Wednesday night, thanks to Art Spiegelman and Phillip Johnston, we found ourselves immersed in a world of wordlessness. With live music, visuals and spoken word, through WORDLESS! Art shared with us images and tales of the artists whose wordless works spoke volumes to an entire community and culture of visual artists, cartoonists and graphic novelists, including himself.
The project definitely left a stamp on campus.
Art started his day on campus by speaking to a convening of students from several different areas of study in UCLA’s Design Media Arts.
Art is beloved by established and emerging artists around the world, including DESMA students here at UCLA. Art’s e-cigarette and coffee were as omnipresent as his wit and wisdom.
Meanwhile, our friends at UCLA Special Collections also took up the cause, creating a display of work from 1930s wood-cut artist Lynd Ward, who was the first graphic novelists and major influence on many artists who followed–including Art Spiegelman.
Scenes from the mini-installation in the Charles E. Young Research Library.
And, on the night of the show we harnessed some creative talent from within our own community to explore one of the concepts from WORDLESS!–that of balancing on a hyphen..between words and pictures, right brain and left brain.
The unsigned editorial from the evening’s program notes
Very few humans are just one thing. We’re all a multi-hyphenate jumble of ideas, experiences, expectations, possibilities and curiosity. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Most artists exist in that hyphenate space…the place that simultaneously creates a pause and builds a bridge. Or, as Art Spiegelman himself might put it, using a hyphen to de-familiarize us with a pair of words, allowing us to see each one with fresh eyes.
That de-familiarization and re-familiarization is a constant underlying presence in the art of performance, giving us moments that inspire us to look at the world from a different perspective alongside moments that instigate deep and poignant memory of what we know (or thought we knew).
Tonight marks the first in a series of performances on our 2014-2015 season that straddle the medium of visual art, performance art and live music.
We’re very happy you’re here with us to welcome Art Spiegelman and Phillip Johnston, the live embodiment of a hyphenate creative experience, a co-mingling of ideas, experiences, expectations, possibilities and curiosity.
Part of WORDLESS! includes a new work from Art, a piece entitled “Shaping Thought.”
How do thoughts take shape? What kind of shape do they take? How do we shape the thoughts of those around us? How have artists of the past shaped the thoughts and works of the artists of today? How do we connect to the shape of each other’s thoughts? Where and how do we build our own hyphens?
We are curious beings around here. We like these questions. We hope you like them too. Feel free to ask them of us, of each other, often.
For our Artists Bookshelf initiative we askedselect artists on the season to share 5-10 books that have had a lasting impact. Graphic novelist and all-around creative philosopher Art Spiegelman took a slightly different approach and wrote us this wonderful treatise which we will share in its entirety here.
The greatest “cartoon” novel I ever read, populated by grotesques and stereotypes, but (or therefore?) drilling into the heart of the human condition. It’s a seriously hilarious work drenched in alienation and despair, written during Great Depression I (1939), and focused on the losers and lowlife on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. It uses Hollywood as a metonym for an America populated by “innocent” monsters, and ends—spoiler alert!—with Armageddon. Sentence for sentence The Day of the Locust is one of the most beautiful books I ever read, and one of the most visual—as in this description of our protagonist, Tod Hackett, a hack Hollywood set painter, washing his hands: “He got out of bed in sections, like a poorly made automaton, and carried his hands into the bathroom. He turned on the cold water. When the basin was full, he plunged his hands in up to the wrists. They lay quietly on the bottom like a pair of strange aquatic animals. When they were thoroughly chilled and began to crawl about, he lifted them out and hid them in a towel.”
(With new books precipitously piling up around me like kipple*, I don’t reread novels as often asI’d like—a pity, considering that with my rapidly fading memory, I could save a lotta dough rereading all the ones I’ve got—but I still re-dip into this short novel every few years. The only book I’ve compulsively returned to more often is….)
The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett
If I was more rigorous, I’d have limited myself to Godot (the first Beckett play I read and the one most cited by people who never read Beckett) or maybe Endgame, but—happy days!—this set includes Happy Days, Krapp’s Last Tape and all the rest. Beckett’s floridly minimalist and precise language is so deadpan funny and wise it makes me sob. A couple of years back, facing a brain operation and fretting more than usual about mortality, I realized I was too confirmed an atheist to have any sort of deathbed conversion so I steeped myself in his writings (the Molloy trilogy as well as the plays) and realized I indeed had Religion: I’m a devout member of the Church of the Absurd.
(And speaking of holy texts….)
The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, edited by Bill Blackbeard & Martin Williams
We now live in a golden age of comics reprints that includes enough beautiful multi-volume collections of Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, Gasoline Alley, Dick Tracy Peanuts, et al to break any library’s budget and bookshelves—but this 1977 anthology of the first 60 or so years of newspaper strips was seminal. Bill Blackbeard was a peerless connoisseur, collector, and scholar of comic who curated this inspiring collection of lost treasures, a book so essential to understanding my medium that a number of my closest cartooning cronies simply refer to it as ‘The Book’.
Inside Mad, edited, written and laid out by Harvey Kurtzman
This 1955 paperback collection of Harvey Kurtzman’s early issues of Mad (back when the no wailing magazine was still a comic book) is the very first book I read that changed my life. I was seven or eight and, if nothing else, it doomed me into aspiring to become a cartoonist. (The cartoonists who collaborated with Kurtzman—a genius cartoonist in his own right—all seemed to draw with pens manically overflowing with seratonin rather than india ink!) Mad also changed the life of America. Kurtzman’s self-referential anarchy may get taken for granted now, but he held up a cracked mirror that told the truth about a then Very Bland and Monolithic American culture. For better or worse, Harvey Kurtzman made literary irony mainstream. Without Mad there’d be no generation that grew up to protest the Vietnam War; nor the one that at least tried to Occupy Wall Street; no Simpsons or Colbert Report or Daily Show…. and certainly there could’ve been no Maus without Mickey Rodent!
This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski
Tadeusz Borowski was a Polish poet and journalist, a non-Jewish Communist prisoner in Auschwitz, who committed suicide in 1951 by sticking his head in a kitchen oven. His short stories, strikingly written even in translation, are seen through the eyes of a brutalized and brutalizing kapo, whose wide-open eyes are a camera, and whose emotions are clamped shut. It’s as if a less romantic and sentimental Raymond Chandler had lived through Auschwitz.
In the decade or more that I fully immersed in the grim world of “Holocaust Lit” in order to turn my father’s memories into comics panels, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the oxymoron of daily life in a death-camp until I found this book. If, as Franz Kafka once wrote, “a book must be an icepick to break the sea frozen inside us,” then Tadeusz Borowkski’s book of short stories is the volume that broke me the most.
Also in my top five are
—Kafka’s collected stories
—and Nabokov’s Lolita (as well as his Pale Fire)
—and Portnoy’s Complaint
—and maybe a collection of Harvey Kurtzman’s anti-war (or at least Humanist) War comics of the 1950s to show the flipside of that artist’s furshlugginer genius. (“Corpse on the Imjin” and Other Stories was published by Fantagraphics in 2012)
—and definitely the two-volume compilation of Lynd Ward’s six woodcut novels published by The Library of America that has an introduction I wrote that catalyzed the Wordless! performance at Royce Hall on October 15th (which occasioned the UCLA library’s request for this list.)
(At the moment I’m reading book on elementary math so I might to learn to count to five with greater accuracy….)
—art spiegelman, 2014
∗A word coined by Philip K. Dick (whose Ubik and The Three Stigma of Palmer Eldritch would be on this list if I put it together yesterday or tomorrow), defines kipple in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, (also on tomorrow’s list):
“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself…. the entire universe is moving towards a final state of total, absolute kipple-ization.”
One of the beautiful things artists do is open up this doorway of thought that invites us, compels us, inspires us, challenges us to think about our way of being in the world, our way of looking at the world, our definition of ourselves as it relates to the world and to each other.
Sometimes perhaps we stride through that doorway eagerly. Other times maybe we’re sucked through it by forces beyond our control or comprehension.
We think, just perhaps, some of the artists on our coming season will create both scenarios. It’s an interesting idea, this concept of self-definition, of connection to space and time, to memory and to other people. It’s already happening to us as we’ve launched our upcoming season and begun talking to each other and audiences about what is to come.
Very few humans would define themselves as one thing at one time. We are all many things simultaneously, constantly (hopefully) shedding preconceptions and habits and developing new ones as we learn and experience new things.
Artists are very good at shaping things– at inhabiting more than one concept, one artistic medium or expression at a time.
Through art we find our personal and collective superposition—that concept of a combination of two or more physical states to form a new physical state.
Why shouldn’t art make us think in terms of quantum physics like this? Art often agitates us in more than one state of being—often inspiring simultaneous emotional and intellectual reactions. It’s marvelously esoteric to think about, and yet also a concept that will come to life visually and viscerally when we present the L.A. solo debut of Japanese sound artist Ryoji Ikeda, whose piece superpositionuses the concepts of data—of the literal 1s and 0s that make up digital communication and explodes it into a source of poetic thought comprised of sound and visuals.
This train of thought also leads us to Art Speigelman, who in his presentation Wordless! will use words and music to explore the evolution and power of the graphic novel format.
Art has described himself as a hyphen between words and visuals. A thing that simultaneously creates space between two words and also connects them to form another word with a new or different meaning—a superposition.
As a presenter, that’s an apt description of us too. We hold that space between an artist and the audience that experiences it. At the same time, that space is what builds the bridge that connects the two, creating in that moment its own unique position in time.
And there are many such moments to come. We’re looking forward to it.