceptual art critiques of memory—huge piles of gassed persons’ shoes and hair, for instance, and even a mound of eyeglasses torn from their faces?”

My wife agreed. “We’ve hardly begun to know how to think about these exhibits.” 

But Fred stopped us by asking, “Has anyone thought of it as art?” 

Rhonda and I were too uncertain of ourselves to launch into a definition of our embryonic conceptual thinking at that time about pastmodernism, but we sense the human remnant eyeglasses are as if looking back at us, brought alive as a presence undeterred by time.  The mound witnesses us; it is pastmodern.  And, it is pastmodernist accidental art, asking for the acknowledgement of an impossibly lost collaboration of “artists,” starting with the satanic gas chamber attendants, on up to the current Auschwitz museum designers.

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click ‘full screen’ option. ‘Esc’ returns you here.

Rhonda to Fred: “You yourself focus on how to think about such things, especially the absence they present; the absence, for instance, of the African slave laborers’ names from the historical memory of Savannah.” 

Fred thought a bit, then reiterated that he’d need to be invited and to be allowed access to everyone involved in operating Auschwitz like a museum: 

I’d have to learn everything about it in order to find what’s missing.  Obviously the shoes and eyeglasses refer to the missing bodies, but they’re just reminders.  I don’t think most people viewing those exhibits would ask themselves what they need to think about.  They’re reminders, period, of the horror show; no thinking necessary.  It would be my job as an artist to make them something more, to present them in an art context where you have to ask, ‘What do I have to think about here that hasn’t been thought?’  It’s overwhelming that the dead are missing.”

WE WERE STANDING in Miami’s contemporary art museum courtyard, a few paces from where patrons were swinging in arty baskets, made for adults.  But I couldn’t imagine we’d even have this conversation if we were sitting; it required sensing you were an artifact yourself, in weight-bearing shoes.  “What about us who are alive and how we think about what we see, in culture and history?  Shouldn’t that be a reason to visit Auschwitz as much as the Louvre?” asked Rhonda. 

I backed her up with my old art critic bona fides, having earlier offered them to Fred.  “As in Savannah, your job is to make us aware of how we’re looking at it, how the historical and cultural suppositions of the Polish conservators of Auschwitz fail to place themselves there.  In your terms, they’re curators, but I’d add that they didn’t or couldn’t know how to think about their history as it was happening—and possibly the same for contemporary viewers.  You would problematize their experience and deepen the mourning of death slavery, just as you do for American slavery.”  Fred held up his hand as if to stop a huffing train.

“If it happens, I didn’t intend it.  I come to a site as a tabula rasa.  My projects can take years.  Being an artist at Auschwitz could take centuries.  Just answering the first questions could make me an old man: ‘Where would I live, who would support me, how much cooperation would I get?’  And it’d be a hell of a project, to think what’s missing in exhibiting hell itself, if there be exhibits in hell.” 

Sensing some frustration in Fred, and as if to ameliorate it by putting an end to the conversation, Rhonda repeats and answers an earlier question.  “‘What can you think about in front of a mound of eyeglasses outside a gas chamber?’  You can think, How am I going to live with that image for the rest of my life, to keep it vivid so that it’s still there on my very last day—and on the last day of the human species?”  That is a pastmodern question; it makes us aware of our species temporality.

I WAS CORRESPONDING some time ago with Miami-based artist Naomi Fisher about a Martha Graham Dance Company restoration on video we’d recently watched and that she had written about.  I wanted to consider the comparative value of seeing the restoration live at the time, a few years ago, versus video.  But I thought instead of another video, this one of a 1940s filming of an original Graham Company performance, where there was no chance either of us, as yet unborn, could have attended it live.  This video of a ‘40s film makes the event historical in a way different from a contemporary restoration; there was less room for creative reinterpretation, of course, but on the other hand, it’s more up to us, the video audience, to imagine ourselves in a pastmodern way into the context of a ’40s audience.

Because the dance makes one so bodily aware, I began imagining what kind of clothes I would have worn to the original performance (suit instead of jeans, oxfords instead of sandals, neat haircut instead of distressed layered styling, etc.) and what brand of cigarettes I’d have no doubt smoked during intermission.  I said to Naomi, “You yourself, in your written piece, were sent back a few years to Wenders’ 2011 film of the Pina Bausch Company, which I saw in a Coral Gables arthouse at the time, while you were just watching a video of the film three years later.  It’s only three years difference, yet not only could I not have watched the film on my home devices then, viewers weren’t yet meant to see Pina as historical—that is, as a wave of avant-garde that has already passed.  Instead, her company was presented as if it was of the 21st century’s avant-gardeist moment”.  I chafed at that, having seen her perform live in NYC 25 years earlier; now, her work was no more or less historical than Martha Graham’s, and ditto for Wim Wenders.

“In your written piece you’ve absorbed the experience,” I continued, “so that you can view Bausch and Graham side-by-side as historical.  My colleagues and I have coined the term ‘pastmodern’ to describe the ability to look into the past and bring events into the present, even from different eras, all of it as if alive together.  It would be like looking through a modern device—in this case, a microscope—at a drop of ocean water containing multiple microbe species that had evolved in different eras.

Sitting with an audience reminds you of a cultural moment through which you are passing, but what does sitting in an empty car offer?  I would now answer: a pastmodern moment…

“You can’t help contextualizing Bausch’s advice to a dancer to ‘get crazier,’ which might have still seemed au courant in 2011 (although the word of choice then was ‘weird’) but is now eclipsed by a current cultural attitude of ‘nothing seems shocking’.  We might as well literally live in front of a screen—and now the pandemic is testing that out for us.  Yet you still argue for live performance, of ‘history colliding with the present, bodies ever aging, ever changing.’  I’m charmed to recall how my body has aged between having sat in an audience just a few years ago, even if a movie audience, and now, when I open Youtube on the iPhone to look back on that same performance, while I sit in my car.  Sitting with an audience reminds you of a cultural moment through which you are passing, but what does sitting in an empty car offer?  I would now answer: a pastmodern moment, the border between past and present erased without its becoming fictionalized in a film or conventional story.

“To strengthen that distinction, I’m attaching some pics, including the ‘Field Bridge Map’ of our seminar with literary writers in the Everglades.  Could there be anything more pathetic than watching a PBS Everglades doc instead of wading out to a dry season alligator hole in Everglades National Park?  Not the danger (there is none, with a Park Ranger guide) but the layered liquids of sweat, humidity, wetlands water, and clouds so close you could almost touch them, as you watch a brood of baby alligators swim out from mama to eyeball you.  You are being looked at, not likely through a screen on a device (there’s Skype, but no curious alligators on the other end, at home in their natural environment).”

Because of these necessary distinctions put behind us, I’m suddenly freed of layers of artifice to look again—in the mind’s eye, as it were—at the alligators looking at me.  Contrary to seeing the individual me, they are looking at a species, Homo sapiens, as I at Alligator olseni, and we can now call this vision of species consciousness, pastmodern.  Each of us, alligator and human, beyond sensing the past, are facing the past in front of us.

Both Naomi Fisher and I were in Miami at the time.  Although we could chat on a device at any time, there’d be no necessity then for Miami, since we are merely holding it in mind, imagining it.  Yet in a pastmodern work, we’re historical in the present moment as species, so that Miami—the living species that comprise it—is an ecosystem.  In that sense, it is looking back at us, creatures of a species surrounded by our quiet and noisy creations, as if in a species playpen.

If we look at a couple of Naomi Fisher’s artworks that we can call pastmodern—one a painting, the other a photo drama—we may view them looking at us, rather than in modernist or postmodernist terms, us looking at them.  In the painting of tropical leaves, we see not so much an impression of leaves as a presence.  Although the color and outline are somewhat distinct our vision is clouded, but not for specific effect.  A living plant is hidden behind the clouding, a species, and its leaves in outline and color represent it.  Unlike a modernist work, the affect of its artist that is in the hand and surface texture on paper remains clouded.

We are prefigured presences, just as are the alien intelligent species we humans might encounter in the distant future.

We’re not seeing through or onto the surface: we are resisted.  By what?  By the plant, a species we know doesn’t need us and lived long before us—as inviolate in its existence as bigger species than ours, like trees.  True, we move around, but they too spread their species, and they are necessarily aware of the smaller ones that live on, in, and by them.  If we can see them in their resistance, as they sense us, we can better comprehend our own resistance to losing our foothold.  We know that as we let go of our conventional expectations and experience the poignance of what lies beneath the paint, we lift the veil of our seeing: Fisher’s strange leaves are that veil.  And the “us” sensed by their plant are not Homo sapiens primates.  The plant evolved in a tropical world that precedes us; rather, we are prefigured presences, just as are the alien intelligent species we humans might encounter in the distant future.

Another pastmodern work by Fisher is a faux collagist photo drama, the actors in an unidentified scene.  Two contemporary women (Martha Graham dancers?) dressed unfashionably as muses, perhaps, seem not out of place in a living Everglades mangrove.  The pastels of their attire are backlighted by the green leaves of younger mangroves—man is a perhaps not unintended contrast here.  The powerful roots that suck up soil and create new land, adding shelves over eons of time, have phallic connotations while holding the more civilized female protagonists—yet it’s a seeming, for the contrast between civilization (and its art) and natural world is subverted in the larger picture of evolution, in which plant and human animal are equal witnesses to life willy-nilly expanding.

Where will it all go?  Fisher has conflated drama stretching back to the Greeks with nature stretching back to the Late Cretaceous, so we may already sense how outmoded her pictorial medium here will be in a century or two, if not tomorrow (perhaps by A.I.?).  Meanwhile, the mangrove biome, which supports millions of species from microbe to man (though in Florida, men couldn’t wait to destroy them in favor of creating Miami Beach, Palm Beach, etc.) while barely hanging on, also supports Naomi Fisher’s art.  Her two lady flowers are reduced to an ecosystem looking back at us: we are being witnessed by it, which is what makes it pastmodern.  What does it see?  Each of its viewers, including you and I, in mental deshabille—as if our present, post-pandemic civilization has been left undressed by a more clever species of virus.

Meanwhile, Fisher’s watercolor and ink of tropical leaves was executed a few years ago.  If it seems a bit out of sync with her usual, more sexualized works, it still fits into her subtropical Miami bio.  Her Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden botanist father, Dr. Jack Fisher, might have been more knowledgable about the virus-cellular creative struggle at the origin of earthly life, but Naomi Fisher still intuits it in her deconstructions of sex into its ecosystem origins.  A step beyond postmodern deconstruction, however, Fisher’s work looks back at us and asks, in its pastmodern mode, “Why are you there?”

DAVID ROSENBERG is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN America translation of the year prize, a Hopwood special award in poetry, and was most recently a visiting professor at Princeton.  His A Life in a Poem and A Literary Bible (from The Book of J to Ecclesiastes) encompass recent decades of what he calls pastmodern writing.  His memorial essay comparing Harold Bloom to Marcel Duchamp appeared in PN Review (252).

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