In 2012, artist Bryan Zanisnik, standing inside a 12-foot-tall Plexiglas case, silently read Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel while a chaotic assortment of baseball cards and outdated U.S. currency whirled around him. Roth immediately served him a cease-and-desist order. It was only the first day of the artist’s planned five-week performance in New York City, and Zanisnik wasn’t about to cancel. He continued until the end of the show's run.
To further prove his determination to not back down, he has compiled about 800 books either written by or about Roth into 13-foot-tall columns for an installation on display at Miami’s Locust Projects gallery.
“I’m still not exactly sure what 'trolling' is,” Zanisnik says in an email interview. “I asked a friend of mine to explain it to me, but I still don’t really understand. Maybe this is what happens when you reach your 30s.”
To “troll” is to deliberately provoke or offend someone in hopes of eliciting a feverishly exasperated response. It’s common practice on the internet, and given that Roth wrote an open letter to Wikipedia the year he took legal action against Zanisnik because the open-source reference wouldn’t allow him to edit the “Philip Roth” entry, the author is probably greatly susceptible to trolling.
Upon first impression, Zanisnik seems like a Master Troll Level 9000, but the artist says his intentions are more personal than predatory.
“Much of my work involves taking objects from my everyday life and recontextualizing them into my practice,” he says. “I’m not particularly interested in a sculpture practice that feels static and fixed.”
Zanisnik spent years working with his mother and father while using them as living materials. Their physical forms worked as “filters” for his ideas and concepts, simultaneously embodying his message as well as modifying them.
“Sometimes the performances would succeed, and sometimes my mother would leave halfway through a performance to get a cup of coffee,” the artist remembers. “I loved the unpredictability of this earlier work and in recent years began to think that this legal battle with Roth was a new unpredictable form for me to explore. In a way, Roth threatening me with a cease-and-desist entangled his practice to my own, and that had to be explored.”
Zanisnik was originally drawn to Roth’s work in the way one admires a kindred spirit. Both men are from New Jersey; both employ an abject sense of humor; both are completely preoccupied with suburbia, Americana, and the faded glow of nostalgia. Still, there’s much about Roth that Zanisnik finds “problematic,” namely his negative portrayal of women and, seemingly, his absurd self-seriousness.
“Being a fan implies some sort of unconflicted admiration, and I feel that my relationship with Roth is entirely rooted in conflict,” the artist says. “There’s something that feels a bit dated about Roth, and that’s what drew me to sourcing so many first editions and 30-to-40-year-old copies of his novels [in this installation]. It’s as if they got buried in the stacks of a library and haven’t been opened in years.”
The Philip Roth Presidential Library greets guests when they walk through Locust Projects’ door. An old brown love seat, adorned with matching vintage throw pillows, sits in the corner. A brown lamp on a beige side table stands beside the sofa, while the wooden coffee table in the foreground holds a collection of Roth books as well as a scrapbook chronicling the legal run-in with the author. The whole thing reeks of '70s suburbia, echoing the artist’s feelings about Roth’s dated nature.
The walls are decorated with unmanipulated photos of other Zanisnik installations inspired by Roth's work. The images have the look of collages and are accompanied by a bust of Roth. These artworks lead the viewer toward the main room, where ten 13-foot-tall drywall columns were erected as a kind of suburban forest. Each is rough with stucco and purposefully haphazard holes, revealing a trove of Roth literature. The columns stop inches short of the ceiling, meant to mirror three functional columns that may otherwise irk some artists using the space.
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“I like that they feel structural but aren’t actually so,” Zanisnik says. He intends for the columns to draw attention to the existing structure rather than detract from it. “It’s as if someone punched open the walls of the gallery, and buried inside were a thousand Philip Roth novels.”
So far, there has been no word from Roth’s camp. Is Zanisnik worried? Does Roth even know the installation exists? If he doesn’t, what will he do when he does?
“I’d prefer not speculate,” the artist says, “or give Roth ideas.”
Bryan Zanisnik's Philip Roth Presidential Library
Through March 19 at Locust Projects. Visit locustprojects.org.