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Spirit whirl.

This fall I interviewed Leonardo DiCaprio for Detour magazine as part of his publicity junket for Romeo and Juliet. To talk to him, you have to go through an elaborate screening process. His PR people want to see your clippings, and they want to know exactly what you plan to do with their client. Ever since DiCaprio decided a few years ago to avoid high-profile roles in mainstream films, and instead take controversial roles in smaller, artsy films like The Basketball Diaries and Total Eclipse, gossip columnists have been questioning his mental health, his sexuality, and his drug habits in print. According to what I'd heard and read, DiCaprio was a junkie, a cokehead, a closeted queer, a Scientologist, and I forget what else. Consequently, he's gotten a little gun-shy. I won the gig by promising to print our conversation, period. I wouldn't put a spin on his behavior, mood, facial expressions, or vocabulary. An accompanying photo spread would locate DiCaprio visually, and I would merely relay our exchange. After all that hoopla, actually meeting DiCaprio was sort of like studying a hit of Ecstasy. He seemed far too simple a creature to have effected such a flurry of hearsay, admiration, and lust. The resulting article had a weird emptiness about it, an unexplained gap between the visuals, in which DiCaprio allowed photographer David LaChapelle to completely disguise and glamorize him with surreal trappings, and our low-key, uninflected exchange, which indicated a nice young guy who happened to have a great job. What was special about him lay hopelessly encoded within the thing I couldn't investigate - his wariness as he tried to convince me that he was both more interesting than he sounded and less interesting than his wild public image would have me believe.

We're giving ourselves a little more downtime than usual to daydream about the ineffable - you know, why we think Leonardo DiCaprio has a secret ingredient, or why Ellsworth Kelly's ultra-simple paintings make our heads spin, or why logging on to the Internet does a David Copperfield-type number on our computer screens, or why dancing at a rave seems to erase our physical substance. So, it's no surprise armchair social scientists are tagging 1996 as the year of the "spiritual," hoping to explain the snowballing popularity of pop-mystical fodder like The Celestine Prophecy, The X-Files, DeePak Chopra, and Psychic Friends Network, and to make sense of some awfully weird behavior, say how gay men are starting to justify unsafe sexual practices on spiritual-esque grounds. as though the only thing between their horniness and enlightenment was a thin layer of latex. My guess is that seeing as how it's been a pretty solid year otherwise, what with new AIDS-combative drugs, a flurry of computer upgrades, Republican Party disarray, and the like, a lot of people, my friends and I included, spent more time this year wondering aloud about the things we couldn't quite define for ourselves, whatever we made or consumed, and pretty much wherever we went.

We went to Perry Farrell's ambitious ENIT Festival, the futuristic Lollapalooza-like event that toured the States this summer. With ENIT, Farrell, a former angry young bleak-monger turned Hawaiian-shirted Ecstasy priest, tried to have it all - rock bands, techno artists, DJs, all splashed with ravelike visual and aural overstimuli, plus a few Rainbow Gathering-type touches like a tree-planting ceremony and a communal, Hari Krishna-cooked, late-night breakfast. Problem was, it featured a listless, tossed-together lineup of marginal rock bands (Love & Rockets, Black Grape, Farrell's own inconsequential Porno for Pyros, and old-fashioned, overexposed electronic artists (The Orb, Meat Beat Manifesto, Deee-Lite's Lady Miss Kier). The LA stop, held at a remote ski resort, was tinily attended by only the hardest of hard-core Porno for Pyros fans, i.e., died-in-the-wool rockists who wandered around the wildly lit, electronica-blasted acreage in a confused daze, then waited impatiently through their favorite band's set hoping against hope that Farrell might trot out an old Jane's Addiction song or two. With nothing to ground it, ENIT'S incongruities took on a life of their own. The event had an imposing, even inescapable presence, but, in its complete lack of subject, it became a kind of elaborately decorated hollow, heady despite itself. Being there was like standing in some fucked-up, stylized bleed between the immediate past and the immediate future.

I have a lucky part-time job teaching grad students in the fine arts department of UCLA. A number of the students are on to something very new and peculiar. On the surface, their work utilizes your basic post-Conceptual, gallery-friendly ways and means, but the effect they're after is more a kind of material event that combines this superficial resemblance to art with a deep aesthetic instability as a way to fictionalize the confusing. In styles that range from ramshackle abstraction to anxious hermeticism, they're constructing spookity pretty sculptures, installations, paintings, and photos that look like fixed hallucinations, perma-apparitions of something they can't quite describe, a shared, possibly generational idea of the psychedelic object as suggested by their nonart interests - positive drugs like Ecstasy and acid, lo-fi indie rock, Photoshop, the Discovery Channel - and whose strangeness is encouraged and shaped by their iconoclastic professors, Charles Ray, Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy, Lari Pittman, John Baldessari, and others, most of whom have successfully bent the art world to their will. Assuming they don't lose their nerve, things are going to get quite weird and lovely in the next year or two. Watch for the work of Tim Rogeberg, Amy Sarkisian, David O'Quin, Casey Cook, Liz Craft, Jennifer Bornstein, Gregg Einhorn, Francesca Gabbiani, Evan Holloway, and Jennifer Schlossberg.

Also see: (music) Orbital's In Sides, Tom Verlaine's The Miller's Tale, Black Dog's Music for Adverts (and Short Films), Robert Pollard's Not in My Airforce, Stereolab's Emperor Tomato Ketchup, The Future Sound of London's Dead Cities, Spiritualized's Pure Phase, Woob's Woob2; (film) The Quay Brothers' Institute Benjamenta, Anna Campion's Loaded, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's The City of Lost Children, Wim Wenders' restored, five-and-a-half-hour cut of Until the End of the World, Christopher Munch's Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day; (art) Vija Celmins at David McKee Gallery, Ellsworth Kelly at the Guggenheim, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, Charles Ray's Fashions film, Vincent Fecteau at Feature, Jennifer Pastor's "The Four Seasons" at MoCA; (books) Irvine Welsh's Ecstasy, Brian King's Lustmord, Curtis White's Anarcho Hindu, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Jeff Noon's Vurt in paperback.

This was the year that the Internet became all things to almost all people. Not since the Vietnam War in the late '60s have so many strata of society been so united in their fascination with a single idea. And not since maybe the space-race/electric-gadget mania of the '50s have these opinions been so neatly aligned. It feels caddish to carp, say, about the growing class divisions between those who can afford a computer and those who can barely pay rent. Or the fact that non-English-speaking Internet users are already expected to get with the program or bail out. At best, the Internet is a refreshingly practical and alluringly complicated toy that has been hyped or something else entirely by a giddy, shallow media, and which we've subsequently spiritualized beyond the pale in our blissful naivete about the nuts and bolts of technology. The hangover is bound to be nasty. Still, for the moment it's quite trippy how the physical world's demands seem to melt away around the Internet's vibrant periphery.

Then there was Timothy Leary's last publicity stunt, i.e., his dying wish to somehow be buried alive in the Internet, as though he actually thought it were a physical dimension, and not just an electrical signal full of binary code. Also Patti Smith and Donovan, both of them once adventurous poets of the altered mind state, were back this year with new albums and new images as rock 'n' roll's hippie room and pop. Their warm, spacily spiritual wisdom offers signs of a seasoned, postdrug gentility that counteracts the general impression left by heroin-impaired bands like Smashing Pumpkins, Sublime, Depeche Mode, and Stone Temple Pilots, i.e., that too much chemical experimentations will either kill you or force you into a rigid sobriety. And the dead also were awakened. So there was the umpteenth career upgrade for William S. Burroughs, whose visual-art retrospective at LACMA tried to position his sub-Dubuffet/Pollock/Gysin paint dribblings as mystical transcriptions from a proven talent, and therefore immune to criticism. Still, despite the best and worst intentions of the culturally savvy, the truly disorienting and nagging art-related moments were pretty marginal.

Take the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers. Barely known here in the States, they've been English press darlings for five some odd years, due largely to the Goth, anorexic good looks and weird, self-destructive behavior of their guitarist/lyricist Richey Edwards, who was fond of carving himself up with knives and the like. The attention, while constant, was unremittingly negative, with Richey framed as a retro, grade-school gloom merchant. Pretty much lost in the shuffle was the band's music, a catchy anthemic guitar pop, part-Pulp, part-Bon Jovi, that incongruously discloses a bleak and self-absorbed worldview. About a year and a half ago Richey Edwards' car was found abandoned near an ocean cliff, and, although no one knows for sure, it's presumed that he committed suicide. In a turn of events eerily reminiscent of how Joy Division's work was reassessed after Pan Curtis killed himself back in the early '80s, Richey's disappearance has substantiated the darker aspects of his band's music, and he's now seen as a profoundly misunderstood genius of misery, and a terrible loss. Manic Street Preachers have continued on as a trio, and in their first post-Richey concert appearances this year, they left their missing guitarist's spot eerily empty on-stage, and played as though he were still there, defining his loss by showcasing their resultant physical handicap. Their sketchy, haunted, lopsided performances were as mesmerizingly sad as rock got.

Nothing embodies the ineffable like CD-ROM games, or the best of them anyway. A good one presents an almost realistic-looking world, and asks you to get lost in its specific if random narrative structure. The interactive format suggests a kind of compressed dream state that lies halfway between the tight, trustworthy machinations of a suspense film and the disorganized reality of someone with an active or drugged imagination. Titanic, a recent release from the small, innovative CD-ROM company Cyberflix out of Knoxville, Tennessee, is as bewildering, quirky, intelligent, and disturbing as any film, video, or art show I saw this year. Titanic's storyline is simple, and its demands explicit - flirt, sneak, and bamboozle your way through a cast of Lynchian passengers and find an important item before the ship sinks and takes you along with it. But Titanic's pleasure is partially about the meanwhile, the flexible time and variable routes you take while negotiating its pristine, mazelike, constantly repopulated confines, and the witty way it invests the game format with an ironic yet sincere serf-consciousness, not unlike what Rocky and Bullwinkle or Ren & Stimpy have done for the cartoon. Playing Titanic is a hypnotic process that sweetly approximates the lonely pursuit of intangible meaning that a great recreational drug can inspire, while at the same time simulating the safe, timeless state of a kid alone in his bedroom exhausting every possibility of some beloved toy.
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Title Annotation:popular culture in 1996
Author:Cooper, Dennis
Publication:Artforum International
Date:Dec 1, 1996
Words:1895
Previous Article:The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century.
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