A month ago I visited Georges Pompidou for the first time with a friend of mine. Both of us are huge impressionism/post-impressionism/symbolism fans (she more than me) so neither expected to be in awe by the modernistic versions of art on display in Pompidou. I mean even from the outside the building prepares you for unconventional art. Considered by some the ugliest construction in Paris and by others a genial architectural accomplishment, Georges Pompidou provokes polar feelings both with its appearance and with its paintings and installations. Nevertheless, I was quite unprepared for what constitutes art nowadays and the trip soon turned from admiring art to frankly making fun of it by trying to come up with an explanation as to what the author meant when he decided to express his feelings through three identical white canvases or through red paintings on a red background.
Several weeks later I had to go through this process again as yet another friend of mine was visiting. However, she is much more the so-called artsy person so she really didn’t share my enthusiasm for laughing at things that don’t constitute art in my mind – such as a cloth hanger. Of course, there were installations worth admiring but overall I was left with the impression that modern art is way too modern. After all, more or less everything has been said and done and it becomes harder and harder to come up with something new and original – hence white canvases (I am sorry but these white canvases are a huge pain in the ass for me).
Lately I have been thinking that admiration comes with experience. I wonder what an average person with healthy reading habits would think of Alejandro Zamba’s Bonsai. Probably hate it as Bonsai is the perfect example of modernistic novel. If I may call a novel a 90-pages long book that I read in 45 minutes. Frankly I am finding it difficult to say what it was about because probably it was about nothing and everything. Maybe a love story? Sounds legit. Julio and Emilia are young lovers, quite ordinary with one notable exception – both of them live and breathe through literature. Before any sexual interactions they read out to each other until discovering a passage that arouses them – the rest is history. However, literature ignites the fire on which you burn yourself severely at the end (speaking from personal experience). In that sense the short story Tantalia by Macedonio Fernandez marks the beginning of the end for Julio and Emilia. Tantalia reads much like Bonsai – a young couple decides to buy a plant, which will symbolize their love, only to realize that when the plant dies, their love must perish with it. After that Emilia suddenly perishes and Julio is left to gather the scattered pieces of his life.
For such a short novel Bonsai incorporates a lot about art, love and relationships. When Julio misses out on an opportunity to transcribe a novel by a famous author, he sets on to write the novel that he thought that author would have written. That fictional novel within the novel also reads closely with Bonsai and the reader is entangled in a whirlpool of stories, interacting and influencing each other in unimaginable ways. A simple story that got complicated, as the author suggests, Bonsai is worth reading not for the plot or for the characters, but for the thoughts and sensations it provokes. Similarly to a bonsai, which once taken outside of its flowerpot ceases to exit, so does Julio and Emilia’s love evaporate once they stop reading to each other. And in that sense love becomes much more about what is kept out of the world and nourished into those precious moments of intimacy than about what is manifested publicly. For we can always find something to like and even fall in love with in other people and what counts at the end is that we have something that is strictly and privately ours. Prying destroys love and knowledge impedes it – when our affection is naked to the world it simply cannot exist anymore. We have given others an inside look into our most sacred emotions and what has become public can no longer be only ours – and can no longer be love.
I realize I am contrary for I accept modernism in literature but I still find it difficult to appreciate modernism in art. Bonsai may have evoked totally opposite feelings in another reader but that is what I love about literature (and modern one that is) – one is never locked into thinking what the author wanted to say – the author only wanted to say what you wanted to read. Probably experiences has the upper hand here. My limited knowledge about art impedes me from looking outside of the box and acknolwedging there might be something worth about it after all. My unhealthy relationship with literature though has introduced me to such a variety of novels that I no longer reject something just because it is too modern or too different. Nevertheless, three white canvases are not art in any universe. Just like 100 blank pages cannot be literature.
What’s the purpose of being with someone if they don’t change your life? She said that, and Julio was present when she said it: that life only had purpose if you found someone who changed it, who destroyed your life.