Sense and Sensibility (book)
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Sense and Nonsensibility: Lampoons of Learning and Literature

The Omnist

Inside a vast Chelsea loft, the pair of interviewers find Timothy Inca-Munch seated in a pink butterfly chair, snacking on pine nuts and sipping ginger beer.  If he looks relaxed, five minutes with this one-man genre will convince you otherwise.

His video works are currently on display at the Guggenheim and his sculpture is featured at the Venice Biennale; a major show of his kinetic projects has recently opened at the Art Barge, which travels up and down the East River; and an “Unauthorized Autobiography” is on its way.  Yet, Inca-Munch (unlike his distinguished Norwegian predecessor, his name, he insists, “rhymes with Cap’n Crunch”) remains very much a controversial figure, best known for his week-long performance piece, in which he simply led his days as usual.

“People kept asking that old question, ‘yes, but is it art?’,”  Inca-Munch explains, his leg shaking with nervous energy.  An athletic thirty-eight, he wears a troubadour’s quilted doublet and a black Gap pocket-T.  “Of course, that was the point.  The term ‘art’ is too fraught, too tied to the canon, just too too.  I think of myself as an ‘omnist’; in my view the aesthetic is distinctly promiscuous.”

His statement finds confirmation in his loft, an enviable space that is a cross between a painter’s studio and a Toys R Us.  As he rocks in his chair, now furiously stitching a quilt commissioned for a Sojourner Truth memorial, he lists the most powerful contemporary influences on his work: Wallace and Gromit, Pina Bausch, Karen Carpenter, and Charles Manson.  He has even begun a work about the latter, an opera slated to premiere at BAM.

“These are figures who have dared to push the envelope, even Manson.  Art -- see how difficult it is to get away from that word? -- if properly done is itself a form of murder.  And murder can be a form of art.  Not always, but sometimes, like with de Sade or Tarantino.”

Does his work kill?

“In a sense it does -- it kills convention.  I think I’ve been misinterpreted as embracing a wholesale chucking of the past, but nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s like what Freud said, you can’t subvert the tradition without first putting it on the couch.  I think too many of today’s artists are overly swept up in the scene, the hype.  It’s still important to read, you know.  I’m a voracious reader.  Last week I read all of Kant -- terrific stuff.  Very dense.  I suddenly understood Fassbinder and Kraftwerk.”

“At the same time,” he continues, now from behind a camera snapping close-ups of our ears, “I find all this ‘decline and fall’ talk nonsense.  For example, I think T.V. has taught us a great deal about the organization of visual images.  Especially commercials.  Coke has done as much to define our environment as Cobain or Klee.”

But is it possible to compare Coke to Kant?

Inca-Munch laughs at this question and tugs at the twin pig-tails sprouting from the back of his head.  “Obviously they’re quite different.  But let’s not forget that in the name of ‘high culture’ African-Americans were enslaved all over medieval Europe.  Now we’re opening the field, inviting in the Other.  Bazooka is not just one flavor anymore.  Does that lead to dissonance?  Sure, but even Bach was banned in his own lifetime by Bismarck.  As Ice Pick has rapped, ‘If it doesn’t kill me, it’ll make me richer.’“

Is he stung by the criticism that his most recent work lacks the vitality and the creative edge of his late-eighties pieces?

“I stopped reading the critics after the Jesus Herbert Christ show,” Inca-Munch says.  Dashing toward a massive window, he hollers to the street below and videos the response.   “I mean, the praise got it wrong and now so does the criticism.  All I can say is go and breathe the work.  Absorb it.  Then decide.”

“Absorb” captures well what the viewer must do at the omnist’s new installation on the Art Barge.  A short film based on the life of Joan of Arc (written and directed by Inca-Munch) is projected against a backdrop of Playboy covers while water spouts from sprinklers above the spectator. 

“I wanted to juxtapose Joan’s immolation with the viewer’s relative safety.  And I was very pleased that we got Sandra Bernhard to play Joan.  Sandra’s a very focused performer, in her own way as focused as Joan.  Unfortunately, all the critics could talk about were the sprinklers.”

When asked about a sculpture now on view in Venice of large cubes of tofu floating in vats of water, the omnist’s face brightens.

“That was a very important work for me.  I had been thinking a lot about Beuys and how he changed my way of seeing fat.  Every day I’d go into this Korean market down the block and buy some tofu.  I needed to capture something about its presence, its ontology.  In all its blandness, bean curd really is a very subversive foodstuff.”

But should taxpayers’ dollars support the making of self-consciously subversive art?

“I’m in the minority on this one, but don’t get me wrong -- I have nothing against welfare mothers.  It’s just that Kafka was right; the artist has to be hungry as a roach in order to achieve something lasting.  It makes the work sharper.” 

“You see,” he says, re-braiding his pig-tails, “the omnist just does it.”