Exploded Kitsch Collections and Tourists in Art: Thåström, Kim Hyesoon, Harry Martinsson, Jules Verne and Aase Berg

by on Nov.15, 2012

In Daniel Tiffany’s upcoming book, Silver Planet, he discovers the roots of kitsch in poetry. More specifically in the “poetic” language: artificial-seeeming language, language that is deforms by foreignisms. But he also finds it in fake translations, The Arabian Nights, and the gothic in 19th century. In her book “Artificial Kingdom,” Celesete Olalquiaga (who came to our panel the other day on kitsch in NYC – thanks CO!) finds it similarly in the Victorian habit of collecting sea life and/or ferns in aquariums, in the Crystal Palace, which contained all kinds of collections, and in Captain Nemo’s underwater world.

Something that pervades both of these spheres is the idea of collecting, of gathering, of taxonomy and taxidermy, and also: orientalism. This collecting seems driven by a fascination with the foreign as well as the need to contain it. But what fascinates me a great deal is how these collections, these attempts to organize and make sense of and defend ourselves against the foreign tends to break down, thus becoming a site of infection, a site of melee, rather than a containment.

In some way this is all about art. Anytime we read poetry, we become tourists in art. I was thinking a lot about this when I was in Korea a couple of weeks ago. When I go on trips I become very vulnerable – prone to extreme and often contradictory emotions – in part because my body is bad at adjusting to the right time rhythm (I wake up in the middle of the night, I need my coffee at 3 am etc) and in part because I’m enveloped in a foreign world. This is the reverse of these collections: in one we are inundated in the foreign, in the other we try to contain/control the foreign. Often this fails. With feverish results.

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I’ve written about the gothic/kitschy brilliance of the Swedish 80s band Imperiet before and how much this influenced me early on as a teenage poet. The songwriter of that band, Joakim Thåström, has gone on to renounce his 80s production and made industrial music etc. But recently he seems to have gone really sentimental and has also started to play the old songs live. His new album, Beväpna dig med vingar (Arm yourself with wings) is like a kitsch manifesto (apparently he’s still influencing me), full of overtly poetic imagery. This song, Samarkanda, seems the most overt of kitsch exploration:

To begin with, the chorus compares a lover as Samarkand, the mythical city on the Silk Road, that most important facet of orientalism and its dissemination (of spices, fabrics and myths). But the song itself is a list of sensory experiences, but it’s a list that strangely creates equal signs between high and low, space and body, art and experience, artifice and nature:

Like all the religious icons in Triana
Like John Cale’s violin in “Venus in Fur”
Like the market in the mountains in Grenada
The one called something I can never remember
Like the Arc de Triump by Lemarc
Like Gun Club’s “Mother Earth”
Like a sunset
Like Nina Simone
Like Samarkands when she come
Like the strawberries tasted in Aunt Bertha’s [some kind of cake]
Like morning wine in May


Like when Whitney sings Dolly

etc

What strikes me in this is how art is equated with eating – not intellectual but sensual. And how Whitney Houston is equal to Nina Simone (who is equated with a sunset), Velvet Underground is equated with classical music, Gun Club is equated with military memorials etc. But most of all: how the song seems intent on proper nouns, especially foreign names (Whitney, Cale, Grenada etc). In this list of exotic names, “Aunt Bertha” becomes exotic along with her strawberries. Kitsch collections are meant to deal with our fascination with the foreign but they break down and our most home-based, most domestic stuff becomes foreign as well. Our very own bodies become strange: The title (Samarkanda) is a pun melding “Samarkand” and “andas” – to breathe. Breathing, the most natural thing in the world, is brought together with Samarkand, the orientalist icon of artifice.

(Even in its industrial-ish background music, it seems to make kitsch, sentimentalize the kind of music he initially used to reject his sentimental 80s music.)

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This song can perhaps be compared to one of my favorite recent poems, Kim Hyesoon’s “Silk Road” (trans. Don Mee Choi), which I have written about endlessly in the past:

In this poem I love the way the speaker wants to go into her “fever” – a spot that explodes, a poem. But before she can even make it inside of this dot, this fever, the body of the speaker begins to be possessed by the kind of media saturation emblematized by the fever: She carries a baby on her back instead of in her belly, “flesh scent” becomes a “gourd” smell, the scent becomes a “message,” words begin to stutterstutter, and then instead of the speaker making it into the dot, the fever come inside of her, tearing her up inside her body and leaving a thin piece of silk, the foam-vomit, the body turned artificial, a message from the fever.
The result of this harrowing experience is anachronism. All this time seems to pass in no time, and when all that time’s passed, she’s back to the beginning, she decides – as if no time had passed – to visit her fever.

but later…… later…… as I ripened to mush
Out of the blue, after many decades, I went to visit my fever

And the result is similar: we have the distortion, the turning the body into silk media. The camel comes back. The body is harrowed resulting in “fine silk” (silk road is of course a kind of media emblem too: the luxurious material that led to the creation of a whole “road” through the world).
But this time her daughter has a vision of Buddha and she seems to give birth to “Yoni” a child conceived by a body possessed by media, thus a body with language (“Yoni”) attached to it.
And this time, the distinction between inside/outside is totally obliterated. The fever takes her to the hospital but even the hospital cannot maintain an “inside” as the camel comes out of her art and blows up the hospital with its contradictory both “black hill” and “Flaming Mountain.”
The poem ends with the poet trying to bring the fever back inside the dot (“inside my sleep”) by eating the “mirage.” But obviously the poem is what gives the speaker life, it is thus impossible to bring the mirages inside, they are far too transversing. She vomits out the purple-foam poem.

Like Thåström, Kim Hyesoon explores kitsch and art. KH’s poem is better than Thåström’s song, and the kitsch palace is more broken down, more feverish, but they are both investigating how kitsch-collection breaks down, how art ruins the agency of the person who is supposed to be keeping these things separate, keeping him or herself in charge of the materials. But the materials rebel. Like my own experiences as a feverish tourist in Seoul, the art object – the thing we want to look at from an arm’s remove, keeps invading us, keeps ruining categories, keep breaking down the crystal palace.

Kim Hyesoon’s daughter Fi Jae Lee’s artwork.

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Harry Martinsson’s classic epic poem Aniara can be seen as a rewrite of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea. Except in Martinsson, the submarine is a bunch of people who get lost in a space ship. During their trip, they watch exotic images on produced by the ship’s computer, Miman, and this keeps their mood up until Miman accidentally catches images from earth, which has been destroyed in some environmental catastrophe. Miman short-circuits because in horror. Or is it because the exotic foreign and the domestic have – despite the best intentions of this floating crystal palace – merged. In some way perhaps, it’s this collapse that causes the earth’s destruction. Artifice and nature, home and away: they merge in the kitsch collection.

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Aase Berg’s hyper-kitschy re-imagining of Aniara, Dark Matter (forgive me if I keep writing about this, I spent years translating it) takes away the space ship and flings us out into a feverish catastrophe landscape (losing the “critical distance” of proper art – see Clement Greenberg) that may be earth or images from a foreign planet.

Interestingly, these images merge aquariums, drugs, the orient, outerspace in visionary landscapes such as this one:

In the aquarium cistern in the deep ship’s inner, dark-green moray eels stroke in a slow orbit the soft legs. Out of the gland-darkness, the aromas of heavy vanilla and ambergis rise; purple acorn bolts and pulsars throb rhythmically against the machine’s watermill.

A charge grows out of the steam from moment to moment. We hear voices from misty shores at the edge of the hallucination’s field of vision. Orchids of flower meal, pionees of meat, Alexander’s ampules from the Lust Garden of Suffering. In the pearl-green water one can see rags from siphonophores torn into pieces by the deep-sea hurricane.

I catch the fever and have to lie facing inward in heat for many days. Here follows an episode with consequences long past that of the bare eye. A young Chinese girl who stares at us from her obscured position the whole time. And Saskia Morena moves straight into Alexander’s traps. In her view he opens the ampules and the androgyne’s pictures begin to seep out.

He also anaesthetizes certain muscles with small dozes of the pink powder. He dissects lovely plants and he creates a herborium of stamen-sprout and sticky hairy stems. This makes it possible to turn the poison outwards. To loosen the catastrophe from its position in the in-between space of our inner meeting. To spread it like pollen over android heaps and mute legions. At the surface of the facial skin whose carrier is Saskia Morena.

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This is also how I see Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting anthology: each genocide with its own poetry, each poem with its own genocide, a collection of atrocity kitsch that seems to have really exploded and influenced a lot of American poets.

5 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    Johannes,

    “Aase Berg’s hyper-kitschy re-imagining of Aniara, Dark Matter (forgive me if I keep writing about this, I spent years translating it) takes away the space ship and flings us out into a feverish catastrophe landscape (losing the “critical distance” of proper art – see Clement Greenberg) that may be earth or images from a foreign planet.”

    I recently saw Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe and it reminded me of Dark Matter for the reasons you talk about here. There’s no critical distance with that film: the shots are skewed and often hand-held, the plot is dense and you’re thrown right into it (which is why there’s so many competing theories about what it is really about), and everything is shown to be a “feverish catastrophe landscape.” There’s to critical distance, no establishing shots to give us our bearings.

    Instead, we have grimaces, wasted landscapes, wild dances, creaturely humans and human-like creatures, and sudden interjections by the director who talks about the colossal ruin of the film itself (he had to stop filming because of Polish authorities who came in to shut the project down, which makes the movie into a series of jagged fragments).

    James

  2. Johannes

    Yes, I just watched that too. Amazing. Wow, what a movie.

    Another thing I thought about: people often talk about explosion or vomits, abjection etc as being opposed to artifice, but in all of these instances, the more the artifice the more the explosion. Thåström’s song is the least art-y of these works, and it’s also where the kitsch is contained the most, although it seems it’s about to break open through the similies, the piling up of “like”. But here he can still make the woman the site of artifice, distant from himself, only tasted like wine or a recording of a song.

    Johannes

  3. James Pate

    That’s a good point. I know that the writers in the Montevidayo orbit are thought by some critics as being meat and flesh fundamentalists. As naturalists of a more excessive order. But really the opposite is true, I think. Nature becomes inauthentic, aestheticized. Deleuze in his later books talks about this. How nature is already “artifice” and swarming with aesthetic excesses. Darwin actually argued for the same thing, and had a very anti-reductionists view of things like peacock feathers, the ornate nests of certain south American birds, etc. For Darwin, nature is often a form of expenditure, and not “natural” at all. (Needless to say, many later evolutionists would take the reductionists route, making evolution sound like a form of neo-liberalism).

  4. Johannes

    I totally agree. Where is that Deleuze quote from?

    I’m actually writing on my Korea book right now and this is something I talk about. And how artifice and “howling” are not necessarily even opposites.

    Johannes

  5. James Pate

    Mainly it’s in A Thousand Plateaus. And Elizabeth Grosz talks about the Darwin link and the history of evolutionists ignoring that side of Darwin.

    James