Wednesday, November 30, 2016

NEW MEXICO DIARY -- Q (An invitation to the home of a patron of the arts -- Forest as endless text -- trigger warnings -- a corpse-monger)





Before nine a.m., I drove up the mountain to the ski basin. The ski-runs are on the west-facing side of the mountain range above Santa Fe. You can see the bald places cut in the forest from the desert below at Posaque, striations on the peak impossibly high and remote.

The road rides a canyon upslope, first passing the homes of millionaires perched above the dry-looking scrub forest. The houses show windowless facades to the winding road, although doubtless they are all glass for the vistas turned away from the highway. Each rests on an isolated pedestal of rock or a terrace on the mountain slope and they seem inaccessible – I can imagine steep-graded, spiraling lanes climbing to somewhere beneath them and, then, the garages hidden in the underbrush and, perhaps, other cottages, guest houses, on the property with less prepossessing views of the terrain. What would it be like to be invited to one of these place? There would be a luminaria set on the road as a marker for the hidden driveway and, then, you would steer through trees with low, overhanging branches, pine cones crunching under your wheels and, at the cul-de-sac, more pale illuminated pouches would show you the way up a sidewalk and past a plashing fountain to a front door in the Spanish-style as massive as the gate to a castle. Inside, it would be silent and perfumed and well-dressed people would beckon to you from distant rooms, across big airy spaces and, through a glass wall, the night would pour into the house like a starry waterfall. A painting by Agnes Martin would occupy one interior wall and there might be a small Georgia O’Keefe lithograph framed under track-lighting. You would have the sense that only a precious few guests have been admitted to the home and, yet, the drinks and hors d’oeuvres would show such intricacy as to establish as obvious that an army of domestic servants were concealed somewhere in the building. The rich man would declare his benediction. He would hold the pages of this manuscript close to his heart and would beckon to his third wife, much younger and laden with turquoise, gesturing to her that she should take the writing and read it. And he would pronounce everything that I have accomplished in these pages as just and true.

The rich man’s canyon ends with tall pine trees in a basin filled with little cabins and fire-pits, some kind of boy scout camp, and, then, the road ascends the slopes to the ski-hills, winding across the rib-like ridges running down the sides of the mountain. The views into the valley are vast and abstract, like something seen from an airplane. A surprising amount of traffic is making its way uphill, dashing around me, to get to work in the ski basin. At that place, I can look up along the green swaths cut in the forest to the summit where clouds are scudding by, a number of pickup trucks parked in the lots and the sound of chain-saws and leaf-blowers buzzing in the distance.

On the way down, I stop at a bend in the road where there is an overlook. On the uphill side of the road, a narrow trail runs along a stream that is leaping and dancing among the grey torsos of boulders. One of the boulders has been painted with an image of an alien, a tentacle-monster somewhat like a squid with a big, cyclopean eye on the crown of its head. I look down across the desert for UFOs. The sky is clear and, as far as I can see, nothing is moving between heaven and earth.

The downslope vantage features a Kit Carson National Forest marker directing attention to an aspen grove wound like a ribbon or a bandage across the face of the mountain. The trees have shed their leaves and the white bark shines with a silver patina in the shadow cast by the peak above. Aspen are all connected underground – they spring, the marker says, from a common rhizome. Thus, the aspen grove can be accounted a single biological entity, each of its trees comprised of identical genetic material, a stand of perfect twins multiplied over and over again. In the forest, all the trees are related in mysterious ways. The roots communicate with one another and exchange electrical and chemical signals. Species cooperate. Even the living nurture the dead – old stumps are kept alive at their core by infusions of glucose from neighboring trees. The entire forest exists as a web of living things that interact with one another. This is the subject of the German writer, Peter Wohlleben’s book, The Hidden Life of Trees and it is certainly intriguing to think of the forests draping the mountains as vast intelligent beings.

With the advent of computer networks, we are programmed to see the world as a system of hyperlinks and connections. There is too much information and it swamps our ability to process the data that the world makes available to us. Every text can be eighty-thousand pages long, each data point linked to some other relevant data point in immense clouds of information. Indeed, each text is already 80,000 pages long or, in fact, indefinite in length because there is no end to the cloud of information that wraps us. I can’t control the text any longer. It just keeps expanding, link by link, and, even when I have stopped typing, the connections continue to sprawl away from my words in all directions. This essay on New Mexico was supposed to be only a few pages long and, now, look what has happened. I no longer know where the beginning is to be found and the notion of an end is purely fictional, an arbitrary stopping point that doesn’t necessarily bear any relationship to the structure of reality or consciousness.  


They don’t want you to get upset in New Mexico. The powers-that-be are careful to issue trigger-warnings. If you don’t want to look at something, you don’t have to. And it’s important that you not misconstrue what you see.

At the Museum of Folk Art, an exhibit is built around a miniature circus that some eccentric pensioner whittled from balsa wood fragments. The miniature circus sits under a glass dome and is the size of my dining room with tents and sideshows and railway cars lined up on a siding to transport all the gaudy stuff away once the show is struck. On one of the walls, a placard reminds us of the "dark side of the Circus", the fact that circuses often exploited "the differently abled and the disfigured" – circuses promoted, the text says, the idea of the "Other" to be exploited as a "freak". There is a poster hawking tickets to see Joyce Heth, an ancient Black woman thought to weigh a mere 46 pounds and said to have been George Washington’s wet-nurse. "This African-American woman’s appearance and history as a slave was exploited by P. T. Barnum."

In some dim galleries with red walls, sacred objects from Asia are displayed. A warning at the entry says portentously: "Some of the items displayed contain human remains." This references a Tibetan kapala, that is an offering cup to a wrathful deity made from a halved human skull, and a kanling or Tibetan Buddhist trumpet carved from a femur. Another warning reminds us that "The Objects displayed are exhibited out of context and that the viewer should be aware of distortions in meaning that this causes." Finally, upon leaving the show, another prominently displayed sign says: "The Objects displayed may not be representative of Asian Culture."

This abundant caution is out of character with the rest of this place, an exuberant and infinitely vast collection of junk purchased on his world travels by one Alexander Girard, a Santa Fe interior decorator. His souvenirs fill a ballroom-sized gallery, the so-called Neutrogena Hall, and the stuff is mostly small, figurines made in Africa or India, China or Latin America – animals and mythical beasts and thousands and thousands of Day of the Dead skeletons, human figurines playing instruments or marching in processions or being tormented by cochineal-red demons in hell, tradesmen, mummers, vamps, Kachina dancers, miniature engineers on miniature trains, clowns, ghosts and monsters. In one image painted on cardboard, a man leads a brown and skeletal zombie on a leash through a Haitian graveyard – the picture was made by one Albert Bazile in Port-Au-Prince in 1966. The picture has peculiar authority, but, I suppose, that this is because it features human remains, may be disturbing to some viewers, and, probably, is not representative of Haitian culture, particularly since one must be sensitive to the fact that the painting is displayed outside of its original context.

I walk out of the folk art museum staggering a little, giddy – perhaps, it’s the high elevation and some residual dehydration. Julie says: "I don’t like places of that sort."




Another famous artist who lives in New Mexico, Albuquerque to be exact, is Joel-Peter Witkin. He is famous for his photographs of freaks and disfigured people. His MFA is from the University of New Mexico (1986). In the nineties, Witkin bribed a morgue attendant in Mexico City and was able to use cadaver parts in his pictures. He made elaborate black-and-white still life photographs showing mask-like flayed faces, bouquets of severed hands, a dead infant arranged among flowers and fresh fruit.

I wonder what sort of trigger warnings were posted at the entrance to his show.

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