Ashland 9 Extraction

Ashland 9 Extraction is part of Extractions, a series of mediated text and voice performance works using language collected from particular environments.

Ira S. Murfin is a multidisciplinary writer and theatre artist based in Chicago. His writing has appeared in elimae, Fiction at Work, Chicago Art Criticism, and Theatre Topics, and his performance work presented at venues including MCA Chicago, Links Hall, and the Chicago Cultural Center. He is also a founding member of the theatre collective the Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials. Ira holds degrees in writing from New York University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is currently working toward the Interdisciplinary PhD in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University.

Briefly About the Antinovel from Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar

Kafka in his antinovels attempts to show the absurdity of life as a whole; nothing is alive in this world or, at least, nothing makes sense. The processes are meaningless, authorities are incomprehensible. Chancelleries and institutions have no boundaries—it is as though the intestines have ruptured and the feces have moved into the peritoneum. The meaninglessness of life has become total. The world is in lockdown. It is like a clock with a bent dial. This notion of the death of time persists in the work of a contemporary artist.

In the beginning of Fellini’s , the camera shows a city tunnel for motor vehicles. Trapped inside their cars, behind windows, people are suffocating from the smell of burning gasoline and lead salts emitting from their idling engines.

The world has come to a contradiction with itself: both the tunnel and the cars are made for speed, so that people can leave the city fast, but some are suffocating as a result of an adverse effect.

The hero wants to fly away, but his friends and the producer capture him with a lasso and drag him back down into the city.

The hero searches for an escape in rural Italy, Catholic Italy, Garibaldi’s Italy.

Everything has been destroyed.

One of the love scenes in the film is enacted by the hero—the film director—for himself. He creates a scenario of a sudden, estranged love affair.

Everything that’s straightforward, ordinary has been exhausted by newspapers and the art of the past.

The heroes of the film are very different, but they are all frightened, they predict the destruction of the Earth, as it were.

The main hero—the film director—is waiting for the end of the world. He builds a huge rocket that is supposed to fly over the Earth, saving a group of chosen individuals.

The rocket cannot go up. There are no cosmic Mountains of Ararat. These are unattainable things, and the film returns to self-replication, popular circus, farce, and old conventional heroes with whom the man who can’t finish his work leaves and passes through the frames of his own film.

I am talking about simple things—about how the construction of books, the construction of old oral stories, not yet bound in books, depends on the paths of humanity, the direction in which humanity moves and what it wants to achieve.

I have seen many films with different endings. I have worked with many film directors. Once in a trattoria in Rome, I met with a well-known film director. He told me that he had been writing that same day (not knowing I was in Rome) on Mayakovsky talking about my path. I have seen many films and I know how difficult their denouements can be, how they are becoming even more complicated, and I know the doubts that Tolstoy expressed at the beginning of the writing of War and Peace, that neither death nor marriage of heroes can serve as an ending. Even the death of one of the heroes can’t be an ending, because the story shifts to the life of other heroes.

In one of the remarkable films by Antonioni, L’Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962), a man and a woman cannot figure out their relationship. The scenes evolve around the stock exchange, where we see the outcomes of bank operations, decisions that have been made and not been carried out. The world of material things has devoured the living beings. The film ends with a shot of water slowly running out of a leak in a barrel.

But this isn’t his most melancholy work. Antonioni has another film that’s more known—Blow-Up (1966), or it can be translated in Russian as “A Shot in Large Scale.” If we were to give a simple synopsis of the film, then this is how it would unfold (have in mind that the evental path, along which I’ll take you, will bring us to a dead end).

A young talented photographer is in search of something sensational. He walks into a park and takes a photograph of a strange woman. Later he makes many blow-ups of the photograph. Suddenly he notices a body lying in the grass under the trees. Then the woman appears again and wants to buy the photograph. A plan is devised to steal the photograph. Everything is disconnected and complicated. Then the photograph disappears. The photographer returns to the park but the body is gone. He goes to see his friends, but they are busy with their own affairs—something that today the film industry calls “sex” for short.

They don’t pay any attention to him and they don’t care about the blow-up—the attempt to sensationalize ends in failure.

On the way, the photographer sees a group of university students dressed in masquerade costumes.

They are playing a game of tennis: we clearly hear the fast, staccato sounds of the ball hitting the racket.

Then we realize that we are watching a mimed match—it’s a game without a ball.

There is no sense, no ball in the game—only the ghost of sound.

Its purpose—the ending has disappeared. Nobody cares about the murder mystery and its solution. It can be used in a newspaper article or in photography, but nothing more. The denouement has vanished. There is no ending . . .

Pasolini’s films end differently. In Uccellacci e uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows, 1966), for example, the story evolves around Francis of Assisi who sends his friars to preach Christianity to the birds. The Franciscan friars turn up in the contemporary world.

They successfully preach the commandment of love to the hawks and to the sparrows separately and convert them to Christianity.

But the Christian hawks hunt the Christian sparrows—that’s their nature.

The friars pray. A monastery, involved in the hectic activity of buying and selling of faith, appears around them. The friars leave.

They see terrible things—the meaninglessness and futility of birth and death. They meet different people in a deeply visionary setting, among which: a Chinese man for whom a woman gets a swallow’s nest from the roof of an old house. Their guide through the world of miserable lawlessness of strange tangled pathways is a crow, who has been sent to them by fate. The crow walks sideways, he is searching for something. In the end, the travelers get hungry and they eat the crow.

We have survived millenia, it was not for nothing. We don’t think that crows taste good in soup, we don’t believe in the height of irony of the denouement.

But individual denouements, the denouements of specific incidents change against other juxtaposition-denouements, as it were.

We think more and more expansively.

Conflicts occur not only between separate individuals but also between generations, social systems. Irony doesn’t help any more. It doesn’t save Antonioni, Pasolini, or even Fellini—a talented artist, whose entire film is about how man builds a rocket that is supposed to carry him out of this world into another one.

The journeys of Gilgamesh, who crossed the ocean with a pole, seem difficult to his descendents.

People write poems about writing poems.

Writers write novels about writing novels, film scripts about film scripts.

They are playing a tennis game without a ball, but the journeys of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Pantagruel and even Chichikov must have a purpose.

Return the ball into the game.

Return the heroic deed into life.

Return meaning to the movement—and not to the record of achievement.

Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) was a leading figure in the Russian Formalist movement of the 1920s and had a profound effect on twentieth century Russian literature. Several of his books have been translated into English, including Zoo, or Letters Not about Love, Third Factory, Theory of Prose, Energy of Delusion, Literature and Cinematography, and now Bowstring, all published by Dalkey Archive Press. Bowstring was originally published in Moscow in 1970; it is a mix of autobiography, biography, memoir, history, and literary criticism. This is its first appearance in English.

Shushan Avagyan, translator of Energy of Delusion, has also translated the works of Armenian poet S. Kurghinian. She is working on her doctoral degree in Comparative Literature at Illinois State University.

New Elements in the Old Epic (The History of Gilgamesh) from Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar

Let’s renew our path with examples.

Gilgamesh is the hero of the Akkadian epic—of the multi-characteristic stage—who was apparently a historical figure, living nearly three thousand years before the Common Era, at a time when in the lower parts of the Tigris farmers had already learned how to build irrigation canals and had domesticated the donkey but hadn’t yet tamed the horse. Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu journey on foot to commit heroic deeds.

The great king and warrior Gilgamesh lives in a city with strong walls:

        See how its ramparts gleam like copper in the sun.
        Climb the stone staircase, more ancient than the mind can imagine,
        . . . inspect its mighty foundations,
        examine its brickwork, how masterfully it is built. (Prologue)

Fired brick was a new invention that was a source of pride.

Gilgamesh, who owns an axe and a knife made of bronze, hears that the gods have created a new hero, Enkidu, who is as strong as himself.

Enkidu, with long hair covering his body, roams all over the wilderness, eats grass, and when he is thirsty drinks water from the waterholes kneeling beside the wild animals. The hunters are terrified of this savage man. Enkidu destroys the traps and frees the trapped animals from the hunter’s holes.

Enkidu’s story is repeated twice.

The unhurried pace of art was not yet burdened by experience. First, the story is told by the narrator, then it’s repeated by the person who has witnessed it: the impediment here is tautological.

Gilgamesh sends the hunter with Shamhat the harlot to meet Enkidu. He instructs Shamhat to strip off her robe and lie by the waterhole.

When Enkidu arrives to the waterhole, he sees her and approaches:

        She used her love-arts, she took his breath
        with her kisses, held nothing back, and showed him
        what a woman is. For seven days
        he stayed erect and made love with her,
        until he had had enough. (Book I)

At last, when he gets up, he realizes that all the animals have left him forever. He realizes that he can no longer run like an animal, his mind “had somehow grown larger.”

Then Shamhat gives Enkidu one of her robes and leads him to a shepherd’s hut:

         “Go ahead, Enkidu. This is food,
        we humans eat and drink this.” Warily
        he tasted the bread. Then he . . . drank seven
        pitchers of the beer. (Book II)

Enkidu is gradually introduced to human civilization, he becomes the protector of hunters and best friend of Gilgamesh. Together they travel to the Cedar Forest where terrible monsters live.

Intimacy with the woman humanizes him. She gives him the knowledge of life, the foreboding premonition of sorrow and death. She tears him away from his flock.

I am reading the epic of Gilgamesh, rereading it and analyzing the repetitions, and I am filled with awe at how people perceived themselves and how they told stories about themselves.

Everything is valued—both Enkidu’s battle against Gilgamesh, and the friends’ journey to the Cedar Forest. They walk side by side, they dig wells, they eat their bread sparingly.

Then they commit deeds and see dreams—the dreams foretell their actions. They commit deeds and then reinterpret them.

And though Shamhat civilizes Enkidu, he curses her for that. He assigns her to live under the shadow of a tavern wall, warm her body by the hearth.

Sleeping in the ashes for warmth is the last place for refuge, it is a place for paupers.

Enkidu curses the harlot with the ultimate curse of homelessness: to become the lover of a homeless man, to roam the streets without a place to rest. But Shamash, the god and protector of Uruk, interjects: “Enkidu, why are you cursing / the priestess Shamhat?”

The god reminds Enkidu that it was Shamhat who gave him beer and bread fit for a king. And Enkidu blesses the harlot.

Scholars have finally learned how to touch and understand the clay tablets that bear the cuneiform script, which appears to have retained the hammered nail marks.

The tablets signified a shift in the change of human relations.

The wedge-shaped impressions on the tablets are arranged differently; sometimes they look like traces left by birds, but in reality they are traces of changing structures.

This is how man’s relationship to the world, the various segmentations of the visible realm change: it is the knowledge of the world through labor and disillusionment.

Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) was a leading figure in the Russian Formalist movement of the 1920s and had a profound effect on twentieth century Russian literature. Several of his books have been translated into English, including Zoo, or Letters Not about Love, Third Factory, Theory of Prose, Energy of Delusion, Literature and Cinematography, and now Bowstring, all published by Dalkey Archive Press. Bowstring was originally published in Moscow in 1970; it is a mix of autobiography, biography, memoir, history, and literary criticism. This is its first appearance in English.

Shushan Avagyan, translator of Energy of Delusion, has also translated the works of Armenian poet S. Kurghinian. She is working on her doctoral degree in Comparative Literature at Illinois State University.

Forward from Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar

I lived once by the river near Chudovo when I was a boy. It was springtime. The bird-cherry trees had finished blooming. At dusk, when the slanting rays of sunlight lit up the forest, the nightingales would start singing.

They would start their song in the crimson light, and continue singing through the short night.

At daybreak, when the sun rose above the bluish lumps of plowed soil, the chaffinch continued the song of nightingales in that quarter-hour when shadows are long. He would pick up their tune. If his song was clear and coherent, people said—the weather is going to be nice.

Am I to sing the song of the chaffinch? And what is he singing now?

I began writing when I was a young man, a university student who didn’t have time to graduate. I was born in 1893, before the Revolution of 1905, but was awoken by the first revolution and anticipation of the new. We knew that the revolution was around the corner, that it would happen soon. In our poems, we tried to guess the date of its arrival. We were waiting for a revolution in the radical changes of which we would partake. We didn’t want to replicate or receive the world as it was, we wanted to understand and change it. But how—we didn’t yet know.

The poetry of Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov—and the new movement in painting—wanted to perceive the world anew and thus changed the sound of the poem itself.

But we saw that we weren’t alone in our arguments. Poets and writers from the past have also tried to speak in new ways because they, too, envisioned things in their own way.

The theory of ostranenie appeared in 1916 [1]. I tried to sum up in it the method of renewing perception and representation of phenomena. Everything was connected with the time period, with pain and inspiration—the world that kept surprising us. At the same time, I wrote in Theory of Prose (1925):

“A literary work is pure form; it is neither a thing nor material but a relationship of materials. And, like any relationship, this one, too, is zero dimensional. Which is why the ratio of a composition is irrelevant, the mathematical value of its numerator or denominator doesn’t matter; what matters is their relationship. Comic or tragic works, well-known or small-scale works—the juxtaposition of a world to another world is equal to the juxtaposition of a cat to a stone.” [2]

There are small fruit flies called Drosophila.

They are remarkable because they have a very short lifespan.

It is possible to follow the crossbreeding between these minute species in an extremely precise and short period of time.

There was a time when we were told: “You study the crossbreeding of Drosophila flies, but they are good for nothing, they don’t produce milk or meat.”

But behind the experiment lie attempts to study the laws of genetics. Here, as Vladimir Mayakovsky once said, “life arises in a completely different context, and you begin to understand the most important things through nonsense.”

If in art we are comparing a cat with another cat, or a flower with another flower, the artistic form as such is not constructed solely in the moment of such crossbreeding; those are merely detonators for triggering much larger explosions, entryways into knowledge, explorations of the new.

By refuting emotion or ideology in art, we are also refuting the knowledge of form, the purpose of knowledge, and the path of experience that leads to the perception of the world.

Form and content then are separated from each other. The brilliant formula is actually a formula of capitulation; it divides the realm of art—destroys the wholeness of perception.

The Drosophila flies are not sent into space for a vacation. They enable the study of how the cosmos affects living organisms.

You can send the cat and flies into the cosmos, but there ought to be a purpose to these expeditions.

Art cognizes by implementing old models in new ways and by creating new ones. Art moves, transforming. It changes its methods, but the past does not cease to exist. Art moves using its old vocabulary and reinterpreting old structures and, at the same time, it seems to be static. It changes fast, changes not for the sake of changing, but to impart the sensation of things in their difference through rearrangement.

1: Shklovsky first used the term ostranenie (estrangement) in his essay “Art as Device” (1917), where he conceptualized it, based on the Aristotlean notion of poetic language, as the defining feature of language in its artistic usage in both verse and prose. As Shklovsky posited, after encountering objects or phenomena several times, the process of recognition switches to an automated mode in our minds and in order to renew perception of the familiar, poetic language must shift the familiar into an unfamiliar semantic axis. The function of estrangement then is to render the familiar in unfamiliar terms in order to return the palpability of the experience on the page by slowing down automated perception and increasing the difficulty of perception by impeding and retarding the process of recognition.

2: Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose. From Chapter 9, “Literature without a Plot: Rozanov.” Translated by Benjamin Sher. Dalkey Archive, 1990. Revised by Shushan Avagyan.

Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) was a leading figure in the Russian Formalist movement of the 1920s and had a profound effect on twentieth century Russian literature. Several of his books have been translated into English, including Zoo, or Letters Not about Love, Third Factory, Theory of Prose, Energy of Delusion, Literature and Cinematography, and now Bowstring, all published by Dalkey Archive Press. Bowstring was originally published in Moscow in 1970; it is a mix of autobiography, biography, memoir, history, and literary criticism. This is its first appearance in English.

Shushan Avagyan, translator of Energy of Delusion, has also translated the works of Armenian poet S. Kurghinian. She is working on her doctoral degree in Comparative Literature at Illinois State University.

Martha and Megaliths

We eat that fish, and the fish is delicious. Then she discusses the fish with the chef, its preparation, its presentation. We are at a Michelin one star restaurant in Quimper, Brittany. It was the sea bass or dace, flesh soft and delicate. She praises the chef for his insight, presenting this fish of delicate flesh on a complementary bed of crisp romaine and frisée. The greens support and contrast the soft white flesh. She compliments him for the discrete touches of herbs and butter. She is Martha Rose Shulman, a young woman but an already legendary cookbook author of The Vegetarian Feast, a groundbreaking gourmet vegetarian cookbook. She subsequently authors many other popular cookbooks, mostly vegetarian. She wrote The Vegetarian Feast when she lived in Austin, Texas. She moved to Paris then and sublet the apartment of Paolo Picasso, Pablo’s son. She supports herself as a food writer, and by making a popular dinner once a week for a small crowd, as a rent party. The walls are heavy with signed Picasso posters. She has befriended my son, Nikolai, who works off the books for Andrée Putman, the trend-setting designer. I am teaching on exchange in the Languedoc, at the University in Montpellier, and take frequent TGV jaunts to Paris.

Ms. Shulman has a hankering to investigate the cuisine of oats in Celtic Bretagne. She invites me to come with her in her sturdy, comfortable Peugeot 403. It’s a privilege to do a food trip anywhere in France, and with a well known food writer it’s doubly rich. We head out for Brittany. I note that Jack Kerouac’s family comes from Brittany, “Ker” meaning the farm or land and “ouac” being the designation of the landholder or farmer—Ker’ouac. This, I realize, is similar to Welsh Celtic designations, like Caer’philly, the provenance of my favorite Welsh cheese.

Our first stop is in Tours on the way North. Martha’s fifteen year old nephew has been exported to France to spend the year of his potential delinquency with a French family in Tours. They are generous and hospitable. The kid seems nicely tamed. He is into bike racing in a big way. They put us up for a night so we can see him compete in one of the many junior bike races staged all over France. We drive to some point on the route and watch him wheel by in the pack. It is a thrilling few seconds. Equally thrilling is the breakfast conversation. The master of the house is a psychiatrist. On the door of his office he flaunts a poster, a portrait of Freud assembled from drawings of nude female bodies deftly drawn so their pubic bushes serve as Freud’s beard and coif. The talk over an American style breakfast of bacon and eggs is about life in France since World War Two. The psychiatrist whines about the situation. “I don’t know what has happened. It’s all the Russians have moved in. The Poles, the Jews, the Africans.” He must know that the boy comes from a Jewish family, as do Martha and myself. The boy tells us about going with this family to a beach in Normandy, renting a cabaña, setting out blankets, umbrella, but after looking around the shrink’s mother said, “We can’t stay here, Marcel.” “Why, mamma?” The shrink was slightly annoyed. “Look around. There are Jews on this beach.” Anti-Semitism is a strange affliction. How did she know? Could she smell the lack of foreskins? She couldn’t have been looking at noses. The French themselves are celebrated for their prominent noses. Cyrano de Bergerac is the world’s greatest play featuring the nose. Luckily the boy had enough equanimity to let these moments wash off him.

We first went to Normandy, to see Mt. St. Michel, which like much beauty is best viewed in the middle distance, reflected in the tidal flat. From this distance it is all serenity. It sits across the skim of water like a gothic apparition, as if its beauty unscathed has settled there from a more perfect, more gorgeous planet. Then you get close and are assaulted by the souvenir stands with their models of the abbey in all sizes, banners that you would take to a football game, t-shirts, postcards, posters. The tschottske buying pressure is on, so many merchants trying to survive out there in the tidal flat, pressuring the tourist to buy a thing that he can throw into the closet and whip out for the next yard sale.

Martha inquires wherever we stop about the preparation of oats, and it seems wherever we stop we are in the presence of megaliths, of menhir, of dolmen tombs, stones placed on the land with mysterious intention. These echoes of the Stone Age have a mystifying hold on me. Maybe I’m a stone age guy. I stand awash in the pearly light of Bretagne, in the midst of lines of these thousands of great stones that once in prehistory were hauled here from far away. They have been standing at Carnac, tipped up vertically in parallel lines maybe since 4500 B.C. From the back of my skull I feel as if I’m regressing into the past while through the eyeholes the parallel lines draw me forward into whatever sessions are coming. The people who placed these megaliths knew what they were doing. They set them so carefully by the thousands to monitor the horizons. Why would people haul massive stones with nothing but manpower over great distances to make the Stonehenge? Was this a response to the night, to the power and sweep of the Milky Way? To the processes of sunlight? How do they measure solar, celestial phenomena? One story local people tell is that the stones were once a Roman legion now ossified, frozen in place. These processionals of mass have an urgency for me. Their force transcends their weight, as if they have a potential incandescence that translates weight into light and lightness. Now a residue of stone consciousness persists at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Black Stone of the Kaabah in Mecca, the kissable Blarney Stone in Cork. The Israelites tipped up stones all over the Negev, faced them East, and called them the house of the Lord. These Brittany megaliths sponge the light during the day, and measure out the moon and stars at night. You don’t have to see them. The blind surely take in their presence. They comb the danger out of storms. They count the wind. Yipes! I wax metaphorical here. Could be stoned. Long before I came to Brittany, or saw Stonehenge, when I lived in Italy, in Puglia, I remember coming on a megalith in the center of a tiny town called Uggiano La Chiesa. So far South, I thought. I’d been looking at plenty of sophisticated, complicated Italian art and architecture, but this grabbed me equally. I don’t know why. Like I said, maybe I’m a stone-age guy. I squatted in the dust of the small roundabout and stared at this anonymous monument against oblivion. I watched it in the grinding midday heat and sun. People had erected the megalith here millennia before Rome. Was this the spike that held the heel of the boot, The Salento, in place in the Adriatic? It rested here indifferent to worship. It took a while to pull myself away from it, and this simple stone stays in my mind imprinted as strongly as any painting by Piero or Antonello or Raffaello. The Michelangelo slaves emerging from their stones are powerful partly because they echo the megalith. These pieces manifest an intelligence, a megalithic knowledge to which we no longer have access. What trace will the current technology leave? Will these inundating terabytes of information leave even a residue?

Every time Martha inquires about the preparation of the oats the people with great patience and geniality explain that they boil this cereal. “We boil the oats, Madame. Sometimes in water and sometimes in cider (the preferred local beverage, hard or sweet). We eat this with cream and sugar.” Everywhere we go in Brittany, to restaurant or farm, the people boil the oats.

Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.

How Bilbao

As at London’s Tate modern where you descend a wide ramp to enter and then look up at the art galleries, you enter the Bilbao Guggenheim down a wide arced staircase with shallow risers and look up into the atrium. That’s the access from Calle Iparraguire. The museum looks gorgeous from the middle distance, as most beauty does, better than from close in. From the river side it’s like an unkempt titanium lid formed to contain anarchy. This cover sits on two stories of a conventional building, where Guggenheim probably has its business offices. To enter from the street you pass the topiary puppy, Jeff Koons’ edgy eternal kitschy-cute. I think it could have been an act of self-parodic genius to commission Claes Oldenburg to build a hulking can opener to loom as an arc over the entrance.

It’s just four months after my quad bypass and I’m traveling for the novel I’m writing, Antonello’s Lion. My ambition is to see all of the works I can by Antonello da Messina. They are widely dispersed—Roma, Palermo, Siracusa, Pavia, Torino, Genova, Venezia, Paris, London, Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, Madrid. I am taking on the obsession with the works of Antonello of one of my characters. I can argue that Antonello is the greatest artist of the Italian Quattrocento. Outside the entrance to the museum in Genova I am approached by an African hooker. She asks me in English what I am looking for. I explain that I need to see a portrait in the museum by Antonello. “I will show you something very nice,” says she. Her smile is charming and coy. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I just had open heart surgery. I can’t.” She looks down to the pavement, appearing almost shy. “I will be very gentle.” On the way back to my hotel I snarl at a beautiful grey-eyed gypsy woman with a baby on her hip, hand out for coins, breasts offered like a tray of hors d’oeuvres out of the folds of her tattered smock. She looks confused and frightened by my reaction, my anger out of proportion. She peers into my eyes as if to look for the source of this snarl. Surgery I guess can leave you angry. Despite anesthesia that is supposed to block the experience, somehow your body knows that someone has cleaved your breastbone and snatched your heart, and resentment of that violence lingers in the psyche.

Antonello is my single-minded quest, but on the way by train from Paris to Madrid I decide to divert to Bilbao to check out Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim. It has recently opened, to much fanfare, as perhaps the greatest building of the twentieth century. It does have that sheen of greatness, a powerful contemporary building. The visual impact of the titanium cladding degrades as you get closer, as when you approach someone with too much make-up and botox. The detail becomes smudges and dents. Some find that interesting. I find it less interesting than the detail up close of the 19th and early 20th century buildings on the local streets. The same quality pertains in the radical, angular, titanium clad new art museum in Denver designed by Daniel Libeskind. It immediately ages, has some leakage early on. I hope someone gets me up so I can see what this titanium looks like after fifty years.

Most revolting to me on my first and only visit is the amount of space given to the story of Giorgio Armani designs. The guy’s a haberdasher, an Italian tailor. I’ve long been comfortable in the watershed that Andy Warhol created when he punked over the gap between fine art and popular culture. Warhol is a great artist, his life tragic even prophetic at the end. I’ve liked Jeff Koons work that descends from the Andy lineage. Even Damien Hirsch owes something to Andy. All this work has a reorienting weirdness, a sense of parody and satire, some social torque worthy of art. To make art is to respond to a high calling, to stick your neck out, commercial considerations put aside. Some artists, like the three above, are happily smart and lucky as businessmen as well, though they create the art through risk, not market analysis. No doubt Armani is a talented and enormously successful fashion designer, and probably a big donation of pesetas leveraged him into a position to sucker the opening of the museum into a boutiquish Armani showroom. I find it nauseating. Maybe my attitude is what they call “elitist” these days, but how much more elitist is Armani haberdashery? I wouldn’t mind owning an Armani suit, though I can’t afford one and don’t know when I’d wear it. I’d have to be doing business, certainly not making art. He’s obviously a great Italian tailor and clothing designer, a brand name, but I would never mistake what he does for art. Having his boutique splayed across the museum feels like a hostile takeover.

The scale of the soaring atrium diminishes the scale of Serra’s curved core-ten walls installed there. Serra’s work derives much of its power from scale that seems diminished by the vast amorphousness of the space. There was great sturm und drang in the early 80’s over the installation of his Tilted Arc in Federal Plaza in Manhattan, and a wide spray of arguments about “site specificity”, connected obliquely to removing the load of sculpture from the pedestal, and coincidentally letting painting escape the frame. Richard threatened to remove his name from the piece if they tried to install it somewhere else. The urgency of the site specific arguments has been blunted by the development of so many sites, even museum sites, designed specifically to accommodate works that are site specific. Storm King sculpture park is one, and DIA Beacon is another, and Bilbao another as a permanent site for Richard’s site specific work. Donald Judd’s goofy art outpost in Marfa, Texas, a remote air force base he bought to exhibit his friends’ works in site specific glee, has provided the art market an outback arm for wealthy collectors and curators. You turn a corner in a dusty West Texas town, and suddenly it’s the art world. They can gather at a newly refurbished hotel without interference from riff-raff off the streets. It makes me perversely prefer site antagonistic works at random locations, that clash with the sites of their installations, that conflict with their situations. Richard’s powerful, stately Promenade at the Grand Palais in Paris is a site-specific work that derives emotional tension from the fact that it is antagonistic to the space, architecture, and materials of the site. This parade of monoliths would be powerful installed in the Gobi Desert, or on West Broadway, or on the flooding shallows near Dacca in Bangla Desh. The specific site is so often most specific in the mind.

I like to watch a Henry Moore recline on a pedestal, or a Noguchi block a skyscraper entrance, or the Louise Bourgeois giant spider spook a pedestrian intersection. I’d never heard of the great sculpture park that Pepsico has installed at its corporate headquarters in Purchase, New York until Yuriy Tarnawsky, who lives in White Plains, took me there. It is one of the great collections of modern sculpture anywhere in the world. There installed across many acres of well kept lawn and flower garden are monumental pieces by Henry Moore, Isamu Noguchi, Louise Nevelson, Alberto Giacometti, Tony Smith, George Segal, Barbara Hepworth, Paul Klee, Arnoldo Pomodoro, Alexander Calder, Auguste Rodin, and many others. Some of them sit comfortably on pedestals, some directly on the ground. We wandered happily in the drizzle from Dubuffet to Oldenburg. In this generalized expanse each sculpture creates its own aura, its own specific presence.

My reaction to DIA Beacon surprised me when I visited a second time. The first time it struck me as one of the most beautiful museums, full of profound expanses of art. I was grateful for its space that accommodates comfortably the work of artists of the last third of the Twentieth Century. Many of them I’d met, had conversations with them, watched their work develop. Sol Lewitt has plenty of wall space. Michael Heizer has loads of room, and Fred Sandback has rooms for his taut strings to intersect the volumes, and Dan Flavin, Joseph Beuys, Robert Smithson, so many of them are expansive here. Warhol has almost too much room, for the kind of intimacy I like to feel with his work. Seeing this the first time was thrilling, making me feel as expansive as the work. The second time a kind of melancholy threatened me. It felt to me like a lock down of post world war two post industrial American imperialist expansiveness. This art was so American in its assumption of endless horizons, spaciousness, expansion beyond any vanishing point. It paralleled American imperialist ambitions. The artists sense of entitlement to unlimited space, physical space to grow and spread their creations seemed suddenly stuck in its own period, like Russian ikons, or Byzantine mosaics, or Fayum coffin portraits. Those times were over. I still love many of the works, but the conditions that allowed the mindset have vanished. Perhaps it is the situation now of the planet—endless Iraq and Afghan wars, ruined oceans, desertification, oil spills, helpless politics, poisoned land and water, the whole litany—that makes these works seem like a part of a brief past, post World War II triumphalism and the subsequent imperialism that need never be repeated. This museum has become an archive rather than a home of living art. The change in my perception of the museum was powerful, daunting, but undeniable.

So I leave the Bilbao Guggenheim, and visit the impressive collection at Bilbao’s own Museum of Fine Arts, and the Basque Museum. I take the train then for Madrid and head for the Prado. Its Velasquezes, Goyas, Murillos, its Hieronymous Bosch, its Breughels. What a line-up. This is one of the most intense collections of masterpieces in the world. I head downstairs to look at the small painting by Antonello da Messina I have crossed the U.S. and all of Europe to see. A grieving angel lowers Christ from the cross, the grief on its face is the paradigm for all grief. It is worth the trip. That tiny work opens all the emotional potential of grief, spreads a total moral panoply, extends the enormous reach in time and space of great art.

Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.

Rabbit Wind

The compressor is too noisy so they shut it off before you read. These twelve foot high pink and white inflatable bunnies slowly flatten. When inflated they are some terrifying bunnies. Once deflated they are easy to stomp on. They belong to the Dikeou collection of contemporary art in Denver, Colorado, occupy two corners of the room in which the readings happen. The wind of their deflation carries no words, but once they are deflated, at the podium the writers read their works between two flat bunnies. If I am ever on the road again I would like to take these two inflatables as companions and release my words into the rabbit wind as they wilt.

At the University of Oklahoma once I was paid $2000 to read to an audience of six people, nice people who told me how their anti-war movement had been betrayed by a faux hippy agitator who instigated riots in 1968. On the night following my reading Czeslaw Milosz received the $20,000 Lannan prize at a large auditorium before an audience of eight besides myself and three of the six from my crowd. Two of the aged Lannan dedicators slept as the Polish poet read. The wind of their snoring was rabbit wind.

In Halifax once I read at a benefit for the Buddhist community many of whom had recently moved to Nova Scotia from Colorado. I was performing with Phil Glass. We both came down to Halifax from Inverness in Cape Breton. The large auditorium was packed with Haligonians, Buddhists, and tourists, most of them there to hear Phil. I read my story called “One Pinch Plut,” which was a much longer read than I had anticipated. When you read prose, it tends to go on until the end. I carried much of the audience through the whole piece, but could sense that many of them wanted me to give way to Phil. For that part of the audience I was all rabbit wind, and the rabbit was deflating too slowly. On the other hand, I thought it would be great to follow Phil everywhere and read to his big audiences, laying a pavement of rabbit wind for his serial music.

The act of performing my works, of reading them aloud, has always added another layer of insecurity to the bright garment of self doubt that makes acts of writing unnerving and vital. When I was a student editor of Epoch magazine the faculty editors wouldn’t let me me read the works I advocated aloud because my readings were too convincing and somehow unfair. I have long grappled with my talent for hamming up a poem. It always confuses me when I read my own work aloud, and grab the attention of the audience by moving them or making them laugh. Is it the quality of the work or the seduction of the performance? This is part of the imponderable quandariness of a life committed to art. People tell me that they are glad to hear me read, that it makes them appreciate the work more. I enjoy the attention and approbation, but always wonder if the work plays as well on the page without the wind of the rabbit. I know that many people take pleasure in reading aloud to themselves. Perhaps my reading helps their process. I enjoy my “dramatic” skills, but I always have the fear that the real attraction may be in the performance, not in the work where I want it to perform by itself, as language alive on the page. Thinking about this is like trying to watch yourself dance. Any glance in the mirror changes the moves. It feels to me a weak diversionary tactic to call my readings “performance”, that great academic whoops of contemporary art.

When Antonello’s Lion was released, Rafael, my son, booked some readings around Portland, Oregon. I read to a nice crowd at Clackamas Community College, then at the very precious Reed College. An old friend from Eugene and Northwest Review, whom I hadn’t seen for years, who taught philosophy there, Robert Paul, the most soft-spoken philosopher in the universe, whispered an introduction. His was a quietly snide introduction, correctly measuring the hubris and pretensions he drew from my lame entry in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. I don’t think anyone heard him. The last reading was at a small resort and vineyard called McMenamin’s Edgefield, a popular watering hole outside Portland, a retreat for people with family or lover. They offer a panoply of activities and games. They had never before presented the attraction of a living author reading from his work, and probably never will again. They brought in fifty copies of the book for me to sign, and them to sell. Obviously they were novices in the book business. For my troubles they gave me a small honorarium and treated myself and Rafael to dinner at their popular roast beef restaurant. It was the time of vendemmia, the grape harvest. They had set me up in a room in their cellar, near the barrels they were filling from fresh pressings of grapes. Guests passed and peeked in to see me at the podium, then moved on to badminton or tango lessons. A few people sat down. Fruit flies ruled the air of the room. Every time I opened my mouth they flew in, checking out anything moist. I was a slave of the flies. The people, some of them perhaps at their first reading ever, witnessed an author who when he opened his mouth to read off the page, immediately breathed in squadrons of flies. I tried to keep my teeth clenched to sift them out, but they wandered across my incisors and did their stunts on the moisture of my lips. So the McMenamin’s guests who stayed witnessed the author of Antonello’s Lion as a swallower and sputterer of fruit flies. Even now, as my bones deteriorate into old age, I occasionally feel the release of a tardy McMenamin fruit fly into the remnants of a rabbit wind.

Steve Katz has taught at Cornell, Brooklyn, and Queens Colleges, The University of Notre Dame, and at the University of Colorado in Boulder, but he has also tended bar, worked construction, waited tables and mined for mercury. He is known for such classics as Creamy & Delicious, Wier & Pouce, Florry Of Washington Heights, Swanny’s Ways, Saw, Moving Parts, and Stolen Stories, plus a screenplay and some books of poetry. His most recent book is Time’s Wallet (Counterpath Press, 2011), the first volume of a memoir written in 137 discrete pieces, or “memoirrhoids.” The above memoirrhoid is taken from a later volume.