PARIS — Kudos to Ugo Rondinone. UGO RONDINONE : I ♥ JOHN GIORNO is the first retrospective of the hysterical anti-lyrical poet John Giorno, of New York underground fame. An innovator of performance poetry, he founded the artist collective Giorno Poetry Systems, with its mass communication approach to poetry, Dial-A-Poem — which the Palais de Tokyo has reactivated for this exhibition.
In the late 1970s, when I first encountered Giorno’s witty and iconoclastic proclamations, he struck me as a sort of abrasive, punk art version of Ram Dass, the teacher fired from Harvard in 1963 for conducting psychedelic drug research and then journeyed to India and found a guru. Giorno also traveled to India, in 1971, where he met H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, head of the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism, and became one of its earliest Western students.
Giorno’s poetry, a highly original interpenetration of avant-garde practices, psychedelics, and poetics, has reflected Buddhist and other Asian religious themes from the beginning. Cancer in My Left Ball: Poems, 1970–1972 (1972) illustrates a strong spirit of perverse, passionate detachment. It is a terrific collection of his poetry and a book beautifully produced by Dick Higgins’s Something Else Press. The poems work better when heard in live performance or in a recording, where one can focus on the gratifying pleasure in the voluptuous repetition of the phrases, but they are also powerful on the page. When I first saw Giorno perform his poems at the Mudd Club, his rolling, repetitious cadence recalled Artaud’s double and doubling again. There is a heightened, grassy tone to his plaintive alpha male voice that can make one stop biting oneself and get out of bed.
Like Ram Dass, Giorno is one of the most important spiritual teachers of the 20th century, but unlike Dass, he is also one of the most neglected. Giorno is at least partly responsible for launching an entirely ethical art based on Buddhist compassion. In 1984, he founded the AIDS Treatment Project, which is still active in supporting individuals living with HIV and AIDS. That work is completely consistent with his artistic philosophy of developing viral strategies to share poetry with as many people as possible. Giorno also has another broad sociopolitical context for his work that remains relevant: early on he celebrated queer sexuality, starting in 1964 with his “Pornographic Poem.” As such, he is an important force in the development of Tibetan Buddhism in the West in the erotic ecstatic lineage of the Beat Generation.
A lavish creation of Rondinone’s (Giorno and Rondinone are a long-standing couple), curated by Florence Ostende, UGO RONDINONE : I ♥ JOHN GIORNO is a very appealing mix of AIDS activism, radical concrete poetry, visual art, music, and his mantra-like performance poetry. Completely ignoring the French language context, the multifaceted exhibition is organized into eight parts, each representing a layer of Giorno’s sagacious and insightful poetry.
One enters the show through a dark hall into an even darker room where Rondinone’s looped, 14-minute film “THANX 4 NOTHING” (2015) is projected on the four surrounding walls. Here we come face-to-face with the calm but frenetic Giorno, dressed either in a white or black tuxedo, urgently reciting one of his confrontational poems based on the repeated riff, “thanks for nothing,” from 2006. Shot in black and white, the “classy” imagery contrasts nicely with Giorno’s provocative wailing, making his words even more valid as art critique. Toward the end of the reading, the imagery of the tuxedoed Giorno reading barefoot flips between black and white at an increasingly hectic pace. It is a cynical and poetic phrase, well filmed, that shifts in emotional impact from slightly cheesy to profound sincerity, revealing the dual influences that American pop culture and Buddhism have on Giorno’s mind — after all, in Buddhism the idea of nothing is everything.
Next comes an impressive archival gallery containing traces of Giorno’s entire life. The installation embraces us with reproduced magazine covers and flyers in multiple colors. Documentation literally covers the entire walls and it’s a pleasure to scan the familiar poetry magazine covers and street posters. Then one delves more deeply, and linearly, into the poet’s life by flipping through large file binders. This archival cornucopia offers glimpses into the poet’s early life as a gay man in New York City, when to be so was still a crime. Raised on Long Island, he moved to East 74th Street to attend Columbia University in the 1950s and eventually headed downtown. Paging through the binders is fascinating all the way down, but peaks with Giorno’s encounter with William S. Burroughs in 1964. Burroughs contributed greatly to Giorno’s interest in applying cut-up and montage techniques to found texts, a practice that marked him so deeply that Giorno only stopped using found elements in his poetry in the early 1980s — since then he has pursued a kind of experimental realism, both incantatory and cyclical.
The archival gallery includes documentation of Giorno’s meeting and befriending Andy Warhol, and of his subsequent relationships with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns — people who inspired him to apply Pop art and Duchampian techniques of appropriation of found imagery to his budding Buddhist-based poetry. These combined influences produced his first book in 1964, The American Book of the Dead, soon followed by Poems (1967).
Through Pop art, the idea had occurred to him that a poet should connect to a presumably homophobic audience using all the electronic channels of mass entertainment and ordinary life, including television, records, radio, and the telephone. The further one goes down this rabbit hole of Giorno’s life as an openly gay man in relation to electronic media, the braver his notion of poems as hyperbolic images of conspicuous consumption that can be endlessly reproduced through different technologies seems. At the Palais de Tokyo we see evidence of this impulse in Giorno’s “Electronic Sensory Poetry Environments,” where he worked in collaboration with synthesizer creator Robert Moog and others to create psychedelic poetry installations and happenings at St. Mark’s Church.
The archive is followed by a large gallery containing various unseen early Andy Warhol portrait films (of Giorno and others) and the linchpin piece of the entire show. Since the early 1960s, Giorno has seen his choppy poetic phrases as viruses that must be transmitted to as many people as possible, so it’s appropriate that a viral, meandering mood is established here with the use of Erik Satie’s proto-minimal piano piece “Vexations” from 1893 (its romantic phrase is repeated 840 times). It penetrates Sleep (1963), the film by Warhol that seemingly consists of long, uncut footage of Giorno (his lover and close friend at the time) “sleeping” for 5 hours and 20 minutes. In reality the film consists of several static images taken of Giorno as he slept looped together. It is one of Warhol’s first experiments with anti-film. He would later extend this technique with his eight-hour-long Empire (1964).
A nearby gallery features a masterful painting of Giorno based on Sleep, by Judith Eisler, along with other, less compelling portraits of the poet (Elizabeth Peyton’s for example). Eisler’s oil painting “John” (2008) is a dark greenish rendering of the prone Giorno in foreshortened perspective, reminiscent of Andrea Mantegna’s iconic “Lamentation of Christ.” Eisler’s painting is based on a photo she took surreptitiously of Warhol’s film in a museum exhibition.
There is also a remake of Warhol’s Sleep titled “Sleeptalking (d’après Sleep, 1963 de Andy Warhol, accompagné de la voix de John Giorno)” (1998) by Pierre Huyghe playing in a dark back gallery. For it, Huyghe filmed Giorno 30 years later in the same position as that of Warhol’s film and then submitted it to subtle digital morphing software so that the features of Giorno’s elderly face melt into those of his youth. Giorno talks laconically of the past over the image. While much abstract and conceptual art today has devolved into stylish interior design, “Sleeptalking (d’après Sleep)” has something to say. Giorno, who will be 80 next year, can be seen here erasing the line or boundary between life and death. The film reminded me of Balzac’s novella Sarrasine, the story of a young woman’s wonder at the strange appearance of an old castrati at a chic Parisian party — his face is full of angles and deeply furrowed in every direction. In “Sleeptalking (d’après Sleep),” Giorno is an extraordinary stand-in for an almost metaphysical belief that things will be all right, even as we slide into oblivion.
This is followed by a gallery devoted to Giorno’s not so amazing silkscreen-on-canvas concrete poetry paintings, including “THANX FOR NOTHING” (2012), “DON’T WAIT FOR ANYTHING” (2012), and “LIFE IS A KILLER” (2015), mixed in with murals and word pieces displayed on electronic screens. The paintings are a bit too facile for my taste and seem more in line with conceptual art as commodity. They start with the first Poem Prints Giorno made as part of the Dial-A-Poem installation in the 1970 Museum of Modern Art exhibition Information. The only advantage, for me, of his poetic phrases on canvas (besides demonstrating consistency) is that you’re free to give them as much or as little thought and attention as you need or feel they deserve. This is totally unlike the physically engaging, time-based performances of his texts, which have what Antonin Artaud in The Theater and Its Double called an “affective athleticism.”
Watching and hearing him read — the exhibition includes a site-specific sound environment of poems recorded in the studio with Moog and a looping projection of films by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Ron Mann, Michel Negroponte, and others that feature Giorno — there is something shamanic in his poetry that first looks to eradicate cliché, whose force must be mastered and turned around, so that the audience is empowered in an enhanced struggle for endurance. Giorno does this by capturing the colloquial language of advertisements, television, newspapers, and street slang, which connects his work to the modernist project that began with Stéphane Mallarmé and passed through James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and the Language poets.
Interrupting the exhibition’s various forms of poetry is a gallery featuring nothing but supreme Nyingma Buddhist thangkas, some small but powerful Buddhist sculptures, and a reproduction of the fireplace in Giorno’s Bowery home, where Buddhist ceremonies are enacted annually.
The next space is devoted to Giorno’s seminal Dial-A-Poem, a work that allowed people to listen to poems over the telephone simply by dialing a number. Giorno organized its first iteration in 1967 at the Architectural League of New York and then again at MoMA in 1970, where four phones were installed around the museum. By dialing a number, one could hear one of 50 poets reading a poem. That project led to a series of Giorno Poetry Systems compilation records, which remain very influential in terms of cultural and technological transformation in the arts, directly inspiring the Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine project, for example. A new bi-lingual version of Dial-A-Poem is accessible for free for the duration of the exhibition, retracing a century of sound poetry, from 1915 to now. Randomly played texts include pieces by Artaud, Louise Bourgeois, Serge Gainsbourg, Simone de Beauvoir, Bernard Heidsieck, Brigitte Fontaine, and Eric Duyckaerts.
What is fascinating, and a good example of the strange ways art history works, is that Dial-A-Poem follows the proposition found in Richard Huelsenbeck’s The Dada Almanac that an artist could order paintings over the phone and have them fabricated by a third party. This idea was famously realized in 1922 by László Moholy-Nagy when he ordered his Telephone Pictures by phone from a sign factory. Tony Smith, the American minimal sculptor, is relevant also to this tradition with his 1962 Minimalist masterpiece “Die” – a six-by-six-by-six foot cube of steel he ordered over the phone by calling in the specifications to his fabricator.
On listening again to Giorno reciting at the Palais de Tokyo, I came to consider him a sort of virtuoso of the larynx. Rather than a poet-vocalist in the sense we usually understand the term, he is a chanting machine. One can feel that he is having a great deal of fun chanting, all the while wielding a good deal of influence on one’s ideas of how to live. His use of found texts creates social totems, and when combined with his preacher-style cadence the result is completely compelling.
He opens a different kind of window for us into culture and its values, as is also made evident by his Streetworks project, for which people on roller skates are handing out Giorno’s poems to visitors and those passing by the Palais de Tokyo throughout the run of the exhibition. It is a revival of performances initiated by a group of artists and poets in the streets of New York in 1969. This integration of artistic avant-garde, political vanguard, and mass media appropriation is unique to the art practice of ethical poetry. As we confront the overwhelming impact of the mass media on our culture, along with the increasingly scarce critical capacity of most current art, Giorno’s work becomes exemplary and relevant.
Rondinone has engineered around Giorno the ultimate show of love, but also the ultimate in alienation with the separation of Giorno’s voice from his body. However, this has the effect of cutting through flesh to touch infinity. The result is a sensation that is found neither in life nor in death, but only along the poetic borderline between them, in the double bind of the simultaneous and absolute injunctions to live and to die well through the untying of what Artaud called the “anal tongue.”