September 15, 2016 – March 25, 2017
Sharon Lockhart, Frances Stark, and Laura Owens, September 15 – October 22, 2016
In June 1997, Sharon Lockhart, Frances Stark, and Laura Owens mounted a group exhibition at Blum & Poe Gallery in Los Angeles with three 48 × 48 inch works, one from each artist—a photograph, a drawing, and a painting. Made a few years after they graduated art school, the show was a chance to examine their ongoing artistic conversation and friendship.… Read more
In June 1997, Sharon Lockhart, Frances Stark, and Laura Owens mounted a group exhibition at Blum & Poe Gallery in Los Angeles with three 48 × 48 inch works, one from each artist—a photograph, a drawing, and a painting. Made a few years after they graduated art school, the show was a chance to examine their ongoing artistic conversation and friendship.
Sharon Lockhart’s way of working over the past three decades has continued in the collaborative spirit of this show, her films and photographs developing out of intentional relationships with her immediate communities. As an opening to her season at The Artist’s Institute, we begin by revisiting this early experiment in finding one’s way as an artist among friends.
Selected Documents: Sharon Lockhart, Frances Stark, and Laura Owens
Blum & Poe Gallery, Santa Monica, June 7 – July 12, 1997
Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens, and Frances Stark
Press Release, Blum & Poe Gallery, Santa Monica, June 1997
Opening June 7 – July 12, Blum & Poe will present a collaborative exhibition of work by Los Angeles based artists Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens and Frances Stark.
All three artists are actively working in distinctly different media, with Lockhart using photography and film, Stark using language and paper and Owens creating abstract paintings; yet, through an intense, often daily conversation involving discussion and examination of each other’s work, these three artists have influenced each other in varying ways.
This exhibition is an investigation into the nature of discourse and dialogue amongst friends, amongst artists. Whereas most group shows intend to highlight the obvious similarities between artists of a particular moment in time, this show intends to examine the subtle influences among a group of young artists coming of age at a crucial moment in the history of Los Angeles art.
A format of 4 x 4 feet per work has been established for each artist. A conjunctive multiple produced by the artists during the course of the show consisting of a box of influences, ideas and unique works by each artist will also be available.
There will be a closing reception for the artists on July 11, from 6-8 PM. Please contact Blum & Poe for further information.
Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens and Frances Stark at Blum and Poe
Lisa Ann Auerbach, LA Weekly, Los Angeles, June 27 – July 3, 1997
Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens and Frances Stark’s show of, respectively, one photograph, one painting and one work on paper came out of the friendship and close working relationship among the three. Instead of having an overreaching or suffocating theme, as your basic summer group show might, the disparate media and practices of these youngish artists were put together because they emerged from a close-knit community.
They chose to make works 4 feet square, a size and format none of them had used before, so that there would be a formal common thread, a fair and equal starting ground. From this physical constraint, the works diverge in stellarly opposite paths. Lockhart’s photograph is a dowdy and down-home version of a Budweiser ad. Instead of three luscious babes in logo maillots, three sickly and sad-looking women stand trapped within sack cloths, which, when butted up next to one another, form the California flag. Their dirty, baggy gray socks poke out from beneath the sacks. Owens’ painting depicts a brilliant orange bromeliad on a bright-white gessoed surface. As in most of her paintings, it is the strange details that captivate, such as a razor-sharp blue line cutting through the space of the canvas. Stark’s delicate drawing looks from afar to be a hazy series of red and blue stripes, but up close it reveals itself to be endless vertical lines of text, which read, “the foreshortening of the mind’s perspective.”
What better way, I thought, to get to the bottom of this funky idea for a show than to sit down for a morning coffee klatch with the perpetrators, women I’d known for years? (Writing about friends is always a strange, politically dicey phenomenon; plus, you’re apt to use the wrong quote and pay dearly later.) Anyhow, in the spirit of the show, based as it is on these barely graspable notions of friendship and community, three of us—Sharon had left for Italy to premiere her new film—sat down and chatted about the idea for doing the show, and about the specific problems or challenges each ran into.
“I’ve just started reading Robert Smithson’s essays,” said Frances. “He makes it sound like in the ‘70s everyone was so smart, and they totally paid attention to each other, constantly writing and talking about art. He’s such a great writer, so direct and unpretentious. I wonder if it’s possible to have that sort of simple, straightforward interaction today—a sense of community through understanding or honesty.”
Laura added, “The three of us had been having solo shows and giving each other studio visits and helping each other decide how the work in each of the shows would be hung. Actual direct advice. We’d talk it all out.”
“Tim Blum and Jeff Poe noticed that,” said Frances. “They saw it happening and thought, ‘Oh, that’s funny,’ [since] our work looks so totally different. When we decided to actually do a show with a painting, a work on paper and a photograph, it clearly became an opportunity to be able to look at the work for what it is and to try to figure out exactly what’s happening between our separate practices. I know Laura and I have been talking a lot since we put it up—about context…”
“…how to hang shows…”
“…what other shows are up right now. We’re having major discussions all the time, and I think it’s because we set this up for ourselves.”
The three are also producing an edition together. Laura: “It’s in a square box, and we’re going to make it during the duration of the show. It’ll have things inside that inspire us. We’ll make a tape of a conversation, a mix tape, Xeroxes, drawings. It will be, in the classical sense of the word, a ‘hodgepodge.’”
The mixture of the three distinctly different media caused problems for Frances, whose drawing hangs from delicate linen tabs that adhere to the wall. “Of course, you know that 4 feet of drawing and 4 feet of photograph and 4 feet of painting are not going to look like equal surfaces. My piece isn’t framed and the painting is on stretchers and the photograph is archivally framed. Part of the decision for me has to do with the modesty of the paper on the wall, its simplicity. The vulnerability of the piece is really important.”
Whether or not the show comes together as a cohesive statement is immaterial to the artists, who feel that implicit connections between artworks that come from a shared sense of community are ultimately more important than thematic associations. “I would hope that curators might look at it and think, ‘Okay, I’m going to have a show that totally falls apart, and that might be better than a show that’s all about vanity or some other umbrella idea,’” suggested Laura.
“I think the most anyone might get out of it might be, ‘Hey, photo, drawing, painting, wow, they’re all so different, but they’re all friends and they all influence each other. Weird, huh?’” said Laura. “And that will be a total revelation for some people.”
As the conversation dwindled to a close, Frances brought up another issue that’s been plaguing her: “There’s a three-legged cat following me around, and I think it has something to do with the show.”
Exploring the Power of Three Among Friends
Susan Kandel, Los Angeles Times, July 4, 1997
Just as it’s (usually) a suicide mission to group of-the-moment artists under the pretext of a theme, it’s pretty much impossible to document something as elusive as mutual support and its correlates: conversations deep into the night, gossamer layers of influence (intended and not), casual advice taken too seriously, etc.
So once you accept that the premise for this show of one work apiece by old friends and emerging art-stars Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens and Frances Stark (“an investigation into the nature of discourse and dialogue among friends”) was in fact a non-premise from the word “go,” you will probably enjoy things a whole lot more.
Owens’ contribution is a painting of a pineapple-esque flower hovering over a fecal mound, cut through with a spindly branch and silhouetted against a background white and bright enough to be the most shocking element of an already very weird (if beautiful) image. Lockhart offers a glossy photograph of the artists in question as the Three Anti-Graces, swathed in hand-sewn sackcloth that, when positioned side to side, composes the image of the California flag. Finally, Stark is represented by a subtly perverse drawing that masquerades as Agnes Martin-style stripes only to reveal itself as alternating rows of red and blue letters.
Each artist adopted a 4-by-4-foot format, something none had used before, ostensibly to level the playing field. It’s interesting, however, to see that despite efforts to the contrary, roles inevitably get assigned and parameters twisted.
Lockhart winds up doing the meta-commentary, making her piece either the most or least significant on view, depending on how you look at it. As the sole painting in the show, Owens’ work is automatically normalized, despite its obvious eccentricity. Stark’s unframed drawing––which at first appears modest, or at least delicate––plays deliberately with pomposity (her text spells out “the foreshortening of the mind’s perspective”), thus becoming weighty in its own right, perhaps even more so than the others. In any case, this exhibition is not a competition. Still, competition––like support––should not be underestimated as an impetus for artistic production. Perhaps it would make a provocative non-premise for another show.
Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens, Frances Stark: Blum & Poe, Santa Monica
Giovanni Intra, Flash Art, November–December, 1997
The field of artist-collaborations has been dominated by the Damien Hirst/David Bowie model: celebrities join, their “styles” fuse, and the new meta-celebrity artwork is born. A snowball effect. However, precisely what was compelling about the Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens, and Frances Stark collaboration—made at the suggestion of dealers Tim Blum and Jeff Poe—was that it turned this model on its head. This was a very cryptic show, and one which did not seek a miraculous cohesion; on the contrary, the experiment proposed by this collaboration was an investigation of friendship and location in Los Angeles—as opposed to the production of bold gestures of objectification. In other words, it was an exhibition about thought. Lockhart, Owens and Stark’s collaboration was divided into two parts; a gallery show which featured one work by each artist—made in a strict 7,000 by 7,000mm format—plus an edition released at the exhibition’s completion. In the gallery each artist showed a single work in their customary medium: photography, painting and drawing respectively; the boxed edition which included a CD-Rom of sampled musical tracks, a video compilation of cinema footage, and a multitude of laser copied notes, images and works on paper, was a venue where mutual interests were archived, like images in a filing cabinet.
Lockhart’s contribution was a portrait of the three artists. Facing sideways from the camera, draped in a home-made flag of California, pieced together from strips of cotton and felt they stood, disengaged, highly bored. This is a very different vision of the young “LA woman artist” spawned on the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and vociferously trumpeted by the likes of critic Christopher Knight. The conceptual spin of Lockhart’s picture, it seemed, was to turn down the charm on the very notion of the “publicity” photograph.
Stark’s drawing, like the whole exhibition, was both hyper-labored and spare. It required the viewer’s eye to zoom down to a band of text in which tiny letters made with carbon paper impressions repeated the phrase “a foreshortening of the mind’s perspective.” This paradoxical suggestion was not so much nihilistic as obsessively considered. Likewise, Owens’ comic/realist painting of pineapple-like hallucinatory vegetation stretched, dented, and animated the picture plane from which it sprouted with a calligraphic, kinetic intensity—like an art-brut homage to Walt Disney’s Fantasia.
Including the edition, this project constituted about sixty discreet objects, which, in sum, could be considered a portrait of the artists, their work, and the nature of their interaction. This show was a multi-dimensional guide-book to the complex nature of these artists’ recent production—not so much a media event as an event of media.
Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens, Frances Stark at Blum & Poe
Bruce Hainley, Artforum, November 1997
4 x 4. The format (in feet) for each of the works displayed and the principle under which the show operated: three “hot,” young Los Angeles artists who have been and remain close friends showed one work each, and during the show’s run, the fourth “artist”—the three friends working together—produced a multiple. The simplicity of the concept is airily honest about how things get done, stuff gets made, and the art world works. Sadly, some critics could not accept the idea of friendship as a premise for a show, even calling it a “non-premise,” which is, of course, precisely the point—who really wants premises messing up, as they too often do, the enjoyment?
The three works demonstrated the three friends’ differences. Lockhart’s quirky photograph of them draped in a rough mock-up of the California state flag—grizzly bear centering it—in part an homage to Arthur J. Telfer’s photograph, Flag Girls, Cooperstown, NY, 1918, remained an example of how she discerns the ominous atmosphere of the most banal circumstances, people not quite at home with who and where they are. Stark’s text piece, which spelled out in repeated vertical columns, read top to bottom, “A foreshortening of the mind’s perspective,” all in black typeface except for, in red, the word “perspective” and the apostrophe. The piece was unframed, and its matter-of-factness belied its delicacy. The painting exhibited by Owens provided an immediate contrast to Lockhart’s and Stark’s restraint, a bromeliad riot of color, orange and hot pinks, against a bright white background, the bouquet of big bloom and twigs in thick, swirling, groovy marks of paint. Despite the difficult-to-hear conversation going on between these works, or perhaps, importantly, not going on, together they did comment on the similarities between the trio. They are interested in exploring the facture of their respective media—photography, drawing, painting; unafraid of the “homemade” (a quality that warms even Lockhart’s work, which is, decidedly, the most austere and cool); and slanted and enchanted by what is near-at-hand, the world and words around them.
The collaborative multiple—glossy white boxes, each swaddled in an exuberant band of cloth, containing smatterings of information, influences (bits of texts, photos, a shiny gold CD of favorite tunes by Marlene Dietrich and various crooners), an Owens watercolor drawing of flowers as well as a pocket-sized Stark piece—presented examples of what moves the three friends but in no way defined friendship or simplified the intricacies of influence. It simply reiterated—and multiplied—the similarities the individual works already displayed. The multiple emphasized things assembled in the accompanying video, TRT: 48:20, July 11, 1997. Rated “G,” it showed surprising instances of what the friends like and what may end up somehow influencing their work: exuberance; women of strength, conviction, and smarts; daffiness; and a concern for how to make enough money to get by and do what you really want to do—i.e., an ecstatic spelling-bee champion; Gena Rowlands; cartoon animation; and documentary footage of the auction of one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings.
Thinking about the show, I considered how friends become friends and remain so, and how the art world mimics and makes economic such relations, whether or not it admits it as boldly as this brave little show did. Friends recommend to other friends things (music, artists, distractions) that they are excited by. Curators may apply theory-heavy constructs to such give-and-take, but even they generally find room for things made space for by allegiance alone. Art gets made because of these kinds of intractable goings-on. Most artists of any interest whatsoever only have conversations with (make work for) a few people, two or three, not many more. That large groups of people can at times partake of the conversation long after the fact amazes.
Two final notes. The video has a bit of an interview with John Cassavetes; he says something about a philosophy of life—which is what this show was an example of. Then he pauses and declares: “I have a one-track mind: all I’m interested in is love.” The title of the video, “TRT,” could be trust; the three artists/friends provide and are the missing “us.”
L.A.-Based and Superstructure (selection)
Lane Relyea in Public Offerings, ed. Paul Schimmel and Howard Singerman, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2001
Excuse me while I talk shop. It’s hard not to these days what with the art world humming along so impressively. Business is up and complaints are few. In fact there’s little discussion right now beyond reports of art world maneuverings that feels very compelling or urgent. Critic Bruce Hainley recently shrugged, “Who really wants premises messing up, as they often do, the enjoyment?” Attempting any sort of high-minded summary of our far-flung artistic field, proposing any program with which to cleave the relevant from the irrelevant, assembling any set of metaphors or theoretical imperatives or aesthetic criteria, means courting disaster. On the whole, theme shows of contemporary art are unwelcome, and the only characterization of the moment widely agreed upon is that “there are no movements now, no one thing.” Just looking at the variety of works by the six Los Angeles artists included in Public Offerings would appear to prove that. All of which makes writing about these artists as a group a bit tricky; if they do share anything it’s most readily apparent not in some formal or conceptual correspondence between their artworks but in the common shape of their careers. Interpreting works of art by analyzing career machinations is problematic enough, let alone doing so within the genteel protocols of an exhibition catalog.
Yet isn’t this precisely the dilemma Public Offerings poses? The title, at least on the face of it, promises art that assumes a generous, even humble posture before a gathered audience (“audience” even seems too passive a word––publics are thought to have enough coherence to judge and act). At the same time the phrase Public Offerings doesn’t entirely hide its origins in the world of high finance, cropped as it is from the marketplace lingo for a company’s first issuance of stock (“initial public offerings” or I.P.O.s). And behind these two readings, a third way in which the title makes sense is in its suggestion that the initial, the first, the beginning––of an artist’s oeuvre, of his or her career––will take place in public; it will be a public or at least a publicized event. What we’re talking about are artworks and artists whose public lives start young.
At any rate, this is what I take Public Offerings to be about, the kind of phenomenon it’s referring to. At the risk of coming across as indelicate, this essay will be about the extent to which I agree that this phenomenon has become newly definitive of art made over the past ten years, with consequences for the look and make-up of the work itself. I also think I know when I first felt the buffeting of those consequences
Today’s work has less to do with institutional critique than with what Hal Foster calls “the return of the real,” although it’s a decidedly sociological, everyday real rather than a psychoanalytic one. Nor is it an empirical real. For [Jorge] Pardo and most of the other L.A. artists in this exhibition, the real isn’t manifested in any single, inscrutable material object, confrontational in its mute and obdurate physicality. Rather it inheres in strings of relationships, in the tenuous and intimate connections that make up an artist’s scene or the ecology of his or her practice, in the interlocking and occasional slippage of components within those systems, and in their dense circulation of information (of objects, people, money, press, camaraderie, gossip).
The question is not whether to turn away from exhibiting and retreat into the privations of the artist’s garret. Rather, it’s a question of how this newly increased public exposure of art and artists is perceived and approached. It would be easy at this point to continue the teem of this essay and claim that the public for art today is considered for the most part metonymically, as just part of the literal and quantifiable context manifested around art and the system it must work its way through, an audience being something that emerges mechanically and punctually from art-school critiques to gallery and museum openings. This is no doubt true, but there’s more. While few would go so far as to describe existing art publics as communities (or group formations or subcultures or any word connoting a shade of agency), hints have been made at the central importance of friendships among artists. For example in a 1998 catalogue devoted to his work, Pardo listed on a couple of its pages the names of friends and influences, ranging from family members to fellow artists––just their names, with no further explanation or commentary added. And in 1997 Lockhart, Owens, and Stark mounted a show together based simply on their mutual friendship, “an investigation into the nature of discourse and dialogue among friends,” as the press release stated. Perhaps what’s being signaled here (and elsewhere, as in Muller’s hand-painted announcements) is a desire to imagine differently the kind of frame that situates and underwrites art, to acknowledge but then draw emphasis away from the institutional and ideological toward a more flexible social framing. And yet the publicly pledged camaraderie of Lockhart, Owens, and Stark was received as “a very cryptic show” that “in no way defined friendship or simplified the intricacies of influence” –– “it’s pretty much impossible,” one reviewer conceded, “to document something as elusive as mutual support and its correlates.” Here then is an indication of the quandary art now finds itself in, its existing in public but suspecting anything as explicitly formed as a public statement. Friendship, as part of these artists’ “living situation,” has to remain unorganized and inarticulate to be felt as convincingly genuine; it can’t be declaratively figured, made a theme or metaphor or position. And so Lockhart, Owens, and Stark tie their show together in a literal, mechanistic way by making work in four-feet-square formats, and Pardo falls back to the metonymy of a list.
List of Works
Frances Stark, A Foreshortening of the Mind’s Perspective, 1997, 48 × 48 inches, carbon on paper. Private collection.
Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens, and Frances Stark, 48:20, July 11, 1997, video and CD ephemera from boxed multiple, available for view on media player.
Arthur J. Telfer, Young Girls in American Flag Costume, 1918, silver gelatin print, 8 ½ × 7 inches. Courtesy Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Arthur J. Telfer, Smith & Telfer Photographic Collection
Laura Owens, Untitled, 1997, 48 × 48 inches, acrylic on canvas. Private collection.
Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens, and Frances Stark, Untitled, 1997. Various media: Cardboard boxes with cloth obi containing 28 leaves, 1 watercolor, 6 color photographs, 1 announcement card, 1 card, 1 postcard , 1 stencil drawing, 1 color reproduction, 1 video cassette, and 1 CD-Rom. 11 ¼ × 11 ¼ × 1 ½ inches. 18 boxes out of edition of 48. Courtesy Laura Owens and Sharon Lockhart.
Sharon Lockhart, Untitled, 1997, 48 × 48 inches, chromogenic print. Courtesy the artist.
Sharon Lockhart, James Benning, and Robert Rauschenberg, November 4 – December 18, 2016
Sharon Lockhart’s 2009 film Podwórka unfolds as six vignettes of children at play in Łódź, Poland. The scenes are orchestrated by Lockhart in collaboration with her subjects who repurpose a dusty parking lot, low slung building, and neighborhood courtyard into makeshift playgrounds. With long, uninterrupted fixed-frame shots, Lockhart captures the improvisation and creativity within the repetitive rhythms of play—bouncing a ball, filling a bucket with sand, rolling a tricycle through a puddle. … Read more
Sharon Lockhart’s 2009 film Podwórka unfolds as six vignettes of children at play in Łódź, Poland. The scenes are orchestrated by Lockhart in collaboration with her subjects who repurpose a dusty parking lot, low slung building, and neighborhood courtyard into makeshift playgrounds. With long, uninterrupted fixed-frame shots, Lockhart captures the improvisation and creativity within the repetitive rhythms of play—bouncing a ball, filling a bucket with sand, rolling a tricycle through a puddle. At The Artist’s Institute, she installs Podwórka alongside James Benning’s reproductions of paper airplanes that the artist Harry Smith collected from the streets of Manhattan from 1961 to 1983 and a simulated cardboard construction by Robert Rauschenberg, works that also draw upon the inventiveness of the urban environment at play.
Selected Document: One Boy's Day
On April 26, 1949, a team of eight psychologists led by Roger G. Barker and Herbert F. Wright followed a seven-year-old boy, given the pseudonym Raymond Birch, as he went about his day in rural Kansas. They logged their observations minute by minute, following Raymond from his waking moments squirming and rubbing his eyes, to a day of school spelling exercises, to free time spent at an abandoned lot. Barker and Wright had originally planned to document all the town’s children in the same painstaking detail but eventually abandoned that project and published these preliminary field notes as a book, One Boy’s Day: A Specimen Record of Behavior. The time-stamped, unadorned prose today sits somewhere between conceptual poetry and notes from a bizarre early experiment in observational psychology. In their introduction to the book, the authors suggest that “artists and laymen who are interested in the contemporary scene also may find [the record] of value.”
Roger G. Barker and Herbert F. Wright
Excerpt from One Boy’s Day: A Specimen Record of Behavior, 1951
Scene 3: PLAY ON VACANT LOT
Mrs. Anna Hebb
The pit here is the weather beaten remnant of the basement excavation of a large house which had been moved from its site several years previously. Rain, wind, and weeds have reduced it to an irregularly shaped depression. The sides are eroded but still quite steep. The ground outlining the pit is bumpy and overgrown with weeds. Raymond, standing in the tangled weeds at the bottom of the pit, cannot easily see over the edge. Here and there on the sloping dirt walls there are miniature bridges, runways, and roads which show that the pit has been visited before by juvenile engineers. A dilapidated wooden crate is half-buried in the weeds in the bottom of the pit.
Some cars were resting on a ledge part way up the sloping side of the pit. The ledge consisted of an old shingle and resembled a bridge, supported at each end by dirt. Stewart started undermining the ledge to make the cars fall into the pit. It seemed to me that his action copied Raymond’s very closely, although his purpose differed.
Raymond suddenly stood up and brushed off the dirt which he had carelessly flipped upon his legs and lap.
He knelt down and smoothed the dirt from the rock.
Then he started chopping rhythmically. Time after time he shoved the stick into the damp dirt, and pulled sideways, flipping the dirt away. The stick bent under his vigorous efforts.
Inadvertently and unnoticed by Raymond, one of the flying clods of dirt happened to hit Clifford. Clifford didn’t complain; he was too busy watching what Stewart was doing.
Finally a car fell off the edge which Stewart was tearing down. Stewart shouted, “Look at it roll on down below in the canyon.”
He returned immediately to his own digging, not even looking up to see the second car roll down.
Stewart finished chopping the dirt away from the sides of the bridge and said, “Let’s make it lower.”
Raymond laughed, a forced laugh, as he turned and saw Stewart lower the shingle.
He immediately returned to his industrious digging.
A clod about the size of a marble happened to hit Clifford, who retaliated angrily by throwing a clod which hit Raymond on the leg.
Raymond looked around in surprise.
Before an attempt could be made to calm Clifford, he had wildly thrown another clod in aggravation.
Finally, Stewart was able to calm Clifford and get him to laugh.
Still unaware of the reason for Clifford’s anger, Raymond went back to digging dirt away from the rock, continuing to flip the clods exactly as before.
He mumbled some vague comment about his progress in digging the dirt away so that the rock would fall. What he said was to the effect that he would be completing the task soon.
Clifford took some minute replicas of carpenter tools from his pocked and showed them to Stewart.
Raymond looked around to see what Clifford and Stewart were talking about.
Curious what they had, he scurried over to them on his hands and knees.
Then he stood up to see better.
Stewart counted the tools very slowly and said something about each one. He asked Clifford, “Now what’s that?” Clifford answered very playfully, “Oh, wildcat.”
Raymond laughed; the laugh was quick, squeaky, and forced.
Raymond watched closely with interest until every tool, about six in all, had been counted.
Suddenly Stewart hid all the toys while Clifford was looking in another direction. Then he asked playfully, “Now, where are they?” Clifford said, “Home.” Stewart asked insistently, “Where are they?” Clifford answered quickly, “Stewart has them.” Stewart repeated the question. Clifford said, “Raymond has them.” The question was repeated again. Clifford said, “Clifford has them.”
After listening to this dialogue, Raymond playfully showed Clifford where the toys were buried in some loose dirt near Stewart’s foot.
Stewart grabbed the toys playfully and held them up so that Clifford couldn’t reach them. Good-naturedly looking for an excuse to return the small pieces, Stewart said, “Oh, look—we’ll have a landslide,” and he picked up a shingle that had been used for digging. He slid the toys down the single. Clifford sorted them from the dirt and picked them up.
Raymond watched this action very closely.
The group spontaneously broke up and each child went back to his own individual play. Raymond resumed his energetic digging.
Stewart said, “Say, you forgot you were monkeys.” Clifford made no response.
Raymond, intent on digging around his rock, also said nothing.
Stewart climbed out of the pit, using his bridge as a stepping stone. Surprised by the strength of the bridge, he said, “Look, it didn’t break.”
After a brief glance Raymond stood up immediately and tested it. Standing on one foot, he bounced a time or two and then stepped calmly up to the edge of the pit.
Not satisfied, he hopped lightly down, placing his heel on the bridge and stepping on down to the bottom.
He said very proudly, “Well, at least it cracked when I stepped on it.”
Then he crouched down again and dug very vigorously with his stick, flipping the dirt away from the rock.
Without paying any attention to Raymond, Stewart jumped down and went over to the crate.
Just then Anna Hebb, the next observer, got out of her car.
At the sound of the car door slamming, Raymond looked up quickly.
When he saw who it was, he said with some surprise, “Oh, there’s Mrs. Hebb.”
He watched her just a second as she started across the lot toward the pit.
Then he continued digging around his rock.
As Anna came nearer, Raymond noticed a camera in her hand and said, “Oh, you are going to take some pictures?” Without waiting for a reply, he added playfully, “Then I’m going to hide.”
As he said this, he ducked down out of sight behind a ledge.
Anna said pleasantly, “Oh, it was such a pretty day, I thought I’d bring my camera. We have some extra film.” She explained that she wanted to finish the roll so she could get the pictures developed. I inquired, “How many pictures do you have left?” She answered that the camera was now set on number six, with two more to take.
Raymond straightened up and watched very congenially and attentively as we talked.
There was a lively discussion between Anna and Stewart as to whether there were six pictures left. Anna again explained that she had taken six pictures and had two left.
Raymond alternately watched them attentively and dug energetically around the rock.
Anna commented, “Well, I guess I can’t take any pictures into the sun.”
Startled somewhat, Raymond jumped playfully.
As he jumped, his knee hit on the rock around which he had been digging. He laughed about it but he limped with sudden pain.
He crawled slowly out of the pit, favoring his leg.
He came over to Clifford and made noises similar to his former gorilla growling.
Leaving Clifford and Stewart, he climbed very carefully and slowly onto the crate, which lay on its side but was still wobbly.
He stood erect on the top.
He circled around on the crate, very carefully stepping on the boards.
Clifford jabbered something either to Stewart or to Anna.
Standing on the edge of the crate, Raymond watched Clifford as he spoke.
Suddenly Raymond hopped down from the crate and lit on his feet, bouncing lightly to maintain his balance.
He jumped on into the pit.
He knelt down and applied himself to digging the ground away from the same rock.
When Anna said, “Smile, Clifford,” she got a flat and definite “No.” She said pleasantly, “Don’t you smile for pictures? Don’t you look up to have your picture taken?” Clifford was sullen and unresponsive.
Possibly because of the attention being centered on Clifford instead of him, Raymond took a sudden interest in the picture-taking, stood up, and climbed out of the pit.
As Anna focused the camera, he stood behind Clifford and lightly to one side. He was attentive and apparently wasn’t trying to steal the show.
When the camera clicked, Raymond seemed slightly surprised.
He stood as if wondering what to do next.
He dropped the stick from his hand and kicked it before it reached the ground.
Suddenly he lay down on his back and started tugging on the crate to pull it over on top of him. He panted with the exertion.
Meanwhile, Stewart and Clifford, without saying a word to anyone, departed across the vacant lot to the northwest.
List of Works
Robert Rauschenberg, Cardbird VI, 1971, 26 x 28 x 1 inches, photolithograph and screenprint on corrugated cardboard with tape additions, edition of 75. Private collection.
James Benning, After Harry Smith (Milwaukee) 1–16, 2016, various dimensions, pencil and ink on paper airplanes. Courtesy the artist.
Sharon Lockhart, Podwórka, 2009, 16mm film transferred to HD video, 31 minutes. Courtesy the artist, Gladstone Gallery, and neugerriemschneider.
Sharon Lockhart, Harold Edgerton, and Alex Katz, February 8 – March 25, 2017 (On View)
Alex Katz once described the settings for his night paintings––the woods in Maine, New York industrial buildings at dusk–– as “armatures for the light.” Katz has made these paintings for the past four decades, and each work is a study in the subtlety of illumination and the quietude of spaces depicted through shadows and silhouettes. The final exhibition for Sharon Lockhart’s season at The Artist’s Institute takes darkness as a point of departure, bringing together a night painting from Katz’s personal collection with the pioneering flash photography of Harold Edgerton, two artists whose works have been touchstones for Sharon’s latest series of photographs.… Read more
Alex Katz once described the settings for his night paintings––the woods in Maine, New York industrial buildings at dusk–– as “armatures for the light.” Katz has made these paintings for the past four decades, and each work is a study in the subtlety of illumination and the quietude of spaces depicted through shadows and silhouettes. The final exhibition for Sharon Lockhart’s season at The Artist’s Institute takes darkness as a point of departure, bringing together a night painting from Katz’s personal collection with the pioneering flash photography of Harold Edgerton, two artists whose works have been touchstones for Sharon’s latest series of photographs.
For the past several years, Sharon has hosted retreats in a rural area south of Warsaw with teenage women from the Youth Centre for Sociotherapy in Rudzienko. The retreats are a break from the regimented schedules of the teens’ institutional lives, and the activities focus on finding one’s own voice. There are workshops in creative writing, philosophy, music, and dance, as well as time set aside for journal writing, field walks, and group dinners with conversation late into the night. Sharon’s new body of work documents three of the young women at the edge of the woods after a class in improvisational movement. Its title, When You’re Free, You Run in the Dark, comes from an observation one of the teens made to Sharon in a letter about her time in the countryside—a place where self-expression, illumination, and escape comingle.
Escape is such a thankful Word
I often in the Night
Consider it unto myself
No spectacle in sight
Escape – it is the Basket
In which the Heart is caught
When down some awful Battlement
The rest of Life is dropt –
’Tis not to sight the savior –
It is to be the saved –
And that is why I lay my Head
Upon this trusty word –
The intent of a façade is exoteric but there are obvious problems with that. While in St. Petersburg, for instance, I stayed for several days at the Moscow Hotel. That particular exterior does the work of a façade, presenting a warren of windows so relentlessly uniform the eye is baffled and ultimately rejected; from a distance, you can’t quite locate the entrance. But if, from outside, you can’t find a way in, from inside, especially walking the hallways, you can’t imagine a way out. The interior space is made of incredibly long, horrid corridors lined on either side with black doors, like answers to a quest you’d long ago forgotten. You feel exhausted, seeing such a dreary path ahead of you on the way to your room. You begin to feel the life behind any one of the doors will do—any future, any destiny. Once inside, your room, it turns out, is only the imitation of something nice, an arrangement of resemblances.
And probably the most esoteric Russian encounter is with a woman seated inside a glass booth. You look through thick Plexiglas, you speak into a small vent or round hole, and the grim interior light from a low-watt lamp, the dull brown walls, the sense of the woman as someone seated at the bottom of a box, all of this seems to encourage her indifference, embolden it. Everything inside—the adding machine or cash register, the telephone, the woman’s lips—looks antiquated. You may want to exchange money or call a cab or simply make an inquiry, but you are clearly intruding on an isolation that’s sanctioned or bolstered, somehow, by an official boredom. What sense of desire or anticipation can you expect from a woman locked away like this, limited to such small immobilizing space? It seems to be a matter of perfect indifference whether or not you have rubles to spend or the question you want to ask is ever answered. It’s like tricking a troll, hoping for passage. If you can consider a façade the blank face, then the woman inside the glass booth is the hardened heart, neither of them inclined to charm. Their efficacy comes from elsewhere. You can’t imagine the liberation of such a woman, from either her booth or her boredom, and the information you’re after is isolated too, like a dwindling, rationed commodity, lacking market efficiency and flow. In my limited experience, you never came away from one of these occult encounters with enough of what you were after. The arrangement is tightfisted, as though ideas and information weren’t meant to circulate, as if they could actually be contained inside what amounted to aquariums. You look into that glass booth long enough and what you begin to see, I imagine, is your own soul.
Or whatever—but I’d felt somewhat pixilated from the moment I stepped off the plane in St. Petersburg. The international airport there’s no better than an American bus station, small, dingy, bleak, with that strange lassitude that seems almost the opposite of travel, as if no one’s really going anywhere. Somebody was supposed to meet me, and I lingered around this dreary green lobby, reading and rereading the placards people were holding up, but none of the signs had my name written on it. It occurred to me I might call the woman who was supposed to pick me up. In my pocket I had just a crumpled dollar. I talked to one woman in a glass booth who couldn’t tell me how to use the phone, and another, obviously distressed woman, also in a glass booth—the information booth—who was hiding beneath a shelf and would not raise her head up and talk to anyone, let alone explain to me how to use the phone. I kept walking over to the wall where the telephone was mounted and staring at it. It looked exactly like a phone but it might as well have been a confounding objet d’art. I went outside and sat. The air was gritty with particulate matter, bust blown in from the barren fields surrounding the runways. It was hard to tell if the airport was under construction or being dismantled. Pieces of metal sheathing flapped in the wind, and the fences meant to cordon the work areas were falling down. A sign gave “apologies for the inconveniences connected with terminal reconstruction.” Back inside I found yet another woman in yet another glass booth who sold phone cards. Eventually, outside, I managed to make a phone work and I called my contact, who said she was so sorry, she thought I was arriving tomorrow, but for roughly 1,500 rubles I could easily catch a cab to the Moscow Hotel.
More than money what I needed was rest, at the very least to quell the misgivings I had been having about my role as a writer. On the transatlantic leg of the flight I had sketched out a bunch of alternatives: I mulled over writing in the urgent voice of a liberal reformer, or expressing a stoic world-weariness, or getting riled up and angry in an exposé, or working toward a generous-spirited puff piece. There were all stories I thought about telling. And then on the plane from Frankfurt to St. Petersburg I was fated to sit beside a couple from Cleveland who were coming to Russia to adopt an eight-year-old girl. The girl, they told me, had been abandoned by her family, which the man attributed to the shift from a “communistic to a capitalistic society.” He said this quite emphatically. In fact he was an emphatic person the way other people are tenors or baritones, and I began to get buggy. Everything he said stuck to my skin. He asked a lot of questions that were aggressive and blunt and designed to elicit or provoke simple yes or no answers. It wasn’t a conversation; he was just beating the air like a rug, hoping to knock all the doubt and ambiguity out of it. I kept wondering—strangely—if he was an avocat; I mean I wondered if he was a lawyer, using the French word in my head. All three hours of the flight I felt like I’d been locked away in an interrogation room.
His wife seemed kind and sweet and obsequious, with a soft chin that marred her real chance at beauty. Every time I looked at her face I felt lost. She had that bright-eyed, very dull niceness well-meaning people often have that strikes you as full of shit until you realize there’s nothing behind it. It’s real. She was nice. When she asked about my business in Russia I was totally incoherent, and once her husband, the avocat, sniffed me out, he really started hammering the air with questions. Now I was on trial. I became almost spastically inarticulate and confused and couldn’t describe what I was doing in a satisfactory narrative style. By the time we landed, my business had become a shame to me, a fault of mine; I was guilty. They, on the other hand, had a story whose somewhat gooey mucilage was goodness, this couple from Cleveland. I’d just read about this very thing on the plane from Chicago to Frankfurt, poring over a learned article on attachment disorders and the developing mind—my sister thought it might be relevant in observing orphans—in which the author talked about some guy named Grice and his four maxims of discourse:
- Quality: be truthful and have evidence for what you say.
- Quantity: be succinct.
- Relation: be relevant or perspicacious, presenting what has to be said so that it is plainly understood.
- Manner: be clear and orderly.
Supposedly violating any one of these precepts indicates mental problems, and I’d just hashed all of them. But the couple from Cleveland were like Grice apostles. That’s why there were adopting a child: they had a story in mind.
It was with a feeling of relief, then, that I made it out of St. Petersburg, five hours by two-lane road, to Svirstroy. At the orphanage, bare-limbed birch trees lined the driveway leading to the front door. Snow was still on the ground, patches of snow drifted into the protecting shade of pine trees, even though at this time of year, in May, the sun wasn’t setting until after eleven o’clock at night.
Within an hour of my arrival a couple different kids, independently, asked when I was leaving. It seemed a strange question, out of sequence, but the defining fact of these kids’ lives, I would realize, is the transience of adults. A lovely, soulfully sweet girl named Tonia told me her history in epochal blocks marked by the passage of adults, like a dry account of royal succession. Up till seven she lived with her mother and father, from eight to nine she lived with either friends or her aunt, from nine to eleven she lived with her grandmother, who died of stomach cancer on August 19, 1995—the way Tonia mentioned the exact date seemed salient in a life lived largely without celebrated days. Anyway, deep down there must have been huge anxiety about departures, and the question, I came to understand, was meant to allay a real fear about the fragility of adult relations. What the kids wanted to know was how much of their interest they should invest in me, another ghostly passing adult—in other words, what’s the rate of return on caring?
A boy named Kosta bluntly told me I wasn’t staying long enough to write anything, and when I asked how long he thought I needed, he said three months, a year. He wasn’t being cutting or cruel or defensive, just thinking about and weighing the world, his world, after all. One afternoon I went to the village and bought hot dogs and bread, ketchup and mustard, pop and cookies, and about fifteen of us lit a big bonfire on the banks of the river and had a picnic. By the way, none of these kids goldbrick or grouse when it comes to work. They have chores at the orphanage, and when it came time to gather wood for our fire, suddenly and without a second prompting it was madness—they hopped to, hauling branches and logs and sticks and armloads of dry grass, and we had our fire blazed up in minutes. But after we’d eaten and were lazing around, watching big ships haul raw logs upriver, a beautiful boy, Maxim, smiled and said, “That was good food, but it’s over. Write it down. Write it down in the magazine.” The comment stuck with me. Like everyone I tend to think things that last have greater value than passing moments, and on some level, too, I was probably condescending to the kids. I thought I was treating them to something they’d not soon forget. On both counts Maxim, in a frank, simple, cynical way, was putting things in perspective for me—his perspective.
The orphanage was built originally as housing for pilots in training, and for several years after World War II it held German and Hungarian prisoners, some of whom, across an open field, are buried and memorialized in a grove of trees. A couple years ago some old people came, the kids told me, and cried. This seemed to mystify them, how people would remember each other, and especially the dead, over such a vast stretch of time. You imagine, of course, that the prisoners buried behind the orphanage perhaps left orphans themselves, and that these old people, on a final pilgrimage, might well have been visiting their fathers. The kids’ comments captured a certain—I won’t say blockage—but a dreamy remove from a reality that would be fairly pedestrian for most people. It would not be the last time I noticed this sort of loose drift in their associations, an ellipsis in the mind that helped them slide over rough terrain in their history.
At the edge of the orphanage property are what the kids call the red ruins and the black ruins, and I was taken on a tour of both, each interior with the same dust, the same broken slant of light, the same weeds and rubble and cracked glass, but the black ruin is a former bomb shelter dug deep into the ground, and the red ruin, a brick building above ground, seems once to have housed a repair shop of some sort—there were steel doors of outsized proportions meant to allow the passage of trucks. In the red ruin padlocks remained on doors without hinges, and wire bars gated windows without glass. The ruins mainly suggest a kind of contrapuntal relation to the orphanage itself, which dates from the same era yet still stands. In America, looking back, we don’t really arrive at history so much as we enter romance, some place of eternal beginnings, but here, even in the bucolic Russian countryside, the devastations of war are marked by dead prisoners, shelters, stone defilades and, deep in the woods, that I took to be bomb craters—suspiciously odd declivities in an otherwise smoothly rolling or flat landscape. Here, there are ruins, and then there are things saved from ruin, things that escape, and the difference is emphatically alive and real, even if you can’t calculate why by using the ungovernable terms of historical destiny.
Maybe more than the building itself, the land around the orphanage and the elaborate network of footpaths create for the kids a sense of place. There are trails through the birch and pine, across fields where, every spring, the kids burn leaves and work the ash into the soil and plant potatoes, trails that lead to the river, to the school, to the village, to ponds and creeks and springs flowing up from beneath the ground with cool, drinkable water, trails that are a story in themselves, worn by wandering feet over fifty years, worn by joy and hope and habit and need, trails like a sentence spoken, each a whisper about the surrounding world, a dialogue with doubt or desire that’s ultimately answered by a destination. Many of the children have either no history or a severely foreshortened sense of the past, but these trails, worked into the grass or through the forests by others before them, send the kids off to play in a shared world—shared not just in physical space, but down through time. It must in some humble way ease the isolation, like Crusoe finding a footprint in the sand.
Time and a lot of touching have turned the interior of the orphanage funky, with a lived-in feel that now will likely never go away—it’s there in the worn wood, the marble steps chipped or cracked so long ago that the original sharp, jagged wounds have since been smoothed and cicatrized like a weal by countless passing feet. The paint on the railings is layers thick, the broken windows are patched but not replaced, the tiles that peel up remain missing. Things inside were so worn and rubbed and handled by living beings that the interior had lost a lot of its rectangularity, and was replaced, instead, by a roundedness, a kind of inner burrowed shape arrived at by working the materials from within, like the nest of a wren. I found this fascinating, and loved discovering touches of it, combing the place for evidence of the tide of children, the softening action of them against the hard surfaces and correct angles favored by the original architects. Doorsills were scooped like shells by scuffling kids, and the jambs, at various heights, had lost their edge as lingering children held them, dirtied them, and picked at them until they had to be repainted, over the years, with many quick coats of high-gloss enamel. The stone floors held smooth undulations where the kids habitually walked, wearing troughs that you could feel by skimming your feet across them, and that you could see, in certain lights, as a rippling reflection. Heavily trafficked areas of the orphanage received the most paint, so the lower walls had a receptive, accepting density, an imperfect but plaint look, and the railings on the stairwells, though made of metal, looked like they’d been recently dipped in hot caramel.
The kids lived in spacious, decent rooms with high ceilings and big windows. The boys pasted stuff to the walls—ads for cars torn from magazines and pictures of German rock stars ripped from the newspaper—and scrawled a little graffiti with black felt pens—in other words, pretty much a rendition of a boy’s room in America, but without the wherewithal. In one of the rooms, a hole had been punched in the wall, through the plaster and lath, which the boys used to communicate with the kids in the adjoining room. That it was unsightly didn’t bother them one bit. They called it their telephone. These same boys later showed me their pet rats, and at the base of a plywood divider meant to keep males and females separate, the rats, too, had begun to gnaw a hole into the next room. I can’t wring a dark poignancy out of the comparison between rats and orphan boys, however, because Svirstroy wasn’t that way. What the boys did wasn’t vandalism, it wasn’t destructive or ornery. If anything, the hole in the wall was a rough, clumsy modification the kids made because they’re extremely close to one another. They’d restructured the building to suit their needs; that hole in the wall was about their hope for love. It may have looked destructive, but it was really an act of restoration. In general, boys and girls alike sought each other out, they sought and found proximity, and no one seemed at all defensive about their space. This seeking was one of the more noticeable aspects of my stay there. Relaxing on the lawn or sitting by the river, the kids would naturally clump up, pillowing their heads against each others’ bellies, a whole chain of children in a circle, all quite free and unguarded about touching.
In an American institution the general disrepair might be seen as signs of decrepitude and disintegration, of a shoddy slide, but the direction at the orphanage seemed quite the opposite, upward, integral, a sense of pieces coming together. The clinical rectitude that serves us so well in America might also prevent us from doing the human thing in some cases, and I can’t quite imagine an old building owned by the government, turned over to the care and maintenance of kids; the impulse would probably be quashed by the obstacles. We’d have to knock Svirstroy down and haul it away in pieces before we could begin. In an obliquely related theme, my whole time at the orphanage I could never find any wastebaskets; my pockets filled with trash. In America of course every public hallway has a rich battery of waste-disposal options, with separate receptacles for newsprint, pop cans, apple cores, or whatever. For obvious reasons, poor orphan kids don’t generate much garbage; there isn’t abundance, and in the absence of a steady stream of the new, stuff doesn’t get used up and sloughed so easily. (The boys, for instance, hoarded batteries for their Walkmans, and deftly rewound cassettes by manually whirling the sprockets with hexagonal Bic pens to conserve power.) The building itself was testimony to this kind of make-do endurance. We’d see in a place like Svirstroy an affront to newness, which in America is the path to the future, and our sensibility might prove problematic, on the level of some aesthetic or metaphoric blockage, in kicking off a project like an orphanage. We’d wonder how you could hope to offer children a future in a building so evidently scarred by the past.
The very best night I spent at the orphanage was with a young woman named Yana. She was sixteen and lived with four other girls, dorm-style, in a room she’d occupied for the past nine years. You could feel the resonance her long tenure brought to the space. She’d obviously lavished love on it, which in turn probably set the tone for the other girls. The economy of love in the orphanage seemed to work that way—it was passed quite efficiently from one kid to the next. Love spread horizontally, across the broad, extended present of the orphanage; it wasn’t invested in a future or sequestered in a solitary, longed-for past. The beds were neatly, uniformly made, with pleasant colorful quilts and matching pillowcases, and Yana had strung a philodendron on monofilament so that, trained, its healthy green cordate leaves circled the room airily overhead, like a string of unripe hearts. On the walls were glitzy pictures of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, etc. At one point Yana got up, peeled back the corner of a poster, and showed me the cracked plaster beneath; she’d put the pictures there to cover what she called “the bad places.” She was a little shy about it, shy as if the damaged plaster reflected on her personally, but she also seemed proud of the improvements she’d made. She had rodents, like the boys, but these were cute, cuddly mice, a boy and a girl, and she kept them in a large jar of soft, fine wood shavings and, with no divider, planned to share the eventual offspring with other kids in the orphanage.
Yana had been at Svirstroy for eleven years. She said she had no idea where her mother and father were, but presumably they were somewhere, alive; an uncle, alcoholic, last paid her a visit eight years ago.
She asked if I’d like to see her photo album, and when I said I would, the room suddenly got very quiet. And then her shier roommates, encouraged, brought out their albums. It’s hard to imagine or adequately describe what an album of photographs might mean to an orphaned girl of sixteen. One thing that was immediately apparent was that Yana herself did not own a camera. The pictures in her possession were taken by others, by visiting Americans, by one or two kids who’d been adopted and then sent back snapshots of themselves in Disneyland, by representatives of the various charitable organizations that come through a couple times a year. In other words, they were copies of photographs taken, most centrally, as an event in someone else’s life. Yana herself was a touristic stop in somebody’s trip to Russia. In every single shot she was posed; there were no candid moments, no moments outside the fragilely constructed instant. Naturally, the pictures didn’t serve a nostalgic function. They hardly offered a chronology, capturing, instead, the present tense of life at Svirstroy. The scenery surrounding Yana never changed radically; the orphanage was her constant backdrop. Judging by the album alone, Yana was never a baby, she was never a toddler taking a first step, she was never a communicant in white lace walking up the aisle at church, she’d never had a birthday or ridden a bike—and so on and on and on. In a way, family photographs are a record of the parents’ watchful eyes, a chart of the unfolding future they’ve planned and invested in, but a sense of that forward-looking scrutiny was entirely absent in her album. These photographs were taken by stranger, and some of that exchange, the character of it, remained in every picture, in the posed quality, the drifting gaze, the blank or baffled or forced expression. In a regular family album, the kids grow, their bodies change, and that’s largely what’s being documented; and half the time the true subject is in the background, it’s about a day at the beach, it’s about the snow in the mountains, it’s about the garden in back of grandma’s house—it’s about the children as they exist in the world. But in Yana’s album there was no such verification. She existed, solely, at the orphanage.
When I asked the kids if they were happy, none of them could really answer; the question, I gathered, was puzzling. “Happiness is a big word,” Tonia told me, after a long, stalled silence. Then, through the translator, of course, she said she was happiest when there was understanding, when “things go good for others,” when people love each other. I realized then that I was asking a typically American question about the state or sovereignty of the self. It was a question that assumed a primary and absolute right to an interior self, and she, like so many of the kids, looked instead to the outer world, the world of contact, of presence. Eventually, she did say one of her best memories was when the other kids surprised her with a gift and a cake and lemonade at a birthday party she wasn’t expecting. What seemed to move Tonia was that they’d “prepared ahead,” that she’d been held in mind by others, remembered for a duration, and given a passing sense of what a future, filled with loving concern, might feel like. And that’s the way it was at Svirstroy. None of the kids expressed a sense of being rooked out of an imagined rightful life, and if perhaps, darkly, they’d developed minds and equipped their souls with buffers so pain was not cumulative and the present tense of experience neither stemmed from the past nor was predicated on a future, so be it. They were home.
One day I was led through the woods by ten or so kids until we came to a spring that emerged from the base of a hummock marked by a large Russian Orthodox cross. A small wooden platform had been placed beside the spring, to stand on as you fetched water; next to it was a forked stick, like a coatrack, dangling with drinking cups someone had made by cutting plastic water bottles in half. We all drank, and the water was cool and clean, it felt like water should feel, holy, a moment where time stops, and the quenching of thirst, on that day as on any really good day in your life, was as much a matter of communion as breaking bread or sharing wine. In some simple way this was the site of a special meaning, and the kids had led me, like an acolyte, to a place where I could drink and refresh myself in a communal mystery. Svirstroy was a place where love circulated, and somehow what’s good there was registering in me. I was feeling it. I’m sure I was. These children never showed self-pity, and if anything they’d taken the hollow where that emotion normally settles and filled it with each other. In fairy tales every juncture along the trail, no matter how dark or forbidding, is met with a yes, and that’s how they unfold and why, deep down, they soothe our fears. Here, inside the shared present, was the happiness Tonia was talking about.
It’s natural enough to hope tomorrow will cure today, and the core of the problem, of futures that recoup current difficulties, cropped up again when the translator brought to my attention the business of money: his $200, the orphanage’s $150, and the driver’s $300, the hotel’s $200, none of which I had. I was dead broke. I’d traveled halfway around the world with a dollar in my left pocket that was more talisman or trinket than anything else. I’d been boldly approached by a lovely Russian hooker in the lobby of the Moscow Hotel, a beautiful blonde with Heidi braids and endearing broken English and a Russian-novel name, Katarina, all very tempting, but that transaction, like everything else, was beyond my means. She refused to believe I was broke. We argued about it! She wanted to know how much money I made “every month in America.” I felt like we were trying to negotiate a swap of cultural clichés. I was too embarrassed to tell her that basically my mother and sister and brother-in-law had been supporting me until my new mood stabilizers kicked in and I could once again think clearly about my life, i.e., get out of bed in the morning. For the kids at Svirstroy, the circulation of money, Russian or otherwise, was never an issue. Most of the boys beyond the age of ten smoke, and cigarettes, for them, act as a kind of coin, a wealth to be acquired and traded and shared. The absence of “real” money, flat money, is essentially the absence of a future. Not that the boys lack one—rather, possible futures never enter into their calculations; a cigarette equals pleasure, not the hoarding of deferred possibilities. In America, the sight of little boys with cigarettes would be shocking, but I have to say these guys were kind of cute, in a Little Rascally way, puffing smokes in their sloppy orphan clothes.
The other currency we traded in was words. None of the kids spoke English, although one boy I really liked a lot, Sasha, would say, “Good morning. I’m glad to see you.” And other kids liked floating the few words they knew my way. They traded these words like chits in a game about relationships: Limp Bizkit, hip-hop, Linkin Park, etc. Language probably always has this adhesive aspect, but it’s more noticeable when you struggle for words, when you constantly skirt the edges of failure.
When I was on my own, alone with the kids, they either shouted in Russian, as if I were merely dense, or worked with gestures, as though playing charades. The translator was meant to bridge the gap, and he was excellent, keeping the conversation alive to the point that, after a few days, the kids began to realize that I could, on occasion, be pretty funny, and I, in turn, was just beginning to recognize the soulful texture, the nap of personality, in some of the boys and girls I spent the most time with. One the upside, perhaps, our lack of shared language had a filtering effect—rather like a lack of money—giving the past a shallowness, the future a vagueness, and keeping us in an essential present. Paradoxically, translation and the stripping of verb tenses forced us to live together in a physical, shared world. We enjoyed the fresh air, the river, the smell of pine trees. We played games that didn’t require talk, and we walked the trails and pathways, letting those old sentences in the forests surrounding Svirstroy speak. Still, working through a translator was hard. Everything came close to a gloss or paraphrase, losing some degree of nuance, so that it was very difficult to know who was quick-witted or sullen or sensitive, which kids were bright and which were slow. There were questions I didn’t ask, particularities and depths I avoided. The failure on the level of fine distinction tends to make you see the kids as a conglomerate, which points the way toward pity, opening you up to a vague and general sadness at exactly the moment when, because you’ll never have to do anything particular, it’s safe.
One little thing I saw over and over again filled me with a low-grade despair and a lingering, elusive sadness I could never quite identify. Even now I can approach it only roundaboutly.
A lot of things the kids were into had a definite prison character. I don’t mean the kids were criminal or delinquent, not by a long shot, but there was a sense of a damaged or boxed-up futurity, similar in feature, though less extreme, to convicts. A book of matches had a fairly high valuation, as did cigarettes, stickers, and hair clips, which was more the sign of an underlying scarcity and an uncertain future than a reflection of real cost. These things were squeezed for every remaining ounce of meaning. Some of the boys held on to dead batteries, for instance, collecting them for their trinket value long after they’d lost their utility. Hair clips and cigarettes are known as commodity money, money with intrinsic value, which is close kin to barter and, at this point, at least in modern societies, a very distant relation to flat money, which has no intrinsic value. The few times I saw kids with cash, the bills actually looked more like a strange text than a token of value. If flat money speaks to the future, or, through debt, keeps up a conversation with the past, then barter addresses the present—it’s all about right now. Being broke can make for a kind of immediacy, and so can bartering, if being exposed to vicissitudes, quite nakedly, without defense, is the measure; whereas flat money and fluid markets free us up from time and space, the local insults of the seasons, the impoverishment of the soil beneath or feat, etc. But when the future suffers a disturbance, as it does for an orphaned child or prisoner, or as it often does in war, money either tends toward barter or finds more fluidity by going underground. About Warsaw during World War II, Czesław Miłosz says: “Life, as for primitive man, once more depended on the seasons of the year. Autumn was the hardest because potatoes and coal had to be gotten for the long, hopeless winter.”
The curious tension here is that children are the future, and the ruptured promise a place like Svirstroy tries to repair is vast. The future requires kids; without them, there’s eventually no tomorrow. In time, of course, everybody runs out of tomorrows. The one thing you can say about the future, Joseph Brodsky has written, is that it won’t include you. That’s true, and yet the dyad of money and children plots you way out there in that world of tomorrows you don’t get. Your dream, then, is of a nothingness where an investment of love lives on. You believe in a time that’s not your own. The main problem with barter is the need for a coincidence of wants: you have to want what the other person’s got, and vice versa. And you have to arrive at a specific place in the universe on time. And here’s the thing that was so hard for me to feel precisely: over and over, what I saw at Svirstroy were these little hands passing things, bottle caps and cigarettes, a cookie, a twig or leaf, small frequent exchanges where skin contacted skin, just briefly, but perfectly timed, now. In the enormity of their dislocation, the kids arrived for each other, always. They were there, they were present, and bartering was the deal that confirmed it. It made me sad, these transactions, these little dirty hands reaching and finding, this coincidence of wants, taking place inside a huge broken promise. Born into a world where their wants went unmet, where their time was taken away, they found reassuring coincidence in bartering. In those little moments I felt like I was seeing the kids isolated—lovingly so—in currents that were crushing them.
But let’s say, since it’s natural enough, that tomorrow really is a remedy for today. Back in St. Petersburg there was still the heavily pending matter of money. The translator came to the Moscow Hotel on Saturday, ostensibly to arrange for a transfer of funds and then take me to a public market, where I hoped to pick up a few souvenirs. Plus I wanted to return his abundant kindness by treating him to a nice dinner. The good people at Nest magazine had wired cash, and I was relieved, even feeling magnanimous, like a regular, upright, solvent citizen. The translator handed me a receipt, and I noticed all the agreed-upon prices had been jacked up by thirty dollars, like a customs or tariff on my confusion. He called the bank but the phone just rang and rang. Then he said we’d take a cab to the bank, as if that were a reasonable assumption to draw from an unanswered phone. Myself, I pictured an empty, dark room, but the translator must have imagined something else; what, I don’t know. We caught a jitney cab, just some beat guy driving around in a Lada, and for a hundred rubles, roughly three dollars, he drove us way the hell out past a ghetto of gray Soviet housing, into a flat wasteland reclaimed from swamp sometime in the eighteenth century. Three hundred years later the swamp seemed to be rising, phoenixlike, in the form of pale white dust. The roads were fucked—islands of level pavement surrounded by deep holes. All our business—cab fare, directions, destination—was being conducted in Russian, of course, so when we arrived at a sprawling compound fenced and topped with razor wire, the mystery had a gentle logic that even the uniformed guards, with machine guns slung over their shoulders, couldn’t dispel, not entirely. The Russians had seemed weird about money and market efficiency, and perhaps guys with guns made more sense in the former Republic than a row of tellers. The translator looked at the place and said, “Strange.”
We finally found the building, found the room number, and knocked on the door, even though it was slightly ajar in a very un-bank-like manner. There was no one inside. The room didn’t even remotely resemble a bank, although perhaps interior space needs a translator as much as language does. The translator talked at length with a woman across the hall, who’d been sitting, alone, in a nearly identical room, reading a paperback novel, and who insisted there was no bank in the compound. We quickly flagged down another crappy Lada and rode a completely different way back to the Moscow Hotel and made more phone calls in pursuit of the money. It all felt like a shell game, and, anyway, I wanted to hurry out and buy a chess set for my niece and maybe visit Anna Akhmatova’s last residence, now a museum. I was hoping to hang out at Dostoevsky’s tomb too, especially since old Fyodor, beset by gambling debts most of his life, was starting to seem like the patron saint of my trip. However, it seemed unlikely that the translator, disappointed about the money, was going to take me to any markets or show me the way to some old poet’s house, and ultimately he just left me on my own and said good-bye. He’d lost interest in me. Maybe he was broke too.
Back at the orphanage, a day earlier, one of the kids, Ruslan, had asked me a riddle. There’s a donkey, he said, trapped on an island in the middle of the ocean. A volcano is erupting on the island and rivers of hot lava are flowing toward the donkey. In addition, all around the small island is a ring of fire. What, Ruslan wanted to know, would you do? I thought about it, came up blank, and said I didn’t know. And Ruslan, with a smile, said: the donkey didn’t know either.
List of Works
Harold Edgerton, Rising Dove, 1934, 20 x 16 inches, gelatin silver print; printed later. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.
Alex Katz, Twilight, 1998, 16 x 11-5/8 inches, oil on board. Courtesy the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome.
Sharon Lockhart, When You’re Free, You Run in the Dark, Klaudia, 2016, 49-1/8 x 62-1/8 x 2 inches, chromogenic print. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.
Sharon Lockhart, When You’re Free, You Run in the Dark, Selena, 2016, 49-1/8 x 62-1/8 x 2 inches, chromogenic print. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.
Sharon Lockhart, When You’re Free, You Run in the Dark, Buła, 2016, 49-1/8 x 62-1/8 x 2 inches, chromogenic print. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.
The final exhibition for Sharon Lockhart’s season at The Artist’s Institute takes darkness as a point of departure, bringing together a night painting from Alex Katz’s personal collection with the pioneering flash photography of Harold Edgerton, two artists whose works have been touchstones for Sharon’s latest series of photographs, When You’re Free, You Run in the Dark.
Cocktail Hour with Carolee Schneemann and Jenny Jaskey at P•P•O•W, 535 W 22nd St, NYC
Join Carolee Schneemann and The Artist’s Institute’s Director Jenny Jaskey for cocktails and conversation to celebrate the launch of the latest issue of The Magazine of the Artist’s Institute, Carolee’s. Dedicated to Carolee Schneemann, the magazine features a previously unpublished image archive from Schneemann’s studio “Plagarism, Influence, I Forgot” that documents half a century of morphological connections between her work and other visual material, including art, advertising, and popular culture. A new long-form profile of Schneemann by writer Maggie Nelson accompanies this project and considers the artist’s relationship to the history of her reception and Schneemann’s significant influence on subsequent generations of feminists. Signed copies of the publication will be available for purchase. This event is co-sponsored by the Carolee Schneemann Foundation and is concurrent with Schneemann’s exhibitions “Further Evidence” on view at P•P•O•W and Galerie Lelong until December 3, 2016.
Sharon Lockhart’s season continues with “Sharon Lockhart, James Benning, and Robert Rauschenberg,” which includes an installation of Lockhart’s 2009 film Podwórka.
Howard Singerman on Sharon Lockhart and the Pastoral Tradition
Art historian Howard Singerman will address Sharon Lockhart’s films from Pine Flat (2005) to Rudzienko (2016) in relation to the pastoral tradition and its possibilities. Taking the term as both a literary and pictorial genre and a critical opening, he will use the pastoral to draw out and weave together a number of Lockhart’s recurring themes and images: the landscape and the cinematic tableau, children’s time and film time, and labor and leisure.
The Wolves, The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 22nd Street
Sarah DeLappe’s award-winning first play The Wolves drops us in the middle of a soccer field warm-up with a group of teenage girls. What follows is a collective portrait unfurling in layers of exuberant dialog set amongst a minimal choreography of stretching—a production in which New York Times critic Ben Brantley says, “the scary, exhilarating brightness of raw adolescence emanates from every scene.” Young women’s voices, and the way that individuals are formed from their collective affinities, runs throughout Sharon Lockhart’s new body of work and our current exhibition with Lockhart, Laura Owens, and Frances Stark. As an extension of these questions about young women’s development, we will attend DeLappe’s play and hear about her creative process.
The Wolves is sold-out to general audiences, but The Artist’s Institute has reserved 30 seats for the penultimate evening performance this Friday night, September 23rd. The play runs from 7:30 to 9pm, followed by a conversation between Sarah DeLappe and playwright Amy Herzog especially for The Artist’s Institute’s audience. Tickets are $30 and are available on a first-come, first-served basis at this link. Use the access code “theartistsinstitute” when purchasing your tickets.
Special thanks to The Playwrights Realm and Roberta Pereira. This event is organized by Jenny Jaskey and Artist’s Institute fellow Julie Zhu.
Sharon Lockhart’s season opens with a reprise of the 1997 exhibition “Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens and Frances Stark.”