Is the name “Ulises Carrión” known to more than a handful of people outside the realm of artist’s books? Born in the Mexican town of San Andrés Tuxtla in 1941, Carrión originally had his eyes set on a literary career–his book of short stories with the intriguing title La Muerte de Miss O was published in Mexico in 1966—but after graduate studies in England, he ended up in Amsterdam where he devoted what remained of his abbreviated life (he died in 1989, from AIDS) to artist’s books (as a maker, seller, archivist and theorist), performance art, mail art, video and film. His activities in all of these domains were original and brilliant, but often not designed to last.
Seeking to explain Carrión’s then obscurity (in the catalogue of a posthumous show at Amsterdam’s Fodor Museum in 1992), Harry Ruhé observed: “He did not paint or make objects. His books were published in small editions and were sold out years ago. Many of his performances and lectures have been completely forgotten. Some performances were seen by just a handful of people. . . . We do not even have a decent description of many of these performances.” Carrión himself seems to have been sensitive to the fleeting nature of things: one of his projects was a periodical titled Ephemera, where he tracked various materials that happened to cross his desk, or pursued projects such as writing down (for Ephemera #7) “the news, recollections and decisions of one single day, whereby as many persons as possible are mentioned only by their first names.”
Here, in brief, are a few of his works, which I know of only second hand, via printed descriptions, fuzzy video stills, and hints dropped here and there. (The 1992 Fodor catalogue edited by Guy Schraenen, Ulises Carrión: We have won! Haevn’t We? is my main resource; I’ve also looked at websites for exhibitions about Carrión at the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil, in Mexico City, in 2002 and at The Showroom, London, in 2010.)
Tell me what sort of wallpaper your room has and I will tell you who you are (1973): In the artist’s own words, “Each page is a piece of real wallpaper that’s supposed to come from the bedroom of the person named on the same page.”
Hamlet for Two Voices (1977): two performers read aloud the names of the characters in Shakespeare’s play as they appear in the text. (Carrión had done his thesis at the University of Leeds on Shakespeare.)
Gossip, Scandal and Good Manners (1981): Carrión asked 10 friends to spread gossip about him. They had to keep diaries of what they told and to whom they told it. Another group of participants were asked to record these items of gossip whenever they heard them. Carrión subsequently delivered a lecture and made a film based on this project.
The Theft of the Year (1982): in the middle of a small space in a Dutch museum, the room’s walls covered with black felt, Carrión placed a table and in the middle of the table a cushion and in the middle of the cushion a diamond illuminated by a single spotlight. The title was printed on a sign in the space and a photographer was present to record what happened. Only after the photographer was removed did the diamond vanish as planned.
The Death of the Art Dealer (1982): originally a performance, then made into a film, it involved Carrión carrying a small video monitor on which was playing an obscure Hollywood film (of which he had a large collection) titled Death of the Art Dealer. During the performance, Carrión did his best to imitate with his body whatever was happening on-screen. “Every time there was a cut in the movie, he would quickly turn the monitor off and on. He also moved around with the monitor so that it paralleled the original camera movements of the movie. . . . If the camera was following someone climbing some stairs, he would slowly lift the monitor and move in that particular direction.” Danniel Danniel, interviewed by Annie Wright, Fodor catalogue)
The LPS File (1985): a film documenting a festival Carrión organized in Amsterdam in 1984 in tribute to Lilia Prado (1928-2006), a glamorous Mexican actress who was the star of many B movies in the 1950s and also appeared in several of Luis Buñuel’s films. Although the Lilia Prado Superstar festival was real (and also a piece of very public performance art), and although Carrión actually traveled to Mexico to persuade Prado to attend and negotiate the loans of her films, his after-the-fact documentary is apparently blatantly restaged.
I hope, some day, to see some of Carrión’s videos and films and to hold examples of his artist books in my hands, but for now I feel that I am already genuinely engaged with them, and take permission to feel so from these lines in Carrión’s 1973 manifesto “The New Art of Making Books”: “In order to understand and to appreciate a book of the old art, it is necessary to read it thoroughly. In the new art you often do NOT need to read the whole book. The reading may stop at the very moment you have understood the total structure of the book.”
April 5, 2013
Several years have passed and I have yet to hold an original Carrión book in my hands, but lately I have been lucky enough to read a photocopy of his 1972 publication Sonnet(s) and also Michalis Pichler’s response, Some More Sonnets. Carrión’s Sonnet(s), which was his first artist’s book, consists of 44 variations on a sonnet by Dante Gabriel Rossetti titled “Heart’s Compass.” In the manner of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, but with a greater emphasis on formatting and layout, Carrión rewrites and retypes Rossetti’s poem over and over again. One version (titled “Capital”) is in all caps, another has all the words underlined, another (titled “Dated”) includes the date and place of its creation (“Amsterdam 9 April 1972”). The “Germanic” version capitalizes many of the words; “Dictated” has all the punctuation written out. In Pichler’s new version, the technological differences between 1972 and 2009 often come into play for whereas Carrión was limited to what he could accomplish with a typewriter (the original edition was essentially a mimeographed typescript), Pichler can drawn on all the resources of digital word processing. He offers versions in italics, bold letters and crossed-out letters, three typographical effects impossible to do on an old-fashioned typewriter. There is also a sonnet embedded in an email and another that has been faxed. But there are also numerous versions that rely on imagination and inventiveness rather than on technology. Pichler’s “Uncanny Sonnet” involves type showing through faintly from the verso of a page. “Breathless Sonnet” runs together all the words of each line. “Anagram Nonset” scrambles the letters of the poem to form new words. At the end of the book, Pichler, a Berlin-based experimental writer and publisher who specializes in appropriated literature, lists a hundred-plus other sonnet variations yet to be written and invites readers to submit their own. Readers curious about Some More Sonnets can view it on Pichler’s website; Printed Matter has copies of the book for sale. Pichler’s witty extension of this invisible classic is a wonderful tribute to Carrión, a still elusive figure whom poet Mónica de la Torre recently described in Bomb Magazine as “perhaps Mexico’s most important conceptual artist.”