Disorientations: Art on the Margins of the Contemporary by Travis Jeppesen (Social Diseases, London 2008)
As a book Disorientations is very much a product of print-on-demand publishing, a technological advance that allows the tastes of tiny micro-audiences to be serviced. Jeppesen is a young American writer – based in recent years in the Czech Republic and Berlin – who has published a couple of novels and a book of poems on independent presses, while the present tome is a collection of his journalism mainly dating from the earlier part of this millennium. The content is not simply art, since we are also taken on detours through popular film and music. In terms of art, what is covered is what was on show in Prague (and to a much lesser extent Berlin) when Jeppesen was writing for magazines such as The Prague Pill and Umelec. Thus while many Czech cultural figures who aren’t much known outside Prague are covered, other names in these pages (Joseph Beuys or various yBas) will be overly familiar to anyone au fait with contemporary art.
Jeppesen’s tastes are very specific without being particularly highly developed: he is into a gay ‘transgressive’ punk aesthetic suffused with gothic elements. No surprise then that Jeppesen would cover an exhibition of photographs of drug abusing Prague rent boys by Six. “The underground, for lack of a better term, is the terrain that British artist Six has inhabited his entire life. Known in a previous life as Simon Barker, a member of the Bromley Contingent (ak.a. the Sex Pistols’ inner circle), one of the teenage masterminds behind the late 70s punk explosion…” (pages 34-35). My own perception of the Bromley Contingent, and I’ve met a good number of them, is rather different: to me they are a bunch of suburban bores. These contrasting opinions reflect real theoretical differences that exist between Jeppesen and myself, since I view the idea that any small group of people ‘masterminded’ the late 70s punk explosion as unnecessarily reductive. Disorientations contains many ridiculously simplistic statements. To give another example: “Like most great artists of the past century, Kolar was both an anarchist and a reactionary.” (page 107).
The portrait of Jeppesen that emerges from Disorientations is of a young writer who responds to looming deadlines by dashing off the first thing that comes into his head. While a slap-dash approach is evident in many of the reviews collected here, it is particularly blatant in coverage of a 2005 Eva and Jan Svankmajer retrospective at Prague Castle: “I could only jot down my first impressions, read back over them later, and wonder about what I actually saw. Here they are for someone else to fathom. Eva’s manic swirl of colors forming the cunt allegory, sweeping virtues informed by prosaic maladies, deformed by the strongest intention to otherwise forget the harsh coldness of every waking nightmare. Jan and his creatures, they haunt him like a melody…” (page 352). And so it goes on, worthless as art criticism, it might be of interest to fans of Gothic fiction, although they’d do better reading Ann Radcliffe, or even one of Jeppesen’s novels.
One doesn’t have to read much of Disorientations to discover Jepppesen suffers from the usual adolescent illusions about art, genius and ‘transcendence’: “In an aesthetic universe, vision alone takes precedence over everything else, transcending all the conflicts and traumas imposed on the psyche by the meat we carry around inside us – the very meat that unites us with nature and guides us in our efforts to destroy this nature as loudly as possible. For it is in those desultory orgiastic explosions of violence – the ultimate desecration of the sacred body – that truth subsides on this lowly earthly plane.” (Page 188). Likewise, Jeppesen could be speaking about his own writing when he notes: “A typical Jiri David text reads like a philosophical manifesto fuelled by adolescent rage instead of a central, unambiguous argument…” (page 115).
The following provides just one example of Jeppesen’s ‘adolescent rage’: “At a party I was once fortunate enough to meet a sociologist whose research focused extensively on serial killers. We ended up talking at length about the psychopathology of every day life, and although we were freebasing cocaine at the time, her answers nevertheless shone some interesting light on the subject. For instance, the myth of pornography. Shortly before Ted Bundy was executed, he made some statement along the lines ‘pornography is what made me savagely rape and butcher to death dozens of girls’. Of course, pornography doesn’t cause psychopathic behaviour; in fact, according to my crack-smoking sociologist friend, the common thread that links most of history’s more brutal serial killers isn’t porn but horror films…” (pages 186-187). This despite the fact that neither cinema nor the cinematic genre of horror films had been invented when, for example, Gilles de Rais murdered dozens (and possibly hundreds) of children in fifteenth-century France. Ditto Vlad The Impaler, Jack The Ripper, Elizabeth Báthory etc. etc. etc.
Jeppesen appears to know little about anything that that pre-dates his own birth. Reading Disorientations I was left with the impression that if something happened before the 1980s, then as far as Jeppesen was concerned, it is either connected to an artist he is profiling or else the serial killer Ed Gein. So, for example, he writes in a piece dating from 2003: “The police are obviously an integral part of the world television culture of the last twenty years…” (page 243). True as far as it goes, but cop shows were an integral part of television programming way before the 1980s too; viz Dragnet, Fabian of the Yard,, Dixon of Dock Green, The Untouchables, Z-Cars, The New Breed, The F.B.I., Dan August, The Streets of San Francisco, Softly Softly, Barlow at Large, Second Verdict, The Sweeney, Kojak, Starsky & Hutch, Hawaii 5-0, Homicide, Division 4, The Long Arm, The Link Men, Matlock Police, Solo One etc. Reading Jeppesen’s reviews I was constantly astounded by his historical amnesia about almost anything that happened before 1980.
Moving on, much of the material in this anthology suffers from a lack of editing. Reviewing a group exhibition, Jeppesen writes: “…maybe the most interesting work in Impresse is sculpture. Milan Cais’s Space Fantasy is Czech pessimist humor at its finest – perhaps a reaction to the sort of escapist fantasies that are so prevalent in the work of younger artists – while Lukas Rittstein reveals his mastery of the sublime in several brain-scrambling works.” (page 51). Jeppesen neither describes the sculptures nor gives an outline of the basic characteristics of what Czech pessimist humour might be, thereby leaving most readers from outside the Czech Republic – myself included – with little idea of what he is talking about. Professional art critics do not on the whole assume their readers will have seen the work they are writing about, which is why the standard procedure is to describe it as well as provide an opinion about it. I find it incredible that neither the magazines that first published Jeppesen’s pieces, nor the London publisher who asked him to gather them together in book form, failed to correct basic faults of this type.
Jeppesen is about as far removed from the art world as it is possible to get while still regularly visiting galleries, and this has some advantages. Not being immersed in the gallery world or worried about maintaining particular art scene relationships, Jeppesen is on the whole less willing to go along with hype than many otherwise more accomplished critics. Reviewing a Prague show of contemporary British art, he accurately describes Wolfgang Tillmans as ‘terribly over-rated’ (page 206). That said, he is led astray by his own attraction to gothic and gay imagery when he says: “The best work on display here belongs to Sam Taylor-Wood. Check out the three large-scale photographic works from her Soliloquy series. In the second one a bunch of mutts laze around some shirtless dude, who stands in the middle of a gravel path with a cross hanging around his neck. In the bottom panel, a scene from a sauna with men and women splayed out in various sexual positions. On her video A Little Death, a sped-up document of a dead hare being eaten by flies or maggots (it’s hard to tell), until it’s reduced to a skeletal fragment of its former self. Decomposition has never before been so mesmerizing.” (page 207). Sam Taylor-Wood is possibly the most one-dimensional artist of the entire yBa crowd, and while I can sympathise with Jeppesen’s criticisms of Jeremy Deller, nonetheless even Deller’s worst work stands head and shoulders above Taylor-Wood at her best. Incidentally, the top and far larger panel in Soliloquy II (1998) features not just any ‘dude’ but one of Taylor-Wood’s fellow White Cube artists, Harland Miller, in a very camp pose; and I’d say that six, or arguably seven, of the dogs in the photograph are in a state of repose, there are nine or ten (i.e. the majority of dogs in the picture) to which Jeppesen’s appellation ‘laze’ does not apply. And as for A Little Death, that is so tedious I’d rather watch paint dry!
While none of Jeppesen’s aesthetic judgements can be trusted, they do prove slightly more reliable when he’s dealing with film rather than the art world. That said, do you want or need to read another short overview of Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit On Your Grave or Driller Killer? These three titles will be over familiar to any UK reader interested in exploitation film due to the central role they played in the 1980s video nasties ‘debate’. Similarly, Jeppesen uses Dawn of the Dead to illustrate his thoughts on anti-consumerism and the horror film: would it have taken that much imagination to choose something very slightly less obvious but also set in a shopping mall – such as Chopping Mall or Sorority Babes In The Slime Ball Bowl-O-Rama – to make this point? Jeppesen seems to cover only whatever is right in front of his nose. Once he moves away from the Czech art that was all around him when he was living in Prague – but which is something that, beyond internationally famous figures such as Svankmajer and Kolar, I am unfamiliar with – I find his choices of material horribly predictable. That said, Jeppesen is still young and as he matures his cultural and historical horizons will hopefully broaden. Disorientations reads more like a blog by a precocious teenager than a book, and the only people I can see it appealing to are die-hard fans of Jeppesen’s prose fiction.
This was originally posted a week ago at 3AM Magazine but since not everyone who comes here goes there and vice versa, I thought it was worth putting it here too.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – http://www.stewarthomesociety.org/ – you know it makes (no) sense!