Good and Bad Nostalgia

  Andy Warhol

Here is what drives me crazy. I began to notice the trend about five years ago, in the very big and very expensive Arts Festivals that litter the cultural landscape of Australia, or indeed virtually every part of the globe that has not managed to escape the insidious reach of the sinisterly named ‘art world’.

It started as something cute, intriguing, even touching: the revival of Andy Warhol (films, paintings, even the daily junk he used to hurl into the boxes beside his office desk) … then the appearance of the elderly choreographer Merce Cunningham, watching from a wheelchair the re-stagings of his old work … and then it was Yoko Ono … and Nam June Paik … and …

It’s the ’60s! But something a bit different from the general run of peace-and-love, hippie-pot-poncho, Beatles-and-Stones-and-Doors nostalgia. This is the far-out ’60s. The extremely radical ’60s. In short: the avant-garde ’60s.

Strangely enough, the prophet of all this, the one who got there first, was dreary old Oliver Stone: The Doors (1991) is not much of a movie, but the ingredients of the cultural Molotov Cocktail were all there, waiting to be shaken and flung into the mainstream arena: Jim Morrison, Warhol, Nico, Varda & Demy, Bruce Conner-like experimental movies …

Never mind that some of these artists who get swept up in the big Art Nostalgia ’60s Revival Tour are still working, still creating new things along different paths. Forget it! These ‘icons of the ’60s’ — as the publicists love to call them — are to be snap-frozen in their rebellious, underground youth. We don’t want to see their latest work! We want to experience Yoko Ono getting her clothes cut up by audience members politely wielding scissors all over again, not in some old black-and-white still photo or through the words of a dead critic, but live, right in front of our eyes! And we want to play our dutiful part, stepping up, blade in hand, to write ourselves into this reappropriated bit of art history. This time around, you can bet the cameras — multiple Hi-Def video cameras — will be there to record every wince, every tear, every cough. We can no longer leave anything to mere human memory!

This has, in fact, become a strange, obsessive disease within the art world: repeating, perhaps four decades on, the ephemeral art events — dance pieces, performance art actions, expanded-cinema happenings, musical improvisations — that were never originally meant to be documented or preserved for posterity. The art world secretly despises anything it cannot document and preserve — precisely because, then, it cannot package it up and sell it to the highest bidder.

So when Yoko or Merce do their thing again — or have surrogates do it for them in their presence — those Mabusian representatives of the institutional art world will be poised to commodify it, now and forever. Was it a sharp, mischievous sense of irony which led Marina Abramovic to title her own recreations of past performance pieces (her own and those of others) at the Guggenheim in 2005 — as beautifully filmed and cut by Babette Mangolte for ghostly video posterity — the Seven Easy Pieces?

Such art nostalgia is easy, alright. It’s all about basking in the aura of ’60s revolution — but only its aura. It’s the kind of political gesture without politics that the contemporary art world has long loved and cultivated. Not too far from wearing Che Guevara T-shirts, listening to (early) Velvet Underground CDs, collecting a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book (limited edition glossy reprint) or watching Mary Harron’s terrible I Shot Andy Warhol (Valerie Solanas, mother of us all!) as the short-cut to a radical vibe. Lifestyle spectacle.

And, sad to say, it’s all about a safe, distant relation to the avant-garde: yesterday’s avant-garde, not today’s. Were the high-profile bourgeois art festivals of 1967 celebrating Ono, Warhol, Bene, Schneemann, Dwoskin et al, just when they were militating on stages and screens, on the galleries and in the streets? No, four decades (at least) of protective distance is required before comfortable art-canonisation can take place.

In Australia in mid 2008 we witnessed an art world stoush that summed up the whole sorry mess. The international curator Robert Storr (his previous year’s credit was the Venice Biennale) devised the Biennale of Sydney around the theme of Revolution. Its main points of reference — against which new works from all over the world were referred and pitted — were the Russian Revolution and Paris in May ’68.

African critic-curator Okwui Enwezor had a withering term for Storr’s approach: revanchist melancholia. Why the sadness? Because the apolitical art world, in such blockbuster events, gets its revolutionary kicks while also sighing, in a voluptuous gesture of defeatism, ‘ah, what a shame the world will never be that exciting again, in our corporatised-globalised-networked-neo-liberal-post-revolutionary climate …’

In the world of film — particularly the upper-echelons of it that intersect with art, like at the Rotterdam Film Festival — nostalgia for the radical ’60s can infect two areas: programming, and production. And in both areas, we need to distinguish between bad and good nostalgia. There is nostalgia which is exploratory, inspired, oriented towards the future — not just some necrophilic, alienated strip-mining of the emptied-out signifiers of pastness. After all, there is a lot more to the radical-experimental cinema of the ’60s than we think we know; it is a question not just of retrospective celebration (and embalming), but perpetual discovery and rediscovery.

In the 2009 Slow Criticism fest for de Filmkrant, I celebrated the renewed circulation of William Klein’s work. I might also have chosen the extraordinary Peter Whitehead (whose work has also toured the world and appeared on DVD in recent years), or the Italian genius Carmelo Bene (I had to go to Thessaloniki to see two of his delirious cinematic masterpieces, Our Lady of the Turks and Salomé, on a big screen). Or take the intriguing case of Koji Wakamatsu’s epic recreation United Red Army (2007) — no more nostalgic than Garrel’s visionary May ’68-themed Regular Lovers (2005) — and the entire history of forgotten or suppressed ‘insubordinate’ Japanese cinema of the ’60s and ’70s (by Masao Adachi and others) that has been resurrected in progressive programming like that of the Cinémathèque française.

In filmmaking itself, we have seen many forms of return to the ’60s (where the ’60s pool often leaks a good way into the ’70s). One of these forms has been noted and probed by several astute critics, and an issue of the journal Framework has devoted special attention to it: the re-enactment. This curious, disjointed little movement of experimental work has been going on since the ’90s, and includes pieces such as Pierre Huyghe’s two-screen The Third Memory (1999) — where the real guy fictionalised in Dog Day Afternoon gets to ‘restage’ how he remembers that famous bank siege — and Jill Godmilow’s conceptual ‘remake’ (in the US) of a 1969 Harun Farocki film (from Germany) in What Farocki Taught (1997) … and there are a proliferating number of lesser examples.

It is all about remaking previous films from the Golden Age, not through the usual snip-snap appropriation of their footage, but through intricate and fussy re-enacting — Gus Van Sant anticipated this conceptualist tidal wave with his dreadful Psycho version of 1998. The formula itself is simple. Take a ’60s avant-garde classic, and try to recreate it: its look, its sounds, its gestures — even perhaps the faded hues and tints of the old 16mm print you have access to. Never mind that you and your friends look very different to how people then looked, that any unplanned spontaneity in the original is now rehearsed and restaged to within an inch of its life, that the digital video you end up with has nothing materially in common with cheap celluloid: that’s the whole point, stupid! We are measuring the distance between then and now, yesterday and today, 20th and 21st centuries. And how quaintly cool this past already seems …

Paige Sarlin in Framework takes a critical look at Mark Tribe’s 2006-8 ‘Port Huron Project’ (see here), which was all about restaging (in performance, for cameras) famous political speeches ‘from the Vietnam era’ (!). It’s a typical art world gesture: closer to Oliver Stone than Guy Debord, since it depends solely on the media archive of what has already been recorded and documented, rather than the living memory of real political struggles. What Enwezor called revanchist melancholia, Sarlin dubs New Left-wing melancholy. Where is the idealism, the truly human networking, the radical fervour? Maybe Michael Snow, too, had mischief in mind when he produced in 2003 the digital version of his classic experimental film Wavelength (1967) — and called it Wavelength for Those Who Don’t Have the Time.

Another artist, New Zealand-born Chris Kraus, put it in a nutshell best: ‘The present moment always radicalises everything… I want everything to be current, contemporary, right now, even when looking at history.’ That’s when nostalgia can become a positive force.


© Adrian Martin January 2010

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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