Tag Archives: survival

A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 6)

In 1995, Andrews’ implication in the unfolding of the HIV/AIDS pandemic yielded a suite of drawings rendered in oil and pencil and exhibited under the title Album.  The works in this series cross a calendar with a commonplace book, manually reproducing snapshots, letters, sympathy notes and greeting-card images that amount to an inventory of dreams both fulfilled and betrayed, conducted at some distance from the youthful optimism often associated with the promise of the future.  The unframed parchment paper that serves as the drawings’ material support evokes skin, and hence the body that eventually encounters what Seneca, in “De brevitate vitae,” calls “death’s final constraint.”  In the following year, Andrews literalized the allusion to the body readable in Album‘s fragile parchment, resorting to pliant pig intestine as the receptive surface on which he silkscreened familiar, even clichéd images of meteorological phenomena in a series entitled The Weather.  The sunset, tornado, lightning-bolt and wind-tossed waves offer themselves to a cursory glance as givens.  In fact, their complexity resides not in what they represent, but in an interplay of image, medium and material whose effects are not only unpredictable, but incalculable.  These brief landscapes begin by skewing the terms of our received understanding of the figure-ground relationship, cunningly enlisting the body as the surface on which they unfold.  Nothing is more mundane than the weather; yet the artist’s treatment, both conceptually and materially, makes a fresh demand for reflection on what we are perhaps too prone to take for granted.

The diptych “Parenthesis (no gold),” for example, presents both ends of a rainbow, their symmetrical placement adumbrating the invisible arc whose antecedents are inextricably natural and cultural.  For it is virtually impossible to register such an image independently of its palimpsestic overlay, whether the reference point is Jesse Jackson’s coalition, the gay activist banner, or – perhaps most inevitably – The Wizard of Oz.  Thus the stakes of a potentially banal depiction are raised in a way that the work’s title itself confirms:  For what we encounter here is not so much the representation of a rainbow as the figuring of a dubious promise, in the fabled pot of gold.

Read in the context of the new generation of antiretroviral therapies that became selectively available in 1996, the promise figured here takes on a certain specificity.  If in Facsimile‘s commemorative portraits the promise in question was that of the survivor to the dead, emphatically pledging not to forget, “Parenthesis (no gold)” articulates a promise of a different order:  that of longer survival, and with it the prospect of yet more effective treatments, perhaps a vaccine and eventually a cure.  It staked its first claim to our attention at a time when combination therapies including protease inhibitors held out the possibility (predicated of course on access) of a future radically other than the one presumed to that point by the HIV-infected, including Andrews himself.  The Weather, then, administers to its viewers a Wordsworthian “shock of mild surprise,” for the putative landscapes become legible as portraits, and indeed self-portraits.

As Andrews notes in the artist’s statement that accompanied the exhibition of the series in New York in 1997, “New drugs have afforded a ray of hope.  Hope is a fantasy of a future that might continue to unfold before us.  Who can predict?”  The cliché enlisted here takes the specific form of a catachresis:  a “ray” of hope.  As it does so often (so often that we may fail to notice), the language of affect borrows from other realms – the weather, for example – to figure an experience that resists formulation and formalization.  This reliance on the resources of language is evident in another component of the same exhibition:  a series of cyanotypes of a handwritten alphabetical list of names (Arthur, Berta, Cesar….) by which the season’s hurricanes – the unpredictable tempests of 1996 – were anthropomorphized, their force linguistically domesticated.  Tacitly, then, another allusion to The Wizard of Oz emerges, especially if we recall that the film’s storied heroine also has a telling surname:  Gale.  Taken together, these works attest that the black-and-white of the past (which was all along multiple shades of grey) has been sucked up and dashed to pieces by a vortex that has transplanted the very horizon, depriving us of our bearings.  We find ourselves catapulted to unmapped terrain – if not over the rainbow (“no gold”), then at some other point beneath its arc of promise.  Like the artist’s earlier efforts, The Weather thus combines a certain skepticism about the durability of the work itself with an abiding optimism about what is to come.  If biodegradability dictates in advance that this corpus, with its fragile material support, is destined soon enough to return to dust, the force of its attestation, which is irreducible to sense, may prove more resistant to the ravages of time.

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A sort of tomorrow (Stephen Andrews, part 1)

“And the second fact of his humanity began.” 

 —  Anne Carson, “TV Men:  Lazarus” in Men in the Off Hours, 2000, 93.

 

What, over time, will remain, in what form and under what conditions?  It is fair to say that Stephen Andrews’ aesthetic trajectory over the course of two decades and more was set in motion and guided by these questions, or versions thereof.  His inquiries have yielded a body of work that prompts renewed reflection on a process  that humankind has perhaps come to take for granted:  the biodegradation that is the eventual fate of things cultural as well as natural.  The complex interplay of image, medium and material that characterizes Andrews’ practice asks the viewer to gauge the consequences of biodegradability both for the semantic content of the work and for its material support.  And if all art arguably makes a similar demand, the stakes are perhaps raised when, as in Andrews’ oeuvre, the content comprises a range of concerns (among them love, fear, dependency, death, mourning, survival) for which the acronyms HIV/AIDS may serve as shorthand, and when the material support (including beeswax, latex, parchment, animal tissue) is obviously, even deliberately, vulnerable to the effects of time.

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‘what history teaches,’ part 8

In the text of “Generation,” what constitutes a memorial, a legacy, a historiography is an allegorical reinscription, exemplified in the San Francisco wind and windfall (the latter in both its senses, literal and figurative:  as the material evidence of the wind’s passing, and as a sudden or unexpected acquisition or advantage):  “A hundred years was lost, but the integrity with which their falling rewrote the landscape drew me to their monumental sides again and again to gape.  (The sound they must have made I’m glad I didn’t hear.)  The speed and scale of the devastation excited me even as I mourned the losses:  so big I couldn’t blink away the incontrovertible facts.  I wanted the hugeness and the solidity of the mess, the grim external confirmation, the proud physicality literally shaken to its roots” (86).  The rewritten landscape also serves as the scene of a telling encounter in a San Francisco park “famously – famously! – known for casual sex, though it’s been drastically pruned by AIDS, by which I mean not only that its practitioners have dwindled, but that the censors and jurists early on tried to garden away the underbrush that offered pagan cover to public acts” (87).  [Derek Jarman makes a comparable observation about London’s Hampstead Heath, “where there has been another massacre of holly bushes by the moral guardians.  It’s sad to see the place raped by the city which now condemns the old trees to the bonfire if people make love under their branches” (Smiling in Slow Motion, 177).]  In this park already “pruned” by AIDS and further harassed by the winds,

A man I knew minimally – we never really spoke – approached and kept my eyes.  I’ve seen him for fifteen years along a variety of erotic routes.  He paused to talk about the weather – you do that in San Francisco because you like to show off your luck at living here – and he eyed the tumble of branches, the inviting trouble they’d made.  He thought there might be human cover there too, and chuckled at the fortuitous change.  The place is ghosted – we both knew that – it was nice to contemplate a turn.  “It’s good to see you,” he said pointedly, far more direct than either of us expected, “I mean there’s so few of us left.  It’s good to see you still around,” by which he meant “alive.”  [88]

In the wake of the San Francisco windstorm (it might have been an earthquake), the quasi-strangers come together, by way of an unexpectedly direct address, as witnesses, survivors, veterans – at least as of 1996, the date that punctuates “Generation,” the closing chapter of Unbound:  A Book of AIDS.

Here again, Shurin’s text is dated, and in more senses than one, thanks to the double functioning in English among other languages of the verb “to date”:  Transitively, one dates a text; intransitively, a text dates when it ages, whether well or poorly – in other words, when it acquires a history.  The dating of “Generation,” for example, gives us to read the remarking of a commemorable provenance:  San Francisco, 1996, a year in which the introduction of more effective antiretroviral therapies led some, “contemplat[ing] a turn,” to invoke (not for the first time) the imminent prospect of a cure, in what would soon enough prove a false promise.  Thus the date makes the text newly legible for us, here and now, in our finite outliving of the pandemic.

If reading in the archive of HIV/AIDS demands a reckoning with such dates, it is here a matter of a deliberate practice of dating that bears spectral witness to “the process of history itself disappearing” in an effort to turn it around.

VOICE:  This is a story about becoming a story.  It has to be told.  It has to be put in the past….

It’s a story about becoming the past….

NEY:  It has to be told.

VOICE:  It has to pass through.  Telling turns it around.

It doesn’t disappear.

NEY:  It turns around.

VOICE:  It begins again, and it turns around….

NEY:  It turns into the past….  [“TURNAROUND, a solo dance with voice” (1993)]

At every turn, Unbound:  A Book of AIDS summons those of us who have so far survived what has come to pass to make the effort required to read this receding past even as it threatens to disappear before our eyes.  For “all persons of voice (first, second, and third)” remain at risk:  “given its spatial and temporal dimensions, its structure of relays and delays, no human being is ever safe from AIDS” (Derrida, “Rhetoric of Drugs,” 251).  Now and henceforth, lives depend on our recognition of this overwhelming fact of life.

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‘what history teaches,’ part 7

The survivor’s testimony, then, is a matter of response and responsibility.  In “Some Haunting,” the phantom address elicits, by way of response on Shurin’s part, a question – “How do I serve this dead young man?” – that again summons the text of the past, estranging and reconstituting Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men / and women.”  When, as in this instance, reading and writing “the process of history itself disappearing” demand that we translate the hints, the fleeting fragments afforded by the past, poetics and historiography prove inseparable.

Unbound puts “Song of Myself” in quotation marks once more in its final chapter, dated 1996 and entitled “Generation.”  It recounts the aftermath, or more properly the wake, of a windstorm that raged through San Francisco “late in the night of December 12, 1995”:  “The wind tore deep at the earth as if it wanted to get in:  a thousand trees uprooted or broken in Golden Gate Park, hundreds elsewhere pulled out by their hair….  The city whose trees are reaching maturity together woke to a loss that was generational:  not once in a lifetime, but a unified swath of lifetime lost” (85).

Confronted with this violation of life expectancy, Shurin has recourse, again, to Whitman:  “It was grass growing on top of the dying trunk that originally drew my pen, preposterous and fertile like Whitman saw it:  ‘And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. / Tenderly will I use you curling grass, / It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men'” (88).  Resituated in their context in “Song of Myself” (whose several versions are also variously dated, in the ten editions of Leaves of Grass published from 1855 to 1897), the lines resonate further:

A child said What is the grass?  Fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child?  I do not know what it is, any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord

A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,

And it means….

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,

It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,

It may be if I had known them I would have loved them.

With the confession that “I do not know what it is,” the tentative reiteration of “I guess” and “it may be,” the “I” in “Song of Myself” speculates from before or beyond certain knowledge, and considers a range of possible responses to the child’s question about the grass.  But Unbound‘s first person, writing and citing in a time of crisis, seizes on Whitman’s “now” – “And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves” – recognizes and reads it, allegorically, as part of an effort to make sense of the devastating windstorm and what it figures.  As in Whitman’s “Calamus,” the body is here “metaphorized as leaves, roots, blossoms, scented herbage, live oak, moss, vines and buds” – so much windfall in the wake of the savage weather.  [In the final paragraph of “Generation,” Shurin writes:  “A reminiscent wind has whipped up, strewing the gleaming street with papers and leaves, anything that rises.  I imagine a series of substitutions which stand for flight:  black crow, broomstick, milkweed, vapor trail, pterodactyl, red balloon, oak pollen, helicopter, luna moth, dust mote, box kite, June bug, rocket man, gazelle.  The wind takes them all” (89).]  “I pushed the ruin of the storm to mean the ruin I needed.  What constitutes a memorial, a legacy?  Where do the bodies go I don’t see go – no graves, no burning ghats – and how do they reseed a city lost to loss?” (88).

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‘what history teaches,’ part 3

If Unbound is “weighted toward witness,” this attribute of the text attests to its author’s “cursed rare privilege” – his chance to have been the intimate observer of, and at times actor in, or party to, the experiences he commemorates, and further to have survived them.  For by definition, one testifies only when one has (so far) outlived what has come to pass.  The work’s status as the testament of a survivor opens its reflexive poetics onto, turns it into, historiography.  But this history-writing itself takes specific forms in language that make their own non-negotiable demand on writer as well as reader:  “to pay attention – poetics – as if one’s life depended on it.”  As we read in “Notes from Under,” “So, a cloud of attendant issues and their griefs.  Among friends – dead, dying, or scared, the sorrowful healthy – testimony:  what I have seen that you must now know, see, for I have been surrounded and among my friends in adversity creating a life, their rising and falling beauties, death and tests and imagined fulfilled acts that have unleashed instructions upon us, the uninitiated” (14-15).  The address that inscribes a prior address, bearing the word allegorically for, to and from the other (“I let them speak” [35]), delivers in the first instance not meaning, but the force of a testimony whose I/thou structure Shurin locates in the ubiquitous obituaries of the time (“and it’s hard to be impersonal when people are calling each other sweetie across that gulf” [15]), and that is for him the “only proper usage; what signifies is that the form functions while including the dead” (15).  And that testimony’s imperative mode – “what I have seen that you must now know, see” – recalls the pivotal demand, or command, addressed by the I to the you in the second line of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:  “And what I assume you shall assume.”

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Numbered Days (‘To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life,’ part 3)

1.  On this twenty-sixth day of December, 1988, as I begin this book, in Rome…several months after those three months when I was truly convinced I was lost, and after the months that followed when I was able to believe myself saved by the luckiest of chances [par ce hasard extraordinaire], wavering now between doubt and lucidity, having reached the limits of both hope and despair, I don’t know what to think about any of these crucial questions, about this alternation of certain death and sudden reprieve [cette alternative de la condemnation et de sa remission]…. [E 2; F 10; emphasis added]

Attesting to the origins of “this book” – the book we are now attempting to read, the roman or work of fiction signed by Herve Guibert – the narrative here refers the reader back to its first sentence and paragraph, specifically to “those three months” when “I had AIDS,” or more precisely when the first person (whom we will henceforth, following his cue, call Herve) believed that his fate, an imminent and premature death, was sealed, and to the ensuing months inaugurated by the extraordinary chance (hasard of course also signifies risk or danger, crucial senses in this context) that brought the promise of possible salvation.  We learn that he embarks on this book in the aftermath of the three months and the several months that followed, in a time of flux precipitated by his alternation between despair and hope, between the prospect of imminent death and the promise of reprieve.  Little wonder, then, that here and throughout the narrative temporal indications abound.

Despite the imprecision of “several months” and “the months that followed,” this uncertain time is given the strict demarcation of a date that both historicizes it in the context of the unfolding of the epidemic and locates it in the narrative sequence.  History and story, dovetailing in the French histoire, are intricated in a text that can be read as a partial historiography of AIDS, as chapters from Guibert’s autobiography, and as the work of fiction it styles itself:  for example when we read that Bill, the friend of the title to whom the book is addressed and dedicated, “was the first to tell me about this famous disease, it must have been sometime in 1981.  He’d just returned from the United States, were he’d come across the first clinical reports about this strange death and its specific provenance in a professional journal” – presumably the June 1, 1981 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which included the first published clinical account of the condition known only later as AIDS  [E 13; F 21].  With “it must have been,” the self-declared literary fiction binds itself to history, to one among several indelible events that serve here as referents.  With regard to the narrative sequence, which is irreducible to a chronology, part of the reader’s task in this instance will be to reckon in light of what follows that “this twenty sixth day of December, 1988” falls four days after the tests undergone on December 22 of that year to check for the presence in Herve’s blood of the antigen P24, sign of the active, no longer latent operation of the HIV virus.  For only subsequently are the tests and their dates explicitly noted.

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