The artist is alive

The artist is alive

‘To stay alive – a method’ 
Documentary film by Erik Lieshout, Arno Hagers, Reinier van Brummelen
Netherlands, 2016

Some things are so outspoken that any commentary becomes superfluous. Some people too. Suicidal actions even more, they spread an intractable distress like a blast. Here, in the film ‘To stay alive – a method’, the blast expands in slow motion and through a painful serenity. Based on Houellebecq’s essay ‘To stay alive’ (Rester vivant, 1991), revolving on the idea of suffering as the source of poetry, the film is a visualization of the essay in free synthesis. The order of the text is reshuffled, some parts are repeated, the narrations of the four characters interlace with the reading done by Iggy Pop. The narrations are subjective, the reading sounds objective; this is what you should do, because ‘a dead poet does not write’: First, suffering; To articulate; Strike where it counts.

The film focuses on clinical depression plus other sufferings of the psyche, by presenting the life stories that inspired the essay. However, Houellebecq’s text applies to all poets, and artists of course. And we the spectators/readers, we must keep in mind that depression and the rest do not necessarily lead to poetry (mostly not).

Creation is not a cheerful action. As for poets, there is nothing pleasant in not belonging but still having to wear the armor of normality. This applies to those with an institution certificate as much to those who will never be officially diagnosed (with more variations possible, as those that are diagnosed but prefer to live with their condition than abolishing it together with poetry).

“Most people come to terms with life, or else they die. You are living suicides.”

“Structure is the sole means of escaping suicide.”

“Emotion abolishes the causal chain.”

“Life has become administrative and medical” says Vincent to his guest, Iggy Pop. Vincent, played by Houellebecq himself, is a sculptor who has had success, now living alone in his parental house. He is busy with an artwork hidden from the eyes of the world; his guest gets to see it, we don’t, and there is no comment made on it. This reference to Balzac’s short story ‘The Unknown Masterpiece‘ (Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu, 1831), links the essay’s text to this basic read for artists. Whether it is a sign of awe or a joke it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that Houellebecq’s essay is a passionate text that can well serve people on the verge of burning. It entails a sense of truth that saves lives. This sense of truth is also the reason why his writings are exceptional in the whole meaning of the word. Sometimes they seem incomplete, arrhythmical, shapeless as form, and unpleasant, appalling, unacceptable as point of view. They are indeed the opposite of creative writing products and of political correctness. They are outside of what is expected from an intellectual; not left, not right, and more on the defensive. Perhaps you must have a feel for poetry to appreciate these writings, a kind of hunch that there is something to it behind the words as such. I think that it’s a call to be awake as in front of a work of art; this is the real interactiveness, buttons and effects can not do the trick.

Iggy Pop reads beautifully, his voice coming from equal depth as the words he reads; and yet, with a sense of humor. When sitting together with Michel Houellebecq, they don’t try to keep up appearances of anything successful, or anything at all. To me, this is the only point I recognize the ‘feelgood’ tag of the film, otherwise be prepared to look at the other side. The film is beautiful and there is poetry recited.

P.S. An unedited translation of the essay into English can be read here: TO STAY ALIVE (translation Richard Davis), 1999

Artists in literature – the perils of success

The advice of the teacher starts with a sharp “don’t get carried away by the elegance of your line” and ends to a “don’t submit to time wasting activities like making money”; being elegant and submissive are however the demanded skills (even if sketched differently) with poverty the other side of the coin; speaking of artists. The story is been told myriads of times practically unchangeable. As I find comfort in the Russian classics, especially when times get tough, I could not but stumble upon this top short story about the perils of success. Written in the first half of the 19th century, it still keeps its urgency; this is a short excerpt:

… He seized a brush and approached his canvas. One thought possessed him wholly, one desire consumed him; he strove to depict a fallen angel. This idea was most in harmony with his frame of mind. The perspiration started out upon his face with his efforts; but, alas! his figures, attitudes, groups, thoughts, arranged themselves stiffly, disconnectedly. His hand and his imagination had been too long confined to one groove; and the fruitless effort to escape from the bonds and fetters which he had imposed upon himself, showed itself in irregularities and errors. He had despised the long, wearisome ladder to knowledge, and the first fundamental law of the future great man, hard work. He gave vent to his vexation. He ordered all his later productions to be taken out of his studio, all the fashionable, lifeless pictures, all the portraits of hussars, ladies, and councillors of state.

He shut himself up alone in his room, would order no food, and devoted himself entirely to his work. He sat toiling like a scholar. But how pitifully wretched was all which proceeded from his hand! He was stopped at every step by his ignorance of the very first principles: simple ignorance of the mechanical part of his art chilled all inspiration and formed an impassable barrier to his imagination. His brush returned involuntarily to hackneyed forms: hands folded themselves in a set attitude; heads dared not make any unusual turn; the very garments turned out commonplace, and would not drape themselves to any unaccustomed posture of the body. And he felt and saw this all himself.

“But had I really any talent?” he said at length: “did not I deceive myself?” Uttering these words, he turned to the early works which he had painted so purely, so unselfishly, in former days, in his wretched cabin yonder in lonely Vasilievsky Ostroff. He began attentively to examine them all; and all the misery of his former life came back to him. “Yes,” he cried despairingly, “I had talent: the signs and traces of it are everywhere visible–” …

Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Mysterious Portrait” can be read on line here

P.S. Nikolai Gogol was Ukrainian but wrote mainly in Russian; because of the political history of the area he was always considered a Russian writer.

"Assimilated information 1/6", acrylic on wood, 2009
“Assimilated information 1/6”, acrylic on wood, 2009, S.Kapnissi

“Patti, did art get us?”

Just kids by Patti Smith
2010, HarperCollins Publishers

A beautiful book, a must read, that is if you feel for young artists or for young people with a fire within. Patti Smith narrates her early youth as if it has just happened; so many details can only come from notebooks daily updated with devoted precision. The narration creates a picture where the trivial is evened with the mythical; that, due to the names that pass by their lives and through the pages of the book. P.Smith “wears” them in their life in Chelsey hotel just like the garments that they wore, she and Robert Mapplethorpe, in every occasion, described in provocative detail. Nevertheless this is more the “trivial” and the “provocative” of some people, young (or) artists; their youth does not differ so much from generation to generation: the fiery passion in deprivation from the basics, where basics are a safe place to live, food, warmth; the standard for average people from normal families in the west. Some of you will recognise the one sandwich and one drink shared at the diner, the one ticket to the museum where one sees the other one stays outside and waits for the description, the lack of sanitary commodities, the cold, etc.  P.Smith adds lice, peeing cups etc. to an extreme life that inevitably has a limited span.

Sometimes of course the more you are pushed down the more urge you show to come out and well. Conformity never brings out the best, but poverty neither. There is the key and the surprise of the story. In all the turbulence and doubt about art and life, they both found a way further through their life partners. For Mapplethorpe it was his rich patron/ partner who finally established him in the art scene; for Smith it was her musician husband that took her away from the whirlpool of New York and obviously gave her a good ground to develop her music and poetry. For both it was a blessing that they shared their moulding years closely together being equally blessed to part before swamping in a stereotype pattern.

Here comes a passer-by thought that the real thing is what comes after this youth; even though sometimes this “after”  does not even concern you, like when you are dead in any way.

P.S. a biography in poetical text; a rare gift

"universe", 2013, fiber art, 30x30cm
“universe”, 2013, fiber #art, 30x30cm