Category Archives: dialogues

Marfa Lights

Among the very few artists/writers addressing issues of security architecture, surveillance and the weaponization of communications airspace, we find Charles Stankievech of particular interest. His new installation “cleanses the air” in the vicinity of Marfa, Texas – with its own complex art historical resonance.

Below, a description of the installation taken directly from the press release, followed by a dialogue with the artist; a lengthy post for DP readers, justified by the importance of this brilliant and timely work.

DP:     Can you give a brief exposition of your work north of the US border with Canada, and how that leads in both logical and unexpected ways to Marfa?

CS:     I’m interested in extremes—mainly because exceptions to the rule usually tell us what is paradoxically at the heart of an ideology.  People love to tout the “American Dream”, but exceptions/prohibitions/extremes often tell us more what a culture shares and is defined by.  As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years looking at outpost architecture and military infrastructure.  It might not tell us much directly about the everyday citizen but it sure reveals a lot about the values maintained to protect the culture—or at least those in control of the culture.

The first window into this mechanics I discovered doing site visits, researching archives and producing work about the Cold War’s DISTANT EARLY WARNING (DEW) Line in the Arctic which was created as a bilateral defense infrastructure to protect continental USA from Soviet attacks.  As a result, I looked into the history of the electromagnetic in the arctic from early Marconi experiments with the US military to current experiments at HAARP.

Marfa is on the other NORAD border one could say, and I was invited to do a residency on the border with Mexico because of my research in issues of fluid boundaries.  Judd’s Chinati Foundation is also interesting because it is housed in an old military base that was operational from around 1910-WWII—so even Marfa’s existence is premised on military outpost architecture.

DP:    What sort of field research have you conducted along the southern border?

CS:     A lot of travelling and photographing things throughout the landscape for sure:  from swimming in the Rio Grande to lots of driving and hiking. Just existing in Marfa for a while you get a pretty heavy does of Homeland Security.  You drive a couple miles out of town and you go through a border checkpoint even though you aren’t crossing a border.  While officially the border is the Rio Grande, the entire area is more like a border zone and quite different than the 49º parallel.  The most common vehicle you see here is one of the many from the fleet of Border Patrol. There are also military installations that use Surveillance Aerostats (zeppelins) in the area.

With a little bad luck turned good, in the first week driving around in West Texas I had some car trouble and the Border Patrol stopped to check on what was transpiring.  It took about an hour for civilian help to come and in the meantime they hung around.  I was able to talk about their work the entire time and learned quite a bit such as the gap between official mandates of Homeland Security (prevention of terrorism as their prime directive) and the reality of the daily job (picking up 15 illegal Mexican immigrants the day before).

DP:     Your use of bug zappers resonates very well with the language of dehumanization used by the CIA and other agencies to describe drone strikes as “bug splats”. 

CS:     I actually wasn’t aware of this terminology until you mentioned it to me.  It’s one of those latent meanings that surprised me when I was trying to make a poetic connection between the ideology of security and a citizen’s everyday object—only to find out it is not a poetic piece of satire but sadly the entrenched mentality already made manifest in official cynical language.  The stranger part is that the term “bug splat” connects two projects I did in the last month: HOMELAND SECURITY in Marfa, Texas and my recent performance at dOCUMENTA(13) in Kassel, Germany, which I titled Drone Strike.

DP:     We are also struck by the metrical use of grids in the installation, grids that are also present in the geometry of surveillance and death, in the skies above Waziristan and other target populations. Indeed, the rhythms and metrical order of the grid appear central to the aesthetics of global information dominance. 

CS:     Do you know that eerie short story by J.G. Ballard “The Watch-Towers”– A wonderful panopticon story of a grid of watchers hung above the city 25ft above the roofs and in a grid spaced out 300ft in each direction?

I don’t want to give the Grid a bad name as it’s an ancient and remarkable system that’s allowed a considerable improvement of life , but I did first come to understanding the colonial implications of math and the metrical by studying clocks on exploration ships and their need to keep precise time to map out the grid work of latitude and longitude as delineated from the colonial center: Greenwich.  In this way, traditional indigenous navigation based on landmarks and narrative were replaced by the “objective” mathematical grid only making sense from the perspective of the colonial capital.

There is nothing inherently violent about the grid—it’s simply the universalizing of space, which can be good or bad.  Since it’s the cheapest and most efficient parsing of space based on universal application vs. specific sensitivity, the grid ends up being utilized by systems ranging from the military to minimalism; it’s no surprise then that the scale and layout of HOMELAND SECURITY was partly based on Donald Judd’s aluminum box sculptures installed here in Marfa at the Chinati Foundation.

ARTILLERY SHEDS

Today however, I think we are witnessing the decline of the grid in a lot of ways—or at least the outdated style of the grid (as we will never leave it totally behind).  I feel my installation appears dated because of its grid structure, probably because I studied a little bit at the Architectural Association in London which is one of the hotbeds for parametric design—basically curvy architecture made famous by F. Gehry, G. Lynn and Z. Hadid.   The Grid is so Modern according to architectural aesthetics. Today the vogue is organic patterns or complex modeling, using computers.

As far as global information dominance, the grid stands in for static structure, while dynamic theories of topology are gaining more and more prevalence.  I’m thinking here of such people as Deleuze+Guattari, Paul Virilio, Alexander Galloway, Eyal Weizmann and Ben Fry who are aware of the shift from controlling a square plot of land to controlling the protocol of connections in a network. All of this said, I do understand what you mean by the “geometry of surveillance and death.”  The zappers installed this way suggest a sense of “instrumental reason”.

DP:     The acoustics of your installation summon the buzzing sound of the ubiquitous drone zone; a recent Stanford/NYU report identifies sound (particularly the ominous buzzing) as a key aspect of the psy-ops trauma experienced by non-comabatant civilians on the ground. You have long been concerned with vibrational and acoustic space as key aspects of securing boundaries and controlling bodies. 

CS:     “A SCREAMING COMES ACROSS THE SKY. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now. It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theatre. There are no lights inside the cars. No light anywhere. Above him lift girders old as an iron queen, and glass somewhere far above that would let the light of day through. But it’s night. He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall—soon—it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.”

THE SOUND COMES LATER

These are the first lines of Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon.  He brilliantly compared the difference in Psychological Warfare in the civilian terror bombing of London during WWII as part of the Vengeance strategy of the NAZI Wehrmacht.  The V-1 “buzz bombs” used in the first attacks were insanely loud and caused panic when they were heard—heralding an imminent attack.  The V-2 “vengeance rocket” ,  being supersonic, travelled faster than the victims could hear it—it arrived before the sound of itself did so.  In effect, the psychological terror switched.  Basically, one lived in fear continually knowing an early warning was impossible and if you heard an explosion, it meant it missed you and you were a survivor — sometimes not always better than being a victim.

However, with the ubiquity of drones since 1982 and their implementation of surveillance equipment, not just weapons, again we return to a buzz in the sky as not only a by-product of a Vengeance weapon— but used with full knowledge of its sonic terror.  It’s a well-known strategy that in breaking a prisoner in an interrogation the threat of pain can be as effective as conducting pain — some say more so.  Sound has always been an important part of psy-ops: from the repetitive looping of the Sesame Street’s theme song as an interrogation method to drone buzzing.

We can’t forget of course of Virilio’s analysis of drones used in the Vietnam War (1960s) and the Israeli war “Peace in Galilee” (1982) in his book War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception that was written before smart bomb videos became pop culture in the 1991 Gulf War: “This toy craft, worthy of Ernst Jünger’s Glass Bees”.

DP:    How does your analysis of outpost architecture relate to Virilio’s bunker archeology, and his ideas about orbital space?

CS:     Virilio’s Bunker Archeology is a paragon of research for me in so many ways: his existential fieldwork, aesthetic engagement and vast research in military strategy shine with his cutting insights.  I’ve tried to extend or repurpose his methodology as applied to WW2 Bunkers to my analysis of Cold War Geodesics Radomes.  Essentially my thesis is: ‘the Geodesic Radome is the synecdoche of post-WWII warfare—an architecture that distributes its structural forces through a framework formally related to the communication network connecting the architecture.’

This comes out of Virilio’s analysis in Bunker Archeology“While most buildings are embanked in the terrain by their foundations, the casemate [bunker] is devoid of any, aside from its centre of gravity, which explains its possibility for limited movement when the surrounding ground undergoes the impact of projectiles.  …the bunker is the last theatrical gesture in the endgame of Occidental military History.”

THE LAST THEATRICAL GESTURE

I find it interesting that Virilio doesn’t engage with the geodesic radome in his theories of “orbital space” even though he uses in Speed and Politics the phrase “geodesic war”, but maybe that is his extreme point — his movement away from real architecture to the dematerialisation of space.   Any building at all is too slow; he prefers the image of the parabolic missile echoed in the parabolic trajectory of Albert Speer: from director of New German Architecture to Minister of Munitions.  But I have the existential experience with radomes that he had with bunkers, and being more an artist than a philosopher these days, I’m aware of the materiality of the digital, and hence the reality of terrestrial surveillance outposts like CFS ALERT which I worked at this past year while under contract with the Dept. of Defense to make artistic depictions of their signals intelligence station located at the most northern settlement in the world: 82ºN.

DP:     Finally, also with reference to the locus of Marfa: Donald Judd had an uneasy relationship with the establishment art world, an uneasiness or skepticism which you seem to share?

CS:     Probably most artists have an uneasy relationship to the established art world. Judd’s personality included loud opinions and he had the ambition and eventually the funds to attempt some sort of relative autonomy, so we are more aware than normal of his uneasiness.  While we both moved to remote regions to “start” unique institutions (Chinati in Marfa by Judd, Yukon School of Visual Arts in Dawson City by myself and a crew of other people), the motivation for both us is a little more complicated and probably quite different — especially since we did it at different points in our lives.

I do know from anecdotes told by people here in Marfa who knew Judd that when he was alive he didn’t like the border patrol, and that he even wrote a letter to the Mexican authorities after being harassed one time near his ranch.  The irony today is that the JUDD Foundation and Chinati Foundation are firmly part of the art world establishment.  Thus the cycle continues.

CYCLE IN BLUE


The Core Account

We have been keeping a wary eye on affairs in Old Europe, wondering how so many cultures with many hundreds of years of divergent history can possibly be reconciled. Thus you can imagine our excitement when we stumbled across an online white paper written by a distinguished political philosopher of our own invention who presently teaches at the University of Bielefeld: Professor Wolfgang Keinengels.

Keinengels has been scratching his head over various thorny issues of European history for two decades, and now believes he may have found a solution to the problem of profoundly unbalanced accounts throughout the Eurozone. We spoke in German with Professor Keinengels last week, and offer the below edited and abbreviated transcript {reviewed and approved by WK} to our loyal readers, hoping to convey the gist of his radical and far from modest proposal:

HEAVY DIRT-DENKEN AT BIELEFELD

DP      You write that Europe has an intractable problem of history, that in your view history and its residues in daily consciousness within the life-world {Lebenswelt} constitutes the critical ontological problem in Europe; the “core account” that must be reconciled before the crisis can be resolved.

WK     Yes, and of course it seems so obvious when you say it just like that in one sentence, but I wanted to see what would happen if we really pursued the idea, dug into it if you like: French dirt, German dirt, Greek dirt and so forth. It began as a kind of thought experiment, but sometimes you begin something like this, dirt digging, and then you finally hit something solid, I mean, not just the bones of some ancient conflict, but solid gold so to say, an idea whose time in the sun might finally have arrived.

DP      And that is what you mean by the “rebalancing of variable dirt”?

WK     Exactly. You see, the core problem of Europe is that our dirt — not our soil but our dirt — is so profoundly different, that is to say, the lived experience among bodies in relation to the demands of nature and landscape have taken quite markedly distinct forms and shapes and rhythms depending on where you performed the entire range of bodily functions; in that sense, there is no Europe, there has never been a Europe; there are instead these different “residues of life-world experience” that derive from dramatically distinct experiences, and these residues yield different qualities of dirt and become, if you will, part of the national treasure or inheritance, that is, not what comes out of the dirt, but the dirt itself {Schmutz-an-sich}, which is the symbol of the shared experience of the collective corporeal identity that always must take grounded earth as its essential existential property.

DP      We were particularly struck by your thoughts on how consciousness relates to these different existential dirt balances {existentielle Schmutzguthabens}, as your call them.

WK      Yes, based on contemporary advances in neurobiology, some of them happening right here at the University of Bielefeld, we propose that the ground upon which we walk does significantly shape and impact our moment to moment consciousness of self, above all self in relation to the social-political group, and thus it is not realistic to expect that consensual decision making will emerge from such radically unreconciled dreck accounts, or Schmutzguthabens.

DP      We suppose that what some may have found controversial in your analysis is your idea of a trans-European market for these Schmutzguthabens.

WK     Yes, at first we simply wanted to see where the thought process would lead, but as we got deeper, we realized that we may have uncovered a fresh approach with massive policy implications. It is true that different dirts have different values, and that in part depends on the depth of the smut, and the deepness of the history, but in theory we can imagine a certain “charge” or “value injection” that is stored in these different dirt balances, charges that will have an impact on day to day consciousness in the Lebenswelt.

DP      How does that work?

HIS DIRT HAS VALUE

WK     For example, we Germans sometimes look at the average Greek citizen and wonder how he can still be so happy, with all the problems in Greece; he is still happy and smiling. That happy consciousness is based in the very particular granularity of the Greek storehouse of Schmutzguthaben, and the residual effect of that charge on everyday life, in private consciousness.

DP      Emotions grounded in historical experience, stored in the core account …

WK     Yes, exactly, I mean the happy Greek is deeply happy, irregardless of the present temporary despair; and it all comes through the feet, through which the Greek person knows, at a subliminal prelinguistic level, that in ancient times this was a well functioning and enlightened society, indeed the birthplace of so much culture, art; the polis and philosophy. Meanwhile at the same time in ancient Germania, we were basically animals, rutting and squatting in the dark wood.

DP      So in essence, you’re talking about cutting a deal, dreck for dreck, so as to secure a piece of the Greek core account, and thus incorporate the happy Greek Lebenswelt?

WK     No, I doubt there would be any takers for a straight trade, given the heaviness of German dreck, not just in ancient times, but also very conspicuously in more recent history – the really nasty Geschichtliche Scheisse that feeds what you might call the great German Kopfschmertz. But what we do have is something missing in the Greek situation, and that is economic prosperity; so the idea is that Germany would agree to assume the economic debts of Greece in exchange for Greece assuming part of the headache stored inside the German Schmutzguthaben.

A FEW SORE POINTS

DP      So you mean to turn historical guilt for the Nazizeit into a sort of toxic waste, dumped on the Greeks?

WK     No, I reject that sort of characterization, though you are not the first to use it. Our belief is that this core account rebalancing would lead to a certain evening out of the respective situations, as Greece would receive a nice welcome injection of German prosperity, and Germany would receive a nice injection of the Greek happy consciousness. We fully understand that while German dirt would go to Greece, there is negative exchange value there – a net liability – and so the deal needs to be sweetened with other benefits, in the form of debt forgiveness and other economic compensations such as home appliances and luxury automobiles.

DP      So in effect, Greece would be voluntarily accepting this dirt as the physical repository of historical guilt, in exchange for Bosch dishwashers?

WK     Yes, but try to see the bright side. We doubt that Europe will find any way forward into the future unless we start sharing everything. Like in a marriage, you take the good with the bad. It is pointless to speak of a banking union, or a fiscal union, unless you have a union in consciousness, and this means also a dispersion of historical implications and consequences, if you will, such that we all walk on the same earth, and smell the same mud. Why should Germany not be able to have some small stake in the origins of western philosophy? This way,  Nietzsche residues can intermingle in a very material way with particulates from Socrates and Plato; does this not have a certain ring of truth to it?

DP       No comment on that one, for now; so how has all this been received?

WK      Well, first there was shock. We anticipated that. First comes shock, and then comes reality. The hard fact is that there is not much else of value in Greece for Germany to receive from them in trade, beyond their valorized consciousness, as expressed and stored and sustained through Greek Schmutzguthabens, and we see this reality slowly but surely sinking in, with more and more people coming around to our way of thinking.

DP       How so?

WK      We have had plenty of offers to broker private placements at a family or community level; offers to receive a few tons of German dirt here and there. At a national level, it will likely take more time, but we’ll get there. The fundamental point is that there really can be no European future until these historical inequalities have been reconciled properly, through the marketplace.

DP      What about the logistics of this plan? Is this not a massive undertaking, moving so much dirt from north to south and from south to north, across such challenging terrain?

WK     Yes, and that is where the secondary benefits come in. As you know, there are very high unemployment levels in places like Spain and Italy. So those populations now receive immediate benefits of good jobs and new mechanical skills. Then maybe down the road we can arrange similar reconciliations with each of those countries, too. We have no illusions about the size and depth of the German Schmutz-Probleme. We are all too conscious of that — indeed we have a surplus of such heavy consciousness, which we now wish to trade for a happier, sunnier state of mind.

DP      In other words, there is plenty of Kopfschmertz and Geschichtliche Scheisse to go around?

WK     You might say that, yes, though putting it more positively you could also say there is plenty of good German prosperity to go around too. Let’s be fair about it and share everything, the good with the bad. Then we can start talking about a true European union.

HEADACHE TABLETS


Cronus With His Sickle

It appears that the vain quest for perpetual youth and immortality now includes the ingestion of a powder made from human babies. While contemplating the philosophical implications of such “health food”, we remembered a conversation many years ago with the famous purveyor of corporeal memorabilia Walter Sculley, and in particular his complaints (which seemed outrageous at the time) that so much quality material disappears from the memorabilia market straight into the digestive tracts of wealthy elders hankering for the vitality and priapic potency of days long gone.

Searching for some glimmer of illumination within the shadowlands of such a perverse scenario, we arranged a brief conversation with Mr. Sculley, who agreed to speak with us from an undisclosed location:

DP     A number of years ago, you complained in an interview about the impact of so-called specialty medicines on the corporeal memorabilia market. Now we hear news from South Korea about thousands of pills allegedly manufactured in China from pulverized fetuses and babies.

WS     Yes, well everyone knows about the rhino horns and the panda livers and what not, and the same thing has been going on with human materials for as along as I’ve been in the business, more years than I care to remember.

DP     Specific examples?

WS     OK, just last year, a perfectly good clump of Marilyn Monroe hair was floating around the wholesale market. I was doing my due diligence preparing a bid, then some nut job nobody ever heard of bought the clump, mixed it up with high fructose corn syrup, gelatin and other glop and then he churns up these batches of edible lozenges, sold them as Marilyn Love Drops or whatever. Well, maybe he was not such a nut job after all, because they sold for over a thousand a pop, and he made probably a few hundred of them, so that’s a hefty profit on a single clump of hair, no way he gets that kind of moolah from a legit collector.

DP     You sound upset about it….

WS     Yeah well the thing is, once you do that, it’s gone from the market for good, you can’t really pick it up again at the other end, if you know what I mean, so in terms of  market value, you have to consider that hair fully flushed. Now that’s a quality item, you could build a whole collection around a primo item like that. Very sad.

DP     So who are the buyers for this sort of thing, such as the Marilyn Love Drops?

WS     For the Monroe hair candy it’s men, maybe a few women, I mean I don’t have the invoices so I’m speculating here but I’m thinking it’s mostly men who want that little taste of intimate contact with her, and this is the only option that’s left until they cook up some sort of genetic resurrection, and rent her out by the night. You know, guys who wanted a tiny little suckle, and this little gum drop is as close as they’re ever gonna get. Other items, they’re looking for a little more punch in the pajamas, OK, and those little blue pills aren’t doing the job anymore, so they’ll pay a fortune for a JFK toenail or whatever, and chew on that for a while, and think they’re off to the races. Most of the time, it’s all in their heads, and the sad thing is if they would just whack a tennis ball around now and then, they might have the same effect but somehow they think, yeah, that JFK toenail, that’ll do the trick quite nicely, thank you very much.

DP     But it’s all in their heads.

WS     Yep. It’s like the relic is a trigger for the imagination, and the act of chewing pulls the trigger, then blam! they’re off to the races on a painted pony.

DP     In terms of long term trends, are you seeing more of this sort of ingestion of items that would normally be bought and sold as collectibles?

WS     Oh definitely. If not for performance pills, then for DNA speculation.

DP     What, you mean harvesting items just for the DNA?

WS     Yeah, that’s something that’s really spinning out of control. I mean there are even a few hedge funds set up, all chasing the same asset, celebrity DNA, so that the raw material is banked and ready, waiting for the science to catch up. Once that happens, presto chango, you pay the piper and you can have a baby Elvis or a baby God help us Kim Kardashian, or whoever you want.

DP     What’s your reaction to all that?

WS     It’s really depressing. I’m just glad I’m coming to the end of my career, because in a few years the memorabilia market will be ding dong kaput. I get contacted by young people wanting to intern here at the warehouse, learn the business, and I tell them forget about it, no future in the bone trade, poof.

DP     Any comment specifically about the pills filled with pulverized Chinese infants and fetuses?

WS     Horrific. I mean, what else can I say? I’ll tell you this, though – it looks like an extreme case and it turns my stomach, but let me ask you, isn’t it just a sign of the times everywhere?

DP     I’m not sure I understand.

WS     OK, as you know, I left the USA years ago because I just got fed up with the whole stinking enchilada, but I still consider myself a patriot. Shoot, I named my own private collection “Bones of the Founding Fathers”, so you can see where I’m coming from. Isn’t eating babies pretty much what we’re doing in terms of all the debt, spending the future? Sending young people off to ridiculous wars while the old codgers flip through the pages of their portfolios, same deal there, too. Might as well eat them when they’re born, get it over with from the get go.

DP     Those are harsh words…

WS     Harsh? I don’t think so. I mean, think of those kids who got pepper sprayed,  splashed full in the face, coated with the stuff. I saw that and I remember thinking damn, won’t be long before the fat cats get to slicing up those kids for pepper pot soup, and that’s no joke. So before anyone gets bent out of shape talking about the barbarian Chinese and all, I recommend taking a long hard look in the mirror.

CRONUS SITS DOWN FOR SUPPER


The Hopkins Feet

Somewhere in the misty recesses where the Berkshire foothills converge with a storyteller’s imagination, we find a highly exclusive social club born during the previous Gilded Age, and which now services the social climbing aspirations of an entirely new generation of robber barons.

The Club is also world renowned for its very special art collection, housed in a windowless room adjacent to the library: a collection of sculptures known colloquially as the Hopkins Feet. As special interlocutor for Desperado Philosophy, I recently spoke with the Club’s very own resident docent, Hilary Dillamore:

HILLARY DILLAMORE PREFERS RED

GW What exactly are the Hopkins Feet?

HD Well, they are seven alabaster feet, each missing its little toe, and they were created in 1915 by the famous local sculptress Frieda Hopkins to commemorate one of the Club’s most compelling traditions. To me they represent, in their beauty and in their perfection, even though they are missing pinky toes, something of a higher order, symbols of just such a different time and a different mindset, when women were willing to sacrifice what they sacrificed for their men, and that they gave up a part of their body to create the special moment that for all time – for all time they will exist for us to gaze upon.

GW What do you mean by “sacrifice”?

HD At that time, the women of the Club were eligible for a special honor, the honor of being selected for the Fest of the Winter Equinox, and whomever was selected would donate her left pinky toe to the ceremony.

GW So now can you tell me what you mean by “donate” and “ceremony”?

HD The evening began with a feast of local mushrooms – we have fantastic mushrooms here in the Berkshires – and champagne, plenty of the very finest French champagne, and then a surgeon, Dr. Franklin Pearce-Diddle, would perform the little operation, I mean it was little more than a quick hand gesture, and then the  honoree would be taken to the special bedroom upstairs to rest and recuperate, and then the men would sort of collectively and individually pay tribute to the toe, and this meant at that time, by — I mean I know it sounds impolite, but remember all of this was done with the most pronounced solemnity and respect – and so the fact is, well, each male member of the Club would have a little suck on the toe, and it would pass through the ranks like this, with the more established and senior members getting the early nibbles, and then the morsel would pass on down on to the initiates, les nouveaux, as they were called, so you see it was also a sort of celebration and acknowledgement of all those complex social relationships.

GW More than impolite, this sounds positively barbaric…

ROLE MODEL

HD No, I mean you have to understand and imagine what it was like, they would enter a sort of, I won’t say drunken, but let’s say medicated, there was a medicated trance that people seemed to go into, and it was a tremendous honor for the woman who was selected, and all the ladies would compete for this privilege, compete to make the sacrifice. The one sad bit, I mean once each man had their taste, they then fed whatever was left to that awful dog. There was a club Doberman called Siegfried, and they actually just threw the bones over the side of the porch railing to that beast, and it just breaks my heart because wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have them now? I mean I do have this anthropology side to me that wanted to line those little toe bones up right next to these alabaster feet, it would have been a real coup, from a curatorial perspective. On the other hand, Siggy would always do, you know, his “business”, he would always takes care of his business on the croquet court, and it would fertilize the grass, and there was something really nice about that, because sometimes ladies would play croquet in their bare feet on grass that was nourished by themselves.

GW I understand you have devoted a good deal of your life to the study and stewardship of the Hopkins Feet.

SIGGY IN HIS POMP

HD It’s something that has just been very personal and moving in my life, to gaze upon these icons really, and people come from all over the world, you have to understand how big this really is, that these feet are just so perfect, they are perfect in their incompleteness. And Frieda Hopkins captures the spirit of the times so perfectly in these seven wounded white feet. I mean each one is missing its little piggy, the one that went wee, wee, wee, all the way home but, they’ve meanwhile become symbols of a time when, I don’t know, they are radical in the truest sense I guess, I mean in so many societies the Mayan and Aztec, I mean that was all part of it, the sacrifice and then, you know, they were eaten. To consume it, to take it internally is all part of a religious experience, isn’t it? I mean it makes perfect sense to me, I can’t even, I mean I don’t even know why all this was outlawed, I guess because it got out of hand.

GW Out of hand?

HD That’s probably what happened. Somebody had to say, you know, this isn’t right, this isn’t what we do. There were a few newspaper editorials and so forth. What a shame, because it is so basic and original and instinctive, probably, is a good word, as instinctive as anything. I don’t mean just to eat flesh but you know, it’s part of one of those wonderful religious experiences that so many societies experienced and ritualized and celebrated – before we stopped it. I mean the simplest things like sitting down to dinner with our families is almost lost now, but back then there were so many traditions and so many rituals, and so many special things that society had, ways to connect with each other, so to come back and gaze upon something that does represent such sacrifice and meaning, and (…) I don’t know – courage.

GW You mentioned that people come from all over the world to see the Hopkins Feet…

HD They have to come in person, because you see we strictly prohibit any photography, you know, to protect the privacy, I mean as a gesture of respect. And so they come, and they sign a guestbook, just in the very first page I have…  people have come from France and Rome and  – Odio! Magnifico! says Betsy August 11 2004. Aahh… moved, I’m so moved by this, says this young man from Brooklyn, New York. What an extraordinary moment. Thank you for doing this. Yes, just little messages they leave… Diana from New Zealand writes, thank you for taking me, thank you for this journey to a different sensibility, to a different time. That was a visitor from July, 2011.

GW To a different time? Yet I have heard there are some members who have tried to revive the tradition.

HD Really? I don’t know, women today, the younger women I know, I’m not sure there is that same spirit of sacrifice. Even the men, I don’t know many who would have the stomach for it. And of course the Doberman, Siegfried, he’s long gone, and now everyone seems to have bichons or toy poodles, and I don’t know how that would work, it wouldn’t be the same, I mean Siggy did have his role to play, in the fête.

GW I notice you have donated a few other items to the collection, obtained in the course of your own journeys. For example, this cage?

WOUNDED BIRD

HD I’ve always loved it, with its sad little bird inside. I’ll just wind it up and let you hear it, if I may (winds up). Because part of the magic is seeing the little bird move its head and sing its little song. And it’s just, I don’t know, it’s just so charming. I guess this is just my own personal foible. And this simply represents to me an earlier time, a time when Frieda Hopkins and all of her feet were created and it just brings warmth and happiness to me because I just love the fact that the little bird can’t fly free, he’s in his little cage, and following the rules, and he sings when I tell him to sing.

GW And what about these little shoes?

HD My husband and I were in Peking, I mean, yes I know, Beijing, and we found these little tiny lotus shoes and I adore them because they are so elegant and perfect as objets and I just love the fact that for women at that point in time, it was fashionable to simply break your foot, remold it and really take control, you know, take control of your body, and come up with something better, which is I guess what I’m saying about all of these things. I mean something better comes from it, when you take control and you say  “let’s do it!”

CHINESE CHANGE AGENT


Woundscapes

A remarkable selection of Morgan Bulkeley’s paintings is presently on view at The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA. At the show’s opening earlier in February, Bulkeley referred to Henri Rousseau’s painting “La Guerre” in relation to two of his own woundscapes, “Love and Death” and “War Wounds”. We later engaged in the following email dialogue:

HENRI ROUSSEAU, LA GUERRE

DP   Can you describe your response to Henri Rousseau’s “La Guerre”, on first viewing?

MB   Insane horse and rider– eyeless horse extended over ground composed of corpses – the rider not really seated on the horse – almost floating in front of the steed defying gravity and sanity – putrid blood pink clouds. The whole image eerily without hope or humanity, a world dedicated to death. Who is this tattered imbecile leering with her sword and smoking stick reveling in the apocalypse? Horror.

DP   Yes, and the wounded, scorched landscape. What do you make of the tree in the foreground, the snapped limb and the gashed bark? It almost seems as if the berserker, having run out of bodies to cut down, is now on the rampage against the trees. And the use of color, for the bodies, the “greening” of the dead, the blurring of the line between landscape and woundscape. The corpses seem to be sinking into the ground; or maybe the earth is sucking them in?

MB   It seems all life is being snuffed out; the leaves – what few there are – look wilted, and the crows are feasting on death. In the background, there are trunks and stumps. Cut or maybe just giving up, the limb seems to be overcome by the assault. Why should the crows be alive; death is their food. I was always fascinated by the horse’s tongue and the silver slivers of horseshoes, maybe the only remnants of technology along with the sword, and that weird splintered dress.

MORGAN BULKELEY, WAR WOUNDS

DP   Was Rousseau’s “War” on your mind when you began working on your own painting, “War Wounds”?

MB   “War Wounds” was a partner piece to “Love and Death”, the first painting of the second line on my website. Both were a response to the horror stories coming from Iraq and Afghanistan.  When I started these paintings I was thinking of Rousseau’s horror story, but also of the small paintings (the size of playing cards) that nuns did in the 16th century to meditate on the pain and suffering of Christ and the Saints, to try to enter the state of mind and share the terror and passion with them.

DP   The birds in the painting are not carrion eaters. They seem to inhabit an entirely different dimension, maybe even a different time. Yet at the same time, they are a haunting presence.

MB   The birds in my pieces are an assortment of passers-by or watchers (the wood stork and godwit) ; I think Nature is more of a constant, a mix of beauty and death, that is just the matrix of human actions, not a cause or contributor to the story.

DP   Unlike the passive blue sky background in Rousseau, your sky is highly charged with all sorts of objects and figures. For example, what are those wormlike tangles?

MB   I found the sky in my paintings felt flat and empty next to the turmoil in the land. Suddenly, I realized that the clouds could be anything, knots, abstracted hats, barbells, even people writhing in the sky. They gradually became more complex. The flecks and daubs of paint added a physical energy (almost like molecules, atoms, strings) and I was amazed to find that they seemed to add up to “Sky”.

DP   In contrast to how the bodies seem to bleed directly into the earth with Rousseau, the way the wounded and destroyed bodies are placed in your landscape, it almost has the sense of a sculpture garden, almost as if they have been found, possibly washed up on the beach, and then carefully arranged, put on display. And also, while they are broken and contorted, they are not yet dead.

MB   Yes, most of my figures are still alive. I’ve always wanted to walk a tightrope between hope and despair, or horror and beauty as it seems that is our lot in life.  In “Love and Death” two adversaries have just cut each others heads off– one head staring at it’s former neck, the other staring at the head it has just severed. Much of this came out of the news at the time of beheadings, and I suppose it’s a theater of the absurd choked chuckle. My Mom used to trudge up to my studio, and after staring for a while, she would say ” It’s beautiful…. Do you feel alright?”

DP   I am very struck by the hands rising from the wounds, indicating some obscure semiotic. I have always loved the Brothers Grimm tale about the young girl who is very stubborn and willful, so much so that when she is dead and buried, her arm keeps pushing through the dirt, as if to say “I am still here”, and of course this is one quality that is both admirable and dangerous about humans. What are those willful hands telling us, signing from the dunes?

MB   I think “I am still here” is a fairly accurate translation of the wounds and severings. One person lovingly cradles his/her hands with bloody stumps. Hands appear over the hill in a V-victory sign, or pointing like a kid’s play gun, or with a raised index figure “I’m no. 1”, absurd gestures in an absurd world.

MORGAN BULKELEY, LOVE AND DEATH

DP   You have spoken about your desire to find a way of figuring the human body that is drained of specificity, abstracted, yet also quite identifiably human. Can you tell a bit more about how you arrived at your aesthetic of figurative abstraction?

MB   As I mentioned, I used to paint portraits and anatomically accurate (or somewhat more accurate) figures, but I found that people would look to see who the person was and what their emotions were. I wanted to tell less specific stories, ones of ideas not personalities. It took some fumbling and messes to arrive at these fleshy, generic approximations of people, but they seemed to represent life, and I could bend them in any way I wanted.

DP   Finally, I am struck by the paint tubes in the foreground, part of the flotsam and jetsam of the battle, or whatever it was. I immediately thought: yes, art is part of this woundscape, too. Where is the artist in our larger landscape of everyday atrocities, the endless tales of cruelty and violence?

MB   The paint tubes, I feel, are an optimistic statement of creation; this landscape can be changed by a little paint, in fact the whole vision is only paint, but it can tell any story. The landscape is a matrix: we exist in it, but it also exists without us. It may go back to an empty Eden without us. I believe in “humanity” and I hope for a rational wrestling with our “problems”. I think of my paintings as prods and lures, meaning to push toward an alternative way of thinking.  I think we are still in Eden with a last chance; think that we can find beauty and meaning in Nature; think that there are alternative ways of doing things.

DP   Yes, and there is also the sense not of complicity but of entanglement. The same human hands that create paintings might also create corpses. You refer to nature as the matrix of human actions. Could you mention your father‘s influence in all of this, his keen naturalist eye for detail, and how you pay homage to that tradition?

MB   My Dad understood that Nature is a foundation, that it is a spiritual ground, a way to meditate and escape instant gratification and the speed that our culture foists on us. Of course in his day all the crushing realities hadn’t completely formed yet.