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Imagined Books and Phantom Islands: Making Art from Cultural Castoffs

by Jeremy Polacek on January 22, 2014

"Agnieszka Kurant: exformation," installation view at SculptureCenter (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Agnieszka Kurant: exformation,” installation view at SculptureCenter (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the early days of motion pictures, when movies were shot in film, editors would physically review footage, handling, cutting, and taping together different sections. Innumerable snippets ended up on the cutting-room floor, discarded, never to be seen again. Jean-Luc Godard’s often-quoted line, “Cinema is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie,” is a comforting one for purists, those who think edits foist fictions upon reality. Yet the mantra may also squirrel away an admission that films are necessarily full of falsehoods and omissions — movies the result of compromised truth. Godard, after all, is famed for his swashbuckling contributions to cinema, perhaps most of all the jump cut.

Agnieszka Kurant, "Map of Phantom Islands" (detail) (2011) (click to enlarge)

Agnieszka Kurant, “Map of Phantom Islands” (detail) (2011) (click to enlarge)

New York–based Polish artist Agnieszka Kurant is a chronicler of this negative side of creative output, a gleaner of what she calls “phantom capital” — the lost, imaginary, or ancillary material created by capitalism’s myriad productions. Her debut exhibition, exformation, on display at the SculptureCenter, takes its name from a scientific term coined by Danish thinker Tor Nørretranders. It refers to the inverse of information, the discarded supplements and catalysts that are part and parcel of a process but not necessarily part of its outcome. Kurant sees “exformation” as a watchword for our high capitalist times — so much used and lost but rarely known or seen. Her exhibition is a curious collection of fictitious, imaginary, and conditional things: a shelf of imaginary books mentioned in other books, a map of made-up islands, a film bringing together three characters cut completely from their respective films. It’s obvious that Kurant spent enormous effort researching, recording, and producing these works.

Some of them reflect a scholar’s or collector’s preoccupation, like “Phantom Estate,” an assemblage of proposed, unfinished, and incidental artworks, or “The Archive of Phantom Islands,” a collection of entries on the more than 20 fake islands Kurant documented. Others, like “Map of Phantom Islands” and “Political Map of Phantom Islands,” shimmer under a sorcerer’s spell, humming with a mysterious life of their own and charged with incantatory potential.

Elsewhere in the space, an old reel-to-reel player sends crackles and white noise over the show, playing “103.1 (title variable),” a supercut of silences from memorable speeches since the dawn of recorded sound. It’s an appropriate accompaniment for the “Phantom Library,” in which bound copies of works imagined by Philip K. Dick, Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and others sit on the long shelf. Each has an ISBN number and barcode, but flip through them and there’s nothing — just blank pages. (In some hard-cover copies, Kurant has included black-and-white or green-tinted celestial images — a glimpse at the negative, pregnant abyss?)

Front and back of a book from Agnieszka Kurant's "Phantom Library" (2011–12)

Front and back of a book from Agnieszka Kurant’s “Phantom Library” (2011–12)

Yet, given their names and vessels, it’s seductive to imagine the words suddenly coming into being, an act of spontaneous self-incarnation. In an interview with Art in America, Kurant said that she has offered copies to local libraries and begun Geppetto-esque plans to turn some of the blank books into actual texts. German author Ingo Niermann is allegedly writing The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a fictional work mentioned in Philip K. Dick’s counterfactual WWII novel The Man in the High Castle.

In Jorge Luis Borges’s great short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a narrator (named Borges) finds an encyclopedia entry, and then a few more, on an otherwise unknown place called Uqbar; the entries make it seem a plausible, potentially real place. More importantly, the entries also reference two “imaginary regions,” one of them called Tlön. As research and speculation into Tlön’s authenticity grows, so too does its nascent reality. It doesn’t matter that Tlön may be the product of a conspiracy — the authority of the encyclopedia and the power of the idea are enough to conjure reality. The same is true of Kurant’s “Phantom Library,” as well as her maps. Given the authoritative forms they take, the works call attention to the power by which fiction is able conjure life convincingly.

The focal point of the SculptureCenter show, and perhaps Kurant’s most alchemical act, is “Cutaways.” Working with legendary film editor Walter Murch, Kurant resurrected three characters left out of their original films for one slightly stilted journey: Charlotte Rampling as a hitchhiker in 1971 road movie Vanishing Point, Abe Vigoda as a sharp-tongued attorney and friend of Gene Hackman’s introverted snoop in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, and Dick Miller as Monster Joe in Pulp Fiction. It’s a pleasure to see Vigoda and company cross paths, but the film, while clever and well done, can’t rise above its flaccid plot. Counterintuitively, it takes off when it ends, as the credits roll a sort of funereal record of actors who also endured this unkindest cut — of being wholly removed from a film — for over five minutes, documenting a staggering roster of names: Mila Kunis, Tony Curtis, Mick Jagger, Harrison Ford, Tim Roth, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Heather Langenkamp (three times a denizen of that cutting-room floor), among many others.

Agnieszka Kurant, "Credits of Cutaways" (2013) (still)

Agnieszka Kurant, “Credits of Cutaways” (2013) (still)

Kurant’s show is an embarrassment of riches, but money — or ideas — can’t buy you a great film or an amazing book, an illustration of the pitfalls of conceptual art’s approach. As these pieces cross over into the realm of real novels and movies — mediums with unique challenges and conventions — they may flounder or prove unfit for their new domains. Still, in Kurant’s case, it would be wise to suspend your disbelief, at least until shown otherwise. Borgesian in her imagination and thrills, she may just conjure some great phantom canon.

Agnieszka Kurant: exformation continues at the SculptureCenter (44-19 Purves St, Long Island City, Queens) through January 27.

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