Why do Artists Write Novels?

The twin energies of ambition and anxiety seem to govern relations between the art and literary worlds

Brian Catling, The Vorrh, 2015. Courtesy: Vintage Books; photograph: Martina Lang

Brian Catling, The Vorrh, 2015. Courtesy: Vintage Books; photograph: Martina Lang

There’s widespread anxiety surrounding a particular plural possessive noun: artists’. Despite many artists happily ignoring disciplinary boundaries, the inconsistently applied s+apostrophe lingers awkwardly. I recently heard Lux Artists’ Moving Image Agency co-founder Mike Sperlinger give a talk about how descriptors like Artists’ Moving Image or Artists’ Writing reflect an institutional impulse to categorize activity as much as they imply an artistic desire to integrate or own other disciplines. ‘We don’t have artists’ painting,’ Sperlinger joked. Anyway, I thought to myself, whose film, video or writing was it in the first place?

Published to coincide with the 2015 exhibition, ‘Reads Like A Book’, at Krakow’s Cricoteka, Artist Novels might shy away from the grammar, but the fickle artists’ haunts its title. Collecting together essays, stories, discussions and interviews with artists involved in producing novels, it’s edited by artist-writer David Maroto and curator-writer Joanna Zielinska who run The Book Lovers project. They begin by wondering ‘whether a literary genre like the novel can be considered a medium in its own right within the visual arts, as video or installation could be’. It’s difficult to take seriously arguments about whether or not a literary format can be incorporated into contemporary art making. Art relies on being parasitical, a world-eater, so it’s more accurate here to replace ‘whether’ with ‘how’.

The book cites an illustrious history of artists who have taken a variety of approaches to novel-writing, including Leonora Carrington, Giorgio de Chirico, Salvador Dalí, Francis Picabia and Dorothea Tanning. In highlighting this varied output, the editors’ real concern is to show that many artists have ‘turned to the novel with more ambition than to simply produce a piece of narrative fiction’.

Putting aside their questionable use of the word ‘simply’, it’s true that there is a broad and deep fascination on the part of artists with how narrative fiction (not only in novel form but in cinema and other media) can be incorporated into their work. The last decade has seen a rapid expansion in artists publishing books, with the New York and la Art Book fairs as well as London’s Publish and Be Damned, publishers like Bookworks and Sternberg, and shops such as Motto and Printed Matter being just some of the numerous outlets for this activity.

Yet, the twin energies of ambition and anxiety seem to govern relations between the art and literary worlds. ‘The Space of the Page’ chapter includes a discussion between Tom McCarthy and Ingo Niermann, both writers who operate in the art world yet retain strong literary connections, in which Niermann displays a marked ambivalence towards his role as author-artist: ‘There are all these progressive ideas in the art world but then you end up just filling a space.’ McCarthy is more optimistic, speaking about poet-turned-artist-turned-architect Vito Acconci: ‘For him, art became the arena within which he could fully, more openly play out a set of literary concerns.’

Artist Novels contains interviews with the main players in the field, such as ‘anti-creative’ and conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith; artist Christopher K. Ho, who contributes an essay on fictional narrative’s variegated journey through contemporary art; as well as Liam Gillick, Jill Magid and Lindsay Seers. The ‘First Published’ chapter features previously unpublished or newly translated texts including a Henry Darger fragment and a short story by Yayoi Kusama. The book also reproduces Seth Price’s Dispersion, a pleasantly meandering essay about public art, media and distribution that, true to its name, has circulated widely online since its initial publication in 2002. Price is a prolific writer, recently publishing his self-reflexively titled Fuck You Seth Price (2015), a lively, satirical art-world narrative: ‘It was easy to locate the moment of inspiration that had rejuvenated his painting career, making him rich but ultimately leading him to reject contemporary art.’

But perhaps the most useful resource in Artist Novels is its bibliography. This offers an a–z of hundreds of artists’ novels, from Sophia Al-Maria’s The Girl Who Fell To Earth: A Memoir (2012) to Miek Zwamborn’s De duimsprong (The Thumb Jump, 2013); it’s currently being continuously updated by Maroto and Zielinska online at thebooklovers.info.

One recent addition is Gerry Bibby’s The Drumhead (2014). In it, the Australian artist channels the skewing energies of William S. Burroughs and the fractured realities of J.G. Ballard to relate a torn-from-the-headlines narrative about ascendant European right-wing extremism, art, the service industry and anything else he can fit in. An incandescently trashy yet piercingly critical story follows characters such as performance artist Gina, police agent Guy and the Wild Kids, all of whom seem to blend into one person, or take on the same voice. They travel to places with names like Genittal House or the Glass Pyramid, and there are cameo appearances from Marine Le Pen’s Twitter feed and far-right suicidal homophobe Dominique Venner. The result is bewildering but compulsively readable. It feels like a novel but also like a script for one of Bibby’s performances that you can take home and internalize, if you so wish.

Also included in the bibliography are British artist Katrina Palmer’s The Dark Object (2010) and The Fabricator’s Tale (2014). Palmer recently published End Matter (2015), a novel that forms part of an Artangel project about the uk’s Portland stone quarries which have provided material for many of London’s major buildings. Made up of supplementary matter written during a prolonged residency in Portland, End Matter begins its melancholy narrative with the humorously titled chapter ‘Outro’, then moves through various acknowledgements, addenda, appendices and epilogues to make up a kind of documentary narrative. There’s an evocation of excavation and displacement, which is the novel’s formal conceit, but explorations of supplementarity aside, it’s sometimes a slog to read.

Artist and poet Brian Catling differs from Bibby and Palmer in that, while the latter incorporate their novels into broader artistic projects, Catling’s recently republished The Vorrh (2007, re-issued 2015) is a standalone piece of genre literature. Partly a fantasy about a journey through a sentient forest, its central character is based on the surrealist author Raymond Roussel (the Vorrh is a forest mentioned in Roussel’s 1910 novel Impressions of Africa). The photographer Eadweard Muybridge also makes an appearance alongside a cast of other art-historical figures, as Catling’s ornately wrought language powers the narrative along.

The Vorrh is packed with visceral depictions of material and manipulation, much like Catling’s performances and sculptures. In a remarkable prologue, the protagonist fashions a bow out of his deceased lover’s leg bones, sinews and tendons. Before she died, she made an arrow that he now shoots up into the sky: ‘For a moment I am with it, high above these porous lands […] singing towards the Vorrh […] This arrow is in advance of my foreseen journey into the depth of the forest.’ The power of narrative fiction is made manifest: the arrow’s flight of narrative heads into an unknown jungle; the book’s characters and objects invade the reader’s self, all material is made potentially sentient and telepathic. The Vorrh has an invasive tactility that gets into your body as you read.

It’s surprising that so many artists want to invest in the relatively conservative novel format – as if the history of contemporary art wasn’t already heavy enough. (It would be great to read a comparative history of ‘the death of painting’ with ‘the death of the novel’.) But it’s easy to see the appeal of the quasi-magical power that novels seem to contain. Like the secret inner-life that emanates from art objects, the knowledge and potential contained within novels is something we can sense. Stories get deep inside of us and linger, so if you’re in the business of seduction and persuasion why wouldn’t you exploit that? Whether you’re an artist, lawyer or marketing executive, there’s a ubiquitous impulse to make up stories. Critics do it too, notably John Berger or Brian O’Doherty, who recently published The Crossdresser’s Secret (2015). But that’s the core of the anxiety s’. Where do I belong, if anywhere? Most of the names mentioned above have hyphenated careers: artist-poet-architect-etc. In the end, the question of whether someone from one discipline can work in another is pointless. If there’s a question here at all, it’s one that’s simultatneously far more straightforward and complex: is it a good read?

Nathaniel Budzinski is a writer and producer.

Issue 173

First published in Issue 173

September 2015

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Janiva Ellis, Catchphrase Coping Mechanism, 2019, oil on linen, 2.2 x 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and 47 Canal, New York; photograph: Joerg Lohse

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