Obsolete

The art of preservation.

What do you do?

I preserve the obsolete. Take this instrument, for example. Plucked keys, no mallets, every note the same volume––rigid, raw, it sounds almost modern.

Why the harpsichord?

Because we always think of music as living. But I am always thinking in terms of loss.

How do you select your materials?

I look for what is unfashionable. I look for what people have turned from. I want to make them think about it again.

Why?

I am constantly stressed about what is disappearing. It’s a kind of chaos swirling around.

Can you describe your process?

I am the last to know the relationships between these materials.

What is your ideal workspace?

I like the idea of a studio that looks like one of those outmoded cubicle offices, where everyone is together but separated by partitions, and everyone is working on their art, but you wouldn’t even know it. 

What do you do?

Usually, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out something that has no purpose. 

When I was a child, I used to mix liquids in containers. I called them potions.

Exactly, that’s what I mean! Ask anyone to consider some of the things they most loved doing as children. Then have them try to find the point.

So, you’re preserving childhood?

That sounds too lofty. Childhood’s an ideal, anyway. I’m not sure what to make of it. Maybe I’m just interested in preserving a kind of sensibility, a space where a kid can just––be, you know? I don’t want this to disappear, this space.

***

I saw a video with the artist Cory Arcangel, whose primary obsession is working with near-obsolete technologies. I encountered him in a video from the Met’s (now discontinued) Artist Project Series.  He was speaking about the harpsichord.  I felt a strong affinity to some of his impulses. The above is an imagined conversation that borrows some of Arcangel’s ideas, but should not be taken as an accurate rendering of his vision, which I have heavily distorted with my own useless play. . 

The Third of May

The logic of brutality.

Careful now. The sleep of reason breeds monsters. Look, they have arrived.

Early morning, a firing squad. Captives at gunpoint.

The sleep of reason breeds monsters armed with a multitude of manufactured reasons. The cool efficiency of mechanistic executions. The gunmen are symmetrical. Stand, aim, hold, repeat. Stand, aim, hold, repeat––a relentless column. 

Their target: crumbling, irregular men. One falls, one bleeds, one holds his head. Several hold one another. One prays. One, in the yellowed white shirt of a laborer, holds hands up, his palms already pierced by the nails of the erased cross.

In the center, a lantern. You can see what is coming next, how the soldiers will use its light to perfect their aim. The end will be quick. The march will continue.

See the bodies, finished. One bleeds into the next. The marching column, still bloodless, will move on. Where the order of the machine is the order of the moment, they will be celebrated.

In the background, a crowd with torches, looking on. Someone whispers, monsters.

Careful, don’t look. Here, take this. It will help you sleep.

***

Inspired by Francisco Goya’s iconic painting, The Third of May, which was groundbreaking in its depiction of brutality without catharsis. Goya’s handling of paint as well as his subversion of traditional symbols inspired a new generation of artists, including Manet and Picasso. On the disasters of war, Goya observed, “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason produces monsters).” 

Third of May, 1808 by Francisco de Goya

Time Out of Mind

A quilted retrospective.

After the sand of the hour had spilled from the mantle, I kept watch beside myself in low tide mirrors, the sea at my ankles returning us to the corners of childhood libraries. With bare feet resting in tulip beds, I borrowed confidence from open pages and read to them. Their still-unopened faces swayed in blind brilliance and we held there, unknowing.  

Seasons passed and we were separated until I was alone at the edge of a wasteland. I had a threaded needle and no pattern in sight. I spent a long time dreaming. Once in the warehouse, time’s gears were in pieces on the floor. I held a face in my hands, and it whispered reminders. I would need to fold the fields behind me first, then set to stitching. 

I wore fire against the rain and cut a new dress from the remnants of the last harvest. Gorged on ripe losses, my scalp sang anemones. Hold, I whispered to the new blooms, that they might stay until the hour returned. 

***

Inspired by images in this article about the work of Ukranian artist Oleg Oprisco, known for creating surreal settings from everyday elements.

Cornered

From a tight space.

Call it a threat––back against two walls, but some dream best from spaces like this. If I wanted to hide, I could walk in the open, but only from here can I bear witness to being, the intricate choreography of shadows, swinging between the arms of a branching angle. Turning from one wall into to the next, I find the other half of this shell, enough to negate the noise of a universe with its effusive unknowns, and hear, between breaths, the song of a single house finch. 

***

Inspired by, and using borrowed phrases from, the chapter “Corner” in Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.

Mechanical Issues

Looking for a few good ideas.

I was having some mechanical difficulties, so I decided to do some research. A body with issues of an uncertain nature may sometimes find relief by revisiting certain fundamental tenets of the physical world.

To be sure, greater minds than this one have long considered these questions––which may concern, among other things, the action and reaction of bodies at rest and in motion––not to mention acoustics and optics. Also, heat, friction; details related to magnetism, electricity. Astronomical matters may seem remote, but these, too, are not to be discounted, considering how profoundly any number of factors may govern aspects of the visible and invisible world. 

In conclusion, it’s complicated. 

There are a number of implications for these findings. For example, while I am still entirely unsure about the origins of that squeaky grinding noise that sometimes but not always happens when I make a right turn, it is reasonable to conclude that while the stereo system remains functional, it should be possible to avoid hearing it until a more appropriate time. 

As for this other thing I am trying to write, I am no more certain of my approach than I was before this brief foray into certain essential principles of structure, but at least I’ve found myself in good company when it comes to my ongoing bafflement regarding the proportional significance of any number of factors in a given system.

***

Inspired by a chance encounter with Mortimer J. Adler’s chapter on “Mechanics” from The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought. And some other things. 

Minding the Gaps

A shadow land winks.

Even as the tutued dancer balances on a tightrope of sidewalk cracks, minding the squirrel’s tail, a careworn mutt holds up his end of the line in unfashionable duty, watching out. Elsewhere, a grade-school gremlin sneaks a bite of manhole cover between meals. Later, a mouse in PJs reads Proust in the lost light of a terracotta pot, and from the oldest brick wall in town, the youngest new dragon peeks from a weep hole by the light of a small flame at the end of her tail. It becomes clear that a penguin of unknown origin has led a young hedgehog through the end of the garden hose, into the South entrance of the tot lot on Broadway, and there’s no putting them back now. In related news, another pig is flying, on wings transplanted from the rescued organs of books. 

***

Inspired by this article in My Modern Met: Street Artist Turns Entire City Into His Personal Canvas With Whimsical Chalk Drawings which features the work of David Zinn in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Notes on Form

Old tools in a fallow field.

There is an exuberant history of forms to be found in these fields, compelling a witness to show how surfaces of knowing can be tilled with the tool of some adopted custom or cadence which, once discovered, can be carried solidly as a birthright through corridors of memory still in blueprint.

The challenge is measure, balance––and the joyous enterprise pains with enthusiasm, the center of any nascent art.

***

Inspired by and using borrowed phrases from the introduction to The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland.

Fieldwork

Harvest visions in springtime.

How ripe we are, they say, winking infinities in the mirror room. These generous pumpkins, the gentle humility of gourds opening doorways. What is in there? No one asks but you waited, and they told you, forever.

Remember the bright spots that the lantern first let in? They made you dizzy with their terrible splendor, left you spinning back flat against the ground, hang on. You did, and now you speak of these strange strangers like a sister, whispering they saved my life. You throw gatherings to honor them, grand galas for their coming out. Careful, you tell your visitors, they can be a bit much.

***

Inspired by the work and biography of artist Yayoi Kusama.

Encounter in the Desert

The hermit to the artist.

You thought you were learning to live, kid? Sure, if you want. Live it up. But look around. See these rocks? And beyond? What’s next? I tell you, it isn’t another commission and you’ll be going empty-handed. Think I always dressed like this? I had clothes, finery. But what for, here? I get it, though. Look at me, even now. One hand clutching the rock, I can’t help myself, but look out there. Name one solid form. 

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Jerome in the Wilderness

I can’t either. Are you on the lion now? Sure, but put your hand here. Feel: fur, warmth, body. Breathing, just like us. Dying, too. Not soon, I hope. I named him Leo, actually, but don’t let it go to your head. He’s not a symbol of courage or danger, just a fellow creature I met along the way. He was suffering, too. You’ve probably heard the stories. Sure, I pulled a thorn from his paw, but it wasn’t what they make it out to be. Poor guy was almost passed out from the pain when I got to him. It was infected, he had lizards in his mane. Now we’re friends and he waits with me here. We walk together when we’re not on these rocks. Sure, you can come.

Why are you here, anyway? Let me guess. You think if you can study the extent of my torment, you can be ready for it. Let me tell you, night after night the dancing girls would come visit as I slept, to mock my restraint.  They still come, but I’ve lost most of my vanity by this point, so the torture is less. 

So now what? It’s a long walk back. Where’s your horse?

***

In honor of the birthday of Leonardo DaVinci (1452-1519), today’s post is in an imagined voice of one of his subjects. DaVinci worked on St. Jerome in the Wilderness toward the end of his life, and the painting (which hangs in the Vatican) was never finished. DaVinci appears to have been in a difficult time in his life, in part related to a sexual scandal, and also because his worldview was shifting with age. “I thought I was learning to live,” the painter wrote in his diary around this time, adding, “I was only learning to die” (from Liana Bortolon’s The Life and Times of Leonardo). In this light, I can only imagine that St. Jerome’s hermetic life in the desert may have been of special interest. An apocryphal story about Jerome features him pulling a thorn from the paw of a lion.

Exile

Remembering home.

It’s hard to imagine now but try. It was fields of gold. There was nothing like it. It was a paradise, the flyers announced, with soil rich as chocolate. There would be peace in the valley, we sang, and believed, and we had the wheat to win the war. Then came the suitcase farmers, to make a killing. They didn’t come to live, just to buy the land and the machines to work it. 

They bled it dry. What followed looked like vengeance, except that the killers had already fled. What was left was those of us still working by foot and horse, to get by. We’d sing on Sundays, still, and our spirit shall sorrow no more. By and by, we gave up trying to keep dirt off the children’s faces during the week. They’d spit and it would look like they’d been chewing tobacco.

Suddenly, the sky cleared up. Hallelujah, we said, to witness blue again. We washed the children’s faces, went to church, even packed a picnic. But then, in the afternoon, it got suddenly cool. You could see a cloud in the distance, dark and low, rolling in on itself. The birds took off. When it rolled over us, I looked for my own hand. I brought it up and even when it touched my nose, I still couldn’t see it.

After that, people stopped asking each other, where’s your home? It wasn’t polite. The answer was scattered all over, and it wasn’t the one that any of us wanted to give.

***

On this day in 1935, the Black Sunday Dust Storm swept across the panhandle region of Oklahoma, Texas, and surrounding regions in the U.S. Sources: Remembering Black SundaySmithsonian Magazine, and the photographs of Dorothea Lange and In the Sweet by and by Hymn Lyrics and history.