Bric-A-Brac BadAssery

by Mara Jebsen


I have a good friend in the East, who comes to my shows and says, you sing a lot about the past, you can't live in the past, you know. I say to him, I can go outside and pick up a rock that's older than the oldest song you know, and bring it back in here and drop it on your foot. Now the past didn't go anywhere, did it? It's right here, right now.

–Utah Phillips (folk singer)

So. You are someone like me, which is to say you are reasonably young but already have in memory several distinct places or times which are irrevocably lost. In fact, when the new year starts to roll round, you can’t help but think of all the little worlds — the little phases planned, started, discarded, the fuzzy neighborhoods of your memory beginning to border on one another like they do in dreams. Dreams like the one in which you must get out of the car in the motel parking lot in some dreary part of America because the man whose face you cannot look at (because he is your future husband) says “I'm glad I took you on, hitchhiker, but this is where we part ways, ” and leans over you to open the door and you are forced to walk stiffly across the green sideways brooms of frozen grass at night through a long pasture towards Africa, towards the baobob tree under which your aunts and uncles are having a picnic on gold cloth with champagne flutes and dead pigs all lying on their sides—

Just then, as the soon-to-be-old year is drawing its last breaths, expiring by the hour–you will wake, clean your teeth, put on your day-clothes and go see what's going on at the Guggenheim.

It is Maurizio Cattelan: All


A chaotic retrospective of every physical thing he did, strung up willy-nilly with rope and everywhere embellished with dirty dead pigeons.

Then you are aware that there will be two retrospectives, both strung-up and spirally. Cattelan’s is dangling with sculptures imitating life, almost-life, death, almost-death; things taxidermied, stuffed, body-bagged, pummeled with meteorites, growing trees, yowling animals, neon, hooded elephants, ladies in refrigerators. The other retrospective is forever dangling inside the ribcage. Similarly strung, but with the clear sight-lines of consciousness to each bizarre object that is earthed and unearthed from memory in the relentless process of burial and resurrection.

Mary Mary Quite Contrary, How Does Your Garden. . .

I am trying not to think about a dead woman, or that bizarre dream, and in my head it sounds like this: “Contrary, Mary Mary, How does Your Garden Grow?”

But out in the world, where interior soundscapes must be organized into ordinary speech, I've been smushed in with some very sweet self-conscious out-of-towners with their kids, and it sounds like this: “Look, Callie! Its a horse hangin' from the ceiling! What in the heck?

These are the folk I was in line with. In the raw Manhattan air, they unknowingly called my attention to an old lady perfectly framed in an enormous square of Lexington Ave window—

“Look at her, Callie. Just drinkin’ her coffee. Readin’ her paper. Under her chandelier. Don't think I'll go across the street to the Guggenheim today, she's thinkin’! Too cold! Don't want to stand in line with all those hobos.”

And they laughed good-naturedly.

The materials that Cattelan uses are the things that bring out the inner snob in me. I keep suffering from visitations from the subconscious and had hoped the Guggenheim, with its rich tidy stoniness would provide that removed-from-the-world blown-clean feeling that comes up like a sweet white whistle. . .

But badboy Cattelan is hanging shit upside down in no order from the ceiling of the Guggenheim, and it is composed of plaster-of-paris, plastic, formica. Imitation everything. There’s a panicked Pinocchio…kitsch, i think they call this. Giant Chotsksis/ tchsoskis? For the life of me I can’t spell chotchskis. Probably because I don’t like them. From down here in the atrium it looks like the backyards in depressed parts of North Carolina—a petrified tornado crammed with the muddy detritus of Western Civilization. Shopping carts, dolls, velour. I stifle a sense of icky. Oh god I'm a snob.

Mary Mary Quite Contrary. . .

No no no forget Mary. . .

I consider listening to the family I got squished with instead of the audio tour, but decide I won't be able to stomach their horror at the oddities in store, and get the earphone thing. It is mercifully short, as I do hate an audio tour. A woman with an accent and exquisitely refined Guggenheim-y voice like windblown sand dunes says just a few things about Cattelan:

That he was a sort of performer-jokester. A Pinocchio in his way—a little Italian trickster and also, perhaps, victim of a larger trickeries. He was poor, and his mother died early, and he worked a lot of terrible little jobs. In his work, the joke is on nationalism, religion, productivity, anxiety, the art world. . .mortality . . .

As I go up the spiral at a decent clip I am starting to like Cattelan. He’s super funny. Despite the trashiness, chaos and death, there’s a jovial air as all the visitors lean over the rails to peer down and up at the stiff chunky mobile that is a real feat of engineering. There’s a squirrel that has just committed suicide. There’s an elephant trying to hide under a sheet. There’s the mark of zorro.

I want to tell you, dear reader, that a lady I barely knew but liked, who used to sit in her front yard which was stuffed with tschostki’s and yapping dogs, talking about ghosts, cussing; a woman with a ‘storied’ past, a salty mouth and a good heart, died suddenly in her bed recently, and although I did not truly know her, I am sad she died before she was ready.


I am saying all of this, All, including the part I started out with in the dream, dear reader, to say that I want to believe that gathering and order are not always important. Does it matter if maybe she did not get her story in order, her affairs in order, before she died; that lady who thumbed her nose at authority?

I don’t particularly like New Year's Eve. That is because it feels false to me, and that’s also why I think I like Cattelan. Because he does not want a traditional retrospective, either. It is terrible to die by surprise before you have told your story, made it tidy. But it is terrible also to tell your story too early, to package your chaotic history with false milestones like huge boulders made of styrofoam. I like Cattelan. He is an anti-culminator. An anti-gatherer, an anti-organizer. For Cattellan, a person afraid and defiant of authorities, and as he aged, encountering the notion of death (the final authority, attached to an unforgiving and precise clock), being told to order and organize a retrospective must have seemed good to the ego, but hideously like an invitation to stop doing, being, living.

You who are somewhat like me, but maybe not in just this way, I want to tell you I sort of really hate New Year's. Everybody gathering their thoughts and narrativizing, pre-historying. “This will be the year I remember in future as the year I. . .” is what all of these complex people are doing to their various lives composed of sludged together dreams and moments. We’re human; we like stories. We like to do that, of course, of course. Line things up, make a tale. But the falseness of it, and the mass-scale of it, as we count down, make lists, and as the chaotic firecrackers go up, is so odd.

He’s uglied my Guggenheim, but I like Cattelan, staging his funny mass execution from the ceiling. And Cattelan would have liked salty Mary. And Mary might have liked his giant plaster of paris hand with all the fingers crumbled off save the all-important middle one. Fuck a retrospective. There’s a lot of corkscrew living and dreaming to do. And there are ghosts.

Post Script

I always thought that anybody who told me I couldn't live in the past was trying to get me to forget something that if I remembered it it would get them serious trouble. No, that 50s, 60s, 70s, 90s stuff, that whole idea of decade packaging, things don't happen that way. The Vietnam War heated up in 1965 and ended in 1975– what's that got to do with decades? No, that packaging of time is a journalist convenience that they use to trivialize and to dismiss important events and important ideas. I defy that.

Utah Phillips