BY Isabel Mehl in Opinion | 23 APR 19

Why Is Kathy Acker So Maddeningly Difficult to Memorialize?

In the run-up to the Kathy Acker exhibition at ICA, London, a look back at a significant recent show and symposium examining her relationship to the visual arts

BY Isabel Mehl in Opinion | 23 APR 19

Kathy Acker, in half-profile, on her motorcycle. Her hair, a bleached, blonde buzzcut. Facing the camera, her eyes peer out beneath her shades. We can see her muscular, tattooed back, a silver chain, her earrings. This 1991 portrait of Acker by Kathy Brew, taken in San Francisco, is perhaps one of the most famous, and compelling, of the author; the work was among many shown in the Badischer Kunstverein’s ‘Get Rid of Meaning’, the first show looking specifically at Acker’s relationship to the visual arts.

With a large exhibition at London’s ICA opening in May, and her memorialization in books by Chris Kraus and Olivia Laing, among others, Acker’s legacy has gotten a slew of attention in recent years. Yet, as a visual sequence in ‘Get Rid of Meaning’ demonstrated, there existed many Kathy Ackers – and in each case of recent interest, there is a great deal of mythologization involved. There’s the Acker who poses, looking straight into the camera with a dimple in the corner of her mouth. In another, she laughs with a gold tooth, her jacket slipping down from her shoulder. In the next, she sits upright on her motorcycle, a small plush lion reclining on the back of her bike’s backrest. 

'Kathy Acker. GET RID OF MEANING', Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: Badischer Kunstverein © Stephan Baumann  

Curated by Anja Casser, the Badischer Kunstverein’s director, and Matias Viegener, Acker’s friend and the administrator of her estate, ‘Get Rid Of Meaning’ presented artistic engagements with Acker’s work by artists including Pauline Boudry & Renate Lorenz, Lynn Hershman Leeson and Karolin Meunier. A selection from Acker’s private library was placed alongside Acker’s manuscripts and dream maps from Blood and Guts in High School (1984), which have been enlarged and offer glimpses into Acker’s process of collaging. The exhibition also presented Acker through moving images and sound: footage of a conversation with Angela McRobbie at the ICA London from 1986, and audio recordings give an impression of Acker’s performative readings. Casser and Viegener used the exhibition to delve into Acker’s relationship to art: Acker was involved in the West Coast art scene early on before she entered the experimental writing. The manuscript for The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula, installed on the walls, for example, was first circulated as mail art.

Held at the Kunstverein, a symposium on Acker’s work expended this account, oscillating between testimonies by her contemporaries and artistic-academic homages. In the Kunstverein’s atrium, a reading lamp theatrically staged Claire Finch. The room was full, with many notebooks conspicuously open. Jason McBride read from his biography of Acker. He often made cryptic references to Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker. A Literary Biography in an effort to distinguish his own; that book’s own cover used Kaucilya Brooke’s photographs of Acker’s clothes, made from 1998 to 2004, some of which hang in the exhibition, such as the one of the cobalt blue Jean Paul Gaultier skirt.

The brutal sex scenes in Acker’s work were presented with the distance of a public reading. Some of Acker’s experiences in sex work cropped up. Later on, things would grow tense as three men began theorizing female experience. But a space of intimacy opened up when Leslie Dick started her reading in tandem with Audrey Wollen (Wollen is the daughter of Leslie Dick and Peter Wollen, Acker’s erstwhile boyfriend). They discussed venereal diseases, men’s ignorance as transmitters, and tea with Acker in heaven. This poetic correspondence between Acker, Dick and Wollen reflects what Dick herself would note at the end of the conference: how peculiar it is when someone who was your friend, someone you miss, begins to be historicized. 

'Kathy Acker. GET RID OF MEANING', Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, 2018, installation view (detail). Courtesy: Badischer Kunstverein © Stephan Baumann 

On 22 August 1995, Acker wrote in an email to McKenzie Wark: ‘Am supposed to go to this birthday party now but it’s at a pizza place and I hate pizza. So I’m being a baby and writing you instead.’ In Karlsruhe, Wark described Acker as a ‘social spider’ and noted that: ‘all writing is rewriting – the important things is how it is done.’ He also points to a very current aspect of Acker’s persona: for women, making it as an artist – maintaining appearances, for example – can resemble ‘high class sex work’, while ‘male fame work’ is understood as ‘conceptual’.

On the second morning, I watched Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967). Across from the large-format projection of Schneemann and her partner having sex, there was Blue Tape (1974) by Acker and Alan Sondheim playing on a monitor with headphones. The visual closeness and sensuality of Schneemann’s Fuses was dislodged by Acker’s verbal abstraction and sex. The story goes on. But whenever it comes to the facts, it seems like Acker starts to withdraw herself, to dissolve. In her performative reading, Ruth Buchanan asked: ‘Is this archive a representation of your experience of reality?’

In the closing discussion, one visitor lamented the absence of black artists in ‘Get Rid of Meaning’. Acker’s own awareness of this problem was suggested in her text Critical Languages from 1990: ‘Why was the art world in New York, a city whose population is now dominated by non-white groups, almost entirely white?’ This consideration can also be expanded by the categories of class and sex to create a panorama of the art landscape’s exclusionary criteria and entry hurdles. We must pose the question of representation, especially to those who are still unquestioningly restaging the white, male, western canon in 2019. 

Translated by Stanton Taylor

‘I, I, I, I, I, I, I, Kathy Acker’ at ICA, London runs from 1 May – 4 August 2019. Kathy Acker’s ‘Get Rid of Meaning’, with an accompanying symposium, took place at the Badischer Kunstverein from October to December 2018.

Main image: 'Kathy Acker. GET RID OF MEANING', Badischer Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, 2018, installation view (detail). Courtesy: Badischer Kunstverein © Stephan Baumann 

Isabel Mehl is a writer based in Hamburg, Germany. She is working on her Ph.D about writer Lynne Tillman’s fictional art critic, Madame Realism