We came from towns where the water runs thick with nitrogen in the spring. Or towns where front lawns are covered in white stones and defensive plants. Towns where we know the kid they’re collecting for at the gas station. Towns whose most crowded buildings are the nursing homes. Towns where a girl disappears and you will find no one who saw it coming.
We came from suburbs with churches the size of malls. Suburbs where they fix Brazilian cocktails and cleaning-fluid drugs. We came from suburbs where the houses are squat bunkers and the trees cool and tall. And from suburbs where the doors and walls are hollow.
We came from cities that have worked their rivers brown. Cities with the scars of streetcars. Cities that buy their movie reviews from the newspapers of other cities. Cities that like dogs and scrapped-tire decking and wild-caught salmon.
We came from places where people only get close enough to touch across cashier counters. Where you might believe you are the first to see something, own something, bury something.
We thought we didn’t have accents or style. We thought we had been uncreased. We thought that polls were never talking about us.
And we came to this one place, the tallest, densest place. A city that will never need a marketing campaign. But often we came with our eyes normal-sized and open in our heads.
In fact, we didn’t always want to come, and we worried, some of us, about what might happen to our brains: how could we think when we knew that in every direction, for miles, millions of people were also thinking. The air looked, in our minds, like a nest of wires.
We visited the city beach once, before, but we could not go in the water, though it was ninety degrees, though we love the ocean. A few feet was the farthest we could have gotten from the next pair of legs. Everyone in the same water, the same sand. How would we think our thoughts were new?
We almost never have thoughts like these anymore, never feel like we’re in a prison of lungs and legs and greasy palms. We’re happy with an open park bench.
One evening in the part of the city where night is lit like day, we looked up a side street and saw a serpentine path, dark against the concrete. It began near our feet where it was evaporating. It was as if a garden slug the size of a wheelbarrow had disappeared down the street, leaving a slick behind. We followed its slow disappearance.
We were a small crowd because there was something to see, though none of us was sure what: a magic trick, an accident, an artwork, an advertisement? Something that would make us feel stupid in the end? We could hardly believe it, but it seemed simply this—water evaporating. And taking with it rainbow bubbles of gasoline, the tiny follicle where a rat hair had fallen from its hide, a drop of orange soda, drop of ink, drop of Windex, scents of pizza, ash, urine, and ginkgo berry, scuffs of shoe leather, rubber and plastic, spit and bubble gum, ice cream and sweat, dog nails, snake skin, spray tan, the feces of at least five species.
We breathed it in, of course. We let it land softly on our shoulders. We couldn’t have stopped it. And the city, its daily use, became part of our next seven years of cells.
We followed the path until it was gone, just like that. And we thought for a moment, before going home, how many roads we took to get here.
We found out later it was an art piece and photos had been taken of the path and its observers. We should have known there were cameras. There are always cameras, and daily we have to assume that people are too bored by human folly and vanity to care what they’ve caught us at.
These photos went on display downtown, but we didn’t want to see them. It’s enough to live among people. We do not need to see ourselves looking like anyone from anywhere.
The Forest Floor
This is a landscape that has difficulty breathing. The blocks, extending to the ocean in one direction and the desert in the other, look as if they have been soaked in brine and then desiccated, as if, should you lick a wall or signpost, your tongue would shrivel with salt. It is impossible to exaggerate the extremity of the colors. “Bleach” and “Electrical Storm” come close. There are occasional breaks in the concrete, and in these breaks one might find buildings, a bus stop, a telephone pole coated in creosote, or a tree—a good spot to chain a bike or a dog. In the homes on these blocks, trees create perspective in oil paintings, the backgrounds for Olan Mills family portraits, and the frames of children’s drawings, tree to the far left, tree to the far right.
In the middle of this landscape—squat building after building, grid of wire and streetlight, billboard and burrito shack—sat a gallery. The people who ran it thought art happened in every way except five feet from something hanging on a wall. They wanted to offer visitors gifts—cheerful, indispensable surprises—and the place subsisted on a host of government grants, a few major donors with peculiar ideas, and a pneumatic tube at the entrance that sucked up proffered bills of any denomination along with the occasional napkin sketch, i.o.u., or burger wrapper. Not long ago they decided to turn the gallery into a forest for a month.
Creating an uncannily convincing forest involved live plants, saplings, soil, and thick trunks with leafy branches to stand in for full-grown trees. Though, admittedly, log is to tree as pork is to pig, it was a necessary concession: uncut, living trees would have required removal of the roof. These giants were the first to be loaded in—great logs screwed to stands that would be concealed by the forest floor. The branches and bark shed during loading looked like litter on the sidewalk.
The amount of soil brought in was staggering—literally, it made them stagger—and the space was densely inhabited: bugs, pods, worms, rot, a serious and complex smell. Everyone shifted a little under the scent. If their ears could cock, they would be cocked.
They brought in the undergrowth: dead leaves, twigs, rocks, a hollowed out stump, ferns and grasses. In the gallery blender, previously used for cocktails and fruit drinks, they pureed bits of moss with yogurt and spread it on the downiest part of the forest to coax the moss to spread. People loitered outside, trying to resist their curiosity with the habitual diffidence of their posture.
There were changes, of course, even before the opening. For example, they could no longer drink soda in the office lest a nose-to-tail line of ants form from the forest to the lip of the can. They found a few beetles in the filing cabinet.
But they expected a light infestation. They had not expected the birds. In the first week, they found a starling in the forest. Fitting, but not surprising—every building gets one inside every now and then. But by the second week, representatives of more species had joined them—woodpecker, blue jay, finch. By the third week, a nesting pair of wrens.
Surely visitors were engaging in a bit of guerilla artistry, smuggling birds in and letting them go. Well, birds needed bugs and seeds, no? The gallery people brought in live grasshoppers from the reptile emporium and planted some late-stage sunflowers.
It was a hit. People came—a record number for the month. They came in blinking from the street at all times of day: singly, to lounge under the trees, slip into a childhood nap; or in small groups with picnic baskets, binoculars for the birds. One day, a school bus pulled up outside and an hour later they were plucking children from the leafy tops of trees and picking Now-and-Later wrappers out of the loam. They held events: talks on art and ecology and elves, a midnight screening of The Howling, scavenger hunts. A storyteller recited folktales about the sweetness and trouble between humans and forests. Forest as shelter, forest as test, eyes in the branches, branches hiding arrows, the erasure of home. Visitors lingered, had trouble finding their way to the door. More money than ever was sucked through the pneumatic tube, as well as scraps of paper with smiley faces, impromptu poems no one wanted to read. They extended the show another month, planned more events.
And on the morning of the third month, when they began the de-install, they encountered a few curious things: 1) A raccoon had built a nest in one of the stumps and a cursory inspection solved the mystery of missing supplies from the office. Pen, paperclip chain, letter opener, reading glasses. 2) What appeared to be new branches on several trees fanned toward a skylight. 3) The tree trunk closest to the front door, where they intended to start the breakdown, and which had been quite heavy but not impossible to transport on the way in, now would not budge.
Each trunk, the same: there was no way to push it over, no way even to rattle it. Digging in the dirt at the base, they found worms and spores, but they could no longer find the stands to which the trunks had been attached. They couldn’t, in fact, find the floor. They retreated, considered. Was this a battle? And, if so, did they really want to win? They tried to wonder “how?” but their minds veered repeatedly and settled on “what?” There were the birds, the raccoon, people who came on their lunch hour with a book.
They couldn’t have imagined their sanguinity two months before: it had been a gallery for ten years; it had been their life’s work. They looked at one another and shrugged. So, now it would be a forest, with a door.
The wolf’s lips are raised in a snarl, its head lowered as if assessing its prey. There is enough wild in you to feel a patch of hair rise on the back of your neck, and enough tame to enjoy the feeling. Only it is inside, under the lights, and you are in the dark. Only it’s stuffed, and you’re not standing outside a Montana bar but on the sidewalk of the latest gallery district. You have trouble telling where the danger is.
Inside, the lighting is impressive, instructive. It shows you the wolf mouth and in the mouth a sharp incisor and on that tooth a bug that is not a bug but a winged creature crouching on its hind legs, humanoid and primal and alien at once, made of bug parts and plant parts and a whisper of twine. Its tiny wings are borrowed silver, its torso darkly segmented. You think it has been caught up in the age-old story of mandible over flesh—the fairy insect will be torn and washed down. You lean in, get a thrill at the delicate sack of your eye close to such a point, and see that the carapace creature is at war, at its shoulder the smallest arrow. This is hubris or an object lesson in ambition. Prick the gums, scale the tooth, bleed the tongue.
You look again and the story changes. In the fur of the wolf chin, reinforcements, each ascending a single hair. They are not afraid; they have been made and now they are loose and rising. They will flood the mouth, its roof ribbed like the hold of a ship. They will spike the jellied brain, nap in the nasal cavities, sip from the back of the eye until it folds. How the wolf’s form will change when it is bubbling from within.
There is a genre of American photograph featuring men in woolen pants standing for scale and pride next to small mountains of fur. Inside of each fur the bones and disarray that had been a wolf. Bounty. Special prices for wolf cubs.
They were doubtless not eligible for taxidermy, which requires animals to be killed in such a way as to make it easier to pretend they are still alive. To mount an animal, taxidermy artists remove the skin, taking special care around the fragile areas like the eyes and nose and mouth. They take a mold of the carcass and try to capture the animal’s essence, channeling its posture from the inside out. They hide the sutures, slip expensive eyes into the sockets. Natural history museums across Europe are full of stuffed creatures—the last pose of the last of their kind.
You have seen a live wolf twice. Once on a concrete slab in an Athens zoo, the wolf’s body shrunk around its bones under the punishing heat, its face alive with flies. Once on a remote road a dark slink crossed in front of your car and was gone.
Hanging from the ceiling is a dragonfly that has been commandeered by two dark fairies and taken for a ride. Two more give a bumblebee’s fur a sharp nuzzle from which it won’t recover. It’s as if they have risen from the decay they’re creating: scraps of chitin, leg, and wing you’d need a magnifying glass to find. You think about what could come together from the corners of your apartment, from the sink strainer, from a drainage ditch, the foyer of a biotech, the mudflap of a semi, plastic gloves, vinyl siding, boot-heel, cardboard box, subway pole. Something neon with a powerful limp, and that is as far as you want to go.
In a corner they have vivisected a bat. One pulls at its earhole. Several more look as if they are trying to learn flight from the wings fanned and pinned. They springboard from the webbing, spar in the moss below. Play is practice. In the next piece, a mouse is harvested, mummified, as if sucked dry by a score of tiny straws. From a rabbit’s skull they have made a slide, a galleria, cafeteria, and lounge. The creatures’ very glee is menacing. Pleasure is bloody. One must seize one’s object, pin it and tie it, take it from the inside, make it dance.
You leave wondering if it is possible to be every character in a fairy tale. The fanged beast already doomed, the collage of deadly particles, multiplying their pleasures. We are, you think, a twenty-first-century army, and we know how to tell a story.
The girl with the tiny voice was a surprise. She stopped us on the street, said, Would you like to yell something?
Did we look angry?
No, You don’t have to be angry to need to yell. She said this so sweetly it was practically bird song.
Did we have time for this? Was there a catch? Even bird song could trap and bedevil.
She held up a furry blue bag the size of a large purse and shaped like splayed lungs. We could have called it a creature if we’d been feeling affectionate. There was an opening at the top, dark-lined, leading to its belly.
You see, she said, and took a giant breath. She bent over, mouth to opening, and turned squint-eyed and red in the face, the smallest cottony sound leaking out the sides. Then she stepped to the curb, leaned over the street, and squeezed the bag. Something that started as a rumble and soared into a battle cry fell out. We fought to get our hands on the creature.
The first one of us, it must be said, gave the kind of generic whoop you might hear ricocheting from a canyon. The second put some lung into it, and there were banshees in her lungs. We looked at her in surprise. The third spent a long time with the creature. The words she used must have been down in a low place. They came up muddy and mossy and through a great deal of effort. She watched serenely as the girl with the tiny voice knelt under a tree and emptied the sound onto the grass. We tried not to listen but there was something about five years and water and never. The last one, we don’t know and he isn’t saying. The girl walked away with his yell under her arm.
The next time we saw her, she was on a screen. A little video festival in a theater that was trying to be less blow-shit-up and more funny-pants. We were already tiring of videos; we wanted to see risk right in front of us. But we went.
In truth, until the moment she appeared, we thought perhaps we had hallucinated the scream incident—like so many moments here that take up residence in an alternate city. The tiny ancient cowboy, for example, walking down our quiet neighborhood street with a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate.
But there she was, eye level with a blender. Sweet-faced and pixie-haired and growling. The blender growled back, low, a little test of its voice. They looked at each other—that’s the way it seemed—surprised and pleased. She regrouped and came back with a melodic howl; the blender ramped up to a whir. The girl growled and howled, looked like a charming animal. The blender responded in kind, a stately elder finding his tucked away exuberance. She stopped, looked away. The blender cleared its throat. She started, looked, blinked. It revved again. She smiled. The End.
After, there were drinks—always drinks—and then some harsh words among us. Harsh words that came from bad feelings and led to more bad feelings. But they got tucked away again at the end of the night. It was difficult in this city to remember to go back through the bad feelings, label and discard them. Difficult to find the time. That night, in our beds, we could hear the refrigerator, the overloaded power strip, the digital clock, all murmuring through the night and we didn’t know what to say.
Not long after, we were at a low-key little gathering—a friend of a friend lucky enough to have a patio. The first heat of the summer was coming on and we were eating meat on sticks, starting to sweat through our clothes. She came in with a bag, kissed the host on the cheek and wandered the periphery of the patio, greeting people who took her hands, brushed her hair behind her ears, clearly loved her.
We trailed her shamelessly, though we couldn’t hear what they were saying, her voice was so small. “Hey, what happened to my scream?” one of us wanted to ask, but he did not want to sound cute. In truth, we only wanted to listen.
Later, when the group had thinned—and we should have thinned with it, given how well we didn’t know our host—he prodded the girl, Come on, let’s see it.
No, it’s not ready.
But she relented and produced from her bag a white orb, which she placed in the lap of the host. It was like a giant egg, the size of a pregnant belly. He sat with his hands on it and his face slackened, his eyes closed. We kept sending words out of our mouths, tried not to stare as the egg made its way around the circle.
Finally, it came to us. It was covered in what felt like very high-end doll skin—pliable but firm, ever so slightly powdery. As it sat there, an inch away from our organs, it began to breathe. Not a robotic ventilator tube breath, but an erratic infant breath, the kind you hang on, that you breathe with your own lungs to make sure they keep going. It moved just as delicately, expanding and shifting. We spread our hands, trying to take more of it in. Our blood moved to the surface of our skin as if to greet it.
Perhaps it was the meat in our bellies, the fact that smells had come rushing back with the heat, that our skin was exposed with the scant cut of our clothes, but we could not deny our parts, our animal parts. Except for our eyes, which we closed to move more fully into ourselves and into the egg, which hardly now seemed separate.
We held the egg too long, overstayed our welcome, but we did not want to open our eyes.
It was like that, seeing her three times, a fairy-tale number, and we expected she might be part of our lives now—she and her things that turned around inside of us and made the wrong things fall out and the right things fall in place, like a key in a tumbler. Click. But we never saw her again.
We don’t know where she went, but we miss her. We miss her so much. In our minds, we each hold a white room with three objects: blender, furry bag, and egg. We wonder, will the egg stay alive long enough for someone to pick it up and decide he should not set it down again?
She Came Back
The artist has been away. We know this as soon as we walk in. Not just away from us, but away from humans. She made a home someplace other than Earth. An outpost, perhaps.
She must have been gone a long time. We can tell because she took with her our earthly things—water bottles, mint tins, measuring cups, compasses, playing cards, squirt bottles, paper clips, little plastic monkeys from a barrel—and kept them away long enough for them to lose their labels and their function, and then brought them right back.
On the sparest balsam racks filling the sizable room, our things are displayed with precision, like grouped with like. She has arranged them as a study of the species, as if she herself had forgotten her context and can now handle it only with calipers. Whitewashed milk cartons are clustered high and thick, small discs lined up according to size, concrete molds of mice, tails broken on the journey back. Some items seem to have been coated in plaster, like water bottles, notebooks, and boxes that likely held all manner of carbohydrate—cereal, cracker, partially boiled rice, and corn-syrup-coated corn. We can only guess, no hint of the objects’ first function remains. They are outlines of themselves, as if they—or we—were rumors heard fourth-hand.
We’re not prepared for this, we would not choose it, to be the objects of study, to give up labels and the colloquial names for things. Would we have come if we’d known how blank and unsteady she would turn us? We don’t want milk so much as the picture of the split-rail-fenced farm on the package, the cow that looks us in the eye with its own very large, friendly eye, is present for us, is happy to whiten our cereal. We don’t want water so much as we want the signs of endless water: in the jiffy mart a wall of chilled, clear-blue bottles. The brand’s same tasteful suggestion of a wave propagating across a warehouse, big-rig, billboard, drink dispenser, and label picked nervously to ribbons.
The thing is, our things look lovely without us, lined up for study. They do not miss us. So the missing falls to us, and it’s a heavy burden, missing for two.
We can barely move our bodies from place to place; are we also expected to become wise? She asks us to imagine what we are without the backdrop that floods our passive vision. We look at the street sign but we see without seeing the telephone pole, padlock, meter box, curb, asphalt, concrete, blackened gum on the sidewalk an inverse constellation, four makes of cars, bumper stickers, brand names circling tires, litter, litter, litter, garbage can, dry cleaner with five Asian-lady posters, man with a child, presumably his own, child with Buzz Lightyear socks and a forearm bruise, woman stooping over a broken-toothed dog, two teenagers in flammable pants moving fast.
Everything but the juice box that was next to, not in, the trash can, now dipped in plaster.
Now: imagine an American dollar store in the early ’90s, a miniature baby bottle with a clear plastic strip along the side. When you tip the bottle up, a fabricated bubble moves along the strip from the top to the bottom where “Made in China” is stamped.
Imagine working in a factory that made items for a culture entirely unknown to us, items for which we had no reference. We would spend our finite time, the efforts of a body that wears out, on filling up boxes with things that some days seem frivolous, some days seem sinister. Who could want this hollow and bent section of plastic, and in such violent colors? We would have forgiven her if she hadn’t wanted to return.
Upstairs, in a darkened room, she had rebuilt a structure she must have used at her outpost. When we saw it, we knew that coming back was probably not obligatory or accidental—she had missed her home. The structure was part spaceship, part nest, part hippocampus. Two-by-fours framed the loose suggestion of a sphere. In lieu of walls, she had hung a lattice of picture postcards—lush greens merging into tidal blues, blues into molten lava, into turned fields.
The Earth is so beautiful it makes the backs of our throats burn. Wherever she went, it was not as beautiful, otherwise the new place would have made her forget the old. And here is leaf and blueberry, sunset and beetle, fireweed, jellyfish, honeycomb, tidal pool, and plum, ripe to splitting.
Everything we didn’t make, that dies and disappears.
At the door, we take a sheet that promises to tell us more. But her biography makes no mention of her missing years, how she survived reentry to our atmosphere. What it was like to be, for a time, not a citizen, not one of a species.
We think maybe time works differently out there. Decades pass for her in a star field, and when she comes back less than a season has turned on Earth. She may be the fourth generation of herself, but back home, she is understood as Sarah, Sarah still.
Or maybe we’re wrong, and she never left. It’s easy to be wrong these days, a truth becomes mostly false between swallows. Do you remember that you are swallowing? Do you know how fast we will forget our planet?
Work in Progress
This will be our show:
You walk into a large courtyard filled with trees. A handful of white pine cell phone towers, a host of plastic potted office ficus, inflatable palm trees, vines made of wire climbing trellises, and an assortment of artificial Christmas trees—traditional green, aqua spruce, silver, and pink with flocking.
You are not meant to be fooled, thinking for a moment that you have entered a nursery. When you are driving in November past an Indianapolis strip mall advertising a new tanning parlor, you do not think you have seen a living palm tree. When you are assembling the pink tinsel Christmas tree, you are not courting a memory of the sweet sharp scent of the balsam needles found in your carpet months after. They are new varieties and they do not require what we may not be able to give them—space, history, good air and water.
The cell phone tree, it is stiff no matter the wind. Along the highway, it stands taller than the rest of the trees, as if it used to live in a different forest altogether. The sprigs of needles, like green toilet brushes, barely conceal the transmitters. Birds do not nest, animals cannot climb, woodpeckers would bend their beaks. Only the most inattentive eye, the briefest car window glimpse could confuse them. We are interested in the eyes of the future—unspecific, unsentimental, unburdened.
The idea is that you get into this forest and you begin to find that your memory of forest is a memory of a memory. You retain a few words—vast, conifer, niche; a few images—mess of branches, shaft of sunlight stretching through.
But you may see that you don’t need memory at all. You’ve stepped into an optimistic future: you are no longer certain what came first, the tree or the tower. These trees needed you and your recollection of trees to come into being, but they need you less and less. Less than five minutes ago, more than five minutes from now.
We thought that might be all, boxes and boxes of trees unpacked and assembled, office suppliers and telecommunications companies contacted, cajoled (thank you, patrons and tax payers!). But then we had an idea we rather liked: Well into the courtyard, you will sense something has changed. The trees are not exactly right. It’s as if you are scanning the shelves, looking for a favorite product, but you reach and the box in your hand is the store brand. The color, the lines, they are so close. But something is off. These trees, the last group you see, they were not made by a machine made by a human. They were made by a human, our best effort at impersonating a machine.
We will use a great deal of plastic to make this piece, and aluminum and epoxy. Nothing with cells—those long, boxy cells we sliced and stained on slides in middle school—or stomata, the tiny mouths on the undersides of leaves. We can’t make what we didn’t make, but perhaps we can multiply what we have made.
You will notice, we hope you will notice, the care we took with tin foil, with vinyl and a sewing machine, with paint on nylon, which does not like to stick, with the etching of veins and the overgrowth of bark. We have gotten so close to the originals, but you must see in the end that someone has made these. We could not find and pluck all of our hairs from the drying resin.
Yes, we want you to come. We want the physical shapes we have arranged to arrive whole in your mind and stay there, like a survival pack, full of nutrition and fear. The show is for the future, but it opens into the now. We want you to think that we are funny and full and humane. We want you to think: even if the very worst happens, there will probably still be someone who loves me. And by love we mean can give stunningly precise details to a sketch artist. Your hairline, the contours of the skin between your nose and lip.
We want you to come, of course we do. We want to see your faces, the way they shift out from under themselves. There will be wine. But maybe we are making this for ourselves and the sentiment in our eyes: We do not have to be afraid. We do not have to be afraid. We—the great big we—have the trees we have dreamed of, and they will be more and more. It’s not so bad.
All of these pieces, except for the last, were written in response to artworks by—in this order—Andy Goldsworthy, the Machine Project (Los Angeles), Tessa Farmer, Kelly Dobson, Sarah Sze.