I just finished Natural History by Carlos Fonseca. It’s about art and perspective and history and politics and so much that I need to think a bit.
The book ends at the beginning. The primary speaker narrates a tale of a performance artist so committed to her work that she effects huge changes in the world with her minor creations. She sees art in disappearance and death and destruction. She documents what she thinks, her interviews with people (including the narrator), her research, and ultimately we learn her story, the beginning of it all, at the very end of the book.
The structure is like the mythology the book invents. There is a world of fire underneath our world (think mining towns that have died because of underground fires that don’t go out) and that world somehow forecasts where our world will be. Structurally, the narrator is under and outside of the story, but knows it and the destruction created by the end of it all.
The central artist, on trial to see if the events she caused were art or terrorism, seems to have planned her trail, imprisonment, and death (of natural causes) from the very beginning. She vanished herself. She planted small false stories in newspapers, written by other people, and they later wrote the papers to clear up inaccuracies. The stories grew anyway and rebellions began, the stock market crashed, and a totally pretend dictator was overthrown in a Latin American country. All were illusions to show that ART creates politics. ART is history. The artist clings to her ancestral connection to the Confederate General Sherman and his march of fire and destruction and a source of her thinking somehow. She is creating her own march to the sea.
I would name the artist, but she vanishes and has many identities and to name her would be to give away too much of the story. She is no one real or famous, but she embodies the need for art to be a matter of history and documentation. She believes the battle for the future is between legal language and artistic language.
Things the book makes me think about:
1. All stories are about ruins. It’s certainly true here. We watched The Post yesterday. True in real life there. A perfect comment for 2020, but it’s not settling well with me.
2. “All avant-garde art was the strategic copy of a previous avant garde. There was no such thing as originality, only the pleasure of repetition. And so, they would be the first avant-are artists to boast of their plagiarism.” Here, I kept thinking of the fake cover of Time Magazine with Trump on the cover hanging at MaraLargo. Also, with all the vanishing and new identities, it seems the book says that a life is the only thing that can’t be copied.
3. The artist in the book documents her thinking in more than 200 hundred notebooks showing her conception of her project as art from the beginning. I love her little notebooks. My life is documented in little notebooks everywhere.
4. “There is nothing more treacherous than peace.” Behind everything there is something else that drives us away from contentment.
5. Is all of this a tragedy or a farce? Reading this reminded me of Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace). This book is shorter and no fun footnotes and not nearly the prophetic feeling that Wallace’s book created, but it’s in the same ballpark. It also reminded me of Underworld (Don DeLillo). Briefly, DeLillo shows the underworld of our life through garbage. Garbage will be the end of us. This book talks about how cyber garbage will be the end of us. The wonder of the artist’s handwritten notebooks will someday be a thing of the past and the loss of this seems overwhelming to me.
6. Certain things only become visible when they disappear. The book talked about the hordes of people who showed up at the Louvre after the Mona Lisa had been stolen just to see the empty space. I think how we all mourned the fire at Notre Dame in France when most of us hadn’t really noticed the church at all until then. Every time a favorite musician dies and we post our favorite songs. I ache for Prince still.
7. “Of all the objects of desire, the seductive and fearsome is one’s own identity.” I’ve spent a lot of my retirement years trying to find “my edges.” I’ve been a teacher, a wife, a mom, a grandmother, a daughter so long that trying to be me was and is a challenge. Where are the edges of me that aren’t about students, Jim, the kids, the grand kids? Where do I leave off before all the others begin?
8. Gertrude Stein (of course): “It was night, we had heard of camouflage but we had not yet seen it and Picasso, amazed, looked at it and then cried out, yes it is we who made it, that is cubism.” Camouflage is the art of vanishing–a key to this book. The artist creates imaginary deaths–the most daring camouflage it seems. The image of a preying mantis is used regularly in the book to show how camouflage meets destruction. There is discussion of camouflaging nets invented for wars and make entire landscapes invisible. I kept thinking of Christo and how he draped landscapes in bright colors like he did with Central Park to make the environment MORE VISIBLE–to make us see it as opposed to making it disappear. I have much to think about here.
9. “There’s nothing more difficult to share than an obsession.” At the roots, yes, I suppose. I read thousands of sophomore free writings with obsessions about Star Trek, Top Gun, Aspen Extreme, various bands, various sports teams, various girls, various guys–sophomores can share their obsessions. They are just hard to empathize with sometimes. Our current world shows our inability to empathize with anything. Obsession isn’t the problem. Empathy is.
I loved the book. I pretty much love all books I read, but I choose carefully. The text is dense. The story has no sex scenes, drug orgies, or actual scenes of violence that occur in the present tense–all violence is basically reported. This is a wonderful look at different perspectives involved in an intriguing trial about art.
I’m guessing there won’t be a movie, but I think there should be.