Recently I found myself back at Kremer Pigments to see a show mounted in the basement. A meditation on Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, “I HAVE NEVER BEEN TO HEAVEN (Part 1)”—a group show by Ala Dehghan, Florencia Escudero, Alejandro Epifanio, Alison Wilder and Monroe Street—turned the basement space into a pseudo-grotto. In part, the show sought to conjure the psychological experience of Márquez’s protagonist, sailor Luis Alejandro Velasco, who in 1955 survived ten days in a raft without food or water, alone at sea.
Dehghan had replaced the standard fluorescents in the stairwell with purple and red lights; as I descended I alternately felt like I was entering hell, reverse-exiting a womb, or being swallowed whole. As I turned the corner I passed into a room flooded with blue light. A short boardwalk was installed in front of me, flanked by hexagonoid papier mâché structures (Dehghan and Escudero’s Dioxan Water Wall, 2014). Escudero’s watery projections, the source of the blue light, emitted from the papier mâché pieces, bouncing off the walls around me. As I stepped off the boardwalk, past the piece, I felt as though I were in a new place, even if only mentally.
At my feet in this new realm was a collection of 17 Corona bottles, filling the space of a 15×15” circle cut into an 18×18” floor of Plexiglas (Dehghan’s Never wake up-Never fall asleep, 2013). “The bottles looked to me like a packed little crowd of locals scrutinizing a newcomer, like the villagers who huddled to observe Velasco when he finally washed up in Colombia. Within each water-filled bottle were 8.5×11” inject print photographs of the basement, which Deghan had recorded months earlier. The pigment from the prints changed the color of the water in each of the bottles: pink, blue, grey, yellow, green. I imagined Dehghan standing where I was standing, photographing the space to send it, in a bottle, to those same coordinates in the future. I thought of Velasco in his raft, experiencing ten consecutive days in which very little happened, concerned that his vessel was passing over the same patch of water again, and again, and again.
Anchoring the central space was a gorgeous opalescent pillar, also by Dehghan. Titled SEA SCRAPER SKY SEE (2014), the prismatic structure was internally lit by a string of colored lights, barely visible through multiple layers of yarn, fabric, transparent and translucent plastics, papers, book covers and torn dresses. Toward the top of the pillar are circular holes cut into the fabric, revealing the light within. Dehghan told me that the piece was like a lighthouse, or at least conjuring the hopefulness of seeing a lighthouse, of that light reaching through the fog to alert ships of land. There was no lighthouse in Márquez’s story, but on Velasco’s sixth night at sea, the moon appears for the first time since the shipwreck, and each reflection of the moonlight on the choppy waves looks, to the hopeless sailor, like the light of a ship sent to rescue him. Dehghan also told me that her mother had passed away several years before, of cancer. After each chemotherapy treatment, her mother would awake and claim to see something like bubbles of opalescent light all around her. Like the circular holes cut into the top of Dehghan’s pillar of hope, these bubbles were where the light from another place shone through.
The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor, though written by Márquez when he was a young journalist, was first published in installments El Espectador, a newspaper with national circulation in Colombia, under the sailor’s own name. What was so political about this gesture was that in this recount of events (as compared to earlier ones he had given to others), Velasco reveals that, in defiance of the official story put forward by the government, there was no storm that fateful day of the shipwreck: an excess of government-sanctioned contraband on the deck of the destroyer caused the ship to lurch unnaturally after a sharp turn, throwing eight of its sailors overboard. As I returned to the staircase to ascend back into my day, I notice the text stuck to the vertical surfaces of the stairs, cascading like water into the space: “THERE WAS // NO STORM // THERE WAS NO // STORM // EREHT // SAW NO // STORM // NO SAW EREHT // STORM // SAW EREHT // MROTS NO // THERE WAS // NO STORM // THERE // WAS NO // STORM.”
My passing through Dioxan Water Wall reminded me of Joan Jonas interacting with her projections in her Performa ’13 commission, “Reanimation.” This piece also drew its inspiration from a novel, the brilliant Under the Glacier by Halldór Laxness. In this tale, an unnamed twenty-five-year-old theology student is sent by the Bishop of Iceland to investigate the state of Christianity among the people living around Snaefellsjökull, a stratovolcano capped with a glacier in far-western Iceland. (Snæfellsjökull is also, not accidentally, the point of entrance in Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.) The young emissary discovers, among other things, a boarded-up church; efforts at reanimating the dead; a woman whose soul was previously conjured into a fish; and, in the center of it all, a Christian mystic pastor who believes in the Christianity of silence, repairing farm implements and living off donated fish and bread.
“Reanimation” is a project Jonas began in 2010; when staged as a performance (as opposed to a video installation) the setup comprises a large projection, a central performance space, and a side table of props with a birds-eye-view camera mounted atop. The screen shows a montage of images shot on-location at Snæfellsjökull and elsewhere, interspersed with footage from Jonas’ video works. The video feed from the side table is often superimposed on top of this montage. Jonas, with drawing implements, costumes, paper, and various other props, improvises a performance to the accompaniment of jazz pianist Jason Moran; Moran, in turn, improvises to Jonas’ movements and gestures. Their duet was very powerful and natural.
The first part of the Performa ’13 performance involved Jonas rapidly tracing the outline of the tops of glaciers, the edges of lakes, the lines of landscapes, even flashes of lightning, with charcoal on paper, as she watched the images come up on the projection. When the image changed, we would see the previous drawing overlaid onto the new landscape before Jonas replaced the paper. There was a sublime moment when some old black-and-white footage of a woman diving below the surface of water—potentially from Jonas’ 1974 video Disturbances—show up on the projection: Jonas, in reaction, put on her table a shallow rectangular dish of marbles in ink, which was in turn projected onto the swimming woman. Jonas rolled the marbles around in the dish, creating ink-line shapes across the surface of the water where the woman was swimming below.
The strongest parts of the duet, I felt, were when Jonas came out into the center of the stage—her body adorned with the projection image—and held up a sheet of paper, tracing the contours of her body to the sound of the music. At other times, Jonas would draw animals, and different shapes that had some rapport with the projected image—a car driving through a lit tunnel at night; the side or peak of a glacier; treetops, and so on. As if not shamanic enough already, Jonas would sometimes wear an animal mask.
Joan Jonas is almost 78 years old, and has been drawing since the 1970s. It showed in the directness of her mark making. Every line that emerged was unequivocally a part of her, an extension of her hand or action. This ability presented itself most spectacularly during the finale. In her own fish-woman ritual, Jonas laid out two sheets of paper at the very front of the stage; with a projection of sleepy-looking codlike fish on the far wall, Jonas, with a long stick lashed to a paintbrush dipped in blue ink, began to draw the fish in her signature jagged, direct style. Her body, contracted with age, became a natural extension of the drawing stick, and the inky royal blue made the fish-drawings look like blueprints for the cod behind. Jonas left the finished drawings on the floor and retreated to a chair in the very back of the stage to read prose from a few sheets of paper to the crowd.
I once saw accordionist and electronic art music composer Pauline Oliveros perform at The Kitchen. She sat down with her accordion, and said, “I first learned the accordion when I was nine years old. So I’ve been playing the accordion for”—pausing, marveling—“seventy years.” Playing the accordion for her, extended techniques and all, was like breathing. So it was with Jonas and her drawing implements: virtuosic and effortless.
The pseudo-shamanic conceptual art players, like Jonas, are a favorite of mine.
Recently I was in Western Australia, my homeland, with a dear friend and city-slicking Brooklyn native, whose times in wild nature could be counted like rare birds. We were already having very different experiences of this particular corner of the world; excitement and curiosity for my friend, and waves of nostalgia and, admittedly, anxiety for myself. We were on a three-day bus tour visiting some gorgeous pockets of the continent around the South-westernmost corner of the state. On the second day, our minivan pulled up to Greens Pool in Western Australia, a crystal clear, sandy-white beach dotted by billion-year-old boulders sunk into the sand. A dugite slunk past the van. I hadn’t seen one of those in ages. The two Aussie tour guides were unfazed. The three non-Aussie tourists were agape to see one of the potentially lethal venomous snakes native to the region, slinking away at a clip to avoid the traffic. Back in the van that afternoon, after scrambling over boulders, waving to fisherman and walking blissfully through the crystalline water, my mind mulled over the dark, rivulet form. The snake looked like one of the six in a grainy black-and-white image I had seen months earlier, a documentation of David Askevold’s Kepler’s Music of the Spheres Played by Six Snakes (1971-74). What an amazing and weird piece it must have been. Six live snakes, strung up from the pipes of some loft space, played five custom string instruments made of wood. Each snake had a soft white collar around its head and tail, and string was tied to each of these collars; the top string led to the roof, the bottom string to the instrument. There were ball bearings inside each instrument, and the movements of the snakes moved the ball bearings, making music. Each instrument was tuned to represent the celestial harmony produced by the motion of each known planet during Kepler’s time. So, Kepler’s Music of the Spheres was played by six snakes.
This piece reminds me of one of Rauschenberg’s collaborations with Merce Cunningham: Spring Training, 1965. In this performance, Rauschenberg rented thirty large desert turtles from a local pet store, strapped flashlights to their backs and let them loose to roam around the stage. Rauschenberg, attired in jockey shorts, performed among them, wiggling his toes and fingers. There were other performers too: Alex Hay, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs. At one point Rauschenberg carried Paxton—who was holding himself rigidly straight—around as though he were a log. Much like the wiggling of Askevold’s snakes, the pattern of the turtles’ movements created a Cagean aesthetic through randomization—in this case, bizarrely spontaneous light patterns, streaking across Rauschenberg’s giant loft walls and high ceiling, which contrasted nicely with the highly choreographed movements of the dancers. Rauschenberg would later praise the turtles’ performance: “But the turtles turned out to be real troupers, didn’t they? They were saving it all for the performance. They don’t have very much, so they saved it.”
Rauschenberg returned 29 of the tortoises; the remaining tortoise he adopted and christened Roci (pronounced “Rocky”). Rauschenberg and Roci spent the next 42 years together—I’m sure the artist named the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (R.O.C.I.) was named after the tortoise—until the former’s death in 2008 (Roci survives him). Rauschenberg once quipped that every time they rehung the paintings in the loft, Roci would crawl around, stretching out his neck, until he found his favorite work and would sit by it. His taste was great, apparently—one of the best art critics that Rauschenberg knew.
Askevold’s videos are hard to find, but his work shows up from time to time. Most recently, I saw a collaboration between Askevold and his once-student, Mike Kelley, in Kelley’s enormous sprawling posthumous retrospective “MIKE KELLEY” at PS1. The Poltergeist, 1979, was shot in Askevold’s little backyard garage-cum-studio tucked behind his small house in Venice, CA.
The film features four photographs of Kelley’s head, eyes rolled up, with what looks like cotton streaming out of his nose and floating upward, defying gravity. Framing and flanking these photographs are panels and borders of text and diagrams, featuring such densely allegorical statements as, “POLTERGEIST IS A FORCE AND NOT A BEING LIKE A GHOST. BUT SOMETIMES IT HAS BEEN SEEN TO TAKE BODILY FORM. SMALL MONKEY-LIKE PHANTOM LIKE A CHILD. THE SPIRIT OF ADOLESCENCE. A DESTRUCTIVE FORCE…TEEN-AGE ‘DREAMY’ MEANING BEAUTIFUL. BEAUTY LIKE THE RELAXED EXPRESSION OF ONE ASLEEP…ONE CAN BECOME DREAMY. STRANGE THOUGH, HOW THE IDEAL DREAM STATE IS CALM, THE ACTUAL—CHAOS.” The piece is definitively Kelleyan, but also Askevoldian inasmuch as it is decidedly atheistic, while still giving life to the supernatural through the realm of art. Askevold, perennially enchanted by that which does not make sense, always, it seems, ran toward it, keeping its artifacts in this world in a way that was unproblematically dismissive of the next. Kelley describes Askevold’s writing—a statement that could easily describe his art as well—thus:
“All the positive aspects of mystical rapture were there—the ritual, the opulence, the inebriation, the rich, elusive symbology—yet mysticism’s negative aspect, its faith in some transcendent beyond, was utterly absent. This was art, not religion, and its pleasures were material and constructed. As I perceived it, the message was ‘surrender to spectacle need not be mindless.’”1
In other words, spiritual and religious beliefs aside, a dying mother might still see and articulate the bubbles of light.
I have never been to heaven, though I have my own beliefs about what lies on the other side. I am comfortable in those beliefs. Recently I made a video where, among other things, I lay in the snow on my rooftop, bare-armed in a simple dress, until my snowy-mountain-born roommate (holding the camera), fearing my hypothermia, made me get up. I spliced the documentation of this act with footage of that same coastline where we saw the dugite, waves moving in reverse. Soon after filming the video the snow melted, and everywhere outside was icy. I slipped and fell on the ice while taking the trash out, but I didn’t hurt myself.
1. Mike Kelley, from “David Askevold: The California Years,” in Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press), page 197.