Thursday, 13 March 2014

I Love Chris

Alicia Rodriguez visits the first SALT. Book Club, and finds a community approaching feminism through the obsessive study of contemporary art within the walls of a half-empty office building.

SALT. – edited by Fine Art graduates Saira Edwards, Hannah Regel, Thea Smith and Jala Wahid – is a publication dealing with contemporary art and feminism. Each issue features a carefully curated selection of essays, art writing and artwork. 

As I write this I have issue 4 open in front of me: it is a collection of extremely high quality submissions that reference the theme of ‘pageantry’. The magazine offers a refreshing, sleek and heavily ‘fine art’ – a faux-dumb, discerning – aesthetic with pleasingly little explanation or self-promotion. It reads like an artwork in itself, one that revels in its own research. It is exciting to find that there is a community approaching feminism through the obsessive study of contemporary art – and they are based in South-East London.

The first meeting of the SALT. Book Club took place in a half-empty office building in Bloomsbury on the 24th February 2014, and the book discussed was Aliens and Anorexia by Chris Kraus.

The creation of myth, drawn from personal history and that which is written out of social history, is a ritual of contemporary art that is currently evolving. Storytelling is evolving and texts written in the past twenty years, all of a sudden, need to be read again, revisited. 

The exploration – and rewriting – of history appears in many forms, and I have enjoyed its emergence over the past few years through artists (and each of their recent exhibitions) such as Serena Korda, Sophie Von Hellermann and Kara Walker. These examples fabricate their own complicated mythologies whilst carrying the authority of history. 

Although SALT. Book Club is first and foremost a feminist book club, it is difficult not to bring the context of contemporary art into the discussion. Indeed, Aliens and Anorexia could be analysed as a piece of 'art writing' and I feel that it, like the aforementioned artists, constructs its own mythology through obsessive research and explicit confessionals.

In Aliens and Anorexia, Chris Kraus pieces together layers of biography, fiction, research and memoir into a fluid meta-narrative. By reconstructing a catalogue of fuck-ups and failures throughout history, Kraus mediates her own complicated and problematic story. 

First published in 2000, Aliens… is a bodily, permeable text that follows the aftermath of Kraus’s unsuccessful feature film Gravity and Grace. It is a study of decreation and strategic self-destruction. The text investigates the life and philosophies of Simone Weil, with whom Kraus herself clearly identifies. She also discusses Ulrike Meinhof and artist Paul Thek in depth. 

Kristian Seth as Gravity in Gravity and Grace

It is the case studies that provide some of the strongest points in the book. Her hagiographies are engaging and persuasive, and we begin to believe that we understand history through Kraus herself. Are there many messy, manipulative female heroines? Can she be flawed? Kraus, like Weil, comes from a position of privilege. She can be contrary and difficult – but in the text, we are willing to go along with it. Kraus/Weil is not always likeable, but we stick up for her, we instantly believe the new, alternative history.

The text explores a gulf between the body and the desire to be larger than oneself. It explores the dynamics between bodies that are close, and relationships, bodies that retreat and pull away (gravity...), or simply wait. Kraus writes about anorexia in a way that I have not experienced elsewhere, even fifteen years on. Notably, she does not mention 'image'. Regarding an eating disorder that largely affects young women, Kraus does not patronise the sufferer. Again, the self-destruction is strategic. A way to lose oneself, leave the body. The self-destruction is cynical.

Of all members attending the SALT. Book Club, only one – Hannah Regel – has been lucky enough to see Kraus’s film Gravity and Grace in full, when it was screened at the ICA in 2012. What was it like? Was it good? Has it aged well? We are desperate to understand its failure, and ultimately, its success due to Kraus’s relentless, poetic writing on the subject. 

Still from Gravity and Grace

Regel was not impressed. It was a bad film. The rest of us are frantically piecing together futile images in our heads of brash nineties New Zealanders waiting for aliens to take them away. So Kraus becomes a character. The film becomes a myth, like a lost language.

SALT. Book Club is an intimate environment that encourages a sense of obsession with relation to reading. The people are among the most down-to-earth I have met since I moved to London six months ago, and the discussion never slowed or stuck. Issues of vulnerability, control and S&M were talked through at length over donuts and wine. These themes will likely continue into the next meeting. SALT. is experimental and seductive, and I am excited to be a part of the conversation. It is a place to talk about feminism and art and writing, three of my favourite things.

Alicia Rodriguez 

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1 comment:

  1. Fascinating read miss Rodriguez. I hope you're celebrating this successful article with a nice meal, i suggest Toad in the hole.