Sunday, June 18, 2017

On a Motionless Sky



Life is motion. If something moves, we instinctively think that it is alive. Anyone who has walked a dog will understand that canine eyes perceive the world in two categories – things that move on their own and things that don’t. Small children have the same perception: I have heard children say that clouds are alive because they move under their own power. And are we sure that this naive perspective is necessarily wrong? The avalanche that sweeps down a mountainside and destroys a village seems to move with malice aforethought. And so does the tsunami, the waterfall, and the tornado. Such forces seem to be living agents. We know that they are alive because they move.

A powerful storm advanced on the small city where I live. At that time, I was working in my law office, below grade, with a concrete-walled window-well behind the glass panes over my computer. My view upward through the basement window is half concrete and half-sky. The lower part of window opens onto the concrete box, an open vault with the marks of the forms that framed the box still visible as ridges and shallow cracks in the concrete. Sometimes, a squirrel will run along the top of those three walls enclosing my window and I will see the rodent as a strange, unfamiliar apparition, from a low angle with the beast poised against the sky and, therefore, seeming a colossus. The upper-half of my window shows the sky, an open expanse cleft in two by the furrowed brown pillar of a tree. In this season, the tree’s branches make a fringe at the top of the view defined by my window, an elegant lace of twigs heavily laden with green leaf, some dead limbs like claws also extending down from above, like a sort of memento mori.

The blinds on my window were open and I looked up above the concrete well to the sky. Everything had ceased to move. I saw that the sky was angry and congested: a black wall was thrust forward ahead of the approaching storm, a prow of dark cloud like the iron cowcatcher on the front of an old locomotive and, at the edges of that dense wedge, the cloud had broken apart, unfurling little pennants of tattered grey. But the remarkable aspect of this aerial landscape was that it was wholly motionless – no part of the mass of clouds seemed to move at all. The immobility of the storm toppling forward out of the sky was all the more incongruous because the shapes of the clouds were streamlined, cut and sculpted so that they could fly at high-speed, screeching like banshees, across the sky. I looked from the motionless clouds to the limbs of the tree and its branches – nothing moved at all, there wasn’t even the faint vibration that you sense in living vegetation, the tiny aura of life that surges faintly through the veins of a leaf. All was stationary, frozen, petrified.

For a moment, I felt panic. Perhaps, I was the one who had died. It didn’t seem possible that all of this evidence of wild, frenzied motion –the clefts in the clouds, the rifts in the sky through which, undoubtedly, gale winds were pouring, even the solid rays of falling rain – could be wholly still, frigid statuary occupying the lofty heights of the sky. I rose from my desk, felt myself to be alive, but who knows – perhaps, in their last instants, the dying and dead feel themselves able to move robustly through an earth that has turned to marble. Perhaps, this is the grave and immense thing itself. Before consciousness flickers out, perhaps, it pins the world to the mind as a last snapshot, a final motionless panorama that only gradually fades away.

I went into the hallway to see if there were other living beings in the office. Everyone on the lower level had left for the day. The doors into the silent offices were open. Where there were windows, I saw the stolid stone vault of the window well, the striated and deadly-looking sky still entirely motionless and the edges of trees and bushes completely becalmed.

Upstairs, a couple of secretaries had gathered in the lobby. They were inspecting the sky through the windows.

"Do you see how still it is?" I said.

I went outside and stood on the sidewalk. The sky overhead was a wild canvas, motionless as a painted picture. The air was heavy, humid, bearing little veins of dry, bright air that were not yet moving. Not a leaf stirred. The silence was immense and imponderable and the stillness in the sky was like an announcement of the end of things.

Then, the storm went off like a bomb. The sky vanished in a white downpour. The trees twisted and bent and the dead limbs snapped off them and skittered like spiders across the parking lot.

It was over in 20 minutes. The intersections were flooded. The river was engorged and flowed between its corridor of trees as a sullen, impenetrable flood, a kind of viscous syrup moving with the speed of a freight train but betraying no sign of its motion other than froth and spray where a low-hanging branch cut a white furrow in the current. At each intersection, parts of trees had fallen to the ground. The big branches were shrouded in leaves and they sat decorously on the sidewalk, like girls in emerald green ballroom gowns reposing on the grass. A brown litter of twigs and fallen boughs was scattered across the lawns. The sky was now vivid with fragments of storm hurtling this way and that, sunlight tunneling down through provisional clouds that were fleeing to the horizon.

The smaller limbs fallen from the tree will wither in a day and the leaves will wilt and turn brown. But the bigger branches, the green debris the size of a car or larger – these torsos and limbs of trees will remain green for half a week, sap still coursing through the branches and invigorating the leaves so that these will remain bright green for a week or more. Birds will see the leaves and branches rippling on those broken-away parts of trees, leaves moving in the wind, and they will try to build nests in the toppled limbs. Squirrels will chatter and, perhaps, mistake the last vibrant color in those leafy branches for sustaining life and work to re-establish their nests in the fallen limbs. And the breezes will blow and the trees standing along the lanes, intact, or mostly intact, will glitter in the wind.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

On "Scaffold" at the Walker Art Center

These remarks relate to the recent imbroglio at the Walker Art Center (WAC) involving an outdoor installation -- I hesitate to use the word "sculpture" -- called "Scaffold."  The WAC, along with the Minneapolis Department of Parks, upgraded the sculpture garden, the gravel courtyards among neatly groomed trees to the north of the museum across the busy boulevard from Loring Park – this is the promenade leading toward the Basilica among heaps of sculpted wood and burnished pillars of vaguely anthropomorphic bronze, amidst slabs of Corten steel, a path among outdoor art-works culminating with the giant spoon and cherry resting flamboyantly within the basin of fountain where jets of water decorate the massive assembly. As part of this renovation, the WAC bought 18 new sculptures, including a work from an artist called Sam Durant. This artist’s work is called "Scaffold" and it has been exhibited to much acclaim in the capitols of Europe. "Scaffold" is massive -- a huge assembly of wood and steel, about 20 feet high. It looks something like a playground "Jungle Gym" except on a massive scale. The object isn’t pretty but its not excessively rebarbative either – it’s something like a tower that you might find overlooking some scenic vista in the mountains, a viewing platform of some kind. In fact, Durant and his "Scaffold" has a concealed agenda – the big platform with its various walkways and overhead beams is a facsimile of seven scaffolds used for historically famous hangings. For instance, the scaffold contains as an element a simulation of the gallows on which John Brown was hanged – there are also mock-ups of the two gallows on which the Lincoln conspirators were executed. Most notably, however, the size of the structure is warranted by the concept that the installation’s outer dimensions be established by the measurements of the huge scaffold on which the 38 Dakota Indians were executed in Mankato in 1862.

Durant’s "Scaffold" was painstakingly assembled in May, completed, and tested for safety in advance of the swarms of people, including mostly I suppose children and drunken homosexuals wandered over from their cruising territory at Loring Park, expected to clamber all over the thing. Apparently, most of the people who climbed on the object’s maze of platforms and steps enjoyed themselves and didn’t take much note of the fact that they were frolicking, as it were, on a kind of infernal machine, simulacra accurate to scale of various hanging scaffolds – for instance, the gallows on which Saddam Hussein met his Maker. Then, someone noticed that the gallows contained within itself elements referring to the incident in Mankato. This information was conveyed to the Tribes who, of course, are wealthy with casino money and, increasingly, active politically and whose demands, whether they be for recuperative historical monuments, apologetic for previous racism, or enhanced spear-fishing on Mille Lacs will not be denied. Immediately, a cadre of time-worn Elders were deployed to denounce the art work and demand that it be torn down. The Elders gathered a crowd of activists and picketed the front entry to the WAC. This was not good: throughout my lifetime, the WAC has vehemently and continuously denounced the racism of people exactly like you and me – that is, the White phallocentric bastards who have spoiled much of the world with our sexism,colonialism or imperialism – and the WAC has always stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the courageous avant-garde artists of the world to combat every form of political injustice and discrimination. And, yet, now the aggressively liberal, even Marxist WAC was hoisted on its own petard, accused of disseminating a particularly heartless form of racism.  Even worse, the WAC and its tame artist were indicted of "misappropriating someone else's story", an initial justification for the demands made by the Tribes but one that was soon enough considered to have sufficiently sinister implications to be abandoned -- at least in public.  At the demonstration, the Indians commandeered the microphones and said that the WAC was insulting and demeaning their Grandfathers (Grandfathers who perished 150 years ago, mind you) and that it was appalling, shocking, astounding that the Native American community had not been consulted before the erection of this provocative monument, advertised as a critique of capitol punishment in the United States but, in fact, a deadly assault on the blessed memory of the 38 heroes who gave their lives on the day after Christmas in 1862 in defense of their families and sacred lands.

It was generally thought that the WAC would resist the onslaught – after all, a lot was at stake: the integrity of the artist, First Amendment freedoms, and, most importantly, the opening date for the Sculpture Garden on Saturday, June 3, 2017. One prominent Native American artist-in-residence at the WAC immediately resigned his commission in order to arm himself for the long conflict with his former employer. But, to everyone’s surprise, the WAC capitulated almost instantly. The opening for the Sculpture Garden was delayed by a week, the museum agreed to tear down the offending art object and, even, render its fragments up to the Tribes so that they could be incinerated at some suitably momentous and solemn ceremony. The WAC officials with the Minneapolis Park commissioners in attendance congratulated themselves for their political correctness, apologized profusely for offending the Tribes, and, even, sponsored a touching ceremony complete with pow-wow drums and burning sage in which an Elder made a garbled speech about the need for more cultural respect and better education and positive energy as opposed to "negativity" and how we should all be cogniscent of the sensitivities of Native people, this peroration uttered before some rivets in the huge platform were ceremonially removed. You can’t find any pictures of the most grave and holy aspects of this ceremony because the media were told to shutter their cameras and not use their vile "shadowcatchers" to steal the souls of the shaman administering the blessing to the vandals howling for the destruction of this supposed art object.

Of course, the WAC would like to move on, but inconvenient questions linger. When the Minneapolis Park Commissioners enthusiastically participating in sage cleansing ceremonies and when holy tobacco was shared (to be transmitted post-haste for the top of Bear Butte in South Dakota the very next day) didn’t anyone consider whether this festival of destruction traduced the separation of Church and State – what if, for instance, a Catholic priest had been brought in to exorcize the demons apparently inhabiting this Devil’s Jungle Gym? And if the art work was valid, important, worthy of admiration, and aesthetically effective in Holland or Germany or the Pompidou Centre in Paris, what happened in Minneapolis? How did it suddenly lose its "aura" of importance and artist significance? What mysterious thing happened? What about the First Amendment and censorship? I vividly recall touring an exhibition of Mapplethorpe photographs featuring someone sticking his little finger up to the second joint into the urethral meatus of another’s guy’s impressively massive penis, another memorable image of Mapplethorpe himself waggling a bullwhip at his camera’s lens with the handle of that instrument stuck up the artist’s rectum about 8 inches. Although there had been a hue and cry about these pictures in Cincinnati, I think, no one protested in Minneapolis. What about the works of Cara Walker? I recall her retrospective at the WAC: it was a Sunday and all the hip, well-groomed liberal MPR-listening, environmentally-aware garbage-recycling Starbucks-frequenting, card-carrying Dems in their Paul Wellstone bumper-stickered Volvos and Saabs had come to the museum with their perfect, blonde and tousle-headed toddlers in tow to enjoy some modern art. The galleries were filled with silhouettes of southern-fried colonels and maidens in flounce dresses, all magnolias and moonbeams, roasting live picaninnies over open fires – in the corners of the images, there were various rapes and castrations underway, while other unfortunate slaves were being crucified or lynched from the limbs of old, haggard-looking trees. The suburban Democrats skittered though the huge show, walking as if on eggshells though gallery after gallery of the most lurid atrocities, always maintaining a reverent silence. Now and then, a moppet would say: "Daddy, what is that fat man doing to the baby?" "We’ll talk about it in the car," Daddy responded, wondering, I suppose, exactly how to explain the concept of oral sodomy to a four-year old. What if Evangelical Christians were to oppose a show like this? Would the WAC bow to their wishes and, not just repress, but destroy, the offending objects within the scope of 48 hours? (Needless to say the poor Dakota artist-in-residence who quit the institution in a huff when the controversy first erupted is, now, probably negotiating for his job back – and if he’s not employed, I assume he’ll sue on the basis of racial discrimination.) And, of course, out of morbid interest, members who pay annually for a membership in the WAC, such as yours truly, might want to know exactly what did this education in political correctness cost the Walker? What did they pay to Durrant for "Scaffold" in the first place to purchase his work that undoubtedly was politically vibrant and esthetically valid under all relevant criteria in Europe but, somehow, not in Minneapolis? Did they get a warranty on the art object – full refund if protesters require the deconstruction (not in a metaphoric but literal way) of the sculpture before it is even formally exhibited? One hopes the WAC got their money back although this seems doubtful to me. And what about the cost of erecting the thing and, then, a week later, taking it down? The cost of hauling the fragments to Fort Snelling? The cost of burning and incinerating the massive structure, including many metal parts? What exactly has this cost the WAC and should members of that art institution consider the profligate and wasteful spending of the Center next time they are asked to donate? Shouldn’t members of the ACLU, for instance, refuse to renew their memberships?

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) interviewed a young woman artist who is a member of the Dakota Community. She rejoiced at the removal of the Durrant "Scaffold" from the sculpture garden. But she couldn’t explain exactly why this was a good thing. She spoke a little about sensitivity to the local community and pointed out that 1862 wasn’t that long ago and seemed to confuse the atrocity (or whatever it was that happened in Mankato) with the representation of the atrocity. In some respect, she seemed to imply that showing the hanging or even referring to it somehow made it happen all over and this wounded the sensibilities of the Indians and filled them with sorrow and art, of course, should never trouble anyone, it should be limited to flowers and lovely naked women and landscapes with much blue sky and blue water in them with, maybe, a small human figure to show scale – no, of course, she didn’t say this latter part and didn’t even believe this, but by her position she was endorsing a naive view about esthetics that no one believes anymore except for those people who buy their picture frames at Walmart or Shopko. The interviewer asked the young woman a few softball questions – undoubtedly she was both charming and attractive – and she really couldn’t explain her position; indeed, everything she said was incoherent and logically inconsistent.

The interviewer asked her if she agreed that the jumble of steel plates and girders with the wooden planking of "Scaffold" should be hauled by truck to Fort Snelling, dragged ceremonially to a location at the center of the historic site, and there incinerated, proffered as a burn offering to the spirits of the ancestral Dakota who perished in that concentration camp, as it is called, during the icy winter of 1862 to 1863. The girl paused: "I’m gonna go way out on a limb here, but I would say I can’t endorse burning or destroying a work of art. That’s going too far. So I don’t think the art work should be destroyed."

No doubt, the young woman dimly recalled some foreign country, maybe a hundred or two-hundred years ago – perhaps, she thought of some image in black and white, before people had even invented color film, way, way, way back before TV, a crowd of pasty-faced White men somewhere on the dark continent of Europe, a mob of men in shirts with swastika armbands busily shoveling books into a great bonfire flaring against the immense and impenetrable darkness of human ignorance.