Covered in Fish Oil and Honey while Sitting in a Public Toilet
by Paul Xylinides
At one time, I might have listened to my puritanical side and questioned this title for a post and perhaps especially a post that I had been invited to contribute as unnecessarily sensationalistic in the same manner that I once dismissed the real life event of performance art to which it refers. In fact when I began to write the novel whose working title The Sumo and his Bird finally became The Wild Horses of Hiroshima one of my intentions was to undertake a full-scale critical denunciation of events similar to what is described and commonly tagged by the rubric of “performance art”. I intended at the same time to include in the sweep of my scathing criticism much of the “installation art” that I had long dismissed as either insulting or derivative. These attitudes of mine reach far back to the original instigator of this type of art presentation – the one who contributed to the world’s cultural understanding with the galley exhibit of a men’s urinal. The following is the Tate Gallery’s description of the object and something of Marcel Duchamp’s idea of its artistic utility:
Fountain is one of Duchamp’s most famous works and is widely seen as an icon of twentieth-century art. The original, which is now lost, consisted of a standard urinal, laid flat on its back rather than upright in its usual position, and signed ‘R. Mutt 1917’. The Tate’s work is a 1964 replica … Fountain is an example of what Duchamp called a ‘readymade’, an ordinary manufactured object designated by the artist as a work of art. It epitomises the assault on convention and good taste for which he and the Dada movement are best known.
Since this provocative exhibit, any number of so-called artists have followed suit – apparently forgetful of the dictum that creative expression is nothing if not original. Today, nearly one hundred years later, one can find in the Catalogue of Montreal’s Musée Des Beaux Arts’ permanent collection an installation piece that comprises a janitor’s pristine cleaning supplies: detergent, bucket, mop, etcetera. I like to think the artist and the gallery mean it to signify a final cleaning up of what has been paraded as art in the same spirit as Duchamp’s offering and with little more to say, but I suspect that the powers that be would correct me while looking severely down their noses. To my mind, this type of work, in fact, has always represented an abdication of the artist’s responsibility to present a meaningful vision of the world and his/her times – one that advances and adds to a society’s and to an individual’s sensibility. I often feel that one can attribute much of this abdication to the horrors that the past century visited upon humankind. It is perhaps telling that Duchamp’s contribution came towards the end of the 1st World War. The nihilistic despair that followed upon the 2nd World War as to the possibility of any meaningful artistic expression is well-known and informed much of the career of the British painter Francis Bacon whose paintings recently broke all records in the sale of a work of art. Whether or not his prolific output had any meaning whatsoever – he claimed it had not – what, not to put too fine a point on it, incensed me in so much of what postured as art of Duchamp’s order is the patent cynicism of riding on the coat-tails of a relatively facile act that happened to be original and shocking for its time but whose originality ended there and whose shock value degenerated into cynical, juvenile and at times literally excremental productions. Less offensive from an olfactory perspective would be the choice on the part of some recent artists to exhibit the insides of a couch that they obtained on Craigslist.
The performance piece of the Chinese artist Zhang Huan where he covered himself in fish oil and honey and sat for an extended period in a public latrine especially remained with me after I read about it in an old edition of TIME magazine where I discovered that this particular artist had so enthralled a prominent New York art critic that the man pilgrimaged to the Far East. On meeting Huan, he promptly fell to his knees and kissed his hand. The type of work that the critic so venerated coupled with the 1998 exhibit of an artist’s bed – a work that “consists of dirty sheets, underpants stained by menses, used condoms, empty liquour bottles, and pregnancy tests” cemented my feelings against an art form that seemed to be no more than a symptom of a spiritually and creatively bankrupt age. Had the artist reproduced said scene on canvas rather than have the so-called cognoscenti promote and utilize future curatorial resources for the preservation of the wretched compilation of her personal domestic drama, my response would have been quite different. In another art form – musical composition and performance, the sight of John Cage sitting at his piano and not playing leaves one to feel that it is only writers who cannot avoid the very real and difficult task of giving life to their creative urges in the medium they have at hand.
When I was searching for a theme for the novel with its working title The Sumo and his Bird, in my usual manner, I had a single image that intrigued me and that I wished to be the starting point for some particular view of the world that seemed best to fit it. The image was of a sumo wrestler attended by his pet bird – hardly sufficient material for a full-scale narrative but Japanese society has always struck me as appealingly aesthetic in its conduct of daily social life and here was an opportunity to immerse myself in it if only in my imagination. – I am not so naive as not to understand that an actual visit to the country might very well completely disillusion me, but in the end I am not writing about a place but producing a work that uses my view of the world as its material. – However I still desperately needed a narrative line. In a previous novel, An American Pope, that had begun in the same tentative manner, I eventually found my dramatic foil in the Catholic Church, enabling me to explore my ideas on Christianity and how the original teachings had become warped over time. I thought to employ the same methodology in The Sumo and his Bird and, in the intimidating person of a sumo wrestler, take on the dispiriting assumptions – as I viewed them – of what had become the art world’s establishment. It was at this point that the thought did come to me that I should be absolutely sure that I understood exactly what it was that I was attacking. In other words, some due diligence was in order. What I discovered caused the entire enterprise to flip on its head and me to adopt an entirely different course.
It appeared that Zhang Huan’s intention had, contrary to my uninformed reading of it, been to confront the Chinese government with the murderous implications of its one-child policy that led to the infanticide of hundreds of thousands of female babies by parents who wished for a male offspring. His statement to the powers that be was – quoting from memory, “here am I willing to nourish the humblest of creatures – the flies that settle on my fish oil and honey smeared flesh – while you allow the deaths of the nation’s innocent children.” This was hardly the act of shallow sensationalism that I had thought it to be and it provoked a turning point in my own thinking. Although there continue to be artists derivatively – to my mind – covering themselves in honey or chocolate and others exhibiting this found object or that with the satisfaction of a modern Michelangelo, Zhang Huan had duly chastised and inspired me. Having located my sumo wrestler in Hiroshima, I turned my attention to a challenge of universal relevance – to an ongoing existential threat that we all face. According to the January 9, 2012 edition of TIME magazine, “With current stockpiles [of nuclear weaponry], you could come close to wiping out humanity.” How a Zhang Huan might respond and what might be the contribution of a sumo wrestler whom I now envisaged as half-American and half-Japanese became the ultimate focus for my novel that would eventually find its title: The Wild Horses of Hiroshima.
Let me end with my own personal aesthetic dictum as far as it goes: art isn’t raw material, it’s what you do with raw material. Murasaki Shikibu who wrote the first novel in literary history – The Tale of Genji – stated that she was compelled to preserve the “fascinating” society of her time for the benefit of future generations. In many ways ours has been an appalling society where the challenge for its artists is very much greater.