Apollinaire for the digital age

Posted on December 15, 2008


By John Holten

“If one where to compare Henri Matisse’s work to something, it would have to be an orange,” so goes the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire’s memorable description of the great modernist’s work. I’ve always found Apollinaire’s collected criticism some of the most engaging, inventive words on the early years of modern art. Applying as he did the poet’s ability of verbal contortion in the face of the groundbreaking, neoteric tendencies of the day’s visual artists who were busy destroying the old guard’s perameters and familiar forms. In his introduction to his collected writings on contemporary art from Eastern Europe, Travis Jeppesen lays down his credence: What is at stake here is language and the ways in which it is deployed. The debates over the purpose of art criticism seem to ignore the simple, basic fact that the art of art criticism is in fact a literary act.

Like the French poet working a century before, Jeppesen is a poet as well as novelist. Disorientations is full of this interesting writer’s art criticism: centred around Prague during the years 2003-2006, they are short, animate reviews of exhibitions, biennales, interviews with expatriate artists, reports from the sets of film shootings (including Bruce LaBruce and Sue de Beer) and they all share a rather rough, jargon-free engagement with their subjects.

They said Apollinaire couldn’t tell a Rubens from a Raphael – and so what? As for Jeppesen, such a worry didn’t cross my mind: I have no knowledge of the ‘margins’ the book covers. And if anything, this is one of the services Disorientations offers – to set in place an educational process of Eastern European art. So it’s a shame that a piece on the Slovenian art collective IRWIN’s book East Art Map comes so late in the collection, as it lies out the sort of distinguishing features of the region’s art (along with the challenge for outsiders to comprehend it on its own terms). But that said, don’t come here for insights into more ‘Western’ figures: a piece on Joseph Beuys from 2006 is markedly non-insightful, a piece of information journalism that reads cold.

An example of Jeppesen’s insistent, impatient critical approach is a piece on Home Gallery’s attempt to offer a representative show of ‘Contemporary Australian Art In Prague’: “There’s something quite slothful… and uninspired about constantly subjecting the art-going public to these insufficient surveys of national production.” And of course he’s right on this point. Constantly fighting against boxes and the normalising pigeon-hole practice of curators and artists, as well as critics (early on in the collection he tries to fight his corner in current art criticism discourse) Jeppesen hates anything easy or overly simplistic. Disorientations rails against the danger of labels of ‘exoticism’ that faces East European art. Jeppesen engages this question, and in a manner goes a way in producing an answer: develop a new critical language. However, I’m just not sure that Disorientations rises up to its own author’s challenge because Jeppesen is a poet, a writer of fictions free of constraint and, producing copy for numerous small publications to a deadline sees him trying on the mantle of the serious art critic. He’s at his best when he let’s his visceral, often surreal self free of the merely informative mode of writing and move into his own world where criticism is a kind of gnarled (often funny) video poetry: on Eva and Jan Svankmajer, “Eva’s manic swirl of colors forming the cunt allegory, sweeping virtues informed by prosaic maladies…Jan and his creatures, they haunt him like a melody. The monster in the machine.” This is seeing artworks through the eyes of a talented poet, a worthwhile ekphrasis that Jeppesen is right to demand more of in current art criticism.

Challenging the ‘social conditions’ of the contemporary, international art world at every turn, this book is a vital injection of interest in Eastern Europe at a time, Jeppesen points out, when it is in danger of being neutered by a commercial West, or indeed being overlooked entirely in favour of China and Asia. Admirably, like his publisher Social Disease has already done with the stuffy, inward-looking English literary scene, Jeppesen has knocked down a couple of the walls holding up the established art press.

Buy this book>>

Disorientations: Art On The Margins of the Contemporary by Travis Jeppesen
Social Disease
387 pages


John Holten lives in Berlin where he currently writes a novel, awaits an uptake on his last one, writes art reviews and literary reviews and fights against poverty (his own, not other peoples’). His work has appeared or will appear in, amongst other places, The Cadaverine Magazine, Whitehot Magazine, The Cuirt Annual and Laura Hird‘s website. Inscriptions, a chapbook of prose poems written in Berlin and Paris across 2006/2007, is published by Parking Meter Press and his homemade scotchtape website is found here.

Posted in: Reading