Copycats of the Subconscious

On Celebrity, New York, and the Movie in Your Mind.

by Mara Jebsen


I am looking at Jackie Onassis, young, wide-eyed and beast-like in one of the iconic photographs we’d all recognize. She has those startling beetle brows, and her little hat and big collar are so cute and polished that she seems somehow a Pomeranian, and like a girl you knew in 6th grade, who could say something cloying like “pretty please with a cherry on top” and get away with it. She’s pixilated. The artist, Alex Guofeng Cao, made her out of a jillion tiny little photographs of a famous photo of JFK. As a looker, as a person with limited eyeballs, you have a choice then—you can look close at the endless dark and light iterations of charming young Kennedy, or you can zoom out, and see Jackie’s big fresh face. I guess the implication is that JFK is always on her mind. Or that when we see Jackie we’re seeing JFK, too.

Guofeng Cao, whose Jackie I came across in a Chelsea gallery, has completed, it turns out, a whole series like this—JFK’s face made out of a million tiny laughing sexy Marilyn Monroes; the Marilyn made out of a million tiny Brigitte Bardots. And Jimmi Hendrix– his face a collection of repeating purple pills. Everyone obsessing, amost in a circle.

You have to wonder what he’s saying with this—and also, why its so insanely fun to look at. You have to wonder if we are made out of a million little images of the things we love; if our obsessions would even show on our faces if someone looked in close enough. Its a terrifying thought.

Every New York Fall, I go, at least once, to the Highline. This last time, I had a fresh pair of contacts and I didn’t have allergies and I had new sunglasses. The sun was beaming over all of New York so hard it looked like it was burning the dirt off, and everything I looked at: the skyline, the blades of grass in the lawn, the crunchy cornstarch clouds piled on top of each other fathoms away—well, everything I looked at was so drastically clear I thought it might cut me. I’d had way too little sleep and way too much coffee to make up for it, and the result was that I thought I kind-of had superhero eyeballs. Laserbeam eyeballs, eyeballs that could zoom in and see a pigeon shit on a crazy fat gargoyle a mile skyward, if they felt like. On the Highline, you feel big, like you can see everything, all of New York in a gulp. They design it that way, people cleverer than myself.

Closer to earth, lounging shirtless on the Sky Lawn were two guys both looking like each other, and kind of like Ryan Gosling, and kind of like Ryan Reynolds. And they were pretty fun to look at, too. My head collapsed then, into little boxes of sex and movies. I was grateful for my sunglasses.

New York is changing, but don’t worry. The movies will catch up, and you will, too. Last week, my whole neighborhood lifted a curtain with a big unveiling, and showed what’s been causing all that banging and buzz. It was like I’d been sleeping and when I woke up, there was a stadium in my backyard, and all the pathways to the city had been rearranged, and electric lights started telling about the big shows and electric voices started telling how we should please watch our steps on the escalator. Actually, it wasn’t like that, that’s just what exactly happened. I went to the Jay-Z concert at Barclay’s and felt, for a while, magnificently tiny, like a very important ant; like an exoskeleton-having thing with a job. The job: to meet the rhythm and emit into the giant cloud of nostalgia we manufactured, my own, important, fraction. I was tremendously happy; then he wrecked it, as people do, by talking.

“I’m no different than you,” says Jay-Z, to the tiers and tiers of bone-happy fans. “If I can make it, you can.” And he sounds like he means it. It’s scripted, probably, but he’s gone interior as he speaks. Hunching down inside his baseball cap and puffy vest, he kind of curls into his history, thinking of how far he’s come, from Brooklyn, and back to Brooklyn, and the pain of homecoming makes him generously extend his life into ours, but I’m not buying it; I can’t be Jay-Z.

For a millisecond, I buy it, though. One thing about talent—you can get in people’s heads. I imagine that this is how it works:

Once, when I was in college, my friend told me about a dream she’d had in which her teeth fell out. I thought that was one of the weirdest things I’d ever heard, but the next week I had a dream that my teeth fell out. I could hear them clattering in the sink. Once, a friend told me that he’d dreamed about wandering around his house, and everything was the same, except there was an extra room. And I thought that was one of the weirdest things I’d ever heard, but later on, I had a dream that I was wandering around my house, and I found an extra room. It was full of white smoke and clean bath-towels. I think my subconscious is a copycat. Let me say that again, let me make that bigger: I think the subconscious is a copycat.

A person’s whole head is made out of a million little pixels of obsession that no one looks close enough to see—that seem so personal and private and secret, but its likely that someone else put them there. Jay-Z for one. Marilyn Monroe for another. Then there are the folks who made the stadium, and the ones who made the Highline. I wear sunglasses because increasingly, I am starting to dream other people’s dreams. One day, on the day that I write well enough, I will have learned to make them dream mine. This is the meeting place between ideas and fame. When they say that you move to New York to live the dream, they do not know what it really means. It means you’ll collect, in your sleep, a million pictures–shifting photographs that never belonged to you—and next thing you know, they’ll become almost visible, repeating in the contours of your face.