I must admit that before this spring, if you had asked me if I liked conceptual art, my answer would have been an unequivocal no. Signing a urinal, calling it “Fountain” and selling it for lots and lots of money seems to me to smack more of douchebaggery than of genuine creative passion. Oh I know conceptual art is about process, and process can be interesting. I know it’s often meant to be intellectual, not emotive, and the intellectual can be interesting.
But a bunch of scenesters making whatever crap it comes into their heads to make/write, giving it some smart or artsy-sounding title, claiming it’s about “the suffering of the existential spirit in a post-apocalyptic Nietzsche world” or some such B.S. and then labelling it “conceptual” as a way to weasel out and seem clever when someone points out that it’s just a huge piece of crap that took neither talent nor brains to create is NOT the kind of culture I tend to enjoy.
I’m not saying that I need the art I engage with to be accessible. I don’t. But I need to be able to see intention on the part of the creator, a real question or form being tackled. If the artist hasn’t invested time, talent, or brains in a piece of work, as an audience member (or reader), I don’t feel the need to invest even an iota of my time and my brainpower trying to respond to something that was never a sincere question in the first place. To those that smile smugly and say I just don’t “understand” their work, let me say that I can usually tell the difference between something that has energy and genuine engagement invested in it (even if it’s not my taste), and something that’s just a pile of trash thrown together. Let me also suggest that you stop being an asshole and make an actual effort next time.
Luckily for me, I have been exposed to two pieces of conceptual poetry this semester that have really knocked my socks off and shown me that the conceptual can be effortful. The first was Inger Christensen’s alphabet, a complicated alphabet poem that grows according to the Fibonacci sequence. The second is Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, and if you ever want to read a really intentioned, committed, and effortful piece of conceptual literature with a concept that’ll blow your hair back, this is the book for you.
To summarize the awesomeness:
Unless they’ve studied history or politics, people in my generation may not know much about Kurt Waldheim, former Secretary-General of the UN (1972-1981). I certainly didn’t before this semester. To bring you up to speed, Waldheim was Secretary-General when the Voyager spacecrafts were launched into deep space in 1977. It is his voice which speaks for humanity on the Voyager Golden Record, a copy of which is aboard both spacecrafts.
All of this would be well and good, (you know, the UN Secretary-General representing the planet, etc.) if it weren’t for the slightly unsettling fact that Waldheim has been accused of being a Nazi war criminal and though he apparently “didn’t know” about the routine execution of civilian prisoners close to where he was stationed, and “didn’t know” about the rounding up of Jews to be sent to Auschwitz, it does make one uncomfortable to think of his voice as being representative of the entire human race.
This “disappearance” from memory of major and obvious wrongs has since been called “Waldheim’s disease”, in reference to Kurt Waldheim’s convenient ability to not remember or know anything about the horrible atrocities which surrounded him during his time as an SS officer.
What does Kurt Waldheim and “Waldheim’s Disease” have to do with conceptual art and Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, you ask? Well, Waldheim wrote an English-language memoir called In the Eye of the Storm and when Reddy sat down to write his political book-poem Voyager in response to “Waldheim’s Disease” he did so not by writing words from his head but by taking a chapter of Waldheim’s memoir and then crossing out most of it, leaving the words that comprise Voyager behind. Reddy did not use any words that were not in this chapter, and did not change the order that the words appeared in the book (he actually did this three times to the same chapter, making the three “Books” that comprise the poem).
This is what blows my hair back: Reddy wrote an entire book in response to a man’s erasure of history by erasing that man’s memoir. Reddy’s concept is his message. Reddy’s voice is within the voice of his subject (it doesn’t get much more “engaged” than that). He doesn’t tell us how erasure and disappearance changes that which is revealed. He shows us. Is your mind blown yet? Mine is.
The best part is that Reddy doesn’t rest on the laurels of his amazing process (which can be viewed at tiny.cc/voyagermethod). The incredibly intelligent and disciplined commitment to his concept aside, Voyager is just a damn good poem. In Book Three, a hell-dwelling Minister keeps a zoo of political leaders, harpoons one, and eats the man’s skin raw, “which he insisted/ was the best way/ to eat a respected/ former Congressman.” Keep in mind that all of these words do exist, in this order, in Waldheim’s memoir, and it is only the erasure of words by Reddy that leaves these lines behind. KA-BLAM.
THIS is a concept I can get behind. This is art whose point is its concept (a very clever one, I might add) but because the work was sincerely tackled by the artist, who took the time to truly empathize with his subject (so much so that the poem blurs the lines between the poet as a separate voice commenting on Waldheim and Waldheim as a voice of the poet himself), the book becomes so much more than concept. This book is not even a condemnation of a former Nazi officer. It is a thorough and passionate engagement with a political figure and with what is shown and hidden in history.
Like a lot of conceptual art, Voyager will make you feel small. But you will not feel small in the face of inaccessibility and a sense of douchebaggery. You will feel small in the face of an overwhelming feat of creation and literature. This is the kind of small you want to feel when you experience any art, conceptual or otherwise.
Read it. Engage. Blow your mind.