Is there anything Brian Dillon isn’t interested in? Judging by the table of contents of his new collection of essays, Objects in This Mirror (Sternberg Press, 2013), the answer is clearly no. From the Dewey Decimal System to slapstick, by way of the common cold and Roland Barthes, Dillon’s essays expand what any subject can be and how these topics should, or could, be discussed. They become a personal musing on art, travel, reading, what knowledge is, and how we talk about it. Orit Gat talked to Dillon about the divergent subjects of the essays, but also the writing process and the reading that leads to it.
Orit Gat (Rail): When does it become a good moment to collect one’s essays in a book?
Brian Dillon: Oh, God. I don’t know, middle age? A decade of work seemed like a good start. Many pieces in the book are about art, and if not directly about art, then written for art magazines originally, which I’ve been writing for for about 10 years. I started off writing about books, which I still do. I never imagined I was going to be writing about art. So there were 10 years of something like art criticism, interspersed with book reviews and the less definable things—on certain landscapes, for example. And also it was about 10 years since I started writing for Cabinet, which had published its 10-year anthology, and that seemed important as a kind of affiliation, in terms of range and curiosity.
Rail: You organize the book by loose themes like curiosities, pathologies, and syllabi. What is the intention of this system, which seems to rejoice in difference rather than sameness?
Dillon: There’s a folder on my computer that now has six or seven hundred documents, all the pieces I’ve published in the past decade. It never really looked as if there was a coherent collection of essays on one topic there. So I’d always put off this idea that at some point I’d revisit some of the longer pieces. But then I convinced myself that, if I was ever going to do it, I would have to admit the miscellaneous quality upfront. And that’s what it is—it’s just a collection. There is as you say a schematic structure—there are some essays on curiosities (the book starts with Victorian gesture manuals), locations, and longer pieces dealing explicitly with single artists like Andy Warhol, Jacques Henri Lartigue, or Tacita Dean. And that seemed like the only way to organize it: if there’s another, more personal line running through the book, that’s for other people to discover. Apart from the personal stuff that I talk about in the introduction, where the very idea of the essay or a sort of ambition toward the essay was important.
Rail: Many collections of essays are being published right now.
Dillon: I like that sort of book, other people’s collections of essays. I'm attracted to the idea that you can practice a kind of cultural journalism but have ambitions for the writing: for its forms, textures, and possible voices. There’s an essay on Roland Barthes in the book, and he’s the ultimate exemplar of that sort of thing. You’re right, we seem to be in a moment of a certain sort of essayism. There are conservative versions of the essayistic impulse though, an ambition toward something a little too easeful or well formed. I'm actually not sure where I stand on the current craze for essays. I’m writing a book on the subject soon, so maybe I’ll work it out. For now, I’d rather be “essayistic” than “interdisciplinary.”
Rail: A lot of writers feel very comfortable writing in the art context, even if their subjects wouldn’t usually fall neatly in the visual arts category.
Dillon: The art world has felt, even a decade ago, like a place where you can be a writer and where, in a way, you could write about anything. Cabinet is the most obvious example of that, but even outside of that kind of eclecticism, art magazines seem really open to all kinds of subjects. And, more importantly, to all kinds of styles and a real variety of voices. Other people like Tom McCarthy have said the art world seems a place where literary writing and forms that might not survive in the mainstream literary world still have a kind of urgency and energy about them. The essay may be one of those, but more obviously, especially in Britain, experimental fiction has a renewed life attached to the art world that is very productive, but maybe comforting as well, for some people.
Rail: Has this kind of openness affected the criteria and the selection process for your book, too?
Dillon: I suppose you could look at my book and think that thematically this could be an issue of Cabinet, with essays on gestures, cravats, art vandals, and Robert Smithson’s New Jersey. The risk, obviously, is that your specialism becomes the fact that you don’t have one. And there’s a danger of whimsy that comes with that.
Rail: Even though certain pieces read as playful, like “In the Kitchen with Sophie Calle,” which is written from her point of view.
Dillon: The Calle piece is the one that comes closest to an actual interview. I decided quite early on that I wasn’t going to include any interviews, because that’s just a completely different form. But that one is partly about the form itself, which had something to do with my own anxiety in going to see Sophie Calle, which was an amazing thing to be doing in the first place. Sitting in her apartment full of taxidermized animals while she was waiting for a taxidermy bear to arrive from the south of France. And she said to me, “I will not remember you,” which seemed like a really strange thing to say to anybody, especially after a three-hour conversation. It was really matter of fact. “As soon as you leave here, I’ll forget you.” So I already had this sense that what had happened in that conversation, those three hours, was a weirdly self-contained thing. I needed to step outside of myself, to somehow give her the narrative—maybe I was trying to make her remember me. The idea of doing it from her point of view just popped into my head while I was having a coffee on a street somewhere in Paris, waiting for my train. I find that once you’ve made a formal or tonal choice like that—which might be completely arbitrary—you have to trust it will take you, or the reader, somewhere interesting.
Rail: Do you feel like a book needs to say something about the moment of its publishing?
Dillon: If you put pieces together like this and call it a book of essays, you don’t—or I don’t—really know what its relationship is to the present. It’s very hard to know what a decade of writing published now means exactly. It means something a bit egotistical in terms of your biography as a writer, that you’re announcing it’s a body of work. I say in the introduction that the book is an anthology of what it was possible to write in that decade in the context of art magazines. I’m not sure what, if anything, the book says about that decade. If there are connections between the pieces, it’s in a continuum between writing about Smithson’s New Jersey and writing about Tacita Dean, for example, or writing about ruinous territories and writing about Gerard Byrne, or writing about my own adolescence and writing about Lartigue as a child. There were other essays actually that I didn’t include on much bigger canonical artists. There’s a piece on Duchamp that I just had a failure of nerve about at the last minute and thought, “I can’t really reprint my 5,000-word essay on Duchamp. People will think I want to be a proper art critic.”