Disorientations: Art on the Margins of the Contemporary by Travis Jeppesen (Social Diseases, London 2008)
As a book Disorientations is very much a product of print-on-demand publishing, a technological advance that allows the tastes of tiny micro-audiences to be serviced. Jeppesen is a young American writer – based in recent years in the Czech Republic and Berlin – who has published a couple of novels and a book of poems on independent presses, while the present tome is a collection of his journalism mainly dating from the earlier part of this millennium. The content is not simply art, since we are also taken on detours through popular film and music. In terms of art, what is covered is what was on show in Prague (and to a much lesser extent Berlin) when Jeppesen was writing for magazines such as The Prague Pill and Umelec. Thus while many Czech cultural figures who aren’t much known outside Prague are covered, other names in these pages (Joseph Beuys or various yBas) will be overly familiar to anyone au fait with contemporary art.
Jeppesen’s tastes are very specific without being particularly highly developed: he is into a gay ‘transgressive’ punk aesthetic suffused with gothic elements. No surprise then that Jeppesen would cover an exhibition of photographs of drug abusing Prague rent boys by Six. “The underground, for lack of a better term, is the terrain that British artist Six has inhabited his entire life. Known in a previous life as Simon Barker, a member of the Bromley Contingent (ak.a. the Sex Pistols’ inner circle), one of the teenage masterminds behind the late 70s punk explosion…” (pages 34-35). My own perception of the Bromley Contingent, and I’ve met a good number of them, is rather different: to me they are a bunch of suburban bores. These contrasting opinions reflect real theoretical differences that exist between Jeppesen and myself, since I view the idea that any small group of people ‘masterminded’ the late 70s punk explosion as unnecessarily reductive. Disorientations contains many ridiculously simplistic statements. To give another example: “Like most great artists of the past century, Kolar was both an anarchist and a reactionary.” (page 107).
The portrait of Jeppesen that emerges from Disorientations is of a young writer who responds to looming deadlines by dashing off the first thing that comes into his head. While a slap-dash approach is evident in many of the reviews collected here, it is particularly blatant in coverage of a 2005 Eva and Jan Svankmajer retrospective at Prague Castle: “I could only jot down my first impressions, read back over them later, and wonder about what I actually saw. Here they are for someone else to fathom. Eva’s manic swirl of colors forming the cunt allegory, sweeping virtues informed by prosaic maladies, deformed by the strongest intention to otherwise forget the harsh coldness of every waking nightmare. Jan and his creatures, they haunt him like a melody…” (page 352). And so it goes on, worthless as art criticism, it might be of interest to fans of Gothic fiction, although they’d do better reading Ann Radcliffe, or even one of Jeppesen’s novels.
One doesn’t have to read much of Disorientations to discover Jepppesen suffers from the usual adolescent illusions about art, genius and ‘transcendence’: “In an aesthetic universe, vision alone takes precedence over everything else, transcending all the conflicts and traumas imposed on the psyche by the meat we carry around inside us – the very meat that unites us with nature and guides us in our efforts to destroy this nature as loudly as possible. For it is in those desultory orgiastic explosions of violence – the ultimate desecration of the sacred body – that truth subsides on this lowly earthly plane.” (Page 188). Likewise, Jeppesen could be speaking about his own writing when he notes: “A typical Jiri David text reads like a philosophical manifesto fuelled by adolescent rage instead of a central, unambiguous argument…” (page 115).
The following provides just one example of Jeppesen’s ‘adolescent rage’: “At a party I was once fortunate enough to meet a sociologist whose research focused extensively on serial killers. We ended up talking at length about the psychopathology of every day life, and although we were freebasing cocaine at the time, her answers nevertheless shone some interesting light on the subject. For instance, the myth of pornography. Shortly before Ted Bundy was executed, he made some statement along the lines ‘pornography is what made me savagely rape and butcher to death dozens of girls’. Of course, pornography doesn’t cause psychopathic behaviour; in fact, according to my crack-smoking sociologist friend, the common thread that links most of history’s more brutal serial killers isn’t porn but horror films…” (pages 186-187). This despite the fact that neither cinema nor the cinematic genre of horror films had been invented when, for example, Gilles de Rais murdered dozens (and possibly hundreds) of children in fifteenth-century France. Ditto Vlad The Impaler, Jack The Ripper, Elizabeth Báthory etc. etc. etc.
Jeppesen appears to know little about anything that that pre-dates his own birth. Reading Disorientations I was left with the impression that if something happened before the 1980s, then as far as Jeppesen was concerned, it is either connected to an artist he is profiling or else the serial killer Ed Gein. So, for example, he writes in a piece dating from 2003: “The police are obviously an integral part of the world television culture of the last twenty years…” (page 243). True as far as it goes, but cop shows were an integral part of television programming way before the 1980s too; viz Dragnet, Fabian of the Yard,, Dixon of Dock Green, The Untouchables, Z-Cars, The New Breed, The F.B.I., Dan August, The Streets of San Francisco, Softly Softly, Barlow at Large, Second Verdict, The Sweeney, Kojak, Starsky & Hutch, Hawaii 5-0, Homicide, Division 4, The Long Arm, The Link Men, Matlock Police, Solo One etc. Reading Jeppesen’s reviews I was constantly astounded by his historical amnesia about almost anything that happened before 1980.
Moving on, much of the material in this anthology suffers from a lack of editing. Reviewing a group exhibition, Jeppesen writes: “…maybe the most interesting work in Impresse is sculpture. Milan Cais’s Space Fantasy is Czech pessimist humor at its finest – perhaps a reaction to the sort of escapist fantasies that are so prevalent in the work of younger artists – while Lukas Rittstein reveals his mastery of the sublime in several brain-scrambling works.” (page 51). Jeppesen neither describes the sculptures nor gives an outline of the basic characteristics of what Czech pessimist humour might be, thereby leaving most readers from outside the Czech Republic – myself included – with little idea of what he is talking about. Professional art critics do not on the whole assume their readers will have seen the work they are writing about, which is why the standard procedure is to describe it as well as provide an opinion about it. I find it incredible that neither the magazines that first published Jeppesen’s pieces, nor the London publisher who asked him to gather them together in book form, failed to correct basic faults of this type.
Jeppesen is about as far removed from the art world as it is possible to get while still regularly visiting galleries, and this has some advantages. Not being immersed in the gallery world or worried about maintaining particular art scene relationships, Jeppesen is on the whole less willing to go along with hype than many otherwise more accomplished critics. Reviewing a Prague show of contemporary British art, he accurately describes Wolfgang Tillmans as ‘terribly over-rated’ (page 206). That said, he is led astray by his own attraction to gothic and gay imagery when he says: “The best work on display here belongs to Sam Taylor-Wood. Check out the three large-scale photographic works from her Soliloquy series. In the second one a bunch of mutts laze around some shirtless dude, who stands in the middle of a gravel path with a cross hanging around his neck. In the bottom panel, a scene from a sauna with men and women splayed out in various sexual positions. On her video A Little Death, a sped-up document of a dead hare being eaten by flies or maggots (it’s hard to tell), until it’s reduced to a skeletal fragment of its former self. Decomposition has never before been so mesmerizing.” (page 207). Sam Taylor-Wood is possibly the most one-dimensional artist of the entire yBa crowd, and while I can sympathise with Jeppesen’s criticisms of Jeremy Deller, nonetheless even Deller’s worst work stands head and shoulders above Taylor-Wood at her best. Incidentally, the top and far larger panel in Soliloquy II (1998) features not just any ‘dude’ but one of Taylor-Wood’s fellow White Cube artists, Harland Miller, in a very camp pose; and I’d say that six, or arguably seven, of the dogs in the photograph are in a state of repose, there are nine or ten (i.e. the majority of dogs in the picture) to which Jeppesen’s appellation ‘laze’ does not apply. And as for A Little Death, that is so tedious I’d rather watch paint dry!
While none of Jeppesen’s aesthetic judgements can be trusted, they do prove slightly more reliable when he’s dealing with film rather than the art world. That said, do you want or need to read another short overview of Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit On Your Grave or Driller Killer? These three titles will be over familiar to any UK reader interested in exploitation film due to the central role they played in the 1980s video nasties ‘debate’. Similarly, Jeppesen uses Dawn of the Dead to illustrate his thoughts on anti-consumerism and the horror film: would it have taken that much imagination to choose something very slightly less obvious but also set in a shopping mall – such as Chopping Mall or Sorority Babes In The Slime Ball Bowl-O-Rama – to make this point? Jeppesen seems to cover only whatever is right in front of his nose. Once he moves away from the Czech art that was all around him when he was living in Prague – but which is something that, beyond internationally famous figures such as Svankmajer and Kolar, I am unfamiliar with – I find his choices of material horribly predictable. That said, Jeppesen is still young and as he matures his cultural and historical horizons will hopefully broaden. Disorientations reads more like a blog by a precocious teenager than a book, and the only people I can see it appealing to are die-hard fans of Jeppesen’s prose fiction.
This was originally posted a week ago at 3AM Magazine but since not everyone who comes here goes there and vice versa, I thought it was worth putting it here too.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – http://www.stewarthomesociety.org/ – you know it makes (no) sense!
Comment by Hieronymus Kitsch on 2009-01-19 17:07:31 +0000
Either people are on crack while reading Travis Jeppersen’s Disorientations or they are just downright stupid. How could this wonderful book fail to get even one decent review in the first four weeks of publication, and now this travesty by Stewart Home?
On my own blog I mentioned a story where a couple of Shoredtich trendies were slagging off Disorientations to each other, and were so engrossed in this bitching that they fell victim to a gang of muggers. Some people are really stupid!
Stewart you should be ashamed of yourself. Art criticism has nothing to do with describing the work – any idiot can do that – it is all about empathising with the work, and this is exactly where Travis excels!
Phew! That’s my rant over. I feel better now 😉
Comment by Dire McCain on 2009-01-19 17:25:21 +0000
“You kinda look like a new waver,” Dane said, after giving Kat the once-over. “I hope you ain’t into the fuckin’ Cure.”
“I fuckin’ hate the Cure with a passion!” she exclaimed.
She was lying. I was the one who fucking hated the Cure with a passion. In fact, those were my exact words. She was clearly trying to impress this guy, so I kept my big mouth shut.
Comment by The Digital Professor Linda Nochlin on 2009-01-19 17:48:03 +0000
The goals of art history differ from the goals of art criticism.
Comment by Díre McCain on 2009-01-19 18:52:40 +0000
Crack-cocaine delivers an intensity of pleasure completely outside the “normal range” of human experience. It offers the most wonderful state of consciousness, and the most intense sense of being alive, the user will ever enjoy. (S)he will access heightened states of being whose modes are unknown to chemically-naïve contemporaries. Groping for adequate words, crack-takers sometimes speak of the rush in terms of a “whole-body orgasm”. Drug-naive virgins – slightly shop-soiled or otherwise – cannot be confident (unless in thrall to ill-conceived logical behaviorist theories of meaning) that they have grasped the significance of such an expression. For to do so, it would be necessary to take the drug via its distinctive delivery mechanism oneself. This is at best very imprudent…
And how the hell did Annalisa get out of her cage?
Comment by Paul McCartney on 2009-01-19 19:20:12 +0000
As time went on, James Jamerson became my hero, and later Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys… they were my two biggest influences: James because he was so good and melodic, and Brian because he went to very unusual places. With the Beach Boys, the band might be playing in C, but the bass might stay on the G just to hold it a back. I started to realize the power the bass player had within the band. Not vengeful power – it was just that you could actually control it. So even though the whole band is going along in A, you could stick in E
Comment by Mister Inauthenticity on 2009-01-19 19:41:18 +0000
Fakes. So you’re all a bunch of fakes, lying to me again. Just tell the truth for once, and I might be your friend. You talk crap behind my back.
Comment by Kojak on 2009-01-19 19:53:23 +0000
You should have called in the Art Police!
Comment by Mean Streets on 2009-01-19 20:42:09 +0000
Teen suicide, what’s stopping you aside from the fact you’re all too old????
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-01-19 20:55:44 +0000
Oh very funny, you should have been on stage, or maybe you did try to make it as a stand up but failed…..
Comment by Group Sex on 2009-01-19 21:12:33 +0000
Eva Grubinger group.sex
Texts by Eri Kawade/James Roberts, Ann Powers, Klaus Theweleit
The texts in group.sex discuss political groups and languages, abstract radicalism and art, feminism and bohemianism, social hierarchies, and telematic friendship. In his text “Remarks on the RAF Spectre”, German sociologist and cultural critic Klaus Theweleit discusses “the unreal linguistic situation in post-war Germany” and analyzes modes of mutual exclusion and hierarchy as they occured within groups such as the RAF (the Red Army Faction).
“It’s not just the languages that had closed down, the streets were closed as well. The very thing that had been gained – the streets, publicity, openness and linguistic diversity on all sides – disappeared into the gutter of history in two, three years. … In the groups that remained publicly relevant, the ‘K-Groups’ and the RAF, which were shifting towards the centre of the political movement as the remaining ‘radical’ groups, language and thought became restricted. This led to what I would now call ‘abstract radicalism’, a radicalism that limited itself to gestures, claims, demands, revolutionary attitudes broadcast in statements, slogans, but hardly any analysis was carried out. … things had to ‘be right’ only in a mindlessly abstract sense. The ‘concrete’ emigrated from radical left-wing politics (and found a home, for a time, in the women’s movement).” Klaus Theweleit
Edited and designed by artist Eva Grubinger, the book contains a pictorial insert entitled Sacher Torture, an image series illustrating modes of exclusion from a group.
Comment by Lars Bang Larsen on 2009-01-19 21:17:53 +0000
Lars Bang Larsen (Ed.) Sture Johannesson
Texts by Lars Bang Larsen and Sture Johannesson
“When the legend becomes a fact, print the legend”
In the sixties, Sture Johannesson’s psychedelic posters upset both the Swedish authorities and the “serious” left wing with their delirious drug politics. His pioneering body of work developed throughout the seventies and eighties, capturing the zeitgeist of three decades. More importantly, Johannesson’s posters, happenings, and experiments with new media – electronic as well as narcotic–demonstrated that the way authority programs society is more hallucinatory than any drug could ever be.
This book, part psychedelic philosophy, part biography, is the first to present Sture Johannesson’s work in depth, documenting his affiliations with the “high” underground and the punk movement, his activism and his radical exploration of the relationships between art, politics, technology, and human consciousness.
Co-produced by NIFCA, Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art.
Comment by The Vegetarian Nicholas Serota on 2009-01-19 21:53:46 +0000
I don’t like art critics or any other type of journalists, they are always mean to me!
Comment by John Holten on 2009-01-19 22:47:46 +0000
I’m just not sure that Disorientations rises up to its own author’s challenge because Jeppesen is a poet, a writer of fictions free of constraint and, producing copy for numerous small publications to a deadline sees him trying on the mantle of the serious art critic.
Comment by The Fake Travis Jeppesen on 2009-01-19 23:00:35 +0000
Well it was awarded 2008 non-fiction book of the year in 3AM Magazine and then they ran this review… “Old “Transgressive Novelist” Stewart Home Loves Disorientations!” is how I headlined it on my site, then kinda hid the link….
Comment by Dave Mitchell on 2009-01-20 08:18:51 +0000
hey – I just read your ‘funeral instructions’ piece and Ithink it’s a real trip. Unfortunately I dont hink I’ll be able to attend.
I had written up a set of instructions for my own funeral (involving a bouncy castle, face painting and a clown making balloon animals) and had planned to deliver this to a solicitor.
But then I decided I’d rather have a susprise.
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-01-20 10:08:57 +0000
Hey Dave, no worries, I’m not intending to die for quite a while yet anyway…. Of course the surprise for me would be if anyone bothered to carry out my instructions!
Comment by John Sinclair on 2009-01-20 13:46:55 +0000
People look better, and they have more casual clothing. The music’s horrible, the culture’s horrible, the movies are horrible, television is more horrible, and the government is way beyond imagination. My catchword is, everything is worse than ever. All the people that we thought were going to be the great leaders in culture, and music, are just millionaires. They aren’t doing anything for anybody. The drug war is worse. I don’t know … give me a good result, I’m dying for one.
Comment by Iain Sinclair on 2009-01-20 13:52:55 +0000
When I’m in my new Audi, engaged in meditative isolation, I always think that the only way to view the British landscape is through the window of one of these marvellous cars
Comment by Dave Mitchell on 2009-01-20 17:36:55 +0000
Oh I dont intend popping off for a while myself. I want to hang around and see the revolution.
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-01-21 00:25:31 +0000
Me too… and all my friend are here too, but strange neither John nor Iain are using their regular email addresses… as Admin I can check that shit out….. Still there’s no truer friend than a friend faked by another friend…..
Comment by John Sinclair on 2009-01-21 00:30:14 +0000
IT’S ALL GOOD: A John Sinclair Reader is a sampling of Sinclair’s journalism and verse spannig over forty years. It includes selections from his epic works in verse always know: a book of monk and Fattening Frogs For Snakes: Delta Sound Suite, as well as writings on Jack Kerouac, Iggy Pop, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Lennon, Sun Ra, Dr John, Willie King, Irma Thomas, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Bob “Righteous” Rudnick, Johnnie Bassett, the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, the White Buffalo Prophesy and the North Mississippi Hill Country Blues.
Comment by John Lennon on 2009-01-21 00:35:22 +0000
IT’S ALL GOOD also illuminates Sinclair’s legendary period as a cultural revolutionary and political prisoner, manager of the MC5, Chairman of the White Panther Party, producer of the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Festival and director of the Detroit Jazz Center. There’s evidence too of Sinclair’s years at WWOZ Radio in New Orleans, where he was voted the city’s favorite DJ.
Comment by Paul McCartney on 2009-01-21 00:37:15 +0000
The “Imagine There’s No Hunger” campaign also includes a charity bracelet, as well as a limited-edition pin and holiday ornament, featuring John Lennon’s famous self-portrait and signature. All net proceeds from the campaign will be donated directly to WHY to benefit grassroots efforts in Kenya, Haiti, Indonesia, Thailand, South Africa, Venezuela and New Orleans.
Comment by John Sinclair on 2009-01-21 00:40:00 +0000
The first MC5 album, recorded “live” at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom in the fall of 1968, exploded onto the scene like a bomb through a courtroom window, accompanied by a declaration that Sinclair, the band members and selected compatriots had formed the White Panther Party to oppose the U.S. government and support the Black Panther Party.
Comment by Díre McCain on 2009-01-21 03:37:10 +0000
And the placement of that Facebook thread excerpt about the Cure was beautifully executed by my klone, who I believed to be Annalisa, but unless she’s been kloned, it’s not her. In an effort to maintain her girlish figure, she’s been munching on Khat for days, and is extremely reluctant to leave the flat for fear that she’ll bump into Tweaker Dee and Tweaker Dum, who, allegedly, have been seen pelting along the main drag for the first time in over a year. Unless, of course, they’ve been kloned, which, to tell the truth, I’ve always suspected, since they have a tendency to appear in several places at once…
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-01-21 14:51:25 +0000
Wow looks like the Association of Autonomous Astraonauts fell thru a worm hole and are re-enacting their 5 year programme of the 1990s without knowing they’ve left the 20th century! We can thank the INS for that, since it looks like their ritual plagiarism of old AAA materials has set ghosts walking… The INS certainly proved their radically inauthentic credentials at the Tate Britain at the weekend by borrowing freely from the AAA and a whole slew of other sources. If you ask me the INS is a groove sensation!
Comment by Paul McCartney on 2009-01-21 16:17:13 +0000
Wait a minute…didn’t the five-year AAA program reach its crescendo in 2000 with Michael K’s ascension into 5-HTP orbit on weed and Red Bull? That’s the way I remember it anyway. I had enough fucking postcards from him, that’s for sure.
Comment by Díre McCain on 2009-01-21 17:10:29 +0000
Except for that time they raided Coco’s near the Traffic Circle and dragged out the entire kitchen staff, who were subsequently deported to Mexico. Oh wait, wrong INS…
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-01-21 23:44:22 +0000
The Association of Autonomous Astronauts is a worldwide network of community based groups dedicated to building their own spaceships. The AAA was founded 23 April 1995. Although many of their activities were reported as serious participation in conferences or protests against the militarization of space, some were also considered art pranks, media pranks, or just an elaborate spoof. The AAA had numerous local chapters which operated independently of one another, with the AAA effectively operating as a collective pseudonym along the lines of Luther Blissett (nom de plume).
The Association’s ostensible five-year mission, a reference to Star Trek, was to “establish a planetary network to end the monopoly of corporations, governments and the military over travel in space”. Artists who became involved were often connected to the zine scene or mail art movements. The five year mission’s completion was marked at the 2000 Fortean Times conference, although some chapters have continued activities to the present day.
Writer Tom Hodgkinson described them as “a loose bunch of Marxists, futurists, and revolutionaries on the dole”, going on to explicate their mission as “reclaim[ing] the idea of space travel for the common man”. To the AAA, he said, “space travel represented an ideal of freedom”.  Annick Bureaud of Leonardo/OLATS viewed their work as “space art” that “combine[d] freely space, cyberspace, raves, esoteric things, techno-music, etc.”, calling attention to “how they recycle … key images (the MIR Space Station, the astronauts on the Moon, etc.) … mixed with science-fiction (and specially Star Trek) buzz-words or images” and then subject these “sacred icons” to “iconoclastic treatments”.
The London chapter participated notably in the J18 Carnival Against Capitalism protests during that year’s G8 summit, with a contingent of AAA members dressed in space suits delivering a petition against the militarisation of space to the headquarters of Lockheed. The group was particularly concerned about the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft and its RTG power source performing an earth fly-by to boost its speed toward the outer Solar System.
Comment by Dire McCain on 2009-01-22 02:40:31 +0000
JachchoHmeH ‘Iwraj penaghtaH…
Comment by mistertrippy on 2009-01-22 12:30:41 +0000
…and pass the pipe…. no not the crack pipe, the one I need to fix the engine!