sleepingfish X

<<|| [03.09.11] Erik Anderson: from The Glass Wall ||>>

When I first told the museum about my idea—a kind of long-term exposure, I said—the director frowned. What are your plans, she asked, your intentions. To remember, I told her, and, in another way, to forget. Call it an exhibition, I said. An installation, she asked. An exhibition, I insisted. Later she said in an email she would, support me that is, that the board had discussed the project and that they would arrange for the permissions. They would pay, she said, for this room. We are all enthusiastic, she told me. After months of haggling with the authorities (where will he shit, they asked, where will he change, in the room, the woman said, in the room) I am settling in. Frankly, it’s unpleasant. The lack of privacy is terrible. Nor do the ropes in front of the windows keep people from occasionally crossing them and tapping on the glass. If this keeps up, they’ll have to hire a guard. I’ve been here two days now. My bed is comfortable, the chairs are comfortable, the sofa is comfortable, even the private toilet and shower are comfortable. The museum has spared no expense in the furnishings. They spent too much, perhaps. On cutlery and dishes, for instance. On bed linens and lampshades. Product placement may be their way of underwriting my project, but I will likely use very little of this china. I may never turn on that fancy lamp. The paper on which this text is printed is also quite fine. I asked that the paper not be too heavy. For my purposes, this may be. You probably will have no idea, standing there on the other side of the windows, just how heavy the paper is. Take my word for it: it’s heavy. What else? The setting sun, replaced by bright streetlights and the flashing of cameras, is confusing. I feel a bit like a caged animal. A sort of Hunger Artist. There is even a back door, hidden on the other side of the bathroom. The museum uses it to make deliveries, some of which I will put away in that steel refrigerator, some in those cherry cabinets. I keep wondering what Frost would say about it. She might think this looks like a prison, a well-heeled, tastefully appointed prison. Or she might say I’m window dressing—that my grief is little more than advertising. I won’t argue. She said of my first photographs, some thirty years ago, that I had succeeded in capturing life, as if it were a compliment. As if any artist wanted to capture anything, or as if every artist were after reality—as if we were its wardens. She could have said just as easily that I produced advertisements. That my photographs were extensions of a world that values simultaneously human rights and aesthetics. Of course one eventually learns no suffering is beautiful, but some things you learn too late.

As I try to exorcise Frost here in the room, I get glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye. A little earlier, for instance, I stood from where I had been watching the shadows progress along the floors, but felt dizzy and returned to my chair. There she was walking across a ballroom floor under an ornate chandelier. In these moments I am acutely aware that a day will come when everything I love casts no shadow. Meanwhile, I see less and less of the street. The days pass and the world shrinks until my body will eventually be obscured by the pages I’m pasting to the windows. The shutter will have closed. The exposure will be complete. Until then, the museum is tracking my progress. Each morning they take my picture in the storefront. I stand off-center. Arms slack at my sides. Do I look better or worse, day to day? They don’t tell me. Now the sun has passed that point where it was more or less overhead, and it illuminates only the tops of the trees, barely visible through the windows, leaving their trunks and those sitting along them in the shade. Office workers hustle onto buses and trains, down the street, and into cabs. Old women weighed down by the day’s shopping shuffle past in black dresses, as though in perpetual mourning.

Gustave Le Gray - Brig on Water

Last night I dreamt of a village of cartographers or people for whom maps were a daily way of life. The place was a repository where old maps went to die, and after first shredding them, the people would mix their remnants with flour and bake them into small cakes served with tea or in soup. When I woke it seemed to me they had devised a primitive solution to the problem of space: if the external versions of the world are unreliable, internalize them. Use what you can and dispose of the rest. The shredded maps were also uncanny echoes of a time when there was nothing but small slips of paper with passages copied from books on my desk. Is it possible to die of sadness? read one. Yes, it is. It is possible (though painful) to die of hunger. It is even possible to die of spleen. Now, and for a considerable number of years, there have only been two pictures and no papers. They’ve pushed everything else off the edges. The first is a reproduction of an albumen print by Gustave Le Gray, probably made at Le Havre in the 1850s. I bought it in a gift shop and immediately put it in a small black frame. My cat gnaws on the corners. At first, I couldn’t say what attracted me to the image, and I admit that for years I thought its focal point was a small buoy set compositionally in the middle of the frame. When I finally bothered to look closer at the seascape—which, unlike others Le Gray made, includes no portion of the shore—I realized it wasn’t a buoy but a steamship. He made a similar print, one almost indiscernible (with the exception of the steamship) from the one on my desk. I bought this print as well, a small postcard I later mailed to Frost, and which, by a strange coincidence, she kept on her desk for years. The clouds in the second photo were different, more billowy, and instead of the steamship this radiant stripe of sunshine traced its way out of those voluminous clouds and reflected on the ocean. I remember thinking, when I set the two prints side by side, that our imaginations illuminate the world. Later it occurred to me that the boat must have belonged to the navy and the spell—the spell was quickly broken. In the last twenty years of his life, abandoned by his patrons, Le Gray fled his creditors, only to die penniless, surrounded by chemistry textbooks in a Cairo hovel. He’d recently fathered a child with a woman some forty years his junior, but the son, like his mother, disappears from history not long after his father’s death. An inventory of his possessions was taken some days after the event, the cause of which was never determined. In the courtyard—weighed down by portents—were a camera stand and a large, empty easel. For, although he was known as a photographer, he painted his entire life. None of his paintings survive. It’s as though time, like one of those large, carnivorous plants, opened up and swallowed him whole. Even his grave has disappeared: the Franciscan stewards of the cemetery where he was buried sold part of the land to a neighboring church, which later disinterred him, among others, to make way for a new chapel. Of his last surviving photographs—all of which were taken some fifteen to twenty years before his death—the most prominent are those taken among the ruins at the Tombs of the Caliphs, on the isle of Philae, at Edfu and Karnak. Others show artillery pieces strapped to the backs of camels led by turbaned soldiers. One striking picture shows a group gathered along the promenade leading to the palace at Shubra. Under the wide-branching sycamores, the figures are blurred, as though they had already become ghosts. Perhaps Le Gray knew, walking with the Egyptian princes (whose tutor he was) among the detritus of a civilization, that our lives become monuments to our own destruction, and that our works are little more than grim preludes to our future existence as ghosts.

Gustave Le Gray - Solar Effect on Clouds

What I didn’t know at the time I framed the one print and mailed the other to Frost, was that I had in fact bought four photographs, two of which I framed and two of which I mailed. At the time he was working, waves were the last great technical hurdle. Because of the long exposure times then required, no one had succeeded in capturing instantaneous images. So Le Gray’s seascapes were a revelation. But like most revelations, his contained its share of sleight-of-hand. His trick was not a matter of instantaneity but simultaneity: because a single negative couldn’t contain both the waves and the sky, he used two negatives—one of the waves and one of the sky—in order to produce his images. This would probably have served for Frost, had she known about it, as yet another confirmation of the fabricated nature of reality—nowhere more apparent than in its representations. Then again, maybe she would have been struck by Le Gray’s ingenuity: he succeeded with the shabby means available to him. For my part, I’m interested in the way these two intervals of time, when combined, create the illusion of a single one. I’m almost tempted to credit Le Gray with the invention of film, or with the production of the first film contained within a single frame, but mostly I’m taken by the fact that an instant can contain several instants and by the notion that the image that presents itself when we draw back the curtains is many images. Our eyes cobble together the greyhound with the pavement he shits on, his collar with the long leash that attaches to a nearby hand. I once read a novel in which reality, mediated through the consciousness of the characters, was made up innumerable things simultaneously emerging and subsiding. A crest was a crest at the expense of a trough—or, rather, attention to the trough came at the expense of seeing the crest. To see the whole picture, man invented photography, but even in that he failed. For there would always remain those parts lying fallow, just out of sight, beyond the margins of the page or the limits of the frame.

Haitian girl with pink dress standing on garbage dump
(c) Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

In the second of the photos on my desk, a young Haitian girl stands alone at the top of a hill, overlooking an empty expanse. Not unlike how she might have in another century. In a photo by Gustave Le Gray, for that matter. The girl—she’s maybe twelve or thirteen—wears a pink dress with matching shoes, her hair pulled together neatly at the back of her head. She gathers her hands in front of her stomach. The wind ruffles her skirt. Up above: wispy clouds. Mountains in the distance. She’s nothing at all like a steamship, or is she? The world around her feels at once hostile and full of possibility. It’s an old story, and one the photo tells well. The bright light of shipwreck, one poet called it. But as the shot pans out from her, you start to notice something peculiar. There’s nothing but trash as far as the eye can see. Panning out further are the facts the photo omits: her parents, her brothers, and hundreds of others scavenging for food. It’s a scene from some post-apocalyptic dream, only it’s no dream at all. The problem is more immediate: how does one forget hunger when it’s the national pastime? Years ago I ate a mudpie there, and the woman who sold it tried to give me one of her children. “Feed him,” she said. I walked through the market, thinking again of that pink dress, of the gulf between it and the garbage around it. I nibbled on my pie, mixed with butter and salt to hide the taste of the mud, and I knew, intuitively, my unease wasn’t a matter of leaving the girl’s image behind, since there was no way to wrench it from my mind. And so her picture has stayed on my desk ever since. I suppose I am waiting until such time as I feel her song prod me forward, until her image quietly slips into my being and takes it over—until I embody that dress, the hill, her hunger. Now, if I wanted to find her, I can’t imagine the odds. Too much ground to cover, and all of it filled with nooks and crannies where those who don’t want to be found, or whom others want to keep hidden, might disappear. I never even asked her name. The name I know, “Sun City,” is a cruel one, a torture of a name. More of an obfuscation, really. A name blotted out. And of all the tricks to which its residents have been prey, there’s none worse than the burden, the opacity, of that name. Most prisons at least have the decency to acknowledge they are prisons and not some resort by the sea. Hell can be called heaven, unfortunately, and though the opposite may be equally true at least the punished have paradise. I imagine walking those streets once more, my eyes peeled for a pink swatch in a tin wall, pink shoes scampering through the stones and dirt. At some point, ghosts—and the long autumn shadows cast on the floor—simply become the company one keeps. And in any case one can hardly call them streets. They’re more like gutters. Some big enough for cars to move through, but gutters nonetheless.

I’ve come to prefer images that are hardly images at all: bits of life and shadow that barely call attention to themselves. How a bent knee rests against the edge of a bright yellow armchair, or the tiniest slant of sunlight creates in the surrounding shadows a small grid on the sidewalk beneath the park bench. Walking down the street, one passes an oddly placed arch in a large wall and catches, in that instant, blue sky, the tops of tall trees, maybe even a crow. Lately I’ve even found myself watching the reflection of the city in the windows of the skyscraper that stands opposite. Sometimes as my eyes move down the face of the building, the reflections almost feel like subsequent frames in a film. I wonder whether the world itself isn’t a kind of a projector, and as I watch the buses, cars, and bicycles moving along the street, I think that the only director that makes sense for such a film must be by turns sadistic and indifferent. For the camera’s power—and maybe Frost understood this—is the clock’s: the stoppage of time, the authority of death. An image’s melancholy consists of this: it records the present at the exact moment it becomes the past. As though to say the word now were always to say then. The photographer, too, has a trigger finger. On a sonogram I once saw at a friend’s house, a single white foot emerges out of the blackness, making its mark on the world. The friend knew Defoe’s famous book, but hadn’t made the connection with the scene where Crusoe discovers a footprint on the island he had for some twenty years thought was abandoned. The image had a remarkable effect on my friend, as though the entire world had been, until then, uninhabited, as though the fact of his son’s existence was as improbable as Friday’s was to Crusoe. It was a reminder, he said, of our absolute otherness, of the incredible expanses of distance and time we must cross to meet and to hold one another, to murder each other or to shake each other’s hand.

Erik Anderson's The Poetics of Trespass was published in 2010 by Otis Books/Seismicity Editions. He currently teaches at Naropa University and at the University of Denver.

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