Céline Condorelli on Rita McBride’s Book Series ‘Ways’

‘I have secretly kept two copies of this series for years’

Westways, 2011, book from the series ‘Ways’, edited by Rita McBride and co-published by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Printed Matter, Inc., New York, and Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver. Courtesy: Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver

What has kept this series of five novels in my bag and on my shelf is their format: how they have multiple lives, are simultaneously conceptual artworks and books, exhibitions and critique, part of the world and pieces of time – the fast hours I have spent munching through them.

I have secretly kept two copies of this series for years. One is tucked away on a bookshelf at home – which I do not lend and guard rather jealously – while the other I travel with. Every year, I take it to meet a new group of students in order to blow apart their preconceived ideas of what artworks and exhibitions can be; I have also lent it to friends and lovers, and lost and replaced it on a regular basis.

I once put the series in a travelling exhibition I co-curated, trying different ways of displaying it: could the worlds of the books be opened up during a visit to an exhibition? I was wondering how they would perform in the context of a gallery after roaming the world outside the white cube. Could I contain an exhibition in an exhibition? Would anyone actually read it?

Framed and placed on a carefully designed book display, they looked wonderful and no one touched them. Next time round, I placed them casually on a pair of comfortable benches/sculptures. I immediately knew it had worked because one of the books was stolen during the opening. They kept disappearing and had to be bought again and again. I have since kept an alert on eBay so that I know when one appears, just in case, as I cannot ever have too many ‘Ways’.

Heartways, 2004, book from the series ‘Ways’, edited by Rita McBride and co-published by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Printed Matter, Inc., New York, and Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver. Courtesy: Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver

But what are they, anyway? Here are the facts as I understand them: Rita McBride invited a number of people to collectively write a book within a literary genre and a series of rules: the erotic/romantic novel, science fiction, the detective novel, self-help and biography. Apparently, each novel had to include a female heroine, who travelled a lot, had a lot of sex and encountered – casually, coincidentally, often unnamed – artworks by McBride. The books do not say which chapters or parts were written by whom. Did they each write a different chapter, or did they ping-pong through the whole thing? Is this an exquisite corpse or a collective voice?

Here are the facts as I see them: McBride has been making sculptures and installations that explore public space and fiction and which often provide a set or an audience for different kinds of performances or public address. She could not find an appropriate way of documenting, or of talking about, these works in a manner which was not ‘and then I did this, and then I did that, and then they did this and that’. So, she invented the ‘Ways’: novels in which her works appear much as they do in an exhibition, in a city or in the world – but parallel ones. The novels are at the opposite end of the spectrum to art criticism or art theory and they all firmly reside within pulp fiction, opening up different audiences, both inside and outside their own means of production.

The facts as you might read them are: Genny O can’t seem to lose her virginity in Heartways (2004), while artworks are transported with great difficulty and adventure to a biennial in Futureways (2004) and, in Crimeways (2005), New York needs to be rescued from bad taste and art fascists. Myways (2006) offers Gina Ashcraft’s vast wisdom and understanding of artists’ struggles and dilemmas. And finally (or not?), Westways (2011) follows the adventurous life of Mae West, who might be ‘the voluptuous and free-spirited American movie siren of the 1930s’, an inflatable vest or the 52-metre carbon-fibre sculpture by McBride in the city of Munich.

Céline Condorelli is an artist based in London, UK, and Lisbon, Portugal. Forthcoming exhibitions include Albertinum, Dresden, Germany, Kunstahus Pasquart, Switzerland, and Kunsthal Aarhus, Denmark.

Issue 200

First published in Issue 200

January - February 2019

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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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