Author of the Quixote
By Matthew Herzog
Zorawar Sidhu presents Author of the Quixote on run at Marginal Utility till May 14th. As meticulous with creating rules as he is in following them, Zorawar crafts a scientific meditation on the limits of photography. He’s an Artist playing Art Geneticist, Jurassic Park meets the Buddhas of Bamiyan post-ISIL, or as Zorawar more literally references by his title, he’s like Pierre Menard playing the Author of the Quixote.
As much as I like to de-intellectualize, using the Effie Trinket smile-like-I-get-it method, there are elements in the exhibit that serve being grasped. Consider this your Cliffnotes, Sparknotes, whatever you use to read a book without ever actually reading it. And if you’re a Comparative Lit Major, try not to explode your canary heart over what you’re about to read.
In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, Borges writes as if he were reviewing Menard’s scholarly work. (Menard is a fictional author. That’s the first thing to remember)
Menard had attempted to use inspiration from his life to ‘recreate’ the original Miguel de Cervantes novel, Don Quixote. Are you with me still? This is a layered literary-fucks-literary piece. In the plastic arts, this is like Sherrie Levine (the artist known for pushing the boundaries of appropriation by photographing the photographs of Walker Evans) targeting her personal experiences in hopes she may take a photograph that contains the exact content of Walker Evans. Do you see the difference? Or am I twisting you around?
Menard immersed himself, making it inevitable he would rewrite the book word-for-word. He wanted to be so inundated it would become an involuntary act, even surpassing the language barrier to escape french and write in spanish. In the end, Menard was successful in rewriting the 9th and 38th chapters of Volume 1. And when they’re shown in conjunction with the original, the two are perfectly the same. Comically, Borges’ review mentions Menard’s version as the more inspirational of the two.
If you’re with me so far, I promise that was as difficult as this article will be. You’d think a synopsis of a book that fingers literature would be more sensual but hey, literary masturbation is going to come with papercuts.
Side Thought:: Losing the risk of papercuts while masturbating to a magazine is the silent hero of the digitization of porn.
Anyway, Zorawar found kinship in Borges’ book, making equally fastidious and often alchemic efforts to recreate ancient sculptures such as the Portrait Head of Euripides. He purchased Carrara marble mined from the same region as the Roman copies, and transferred photographs of the sculptures (courtesy of the Getty Museum) to their surface using pork gelatin.
Though I’m mostly attending to one particular room in Zorawar’s exhibit, it’s worth mentioning his lithography prints in an adjacent space. (Prints that look like drawings in a further alchemical magic. Did I mention we should burn him at the stake?) In our correspondence, Zorawar wrote, ‘...the materials were gathered from the most historically accurate sources - Italian sanguine, ochre, chalk, etc. The paper was made at a paper mill in France that still makes linen paper renaissance style.’ Zorawar uses his meticulous rules to set a standard, a formula by which any deviation becomes measurable and any outcome becomes provable..
In one case, the precision of Zorawar’s effort, especially with the marble pieces, highlighted the indecipherability of the photographs he chose. By using photos of the original sculptures to inform the shape of the marble, the only replicable truth is the outline of the sculpture’s silhouette and the profile of their face. Thus, the end results appear like wonky blocks, no form to their features, no depth to suggest expression.
What Zorawar references in his artist statement is the drawback to the process, saying, ‘They [pictorial reproductions as stand-ins for the original] do so, however, at the expense of the material presence of the object.’ Zorawar cannot accurately recreate the pieces in marble unless he takes artistic liberty with his chisel. And though he suggests this loss both in written and sculptural form, I might suggest this indicates another expense. Pictorial reproductions arrive not only at the expense of the material but the presence of the artist and his culture as well. Zorawar can not return the aura of ancient Roman sculpture using the information provided. And, in a way, he too is lost when denying the artistic liberty needed should he attempt to fill in the gaps.
When talking to Marginal Utility’s founders, David Dempewolf and Yuka Yokoyama, (otherwise known as the art aunt and uncle by which I’d kill to be adopted) we loosely tossed examples where craftsmanship and the perpetuation of culture often require the sacrifice of those that perform the duty.
Hafiz: followers preserve the Qur’an word-for-word in the event each copy of the religious text were destroyed.
Fahrenheit 451 where each person is a memorized book.
Itsukushima Shrine on the Japanese island of Miyajima: each section in need of repair is not preserved but replaced with perfect accuracy under the scrutiny of inveterate miya-daiku carpentry passed down through generations.
Kabuki Theater: a demanding theatrical tradition. It was once dominated by families providing Kabuki actors for several hundred years until the 1966 founding of the National Theater of Japan.
Even Pierre Menard from the Author of the Quixote, who spent years changing who he was to create someone else’s work.
In most of these examples, the artist, artisan or actor inherits responsibility, committing a sacrifice whether it be time, monetary gain, personal interest, stamina or even desired profession. They relinquish authorship, interpretation, and possibly their identity.
As I look about Zorawar’s work, I wonder if he, too, exists mostly in the gaps of knowledge, that the exhibit is just as much about what is present as what is not. Are uncompromising guidelines at the cost of the identity of the craftsman? That would be to say, Zorawar is completely missing, which isn’t possible. Clearly, his time studying casts of classical sculpture at PAFA is represented. Maybe I see representations of his critical study under Johns Hopkins’ Art Historian, and guy-who-stopped-eating-to-side-eye-you, Michael Fried. I’m betting his graduate career at Hunter College may be peeking behind the contemporary layout of the exhibit’s auxiliary display in Marginal’s Cash ‘n’ Carry gallery. I’m not sure. Though if this were true, it would only be from an academic view that Zorawar appears.
In a candid interview, Zorawar talked about his work, his navigation as an American artist with Indian roots, and, though not intentional, how his cultural identity may be peeking through the cracks of his decisions.
ZS- These [Roman Sculptures] aren’t mine, culturally… I’m not from a culture that produces these objects. No one is. No one currently living is. In fact, the legacy of the portrait of Euripides has been claimed by western Europe more than Mediterranean people. Where does that leave me? I’ve been trying to figure that out.
On the train, I was reading this interview with Rachel Dolezal… She’s like, ‘Oh well, my initial love for blackness came through National Geographic.’ And she has no idea why that’s problematic. She thinks that’s genuinely what other people live like. I don’t want to do that... It’s not as if this is a celebration of what I think ancient greek people are. Because there are some problematic stuff if you want to go down that road and identify yourself with the subject, or identify yourself with the maker of this subject.
Western culture for people in India is certainly different than Western culture for people in the West. I wasn’t born here but I came over when I was two… I’ve often gotten questions about whether I want to put some sort of Indian spin on it. As if, ‘Well, you’re going to insert something Indian in this, right?’ As if it was expected. I don’t want to feel responsible for that. Unfortunately, I might have to be responsible for that. David Hammons once said of James Turrell, ‘I wish I could be that light in subject matter and racially.’ He feels like he’s not allowed to not answer that question because it’s the first question asked of him.
On one hand I’m avoiding the cultural identity thing, but, the way I’m making all of these has allowed for a sort of unconscious decision making.
MH- With contemporary Art, I often feel I have to look at the artist as much as I look at the work. I have to understand who they are, where they are coming from, and it helps me to understand the symbols, either personal or cultural, they are using. What can happen is that I will look through an anglo-centric eye and when I see a show that culturally deviates from the culture of the artist - that I presume they have - it becomes a part of the subject matter. It’s basically the internal racism you might experience in the question, ‘Where are you gonna put the Indian into it?’
ZS- When I tell somebody I was born in India, they’ll say, ‘You don’t have an accent.’ Because, I’m expected to.
MH- And if you’re an artist you're expected to touch your culture.
ZS- That’s you’re artistic accent you’re expected to have. And, I kind of feel like it’s rewarded because you are meeting people’s expectations.
MH- As an artist who then performs the way they’re expected.
ZS- Yea. What if Jakov Smirnoff didn’t have an accent? And he was a normal dude. And he was just catching in on the things you expected a Russian person to do.
MH- How do you navigate that?
ZS- I just avoid it... Peter Schjeldahl made an interesting point. When there is a greenbergian paradigm of getting the narrative out of the way, pushing the narrative out of the work, it just hovers around it. The narrative was still there it was just outside of the artwork. You still needed it. You needed to know about Pollock painting on the floor in order to understand Pollock. Maybe, that’s part of the Borges thing. Pierre Menard is culturally different not only temporally different… Those expectations, I don’t know the answer to that. I secretly feel like if I did, I would have some sort of winning formula, like a card I could play or a spell I could cast… Sometimes I feel like I’m adrift in a culture that isn’t mine. But it kinda is. I’ve been here since I was two. Some of it is mine.
What Zorawar highlights is a catch 22 in American Art Culture. If your work touches subjects that deviate from the anglo experience, you’re categorized by that which deviates you. On the opposing end, if your work deviates from the culture you’re presumably associated, it can be seen as a denial of contemporary discussions on race and identity. It appears the method by which American Art categorizes its participants/deviations contains parallels with the formula in Zorawar’s work. Deviation is not only the measurement of itself but of standard, a formula that cuts both ways. I feel like I’m in a mirrored elevator looking at the back of my head.
As I write, I’d like to believe it isn’t Zorawar’s missing cultural inheritance one could feel in the work but a layer much deeper to his person. Maybe, by extending the gap of knowledge to include the removal of himself, Zorawar takes the discussion toward the grand loss of culture capable in photography and then back down to what truly disappears in a reproduction. It’s not only the loss of material presence, but that of our own intricacies.