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Conference and Exhibition in Boston

By Asbjørn Grønstad on 30.05.2011 (09:00).

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I'm in Boston this unusually hot and humid Memorial weekend, where I have given a paper at the American Literature Association's annual convention. My panel was on "Literature and Visual Culture" and provided me with an opportunity to present a segment from a work-in-progress project about new forms of ekphrasis in contemporary American literature. In a previous article I approach this topic from the point of view of the "unquotability" of the visual object, whereas in the current paper I wanted to explore exphrastic writing as a site of what I call "transaesthetic resonances." The literary works I examined were Mark Doty's Still Life with Oysters and Lemon and Don DeLillo'sPoint Omega, which are both concerned with the cultivation of a contemplative and deeply immersed mode of viewing. My argument, in very simplified terms, is that the way of looking at an image encouraged by these works is rife with ethical and epistemological implications, and that it produces a kind of experience and knowledge that can only be had in transaesthetic encounters. 
 
The early morning session's other two papers were, respectively, on the aesthetic relations between Edward Hopper's iconic paintings and the work of Ernest Hemingway and Joyce Carol Oates (the latter of whom wrote an interior monologue poem about Nighthawks, a traveling image if there ever was one), and on the influence of Giorgio de Chirico's  "metaphysical paintings" on the poet John Ashbery (who wrote an introduction for de Chirico's only novel Hebdomeros). The talks were both very stimulating and gravitated in their own ways toward this transaesthetic space that I find so intriguing. I was trained as an americanist, so I was quite happy to be able to be present at an American Studies conference again, if memory serves my first in two or three years.

From my Back Bay base near Copley Plaza, named after the 18th century painter John Singleton Copley, I also embarked on several small excursions (Boston is after all a walking city). One destination was the Institute of Contemporary Art, beautifully located on the city's waterfront. For a long time now I have wanted to see the exhibition "The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl," and now I finally had the chance (sorry Øyvind, just couldn't wait...). As a collector and as co-editor of a book on album covers, I admit to having had rather high expectations, my anticipatory mood boosted by being offered a sample of some energy cocktail outside the museum (a peach and mango combo, I've had better). The current exhibition, however, was not so much about record sleeves per se as about the re-appropriation of actual vinyl as a substance for a diverse range of artistic practices within contemporary art. In that sense, "The Record" was just as much an expression of the field of material culture as of that of visual culture. While many of the installations were wonderfully inventive and while there was plenty to like, I have to confess that the exhibition left me wanting a bit more. It's not that I have any craving whatsoever for yet another rehashing of already ubiquitous album covers (though I certainly enjoyed David Byrne's large polaroid photomontage of 1978's classic More Songs About Buildings and Food), but there was perhaps a too strong emphasis on works featuring records of a mostly anthropological interest. I also felt that a keener sense of historical contextualization would have enhanced the show and that its jubilant eclecticism, admirable in some respects, came at a cost.

"The Record" consists of 99 works by an array of international artists both established and comparatively unknown, from Ed Ruscha, Jasper Johns, Carrie Mae Weems and Laurie Anderson to Dario Robleto, William Cordova, Taiyo Kimura, Robin Rhode, and Lyota Yagi. The works also encompass a wide variety of media, from painting, drawing and sculpture to installation, photography, sound work, video and performance art. One of the exhibition's highlights, for me, was Jeroen Diepenmaat's splendidly conceptual and graphically striking Pour des dents d'un blanc éclatant et saines (2005), in which a stuffed bird plays a record by applying its bill to the vinyl's grooves. One of the strengths of this exhibition is the way in which it frequently cannot help but incorporate the viewer into the artworks themselves, in effect making us participators rather than mere observers. This quality was rendered most explicit by the installation Cover to Cover, made up of 7 listening stations with accompanying crates of albums curated by 9 artists and musicians. You were welcomed to flip through the crates and put on whatever record you wanted to hear. Each crate consisted of 20 albums and an unspecified theme, to be creatively inferred by each listener as he or she riffled through the collections. The setup of course neatly encapsulated the extent to which every private record collection ultimately constitutes its own narrative, its own unique story.

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