Interview with Nicolas Garait-Leavenworth

Posted to Exhibitions, Kunstformidling on 15.10.2016, 09:41 by Susanne Roald with

In the exhibition "Los Angeles - A Fiction" we present a subjective selection of literature written in or about Los Angeles over the last 50 years. Excerpts from these writings are organised so that they tell a story that complements the artworks. Nicolas Garait-Leavenworth is the curator behind the literary program of the exhibition. In this interview we asked him about his work with this textual selection and why these texts in particular have been selected for the exhibition.


What is your background, and how did you get involved with Los Angeles-literature?

I went to Los Angeles for the first time in 2004, with David Lynch films and Michael Connelly books in mind. I realized that what I loved in Lynch’s work – the plants, the heavy curtains, the heat, the violence – was already in L.A., ready to be filmed. I also found out that Connelly described the daily life there – the traffic, the people, the housing, the crimes – like no one else. And then there was of course James Frey's Bright Shiny Morning which I read as soon as it was published in 2008. The staggering rhythm of his sentences, the way he describes tiny lives crushed by a very violent and indifferent environment, his peculiar use of punctuation – actually made me feel like reading more stuff about Southern California.

I’d also like to mention two very important writers to me: Bret Easton Ellis and Joan Didion. When in the UK, I once had the chance to organize a talk between J. G. Ballard and the first (he was fired later and I can't remember his name) screenwriter who was working on adapting Ellis’ American Psycho for the cinema – the idea of this talk being, how to film what's unfilmable? This is when I discovered Ellis' books, including Less than Zero. And it’s thanks to Ellis that I “met” the love of my literary inner life, namely Joan Didion, whose writing famously influenced the whole 80's-90's "Literary Brat Pack" (Ellis, Donna Tartt, Jay McInerney etc.). She’s the one who invented that so called literary journalism: her sense of dread, the permanent cultural apocalypse she describes while smoothly making her way through it… As you may have noticed, she's everywhere in the catalogue.


How did you work with the selection of literature for the exhibition Los Angeles – A Fiction?

The brief wasn't to stick to the exhibition per se – artists and artworks were still being selected when I started – but to provide some background and amplification so as to put words on the environment these artworks were being made (and in which these artists were living) through the lens of fiction. Since Gunnar B. Kvaran and Thierry Raspail decided to choose from a mix of famous and emerging artists, I decided to go for the same, dead or alive, from the last fifty years – that is to say 1966. That meant there were a lot of books I couldn't quote, from Nathanael West's The Day of The Locust to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep or Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon. However, the very writers who created the myth of L.A. as a literary city full of would-be authors who end up writing for Hollywood still appear, like ghosts, in other writers’ pieces – and rightfully so.


How are the texts curated?

I first worked on a number of excerpts from my favorite books written in or about L.A. – those already mentioned but also books I liked from Hector Tobar, Norman M. Klein, Chris Kraus, Ryan Gattis... One author leading to another, I ended up with more than 180 extracts from about 120 books, which I then edited like I’d do with a film: so that each excerpt becomes the equivalent of a film scene and turns the catalogue into yet another potential fiction. Excerpts are purposefully not in chronological or alphabetical order. Their lengths differ from one extract to another, some books are quoted twice, and a number or writers appear numerous times – all because it’s a subjective and obviously “incomplete” anthology.

I also commissioned Angela Flournoy and James Frey to write two commissions for the catalogue by way of an introduction to it. Flournoy, raised in Southern California and author of the enthralling Turner House (2015 National Book Award Finalist), wrote Stars on the Strip, a very moving text about her youth, hanging around Sunset Boulevard. James Frey's contribution Yesterday, Could be Today, maybe Tomorrow, very much in the same vein as in Bright Shiny Morning, tells the tale of the Château Marmont, probably the most famous hotel in L.A., and of the characters who pass through its lobby, rooms and swimming pool – in the open, yet totally secluded.


What is the theme of your selection?

Since my selection is very personal, it reverberate with a number of personal obsessions for Sharon Tate or Jean Seberg, for the L.A. River or the sheer number of communities, characters and landscapes that make up the city. The 1965 and 1992 riots, the 1994 earthquake, the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase, the trees (all the trees in L.A., not just the palm trees!), the Mojave Desert, the light, the sexual tensions, the architecture, the cinema (with a handful of dialogue transcripts) also appear at some point and map a subjective portrait of a city that I truly learnt to love through its literature.


Would you like to learn more?
Thursday 3. November at 18.00 Nicolas Garait-Leavenworth will give a reading-performance: We tell ourselves stories in order to live (Los Angeles: some books and some films) at Astrup Fearnley Museet. The lecture is free and open to the public.

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