The Perpetual Guest: On Warren Niesluchowski
Leung has been thinking about these issues for a long time, probably longer than I have. He and Warren met in 1992 when Leung was an artist in residence at PS1. While there he made a video installation with the wonderfully Tolstoyan title Warren Piece (in the’70s). I never saw that work, which involved displays of documents and ephemera as well as three videos shown on monitors, but I gather it focused on Warren’s experience as a Vietnam-era deserter who ended up in Paris working with the Bread and Puppet Theater. This was the period, I believe, when Warren became Warren—not his given name but the one on the false passport he’d come by at the time. Bits from that work turn up nested within Leung’s new piece about Warren, War After War. I saw it, a year and a half after making my little spoken contribution to it, last spring at the CUE Art Foundation in New York. It has more recently been screened at the MAK Center (better known as the Schindler House) in Los Angeles as part of the exhibition “91 92 93,” a three-person show featuring Andrea Fraser, Lincoln Tobier and Leung, and is now being screened at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw in a show called “Regress-Progress.” That exhibition is on view through January 15, but because the principle of the exhibition is that it changes during its run, War After War will be shown only through October.
As the feature-length video begins, we see Warren pulling his carry-on-sized rolling suitcase up to a house—not the Schindler House, as I first guessed it would be, and where Warren was granted a residency last January in order to assist his collaboration on Leung’s piece, but a modern suburban house set in a leafy landscape that looks more East Coast than West Coast. He approaches the building in a quizzical way, as if the very notion of a house, or of a home, was slightly unfamiliar—like a word in a foreign language one had learned but had not used in a long time. The camera moves indoors, and it turns out that the house contains a vast library. Then, in a series of brief sequences, we see Warren in a variety of situations: for a while he’s at a house party, where he seems an isolated, pensive figure (later he will be seen at other parties, and art openings, in a different guise, the loquacious bon vivant); then he’s visiting a multimedia museum exhibition about the Vietnam War (with Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the soundtrack). Warren wanders through these early scenes as a silent witness and seeker, a sort of revenant (the coat draped over his shoulders like a cape recalls, at times, the costume often worn onscreen by that other haunting Eastern European figure, Bela Lugosi). There is sometimes a voiceover, but the voice is not Warren’s, and the text—the excerpts from “Perpetual Peace”—has no overt connection to what we (and Warren) are seeing. Finally, after a long few minutes of this mute spectatorship, Warren makes his voice heard. Standing inside the house looking out, he intones a solemn song in a foreign language—as I later learned, a somewhat garbled version of the once-famous Chinese revolutionary anthem “The East Is Red.” (Old revolutionary songs are a recurrent feature of War After War. We also hear Warren sing the Internationale and, as he examines some dead flies through a magnifying glass, “Bandiera Rossa.”)
Soon enough, Warren’s speaking voice is heard. Much of the video consists of straightforward interviews with him, presented talking-head style or used as voiceover with counterpointed visuals. He is not only a witness but one who ruminates over what he has seen. For instance, we see him on the floor doing exercises on a beautiful geometrical rug; like many of us, he is working to cultivate his vital energies, but the sequences of movements ends with a long period of stillness, his eyes closed, arms stretched out, and suddenly we realize that he is not only preparing for life but for death—just as he had said on the voiceover a few moments before. When we encounter him later in a hospital bed he looks terribly thin, though still natty, sporting a beret along with his hospital gown. There’s vague talk of heart problems. In other sequences we see Warren walking down a street of modest brick row houses somewhere in London—he buzzes a door and begins to engage the unseen person inside in a conversation about a set of keys he’s trying to hunt down. And there he is tramping through snow-covered New York streets to meet Milo, the cat he must look after while apartment-sitting; its owner compliments him on his tie—“So chic!”—and he responds that a tie is “the perfect Kantian item, something that has no use at all but gives great Sinn und Sinnlichkeit.” His segue from Kant’s aesthetics to the German rendering of the title of Jane Austen’s first published novel is clever, but there’s a ruefulness behind it. Is he also thinking of his own “useless” (that is, nonproductive) existence, and the hope, which would certainly be affirmed by those who know him, that he contributes to the lives of others in his own way, which might well be summed up in Austen’s notion of “sense and sensibility”? What Warren would not ever say, I think, though it is an idea that his invocation of Kant could justify, is that he is therefore a kind of artist—or even that his life is art.
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I couldn’t help being touched by Leung’s portrait of my friend. He and I view Warren a little differently, though. For Leung, the Vietnam era is the time that has most strongly marked the course of Warren’s life; to my mind, World War II and its aftermath dominate the story. But thematically, the portrait is very rich. Although not all its themes are developed as thoroughly as they might have been, their multiplicity, and Leung’s skill at creating a reflexive structure that allows him to move fluidly among them, is testimony to a life lived, though in the shadow of two wars, with originality and verve. Leung calls Warren a “cosmopolitan nomad,” but Warren wonders which one he really is: a cosmopolitan or a nomad—that is, by his own definitions, one who is at home everywhere or one who is at home nowhere?
For me, and I think for Leung too, Warren is a romantic figure. Yet one of the attractive things about Warren is that he never romanticizes himself. At one point in War After War, the famous lines from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” are heard, and their relevance is patent: “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;/Am an attendant lord, one that will do/To swell a progress, start a scene or two,/Advise the prince”—though Warren is never, as Prufrock thought himself, “Almost, at times, the Fool.” In another era Warren really could have been an excellent courtier, “full of high sentence,” and how curious it is that our society doesn’t easily accommodate people with undefined roles. And yet we need such people, to add Sinn und Sinnlichkeit to life rather than to produce. I suppose that’s why I’ve never questioned my impulse to offer my home to Warren when I could—on account of a sympathy that blossomed into friendship, yes, but also because of an obscure sense of principle. I think there should be space for those who neither sow nor reap but through their example show us something about how to live our life as art. In War After War there’s a funny detail that Leung’s camera homes in on more than once: the many extra buttons scattered on a sleeve of Warren’s coat. I’ve noticed them before, but only after seeing the sleeve onscreen did it occur to me to wonder whether it was the work of some fabulous deconstructive designer, a Margiela or Yamamoto, that Warren has lucked upon in one of his thrift shop trawls, or just his way of keeping replacement buttons on hand so that his coat will stand him in good stead no matter what happens.
Style or necessity? Art, and Warren, remind me they can be one and the same.