If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
The writer on his new book of essays and the state of limbo as a necessary state of artistic life.
According to Jewish scripture, when we die we end up in Sheol, an egalitarian netherworld where all souls go to await judgment. While you could end up in Heaven or Hell, it is possible to to remain in the purgatory between the two, what is known as limbo. For the living, limbo exists for the undocumented immigrant, the jobless worker, the paralyzed artist. In 2017, stalled on a book of essays and feeling the first stirrings of career ennui (he was then co-editor of frieze), the writer and artist Dan Fox began interrogating his creative and professional arrest. The resultant Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions), is an essay-length book in which Fox seeks to better understand this state through its weighted meaning, its social and theological impact, and his own relationship to it. The following conversation took place in another limbo, a Brooklyn bar.
Michael Barron You have a brother who sailed the world in the 1980s, and that may have inspired a trip you took a few years ago, a six-week sail on a container ship from England to China. Nothing much seemed to happen, but as you settled in even the minutiae of your day, watching the ocean life, or mess room meals, became monumental. Is that where the idea of Limbo, as a curiosity, came about?
Dan Fox I wanted to write about that container ship journey for a long time, but I was unable to figure out the right context for it. As I began work on Limbo I realized that experiences I’d had at sea helped illuminate the ideas I was exploring, including my relationship with my brother Karl. We haven’t spent much time with each other over the course of our lives, and the ocean wilderness, in which there is wonder, excitement and risk, and yet a whole lot of nothing going on, too, became one path through which I could try and address unresolved parts of my relationship to him; a figure for whom I feel a great amount of love yet has always remained at a distance.
MB Is your brother still a figure that pulls you in certain directions?
DFAs much as I would love to be one of those writers who effects a cool, critical distance from everything, I can’t escape the ways in which my family has shaped the world for me. That became clear as I worked on Pretentiousness: I couldn’t write a book on that topic and not reference my own social background. Writing about it in the final chapter of that book, which was originally intended as a postscript, ended up being a significant moment for my work. I discussed my brother Mark, who trained first to be a nurse before becoming a successful interior designer. His example showed me how art and culture can provide a model for living, a refuge, a means to meet like-minds and read the world. Limbo led me to Karl, and the years in which he lived at sea, moving wherever the work took him, never landing in one place for long.
MB Speaking of the sea, Limbo opens with John Buckley’s The Headington Shark, an installation that has been stuck in the roof of a house very close to where you grew up. The house owner, local radio personality Bill Heine, defined it an expression of “someone ripping a hole in their roof out of a sense of impotence and anger and desperation.” Is this an apt metaphor for the book as well?
DF The image of a shark jammed in the roof of a house miles inland rhymed with a lot of things I was feeling, albeit in quite a ploddingly literal way. You see, I didn’t envision anything in the book to be about limbo to begin with. I had originally imagined it would be a book of travel writing, but I soon found myself feeling horribly stuck in my work and life, unable to write. At a certain point I became interested in that state of mind, and so the book then became a way of digging myself out of a rut, then expanded into a more wide-ranging exploration of limbo, and eventually was able to encompass ideas from the original travel book—the container ship, for instance—but in an entirely different guise.
MB Limbo is this “extraterritoriality,” as you put it, devoid of definition while ripe with possibility. In working on this book, what has limbo come to mean for you?
DF That’s just it—it’s come to mean a rich variety of things. The early stages of writing, for me, involve a process of free association around an idea. I use that to crack a subject open and see how much life is teeming inside a word. I like subjects that appear simple but which can house multitudes.
MB It’s not often thought of as a pleasant state of being, but is it necessary for us to be in it from time to time?
DF Limbo isn’t necessary, it’s just a fact of life. Nobody’s story plays out along a tidy arc of progress. You stall in the middle of the road. You trip up. Boredom, frustration, indecision, feeling lost—these are all part of life’s topography. I think it’s important to learn how to sit with those feelings. Especially so for creative people, who are surrounded by narratives of artistic success that often omit the fallow periods and time spent on the sidelines that everyone has to endure.
MB You go into how the Catholic Church in 2007 abolished its own limbo, for, as they put it, “the hope of salvation for infants who die without being baptized.” What do you make of such a gesture?
DF For centuries, the Catholic Church told people who had lost infants before they were baptized, that the souls of their children would be stuck forever in limbo, with no chance of ever entering heaven. It was called ‘limbus infantum’—not the same as purgatory, which is a kind of grim waiting room in which you do your time before being released. In the early 2000s they decided to get rid of that concept. Coming from an institution that has been responsible for the abuse and suffering of so many people, the idea that ‘abolishing’ a supernatural dimension is going to make amends for real emotional damage caused on this plane of existence is theological woo-woo.
MB Your two essay-length books—Pretentiousness and now Limbo—are works that are built from single words that together seem at opposite ends of a spectrum. With pretention, you’re entirely absorbed by something, and in a limbo, you’re entirely outside of any sort of absorption. Were you conscious of an ongoing theme or method when developing these books?
DF I wouldn’t be so grand as to say I have a method. Pretentiousness came from working in contemporary art. I was curious what was meant when people dismissed it as pretentious. I noticed how the word seemed to carry different meanings for different people, how it was used to perform a variety of functions—asserting someone’s own “authenticity” in the face of others, for example, or policing social status. Conversely, Limbo developed out of a protracted period of creativity and trying to come to grips with feeling stuck.
So, personal experience is one tool I use for looking at ideas and developing them into the books I have written. A friend recently suggested that I might be smuggling a family memoir across my books. I’m aware that’s one direction in which I could push further.
MB In a memoriam essay on David Bowie that you published in frieze shortly after his death, you note how he shared his finds with anyone who would listen. “It’s the closet teacher in me,” you quote him as saying. “I love introducing people to new things.” This is the feeling that I get when engaging with your work. Would you say there is a closet teacher in you as well?
DF I can’t deny it. I come from a family of teachers. But teaching is a vocation. It demands imagination, dedication, empathy, and a certain degree of toughness. I admire people who do it well, but I’ve never wanted to pursue a classroom career. You could say my teaching impulse found an outlet when I worked as a magazine editor at frieze. I enjoyed sharing information or discoveries with readers, and trying to figure out what sorts of subjects the magazine’s audience might want to learn about, too.
MB Could you talk more about your time at frieze. You worked there for twenty years, going from intern to co-editor. It’s the sort of job that can engulf your entire identity. It must have been an astounding experience, but in both Pretentiousness and Limbo, I get the sense of you trying to find and even fight for your sense of identity. Looking back at that time, how would you describe that trajectory, when frieze felt like home, when it began to feel like change of the guard was needed?
DF I started there when I was twenty-two, alongside some fantastic people who allowed me to grow as a writer and to learn about subjects and places I may not otherwise have encountered. However, I think it’s important to know when to move out of the way in order to allow for change. Let people different from you bring their perspectives to bear. When I reached my early forties, it was time to stop hogging the wheel.
Professionally, I’d hit my limits in other ways. The art world had expanded greatly since the late 1990s. In that time, I saw it become disproportionately fascinated by its own institutional systems. I simply didn’t find the endless conversations about its middle management politics particularly interesting. I reached a point where I could no longer maintain an interest in what curator had moved to what institution, or which of the same half-dozen architects was designing a mega-gallery’s new outpost, or tolerate bloviating rhetoric about art’s political radicalism whilst unfair systems of compensation or recognition continued unchanged. The noise of the art industry was dulling my engagement with art itself, and an art magazine is no place for such a person. So, I decided to recalibrate my relationship to it.
Throughout my time at frieze, I was doing extracurricular things that were not legibly art critic shaped: writing these books, running a record label, playing in bands, codirecting a BBC documentary, writing an absurdist stage play, making paintings. As those things added up, they suggested a different kind of life. I think one of the reasons I’m attracted to limbo or inbetween spaces, or even pretentiousness, is that I don’t think I’ve ever fitted into a particular category. I’m not an art journalist pounding the beat in search of a story. I’m not an art historian with a dedicated specialism. I’m certainly not a professional musician nor am I a deeply literary person, either. I’m a dilettante, and I’m okay with that. I’m proud to be a generalist. There are so many possible ways to live a life, so why not try out at least a few of them before you shuffle off, if you have the opportunity?
MB You run a music label and are an active musician, something you note in your writing. Recently you’ve come to making your own art. What has your relationship been as both an observer of art and as a practitioner.
DF Each feeds the other. Many years ago, a senior curator at a big US museum, specializing in painting, told me that the last time he had picked up a paint brush was when he was ten years old. He didn’t need the experience of making things. I absolutely respect that, but it’s not me. I couldn’t write about art unless I knew what it was like to feel the pressure of a brush on a canvas, or try and puzzle out how to edit a video, or to feel the ups and downs, the moments of elation, satisfaction, doubt, block, boredom, that come with making things. I don’t think I could write about art unless I knew what was required in order to make it.
Michael Barron is an editor at the independent press Melville House. Among his writing and journalism are interviews published in BOMB.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.