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Raphael Rubinstein

Selections from
In Search of
the Miraculous:
50 Episodes from
the Annals of Contemporary Art


Deaf since childhood, an artist begins to save the notes he must ask people to write out when he can’t read their lips. Many of these scraps of impromptu writing consist of proper names—the hardest kind of enunciation for him to visually comprehend—but they also include all kinds of odd phrases that he is unable to lip-read for one reason or another. Often his interlocutors grow tired of having to repeat their words until he is able to recognize them. For everyone involved, these translations from the aural to the visual can be exhausting. The notes which result from these “conversations with the hearing,” as he later comes to call them, are written on cocktail napkins, matchbook covers, cash register receipts, gallery announcements, pages torn from notebooks, business cards, pieces of brown paper bags, postcards and Post-its, in short, on every kind of paper imaginable.
          One day, this deaf man, who until now has been trying to express himself through painting, decides to exhibit some of these scribbled texts in conjunction with his canvases. To reconstruct the original context for viewers, he writes up short paragraphs which are printed and hung in black frames next to the note (or notes) they comment upon. As well as giving the background to each note’s creation, his accompanying texts address the socio-linguistic and psychological implications of his exchanges. As a result of this show, the public, or at least a small, but influential, portion of it, becomes as fascinated as the artist with these traces of communication between the deaf and the hearing. Critics begin to devote laudatory reviews to his note-and-commentary groupings, collectors begin to buy his work. It’s not long before he stops making paintings in order to devote himself completely to the new art form that has been born out of his exploration of his disability.
          As his artistic career blossoms and his circle of acquaintances widens, he begins to accumulate an ever greater number of notes. He starts to classify them, sometimes paying attention to the content of the message, sometimes to its provenance, sometimes to the color or shape of the paper. In certain cases a single word is accompanied by a long, anecdotal text. For instance, in one piece a scrawled three-letter word is flanked by an account of his visit to an upscale liquor store where, as he was buying a bottle of wine, he noticed two women employees engaged in an animated conversation. He couldn’t resist asking them the subject of their conversation, which one of them wrote out for him: “sex.” In another, less light-hearted work he presents the attempts of a semi-literate panhandler to write a request for money. In the panhandler’s incomplete and crossed-out words the artist is able to read the man’s tragic life.
          As he probes ever more deeply into the afterlife of his daily exchanges, he increasingly chooses to simply exhibit groups of notes by themselves, without any explicatory text. After a while, he becomes interested in recreating the circumstances in which the notes were written, such as a table in a Parisian restaurant or an Italian hotel room (he now travels the world from one exhibition to another). Although he now thinks little about his earlier involvement with painting, these recreations clearly relate to the history of still-life painting.

One day in 1962, a slim, dark-haired young man is sitting at a table in his cheap Latin Quarter hotel room. Although he has with him neither paint nor canvas nor any of the traditional studio accoutrements, he is about to begin his next work of art. Before this he has been a ballet dancer, the editor of a magazine devoted to concrete poetry, and a sculptor. His father, an Eastern European Jew, died in the Holocaust, despite the fact that he had converted to Christianity. He was rescued from a similar fate by a non- Jewish maternal uncle whose name he adopted. In the years to follow, his life will take him to a Greek island where, for 12 months, he will keep a detailed record of his meals, the recipes they involve and the lives of those around him as they relate to eating; he will open a restaurant in Germany where, at the end of each day, he will glue the remnants of selected meals (plates, glasses, silverware, chicken bones, cigarette butts, etc.) to the tables and sell them to an art dealer who will display the table tops, shorn of legs, on the walls of his prestigious gallery. Today, however, such extensive projects lie in the future. All he aims to accomplish now is the complete cataloging of every object on the table before him.
         It will take more than 200 pages to account for the 80 entries, which will range from #1 “Piece of bread with a bite taken out of it” to #80 “A Cigarette Burn.” As the entries range through plastic wine stoppers, shirt buttons, screws, obscure mementos and even the ballpoint pen with which he is writing, they offer not only descriptions of the objects but information about how they were acquired, what they have been used for and any anecdotes associated with them. For instance, he records where he bought the bread, who was visiting him when he sliced it, who took the bite of it. In this way, he gradually describes the important people in his life, the shops and cafes of his neighborhood, the living conditions in his cheap hotel. Eventually the material will appear in a book titled An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, which will include footnotes, several indexes, cross references, drawings of each object and a map showing their placement around the table. Some of the footnotes stretch for pages, wandering into reminiscences, esthetic statements and etymology. By the end, the objects on the table will have provided an occasion for a self-portrait of the artist and a quasi-archeological record of his milieu and era.

A 28-year-old Italian artist seals samples of his own feces in small tin cans. He produces 90 such cans whose labels give the title and description of the work in several languages. As in standard food packaging, the label also gives the weight of the contents (30 grams) and the month and year of its production (May 1961). The price of each can is equal to how much it would cost to buy 30 grams of gold.
          Within two years the artist is dead. Later, rumors abound that the market is saturated with forgeries of Artist’s Shit, as the edition is called. It is also suggested, in some quarters, that the artist only pretended to have put his shit in the cans. Despite the purported forgeries, the 2 by 2 1/2 inch containers have become so valuable that, like extremely old bottles of grand cru wine, hardly anyone dares to open them.

RAPHAEL RUBINSTEIN’s books include a collection of poems (The Basement of the Café Rilke, 1997), a selection of autobiographical prose (Postcards from Alphaville, 2000) and a volume of art writing (Polychrome Profusion: Selected Art Critcism 1990-2002), all from Hard Press Editions. A French translation by Marcel Cohen of In Search of the Miraculous was published in 2004 (Editions Grèges Montpelier). He is a Senior Editor at Art in America.

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Also by Raphael Rubinstein
The Poet of Geometry: A Venetian Tale

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