The Short Version: A posthumous look at Harriet Burden’s final major artwork, Maskings – wherein she employed three male artists as cover, to prove the phallocentric bias of the art world. I.V. Hess meticulously combed through her notebooks, interviewed friends and family and associates, and has put together an all-encompassing look at a polarizing figure in the art world.
The Review: I love a good rabbit hole, especially a literary one. Better, I love a good imaginary rabbit hole – the sort that you run down in your own mind based purely on something mentioned in a novel, or someone. Examples: The films of Stanislaw Cordova. The books of V.M. Straka. And now the artwork of Harriet Burden.
Hustvedt piles layer upon layer into this surprisingly tricky novel, pulling off stunts that I myself would want to use in writing a similar novel – like referencing herself, for example. She, the author, references herself – as an author and thinker – in a text that was written by a fictional character and that was then compiled by yet another fictional character. It’s a sly wink and an absolutely delightful one. But this book is full of them and that’s really what makes the book worthwhile: looking for the winks.
There’s quite a bit of philosophy here – Kierkegaard and Husserl, especially, but there are passing references to pretty much every major philosophical thinker of the last 100 or so years – and I’ll admit to some of it sailing right over or at least right at the top of my understanding. But that level of near-impenetrability seems to be the point. Harriet Burden’s mind was a densely packed one and it is no surprise that her own writings are the thorniest to untangle, while some of the conversations with others about Harriet seem to reveal more. Except that this whole time, again, we’re dealing with masks. The masks we wear with others, the masks we wear with ourselves. Harriet’s work – this massive, three-part series where she created artwork for/with these men and then had them present it as their own – is just one small piece of the larger puzzle that is Maskings, I think. It’s referenced a few times, that she had this idea of ephemera, these other pieces that would be collected and that would become (later on) a larger part of the understanding of the piece as a whole… and if it weren’t so clear that she had died, one might even believe that this mysterious “I. V. Hess” who has compiled the book we’re reading (a nod to the master of literary rabbit holes, Mr. Nabokov) might in fact be another of Harry’s many deeply-entrenched aliases. There is a sense, throughout this book, of a mystery to be solved – but that mystery might simply be the human one.
It’s complicated to talk about, the more I try to do it. On the one hand, I’m deeply impressed by the nuance with which Hustvedt is able to address the questions of identity. It’s something I, personally, deeply associate with – I love the idea of mythmaking, of creating personae, of shaping one’s own story – but here, there is (and this is the “other hand” moment) a slightly academic detachment. I know that Hustvedt is not just an author of fiction but also an essayist and scholar – and that intelligence is on clear display. But It is sometimes so clear that the narrative threatens to collapse under the weight of the ideas being played with. In an interesting reversal from The People in the Trees, for example, I found myself deeply interested in this ‘biography’ of a person I’ve never heard of before – but even still there were times where my interest flagged a little because Harry’s narrative, her life, references things that I don’t have a way to understand. I cannot remember the last time I went to an art installation, an actual singular art project presented in a gallery of a single artistic work. Museums here in New York present retrospectives or shows from current artists but they rarely have a unifying theme in the way that Harry’s works do. How am I supposed to understand the hubbub around “The Suffocation Rooms” or “Beneath” when I can’t actually see them, but can only imagine them with the oblique descriptions delivered in the text? By extension, how can I then engage fully with the artist in question (regardless of her fictionality)? I am held at a remove – or, to steal a concept from the book itself, there is a mask preventing me from seeing the full reality.
But perhaps that is the idea.
Rating: 4 out of 5. The epistolary nature of the book is, of course, delightful – and opens up so many questions about truth and how we present ourselves. The somewhat cold, clinical academic tone – not even so much academic as just slightly distanced – does get a little wearying but the questions raised are ever-fascinating. What makes something ours? How do we understand one another, one another’s creations? While the primary point is gender relations, Hustvedt is smart enough to take us deeper than that – and to address something more fundamental about humanity and about the masks we create for ourselves in all things. It could have been something much more, but what it was was no disappointment.