November 20, 2014
Jonathan Safran Foer’s quasi-novel inspires Olafur Eliasson, Wayne McGregor, and Jamie xx’s non-quasi-ballet
by Mark Krotov
Let’s begin with two remarks by visual artist, soil salinizer, and hip-hop star Olafur Eliasson. First, his endorsement of Jonathan Safran Foer’s non-novel Tree of Codes:
Jonathan Safran Foer, [sic, because why the hell is there a comma after his name?] deftly deploys sculptural means to craft a truly compelling story. In our world of screens, he welds narrative, materiality, and our reading experience into a book that remembers that it actually has a body.
And second, Eliasson’s endorsement of another thing called Tree of Codes, his balletic, Foer-based collaboration with choreographer Wayne McGregor and musician Jamie xx, which will premiere at the Manchester International Festival in July:
Clearly Jamie’s music can’t live without movement and space. Clearly Wayne’s choreography can’t live without sound and space. Clearly my art can’t live without sound and movement. Clearly creativity can change the world.
You know what, those were pretty good, but I think we need one more piece of abstract, meaningless text to really set the mood for this blog post. So here it is, McGregor’s endorsement of Tree of Codes the novel, and also Tree of Codes the ballet:
Jonathan Safran Foer’s enigmatic novel Tree of Codes is an immersive sculptural work that brilliantly hovers between words and spaces, surfaces and layers, pasts and futures. Its post apocalyptic [sic, though the absence of a hyphen really isn’t the end of the world] narrative and reinvention of the process of reading itself catapults your imagination into bracing liminal states. These blurred and disorientating worlds provide a powerful point of departure for our collaboration on stage—where constellations of light, shadows, bodies, objects and sound dance at the edges of darkness.
Man, those are some sick, substantive endorsements. But I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves. After all, what is this Tree of Codes, the novel that inspired Eliasson, McGregor, and xx to create a ballet called Tree of Codes?
Tree of Codes the novel, which was published by Visual Editions in 2010, is Foer’s radically redacted version of Bruno Schulz’s classic The Street of Crocodiles. “Redacted,” in this case, is meant literally. The book reproduces Schulz’s book page for page, but most of these pages have holes in them, creating a new book composed of fragments of Schulz’s text. Or, in the words of the New York Times’s Steven Heller: “The result is a text of cutout pages, with text peeking through windows as the tale unfolds.” Is it Foer’s book, or Schulz’s? Four years ago, VF Daily asked Foer this very thing:
This book is mine. His book is a masterpiece, this was my experiment. My story has nothing to do with his story. There’s the sense that every book every written is like this, if you use the dictionary as a starting point. This is a more limited palette, but it’s the same idea.
Okay. And is his book like sampling? And if not, is it like sculpture? Heller got the answer.
It’s not really sampling, because that implies taking something out of its context and inserting it into a new context. A better analogy might be carving a stone. Of course one can carve any number of things from a block of marble, but one is still dependent on the marble. And marble is not like granite, which is not like chalk. Has a sculpture taken away from the block of marble? Not really. Has it added? Not really. Tree of Codes took The Street of Crocodiles as its starting point and made something new.
And now this book—which was created by cutting holes in another book and is sort of like sculpture—is the basis for a work of ballet. Art can be so mysterious!
In conclusion, here is a video of the manufacturing process behind Tree of Codes (the novel), set to a very sad British song:
Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.