Moonshine Suicide: Futurism, Provocation, and Ephemeral Work
In a museum, it’s challenging to represent an aesthetic movement that--though carried forward by many visual artists--began with writing. Perhaps that is why the central atrium of the Guggenheim is empty for the current exhibition, Italian Futurism, 1904-1944: Reconstructing the Universe. As the backdrop for Matthew Barney’s punk-rock, come-hither obstacle course in Cremaster 3, or a showcase for Cai Guo-Qiang’s automotive sculpture, this towering column of space has enabled artists to work at the extremes of their volume (phonic, spatial, or otherwise). The permission for bombast would be perfect for Futurism’s patriarch, F.T. Marinetti, who reminds us, “There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character." And yet, there was no work to fill it.
Form factors aside, what should have been in the museum’s center were examples of Marinetti’s writing. But instead, the manifestos, publications, and words-in-freedom poems were shown on the wall, or in display cases, alongside the visual works that make up the majority of the exhibition. Visitors are greeted with Boccioni’s golden, undulating Unique Forms of Continuity in Space; there are plenty of fractal-like paintings full of movement and masculinity; examples of exploratory architecture and photography; and even Futurist furniture. But the writings, in their serene, white settings, are left to fall a bit flat. Though the poems and manifestos preceded the paintings and sculptures, it’s easy for them to look like explanatory notes in service to the visual works.
And so, what’s obscured is that Marinetti's words-in-freedom was more than the outsized violence it revered. It was a stylistic innovation that paved a path not only for the Vorticist contemporaries who despised him, but for generations of poets to follow. By making language modular, he was laying groundwork for myriad experimental language practices in the 20th century.
Marinetti was “the caffeine of Europe” because he wanted to wake audiences up from their beloved “moonshine”--the contents of the libraries, museums, and history books. And perhaps he was able to create a new poetic style because he was never intent on making work that would endure. He explains in the Futurist Manifesto, “The oldest among us are not yet thirty years old: we have therefore at least ten years to accomplish our task. When we are forty let younger and stronger men than we throw us in the waste paper basket like useless manuscripts!” This promise of churn is what gave him the room to develop a new poetic style.
I visited Reconstructing the Universe with Joey Rizzolo, the longest-standing active member of the New York Neo-Futurists, an ensemble of performers who also write pieces that are intended to be short-lived. The Neos are influenced by a number of avant-garde aesthetic movements, including Dada, Surrealism, and Fluxus, but Joey explains that the Futurists are their namesake because of their “constant desire for change in the world and in art. And in creating art that, in turn, creates change.”
The ensemble's iconic work, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, draws on a menu of 30 plays that are performed in 60 minutes. The order of the plays is determined by the audience, who call out numbers that correspond with each play. A pair of dice determine the number of plays to be removed at the end of each week, and the ensemble must fill the slots with new works for the following week’s performance.
Beyond acceptance, the celebration of ephemeral work fuels experimentation for the Neos, as it did for Marinetti. By equating the success of his work with its ability to be truly contemporary, he was accepting its swift destruction, when it was no longer of-the-moment. Had the Guggenheim atrium been available to Marinetti at the time, surely he would have found a way to fill it. But he wasn’t making work for the cannon--the subject of his writing precluded it. Instead, the lasting and most widely-felt impact of his work is how it has served as a foundation for writers who came after him. Joey puts it best, “[His] was the manifesto to which every manifesto hence has aspired.”
Though seeing the original printed works of the Futurists was exciting, having his work presented in this way is not what Marinetti had in mind. Ironically, the exhibit, itself, is a kind of metonymy for Marinetti’s point: preserved and presented 100 years later, it’s hard for the work to be provocative. The actual content, when we look back on it, is clear overcompensation: the hyperbole of frightened men who were on the brink of a war far more technologically-advanced than anything they had ever seen. And Marinetti’s poetic style can be easily taken for granted. On the wall, Marinetti’s poems atrophy. They were built for performance and ever-evolving conversation. They broke ground because they were full of dynamism, but were also intended to be outpaced by the new garde. What Reconstructing the Universe illustrates is just how right Marinetti was: when the work is no longer contemporary, the call to arms is no longer evocative. Instead, it’s his poetic experimentation that withstands the intervening century. And we can see how his writing cleared the way for any writer who chose to--knowingly or unknowingly--adhere to the tenants of his Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature:
Together we will invent what I call the imagination without strings. Someday we will achieve a yet more essential art, when we dare to suppress all the first terms of our analogies and render no more than an uninterrupted sequence of second terms. To achieve this we must renounce being understood. It is not necessary to be understood.