Thinking about art as an institutional structure, especially its capitalist moorings, this essay verging on prose poetry meditates on capitalism, sexism, art, and photography, entwining with the idea of things falling apart.
1. Catalogue Raisonné of the Patriarch’s Ruins
He invited me into his house. I needed somewhere to shelter, to end the years of homelessness. The patriarch’s place looked endless, the way sky crossing through wind is also a form of breath. He’d once been a sea captain, or he’d purchased or stolen a sea captain’s mansion, then added like to like, architects doing his bidding. Though the ocean pays for itself, I charged for my labor. I just didn’t charge enough.
My job is to detail every image, night and day, compile in my mind his belongings, each treasured object, a catalogue raisonné. To live in his house, where I was not homeless, I agreed to list the ghosts of his airplanes, hydrocarbon plumes, his fields of burning oil, swathes of forest on fire, and provide an accounting only for the patriarch himself of all that he’d buried: plundered gold bar, bitcoins, shimmer of girls’ clothes stripped from their bodies, arcs of rockets, dredged parasitic oil.
I kept inventory, writing the catalogue raisonné without judgment, committing every item to memory as, upon completion of the list, the catalogue of my mind would belong to him, an exact replica of all he’d stolen. I’m telling you, I’d been homeless for so long it seemed an even bargain—inhabit his house with its peach orchards and migratory workers, its minerals mined, its symbols of Christ and lesser gods, its diamonds and choked or swollen rivers. I wrote them in my mind, surpassing the pink horizon, noting children who suffered, jotting their names without comment. No amanuensis, I was myself the author of the catalogue raisonné list. His house, you must understand, felt almost safe, and in bad sleep I kept intact one place, remembering not to add my own name to the catalogue.
Sometimes I’d dream of the hotel where I’d lived with other women, several to a bed, a world of shaking rains. Trucks crossed the highway transept. Heaven gives each of us singular gifts. The list shone so vividly when I delineated it, almost endless, this piracy, ocean rising into the sky.
2. Things Fall Apart
The painting in grandmother’s house looked sacred, showing a woman disappearing down a dirt road. Grandfather bought it for her because she loved the idea of disappearing. Her piano is also a path to vanishing. Note by note, a painting is not the image of music but its heavy sky. A woman disappearing is not a new sight.
She’s still visible, in memory, grandmother at the piano, playing with skill. The world is ending to make way for more houses. Play on. I want to walk away, and mostly I’ve already left. But it’s there, burgundy rug soaked filthy with cigarettes ashes, so close to requiem, this unmended room. Pinewoods verge from the road. It would clean my mind to know the trees are holy and a few animals who will not speak of it. Play the piano beneath the painting.
Above the hearth mantel, a chimney. Smoke can be sacred, though sometimes fire’s only violence. Why not just say it, we’re burning the sky for our sorrow, burning the earth for our hunger. She will play the piano the way a painting plays its road, forever and ever, unto ages and ages. A piano, a road, and kneeling are related to the way the world will end. A psalm and a forest answer it, but this house is ours, of conflagration. I used to watch that painting above the hearth. Now it’s inside me, the path.
3. Shopping Mall as Afterimage
It isn’t the dereliction of this place right now but that it was ever built. Paying with the solemn sky, we will buy shoes, Karina, and also gloves so as not to walk on garbage, not to touch the wintering damage. It turns out, our autoimmune systems got wrecked by stress, pesticides, and nuclear testing fallout. We can meet in the basement where it’s empty, everything’s sold, nothing left to sell. Counting cards, we’ll win when nothing’s left for our spoils.
Come back to this hollow place, where the earth was opened, this mall built by men kneeling, as if worshiping, never paid fair for their labor. It’s not that the shops are closed, who cares, everything’s online now, delivered by men driving trucks, door after door. It’s that the world once lived here, invisible labor. A ledger almost dark, vanishing into what’s purchased and discarded. In this list include fragile money at the tip of light. Legerdemain—the defunct shopping mall holds emptiness as nothing else can. Of afterimage, I want that feeling, that space of giving up entirely, when horses have disappeared and also school buses and machines of knowledge, and heaven’s a website of last resort, catalogue raisonné of ourselves and of our origins, ghostlier demarcations. This vacant photograph.
Image at top: Carol Eisenberg, Styx 01, photograph, archival print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag® Metallic paper, 2014 (photo: courtesy of the artist; with special thanks to Carol Eisenberg).