Lynne Tillman


I’m told travel broadens, and I once read that the center will not hold. I don’t know what the center is now, or how it functions in our new world, except centrifugally, or if it’s gone, what its loss means for the future. I’m not able to conceive the future. Or how travel broadens a limited character. I’ve come from a 20th century center, New York City, as much hated as loved, to Seattle and Portland, to look at art and meet people. Now I’m traveling as a critic, it’s a peripatetic position.

I live in a number of cultures. I write fiction, therefore I make art and participate in culture. I have an idea of what art does — contend with and contest so-called reality, allow for other realities that include the imagination and the unconscious, try impossible or improbable things, court failure, fail, succeed, physicalize and abstract ideas, and respond to itself, the way science does to its own history of experiment, of trial and error.

Ordinarily I accept art’s usual definition: if it’s in a gallery or museum, it’s art. If it calls itself art, it is. Art isn’t quantifiable, though it often has a price; art isn’t really defined by a consensus on quality — take Warhol’s still-controversial place — though it has qualifications and exists within parameters and institutions. But curiously, and as part of its own definition, art seeks to expand and change definitions, so though historically it stands for stability and value, it also shakes up these notions. That’s a significant aspect of what makes it art, so there’s a tension. Say, of being versus becoming.

Standards are always a problem. They lie somewhere near the center, which isn’t really locatable these days, and if it exists, does so as a multiple. I have my own trajectory or narrative, and the truism is that each of us is at the center of our lives, the star in our own movie. On a Friday night, I arrive in Seattle and attend the opening of “From Baha to Vancouver.” People are dressed up and down, the sockeye salmon is a revelation, and the central staircase daunting.

The exhibition’s mission is to represent the diversity of West Coast work, from Mexico to Vancouver, nicely expanding the concept “West Coast” — and responds, I think, to ideas about a center. Because it also explores the concept of the border, how it functions and what it divides, the divisions are both longitudinal and latitudinal. Its five curators have different approaches and have merged them, and the consequent range of its 33 artists’ work makes arriving at a through- line daunting. But, as I walk around, it’s on my mind: what holds it together: the curatorial eye, the work, or the active viewer looking for meaning and connection, constantly wanting? Wanting that — or wanting what, exactly?

Like other openings, this one was momentarily a center, with a kind of joy or at least excitement to it. People like to celebrate with each other, to pay tribute to others and themselves. Openings are the happy version of memorials, and both rituals I accept, but increasingly find difficult to attend, since it’s a matter of maintaining enthusiasm for the rite itself, independent of whom it honors in death or life.

Some of the artists’ work I’d seen before, it’s familiar, and I recognize their style, or their minds, but much of the work is new to me. Forever arresting is an artist’s reconceiving or rejigging the nominally ordinary world, renewing it. Like sculpture based on Native American design constructed from Nike sneakers. Or a single, horizontal photograph that transforms one city street into a novel. Or an irregularly metered lip- synching video, or videos of young women who’ve written their own songs shot singing them in locales they’ve selected. Is that generational or West Coast? Is this an interesting question? I don’t think so.

Actually, I’m still wondering why and how I recognize anything. Is it the artist’s insistence? Is that style? Sometimes I expect not to recognize friends I haven’t seen in a while, maybe desiring an enormous difference in them or in my world. But as much as people change, if they do, they mostly remain stable. I don’t know what entirely accounts for that stability, either. A shape, an attitude, their persistence to be. But if every time I saw a friend he or she was markedly altered, I might whirl internally.

There are some people who look a little different each time I see them. It may be in my eye or in their presentation of self. I don’t know. It’s simpler to look for and expect change in art, which is one reason it might exist. It’s what art supplies. There’s an emphasis on novelty. Artists want the new, and writers say they do, but literature is hidebound with tradition. It’s a grand tradition in art to reject tradition.

A now-venerable tradition in art is the exhibition. Maybe the first use of “exhibition,” in its contemporary sense, was in 1761, when of course it was Samuel Johnson, in Boswell, who wrote in a letter: “The artists have instituted a yearly exhibition of pictures and statues…. This year was the second exhibition.” Early meanings of “to exhibit” were “to offer, furnish, administer.” Exhibition meant pensions for scholars, for their maintenance and support, since the word “exhibition” came from the Latin words “exhibitio et tegumentum” — food and raiment.

Now, there are the invitational, the annual, the biennial, the retrospective, the solo gallery show, the group show, the artist chooses artist show, and so on. In France, openings are called vernissages, because, once upon a time, the day before the paintings were shown, they were varnished. Anthropologically, socially, economically, openings and exhibitions have a place in the subculture of the art world. Many artists can’t stand their own and attend them warily, as if going for a root canal. Some artists feel that a retrospective is the kiss of death. An artist’s dinner can be painful for the artist who exhibits but is not exhibitionistic. But those who don’t have openings or dinners in their honor suffer another pain, that of exclusion, neglect, or anonymity.

Core Sample emerged as an explosive, constructive response to exclusion — few Portland artists had been selected for “From Baha to Vancouver.” Few Portland artists’ work was actually seen by its curators. To correct this, some 150 Portland artists and curators combined to show their art and, in three months, created more than 30 exhibition spaces. They found disused or never-used buildings and rooms, renovated them, and turned them into galleries and exhibition halls. This could become Portland legend: how ingenious, determined, talented people — a neologistic or portmanteau kind of community — pulled it off, working together and constructing an exceptionally tight, well-run, and attractive set of shows. It was a unique collective event, I’d never seen it done before or even heard of its being accomplished on this scale. And it was temporary. Up for a week. You might say everything is temporary, and it is — the word “temporary” is the biggest part of the word “contemporary.”

Far from London, Cologne, New York, Tokyo, and LA, the art displayed in Portland was in dialogue with and reminiscent of what I was accustomed to seeing in those cities and elsewhere. What varied most, when it did, was subject matter. Some of the work made reference to hunting and to Native American themes, less an East Coast — which I discovered means European to some on the West Coast — phenomenon or interest. But all of the works’ formal concerns and styles were part of a now-global language of contemporary art. There was a lot of video, photography, there was performance, installation art, book art, film, more and less traditional painting, and sculpture. This was no outsider art or amateur artist situation — all of the artists were schooled, either sophisticated autodidacts or art-schooled. A common visual language was available.

So I wonder: Is the unlocatable center virtual, and virtually residing in “language”? Is art an international language all can learn and speak? Are there no boundaries? If you talk the talk, walk the walk, are you already in the center? Does physical place mean anything? Or is “location, location, location” still the substance of the matter, the big joke?

In Portland, I’m taken by bus from one venue to another, along with about 30 other so-called art people. The sheer amount of work everywhere overwhelms me. A concatenation of energy and thought reverbed and vibrated inside me. On the bus, I am overtaken by terrible cramps, maybe motion sickness again, or art sickness, critic sickness. There are many, many people making art; some of it is great, bad, OK, better, worse, in my opinion. I distrust opinions yet form them. I find myself drawn to strips of 16mm film hanging like a lace curtain of light, to a video of various people volunteering to take off their shoes, to refrigerators as sculpture, to a chandelier-sculpture, to drawings with and of words, to a collage wall piece that is like an enigmatic, directional diary. I am turned on and off like a light, sometimes confused, excited, tired, titillated. My job is not to make sense, I decide, but to ask questions and to speculate.

After the day is over and I’m flying home, the persistent question is: what happens next? It spawns others: Will the Portland artists carry on their collective activities? Without a vital gallery system, without a world class contemporary museum, what energy will these artists use to broadcast their work? Will they make artist-run galleries? Will Portland artists edit and publish their own art magazines? Will Portland become a more visible center? Will Core Sample be their catalyst or a one-time occurrence? More abstractly, what does it take to get and keep attention and recognition? Isn’t that what everyone wants? What are reasonable expectations? How far do you have to go? As a novelist, I might make stories out of such questions, with characters who move around and don’t. It’s said all narratives are journeys. They are internal and external. The protagonist Oblomov didn’t leave his bed. I want to write the novels and stories I want to write, regardless of the market. But I am constantly subject to it and inside it, in obvious and insidious ways. Kafka said, “My education has damaged me in ways I do not even know.” It’s a favorite quote. What do I do to know what I don’t know? How far do I go?

How far? New York, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Cologne, Berlin, LA, Tokyo, Seoul? I remember being told by Elfriede Fischinger, the widow of filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, that in the 1920s her husband walked from Hamburg to Berlin (shooting a single frame film all the way), because there was more film work in Berlin. That’s an economic motive. There’s the desire or need to be near major galleries and museums, to see the work, to be around other artists, critics, to participate in dialogues. To hang out. Or, to be present, to see with one’s own eyes. You might have wanted, in the 1960s, to have been present at the Judson Church in New York, when Yvonne Rainer was performing, and to have seen Rauschenberg’s sets. Craig Owens, the brilliant art critic and theorist, once said, though: “The history of art is the history of slides of art.”

I’m my own interrogation center. There aren’t satisfying answers usually, but I look for interpretations and explanations that nourish my mind. I often consider, because I think art and science are similar endeavors, the necessity of scientists working together in a lab or at a university, or wonder about their kind of communication. I also wonder if outsider art is an anti-intellectual’s version of art. Is it equivalent, in science, to believing the earth is flat? Now, I’m pondering, and might for a long time, the function and necessity of a center. How is it determined who is and who is not at the center? The larger question may be: Who needs to see or read your work, finally? Or, what do I need to do my work? What’s missing?

Desire may determine everything, finally. Desire is about absence and lack, too. In Latin the word “libido” means wish or desire. And according to the psychoanalysts LaPlanche and Pontalis, “a satisfactory definition of libido is difficult to give.” Freud writes: “We call by that name the energy … of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word ‘love’.” Rationality and irrationality, consciousness and unconsciousness, do the human driving. Even at their strangest, people act and make what they do to find pleasure, or love, and to avoid pain. Some idea of love, with all its seeming vapidity, its mysterious inconclusiveness and unspecificness, imposes itself and sets us going somewhere or staying put or being satisfied or unsatisfied. Maybe love’s the virtual center. But it’s not that simple. It’s never simple. In the best and worst senses of the word, it’s interesting.

This essay was originally published in Core Sample: Portland Art Now by Clear Cut Press.Core Sample was an artist-initiated, citywide exhibition of contemporary art that took place in Portland, Oregon, in October 2003.

Lynne Tillman‘s most recent book is This Is Not, a collection of short stories inspired by 22 contemporary artists’ work. Her last novel, No Lease On Life, was nominated for a National Book Critic Circle Award in Fiction. In fall 2006, her new novel, American GeniusA Comedy, will be published by Soft Skull Press. She lives in New York with David Hofstra, a bass player.