March 15, 2019KR Reviews

Modernism and the Question of Genre: On Julie Carr’s Real Life: An Installation

Oakland, CA: Omnidawn Publishing, 2018. 232 pp. $17.95.

In a recent article, Anita Helle argues that Gertude Stein’s stylistic experimentation could be read as an attempt to transpose the techniques of other artistic mediums into the realm of poetry. We see Picasso’s influence as she calls attention to the materiality of the medium, privileging the sonic qualities of language over its semantic meaning, and we glimpse the specter of a film reel in her unyielding repetitions. This particular variety of hybridity remained commonplace among Modernist creative practitioners, many of whom worked across artistic mediums.

In recent years, readers have seen a veritable renaissance of poetry that engages painting, sculpture, film, and photography. Yet most of this writing functions as ekphrasis in the most traditional sense. We are offered poems that reflect on artworks, yet fail to engage the technical repertoire of any medium other than their own. Julie Carr’s Real Life: An Installation stands apart from these more traditional ekphrastic projects. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Carr frames language as “a performance,” rather than that familiar “narrative of striving.” Presented as a series of discrete episodes, which range from “fourteen line poems,” “short prose pieces,” and found language to performance scripts, Carr’s text skillfully adapts the immersive and disjunctive gestures of installation projects to the literary arts. In this way, she breathes life into a Modernist inheritance that has been obfuscated by our culture’s predilection for a clear narrative.

According to the Tate Museum, an installation functions as a “large-scale, mixed-media constructio[n], often designed for a specific place or for a temporary period of time.” This impulse toward ephemerality, and toward process, rather than product/commodity, is enacted in Carr’s swift transitions between scenes, lexicons, and narratives. “Try breathing faster,” Carr tells us as the text glides from “the sun” to a “hostile hostel” to “enormous projections of the inside of your own body.” Here the space between things becomes charged and complex, much like the fissures between a “beautiful emerald circular button” and “a grain of rice” in a work of collage or assemblage. Indeed, as we shift between scenes and vantage points—whether we’re made to see through the eyes of “the witch,” “an absent mother,” or “an old man”—we often glimpse the same bleak cultural landscape. These silences as we “jump across” these liminal textual spaces take on the significance of elegy, a collective mourning of a “the city as it once was.”

As her work engages the current political situation, Carr makes disconcerting, provocative, and very effective use of statistics. The hybridity of an installation project, which often includes video, photography, sculpture, and painting, comes through in this project’s genre hybridity. The repertoire of journalism is put to work as a way of contextualizing, and generalizing from, the poetic image. This innovative approach allows Carr to glide between objective and subjective ways of understanding the world. She writes, for instance, in “Into It 3,”

Girl in office crying because she has had a miscarriage.

Girl in office crying because she does not know grammar, never learned grammar, is graduating in one year without knowing what a sentence is.

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Also, 23,000 homeless students in Colorado at this time.

Here Carr suggests, through provocative juxtapositions, that the “girl in the office crying” is symptomatic of a broken social system. Her pairing of general language (i.e. “girl”) with deeply personal narrative implies that the trauma is larger in scale, that this anonymous “girl” is an archetype within a bleak cultural topography. As Carr shifts to statistics in the final stanza of the quoted passage, the scale shifts once again, gesturing at the magnitude and scope of what is being mourned.

What’s more, this passage underscores one of the work’s central questions: what form does an elegy take, one that could encompass all that we have lost as a culture, as a nation, and as an artistic community? The work’s hybridity and its adaptation of not one, but many, other mediums speaks to the seemingly insurmountable task of elegizing what “real life” has become. In a piece called “Shakespeare’s Rapes,” Carr elaborates, “Men rape women all the time, said my 12-year-old daughter. When the book goes, ‘they beat her up,’ it means they raped her, it just didn’t want to say it, she says.” The leap we are asked to make between the title and the piece’s thoroughly contemporary subject matter speaks to the too-slow pace of real, palpable social change. In this way, the work’s swift transitions between vantage points, places, and historical milieu suggests some degree of similarity among the various scenes and characters, all of whom struggle to change a larger cultural mechanism from within its confines.

With that in mind, one might read Carr’s Steinian adaptation of the installation form as a kind of closed textual system, an experience that is at once immersive and self-contained. “I enter into this circulatory system,” Carr tells us, only to discover that “the goal of our . . . system is the unhappiness of society.” Indeed, the work takes on a well-executed circular quality, as we return again and again to the same child, “pretty in a haircut,” who may or may not know she is wholly entrapped in a destructive culture’s orbits. Carr writes,

Jerry gets his cut short and Lulu gets hers cut shorter. They watch in the mirrors as their hair falls to the floor. Suddenly, inside the mirror, the face of a very, very old woman. Dull yellow eyes. Sharp teeth in a gaping mouth.

She stares hard at Lulu as they walk out the door—

What’s revealing about this passage is Carr’s conflation of the quotidian with the grotesque, the uncanny, and the unspeakable. The absence of exposition, as we are presented with image after image, speaks to the ways in which even the most frightening possibilities have been normalized within a “system” that generates unhappiness. With remarkable skill and compassion, Carr has created an installation that holds a mirror to this culture, and its apparatus for generating, again and again, that “sorrowful laughter,” the sound of “a world shifting away.”

Kristina Marie Darling
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of thirty-two books, including Look to Your Left: The Poetics of Spectacle (Akron Poetry Series, forthcoming in 2020) and Veronica in Cyberspace: Notes on Love + Light (Eyewear Publishing, forthcoming in 2019). Her work has been recognized with awards from Yaddo, the American Academy in Rome, the Whiting Foundation, and the Academy of American Poets. Kristina currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press and Tupelo Quarterly, an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Review of Books, a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly, and a freelance book critic at The New York Times Book Review.