Ann Lauterbach & Richard Kraft
Richard Kraft and Ann Lauterbach in Conversation (Excerpted from Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera, Siglio, 2015)
Ann Lauterbach: Is there a particular image, song, text or event from your childhood in London that you think had a direct impact on this work—or even has affected your thinking about the world? I know this is a big question, but I ask it because one of the recurring figures in this work is a young boy.
Richard Kraft: I’m increasingly finding that many of the visual motifs and ideas that permeate my work are rooted in my childhood. When I first read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, it made a deep impression on me, but being so young at the time, I didn’t really understand his comment to Franz Kappus that one could always find a way to work by drawing on one’s youth. Now I find that my childhood percolates to the surface whether I intend it to or not. The young boy you speak of is actually several young boys, all of them singing (their faces come from a single photograph of an English boy’s school choir). Growing up in London, I was—very reluctantly, and briefly—in my school choir. Yet one of my most vivid memories was the first time we sang William Blake’s Jerusalem. It was a defining moment—the first time I experienced the enormous emotional power that art can have. Now, in Here Comes Kitty, these singing boys are a metaphorical chorus of sorts, as if commenting on what’s taking place around them. They are also a way of reminding the viewer that, as an opera, Here Comes Kitty is a work that’s being sung.
There is also a biblical thread that runs through the book (primarily through numerous speech bubbles which are appropriated from Jimmy Swaggart’s comic book of Bible stories). One of my favorite things as a young child was having my grandmother read to me from an illustrated book of Old Testament stories. I always asked for the same two stories to be read over and over again: “Tower of Babel” (one of my favorite artworks to this day is Brueghel’s eponymous painting) and “David and Goliath.” In the “Tower of Babel” I loved to imagine what the cacophony might sound like! And even as a youngster, I seemed to grasp that meaning is tenuous and fluid, and that language is often deficient when truths become evident in other ways or when alternative means of communication can be discovered. The relationship between sense and nonsense is one of the main threads in Here Comes Kitty, and ultimately I agree with John Cage who said that the beauty of nonsense is that it makes multiple kinds of sense.
“David and Goliath” may be even more important in the broader arc of my work because it’s about the refusal of authority and the rejection of those who abuse their power. Most obviously, Here Comes Kitty interrupts and undermines a comic book story about Nazis (it’s really fun to put words in their mouths), but I also aim for the work to be subversive in deeper ways, particularly in its refusal of a fixed linear narrative and the idea of a single meaning or truth. For as long as I can remember, I have been very suspicious of nationalism, patriotism and all types of religious fundamentalism because these viewpoints attempt to define and thus constrict the actual experience of life which I find most beautiful and compelling in its paradoxes, its inconsistencies, its wide swaths of gray.
I’m sort of overwhelmed by the numerous threads you are pulling through, staring at them in their unwoven abundance. I’ve just been reading the writings of Louise Bourgeois, another artist whose work not only draws deeply from childhood but also attests to a refusal or subversion of authority: the name of the father, so to speak. This includes, I suppose, her repeated assertion that she is not interested in art history, if “art history” is another way of thinking about authority.
Here Comes Kitty has a complicated relation to narrativity. The logic of narration is totally skewed, so that how or why something follows something else is nearly impossible to tell. Your charming use of temporal signs—“dawn,” “wind ceased,” “shortly after,” “in the morning,” “on the sixth day,” “later,” “one hot day”—and other kinds of locators give us a sense of how arbitrary, or fictive, narratives are. I think this is one of the crucial insights of postmodernity, the sense that history is multiple and layered, not singular and linear.
For example, the presence of a “Nazi,” such a specific reference, here begins to break free of its historical setting; you seem to imply that the figure of the “Nazi” is universal, that it exists at all times in all places: Goliath, an archetype. I’m working up to a question here. I suppose I’m trying to get a grip on your relation to change (not “progress,” which Cage so wonderfully disavowed even as he radically altered our sense of, well—the sounds of silence). Looking and reading through your comic opera, I am attempting to discern what or who you believe in, in relation to the future. Maybe I need just to ask: who is “Kitty”?
(As an addendum to that final question: I want to ask how you think about animals in relation to humans. This seems central to this work, but it’s a little too broad a question. I am however imagining that your answer to “Kitty” will perhaps engage this greater question.)
In the last ten years or so I have spent quite a bit of time in the desert looking for petroglyphs and pictographs. Quite often at these sites one finds that the same panel has been worked over and over again, by different artists at different times—sometimes possibly hundreds of years apart—and what results, to my eye, is a single, teeming work that suggests narrative at the same time as it refuses it. When, for example, I look at the Rochester Panel, I feel as if I am confronting an entire universe, and while it doesn’t make any kind of rational sense, it does make a kind of emotional or what the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky called “poetic sense.” It illustrates—to add to your observation about the layering of history—the multiplicity of time, which we now understand isn’t singular either.
My goal in Here Comes Kitty was to create such a world. It might be difficult, at first, to discern how the many threads weave because they resist the linear pattern we associate with narrative. I think of that weave, so to speak, as diagonal (which is how Danielle Dutton’s interpolations seem to be constructed as well). I see these visual and verbal threads as songlines of a sort, stretching across time and space, traversing the terrain of the book so that you can navigate an unexpected way through. My understanding of Aboriginal songlines is that they are invisible, multiplicitous, simultaneous stories that are sung. They are also a kind of map, a means of naming the world (but one not confined to our literal, physical present), a way to define and navigate space, as well as a method of communication. One songline may stretch across the entire Australian continent but incorporate a number of different languages. That means while each person will know parts of certain songlines, no one person can sing the whole. Together, as everyone sings, the world is (constantly) being sung into existence.
I’ve experienced another and perhaps more influential kind of multiplicity in my many travels to India (my mother’s side of the family are Indian Jews). One of the things that I love about India is what Thomas Mann, in his book The Transposed Heads, refers to as the “all-encompassing labyrinthine flux of the animal, human, and divine.” Relatively few people in India keep pets, yet animals (domesticated, feral and wild) are present everywhere: on the streets and rooftops, in every nook where humans exist, particularly and especially in the temples. This is both extraordinarily beautiful and sometimes brutal as the animals’ lives and suffering are plainly visible and rarely attended to.
From the very beginnings of human civilization, the animal and human worlds have been intricately linked. The animal population of Here Comes Kitty reflects the many ways in which animals persist in inhabiting the human psyche—as real and as imagined (both seem to be present in the Rochester Panel). It’s a kind of refusal of what we call “progress” in the West—our ability to make very distinct, separate spaces for humans and animals and, particularly, to sanitize our places of worship. It’s also, as Mann points out, about the rich complexity of dissolving various kinds of borders and connecting disparate things.
I have to admit that your question initially induced a panic in me, largely because we’re told we’re supposed to believe in something. Instead, isn’t faith really about surrender? I believe that our great capacity for wonder can be tapped into when we relinquish a need for rational meaning. Thus, I have faith in questions rather than answers because questions, on one hand, can be inspired by the embrace of what is ultimately inscrutable, and on the other by an irreverence, a skepticism of what we’re convinced we already know. In posing those questions, if we’re lucky, we might get a momentary glimpse of a truth—and I think its fleetingness is as meaningful as what that truth might tell us. In Here Comes Kitty, I’m asking the reader to surrender and get lost in the act of looking—to be open to the possibilities of reverie, to the strange alchemy of one thing brushing up against another, to letting go of “sense” in order to discover different and multiplicitous truths. And as for Kitty, she is that multiplicity—she is many creatures, some monstrous, some sweet. She is akin perhaps to the Indian goddess Kali who destroys as well as creates.
I should also admit I work very intuitively much of the time. There was no intention in creating a Kitty-Kali matrix. But there it is—and you intuited it too.