Mario Garcia Torres, My Westphalia Days (2008). 16mm film. Approx.15 mins. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Jay Jopling/ White Cube (London).
Les Blank: Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Seventeen, 27th Febuary-22nd March 2008
Mario Garcia Torres, White Cube Hoxton Square, 29th February-29th March
Before Werner Herzog ate his shoe he threw himself into a cactus. Whilst shooting Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), one of the cast caught fire. Herzog uses his own body as a fire blanket, promising to throw himself into the cactus if his actor survives. Herzog narrates this story in Les Blank’s excellent chronicle of a later Herzog vow, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1979), noting it was not done out of self-destructiveness but from a desire to "show them that I understood some of some of the problems they faced... and to provide some fun in exchange." For this second vow - described to Paul Cronin in Herzog on Herzog – he tells his friend Errol Morris to stop making excuses and just start making his first film: “And the day I see the finished work I am going to eat my shoe.” Herzog continues:
When I arrived in Berkeley I was wearing the same shoes as when I had made my vow to Errol. The problem was that when I cooked them, that day at the restaurant, they had duck as a main course and there was a huge pot of duck fat sitting there. I had reckoned that the duck fat would come to a boiling point at around 140C and I would be better off cooking the shoes in the fat than in the boiling water. What happened was that the hot fat made the leather shrink and it became even tougher. There was absolutely no way to eat it unless I cut the leather into tiny fragments with a pair of poultry shears and swallowed it down with a lot of beer. I had a whole six-pack of beer which I drank and I remember kind of staggering out of this place pretty drunk. But don’t worry, leather is very easy to digest. And Tom Luddy, who was up on the stage with me, started distributing small pieces around the audience. (165-6)
Blank’s film about this incident was on show recently, looped at the Seventeen gallery in Shoreditch. It was a curious context for it because, encountered cold, it could have suggested an alternative lineage of, say, body art and Viennese Actionism, not ones usually proposed for Herzog’s own artistic excesses. Or the conceptual clarity of the title and the pieces central idea could suggest a relation to Fluxus scores or one of Lawrence Weiner’s Statements.
At the same time as the show at Seventeen, I saw two works by Mario Garcia Torres at White Cube Hoxton Square. What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger (2007) is a slide show. With beaches, hills and harbour views, the first half is a tourist brochure of the Greek Island of Syros, until the comment that Syros will be “telling about the way culture has been discussed in the last few decades.” The slides then present an abandoned abattoir, found and used as an art school by the German artist Martin Kippenberger. The film narrates the history of the school through its absence: it no longer exists and events and exhibitions were not documented. So we are left with a site of possibility as much conceptual as physical, amidst a Greek landscape itself redolent with traces of former civilizations and philosophies. As a film it’s deliberately a bit awkward and nostalgic, like a B movie version of Robert Smithson's Hotel Palenque (1969)
Garcia Torres has not been to famous art schools that don’t exist before. In 2005 he wrote to the Mexican painter Gerardo Murillo Dr.Atl – who had died in 1964 – discussing with him the Guggenheim’s plans for a new museum in Mexico, in Barranca de Oblatos, on the outskirts of Guadalajara. Instead of a once-existing museum that he could re-imagine, this is a landscape in the process of being imagined as a museum by the trustee's of a major and very real American museum. As in What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger, it is an imaginative gesture entwined with the history of modern art; a personal dialogue across history linking painting and conceptualism (or, more accurately, painters and conceptualists); a response in forms deliberately adrift in time, including Super 8, letters, and slide shows. In an interview with Gabrielle Cram (in the catalogue for Other Than Yourself at Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary in Vienna) Garcia Torres observes:
I am interested in talking about something that is not here with us in this moment, and to be able to bring it up to have a new discussion about it. I think the potential of this spaces [sic] that were apparently lost could lead us to think about the way we deal with history but also the way we deal with legitimating actions and artistic gestures nowadays. (25)
Blank’s film seems to show Herzog as a celebrity: arriving in California by plane for the night of shoe eating. We see posters announcing the public event, and a large audience gathering expectantly to see Herzog performing. Herzog duly performs, but actually the film shows more of Herzog in "private" moments: being interviewed in the back of the car; preparing the shoes in a restaurant kitchen by stuffing them with garlic, putting them in a saucepan, adding seasoning, chatting and philosophising as he does so. As a public event, the film's trajectory is towards Herzog’s back stage revelation that the film-maker will always be turned into a clown by the immaterial nature of his medium. The private side is manifested in Herzog’s desire for “right livelihood” - a man, he says, should cook his own dinner from scratch at least once a week – amongst a Western civilization lacking “adequate images.” For Herzog the images of commericals and TV quiz and talk shows are equivalent to other forms of pollution and ecological devastation. Herzog calls for a “holy war” against such images.
The White Cube show includes another film by Garcia Torres. My Westphalia Days (2008) responds to another art event: this time the disappearance of Michael Asher’s artwork of a commonplace caravan, which was removed during its participation in Sculpture Project Munster, and found a few days later in a forest outside the city. Garcia Torres' film imagines the caravan’s journey, although it only tells you the context at the end. What you see is a 30-year old Mercedez Benz leaving a residential city street at dawn to travel along motorways, country lanes, and dirt tracks. The caravan is left in a field, and we follow the driver back into the city. A long shot of the abandoned caravan in the field at sun set could be a dissolve in real time, but Garcia Torres gets impatient and speeds up nature. It’s a sign of the restless, anxious relation of art and everyday life that underlies the film, the very real doubt and insecurity beyond its smooth surface. Shot on grainy 16mm it also looks like a piece of New German Cinema, notably – with its shots of or from cars, and a random, drifting subject - Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road.
Both these shows highlight how Herzog and Garcia Torres relate to Brian Holmes' notion - working out of Foucault and Guattari in his contribution to Taking the Matter into Common Hands - of the oppositional device:
a deliberately abnormal, fictional, satirical, delirious, antagonistic or even violent pattern of behaviour that inserts itself into, and distorts, a corporeal, technical and symbolic configuration of normalised, social relations, in such a way as to provoke dissenting public speech. (37)
Both Herzog and Garcia Torres make works that function as such devices – working within communities and attitudes of art and film worlds respectively in order to open up again into broader concerns with pedagogy and lifestyle. If they seek different ways of working with the violence and entropy in their respective outlooks, both find some resolution in paradox. For Herzog the emphasis is on an action – but a public one that in its very showmanship retreats or collapses into the private; an epic will-to-power always balanced by a fall into becoming clown. For Torres the device is immaterial, suggestive, a hint, echo, and absence that keeps even the talk of utopia within its no place, but which similarly balances its ambition against the threat of a glib, amusing, art world confined insularity.
Historical categories may separate these two artists, but what seeing these two exhibitions together reveals is the overlap of their endeavours in a shared attempt to activate action, awareness and learning through gestures that are both conceptual, performative, and experiential.