TOM HIBBARD Reviews
Apollo: A Ballet By Igor Stravinsky by Geoffrey Gatza
(BlazeVOX [Books], Kenmore, N.Y., 20140
GEOFFREY GATZA’S APOLLO:
NIETZSCHE, ROSE SELAVY AND THE FORGOTTEN
UMBRELLAS OF ELMWOOD AVENUE
“…this [artwork] itself is our catastrophe…it says that the catastrophe…has already occurred because the very idea of the catastrophe is impossible.”
In the same way, at an unsuspecting lulling blissful moment in oblivion of spring 2011 (“April is the cruelest month”), poet and publisher Geoffrey Gatza decided to visit an exhibit at the local art gallery, the Albright-Knox art gallery on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, New York. The day was rainy, and Gatza took with him an umbrella. Art galleries are similar to paradise. The walls and floors are spotless; the lighting is precisely beneficially measured; the abundant spacing of the artworks is idyllic. As Gatza absorbed and enjoyed discussing one of the works at the Albright-Knox gallery with friends (noting that white is an “ambiguous” color), he was asked to leave by a security guard because he was carrying an umbrella.
In this way, Gatza was also cast out of paradise. In my opinion, both the fates of Adam and Eve and Gatza are similarly somewhat arbitrary and predictable. Though God expressly gave them this one restriction, as God of all Creation, he must have known that Adam and Eve would succumb to doing what they were told not to do. The mysterious prohibition itself tasted of forbidden fruit. This Adam-and-Eve tale could only be some sort of preface to the unfolding of human development, with the so-called “Fall” in the Garden as the revelatory opening of the discourse of humanity becoming responsible for its actions. Had everything gone as outlined and continued in endless bliss, many essential events and ideas that in Christianity’s own doctrine lay ahead could not have taken place, including the giving of the Law, the ideas of grace and ascension, the Apocalypse, the appearance of Elija and of God’s son—Jesus, who, in his lifetime, compared himself to that self-same serpent in the wilderness being “lifted up,” that is, articulated and embraced for what it really meant and was (is). (Ferlinghetti once said about Kerouac that he liked his writing once he understood what Kerouac was doing.)
Especially considering it occurred in an environment of artists, artworks and art curators, Gatza’s being asked to leave the gallery is a serious matter. As presented, this shocking incident has many implications that concern art, literature and humanity. Because of its apparent capriciousness and callousness, it constitues something similar to an atrocity—a subject very relevant to 20th and 21st century Art (and religion). As Gatza says, he attended the art gallery “all my life”; as he purchased his ticket no one mentioned the umbrella; no signs were posted about umbrellas, and the gallery could have simply taken the umbrella to a place where Gatza could have picked it up as he exited. As with the cautionary tale of Adam-and-Eve, the “crime” of Gatza, the crime against Gatza reflects on humanity as a whole. In both the instance of Gatza and Adam and Eve, peaceful assurance turns into alienation. Paradise turns into hell.
With “hurt feelings” and “wounded,” Gatza is forced into unexplored darkness. He is required to explain and articulate on his own the significance of what has taken place. As Sartrean “humanism” rises beyond the limits of what is forbidden, placing “the writer” at a level equal with the creator, Gatza must “invent himself” from accursedness and negation. As a literary or artistic movement is christened in its very condemnation, as speech is the unaccountable child of silence, Gatza must recover “totality of being” with his own myth of identity and homeland, his own dialetical badge of history and historicity. He must populate it with real people and a new style of perception.
Now I am ready to tell you of the birth of Apollo
How he fell in love with the charming dryad,
Caissa and how the game of chess was invented for her.
In dying to the art of the Albright-Knox gallery, Gatza lives to the art of a new world. Jacques Derrida describes the encounter with “differance” as an “adventure.” “Tout dans le trace de la differance est strategique et adventureux.” (“Everything about the trace of differance is tactical and adventurous.”) From the cavernous, generous vantage of possibility issues the discovery of nothingness. For Gatza, the Albright-Knox gallery, a life-long fixture, has become a thorn-filled emptiness and desert that he must now contemplate in a quantum, a pluralistic manner. On a new stage and with a new cast of characters, Gatza must transform his world into a new pattern, a new arrangement of meanings. He must be prepared (in venturing forth) to say as Marcel Duchamp said to Brancusi at a Paris air show in 1912, “It is all over for painting. What could be better than that propeller? Tell me, can you do that?”
From the fragments of his shattered world, from the simulacra of fragmentation, Gatza must alter his vision, must escape the art gallery of his lifetime. Rather than a question of defending himself or “righting the ship,” it is a question of opening up “a space of alternate theoretical possibilities” unrelated to but prompted by what has gone before, of chance, of improbability, exploration, free-association. As his main focal point, Gatza lights on a lesser-known ballet by Igor Stravinsky titled Apollo, intertwined with purported complexity and luster associated with the game of chess. Calling his multi-media book or collection—which includes many photographs—a “one-night only” production, Gatza speedily brings together a global tornadic storm of Greek gods, dryads, “jealous Hera,” the sun-god Apollo and his sister Artemis, the seer/wise man Tiresias (whose habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time causes him not only to become blind but also changed into a woman) together with a cast of unlikely artistic luminaries—Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Dizzy Gillespie, Gertrude Abercrombie, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Donna di Scalotta and Duchamp’s famous “female alter-ego” Rrose Selavy. The invention of the game of chess by Euphron the god of sport (in fact chess was invented in India) in order to seduce the nymph Caissa is introduced as an enticing symbol of multiplicity and discovery. This rousing creative super-nova of space-time is enhanced by an array of formal devices—tableaux, variations, pas-de-deux, pas d’action, codas, endgames, recipes, poems, dramatizations, letters-to-the-editor, collages, artworks, pantheons, diagrams of famous chess games, photos, bio blurbs. In this wildly fantastical literary dance of the extremes of emotion and benignity, mortals interact with gods and many new things are born into existence.
Despite its reference to the term “post-avant” (after-before), Gatza’s Apollo is a return to the avant-garde. This is underscored in the appearance of Duchamp and Stravinsky and “the Duchamp heritage” as a main source of imagery. Duchamp, famous for his ground-breaking abstract Armory painting Nude Descending A Staircase and his “readymades” (found art objects) is one of the most respected and idiosyncratic, innovative artists of the 20th Century. Rather than confirming a pragmatic unchanging metaphysics, Gatza’s Apollo is a work intended in Derrida’s words “to transform concepts, to displace them to turn them against their presuppositions…and to thereby produce new configurations.” Yet this is obviously more than wantonness and destruction. “Artists like Rainer, Reich, Gaburo, Chopin and Ashley command considerable respect,” writes Nicholas Zurbrugg in his book on Postmodernism, “for continuing the positive avant-garde tradition of working outside and against the financial barrier, the aesthetic barrier, and the barrier of the imagination that condition prevailing cultural and critical expectations.” In calling literature “an exigence and a gift,” Sartre himself concedes that
Whether he wants to or not, and even if he has his eye on eternal laurels, the writer is speaking to his contemporaries and brothers of his class and race.
The avant-garde is an attempt to perform the same function vis-à-vis “change” and social transformation as a cataclysm or tragedy but without the cost in human life or widespread destruction. All of this supports the criticism that non-objective artworks that are too refined and formulated are in danger of abetting the very problem they intend to solve—namely the removal of the meaningless iconic arbitrary absolute. The color white may be “ambiguous,” just as a law may be a good law, but, without a greater substantiveness infused into the universe surrounding these artworks and laws, there is an ominousness and menace that emanates from their justification and ideology. An artwork such as Gatza’s Apollo (which, though concurrent with it, should not be confused with Stravinsky’s actual ballet Apollo) must take place entirely in fragments and “posthumously” in the space between other artworks. The end result should contain none of the volatility of the notions of inclusion and exclusion, of “elsewhere” or “outside.” Perhaps it should even supply a measure of what Derrida describes as “pedagogic ballast” providing inertness and stability.
The voluminous poetry in Gatza’s Apollo reinforces the Dadaistic enhancement of disintegration and reconfiguration. Every line seeks to burst into undiscovered regions of compassion, more basic and interesting particles of Being.
In Scalotta’s silvery mirror
Striving upwards, climbing
To meet the lordly gray sky,
The ivory towers reflect life;
In reverse she sees Camelot
The castle projected in silver.
Up the road and down the river she watched;
Weaving her songs into blossoms and roses.
To her all things are possible, for everything is impossible.
She is free to be playful in her paradoxical island of Shallot
The curse has come
Cried Donna di Scalotta
RE: Why didn’t I say, why didn’t I say, no, no, no
Part two – oh god, I could do better than that
Dark rills begin, the words of every generation of humankind appear,
Pour forth from her eyes and nose in analogous driblets of India ink.
Her dark hair is a tangled thicket of possibility.
A madwoman of the woods, a queen of trees,
A murmuration of starlings lost to the exaltation
of the moment.
To exist is the continuing act of becoming. In the cold winds, recollect; you will never be yourself. A full being, never. Death brings finality and vultures, a virtue portrait that looks backwards in regret at the sparrows that could have been saved from afternoon rooks. Paint dries ever so slowly.
51 Years Ago
It was by accident that he was driven from home.
A soldier and a boy, cold and shivering, he survived.
He would lock himself in the bathroom.
On the jealous toilet he read comic books.
Yellow flowers erode, orange shells explode.
White Knight to d4
In festive rituals and Carnivalesque reversals, servants would dress up as their masters, men would go out in drag, dogs would dress as cats, and mice would dress as cheese. The leader of these events was entitled the Lord of Misrule. He was an officer appointed by lot at Christmas to preside over the Feast of Fools and other revelries for the ritual of Saturnalia.
Black Knight to e8
I didn’t know, I would have worn a fancy dress. Who shall I be, if you are the Lord of Misrule?
White Pawn to f4
You shall be the salt seller. As the spoonerism of your name, Marcel Duchamp, le marchand du sel, a merchant of salt. Ha! Done! With a wave of her arm. You are thus reborn!
Do we need to consider the possibility that there might be some justification in the action of the security guard at the Albright-Knox art gallery? In his response, which could and should be considered a self-examination and healing apologia, Gatza seems to feel that in some way he is responsible for what took place. At any rate, he feels a responsibility for explaining it and dispersing the pain of it. I remember my dad, a lawyer, once telling me that in a car accident there is never one-hundred-percent liability on one side or the other. If artworks are “over our heads,” in the sense that cold rainy days bring regeneration and bright blossoming, it is also true that umbrellas are over our heads and may be an unwelcomed defense mechanism in art galleries. Perhaps Gatza’s umbrella was perceived as a threat to Art. In his study of Nietzsche, Spurs, Derrida ends by discussing a separate fragment found among Nietzsche’s papers with the words “I have forgotten my umbrella.” Derrida discusses this fragment at some length and concludes that “[Forgetting] belongs to the nature of Being and reigns as the Destiny of its essence.”
Thus, in a thousand ways, has the “forgetting of Being” been represented as if Being (figuratively speaking) were the umbrella that some philosophy professor, in his distraction, left somewhere.
Would it then be culpable or complicit for a “philosophy professor” to remember his umbrella? Could Gatza’s umbrella have had some significance or volatility of which he was unaware? Undoubtedly so, but, in my opinion, by the same reasoning, the bizarre actions of the security guard could never be and should never be construed as a form of virtue.
Nietzsche famously discusses the sun-god Apollo in The Birth of Tragedy as a symbol of negation, which he contrasts with the god of wine, Dionysus, associated with impulsiveness and emotion. In Christianity, except for a new Testament apostle, “Apollo” is treated as a dark figure, in Hebrew “Abaddon,” in Greek Apollyon—“the destroyer”—due to his invulnerable preeminence. As a symbol of renewing complexity, of reconfiguration and reconciliation, both the figure of Apollo and the game of chess seem to have some inappropriateness. The game of chess, which has a military ancestry, is really a symbol of limitation not of liberating multiplicity and possibility. The imaginativeness suggested by its decorative and colorful pieces is a superficial complexity, more an “impressive” technical difficulty than complexity. Despite the many photos Gatza supplies of various views of chess boards and different arrangements of the pieces (in panels grouped in varying sets of numbers), the “game of Kings” has a sense of emnity and stagnancy. It is “tactical” yes, but what are its tactics? Its aim is superficial rather than liberating and profound. Apollo and chess could be seen as being in the camp of the Albright-Knox security department, with its tyranical authority.
As images of discovery and diversity, the sun-god Apollo and the game of chess might not reflect the dark rejection that invariably occurs in the struggle of life. However it would be unfair to say that the formal carnival variety of Gatza’s work doesn’t distance itself from the repression and despotism of artistic or any other sort of effeteness. Happily and admirably, Gatza’s work has overcome the characteristic human fear of Creation itself. It is an “invitation au voyage,” with its content flowing from hurt and honest inquiry, the lengthy straightforward substantiveness contained in line after line, strophe upon strophe of Gatza’s beautiful poetry and writing, searching for the multiple and the non-manipulative. In the end it sheds a true light on what took place in Albright-Knox gallery and the problems that are posed by these sorts of occurrences. It is the Being that humbly rises above negation—even from the gods—that remains heroic. There is no intent to deny laws, the Law or lawfulness in the archetypal artistic response, in the scientific, reasoned, philosophical striving for imaginativeness and reconciliation. There is only the wish to place authority with humanity, with contemplation and suffering, with intent, with parody, with the empirical fullness of competent knowledge—the law tempered in mercy, justice, the experience of life. What does artificiality (artifice) and loneliness have to say? This is the paradise at the end of the journey whose peace resides in the forbidden fruit of self-awareness and understanding—the ability to perceive joy not in sameness but differance.
Recently Tom Hibbard has had several articles published on visual writing, one in Big Bridge, issue 17 and also in Galatea Resurrects, issue 19. Hibbard has also had an article on the work of Belgian artist Luc Fierens in Word/ For Word, issue 22 and an article on Jack Kerouac’s poetry also in Big Bridge, issue 17. Several poems following Kerouac’s style and visual writing were recently published in Cricket Online Review. His book of poetry The Sacred River of Consciousness is available online at Moon Willow Press and Amazon.com. And his book Place of Uncertainty is available online at Otoliths Storefront from Lulu. Hibbard is working on a new collection of poetry and further articles on visual writing.