Endgames by Márton Koppány
(Otoliths, Rockhampton, Australia, 2008)
THE LEGEND OF MARTON KOPPANY:
ENDGAMES AND THE SUMMER OF THE RIVER
"What was the significance of the tragic poets?"
Born of maritime winds carrying cargos of spices, sandalwood, bronze and ivory, a hope-filled feverish vision seemed to come over the city of Milwaukee for a brief time during the sunny summer of 2008. Of course, these cargos were symbolic and perhaps merely illusions. In reality they represented art shows, books, bookstores and book cooperatives, publications, neighborhoods, politics, elections, economies, crowded beaches, concerts, festivals, plant-life, farms and farmers markets, bicycles, coffee shops, hiking trails, animals, people.
These are not uncommon elements. What was surprising was their alignment into an exhilarating feeling of radical transformation, the uncovering of a way that urban living could actually regress into a life much more centered on ideas and the vivid impressions of nature. One shaping event in particular was a small Woodland Pattern book center exhibit that lasted only a matter of the month of April, containing photographs, artworks, collages, blueprints and designs for construction projects. I was able to view it only once, but fortunately a substantial booklet from the exhibit remains: "Seeing Green: Art, Ecology and Activism in Milwaukee."
The exhibit, curated by Nicolas Lampert, with work from local artists, according to the booklet was intended to serve "as a hub space, informing the viewer and the public of the many environmental projects taking place throughout the city." One of the artworks, without attribution, is a cluster of little blue diggers-hotline explorer-like-claim flags across a rocky section of beach with a limitless Surrealist waterscape background.
Another work is an artist's conception-style work by Chris Cornelius for a proposed Nature Center, titled "Oneida Maple Sugar Camp." "This is a new structure for the Oneida Environmental Services Division of the Oneida Reservation in Oneida, Wisconsin. The building will be primarily used by the students of the Oneida Elementary School....The building utilizes cordwood masonry as its primary wall enclosure system."
Several artistic photographs from the exhibit seemed to reach a new level of insight: a lake surface superimposed on a rejoicing man; unfamiliar timeless crooked alleyways; last snows; imperious birds; metal rain barrels. One yellowed black-and-white photo showed grimy crumbling old-fashioned water-cistern buildings from the city’s industrial past. One simple artwork I recall from the exhibit not included in the booklet was a small nature shack with a wind-gust of stars connecting it to galaxies just above in the night sky.
A handout with the exhibit booklet was an advertisement for a two-day suburban “Going Green” conference working for “sustainable communities and farms.” Canvassing for Barack Obama one weekend in early autumn near an arts festival, I coincidentally knocked on the door of an organizer of this conference.
The project or image that connected with the widest and highest-pitched object emotion for me was the idea, from several sources and no source, of turning the Milwaukee River into an ancient water-way, like the Nile, that would revive boat transportation, in-town fishing, reedy wildlife, perhaps coffee-shops along the bank, a river lifestyle tied to the origins of civilization, ornamented with Japanese lanterns, but steered by a new awareness, an access for urban dwellers to a mysterious purifying escape that meandered vitally right below their overcrowded repetitive hustle and bustle. “The River” was a subject of conversations; impulses were felt, dreams were dreamt about the way a complex modern urban life-style might once again look to a river for its main source of interest and sustenance.
Amidst a stack of miscellaneous saved materials, newspaper articles, copies of “Rain Taxi,” catalogues for bygone film festivals, “Bloomsbury Review,” artworks for the Day of the Dead; I retained two valued publications, the May issue of “Riverwest Currents” from a revived working-class Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee, in which the unexpected victories in aldermanic elections of Nik Kovac and Milele Coggs were reported. Kovac had wrapped up his campaigning at an open house for the one-year book co-op anniversary of People’s Books on Locust Street. The office was open because twelve-year alderman, Mike D’Amato, had decided not to run for reelection.
The other publication was from a group called “Milwaukee River Work Group.” Titled “Milwaukee’s Central Park: Land & Water,” the undated issue is called a “Vision Paper.” It’s vision is drawn up as:
“Create a Central Park along the Milwaukee River upstream of North Avenue footbridge to Silver Spring Drive. Preserve the wild aspect of the natural area while improving the habitat. Improve water quality. Restore native plant species while removing non-native invasive plants. Improve public access to this urban natural resource.”
Among the excellent photos in this twelve-page newsprint tabloid-sized publication (distributed free in the window of People’s Books) was a front page birds-eye-view of a wooded section of the picturesque muddy-looking river with downtown skyline in the background. Inside, school-outing classes and fisherman were shown wading in the river, shallow in many areas, cleaning, catching turtles and even small sturgeon in benign nets. The most inspiring photos are from an article titled “River At Risk” with some interesting new living constructions along cement wharves and especially a large group of canoers enthusiastically paddling with the current on a scenic open-water section of the river.
Meetings of the Milwaukee River Work Group are called “Visioning Sessions.” Inside the May issue of “Riverwest Currents” is a report on an MRWG Mountain Bike Visioning Session for establishing a mountain bike path along the Milwaukee River. In the MRWG Central Park issue the lead article is headlined “Imagine…Milwaukee’s Central Park.” It begins
“You walk along the Milwaukee River on a recreational path winding six or so river miles from the city limits at Silver Spring Drive to the harbor at Lake Michigan; a soft pedestrian trail uniting suburban Glendale and Shorewood to their Milwaukee neighbors. This river path then zigzags through Riverwest, along Brewers Hill and the Beer Line B, past Park East through downtown and the Third Ward to the lake front. The cool river water bubbles over the rocks through a protected park bringing our neighborhoods and communities together.”
If only people could get into canoes and paddle back into time, seeing the river and its environs as Father Marquette and Father Joliet saw this area in the 1600s, perhaps, necessarily, in a way even more understanding than they, taking out the imbalance from their eyes.
* * *
Thrown into this exhilarating pluralist chalice, in early spring, was Otoliths Books release of a collection of Márton Koppány's visual works titled Endgames. Several superficial associations made Koppány's work seem a part of the collective visioning summer-session. Koppány, a native of Hungary visited Milwaukee long ago, where, so the legend goes, miraculously he met Karl Gartung and Anne Kingsbury immediately upon disembarking from the Greyhound bus and his works were on exhibit at Woodland Pattern soon after.
Endgames is visually similar to some of the “Seeing Green” photos. Also it adds the dimension of Koppány's experienced work with visual writing themes and ideas. Characteristically Koppány's works use punctuation marks, especially periods, colons, question marks, brackets, handwriting, parentheses, formally arranged in outlined rectangular spaces, similar to Freud’s ”Mystic Writing Pad” mentioned by Derrida in his discussion of the “scene of writing.” But for this collection Koppany has added pieces of photographic-style visibility that it seems to me are intended in general to symbolize the idea of reality. The works effectively remove dimensional barriers between language and nature. One work early in the book titled “The Proofreaders Garden” has a flock of scriptive markings flying in formation across evening skies above a terra firma represented by a single oversized on-center green period. The book-cover design is made up of three hand-crafted periods, an ellipsis of black-and-white. In a work titled “Odysseus,” a crouched surfer warily plies his way on a wave, ducking his head between two periods of a colon, one above, one below.
One notable work in Endgames, titled “Forecast,” like others part of a series of variations, is an outlined rectangular collage, starting with three panels: a bottom green panel, a partial black panel above and a partial cloud-photo panel above. The black panel seems to stand for a conceptual unknown, a darkness, not of mystery but of being blocked out, excluded, perhaps, by social or political power. The cloud panel seems to stand for the indisputable truth of reality. At the top of the work, like a heading, is the same ellipsis as from the cover, the three periods, only the one period in the reality panel is yellow and the two in the blocked-out panel are white, though in this work the colors (of the periods) do not seem particularly relevant. A series of small gray punctuation marks also comes down in the cloud reality panel like drops of rain. The most prominent aspect of the work is a green apostrophe (mark of possession) that is rising up out of the green bottom panel or foreground, like a whitecap, like the first-gatherings of a coming storm. It would seem, then, that the storm is in part due to the action of reality grinding away at the enforced darkness of social power, its instinctive imbalance. The green, averse to the divisiveness that mars the work's composition, acts similarly to reality. This prophetic work has appeared in several places on the internet.
There are many works in this loose collection--with screens in Andy Warhole-like quartered panels; with unarticulated or unarticulateable photographic visuals, sketched bridges, new-moon-periods, conceptual periods, the eiffel tower, brackets inside parentheses inside brackets (“The Secret“). Another of the standard Koppány-type works is outlined space, a “space of inscription,” a canvas, with brief sentences typed on it. Since we know that visual works commonly deal with logos, these sentences then should be more than mere words. They should be like laws or commandments or requisites, which seems to be the case. Though I liked these in Endgames I thought that similar works at the online journal “Eratio” in Koppány's e-collection Waves were better. In Waves, on page 7, inside a bordered space is the phrase, “a little time to solve it.” The next page is “a little time to accept it.” The next page is “a little time.” One series in Endgames I liked began with the shadowed text, “I must lose it to find it.” Some of the series have handwritten corrections, which stand for a less conceptual more actual and temporal writing. Some are blank space.
The sense I get from Koppány's works is a message of many scattered periods of varying validity, of ellipses, of periods substituting for discovery, the resistive tendency to impose a superficial grammar upon life’s inexorable flow, its deeper ever-moving structure. But there can be no stopping, even on the surface, as long as there are generic ellipses, major ellipses, missing words and missing content, on the level of equality and headings. For Freud, in dreams (mise en scene) speech is latent content. So that what these ellipses symbolize and what reality is working to bring about (symbolized in dreams) is more than a representation, more even than a text or logos, rather a “voice,” a person, an identity.
Koppány's works contain a wisdom or knowledge that is valuable in itself. But, as I stated previously, Endgames also relates to the environment, for it is the fears and apprehensions involved in human and social interactions, especially between often hostile nations, peoples, races, that produces these blocked-out spaces of darkness, this political power, this secret power that is the root cause of our disdain for and littering of the wonder-filled habitat of freedom in which we dwell.
* * *
Perhaps these notes sound irrelevant and insignificant. As the Che Guevara poster in the window of People’s Books implied, vision is a part of being realistic. Where would we be if the Wright brothers had given up plans for a flying machine and become successful shop keepers. The most impressive of man-made edifices, the ones so-called realistic people want most to claim for their side--television, AT&T, air travel for example--were all begun by idle eccentric minds. Even Capitalists have to be rejected by society before they can be considered authentic Capitalists. Perhaps this is less true than previously.
In any case, as the manic caffeine-enhanced elation of summer waned in August and September and the primaries and Presidential election began to take center stage, as Barack Obama’s own vision was elaborated, as years of corrupt unrealistic stock-market greed and the effects of abuse of its infrastructure began to spread in the financial world, as banks like Citigroup and companies like General Motors began to list and call for bail-outs from the government, as things began to look bad for everyone else, a strange thing happened. Probably the most unlikely vision of all of them, the vision of urban farming--tomato vines in front yards, gardens on garage rooftops, cold frames and aquacultures, heating with compost--put forth by an ex-pro basketball player named Will Allen and his little-known organization Growing Power on Silver Spring Drive inside the city limits, down the street from the National Guard base, received a "genius" grant from the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation for a half a million clams, greenbacks, simoleons, spondulicks. Amazing.
I had stopped in at Growing Power, with its colorful hand-painted Diego Rivera-like mural on its side, in summer. There wasn‘t much I could see of its two-acres without an appointment. A low, long breezy building, with many partitions, clotheslines, lunch tables, box elders, trailers in parking lot. A simple pipe-supported porch roof in front, sheltering vegetables and fruit on folding tables. It looked like a rehabilitated custard stand. Some kids hanging around. Potted trees. I caught a glimpse of animals being groomed in the back. Examined some small plastic bags of potent fertilizer. Bought some apples. Talked to a nice young Spanish girl at the cash register. Picked up some print-outs, took a couple of photos. That was before the grant was announced.
By the time poets David Meltzer and Michael Rothenberg arrived in October for their anticipated Woodland Pattern poetry reading, the Milwaukee River was somewhat forgotten. Wesleyan University had published Rothenberg’s fantastic collected poems of Philip Whalen, which contained such exciting reading. The weather was still warm and fine. As the two started out from the Plaza Hotel coffee shop with guide Chuck Stebelton for meetings and panel discussions, the sunlit mid-day air was one hundred percent clean and the sky unblemished azure. I had hoped to show Meltzer and Rothenberg the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church--locally dubbed "The Flying Saucer"--in South Milwaukee.
The way that visions relate to their fulfillment is complicated. Real dreams don’t come true all at once. Visions are abbreviated and exaggerated versions of reality. A fad can portend something that will be part of the future but go out of style itself. The tech bubble burst, but it was only a birth-pang of the great changes that technology is bringing--in low times, in high times. Nature-trails along a river, even the river itself may prove to have been a will-o'-the-wisp. It can be maddening. Being part of a bookstore cooperative, believing people need to be awakened, pumping your effort into an idea, talking about ecology or justice--it's like a Max Beckman artwork: an unhappy and discouraged, somewhat gross woman lying on her bed in a confiningly tiny room. The phlegmatic limits of disinterest can become nearly palpable.
Koppány portrays it well again and again in his Endgames artworks: A space of inscription that is entirely opaque (except for notation about email). An unbordered space with the words "it is too late." An ocean with a Salvador Dali moustache-boat adrift on its indeterminate middle. Panels of writing surface with a pencil or piece of chalk resting on them. A chair with three legs missing. The letter "a" submerged in water. A question mark with periods for eyes. It's easy to have visions, talk about them, work for them. Perhaps the hardest part is to know when they have arrived.
With some spare time before the Meltzer/Rothenberg reading, I parked at the Michigan lake front and jotted down some description.
Oct. 11, 2008
with the water moving
slow-moving motor boats
bridge in the distance
long breakwater forming a harbor
with a windowed lighthouse
evening, people bicycling
yelling in spanish
black soccer team picnic
park & recreation equipment
people at picnic tables, guy playing the guitar
young trees along the shore walkway
light green, yellow, orange, dark red sunset
art museum in the background
moon coming into view
warm October evening
joggers, strollers, roller skaters
dogs with families strolling
the last kite fliers of the day
soft drinks, snacks, ice cream, candy
"segways rollerblade and bike rental"
wind socks hanging down
lights going on in the marina
(Then, of course there are poetry readings in January in the dead of winter, which are the opposite of visions, where either nothing is representation or everything is representation and the opening and closing of doors and quiet footfalls of attendees on wooden floors can be heard in distant lands and God himself sometimes shows up on a Saturday night just to hear some good poetry.)
Tom Hibbard has had many poems, translations, reviews and essays published on and off line in places such as Word/For Word, Big Bridge, Fishdrum, Jacket, Otoliths, Milk, Cricket, Moria. A poetry collection, Place of Uncertainty, is available online at Otoliths Storefront. Bronze Skull published a chapbook of Hibbard's poetry in 2008 titled Critique of North American Space. A long piece on "Linear/Nonlinear" appears at the Big Bridge archive. Upcoming publications are a review of a Jacques Derrida tract in the spring issue of Jacket (reprinted from Word/For Word) and two poems in the online "Green" issue of Jack.