One Work Kris Martin’s Idiot inspires a critic to rewrite his own Narrative
On a sultry May evening in the vanished world of 2008,I was sat inthe garden of a collector’s house in Bergamo, Italy, after a private view at the town’s art museum of an exhibition by Kris Martin.
Flies, the Belgian artist told me about a job he had created three years earlier where he’d hand-copied Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1874 novel, The Idiot. In fact, he did not specify at the time that it was a work(instead of an ascetic pastime), but there were several sculptural works in the Galleria dArte Moderna e Contemporanea(GAMec)
Show connected to the exact same literary masterpiece. This undertaking, but even in hearsay or perhaps because of that, struck me deeply. Because he had completed the copying, he said a daily act for months, one that sounded monastic, penitent-as a act of overt identification with the title character, the holy fool Prince Myshkin, and indeed had replaced every iteration of Myshkin’s name together with’ Martin’. And it had worked, since the artist, at least on that 1 encounter, looked an uncommonly kind, soft-spoken, considerate type, his character later thrown into relief when I guzzled too much chilled Trebbiano and my tongue sharpened into arbitrary bitchiness.
The following day I got up, hungover, also, studying in a guidebook which Le Corbusier had described a particular square in Bergamo’s oldtown since the most beautiful in Europe, walked to the Piazza Vecchia. It had been covered in scaffolding;I felt toxic, ousted from goodness. As soon as I got home I swiftly purchased a duplicate of the Idiot.I thought about copying it I could write’ Martin’ also, Isuppose-but settled for just reading.I loved it, and had some sort of afterglow;I became, for a while, gentler, kinder, though nowhere near saintly. The effect was a mixture of Myshkin and also the memory of the way Martin had conducted himself this evening. And how I had conducted myself, also. By a weird process of displacement and mirror neuronsfiring,I had been inspired not by an art but a verbal description of a single allied to a notion of its manufacturer’s mien, which this case is possibly as far as you desire, because even when you see Martin’s Idiot(2oo5)-which is currently on view in his series at s.M.A.K. inGhent-you can’ treadit. You are able to’ teven know, aside from the description, so that there is writing on all of the 1,494 A4 pages stacked within a vitrine. However Dostoevsky,I believed, had maybe changed him and, to some person as dissatisfied with their own personality as I am, might rewrite me:a sucker’s game that, historically,I’ ve never completely drained of.
NowI don’t know Kris Martin. From others who’ ve met him I’ ve heard conflicting reports, and arguably you do not copy out the entire of The Idiot because you already think you’ re like Myshkin; you may more likely make the devotion should you feel you’ re very much not, possibly if you’ re seeking some stabilising, positive, ritualistic force on your life. (Martin is nonetheless,I must notethe only artist I’ ve ever met only once who, weeks later, phoned outof the blue to see how Iand my loved ones were getting along. Following that, we somehow lost touch.) I’ ve never seen his Idiot in real life; and yet it influenced me as an idea, filtered through circumstance, more deeply than many functions I have observed. It’s an artwork with a performative level built into it, and there is nothing to prevent you, the viewer, aspiring to that same level.
Its manufacturer,I would guess, didn’t plan his artwork or his behaviour onone eveningin that hehad every reason to bein a fantastic disposition to be a vehicle for a viewer’s soul searching about their character defects, but art ends where itends, and I could laugh about it now, sort of.
What was at work here, perhaps, was what Harold Bloom called creative misprision’: misinterpretation that becomes effective.
And then it goes away, the transfiguring and vitalising effect; and you also require something else, or you get tired of bending your personality to a caricature.I said reading The Idiot through Idiot altered me for a little while, but it is in the character of afterglows to fade. 1 day you find the thing that inflected you does not function anymore. To the extent that art is practical, 1 function of it could be to irradiate and intoxicate the viewer that I see the world differently after visiting the job of particular photographers, getting attuned to the possibility of beauty and grace from the everyday-but, to mix metaphors, you need to keep going back into the well, failing much better.
When I do studio visits,I often ask artists if they believe that they learn things from looking at their own work. A number say yes, that illuminates,I think, an underrecognised aspect of artmaking: that it can be physiologically transformative for the artist, also. Hiroshi Sugimoto once told me that every time he seemed at a seascape he was”powering up This] eye”, the act of looking improved his vision.
There are numerous examples of artists who, atsome point, have gonetabula rasa-emptied their studio and built up from nothing. Tom Friedman once cleared his workspace, painted everything white and remained in there doing nothing before, finally, he poured a pool of honey on the floor. He subsequently started a jigsaw puzzle, which hespaced out to agrid; out of there, having flashed himself he could proceed, reboot his practice. Agnes Martin meditated before painting, that presum-ably resulted in plenty of meditation and the somatic benefits of same.
So probably I should have requested Kris Martin if writing Idiot altered him, although I believe I did not wish to hear if it didn’t; that there was no mechanical bridge, no shortcut, from 1 mode of selfhood into another, calmer one. But selfhood can also be flux,a simple fact that we don’t always like to face. In one study, people were asked when they thought they’d changed a lot before, and they largely said , but when asked if they believed they’d change a lot in thefuturethey largely said no. We believe we’ ve arrived at our closing self, just as we think human development has ended. Maybe Idiot has been a stabilising action, because another thing artists frequently have is a process that they can do virtually mindlessly that keeps them ticking over from the studio.
Perhaps it was all this or none of it. However, this text is all about what, and how much, it might be for someoneelse, onceit enters the vicissitudes ofreception. Artshouldn’ tbeself-help, but among the thingsitcan be is a temporary route correction-even if, ironically, it deflects attention away from itself and on a deeply humanist job of nine teenth-
Century literature-or one of a life of those. Which reminds me, I want to see The Idiot again. It has been years, and I can not remember a word of it.