Artists of the Year

It was a pipe dream inflamed by the '90s stock market boom, my plan to turn the Twin Cities into the cultural capital of the United States. The state was engorged with budget surpluses back then and we had money to burn. Over at the 5,500-square-foot spread I call Rancho Tortorello, I was blowing my Jesse checks on call-out massages and first editions of Ayn Rand. I was blowing a lot of blow, too. In fact, it was some time just after I swore not to let Norm Coleman feed my dog another tablet of Viagra that I got to thinking that the only people who migrate to Minnesota come here to get sober.

That realization led me to ask a question: If merely not wanting to wake up hung over in a pool of one's own urine is enough to get people to move to our state, what could we achieve with a more powerful, cash incentive? What if we spent a billion dollars to pay artists to come live and work in Minnesota?

Museums already do it, with the Walker offering dancers like Bill T. Jones a fat chunk of change to pretend to choreograph here. (They call it a "residency.") What if we stretched out that program just a little, cutting the per diem rate while bumping up the total purse? Let's say we gave artists $1 million apiece to move to Minnesota. High-profile folks--your Daniel Day-Lewises and your Leonard Cohens--could sign on for four years at a $250K annual stipend. Lesser-known luminaries--your Mary Cleere Harans and Ivan Brunettis--would draw $100K for 10 years. For a cool billion, we'd be looking at an influx of 1,000 remarkable talents, creative giants who would invigorate our intellectual scene, geniuses we'd see every day sitting next to us at Augies, bona fide celebrities who would give poor C.J. a reason for living.

A billion dollars may sound like a lot of money to some of you cheapskates. But then our junior senator was telling me over fuzzy navels the other night at the 923 Club that he embezzled that much money from the City of St. Paul in order to buy ermine restraint cuffs for his senior campaign aides. (He's also showering them on the L.A. casting directors who right this very moment are making his ex-wife Laurie into a Hollywood screen star.)

Well, we all know the money is gone now. And so far I haven't been able to put together a deal to trade St. Paul, Rochester, and St. Cloud to Canada in exchange for Winnipeg, $4 billion, and the Montreal Expos' Vladimir Guerrero. Now that the Jesse checks are history, I've come to the sober conclusion that Minnesota isn't going to be the global cultural powerhouse I'd dreamed of while I was watching Norm Coleman swaddle three Minnesota Lynx bench players in pashmina diapers.

But then, as that downtown moral philosopher Debbie Harry once wrote, dreaming is free. And so I'm proud to present City Pages' 11th annual Artists of the Year feature. Here, our staffers, contributors, and special guests have paid tribute to the artists whose work defined the year. (Lacking the budget to give away ermine restraint cuffs like so much Halloween candy, we'll have to hope our writers will settle for our heartfelt thanks.) Think of these aoy honorees as the start of a short list for my fantasy residency recruitment drive. As usual, we lead off our roll call with a local author, dancer, filmmaker, painter, and musician who already live among us. I regret to say that they won't receive millions of dollars to enrich our cultural lives. Like the rest of us, they'll have to settle for the pleasure of being represented by the man who I daresay is going to be the greatest senator--and amyl-nitrate enthusiast--in Minnesota history.

 

--Michael Tortorello
Illustrations by Scott Wright

Norah Labiner
BY PETER RITTER

MInneapolis author Norah Labiner's second novel, Miniatures, is set in a creaky old Irish manor full of dust and secrets. The mistress of the house, a Sylvia Plath-like writer, died some years earlier in murky circumstances; her husband, an equally infamous literary figure, brings his young second wife to live in the ruined place. Into all this steps Fern Jacobi, a young, hyperliterate expatriate American who takes a job as the couple's housekeeper and keeps an account of her experience that's part confession and part Gothic mystery novel. Simple enough, yes?

But so here's where things get tricky: Fern lies. At times, she tells us she's lying; at others, she tells the truth, but tells it slant; and sometimes she lies without knowing she's doing so. Fern's reliability as a narrator is so suspect that it throws the entire notion of narrative into disjoint. Which is precisely Labiner's m.o.: In Miniatures, she has written a fiction that questions, with obsessive energy and fearsome intelligence, why anyone ever bothers to write fiction.

Maybe that sounds intimidatingly academic. Admittedly, there is something a little daunting about being in the presence of a prodigious talent like Labiner: In Miniatures, she alternatively references and burlesques everything from Greek tragedy to Proust and a whole gaggle of Brontës. (This is not an artist who lacks for audacity: In her first novel, Our Sometime Sister, Labiner wrestled with the most formidable ghost of all, Shakespeare.) Labiner, like Fern, is often maddeningly allusive (not to mention elusive). But there's method here, too, and the author's command over form and language distances her from the pack of too-clever-by-half pomo tricksters. It's this, also, that makes reading Labiner such a dizzying pleasure.

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