You could start by listing major events, key figures, compare best-of lists across the decades. But this has been done enough. What would happen if you omitted accepted distinctions between important and trivial, if you omitted the idea of progress itself?
You could try writing without an alphabet, using only numbers. These are democratic, unfettered by the weight of the ideologies of domination. With numbers, you can celebrate a belief in permutations.
Try it like this: fill room after room floor to ceiling with tiny panels: postcards, city views, tourist sites, greeting cards, illustrations from children’s books, photographs of artworks, of artists, of unnamed people. Present constellations of images instead of a neat line.
There will be no way to summarize what it is. What will matter about it will have to do with what happens between the images you present.
Something breathes. It isn’t progress.
Inspired by Hanne Darboven’s “Kulturegeschichte 1880–1983” (“Cultural History 1880–1983”).
The rewilding of language and hearing.
After the long racket, there was a time when the words loosed their ties and harnesses, freed their necks from collars, and jumped the fences one by one in an unrelenting tide, away from us.
Once freed, they made their own music and removed the delicate garments we had been dressing them in. Once feral, they refused our concerted efforts at domestication. They would think and move for themselves and no longer in our tight throats. They were done with our agendas, our probing scrutiny, the various tinctures we administered at prescribed times, and especially the bells.
We spent our frustrations banging against the broken fences and ringing the redundant bells, and then grew silent with a sense of everything to say and no way to do it. In this time, we became aware that the next occasion for speech would announce itself only by the rising hairs at the backs of our necks, and this was the beginning of our listening.
Swimming through the ruins.
She told us that we wouldn’t be arriving anywhere until we stopped marking time. Okay, we said, but when? Laughing, she grew. The more porous she became, the more easily we could swim through the spaces she filled.
When the land came apart, we carried the rubble in truck beds. We had to pile it somewhere. The pile became an altar.
To what? Becoming, we hoped. Something we couldn’t see. It was made of our lost parts, broken bits, and the way that we could be each other’s angels, showing up at our ruins. We slept sometimes among the rubble. No one noticed.
She loved a good play. Among actors, she told us, they call an entrance the time needed for one character to join the others on stage. But what about you? We wondered, swimming back and forth through the holes she made for us. She laughed again, and we spewed from her pores, back into one another and the wreck.
The title comes from an exhibit by Jaishri Abichandani.
Each body has its signature, each a mystery. I know only awe for these, and nothing else of faith. Expect no unveilings here, no grand revelations. Only the presence of someone with nothing of importance to say, breathing between bouts of getting lost. Are you looking for something? Me too. I am trying to remember what.
In answer to your question. About art. No, I don’t think it’s necessary, but it is a means of survival. I hear there are other ways. Maybe if I spent less time in the folds of this fog and more among the purveyors of proven practices and ten-step solutions, I would be able to tell you what these are.
Instead, here I am, without even an explanation for this body’s central sacrament, which is listening to a cloud. All I can offer is this ritual: wait, wander, listen, repeat––and this open hand.
Notes while reading the opening to Carl Phillips’ My Trade is Mystery. What a beautiful gift.
Your grandmother showed you to knit. She learned from the mothers who fled the wars. You stopped and kept living until you got to where words were no longer enough. You found fabric again and made poetry.
You knit your beloveds into your world, an ever-expanding family. You knit the foreground with the background and layered the threads of one body among those of the next. Then the sky, the earth, a hand, a bench. You showed us all webbed together.
It’s one way, you said, to transcend human forms––or rather, our limitations in seeing what they might be. Here is a box of light, you say. And here is a space for the others.
I want to carry, you tell them––you with me.
Inspired by the work of of LJ Roberts.
There are worse things than realizing your inward destitution, she said. Such as not knowing it. Take a good look at your own insignificance, she said. In the center you’ll see a tiny seed. And what is that, but the beginning of joy?
It’s too bad you are utterly useless, she said. But if you sit a minute with the horror of this, you might just find a rich kind of peace. I mean, at least now you know it, and can move onto the real stuff.
Nobody expects the soul’s poverty to be its only fortune, she told us, but there it is anyway, and only by understanding this utter emptiness can anybody begin to hold anything worthwhile.
In an era where it often seems like time itself has run out of time, when the experts of the moment loudly proclaim the absurdity of a continuance far beyond now, where an ever-expanding past narrows as it passes through us and into a vanishing point in the space once reserved for a future, it seems we are long overdue for a sustained effort of radical courage and love.
What if we dared to breathe it wider, this space before us, for children so far ahead that we can’t even go around calling them ours with the same clenched fist that pulled us into this point?
May this coming evolution be one of dreaming forward, not for ourselves and the empty achievements we’ve learned to wave like flags into battle in the days of permanent war, but for the absorption of these husks of selves into a greater all, and for the delicate hearts still far from being breathed into their lives.
Notes while reading Toni Morrison’s stunning essay “The Future of Time: On Literature and Diminished Expectations” as it appears in her essay collection The Source of Self-Regard
The shape of things to come.
You seek to make art as event, not product. What happens, you wonder, when you open clay with found objects? Here is a sweater between God and your mother, and here, another mouth. Open, your hands whisper, open. Now an old bus shelter, fused glass. Look.
What is it? someone wants to know, in an unintended effort to avoid the long look, the absorption into the blobby forms that melt and lean into one another, a gathering of materials in various stages of becoming.
And what else are we, but these bubbling amoebas, opening and melting and falling endlessly into each other, in defiance of the neatly angled forms we keep meaning to hold?
Inspired by the work of Jessica Jackson Hutchins.
Placing ourselves in space.
These solemn geographies our limits, and yet. We persist in aiming to be where we are not. If the first myth was of some beyond outside, the next was that it was assembled of infinities––in defiance of the limits that confront us at each breath.
What creatures are we, to be embedded with impulses to defy our own natures and nature itself? The first way we did this was to presume to give her a proper name, capital-N, and place her outside.
After that, we would not recognize what breathed against the window, fogging the glass through which we meant to keep an eye on her wild beyonds, out there.
Now, where is the little dream we had before the fire? Thoughts like this always precede those of flight. There was a little bird among us before the fire, jumping from shoulders to heads and one arm to the next, like we were branches. Which of course we were, although we never noticed the tree. Do branches, usually? There are none to ask.
Anyway, you would think the tiny bird would have been the first to vanish, but it wasn’t. I can see it now as it was near the end, bright body against the dark. As if waiting, with a question. We left and the bird did not follow and then came a long road. It is the same as this one. I think I hear it, sometimes.