ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Isi Fiszman - 2019 - About Chance and Tolerance [EN, essay]
About Chance and Tolerance
Thinking of Isi Fiszman
It is with great sorrow that I address you, distant reader in an increasingly strange and empty world, about ancient things that endlessly renew themselves, such as art and death. ‘Thanks to death the world remains eternally green, young and fresh,’ Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself (in a world that did not yet know any readers). How could he know that the world would incessantly grow older, greyer, dirtier, shabbier, coarser, flatter, uglier, more stupid and more malodorous?
And now Isi Fiszman has also evaporated.
Right after I left him last Saturday, having spent a poignant day just talking and walking, he fell asleep and never woke up.
An exceptional collector
Not many people know who Isi Fiszman (b. 1938) is or was, not even those who belong to a Belgian art world that, in part, owes its extraordinary diversity and radical nature to his endeavours. He was a collector who mattered, who made a difference, and who made that difference possible through his unwavering support of a radical gallery like the Wide White Space (where he purchased work from almost every exhibition), by financing Huis A and the famous magazine Pour, and by giving numerous artists the opportunity to work undisturbed, by allowing them to do their own thing, and to be who they wanted to be.
In the 1960s, he was the first to collect the work of Joseph Beuys, Marcel Broodthaers, Panamarenko, Hugo Heyrman, Bernd Lohaus, Daniel Buren, Carl Andre, James Lee Byars, Christo and many others. They weren’t yet the famous artists that we know from contemporary books and badly curated exhibitions, but simply people who took a different stance to the world. In recent decades, he supported artists such as Angel Vergara and Lise Duclaux.
During the opening of an exhibition Fiszman offered to buy some of Broodthaers’ jars on the condition that he could smash them. Broodthaers stated that he temporarily suspended his artistic conscience and gave Fiszman permission to drop the jars, provided he returned the shards. And with these fragments, Broodthaers created one of his most beautiful works: Machine à poèmes, which he gave to Isi.
This anecdote reveals that a collector can be important if he understands the spirit of someone’s work. Panamarenko once told me that he was chatting to Broodthaers during an opening at the Wide White Space Gallery, when an elegant lady came over to congratulate Marcel on the beauty of a colander filled with eggshells. Marcel walked over to the colander, rammed his fist into the sculpture and asked her: ‘And now? Do you still think it’s beautiful?’
Who remembers, today, that artworks can be something other than commercial goods and decorative baubles, and that they don’t have to be reduced to ‘images’ and ‘meanings’ as an excuse for pseudo-intellectual claptrap? Which Belgian museum director comprehends their impact, which is both poetic and political? I see nothing of this. Exhibitions are ugly, cobbled together, nonsensical and shameful. Genuine curiosity – about the things themselves – is almost non-existent. The institutions have devoured an authentic visual approach and slowly regurgitate it, devoid of flavour.
(The exhibition with work by De Keyser in the S.M.A.K, with the retrograde separation of old and new work, the sombre first space and the redundant, pathetic, embarrassing wooden construction in the main gallery. The overloaded Panamarenko exhibition at the M HKA, with the tombstone-coloured plinths made out of MDF. The hideous Beuys exhibition in the same bunker. All of which prevents young people from grasping the world that produced these artefacts and the vision of their makers.)
It was different with Fiszman. When he visited Andy Warhol in New York, he asked the artist which of his works was the hardest to sell. ‘Most Wanted Men’, replied Warhol: one of his most beautiful, poetical and political works. And Fiszman bought it.
S.M.A.K. owns a masterpiece by Carl Andre, consisting of thin metal pipes that the artist had rescued from a demolished building in the Netherlands. Unique. Powerful. Radical. Unadorned minimalism. Not faked for the art-market, but an exceptional thinking-thing, a thing that exists. Half-owned by the late Konrad Fischer and half-owned by… Fiszman.
Isi also gave me permission to exist and to be myself. Not by buying anything from me, but by attending my plays, reading my texts and walking with me through the Forêt de Soignes, reminiscing about the time when a confused Broodthaers attempted to deliver leaflets produced by the resistance to the Gestapo in the rue de la Pépinière (and of his miraculous escape), the passage in The Damned in which the steel magnate appoints a Nazi sympathizer as his vice-president and thus seals the fate of the Jewish community, or about Fiszman’s father who, fleeing the Nazis, died when Isi was four years old.
Isi gave himself to others, because he himself had been abandoned in the dark. He was searching for the light. He dreamed and hoped. He refused to give up.
When I conducted a filmed interview with him about Huis A, eighteen months ago, he admitted that he was sometimes the only viewer, other than Jef Cornelis.
‘You were the only one present?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘But why did you organise it, then?’ I queried.
A long silence followed.
‘Because I thought we were going to change the world,’ he said.
In any case, he changed my world. Even if only in my dreams.
chance and necessity
On the last day of his life, Isi was enthusiastic. For hours, without pause, he recounted dozens of anecdotes and tried to share his varied insights with me. We conversed from eleven in the morning until six in the evening. Sometimes he wept, sometimes we laughed. I tried to remember everything. Between half-past five and six, we strolled through the Forêt de Soignes as dusk fell. The air grew cold. His shepherd dog had become strangely placid. As long as we stayed behind him, he was quiet. But when he leapt up to attack a jogger, Isi was able to bring him to heel with a few tugs of the lead. It soon became dark, and Isi spoke quickly, as though we were reliving the last pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
He sometimes related new ideas and anecdotes, at other times he repeated oft-heard words and stories. Everything merged into a wonderfully lucid stream of images, appearing and disappearing like coils of hair woven into a braid. Only to be suddenly interrupted by a cliché, or so it seemed in that instant, before everything regained its coherence and I understood how he had wanted to live, and why.
This cliché was Mallarmé’s famous line Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance), which was often used by Marcel Broodthaers. Although it wasn’t the first time that I’d heard Isi quote this verse, I’d always believed it was prompted by a sense of loyalty or perhaps a kind of laziness. But for a split second, there on that forest path in the dusk, everything suddenly became crystal clear.
What does this verse actually mean? Within Mallarmé’s poetics, I believe it signifies that every successful poem has a linguistic and even a visual form that is necessary and can be compared to the apparently equally fixed, definitive and contrived structures of zodiacs (constellations). The necessary form of a successful poem, Mallarmé wrote, cannot eliminate the accidental, impure nature of language: language as it is typically used and spoken. Conversely, the sentence also seems to imply that exceptional poems can only be written by ripping the words and expressions away from the conventions of spoken or badly-written language, so that people can hear, see, taste and understand them anew. In so doing, the words themselves, and the poems or prose that are constructed with them, seem to become autonomous, and begin to resemble objects.
For Marcel Broodthaers, these poetics probably legitimised the poems he created with objects such as mussel shells and eggshells and with the associations the (sound of) these objects’ names evoke within us.
For Fiszman, the beauty or relevance of an artwork was akin to the beauty of mathematics and the natural sciences, but also to a meaningful, tolerant, ethical and political attitude. He saw all of this as the product of a world ruled by chance, in which endless permutations could occasionally produce a useful result. He quoted from Chance and Necessity (Le hasard et la nécessité) by the biologist Jacques Monod; he explained how a twist of fate had brought him to the place where Rabbi Meir Ben Baruch Von Rothenburg was arrested in 1286; and he advocated inclusive models of society, such as Ghandi’s plea for a united India (instead of the unfortunate division into three countries with three different religions) and the truth commissions established by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Thinking is guessing. And unless you have the courage to make mistakes, there can be no progress. ‘It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes,’ he said, ‘the terrible thing is to never apply what you’ve learnt and to keep on making the same mistakes’.
In an essay on Nietzsche, written after the Second World War, Thomas Mann decried his apolitical attitude of the interwar years and denounced the intellectualist critique of culture ‘because only a thin layer of culture separates us from barbarism’. I think Fiszman would have added that we also must always remember that this ‘thin layer of culture’ was created by trial and error and is not, as some would assume, the fruit of a divinely preordained plan.
Because in quoting Mallarmé, what Fiszman really meant was that we should always bear in mind that the achievements of mankind have not abolished chaos. Nor have they proven that history evolves in a certain direction. Perhaps a poem after Auschwitz is still possible, but it may never make us forget our inhumanity.
And this means that we should be alert to the contingency, the coincidence, of all our achievements. It also means that we must be forever cognisant of our ignorance. That we should know we’ll never have God’s home phone number or be party to his or her thoughts. That we will have to continue to study and question the Old Testament forever, as per the Jewish tradition (the brilliance of so many Jewish scientists and artists might be related to this intellectual tradition, in which nothing is considered definitive, everything is open to discussion, and all things are perpetually reconsidered and debated). That we must be tolerant, therefore, and treat people we don’t understand with respect. And that any form of thought that is dictated by political parties or other organisations will ultimately damage us in the long-run, simply because it is closed, because it is inert, because it is unable to adapt and, ultimately, because it isn’t real thinking but a dangerous ruminating of words, sounds and stale images.
And this is why Isi wanted to help people who were aware of their own ignorance and were engaged in the lonely quest of trying to give form to an ambiguous and open approach to reality.
We reached his house. ‘My whole body is shaking,’ he said, ‘I’ll quickly put my dick in the socket to recharge and then I’ll hit the sack. I suddenly feel very tired.’
Montagne de Miel, 10 January 2019