Myth and Monolith: the artwork of Istvan Kantor

Essay in artist monograph Permanent Revolution: Istvan Kantor, January 2014, book co-published and edited by Linda Feesey, co-published and project managed/copy-edited by Mireille Bourgeois, funded by Canada Council for the Arts. Distributed through Art Metropole. Editor: Linda Feesey and Mireille Bourgeois, includes writers: Mike Hoolboom, Lewis Kaye, Shannon Bell, Istvan Kantor, Eszter Jagica, Kristine Stiles, and David Liss. Copyright Mireille Bourgeois.

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COVER W SPINE

Mythology is known as a collection of myths. Myth, being the historical narrative that explains the way things have become, can also be called a tradition, which builds our perspective of the past, and an ideology for our future. Writer Robert Segal looks beyond the notion of myth as historical truth in his book Myth: A Very Short Introduction (2004) [i]. He writes that myth is more commonly known through the stories of Greek and Roman mythology, linked to focal personalities such as gods and heroes. Segal defines myth more broadly as representative of a creed, positing that it is not the truth of myth but the belief in myth that brings it into mythology (Segal, 2004, p.4). Monuments are then created to pay tribute to a credo and its instigators, which in part propel mythology.

This essay aims to unpack the symbol of the monument in Istvan Kantor’s work, and research the connection between myth, mythology and the slipping away of veracity. Kantor can be seen imitating the monument in his performative work[ii]: he builds barricades and stands on piles of discarded objects or chairs grinning disturbing grins, singing songs or chanting slogans, often spilling or spraying blood on himself or making bloody ‘X’ drawings onto walls of gallery and museum spaces. It could be said that Kantor becomes the monument since he often uses his own body as a place of symbolism or defiance through the use of self-harm in his work, and also in the act of offering himself either as a martyr or casualty of battle. The artist allegorizes into his being and body complex histories that reference central factors in his early development such as: the Hungarian revolution, communism, poverty, gentrification and by proxy, the politics of power. These markers have been so traumatic to Kantor that they have shaped his four-decade long career. His performances conflate politics in such a way that it is difficult to see the lineage by which he has arrived at his layered ideologies. By doing so, Kantor presents his best-created mythology: Neoism. In The origin of Monty Cantsin(s) a biblical novel[iii]the artist writes about a monument he made in 1978 from the objects left after a Neoist friend moved out of his Portland apartment:

I piled up all the junk he left behind, put his armchair on a table and stuffed it with all the junk I found, typewriter ribbons, photos, a mirror, broken polaroid camera, video reels, audio cassettes, letters, scrapmetal, lots of neckties, guitar strings, children toys, books, bottles, a broken clock, some of my masks, made a red graffiti on the wall “MYTH” and “MONTY CANTSIN”

A physical interpretation of Neoism, the sculpture brings together multiple representative objects, which hold equal importance in the execution of the monument, but fails in its execution as it officially names itself a myth, an ode to a mythical character. This declaration of being (Monty Cantsin) and yet not being anything in particular (a myth) is followed through in Kantor’s videos such as White Boy From the East: I Am Asian (19:28 min, 2009). In the video Kantor constructs a pseudo-scientific yet mythical origin of the Hungarian people, including their escape from captivity in outer-space and a landing on earth with “the seeds of revolution: technology and Neoism”. The video becomes a comedic song as Kantor is seen returning “home” to unsuspecting Taiwanese, collapsing and then being taken care of while he experiences flashbacks of captivity and then explains his situation in song: “In my mind and in my heart, I am Asian. I am Asian and being Asian is my art”. The video quickly breaks down; a human seems to be transforming into a robot, is overcome by technology and fights for survival as the character (the artist) suffers an identity crisis.

Kantor has often involved the exalted reputation of technology in his work, and reclaims it as a tool of the Neoist revolution. In The Culture Industry, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkneimer (1947) discuss technology as holding great power over society, and causing “the circle of manipulation”.[iv] He claims that it is not the advancement of technology but the status it holds in our culture that is dangerous. Kantor uses a similar power play; he claims command with “seeds of revolution”, using signifiers like landing on earth, and taking on another cultural identity in the name of “technology and Neoism”. The above actions would make Neoism a bit colonial: if it weren’t for the fact that everyone has the right to be Monty Cantsin. A parasitic and mythical role with broad and elusive purpose, Neoism is the myth and Monty Cantsin is the monument.

The only real dilemma is that a monument and what it is meant to honour is typically based on some kind of concretized views by creators who do not necessarily have the memory to apply truth to said monument. The White Boy from the East’s controversy in claiming that all Hungarians are Asian descendants points to the inherent failure of representation, much like the artist experienced in his childhood while being torn between communism at school and revolution at home. We already know that the representation of history is flawed; therefore a monument to history, which is often based on myth, must also be flawed.

The artist responds to the fabric of the contemporary art world using a similar process as he does the history of his origins. In the 7 minute video Infraduction (1979/80), a video in three acts, we see a tight shot of Kantor’s face, wearing a rain hat Kantor calls his alien head piece.[v] The frame opens up to include the face of Fluxus artist Robert Filliou who has a bandana covering his eyes. The artists take turns stating the following: “je suis David Bowie, et luis est John Cage” and continue to take turns claiming various identities of famous figures and grand-daddies and grand-mommies of contemporary art “Je suis John Cage, et luis est Yoko Ono”. At the end of the dialogue, Filliou finishes with “Je suis Robert Filliou et luis est Monty Cantsin”, and exchanging head-pieces, thereby personas.

Kantor and his father are next on the screen and take turns introducing each other as the affirmative of an ism, and then as its His father: “Je suis naturalist, luis il est anti-naturalist” and Kantor: “Je suis anti-naturalist, luis il est impressionist”. The video ends with Kantor: “Je suis anti-neoist, et luis est mon pere” and his father: “Je suis Istvan Kantor, et luis c’est Monty Cantsin.” Kantor wearing what looks like a crown made of electrical cables, representing a technological being[vi], ends the performance by sharing the cables with his father, clumsily linking them together by crowning him as well. In the last act, two paintings representing his alter-ego, Monty Cantsin, are hung on a wall as the camera pivots from one to the other, we hear “je suis un être humain, et luis est extraterrestre”, and then “Je suis un object d’art”, the camera pans back to include an inverted Kantor seemingly in limbo between egos “..et je suis l’original”. In the Infraduction video, we see the disassociation of the artist; Kantor breaks down the monuments in contemporary art, and injects himself or his Neoist acts into it. Much like the act of building the monument out of random objects, Kantor performs Infraduction to inform the mythology of the art world, but not without pointing at his own confusion about where he belongs in art history; no where and everywhere.

False heroes

Typically, a monument is erected when the person linked to it has died. If the monument here were Monty Cantsin, then he would be a satirical living monument to an evolving mythology. The mythology of Neoism is too broad and mobile to be cast in stone, yet too ironic and cheeky to not be. Traditional myths sometimes come with some sort of propaganda song, which is Kantor’s specialty. The artist’s Song of the Antihero (10:23min, 2010) is a sardonic biographical music video with the proverbial bad boy set as the protagonist. The video could be interpreted as a cheeky response to Kantor’s belief that the public perceive him as the Enfant Terrible of the art world. The song begins with Kantor singing “At school, at home. Bad to the bone.” And then subtitles ”Once upon a time in totalitaria… Sexy ruins. Heaven’s Gate.” and goes into a tight digital collage of women, children and the Madonna praying, mixed in with familiar bad boys like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, followed by a dramatization of his parents yelling “Sonny be good eat your food don’t be rude!” and cut with historical footage from Kantor’s museum performances arrests. As the video unfolds, Kantor’s song speaks of the eternal bad boy, as being born to be a revolutionary. The title of the video suggests that Kantor is “just a bad boy” with no discernable heroic virtues: the misunderstood anti-hero revolutionary. Read through the lens of Neoism; one ideology’s insurgent is another’s ‘freedom fighter’. Yet Neoism is somewhat careful about claiming too much power.

Neoism?! has never ruled the world. Neoism?! cannot win the world without losing its soul. The reward of Neoism?! is its own virtue.” [vi]

The Antihero video is emblematic of Kantor’s position of not wanting to be a hero (virtuous and good) but a bad-boy revolutionary exercising his freedom. Monuments are seen as odes to heroes and martyrs, which are only enhanced by spectacles of polemic public displays and a resistance to authority. Even though the artist satirises the hero persona through his own brand of polemic displays in order to achieve his critique of the museum, he needs the museum in order to rebel against it, much like the “people” need monuments in order to position themselves in relation to the mythology they both carry. Our civilization’s reaction and interaction with myth is based on emphasizing one person’s struggle and fight for justice for all, hence the inauguration of monuments as reminders of the eternal fight for this perceived justice. Though Kantor’s mythology is a satire, he uses the tools of the hero to perform his critique.

Tiananmen Square has a long and bewildering history linked to the monuments[viii] that stand erect in the square today, but it is the pro-democracy student movement of 1989 that applies to this essay. The event related directly to the suppression of the proletariat by a communist government structure, however it is the iconography of the events and politics that have led to the mythologizing of the people’s struggle. Set in the context of Tiananmen Gate and Square the highly consumed video and image of a man known as “Tank Man” that proliferated at the time, has remained a popular visual of the martyr more than twenty-years later.[ix] The image shows him standing before a number of tanks, holding a shopping bag and staring into the killing machine, and was widely seen as symbolical of the working class’ values and struggle. In a sense, the image of protest seen around the world becomes the monument, leaving history of the square, an Imperial power centre, as an ominous backdrop fuelling a new myth.[x]

As Segal mentioned, failure or concealed failure can become inherent to myth. It’s notable to state however that no matter the myth, for revolutionaries it seems crucial to be the one against the many. The idea behind Monty Cantsin is slightly different, where one is many (or many perform under one moniker). Anyone acting as Cantsin can lead protests, performances, and share the revolutionary acts, though under one mythological persona, which contradicts the role of the martyr, like in Song of the Antihero. What can be concluded is that in our society, the myth (and the cause) becomes much more important than the memory (and truth). A less important truth is that no one knows who the revolutionaries were. There is no information about who the man in front of the tank is, but this didn’t stop him from becoming one of TIME Magazine’s one hundred most influential people of the 20th century.[xi] Therefore, when there is no memory, there will be myth

Hope dies last; freedom and self-destruction

In a 1981 Video titled Apt.4 Kantor is filmed during a 1979 apartment festival, where Neoist conspirators undertook a series of acts that were meant to declare their independence from the art world. In the short 2-minute video, the artist is filmed capturing a pigeon. The video then cuts to the apartment filled with spectators, where Kantor takes the pigeon into his arms, and proceeds to offer his own blood (via glass vile) onto the animal before letting it go in the apartment. Kantor speaks of the performance:

“The pigeon, this wild urban bird tribe, living in abandoned buildings, they are also outcasts. People don’t like them because they shit on their head and on the beautiful public monuments. Capturing one of them is an aggressive gesture and then marking the wings with blood adds an element of violence to the action. But then the bird gets liberated and flies away, like a messenger. For us this pigeon flew away with a message of war: ‘We are at war, the fight is between expression and suppression, between free speech and censorship!’ that pigeon was our comrade!”[xii]

The blood has blessed the pigeon; brought truth to its existence, and by such has mythologized Monty Cantsin and his message of war. Though the pigeon is meant to take the part of the messenger of war, one could say it is also an offering to the “gods” (i.e. ruling and prevailing structures). An offering is typically presented out of fear and respect for something more powerful than the one who makes the offer. This implies Neoists at once wish to be accepted in the contemporary art world, museums and the like, but also fear it, hence declaring independence from it.

In the scholastic Lord of the Flies,[xiii] the symbol of the pig is a monument to what lies in all humans: fear, greed, and hunger for power. The pig becomes the lord of all things. This monument in form and function provides the flies with food and the earth with fertilizer once it decomposes into the ground, but it is a false sense of worship and power that does nothing for the humans, except provide them with a symbol for their hate. The hate of course is dependent on other myths, such as their belief that a beast exists in the nearby forest, and has led them to believe that a sacrificial offering (the pig head) will please it. And so an imagined threat, with an imagined symbol of worship unravels in fictional rules and a complete abolition of (their insular) civilization. Much like the pig, the pigeon is worshiped in the Neoist performance act, but it is a stand-in for something out of the worshiper’s reach. It shows at once the victory of independence and the failure of so-called contemporary relevance. Kantor’s obsession with rebelling against the museum for instance, could be related to his belief that there is danger brooding everywhere. He builds monoliths like the pig, and tries to steer the beast away from his camp. In order to do this however, he must build a mythology to recruit Neoist soldiers (believers).

In Myth of the State (1946)[xiv] Ernst Cassirer attempts to define myth: “Imagination alone cannot account for all its incongruities and it’s fantastic bizarre elements. It is rather the Urdummheit of man that is responsible for these absurdities and contradictions. Without this ‘primeval stupidity’ there would be no myth.” [xv] Breaking down the persona of the hero trope and welcoming new representations as ironic symbols of worship requires Kantor and his fellow Neoists to conflate realities and suspend disbelief.

This is where art, a constant process of experimentation, and for Kantor, a process of the revolutionary, lets no logic interfere with the hope of the myth. It is the suspension of reality and a defiance of living in the real world, which allows the artist to make a point of contact with his mythical “side”[xvi] and he is able to reach his version of freedom. As seen in the works presented in this essay, Kantor is always attempting to reach independence. He produces an over-abundance of imagery and layered ideologies, which nearly self-destruct.

In Restriction (1980), a video of an early performance,[xvii] we take the view of the gallery audience who sees Kantor in a live feed on a monitor. He is sitting in a diner across the street. He leaves, crosses the street and enters the gallery space. He walks up to where there is a television pushed up against a wall, stands on the TV, then straps himself to the wall with a belt and tests the hold by lifting his feet up, and inserting his toes into his ears.[xviii] The artist wears a red coat and has an ‘X’ shaved on the side of his head. A nurse takes his blood, hands him two vials, and he proceeds to smash one on the shaved ‘X’ and the blood from the second vial is poured into his mouth for safe-keeping. Kantor sings:

“Enter into Eternity, cosmic urban eternity, enter into eternity, eternal immortality… Total freedom of human will, total freedom of human brain, total freedom of human life…total freedom, total freedom, total freedom… No work, no art, no money!!!”

While the artist sings, blood escapes from his mouth and washes over his chin and cheeks. He lights a flammable substance on the wall behind him that creates a fire halo, and he crosses his legs in a yogic position, giving the impression of levitation. The artist ends his performance by unstrapping himself, and walking back to the diner where his friend wipes blood from his face, conflating the identity of the supposed god and worshiper, with the reality of a flesh and blood man. This performance has earned the artist the title “Punk Hindu God”[xix], which speaks of his conflicting identities but also of his constant need to rebel, to “punk” society. Kantor says that being restricted (strapped to the wall) in this performance was key to achieving freedom (levitating), symbolizing that tension and criticism are crucial to reaching independence, which is the root of the Neoist mythology.[xx]

Here, we find the catalyst of Kantor’s invention of Neoism, the creation of Monty Cantsin the anti-hero persona, and performance acts that take the place of worshipping monuments. Kantor has demonstrated his dissatisfaction with many prevailing structures, which he mythologizes as the beast(s). The artist deems them as responsible for his conflicted identity as it relates to his place of birth (i.e. the dictator), for his unstable day-to-day existence in a classist world (i.e. the landlord), and as jeopardizing his relevance in the art world (i.e. the museum director).

Neoism?! as Neoism?! has always been and always will be a trouble for philosophers, priests, politicians, professors, patriots, provincials, property-people, proud-possessors, primitives, poets, psychiatrists, petit-bourgeois persons, pensioners, landlords, plutocrats, paupers, panderers, police, institutions, intellectuals…” [xxi]

The artist’s plight is not singular; therefor Monty Cantsin must rise up and recruit many soldiers. Adorno & Horkheimer believed that the artist hints at the hope of the radical or avant-garde, achieved through protestation and relentlessness. In this spirit, I would like to believe that the Neoist myth is offering something real, that we can free ourselves, technically, mentally, and rhetorically from our own personal injustices, through a kind of activism; that detail could separate itself from the larger whole. This is the function of myth: that others will want to believe in it. The Stanford dictionary of philosophy, states that Adorno’s idea of “Determinate negation”: “indicates that immanent criticism is the way to wrest truth from ideology.” Which is an interesting way to place his positivism, to root it in an individual’s criticality. Herein lies the complicated mythology represented in Istvan Kantor’s artwork. As soon as one finds truth, it disappears in a net of contradictions. There is no memory, only myth.

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[i] Segal, R. (2004). Myth: A Very Short Introduction. P. 4, Introduction, Oxford: Oxford UP.

[ii] I aim to write about Kantor’s apartment performances and videos, outside of his machinic performances, which are related to other important factors and theories within the artist’s work.

[iii] Canstin, M. 1978, The Portland Diary; origin of Monty Cantsin(s)- a biblical novel. Portland, Oregon

[iv] Adorno, T. & Horkheimer, M. 1993 [1947]. The culture industry: Enlightenment as mass deception. Translated by John Cumming. In The cultural studies reader, ed. Simon During, p.121. New York: Routledge.

[v] Perhaps speaking to the mythology of Hungarians living in captivity in space.

[vi] Email discussion with the artist, May 2013.

[vii] Amen! 1980-1980, The Book of Neoism?!. Neoist writing.

[viii] With its various monuments paying tribute to various ruling hierarchies such as oligarchic, empiricist and communist regimes such as the historical Gate of the Forbidden City (built in 1415, changed names at every new Dynasty, and eventually destroyed), the still standing Monument to the People’s Heroes (built in 1949), and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong (Inaugurated in 1977). Tiananmen Square. (2013, January 12). In Wikipediathe free encyclopedia. Retrieved January 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square

[ix] It’s uncertain whether the video and picture of “Tank Man” were taken in the square itself or in a neighbouring street, and the man now is rumored dead, hence the use of the word “Martyr”.

[x] This is true of other political movements captured in photographs or videos. See also the flower power movement where a Vietnam War protester was photographed placing a flower in the tip of a soldier’s gun.

[xi] The video shows him climbing the tank, speaking to the tank driver and then jumping off and being carried off my officials; he is believed to have been executed which only adds to his myth. In Famous Pictures, Retrieved January 2013, from http://www.famouspictures.org/mag/index.php?title=Tiananmen_Square_Man_vs_Tank

[xii] Email conversation with the artist. May 2013.

[xiii] SparkNotes Editors. (2007). SparkNote on Lord of the Flies. Retrieved June 12, 2013, from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/flies/

[xiv] Cassirer, E. (1946). The Myth of the State, Yale University Press

[xv] source

[xvi] Ronell, A. (2002). Stupidity P. 13, University of Illinois

[xvii] Restriction is one of the first video recordings of the artist’s performances, and led to the maturing and further development of his video practice.

[xviii] Inspired by Yogic poses, email conversation with the artist. May 2013.

[xix] a journalist had written about his performance at the time and dubbed the title Punk Hindu God, conversation with the artist. May 2013.

[xx] Email conversation with the artist. May 2013.

[xxi] Amen! 1980-1980, The Book of Neoism?! Neoist writing.

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