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"'Theoretically it is not impossible to conceive of a language,' continues Borges in another strange tale, 'in which the name of each being would indicate all the details of its past and future destiny.' This is the universe that began only a few moments ago, unitary, without past or future. Yet, it casts a shadow, the endowment of a compensatory delusion, complete with a pre-packaged ineffable hermetic memory."

By William Levy


Everything is there: the minute history of the future, the autobiographies of archangels, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of these catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on the commentary of this gospel, the veridical account of your death, a version of each book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.
-- Jorge Luis Borges, "The Library of Babel"

Everyone knows the origin of art. It has its morphogenesis, or structural beginning, in gift giving. Yet the origin of language -- and what the fuck is it really? -- these questions have persisted in being much discussed subjects, often acrimoniously, sometimes humorously, from Plato to our times. Jonathan Swift in his Gulliver's Travels mocks the Enlightenment's conceit. That of believing themselves to be on the threshold of identifying an ideal universal language, something communicable for everyone. In this satire, the fanatic anti-ambiguityites, these imaginary philosophers of Laputa -- in some way prescient of the all too real Positivists -- spoke not. Nothing at all. Since words are not things, despising innuendo, they communicated only by material presentment, showing the actual objects that they were able to carry. You want to talk about wood? Then take a piece of wood from your sack and show it. Very precise, very scientific. A different load for different roads. Truth as clarity, not as fun, was their goal.

Yet G.K. Chesterton's slim, smart volume The Club of Queer Trades might have more to say about the prodigious Don't You Harry Me Now! exhibition in Amsterdam by the Dutch painter-poet Harry Hoogstraten.

By 'queer' Chesterton means unique, singular, in this case those who earn their living by doing something no one else does. For instance, an arboreal real estate agent whose specialty was renting tree houses. In the next to last episode called "The Noticeable Conduct of Professor Chadd," two men argue about the philosophy of language. One believes a theory that language was developed ex nihilo, totally complete in certain individuals and was picked up by others simply by observation after the overwhelming desire to communicate, speak, with that person. After a while, in the story, Professor Chadd stops speaking entirely and displays bizarre behavior. This arid albeit affable academic -- mentioned as a candidate for curator of the Persian MS. room at the British Museum -- suddenly was dancing like a mating crane in his own garden. Predictably, his two spinster sisters, with whom he lived in Shepherd's Bush, were amazed. Very concerned, even. Notwithstanding, he wasn't deranged at all. It took Basil Grant, the book's connecting character, to divine in these prancings a definite repetitive pattern of systematic symbolization. Signing. Signifying. Indeed, Professor Chadd proved his theory. Not by argument, but in this display -- a natural demonstration, if you will -- when Grant learns, digs, the idiom enough to join him in this expressive jig for a mutual dance chat. The concept being one has to create the language to invent the life one needs in order to live.

From "The Seventh" by Attila Jozsef, first stanza:

If you set out in this world,
better be born seven times.
once, in a house on fire,
once, in a freezing flood
once, in a wild madhouse,
once, in a field of ripe wheat,
once, in an empty cloister,
and once among pigs in a sty.
Six babies crying, not enough:
you yourself must be the seventh.

1. Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)
German painter, sculptor, maker of constructions, writer, and typographer, a leading figure of the Dada movement who is best known for his invention of 'Merz.' The word was applied first to collages made from refuse, but Schwitters came to use it for all his activities, including poetry. He used the word as verb as well as a noun: a fellow artist was once bemused when Schwitters asked him to merz with him. Grammar was but the first convention to crumble in his wake. There was no containing a work of art within the limits of genre. In his early work, Expressionism and Cubism influenced Schwitters, but after the First World War (in which he served as an illustrator), he became the chief (indeed virtually only) representative of Dada in Hannover. In 1918, he began making collages from refuse such as bus tickets, cigarette wrappers, and string, and in 1919, he concocted Merz, a word-fragment with no prior signification. The name was discovered by chance. While fitting the word Kommerz und Privat Bank from a business letterhead into a collage, Schwitters cut off some letters and used what was left. All material was admissible to the collage. All material was of equal value: there was no such thing as matter unsuitable for a work of art. What counted was how each element stood in relation to every other element in the work. It was this relationship alone that gave the elements their value. He called the collages Merzbilden and in about 1923 he began to make a sculptural or architectural variant -- the Merzbau -- in his house in Hannover (ironically it was destroyed by Allied saturation bombing in 1943). From 1923 to 1932, he published a magazine called Merz and in this period, he was much occupied with typography, a printer and ad-man by profession. In 1937, Nazis declared his work entartet and in the same year he fled to Norway, where at Lysaker he began a second Merzbau (destroyed by fire in 1951). When the Germans invaded Norway in 1940, he moved to England where he lived the rest of his life -- in London (after his release from an internment camp) from 1941-1945, and then at Ambleside in the romantic Lake District. Here in an old barn in Langdale, he began work on his third and final Merzbau, with aid from New York's Museum of Modern Art. It was unfinished at his death and is now in the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne. The day before he died Schwitters received British citizenship.

2. Assemblage
Term coined by Jean Dubuffet in 1953 to describe works of art made from fragments of natural or pre-formed materials, such as household debris. Some critics maintain that the term should apply only to three-dimensional found materials, never to collage. Nevertheless, it is not usually employed with any precision and has been used to embrace photomontage at one-extreme and room environments at the other. It gained wide currency with an exhibition called "The Art of Assemblage" staged at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1961.

3. Joseph Cornell (1903-72)
American sculptor, one of the pioneers and most celebrated exponents of assemblage. He had no formal training in art and his most characteristic works are his highly distinctive 'boxes.' These are simple boxes, usually glass-fronted, in which he arranged surprising collections of photographs or Victorian bric-à-brac in a way that has been said to combine the formal austerity of Constructivism with the lively fantasy of surrealism. Like Kurt Schwitters, he could create poetry from the commonplace. Unlike Schwitters, however, he was fascinated not by refuse, garbage, and the discarded, but by fragments of once beautiful and precious objects, relying for his appeal on the Surrealist technique of irrational juxtaposition and on the evocation of nostalgia, Die Sehnsucht. (He befriended several members of the Surrealist movement who settled in the USA during the Second World War.) Cornell also painted and made films.

4. Arte Povera (or Art Povera)
Term (Italian for 'poor' or 'impoverished art') coined by art critic Germano Celant to unite certain tendencies of Conceptual, Minimal, and Performance art. Celant, who organized an exhibition of Arte povera at the Museo Civico, Turin, in 1970 and edited a book on the subject (Art Povera: conceptual, actual or impossible art?,1969), hoped that the use of 'worthless' materials such as soil, twigs, and newspapers and the avoidance of the officially sanctioned idea of art as a collectable 'product' would undermine the art world's commercialism. Dealers have shown that even this kind of art can be commodified, however. Among the artists, Celant embraced by the term were Carl Andre, Walter de Maria, and Joseph Beuys.

5. Joseph Beuys (1921-86)
German sculptor, illustrator, teacher, and Performance artist regarded as one of the leaders of avant-garde art in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. Like Yves Klein, he was one of the leading lights in shifting emphasis from what an artist makes to his character, actions, and opinions, and succeeded in creating a kind of personal mythology. (As a Luftwaffe pilot he was shot down in the Crimea in 1943 and was looked after by nomadic Tartars who kept him warm wrapped with animal fat and felt -- materials that came to figure prominently in his work. The hat he habitually wore hid head injuries received in this crash landing.) After the war he studied at the Düsseldorf Academy, 1946-51, and became Professor of Sculpture there in 1961. He worked in various media, but is perhaps best known for his performances, of which the most famous was probably How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965). In this he walked around an exhibition in Schmela Gallery in Düsseldorf, his face covered in honey and gold leaf, carrying in his arms the dead rabbit, to which he explained each of the sundry pictures. He described this inter-species performance as "A complex tableau about the problems of language, and about the problems of thought, of human consciousness and of the consciousness of animals." Beuys' fanatic exploration of extremes led him to affiliate himself with the playful neo-Dadaists of Fluxus, as well as the powerfully shamanic Vienna Actionists, and others opposed to the received wisdom of the day, and careerism in the arts. He was also active in politics, aligning himself with West Germany's ecological party, the Greens. Accused of "presumptuous political dilettantism" this eventually led to conflict with authority and in 1972, he was dismissed from his professorship. The protests that followed included a strike by his students, and a settlement was eventually reached. He could keep his title and studio, but his teaching contract would be terminated. His later career was devoted to a great amount of public speaking and debate, and in 1982, he had a well-publicized meeting with the Dalai Lama in Paris. By the end of his life Beuys was an international celebrity, regarded by his admirers as a kind of art guru. Although a leitmotiv of his philosophy was the elimination of art as product, propitiously after he died many dealers made a large profit, a killing as it were, selling his scraps.

6. Junk art
Art constructed from worthless materials, refuse, rubbish, and urban waste. In so far as Junk art represented a revolt against the established doctrine of fine materials and a desire to show that works of art can be constructed from the humblest and most worthless things, it may be arguably traced back to Kurt Schwitters and the collages of Cubism. It is not possible to speak about a Junk movement until the 1950s, particularly with the work of Robert Rauschenberg, who at this time began to affix to his canvases rags and tatters of cloth, torn reproductions, and other secondary raw materials. The name 'Junk art' was first applied to these by Lawrence Alloway and was then extended to sculpture made from scrap metal, broken machine parts, used timber and so on. The Junk art of the USA had its resonance. Especially in the works of Antoni Tàpies and others in Spain, Alberto Burri and Arte Povera in Italy, and similar movements in most European countries and in Japan. Everywhere the litter and refuse left over from the war found new life converted to artistic use. In the case of Rauschenberg and others, the use of Junk material was objective and unemotional. In other instances, including the Junk sculpture of Watts Towers in California and the works of Burri and Tàpies, an extravagant idyllic emotional suggestion was divulged by the use of discarded machine parts, rotted beams and rusted metal, torn and dirty textile strips. The detritus generally of metropolitan industrial life, the things people throw away. Punk was Junk art's finest hour.

From "The Seventh" by Attila Jozsef, fourth stanza:

If you write and can afford it,
let seven men write your poem.
One, who builds a marble village,
one, who was born in his sleep,
one, who charts the sky and knows it,
one, whom words call by his name,
one, who perfected his soul,
one, who dissects living rats.
Two are brave and four are wise;
you yourself must be the seventh.

7. Harry Hoogstraten (1941- )
Zen boxer and vatic collector of exotic chairs. Over the years, the decades, occasionally Harry would drop by to present me with a book. These were not really objets trouvés. Rather than found objects, they were objects given. Prolegomena from the insane asylum, Charles Olson and Ezra Pound: Encounter at St. Elizabeth's where Pound was incarcerated under indictment for treason. A charge based on his radio speeches from Rome during the Second World War. Suddenly glaring at the roaming resident psychiatrists nearby, Pound allegedly shocks Olson by defining a lunatic as someone who is surrounded by Jews. Some people can't take a joke. In another tome I discovered joyful despair as a complete world-view from a Paris based Romanian. In his A Short History of Decay, Emile Cioran proudly would go beyond God's forgiveness, for at the uttermost reaches of evil, good must necessarily begin. For him every day was an eyelid that does not finish crossing the thorns. Moreover, perhaps most curious of all, Harry tried to stuff my mailbox with a forgotten novel from 1933 titled, About Levy. It was a first book for the literary man Arthur Calder-Marshall, a 'friend' of diabolist Aleister Crowley, from both London and Oxford as well as the infamous Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu, Sicily. (Almost forty years after this debut, Calder-Marshall published a volume called Lewd, Blasphemous and Obscene, pen-portraits of nineteenth century pioneers in establishing of what we now take for granted, freedom of publication, freedom to express unpopular views.) In the dénouement, however, the eponymous main character in About Levy, Claude Levy -- no relation -- turns out to get convicted in a sensational murder case. Does this conclusion answer questions about maps and territories, or ask them? In their own way though, these visits by Harry seemed defined by each of these three pieces of printed matter, their method of delivery, by the gaps in time between each specific offering.

One final comment on Harry Hoogstraten's openness to the whole world as secondary raw materials for creation, on his jocular, enthusiastic acceptance of life's carnival.

"Theoretically it is not impossible to conceive of a language," continues Borges in another strange tale, "in which the name of each being would indicate all the details of its past and future destiny." This is the universe that began only a few moments ago, unitary, without past or future. Yet, it casts a shadow, the endowment of a compensatory delusion, complete with a pre-packaged ineffable hermetic memory.

WILLIAM LEVY, an American from Baltimore, lives in Amsterdam as a slum landlord, a serial bigamist and an urban hermit. He is the author of The Virgin Sperm Dancer and Natural Jewbo, Is There Sex Over Forty? and A Vilna Legend, the editor of The Wet Dreams Book and Certain Radio Speeches of Ezra Pound. The latest book, however, is a donation to the history -- the fun and the philosophy -- of excess-for-all, in a handsome monograph called Impossible: The Otto Muehl Story (New York: Barany Artists, 2001). Bill Levy won an Erotic Oscar for "Writer of the Year 1998" awarded in front of a huge audience of radical perverts at the Sex Maniac's Ball in London. His prose and poetry have been translated into eight languages. His collected verse -- Kas pavoge vistyti? (Who Stole the Chicken?) -- was published recently in Lithuanian, and five different volumes of his texts have come out in German.

He has brought into being three fresh genres, writing as terrorism, radio art, political porno and is a regular contributor to cyberzines Exquisite Corpse and 3A.M..

A lifelong enchantment with sedition, and autonomous media. Formerly chief editor of a number of magazines pushing the envelope of the zeitgeist (The Insect Trust Gazette, International Times, Suck, The Fanatic) and European editor for glossies High Times and Penthouse. Currently he publishes the elitist, seminal Transactions of the Invisible Language Society as well as for over fifteen years hosting the popular, bewitching Dr. Doo Wop Show broadcast on Radio 100 (99.3 FM) every Friday evening from seven to eight.

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