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A Long Pan Shot: Andrew Durbin Talks to Bruce Hainley
For Los Angeles Review of Books, poet and Wonder co-publisher Andrew Durbin interviewed art writer and poet Bruce Hainley about his new book, Under the Sign of [sic]: Sturtevant’s Volte-Face—”the culmination of a decade’s work and the first English language monograph about an artist who, like Bruce, not only avoids easy categorization, but makes the muddling of categories her occupation.” He’s talking about Sturtevant, née Elaine Sturtevant, a master of reproduction who, as Durbin explains, is “[b]est known for her conceptual work in the 1960s … in the past she has perfectly replicated, [sic], the work of other artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenberg, Andy Warhol, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Yvonne Rainer. She rethinks the Big Questions of aesthetic theory by asking even bigger ones.”
Hainley’s art-writing, especially in Under the Sign, is also known as formally innovative, crossing over to the poetic (at Bidoun, he and Wayne Koestenbaum masticated our favorite topic, poetry and writing as necessarily destructive). And so a good question from Durbin, taken from the end of a longer question: “How did you think about your voice in relation to Sturtevant’s as you worked on Under the Sign?” Hainley responds, in part:
My presence, put into motion with the only devices a writer really has — “voice” and/or words; syntax as well as genre — is caught in a long pan shot: at the start, there is no first person, singular or plural, on view, but, by the end, “I” stumbles to attention, before slipping away again. Or, I guess, so it would seem. By tracking early-ish Sturtevantian goings-on as diligently as possible, then marking all the discrepancies I found in the historical record with a “[sic],” I hope reading the book psyches out what is taken to be “absent” or “present,” “serious” or “beneath consideration,” “now” or “then.”
But Durbin also asks about form:
AD: Structurally, this book plays on the interchange of presence and absence. The first part is divided in two, with one part running on the verso page and the other on the recto. For me, this is very different from other instances of two-column form (like John Ashbery’s “Litany” and Wayne Koestenbaum’s Hotel Theory, to mention two authors whom I know have influenced your work). Your book maintains the expectation that one page will carry onto the next, but it doesn’t. And there is a repeated, almost dizzying effect when the reader’s eyes move to the next page only to find that it does not continue from the previous one, even though the subject — Sturtevant — remains the same. What brought you to this form?
BH: That dizziness — Sturtevant digs and provides razzle-dazzle — is as close as I could manage to the point-blank effect of encountering her work. Recently, in a bookstore, the painter John Tremblay pointed to a stack of Under the Signs grinning on a table. “Look,” he exclaimed, wickedly, “they have your new book on Keith Haring!”
You mention two of my favorite and most revered living writers, the great Lady Ashes [our enthusiastic bold] and the one-man intellectual firecracker committee known as Wayne Koestenbaum. Certainly, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about their work, and those two instances in particular. There’s also, of course, Derrida’s Glas and, very much, its instigation, the daunting dual-columned essay by Jean Genet, “Ce qui est resté d’un Rembrandt déchiré en petits carrés bien réguliers, et foutu aux chiottes,” which I’ll choose to translate as, “What remains of a Rembrandt ripped into small, regular squares, and fisted down the shitter.” Only the Genet text is invoked by name in my book. At one point, I tried and tried to write a crazy long sentence (inspired by Donald Barthelme’s “Sentence” and Hilton Als’s “The Last Interview,” his bravura twirl on Polly Jean Harvey) that snaked through some explanation of the Genet text and joined it to Yvonne Rainer’s elusive (never reprinted?) essay, “Don’t Give the Game Away,” whose argument about transdisciplinary simultaneities Sturtevant’s work and thinking anticipate — but I just couldn’t pull it off. The two-page thing is, you’re right, totally different from the dual-columned texts that inspired it, and it is crucial that, for all the differences going on, Sturtevant, the subject, as you put it, remains the focus. In the book, to go forward with the greatest speed or ease, you have to skip page after page, and then start over, slightly askew from where you were. I couldn’t come up with a better way to enact some crucial Sturtevantian dynamics (nutshell them this way: insisting upon repetition to perform difference) and, believe me, I thought about it for a long time, because figuring out that things should operate across two pages rather than in two columns of text on the same page wasn’t obvious, at least not to me, although I hope in the end it feels like it couldn’t be any other way.