The Trials and Tribulations of An Ambivalent Every-Artist
(The Great Canadian Novel Gone Awry)
by Sigrid Dahle
curator's text for exhibition Ice Fishing in Gimli, YYZ Artist's Outlet, Toronto, 30 June-12 August 2006
get social or get lost1
Rob Kovitz risks the latter and provisionally forsakes the former in a massive 3,500-page, five-volume saga-in-progress cobbled together entirely from found images and quotations fished from sources as diverse as the Musée J.-Armand Bombardier and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (a 50-page bibliography lists more than 1500 items). It’s a grandiose understatement to call it a large work – and I’m not referring to its material plenitude or to the fact that Rob’s immersed himself in its production for over six years. Rather, it’s the breadth of the tragically comic human predicaments, gnawing existential dilemmas and traumatic social histories that the novel’s implied protagonist lives through, if only by proxy, which renders this gripping post-modern adventure story so excruciatingly ambitious.
The tale’s protagonist is a shadowy figure who exists solely “between the lines” and therefore, only through the imaginative elaborations of the book’s readers. Like the pathologically hopeful Icelandic settlers whose 1874 exodus led them to a new, promise-filled land on the western shores of Lake Winnipeg, our intrepid explorer sets out on a road trip that takes him from yuppity downtown Toronto to Gimli, Manitoba (population 1,657), a society on ice  where trouble lurks just beneath the dead-still surface. (It’s the same Manitoba fishing village implicated in Guy Maddin’s film, Tales of Gimli Hospital). Along the way, and a very long way it is, Canadian Tire stores, the privileged home of working class DIY culture, serve as mileage-marking signposts.
His ultimate goal: to write himself into cultural history; to make his mark – not by way of an architectural edifice (a house), progeny (marriage and family) or middle class success (a professional career and money) – but by penning “a great book.” However, as it was for the settlers (read: artist/writers/intellectuals) who preceded him – and with whom he appears to have forged a near hysterical identification – it’s tough slogging every step (or should I say, word) of the way. Extreme weather conditions, crippling loneliness, a hunger for fame, sexual frustration, monstrous ambition, numbing boredom, everyday survival, delusional romanticism, the lure of nirvana, procrastination, poverty, writer’s block, self-doubt, laziness and even death itself, alternately trip him up and spur him on (the section recounting his journey to Hell and Paradise is yet to be completed).
The elusive “greatness” our disenchanted architect seeks (yes, he’s that too) gradually forms itself into an existential riddle to be plumbed, serving as the interpretive fulcrum upon which his “dream quest” precariously balances. But with a seemingly infinite library at one side, the luxury of solitude on the other, a burgeoning “idea” to harness his distracting passions and the self-made “rotation method” to guide his (re)search, he soldiers on, tracking clues in the snow – and in the words, concepts, images and texts bequeathed him by writers who have been similarly hampered. Before his quest (read: book) is finished, his fishing expeditions will have taken him far and wide “in a [not so] private boat”  where he “sails off through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost over a year to where the wild things are.”  (YIKES – I’m actually starting to speak his language!)
The novel’s trajectory (which leads to death by way of the Manitoba hinterland) implicitly raises the question, which I’ve been mulling over for some time, of whether or not the death drive as theorized by Sigmund Freud might be implicated in intellectual contemplation. Freud proposed that all organisms (including us humans) are predisposed to returning to their origins. That is, we carry within ourselves the wish to dissolve into the “nothingness” of the inorganic states that preceded our birth. Which is to say that the death drive is a profoundly asocial, conservative impulse.
Reading, thinking and writing are solitary pursuits that involve, at the very least, a temporary disengagement from the hurried responsibilities of everyday affairs, the intense demands of intimate relationships and the duties of active political life. Perhaps it is the activation of the death drive that enables creatures as fundamentally social, guilt-ridden and distractible as us humans to tolerate (and even relish) the isolating, single-minded life of the scholar. The trick is to keep from falling so “in love with easeful Death,” as Keats put it, that we quietly crawl off into a snowdrift to die. I interpret Rob’s novel (in which both “nothingness” and snowbanks loom large) as a resounding affirmation of my theory.
Rob Kovitz’s 15-year practice of creating bookworks “on the basis of preexisting works”  situates his work in an international art phenomenon the French curator Nicolas Bourriaud has termed “the art of postproduction.”
Notions of originality (being at the origin of) and even of creation (making something from nothing) are slowly blurred in this new cultural landscape marked by the twin figures of the DJ and the programmer, both of whom have the task of selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts. 
While none of this is news to Canadian visual artists and curators, it’s an approach that has yet to be embraced by the Canadian literary and publishing establishment. I can’t think of another Canadian novelist who works in this way.
By now you might be wondering how Rob manages to hunt down copyright permissions without devoting his entire life to this task. Thankfully he doesn’t even try. Central to his ethos is the presumption (which I share) that cultural work, in whatever form it may take, is a “language” held in common by us all (like the letters, punctuation marks and words that comprise this text). We think to ourselves – and with one another – using the images, words, phrases, logos, gestures, scenarios and stories that populate our shared public spaces and therefore our individual psyches: thus culture making is intersubjective and social by its very nature. Using the heavy hand of the law to keep artworks writ in the language of found text and images safely behind privately owned, closed doors – the only unregulated cultural space in Canada – is to interpret social, cultural and intellectual intercourse as perversions.
Like the artists championed by Bourriaud, Kovitz is an agile performer who shows us how we might negotiate an uncharted 21st century wilderness; a figureless ground so dense with images and texts that it defies even our most extreme, death-driven desire to contemplate, understand and know. So it would seem that in the context of Kovitz’s art practice, getting lost and getting social aren’t mutually exclusive after all.
Sigrid Dahle is an itinerant curator and art writer based in Winnipeg. Her practice meanders across disciplines and draws from sources and methodologies as diverse as fiction writing, installation art, local histories, museology and (object relations) psychoanalytic theory. Currently she is developing a multi-component curatorial project entitled “slow” which involves the construction of model-sized exhibition boxes, a manifesto on “slow curating” and the contemplation of time wasted.
1. Instant Coffee, a service oriented collective of artists, writers, curators, designers and code writers.
2. The title of Chapter 5, Book 4, Volume 2 of Ice Fishing in Gimli.
3. Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (Harper Collins Publishers, 1984), no page numbers.
4. Maurice Sendak, no page numbers.
5. Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction (New York: Lukas & Sternbrerg, 2005), p.13.
6. Nicolas Bourriaud, p.13. As Rob and I have discussed, his literary practice and my own practice as a curator share many similarities.