Inside an art gallery in New York’s Lower Eastside, buried in a side room, was a small black and white image of a barren dessert landscape on a bright day with slight traces of human presence – the kind of scene that would capably backdrop a cowboy movie. It looked like Utah, though I’ve never been there before. Further detail about the picture escapes me, but what stood out was a flat white, rectangular building with a cross at the end of it barging into the picture on the left. This modest church at first looked like a printing error amidst the coarse expansiveness of America’s nature. The dimensionless whiteness hovered irrelevantly over the modulated gray of sky and earth, both of which seemed to be made out of sand. But the cross gave it away as architecture within a landscape. This little picture read like a subtle affront to religion, casting a house of god as a pictorial error, a rigid two-dimensional block devoid of substance and grace. A space for worship disconnected from the real world around it.
Note: This photograph by Seher Shah is included in her solo show, Object Anxiety, at Scaramouche, New York.
At the Organization of Chinese Americans’ (OCA) annual convention in the Grand Hyatt, which stands awkwardly like a fragile, tall ugly sister next to the robust grace of Grand Central Station. Cobalt blue vinyl table skirts hide only what everyone already knows – that underneath this plastic table is pathetic emptiness. Under the dull bright lights of this hotel’s ballroom, with its architecture of vagueness, enthusiasm is conjured, rehearsed then recycled.
A bronze colored curtain partially, inconsequentially, covers a section of wood veneer wall. A neglected table sits in front with pitchers of ice water and bowls of mints. A woman (Her description escapes me. I only remember that she carried 3 different bags.) drifts towards our table drawn by a weak magnetism. A conversation emerges, one that is expected and satisfactory, and ends with her cramming one of her bags with informational brochures.
New York Life, the insurance company, has the booth next to ours, separated by a low bar on which hangs a vinyl skirt like the one decorating our table, hiding its emptiness – the divider skirt, however, is cadmium red. Staffing their table is a mild-mannered, middle-aged Chinese man who smiles sympathetically towards me sometimes and who, with professional eagerness chatted with the interested about his company’s business either in Cantonese, Mandarin or English.
Inside their booth was a standing banner dominated by a black and white photo illustration of a business-suited man who’s shadow looks like a mideival door key. He looks up at a key hole which is out of reach, but through which a holy light shines at him. Above the illustration is the phrase “You hold the key to your success” and then underneath, the motivational punchline: “Opportunity knocks…but you have to open the door.” Finally, at the bottom, the banner proudly notes that New York Life’s credit ratings are triple A across the board.
This week, America’s credit ratings were downgraded by Standard & Poor’s in an unprecedented stumble for this country’s mighty economy and self-confidence. Towards the end of my time at the convention, as most were downstairs at an awards luncheon, a young Chinese woman walked briskly up to the table and announced herself as Echo. She lives “near the Belt Parkway” in Brooklyn and is here studying finance at NYU, and eventually looking to land a job. I could tell from the way she talked, directly and with an unleashed smile, that she felt the winds at her back and that she knew she couldn’t be stopped. She’s being carried along by the turbulent waves caused by her country which is shaped like a rooster.
What if it’s all fake? What if the days we’re living in now are a bootleg version of the real thing – a pirated copy of authentic existence? Baudrillard’s fantasy: the sun a hacked-together facsimile, the oceans an optical trick with mirrors, projectors and ink. The DVD cover of it would show recent disaster scenes melting into each other – tornadoes in midwestern America, political upheaval in North Africa and the Mideast, a tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan, drought in Africa, and poverty everywhere. It would sit in piles on bed sheets along with other new release DVDs on Junction Boulevard in Queens or in the discreet handbags of middle-aged Chinese women going around restaurants in Chinatown trying to hawk the latest.
I’m reminded of a piece by artist, filmmaker and my main man Daragh Reeves – a small format photograph of a blurry city in silhouette, blackened by an extinguished sun. Above it in the darkening sky is his handwriting:
Without Sun The World Is A Bomb
Without Your Land, Your Are Sand
Rooks Fly In to Taste Bones
While in L.A.
Someone Makes A Call And The Sun Goes Down
In a familiar tableaux, cops run up on these women peddling bootlegs of the real, forcing them to pack up and scatter. On the concrete, they fulfill the high end logic of those that signaled an end to originality and authenticity in the 70s and 80s: Sherry Levine, Warhol, Barbara Krueger, Rosalind Krauss, Frederic Jameson, and all those others. But that’s for the photography era, the mechanical reproduction age. We’re past that, on to thinking about what the world wide web of information really is: a limitless, nearly lawless landscape of footnotes to everything in the world. Instantaneous, where the sun doesn’t drop – it’s on call, some version of it.
But how will this world be explained in 2000 years? How will religion make this rhyme? At one point writing must have been seen as the most extreme kind of technology. Ultimately it was used to explain the forces of nature and the logic of men and women. It was then that written language ceased to be a technology and became nature itself. I’ll leave it up to Ghostface Killah to put it into eloquently raw terms in a conversational skit preceding the song “Black Jesus” from his Ironman album (1996). A wise, older brother figure lectures his young disciple:
Older Brother: Everything in the universe, God, that’s created the universe, God, exists within you. You see what I’m sayin’? And that’s the mind that you can’t see. Don’t you know if a man could take and flip himself inside out, God, he’d fall out and he’d die if he see the shit that goes on inside.
Young Disciple: So you mean to tell me I’m made up of all this right here?
Older Brother: You’re the creator of all this.
Young Disciple: Right.
Older Brother: Cause all these things must happen. It must take place. See people go back in the day, God, and say yeah well one man, one woman, Adam and Eve…there ain’t no such thing, God, everything you see always has been and always will what? Be. Regardless of whom or why, it’s got to be.