Lunar Refractions: Seeing Through Things

I had the perfect weekend planned. Although I rarely manage to visit my hometown, the occasional irresistible event does come along. This past weekend that event was a memorial service for Russell Thorn Blackwood, a philosopher, one of my father’s college professors, and one of my own mentors from about the age of four. As you might guess from this opening, the weekend didn’t quite go as planned, but was nevertheless perfect, in its own way.

When my early-morning flight from JFK was delayed and then cancelled (about five minutes prior to the rescheduled departure), I knew that the cushion of four hours I’d set between my arrival and the memorial service wouldn’t suffice. Resigning myself to spending the day at the airport between various lines, cancellations, and standby lists, I decided to get some work done. As often happens when I’m inclined toward such solid resolve, it rapidly dissolves as soon as I find the choicest reading material at hand. On this sunny Saturday it was the current issue of Bookforum, a magazine that typically lets me enjoy only one or two articles before hitting me with the next issue, equally full of great stuff I’ll never get the time to read. I could’ve easily responded to the delay with anger—so many people clearly did, shouting profanities at no one, verbally abusing the ticket-counter staff—but just didn’t feel it, and besides, it would’ve been inappropriate, don’t you think, to get angry while en route to a philosopher’s memorial service, not to mention at the results of a nice storm brought on by dear Mother Nature, who’s merely trying to keep Old Man Winter alive despite the impact of lifestyles aimed at creating an eternal summer here on earth.

Twaindlitt The subtitle for today’s piece might be “Seeing Through Things, or Photographing and Writing Through Them,” so as to play with both the physical and temporal possibilities of that special adverb/preposition/adjective, but I’m a bit ambivalent today, and that’s a bit drawn out. So, sitting down in my funereal garb next to a glamorously-shoed woman reading Glamour in terminal three, I set about a near cover-to-cover reading of this issue, with some delightful reviews and some specious judgments, and soon came across this: Mark Twain, in an 1877 interview in the Boston Globe, when asked “what are you now politically, Mr. Twain?” replied “Politics have completely died out within me. They don’t take to me or I don’t take to them. Since I have come in possession of a conscience I begin to see through such things.” His use of this phrase “to see through such things,” took me back to the night before, when in a talk about his work from 1969 to 1973 for a book launch Vito Acconci mentioned wanting to take Acconcidiary01 pictures that “photograph through things” and actions, just as words allow you to see through themselves to the idea behind them. Earlier this month I had come across Acconci’s more recent architectural work in an interesting book, No. 1: First Works by 362 Artists, where supposed artists write about what they consider their first work. I say supposed artists because many people in the book are rather insistent that they are not artists, or don’t identify as such, and Acconci was one of the most adamant. In this talk he reiterated his realization that he actually wanted nothing at all to do with art, but also did an excellent job of clarifying how his earlier performances (think of his poetry, writings and involvement with words—think perform, reform, transform) developed into the spatial work he’s now doing.

Acconciball01_1At Friday’s talk Acconci was introduced by Gregory Volk, who I mention here only because he (unintentionally?) said “ephemerable,” which is now my favorite new non-word (okay, okay, my favorite neologism, is that better? Maybe it is a word; Google honors “ephemerable” with approximately 61 strange hits, and it admittedly has a lot of potential…). Skipping over the talk itself—you really just have to be there when a poet-cum-artist-cum-architect credits an involvement with art to the coining of the term “Contemporary Art,” which, being about ideas rather than craft or end product, gave him the license to think, “well, maybe I can have vague ideas”—one of the audience members then predictably asked what he thought of Marina Abramovic’s reinterpretation of his 1972 Seedbed in late 2005. He had understandably little to say, and was fine with her riffing on his idea, which then led me to another tenuous connection, aside from the one by which everyone relates each artist’s work to the other’s.

Sontagfsg0374100721 The book No. 1 had also included a spread of Abramovic’s first work, and I’d seen her a couple weeks earlier at a tribute to Susan Sontag at the 92nd Street Y. She was the most striking of the six presenters that evening, who according to the press were to read passages of Sontag’s posthumously published book At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches. Luckily the author’s six friends did nothing of the sort, and instead talked about memories and things of their own choosing, with mixed results.

Judith Thurman read some of the quotes Sontag had jotted down in various journals, including: “Love is, to me, that you are the knife that I turn within myself” (Kafka); “Relax, there’s no shortcut to tragedy” (a friend, regarding the beginning of a love affair); “Liebe, Mut und Phantasie” (graffiti from the Austrian city of Graz); “Mary McCarthy can do anything with her smile—she can even smile with it” (a note by Sontag herself); and “my library is an archive of my longings” (also Sontag).

The most interesting contribution from Richard Howard was his mention of a three-hour televised interview with Kissinger that Sontag did for PBS, and his plea for it to become available again (hint, PBS or anyone who has access to the recording). Continuing Thurman’s point of her love for epigrams and aphorisms, he read her inscription in a book she once gave to him, “For Richard, whom I want to talk to all my life.” James Fenton focused on the importance of style, and her style, and curiously remarked that the preface is one of the few literary forms where writers still have a fair amount of freedom. Darryl Pinckney was concise, “Yes, it’s a drag not to have her.”

Sontag1974krementzjill In the initial presentations and following discussion Marina Abramovic had some amusing—dare I say sweet?—recollections. The two had met at a 2002 birthday party, where Abramovic was one of four guests, and bonded by telling jokes about the war and the UN’s botched interventions in her homeland. Sontag then quietly attended one of her multi-day performance pieces and at the end replied by leaving a napkin that read, “this was good, let’s have lunch, Susan Sontag,” with the museum guard. Her lemon meringue pie anecdote particularly hit me, as it’s my favorite dessert as well; when splitting a pie with Sontag she remarked that she’d never liked eating the crust and had always wanted to just eat the filling, but there were rules and etiquette to contend with, and she’d always held back. Watching Sontag agree and proceed to eat all but the crust she learned the valuable lesson that, sometimes, you really can just do whatever you want. A remark the author made to the artist during her illness was particularly striking, “I am not alone, but I feel lonely.”

So, how does any of this relate to my being stuck at JFK all day Saturday and missing a friend’s memorial service? The delay, plus the fact that its location prevented me from otherwise filling my time with studio or other work, afforded me time to reflect on this recent overdose of stimulating things. While sitting in the terminal and taking breaks between articles I overheard a man on the phone who was much worse off than I; booked on four successive flights, each of which had been cancelled, he’d been there for over two days. After he’d hung up the phone we began discussing strategies in such situations, and on a tangent I learned he’d flown in from Jordan, where he’d been working independently to help regional development under the aegis of some US government-related organization. He’d been in Macedonia before that, and the government had always sent a group of interpreters to facilitate the collaborations, but this time they’d not sent any—either forgetting or just assuming that everyone in the Middle East does or should speak English…. When my name came up before his on the standby list I felt terrible, and hoped there would be more space and he would be next, but I also wasn’t ready to give up my spot. As I walked down the ramp and across the tarmac to the puddle jumper awaiting the last lucky standbys I was overcome with guilt, and my mind explored all possible implications this moral dilemma had for my conscience, humanity, and simple impatience. After a few minutes the guy boarded, much to my relief.

On the return flight I was faced with yet another dilemma when I was third in a taxi line that hadn’t moved for over ten minutes, with not a taxi in sight. When one pulled up and whisked away the first person in line, the ground transportation agent stopped the next one to pass, a taxi with the ”off duty” light on. The gentleman ahead of me in line let me take it, and I soon found out why—the cabbie was furious at being stopped like that, had been going home to study for his nursing exam the next day, and told dispatcher he was headed toward the Bronx, not southern Queens. I felt terrible and told him to just circle round and drop me off, I could wait for the next car. After venting for a few minutes and stopping for gas (kindly stopping the meter as well), he soon dropped me off after chatting all the way about his immigration from Africa, studies, love of James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, and his hope never to be forced out of this country.

Baldwin_civil_rights_march_1963 It seemed quite a coincidence to hear the taxi driver mention Baldwin, because I’d just reread a phrase of his in an old book of mine rediscovered while home. The phrase appeared in my high school English teacher’s inscription in a biography of Marcel Duchamp she gave me: “The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” It all came together here—Duchamp started a change that later let Acconci’s work become art, his work in turn let Abramovic go somewhere else entirely, her work brought me a new look at Sontag, who’d included Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel in one of her novels (I’d walked under a commemorative plaque for Pimentel on via di Ripetta just days before), and so on. All of them, in their own way, have heeded Baldwin’s words.

Right below the Twain excerpt I mentioned earlier was one from Dorothy Parker: “INTERVIEWER: How do you name your characters? PARKER: The telephone book and from the obituary columns.” If she were still writing, perhaps a Professor Blackwood might make an appearance in one of her yarns.