Istvan Kantor at AGYU
Notes about Istvan Kantor:
* His working name is Monty Cantsin.
* He won the Governor General's award and the media tried to spark a national outrage but no one cared.
* He was arrested in Berlin last autumn for throwing blood on a statue, but that's been his modus operandi for 20 years, and no one in Canada cared.
* Blood is his favorite medium; he likes dumping jars of pig's blood over his head.
* His exhibition on now at AGYU is better than you'd expect, and it helps if you understand 1980s nihilism.
* He's actually a really sweet guy, the father of three children, and they haven't been taken away by child services, so that's saying something.
* He's romanticizes revolution, yet a performance I saw of his was a pointed critique of revolution.
* I'm under the impression that he could only be this successful in Canada, which I appreciate.
So, you go to the AGYU, and you have one room that has a remarkable installation made up of filling cabinets, with three videos projected against the wall. The pace of the video's looping effect is determined by the distance that drawers are pulled from the three filling cabinets before the wall they're projected onto. There's a slide, a tent, with another monitor and another video .... in the backroom, there's a full-length video featuring the pseudo-orgy and the pigs blood and Kantor's usual. Now, I think because I was a fan of Nine Inch Nails during its run during the 90s some of my first thoughts seeing this show was that this show is 10 years out of date ... ten years ago, Kantor would be screening calls from Trent Reznor, cause he'd want Kantor to direct his next video.
I also had the thought that a gallery wasn't really the proper venue for these films - maybe they should be screened at Roy Thompson Hall or something, because they are simply industrial music videos. I think that's why I found the show outstanding really - so brash, so loud, and yet rhythmic enough that it doesn't give you a headache or is a painful experience. I've seen lots of videos where looped editing and quick cuts can make you a bored and nauseous, but Kantor clearly knows what he's doing - he knows how to cut it so that it comes across visually as a beat, as a rhythm. The effect is entrancing ...and I spent more time watching the video in the back room than I would have usually. Of course, that means I had to read the nonsensical bombastic sentences - I doubt Kantor even takes them seriously, they seem to be just a bunch of techno-sounding words strung together to sound magnificent. There's lots of scrolling text in both this video and the one on the monitor in the army tent ... but trust me, you don't have to take it seriously. Don't judge Kantor as a writer.
Ok, so that's the good stuff I wanted to write about the show. And now, for the dirt ... or the dried pig's blood. Frankly, it's pretty revolting, and it's a testimony for our tolerance as artists in the community, and as Canadians with our embedded relativism and appreciation for our cultural diversity that we put up with it. But, what choice do we have? Censorship? That doesn't work and is stupid to begin with. Adults have the capacity to decide for themselves. I'd hate to think there are lots of people out there who are into the blood thing, but I know for myself personally, I dismiss it because it seems essentially harmless and it's more of a big joke than an actual psychological problem of Kantor's.
When Kantor was arrested in November, the reporter writing for the Globe and Mail mistakenly credited him with a performance of Jubal Brown's, who's appreciation for brash video editing and disgusting subject matter is clearly inspired by Kantor's example, who is old enough now to be looked up to and respected. If he were 25 I'd be like, what the fuck is this shit? I wouldn't want to take Kantor seriously at all. I.K. has clearly earned this respect, and while the Governor General's award had some controversy, it was also an understandable and respected decision.
He may seem overly successful because me and others write about him, but I'm writing about him because the show's up and there's nothing else to write about at the moment .... and that's the story of Canadian art. I remember when I was just starting out I was told that basically, if you hang around long enough, they'll start paying you. That is, an art career in Canada (over the past 40 years anyway) has been based on endurance rather than quality or anything else. You do something for long enough and suddenly the arbiters of taste'll be all like, "oh, they're great" and blah blah blah. Since art has such a high drop-out rate, you stick around long enough and you'll get shows at the AGYU too, because it's not like there's a great pool of mature artists to cherry pick from.
I don't think Kantor is great. Not yet anyway. Greatness is a loaded word that everyone is uncomfortable with. But one of the things I find wonderful about art is how these things are like islands in the stream of time, communications of human psychology from the past and the future ... and by the future I mean, the Mona Lisa that Napoleon looked at in 1805 is the same we see in 2005 ... from our perspective it's a document from the past, but from Napoleon's, it's as if he borrowed a little bit of our time for his bedroom. That's artistic greatness, when you have something that communicates to people in all time periods. Will Kantor be studied by students in 100 years? Maybe. I often say that if you do anything in art for more than a year, you're part of art history, a lesson I learned from watching Antiques Roadshow. Kantor isn't the type of artist to leave behind stuff for future Antiques Roadshows. His work isn't anything I'd consider desirable.
He's become part of the Canadian art establishment in spite of his antipathy against it, and he'll be collected by museums now, since GG bestowed an honour. Kantor's work may not speak to the audience of 2105, (at least the one I can imagine, but how the hell would I know?) but to the audience of 2005 he offers a reminder that a certain generation of men, like William Gibson, have had a romance with techno-dystopia, and a love for the bombast of revolution. Kantor's work reminds me of the awfulness of the Johnny Mnenmoic movie, or an even better example, the Scientiological nonsense of Earth Final Conflict, in that a few leather straps and loose wires have become some kind of semiotic of technological menace and dehumanization, and yet Kantor, like the rest us, benefits from the ease of computer video editing and email. Technological dystopia is a nihilistic myth, and like all myths, it makes a good story and not much else. In Neuromancer, Gibson's character Riveria grew up in the nuked wasteland of Bonn, which until the reunification of 1990, had been the capital of democratic West Germany. A quote from the write up on the Canada Council site:
Budapest, Hungary, 1956. At the height of the brutal Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution, Istvan Kantor's grandfather made him a toy gun out of scrap wood. The six-year-old future artist and neoist agitator then dashed out onto the rubble-strewn streets and pointed his toy gun at oncoming Soviet tanks. The tanks immediately menaced his family's apartment building. According to Kantor, this was his first authentic work of art, and the tanks, the smashed carts and burned-out cars, the shattered windows and bullet - riddled buildings are the primal scene - frightening, ecstatic - from which his art emerged.Hereoscertain
And finally, the Gift thing: Kantor throws vials of his blood on the walls of art galleries, sometimes at works themselves. In December 2002, I saw him do this at the Power Plant during the opening of their show on the propangada art from China's Cultural Revolution. Kantor shows up with a photographer and begins throwing the vials across the framed poster and text at the gallery's entrance. Because everyone there knew what was going on, everyone politley stood and watched. I remember Phillip Monk (who was curator there at the time, and is now curator at the AGYU) taking snapshots with a disposable camera. There was no shock effect, and no big ruckuss, unlike this photo.
As Bruce Barber (a former prof of mine at NSCAD) tells it, these X's seem to have begun as a desperate cry for art world attention, but are now taken seriously by thinkers of the Canadian establishment:
Since 1979 Kantor has been performing ritualistic blood actions in major galleries throughout Europe and North America, among them: The Ludwig Museum, Koln, MOMA and the Metropolitan in New York City, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Musee d'art Contemporain in Montreal. The artist's modus operandi in this body of work consists of donating (gifting) his blood in the form of an X mark to a suitable museum collection. After choosing the institutional recipient for his 'gift', Kantor enters the gallery and splashes vials of his blood in a large X fashion on the wall, usually between two key works of art in the gallery collection. This action often results in his arrest or forced ejection from the gallery, with his return forever banned. Notwithstanding his declamation in the Neoism Manifesto (1979) that "Neoism has no Manifesto", Kantor's "neoist research project", in typical avant-garde style, is accompanied by a press release, a letter of intent and/or manifesto.
The artist's "GIFT to Rauschenberg" (1991) for example, is described in a letter thus:Dear Mr Rauschenberg,
I made (a) beautiful gift for you in the form of a blood-X, using my own dark and cold blood splashed on a white wall surrounded by your early works at the Ludwig museum, in Koln, where presently you have a powerful retrospective.
Would you please leave GIFT on the wall, to be listed and signed as your own work, an additional piece to Erased de Kooning (1953) and Elemental Sculpture (1953), until it becomes meaningless and obsolete.
Revolutionary art is a gob of bloody spit in the face of art history, a kick in the arse to the art world, a tribute to the beauty of vandalism: the ultimate act of creation is, of necessity criminal.
My greatest regards,
Istvan Kantor: Machinery Execution, runs until April 3rd.
PS: (Zeke's Gallery in Montreal has posted an email exchange between Chris Hand of Zeke's, and Murray Whyte of the Toronto Star, and they had a good discussion of Kantor's work, which is here and which was a result of Whyte's profile on Kantor here).
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