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How do you “make it new” if it happens to be a carcass, literally? If your sensibility, like mine, tends toward the practical macabre, you might like to learn, as I did in Mary Hickman’s “Still Life with Rayfish,” that “Soutine attempts to keep the color of his first carcasses fresh with buckets of blood.” The word “attempts” trembles so in the urgent, doomed quick of the eternal present tense that the “bucket” here might as well be a Grecian urn (the Grecian Urn). “Still Life with Rayfish” is one of several long musical prose poems about visual art in which Hickman channels the searching voices of artists whose treatment of the physical world pushes into the divine, along with the nervous tones of art’s critics whose ephemeral commentary is relegated to the material, passing world.
Part passionate artist statement, part close looking, in Hickman’s hands, ekphrasis is a mysterious ritual that engages not only the endless involutions of representation, but also the magical implications of resurrection and possession. But there’s no spirit without a body in Hickman’s poetry, and though the neighbors will surely complain about the stench of life captured on the brink, as they do in “Still Life with Rayfish,” they may also like to profit from harnessing its power, which Hickman acknowledges by exploring the art market even as she meditates on the spiritual in art, and says, with Fellini, swinging briefly into La Dolce Vita later in the poem, “‘You will make a million with this fish!’ ‘It’s alive!’ ‘It’s been dead three days.’”
The relationship between time and material—two things that cost dearly—is pulled desperately into the ekphrastic vortex of these poems, as into the drain of an artist’s sink. Time dwindles; materials dwindle. Sometimes they cost more the closer they get to zero; sometimes they cost less.
Still Life with Rayfish
Soutine attempts to keep the color of his first carcasses fresh with buckets of blood. The neighbors hate the stench and the flies but he continues to pour blood over the bodies until he is ordered by the police to stop. Only then does he use formaldehyde. He isn’t preserving the flesh, just refreshing it, maintaining the life-color of the carcass and painting that blood as lush. He is not emulating and there is no reminiscence. When Soutine’s last privately owned carcass painting, Le boeuf écorché, was auctioned recently, the seller expected to get something like seven to eight million dollars. In the catalog description, Christie’s lingers over Soutine’s early intense poverty and the sudden relief of that poverty when he sold a large number of paintings to a banker. Le boeuf écorché represents a point at which Soutine could afford to buy whole beef sides just to look at rather than eat. Le boeuf sold for fourteen million dollars, which I find depressing. Or it misses the point. If anyone blends the line between still life and portrait, it’s Soutine: the still life reflects portraiture without any deliberate reminiscence. Soutine’s brothers beat him mercilessly. Their cruelty became a ritual. One day when Soutine was sixteen, he approached a pious Jew to ask him to pose for a portrait. The next day this man’s son and his friends beat Soutine viciously, left him for dead. It was a week before he walked again. Why is this story retold so often? I don’t think I create heroes in my portraits in the conventional romantic or poetic sense. Soutine fights against the monsters. He fights against neuroticism and fear. His portrait can be made in many ways but always the same image. Sometimes, in fact, I make the same portrait. Take Still Life with Rayfish. It could have been a fairytale. My way of making a fable from the portrait is my way of telling it. I simply told it as I did. But our hero is really there: the one in the portrait who possesses the feel of his own life. This is part of Soutine’s process also: to see the forbidden thing and paint it, to severely constrict his subject within the frame and enclose space. He imprisons the image within the image. In Chardin’s Rayfish, the ray at rest has become a ghost already, nearly translucent at the mouth and eyes. In Still Life with Rayfish, Soutine attempts a portrait of Chardin. This ray rises howling from the table, its membranous belly shuddering. Its entrails glow with warmth. Today you will eat dead things and make them into something living: but when you will be in light, what will you do then? For then you become two instead of one; and when you become two, what will you do then? Do I mean that in all our portraits we tell the same story? But I can’t say I have a special direction, although I feel a certain evolution in myself, in the ways I find of saying things. Let’s call this a transition from attention to grace. When Soutine works in serial, painting the same object again and again, the paintings convulse. Seen side-by-side, their convulsions evoke sensation. I see great possibilities by shifting the wings, moving the feathers or necks. Swirling, lacerated flesh swells against blue or red or green backgrounds. The figure of the bird, whirling fowl of penitence, beats even as darker backdrops threaten to swallow it. The body which depends upon a body is unfortunate, and the soul which depends upon these two is unfortunate. In this first portrait of the rayfish, the ray is pulled up by its wings, each wing pierced with wire hung from the stone wall behind. Or the next ray hovers over the table, ascending. The next ray swoops midair, a fantasy of skin. Soutine presents the butchered animal opened, taken to pieces, bloody, glistening, conspicuously dead yet shimmering. I devour a skin that is grotesque with demonic aura, the terror and humor of its textures. I paint a skin made from the sheer white curtains blowing at windows in stark sun. I make a figure from gray feathers stuck to my neck with sweat. I build whole visions of life out of the swirling black velvet of a woman’s dress as she wades in water. That wet velvet billows like a second skin, sensual, dragging her under, pulling her out to sea. In La Dolce Vita the soft, dark flesh of the monstrous ray is bound tightly by the fishermen’s net as the ray is hauled onto the beach. “You will make a million with this fish!” “It’s alive!” “It’s been dead three days.” Rolled onto its back, its mouth pulls open and one black eye stares back. Its slick surface resembles the protoplasmic source of all things. It insists on looking. The guardian angel of Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder quotes Meister Eckhart to the dying hero: “Eckhart saw hell too. He said: ‘the only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you,’ he said. ‘They’re freeing your soul. . . . If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the Earth.’” I imagine the nets around the rayfish as sutures pulled from its flesh, releasing the wings to unfold. I picture the scarred eyes of the surgeon’s attendant in Jacob’s Ladder as two flaps of flesh folded over. In this scene the hero is in hell though it might be a slaughterhouse. Bones and lumps of flesh piled in the hallway, faces both vacant and badly twisted: Lyne’s “body horror technique.” The face moves with an alien speed, with a filmic sensation of seizure, fit, possession, mutation. He who has known the world has fallen into the body, and he that has fallen into the body, the world is not worthy of him. The ray’s blank eye and the attending angel’s carved sockets equally terrify. Soutine’s eddies in oil capture the ray’s flesh. He structures my seeing; he imparts vision. I pamper this slight ghost—I encourage it. It takes shape slowly. It takes possession. “Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it. I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat.” Soutine pats his throat and continues, “This cry, I always feel it there. When, as a child, I drew a crude portrait of my professor, I tried to rid myself of this cry, but in vain. When I painted the beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate. I have still not succeeded.”
Chu Yun’s early portrait of the city, Who Has Stolen Our Bodies, shows twenty-seven bars of used soap gathered from friends and arrayed atop a white plinth. Each pastel-colored bar has been worn down, diminished, and abandoned after use. Now anti-monuments, they are non-objects that exist only because someone has decided to stop using them. They recall the contours of the absent bodies. The rounded corners reproduce the negative space of arm’s pocket, hip’s ridge, the hollow of the eye socket, the lips’ indent, wrinkles of the face. These stiff figures of memory remain as estranged forms, as refugees. Looking at the reflection of my face in the white shine of the plinth, I think how much tidier to have been born old and aged into a child, brought finally to the brink, not of the grave, but of home. I’ve heard there are beautiful beaches here, maybe as close as an hour away, but I’ve never seen them. The stretches of sand closer in are littered with rubber tubing, syringes, empty pill bottles. I collect it all in a metal box and bury it as treasure. The beach stinks and rots around me. Eroded rocks crumble out in the bay, resembling crusted lace or moth-eaten linen. Covered in birds and completely white with bird shit, these rocks rise near-celestial against the soot-filled sky. Shenzhen is not a tourist destination; neither is it home. Every resident has immigrated from somewhere else. Each body displaced and dispersed among the stiff architecture of pale apartment buildings. The human body in China has never been seen to have its own intrinsic glory. I lived here for years among the currents of mobile labor and out-sourced production that define the Pearl River Delta. I’ve tried to untangle myself from Shenzhen’s webs of commerce and daily life, humidity, stench, pollution, traffic, construction, and manic border zones. Yet, in Constellation, Chu Yun’s rendering of his cramped Shenzhen apartment still alludes to my present body. The physical self has been loosely arranged as used electronics: a water-cooler, printer, or TV. What vision of Shenzhen is recalled by so many flashing lights? Go back into yourself and look, Chu Yun would say. If you do not yet see yourself beautiful, then cut away, polish. I walk into a dark room. As my eyes adjust to darkness, I become aware that flashing lights emanate from domestic electrical appliances. They are either in Pause or Error mode. I ask him “Why all this barbarity?” He answers that he loves beauty and would have it about him. In my memory of the city, I discover a woman who is beast turning human. Or if you’re drawn toward cities with a lather of misery, if you want to find a population that will be locked together in the end, then you are on the trail toward our port of poor beasts. You are approaching our mildewed harbor invaded by figures of mangrove and steel scaffolding that have twined their antlers and are found dead that way, their heads fattened with a knowledge of one another they never wanted, having to contemplate each other head-on until death. What an autopsy I could make of Shenzhen—with everything all which ways in her bowels! A kidney and a shoe cast of Imperial Beijing; a liver and a long-spent whisper of Sichuan, a gall and a wrack of scolds from Gansu, the lining of her belly flocked with the locks cut off love in Shanghai and her people as good as they come, as long as they have been coming, down the grim path of “We know not” to “We can’t guess why.” To be a body in this city is to rob yourself for everyone, to become incapable of giving yourself warning, it is to be continually turning about to find yourself diminished. I’d like to shoot a clean image, no frills, and without mentioning aspects such as the place’s historic stature, victory spot of the revolution, the Red cradle, and so on. I’d like the image to show this city as a beautiful place. Instead, the image reveals the way the body escapes from itself through the delta’s open mouth, the anus or stomach of the bay, through the circle of the plastic washbasin in each kitchen, the point of the umbrella at each door. In Shenzhen I have known the soul is figure and form, a boiling up of blood around the heart. The soul must be a substance. Chu Yun decorates our city with brightly-colored flags of announcement. From the top of each gray tower he hangs lines of pink, red, gold, and blue triangles, crisscrossing the scaffolding, forming a bright grid upon the yellow cranes and green fruit trees. The flags insist the body should shine with happiness, with banal beauty and feigned promise. The flags insist that there is laughter, incorporated into the city and tinged with the smoke and noise of our streets. Chu Yun succeeds in finding the stag beetle to be something hard and fierce and intestinal worms to contain a determined countenance. As to our costal plants—what an expression of love in the lychee trees! Eight thousand snapshots of his own tiny apartment, glued in thick stacks so that only the top image is seen—his physiognomy of our living bodies. A mesh of markings, organic labyrinth of meanings, Shenzhen offers us her great cosmogonies of thought, human faces, bodies. Outside, small brown lizards cover the courtyard. Children break off the tails to lay them in rows.
It’s like night, this piece—it’s like night, not moonlight but electric light, which can be turned on and off. You can turn it on and off whenever you want so that you can be in this piece and you can be up in the air, which happened to me once, and the lights go out and you know the floor is there but you don’t know where it is. When I first made this piece, it was about falling. Anna is high in the air, higher than most men can leap. Her right knee folds beneath her even as her left thigh, ankle, and toes extend, press behind her into darkness. Chin thrust forward, she throws her arms up in praise, fingers flared, each finger tip black with down. When I want to remember Anna, I know I want to remember movement. Or I want to renew sensation, to recall legs in motion, feet beating flat wood, vision and sound producing a moment escaping meaning in pure action. She comes onto the stage at a given place and does a complicated fall to the floor, rises up, and leaves. There are no feelings in this piece; there is nothing but instinct. Yet Anna is not just seeking the path that instinct determines. She is not merely attempting to bring across the most agreeable movement, but one that fills the flesh in its descent, its contraction, its inevitable dilation. The dancers’ feet, the percussion of bone on wood, a sound simultaneously hollow and dense, heard yet felt—almost anything you look at you can see in terms of movement, but in the blackened stage, our limbs become estranged from our torsos, become phantom limbs for a few moments at a time. You feel the imagined borders, the broken tones that compose the flesh, dissolve a bit. And, really, this is how you come to know your own body is a phantom, one your brain has just now constructed. Like a skier or a football player, I put black paint under my eyes. Just putting those smudges on is kind of thrilling. I become somebody else out in the dark, even as the piece refuses to tell me what to look at or listen to, what body I now possess. I’ve never had arms. All I’ve ever had are these stumps. Yet I’ve always experienced phantom limbs. I continually attempt to gesture, to gesticulate, reach out, grasp, grab, point, wave, shake hands, or motion for the check. Which is to say, movement does not explain sensation. My limbs have always known what Anna’s limbs reveal: beyond standing up, there is sitting down, beyond sitting down, there is lying down, and, beyond this, one finally dissipates. In my vision of dance the large feet of the figures often do not lend themselves to walking. They are almost clubfeet. I prefer having the possibilities that a woman gives in movement. Women have a continuous quality, which can go on really for quite some time. I very much wanted to make something for the dancers which had some kind of fluid quality about it, airy, light, less rooted or anchored to the ground, so that by the fifth panel, Anna is almost transparent and has left the picture plane. In Summerspace, she becomes all turns. That’s one of her secrets. She is standing there with energy coming up and out her sternum. Her energy originates in the solar plexus. As she moves, her sternum pulls her across the stage. Is this why you walk so beautifully, I ask. Yes. The figure walks as if being pulled by a string. This is why Anna is most ready to change direction quickly. She steps forward, lands on the ball of her foot. The purest expression about meaning in movement is that although we all walk using the same mechanism and patterns we all walk differently. We become ourselves in our walk as well as in our speech. We don’t have to give the walk a meaning to convince someone—we just walk. It is the dancer being herself completely not in a mannered step but in a full step that then makes the step somehow alive apart from the dancer. And the dancers, rather than being someone, do something. In using the ground for support, in walking along stage or street, we pull these surfaces into our bodies. The stage is alive in the moment we have involved it in our own functions, extended the limb into the asphalt and called the asphalt into service. And I cannot help but ask, if the brain region responsible for smooth swinging of the arms when we walk differs from the one that controls gesturing, are my gestures then Anna’s grace? I do see these different bodies in my work as connected. A leg is the size of an observed leg. A foot is someone’s real foot. But rather than rendering such shapes life-like, they become mere outlines, the bare minimum of detail. They’re just pointers. A white feather horizontal or a white hip laid down. The torso is a pink sound-stage, a movement between a dinner plate and the mouth. Or between paradise and the lyric, leading down. Our whole body sees itself in the raw linen of the legs. We make a record of our movement, our work together—such a wide territory and subject to all types of conditions like humidity, light, heat. In Beach Birds for the Camera, she yields to temptation, to the rhythm of armature and body mass, so that every large female back as variation runs through our image just as it runs through a piece of music. Diastole-systole: the world that seizes you by closing in around you, the self that opens to the world, opens the world itself. We can’t move in the ways animals move in any exact sense. We can’t pretend to imitate this. In this piece, each dancer wears white tights, white torso interrupted by a black band at the chest covering the shoulders, arms, hands. The striking lines of the costumes suggest we watch a colony of water birds. The soft focus, limpid light, and grainy black and white cinematography evoke weather and air. The pads of the feet hit the stage in fits and thuds as Anna spreads her slender arms over you, brushing your bowed head with her face. All these feet, ankles, knees and toes—seeing them together like this, as a crowd—. I spend all my time in the studio now, alone. I touch her cheek. What do you feel? You are touching my cheek. Anything else? You are touching my lips. Are you sure? Yes. I can feel it both places. You are rubbing my forearms. The lung. The wing. Anna abandons her entire head to the camera. She sees herself in a head that belongs to the camera, that has disappeared into the camera.
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