owner-nettime-l on Wed, 4 Feb 1998 22:55:44 +0100 (MET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Pre-Apocalyptic Non-Modernism

Pre-Apocalyptic Non-Modernism
by Michael Benson

Interesting how nettime readers, whelmed by the gravity of 
whatever rock it is they are trying to push uphill (not necessarily
hide under), and who therefore haven't found time ticking in their
concentrated heave to contribute something sufficiently 
-- well, concentrated -- inevitably become (yep, that cyberlexicon 
again) "lurkers". Dreaded word. Can't have that, now... So, redolent 
with overtones of irresponsibility shirked (and like Julian Dibbell, 
shifting uneasily on pale buttocks), I hit 'send' from Ljubljana. 
Deletedly, Michael Benson :-@ 


__All the pieces are painted on wood, like icons. Strange.__  

New York City is an improbably complex construction. The grid pattern
evident in a satellite photograph gleams nakedly on the Earth's
surface, precise as microchip tracery dark in computer hum. Down
at street level, the effect is more out of ancient Egypt, or the lost
cities of the fertile crescent, complete with a Biblical rabble
thronging the streets. But there is no "center" holding New York. It
extends outwards is all, and backwards in time. It _is_ the center.
The precision of the city from space disguises the chaotic nature
contained (compressed) by that multi-layered, multi-ethnic grid. The
bars of this particular cage contain just enough "give" to let steam
escape into space. Above hangs the sky, somehow archival -- a
daguerreotype. New York? Find the Atlantic on a map and follow the
razor-thin line at 40 nautical degrees West. Head across the Azores
atmospheric depression, follow the Maine coast down past the bobbing
styrofoam garbage of the fin-de-siecle. You'll hit New York City, an
improbably complex construction.

__Tunes from a doomed Continent, the Europe of the 30's, waft from an
old radio in the corner.__ 

Given its size -- its sheer spectacularity -- there's not all that
much in the city that defies explanation. Unlike the geological strata
defining the roots of Rome, or the stacked tree-rings of Troy, New
York's history is mostly self-evident. It's exposed to the air,
blackened by soot, or simply destroyed and carted off for land-fill.
Photographed by the first glass negatives, filmed at the birth of
film, it's a pragmatic place -- designed from coherent plans. New
York's culture, its music, even its criminal hierarchies and their
rituals have all been well documented. Massive insectoid antennae
crown the buildings, sending a steady stream of signals out -- to a
world with no immune system capable of resisting the city's immense,
Babylonian power.

__All around, arranged on the old furniture, are books. They describe
the art collection of Gertrude and Leo Stein.__

Very little here defies explanation. How then to explain a temporal
aberration, a flaw in the space-time continuum, hidden down an
otherwise fairly ordinary street in Little Italy? How, in other words,
to explain the Salon de Fleurus? I was speaking about this very point
with the -- well, host -- of that establishment just the other day.
"The best way, really, is to write a story," he said. "We are talking
about something which in its very nature doesn't belong to the way we
are treating it." 

__Standing at the center, the host. An integral part of the

What do you mean exactly, I asked. The subject was his object: the
Salon de Fleurus. And in order to gain some new perspective, we had
temporarily left the grounds where such discussions normally take
place -- i.e., the Salon itself. But distance, on this given Saturday,
failed to dispel that odd feeling of almost Tarkovskian temporal
displacement that the object is so mysteriously capable of casting.
"What we are doing now is we are vivisecting the Salon," he said.
"This very discussion has a modernistic, analytical  approach. But
maybe the Salon would be properly understood only within the terms of
a different approach to art which is not yet established."

In other words, that -- mystery -- seemingly renders discussion of 
the Salon almost beside the point. Mystery being mystery, as defined 
in the dictionary. But the discussion was the reason for our meeting. 
So we persevered, despite the garbage-grind of explicable New York 
City, which rattled through our street-level conversation.

I agreed with him, but cautiously. The challenge, then, was to
establish this different approach. But I wanted to see his larger
point. He continued: "Vivesection means you have to kill something,
then you can understand it. Anthropologists, for example, show up in a
foreign society and they make a construct -- they arrive with their
own subject categories, and they compare their subject matter to their
own society. The question then is, which is the correct method: to
submerge oneself within the society -- to find the relationship of all
the internal elements of the society to each other -- or, on the other
hand, to constantly refer back to one's own culture all the time?" 

He paused, letting this Heisenbergian argument tick through its paces.
I have found that discussions with the Host are frequently punctuated
by such pauses, which are necessary to properly understand what has
just been said. "And this is applicable to the Salon," he concluded.
"Why constantly refer back to categories formed in the modernist

I agreed, and allowed that I was ready to attempt to let the Salon's
inner elements find a satisfactory relationship to each other within
my text. I did not want my subject (i.e., the object) prematurely
bathed in the formaldehyde of defunct artistic categories. So I
attempted momentarily to eject ingrained modernism (and it's
post-erior) from my thinking. The sun, glinting off high windows, sent
daggers of heat down to our table, which provided a platform for two
cold glasses of strong espresso. The ice was rapidly melting.
Mid-summer, 1994; the city had slipped its moorings and was descending
towards the equator. A zone where the ocean boils. 

I remembered idly opening one of the many books in the Salon de
Fleurus, to read the following: "Nowhere else in Paris - or in the
world - could modern painting be found in such quantity and quality as
on those three walls. As Leo later described his pursuit of the
modern, he felt 'like Columbus setting sail for a world beyond the

But the reader, at this point, probably will require facts, details
and dates. The dramaturgy and organizational principles, so to speak,
of the Salon de Fleurus. Appurtenances of a vivesectionist
sensibility? I can only report that in December of 1992 I arrived in
New York from a region of Europe that had descended into madness.
There I met a friend in lower Manhattan; a retired artist chiefly
known for his anonymity. This, in fact, was the host - but I did not
know that yet. I was invited by him to visit a new "exhibition" which,
he said, he hoped would be interesting. We proceeded to 41 Spring
Street, where he pressed the buzzer to apartment #12. A Japanese man
in his early 20's soon appeared - slim, medium height, well groomed,
tailored in the type of expensive silvery suit worn by internationally
successful executives. After a brief introduction (mysteriously, my
ex-artist friend seemed to already know him), we were escorted through
a faintly seedy hallway, past a series of doors, and to a cryptic
inner courtyard. Beyond, after a hard left turn, we entered the Salon.

How to describe an event shaped as an apartment? The Salon unfolds
like a box designed by anonymous artisans working not just with space,
but with the substance of time, crammed like stuffing into art
history. A short hallway leads to the first of two dimly lit rooms.
The lighting is provided by candles and several dim antique lighting
fixtures. Heavy carpets muffle sound; the walls are defined by
paintings in heavy frames. The paintings, though monochromatic, are
readily identifiable as masterpieces. The old furniture, though culled
from different periods of history, seems to belong in this
configuration and no other. In the corner, an overflowing bowl
presents a still life: fruit on a table. Around this table, an ongoing
conversation periodically swirls. Frequently, it is a conversation of
exiles - people who have achieved some distance from their origins,
for whatever reason. 

What else? Near the table, a radio. In the next room, more paintings
in irregularly-shaped frames - these depicting a series of rooms
eerily similar to the "contemporary" rooms in which they find
themselves. Rooms with paintings on the walls, antique furniture, the
objects and artifacts of a famous art collection, changing their
configuration in space according to where they are in time. Look
carefully at the paintings in this room, in fact, and one gradually
realizes one is looking at a kind of flow-chart. In monochromatic

As for New York - the city drops away, in almost imperceptible
increments, as soon as the front door is closed. At an indeterminate
moment, it has been subsumed. It is simply - gone. It has taken its
noise, art world, and commerce with it. And this, of course, is
unprecedented. One source of the Salon's mystery is its inexplicable
power to impose its own will on surroundings not known for their

In place of the city there is a kind of vacuum; inside this vacuum the
20th Century shimmers, like a fading mirage.   

But it's not so easy to ditch 31 years of ingrained thinking. Back to
the overheated outdoors, a given slice of now. My next question marked
an immediate, ignominious return to a "modernistic, analytical"
approach. "But what, then," I asked, "_can_ we call the Salon?" The
host answered patiently. "It is a definite break with modernism," he
explained. "You can find elements of modern art in the Salon, but in
its entirety the Salon lies completely outside of modernism. If
there's any term that can be applied to the Salon it's non-modern.
It's not post-modern. It's not pre-modern. It's only - non-modern."

An imposing man with a bald head and invariably black clothing, the
host is rarely at a loss for words. They function as tools adjacent to
the main body of his subject/object. These words are delivered in
perfect English, with a faintly Eastern European accent. Listen
carefully to him and you can hear a meeting of ancient trading routes.
A whiff of the Orient. Cross-roads; cyclical, discrete, periodically
warring cultural path-ways. 

He paused for a minute, waiting for the scratching of my pen to
subside. We both sat companionably, encased in the intermittent roar
of street-noise. "In one strange way, this is how modernism may
survive," he resumed. "The originals may disappear, in the same way
that we know Greek classic sculpture from Roman copies, or ancient
philosophy via Arab translations. The greatest contribution of Arab
civilization to the West was the preservation of ancient texts.
Archemedes, for example."

I nodded, sagely. In the presence of the host, I inevitably find that
I have to scramble to disguise vast gaps in my knowledge. These gaps
can't be explained by the burning of the library in Alexandria. I was
thinking of an observation I had made earlier - that the Salon was in
some ways similar to a station play, in which the details of a god's
life are symbolically transubstantiated and reconstituted in the
future - i.e., to now. As with the flow-chart in the next room, the
precisely numbered panels or scenes of the story were passed down
through generations. A certain mythological way of thinking,
evidently, was necessary to understand the Salon and its intention.
Mythology being the science of myths, not the myths themselves. The
repetition of motifs - apparent throughout the Salon - could be
understood as being more mythological than semantic. It followed that
one effect of the place is to render seemingly secular modernism on
par with the theological hierarchies largely responsible for
commissioning (and defining the subject of) art. In most previous
epochs, anyway.

The Salon de Fleurus, in fact, exists only nominally now, at beginning
of the end of the century, in New York City. In another incarnation,
at the end of the beginning of the century, it existed on a street of
the same name in Paris. Many of the works contained within the Salon
appear, and re-appear, almost continuously in all the intervening time
-- throughout the story of what became known as modernism. Cezanne.
Matisse. Picasso. Their images have colonized our collective
subconscious. And this, of course, is part of the nature of the
mystery. Mystery being mystery, as defined in the dictionary. Just as
there are certain sub-atomic particles, impossible to explain, capable
of being at two or more places at the same moment. New York art critic
Kim Levin has called the Salon de Fleurus a "freak occurrence...
rising through the cracks. This mutant, 'authorless,' iconic and
iconoclastic space/time warp... conflates past and future."

What is Levin (normally so cool-headed) talking about? Earlier, the
Host had started our conversation in an uncharacteristically factual
mode. "The idea of the Salon de Fleurus is built on the bones of the
famous Salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein, and there are two groups of
paintings exhibited in the Salon that relate to it's historical
antecedent," he said. "In one group are the works repeating images of
the actual paintings from the collection of Gertrude and Leo Stein.
The other group are works that depict the collection itself, in
various stages of its evolution. Since all the works are repeating
pre-existing images, they are transparent - the author is invisible.
In viewing Picasso or Cezanne's work, as represented in the Salon,
there already exists a - transparency. The author of the reproduction
is denying his or her own personality. The author is working in the
service of the idea." 

Working also in service, the scratch of my pen subsides. Silence.
Blast-furnace heat, New York City, high noon. No cars, no subways, no
airplanes. Stasis. In the distance, trapped in warehouse canyons, the
horizon glints. A bizarre silence spreads its heavy carpet across the
baking city. The host breaks it. The Salon, he says, "is a place where
time is not necessarily linear, but cyclical. All myths are based on
the concept of the cyclical nature of time. When you transmit the
story though the generations, you loose the original. In a similar
way, by repeating motifs, these paintings are forgetting the
originals. In pre-Renaissance icons, the canon was followed. The only
obvious difference here is that the subject of these paintings derives
from the origins of modern art."

In other words, the Salon de Fleurus can be interpreted as a kind of
temple, a Zone where the ideas encoded in modernism can have a free
interplay, a paradoxical new relevance, outside their given space-time

Some say the "event horizon" is already too crowded with too many
stabs at immortality. No new space has been cleared, they indicate,
for this or that artist, work or movement. This is a fatalistic view.
Others are never satisfied with what they are offered; they think the
world and its cultural production owes them surprise and stimulation.
Jaded like addicts, they have never produced anything noteworthy
themselves, and never will. Their sensibility is dressed in the
trappings of a chosen theorist; slumped in the smoke of style without
substance, they strive to appear bigger than they are by hitching an
unauthorized ride. But they're good only for a sound-bite.

But why mention these people at all? We are discussing the Salon De
Fleurus, one of the most radical steps - well, it's not forward,
exactly; maybe simply out? - within the fields of art in the last
twenty years. And in the end, as with all great art, it is
inexplicable. Like finding the grainy image of the building where you
were born. Its address is written in spidery handwriting on the edge
of a photo from the middle of the 19th Century. It falls out of an
album from the recovered footlocker. Peering through the ordered
layers of silver halide particles, you make out a window - your
window. Through it, a small oval face, pointing a camera. At the
future. Your future.

__Beyond that, brick buildings, streets, the illustrious non-modern
Hudson, glinting in sunlight.__


**(The Salon de Fleurus is at 41 Spring Street #12. Visiting hours are
from 8:00 to 10 PM, Wednesday to Saturday, or by appointment. There is
a phone, in the hallway: (212) 334-4952)**

For a pictorial representation of the Salon, go to: 

(C) Michael Benson 1998.  All rights reserved; no part of this text
can be reproduced or republished without the written permission of the
author. A somewhat different version of this text was published in AS
- Andere Sinema, a Belgian bi-monthly publication on media politics.

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@icf.de and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL: http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/  contact: nettime-owner@icf.de