Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On Edward Curtis, Meiro Koizumi, and That Whole D'Agata Debacle

Today in Saigon I saw an amazing show at the San Art Gallery (Binh Tanh District: if you go, prepare to take a cab and have the driver get lost and then very very angry at you). The show was small: two videos by a Japanese artist named Meiro Koizumi, the first entitled "Human Opera XXX" and the second entitled "My Voice Would Reach You." Both were brilliant examinations of the ways we manipulate sentimentality through narrative, as well as the problematic nature of telling "the truth," whether in art or in life, a line which, much as we like to insist on it, Koizumi suggests probably doesn't exist at all.

The first video, "My Voice Would Reach You," focused on an actor who, in real life, recently lost his mother. Koizumi asked this actor to write his mother a letter, then filmed him standing on a crowded street in downtown Tokyo, calling his "mother" on a cell phone to ask if she'd like to go to a hot springs with him that weekend. There are two twists to the video. The first--outside of the fact that his mother is dead, thus the person he's calling is a total stranger--is that the initial call he makes is totally scripted. The actor speaks to a dead cell line, acting out the dialogue he has created for this call based on his letter, his unresolved feelings concerning his mother's death, his attempts to find some sort of cathartic resolution for how they never connected when he was a child. The second twist is that he then randomly cold calls numbers to invite whomever answers--be it bank teller or store department manager--to the hot springs using the exact same dialogue that he established at the beginning of the video. Regardless of what his caller says in reply, he never deviates from his initial script. In fact, he cries in the exact same places, makes the same pauses, chokes up the same number of times. He does this over the course of an entire day. What's surprising to me is that, instead of finding this numbing, I remained moved. When I'd watched the first performance of the phone call, I cried. Though I didn't continue to cry during the video, and though I knew the set-up was a fake, the emotions behind it still seemed unremittingly true. Which was why I was willing to sit through the rest of the film, knowing that the actor was playing little more than an elaborate prank on us.

Except that he wasn't. This is what I found so fascinating: the fact that the actor never gave up the script or broke character regardless of what anyone did reveal two truths could exist simultaneously: 1) the actor DID experience real emotion and 2) these emotions themselves were totally formulaic. And yet the formulaic element of the actor's grief, the frustrated attempts to achieve and maintain catharsis, were no less poignant by the end of the piece. I was more cynical about the actor's gestural attempts to grieve, but I was no less convinced by his need to do so.


Something similar was at work with "Human Opera XXX," in which a Dutch man is invited by Koizumi to share, on camera, a very sad personal story. The man arrives to find himself part of a vaguely insane stage set, full of weird toys and spinning lights and something that looks like an enormous aluminum duct attached to a wall. The man, at Koizumi's urging, proceeds to tell his sad story, but never gets further than a few sentences, because each time he reaches a crisis point (the place where the little girl he loves might suddenly die, the point at which his marriage goes horribly wrong, a terrible event caused by his alcoholism), Koizumi interrupts to give the man increasingly bizarre items to hold or to paint on his face. By the end of the man's "sad story", we see a man covered in crazed ink markings, bits of tinfoil clotted around his chin and ears, a banana stuck in his mouth and Koizumi himself standing behind a wall beside him, screaming through the aluminum duct work. The man is still gamely trying to tell his "sad story" (even with a banana stuffed in his mouth) but of course the story is now unintelligible: Koizumi has not only interrupted the man's narrative of suffering, but the man's very attempt to make a narrative out of his suffering, and he does it by forcing the man (and us) to pay attention to the (literal) bells and whistles that define his "artistic production." The brilliance of the piece is that it not only calls into question the arbitrary constraints art would put on catharsis, it reveals also how much the man himself has relied upon forms of art to express his "sad story." At the beginning of the piece, the man shows up with a poem he wants to read about his sad story. Koizumi refuses to let him read it, insisting he wants something "more in real language." But when the man starts the story again, this "real language" starts to sound just as formulaic as a sentimental poem: there's a natural progression of feeling that the man exploits and which Koizumi, sensing it, immediately disrupts. It frustrates the man (at one point, I thought he was going to hit Koizumi) and it certainly frustrates us. No one ever knows what the man's "sad story" is. But knowing's not the point. The point is that the art behind "artless" self-expression may be hard to perceive, but it's there nonetheless.


I'm thinking of these things now because, in part, of the whole crazy D'Agata mess that's appeared on blogs and in the New York Times and on NPR and Slate: the problems of writing facts versus writing art, whether nonfiction has some sort of inherent duty to represent truth first, what nonfiction's relationship is to journalism and art respectively. I haven't read The Lifespan of a Fact, but I'm fascinated by the pedagogical shitstorm it seems to have kicked off, in no small part because--when reading the reviews of Fact--I was immediately on the side of the journalists. I, too, am initially inclined to believe that certain facts are inviolable, that art should play no part in telling a story that, due to its sensitive and ultimately private nature (the suicide of a young man in D'Agata's About a Mountain), is ultimately not the author's. And yet, having said this, this is not the way that I have acted myself as an author.

For the last seven years, I've been obsessed with Edward Curtis, famed photographer of the North American Indian tribes west of the Mississippi. Those who know his work know he was the brilliant, self-taught, highly controversial photographer who wedded the aesthetic demands of Pictorialism with the rigors of the ethnographic documenter. As you can imagine, the two forces counteracted each other in surprising, sometimes illuminating ways. To get the shots he wanted, Curtis faked scenes, had his subjects dress up in native costumes they would never have worn, act out Pictorialist tableaux, etc., etc. Essentially, to tell the story that he wanted to tell about American Indians--that they were a doomed race, but also noble savages--he had to manipulate the facts he struggled mightily (over 40 years of his life!) to learn about them. He knew many of their languages, songs, customs, histories. But he was willing to accept or even promulgate certain inaccuracies in order to represent them in a way he thought would make most white Americans pay attention.


And they did pay attention. Edward Curtis' photos are so iconic that people today who don't know his name can immediately recognize several of his most famous portraits. Curtis worked between genres--between documentary and art, between ethnography and storytelling, between fiction and nonfiction. And frankly, I think it damaged his photos irreparably. They are more interesting to me because of these flaws, but they are without question flaws.

Because I was obsessed with Curtis, I started writing a long project that wedded memoir and fiction about him, and the one thing I swore I wouldn't do was, of course, just what I ended up doing: writing fictional snapshot perspectives from one of his native guides, a Crow named Alexander Upshaw who had been sent to Carlisle for many years and moved back and forth between the white and Crow worlds. I didn't want to do this for obvious reasons: 1) I'm not Crow, nor American Indian and this wasn't my story to tell and 2) I was pretty sure that I was going to end up Curtising myself by writing Upshaw's story solely to defend an argument I wanted to make about modernity, representation, mixed race families and assimilation. So I wrote a draft that didn't focus at all on Upshaw, and when I finished I discovered that, unfortunately, I'd been scooped: another writer had written on Curtis and had focused, like I had, on his long-suffering and suicidal wife Clara. It was either scrap the project entirely or save it by going back to the drawing board and finding that other element that would make the project work.

Unfortunately, that element was Upshaw. And it worked much better with him as one of the focus points. Except that there weren't a lot of facts known about him. There were more towards the end of his life, but he didn't leave a huge paper or photographic trail, and what he did leave was contradictory. I knew how many children he had, and that he went to Carlisle, and who his various employers over the years were. Those kinds of facts I had. But the facts of what he felt or knew, how he was raised or what he believed, I had to guess.



So I made up things in his fictionalization. I strung together details between the facts and letters I could unearth and what the photos of him that I could find told me.

Like I said, I knew that this was not my story to tell. I am not Crow, Upshaw has no relationship to me, what happened to him (murdered outside a bar on a reservation where he was working for native rights) is not to be taken lightly. These facts were more important, I knew, than my personal ambition to make this story publishable. So I was interested, reading the D'Agata debate, and feeling slightly enraged that he would--as the various reviews have repeatedly stated--change the name of the bar in which a certain ancient bottle of sauce was found, or misstate the number of strip clubs, or even change around some of the events surrounding the suicide itself for artistic convenience, even knowing that, when push came to shove, I did much the same thing as D'Agata or--more to the point--Curtis, which I acknowledge in the book.

Which all leads me back, oddly, to Koizumi. On the surface, they don't have much to do with each other--Curtis, Koizumi, D'Agata. But in a way, they are all arguing about the nature of facts, and all three show us that, at heart, a fact is rarely stated dispassionately. It is a fact that the actor in the Koizumi video lost his mother, as it is a fact that the Dutch man has a very sad series of events that took place in his life. Curtis, too, knew lots of facts about the people he was photographing, even as he torqued and twisted and skewed the representation of these facts into a narrative he thought would be more palatable to his audience. And D'Agata knows the facts about the events he's written about, and has chosen--like Curtis, or the Dutch man in the Koizumi video--to make them a little more aesthetically pleasing. Essentially, all three artists know that facts are often expressed as narratives: in fact, perhaps it is a singularly modern obsession we have with not only being able to determine what a fact is but to rely on "factness" at all, since for many years some of the most important facts we relied upon were likely expressed primarily within art or within genres that were artfully constructed, such as philosophy or literature or church writings or history. But what Koizumi gets particularly right is his unpacking--or dismantling--of the scaffolding that goes into expressing "the facts," dismantling the narrative behind the narrative. The artist is certainly suspect, as he or she is the one who carefully orchestrates the set-up in which sentiment and fact are supposedly "truthfully" revealed to us. But at heart, aren't all of us actors and artists as well, going through the self-constructed motions of feeling, constructing and reconstructing the same gestures until we get the response that we want?

In that sense, aren't we all a little like Edward Curtis? Or James Frey? I would never make the argument that some facts AREN'T just facts (numbers on a page, a specific date, a time, a location), and that respectful attention must be paid to them. But then how well do we actually listen to facts? Perhaps the gesture really is what we want to hear.

Perhaps this is why the actor in Koizumi's video keeps calling: ten, twenty, 200 hundred different numbers. It doesn't matter who listens. He himself doesn't even listen to the responses. His numb recital of his invitation to his dead mother continually loses and regains its power in the repetition. Watching the videos, I began to wonder whether the problem that D'Agata raises is less a problem between nonfiction and fiction but between different art media as a whole. For instance, does Koizumi as a video artist have better means at hand to show the inherent manipulation behind his work than a literary writer like D'Agata? Because part of D'Agata's final "trick" in the book (as I understand it) is to have fabricated much of the dispute between himself and his fact checker. If this is true, he could have taken the Pale Fire route and slowly revealed himself to be an unreliable narrator. Perhaps he did. But it strikes me that if he wants to keep the integrity of the argument intact--to keep the book centered on the fierce debate between the aesthetic and the factual impulse behind nonfiction writing--then he has to play it straight, which also means (in this case) playing it false. Koizumi--with his jump cuts, and careful sound editing and multiple camera angles--gets to play it both straight and false, and the brilliance behind his production is in his ability to let his viewer into the many layers of his (at times joking, at times angry) inquiry into form and expression. In this way, perhaps video can more effectively do what writing wants to, and the real problem with D'Agata's book is that it's not a film.

In the end, having written and flailed through two memoirs (or one and a half memoirs) myself, I am increasingly at sea as to what we mean by "the truth" in writing, even as I am becoming more and more desirous of finding it. I want and believe in a factual truth even as, when writing, I'm sometimes loathe or unwilling or even unable to hold myself to it. How to judge an artwork like D'Agata's, or Curtis', is hard. Without Curtis' images--flawed as they are--we would have far less of the tribes that he (sometimes inaccurately) recorded. Is the suicide in D'Agata's book somehow turned back into a person through his work? Or does he get further lost in D'Agata's inaccuracies? It's hard to say: to me, these works are processes of recovery as well as of art. Perhaps we might say, in judging them, "we should let the facts speak for themselves." But Koizumi makes it pretty clear we almost never do that.







  1. I love these elucidations--particularly between the different art forms and the difference between what the writer should do and what the writer actually does. In About A Mountain, D'agata does this whole Edvard Munch spiel in the middle of the book, announcing, somewhat like the banana in sad story-man's mouth, that the story can't be told straight.

  2. So great. Thank you for meditating on these terms.

  3. Your appreciation of these videos helps me with the medium as a whole: I'm such a fan of crafted wall art that video and even photography start at a disadvantage for me. I should "make myself" go see an immensely praised Cindy Sherman retrospective currently at MOMA even though I don't particularly "get" what she does.

    Can't wait to get _Intimate_ (ha ha). Actually, despite the stated 30 April release date, Amazon supposedly has the paper version in stock -- we'll see.