The Photograph greeted me as a neatly packaged risk.
Unlike the poets and artists of different times and geographies whose work could bring about imprisonment or worse, my work takes very little risk. And yet art reminds me relentlessly that faith is rudiment to creation, even at the level of imaginary stakes, the mostly self-imposed type. What is at stake?
The Photograph’s owner has released this fragile art piece into several unknown hands. One of the writers who held it before me is someone I have not met in person, but whose writings I have read for over a year now, who faithfully reads my writings and offers me resonant references to literature and theory. We have a textual connection in virtual space, but the shared physicality of the Photograph closes our geographical impossibility into a more intimate interstice. As such, the more hands the Photograph passes through, the more beauty, the more meaning it seems to accumulate. An intermediary to creation and inspiration, the Photograph is becoming ever more sanctified. Far from Walter Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction whereby a photograph loses its aura, this Photograph is gathering preciousness.
The more precious it feels in my hands, the more devastating it is to imagine its loss or destruction. And still, the more artists and writers like me who create from it, the more it is open to chance, to misfortune, and easily could slip away.
I know artists must gamble on welcome, as George Steiner says. Yes, those who arrive at the boardinghouse of life may bring loss or death — “but without a gamble on welcome, no door can be opened when freedom knocks.”
These words grow truer as I move into my middle years. I have come to know deeply the amazing array of possibility spanning all colorful forms of tragedy and fortune. At the same time, life seems to have fastened to itself more attachments (my family and friends, my nest, my belongings which need more belongings) so as to stir up an existential quandary for even the most mundane of choices. What happens to my body/career/relationships if I have another child? What if a stroke of orange ruins that entire painting? What if my idea turns out wrong, if nobody understands it? The door is getting heavier, and I find myself turning into that old, lonesome woman who cracks it open just enough to turn away the unknown.
Tonight in my studio in San Francisco, my collaborators, Karen and Adam Hathaway and I used the Photograph to question with a hopeful openness, to ask what-if’s along an artistic exploration: What if we do this with the Photograph? What if we do that? The more possibilities we supported each other in trying, the more we stood guard over each other’s freedom.
Here are a few of our images, and a few I made myself — all taken before I send the Photograph into the next unknown pair of hands. And from there, who knows.
(The Photograph projected into the fog over the Pacific Ocean.)
The Photograph has stood guard over me and my freedom to creatively fumble or fly. It echoes the same sentiment found in Zbigniew Herbert’s poetry, a man who knew great loss was sometimes the price of great work, that one must strive for justice and beauty even when the sacred collapses. They both utter:
Be faithful Go.
(Photograph projected over a Willa Cather quotation from a page torn out of a book on happiness.)
Zbiegniew Herbert’s full poem is here:
The Envoy of Mr. Cogito
BY ZBIGNIEW HERBERT
TRANSLATED BY BOGDANA CARPENTER AND JOHN CARPENTER
Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize
go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust
you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony
be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important
and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever you hear the voice of the insulted and beaten
let your sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards—they will win
they will go to your funeral and with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography
and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn
beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown’s face in the mirror
repeat: I was called—weren’t there better ones than I
beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don’t need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you
be vigilant—when the light on the mountains gives the sign—arise and go
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star
repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand
and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap
go because only in this way will you be admitted to the company of cold skulls
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes
Be faithful Go