The National Gallery

1/19/15 Martin Luther King Day, Phoenix, Arizona

It’s perhaps perverse, or entirely appropriate, to spend three hours on the afternoon of Martin Luther King Day in Phoenix, Arizona (North Scottsdale) absorbing Frederick Wiseman’s documentary, NATIONAL GALLERY. The only black faces, in a parade of intense, focused, “smart” and mostly middle-aged-and-older faces, belong to some of the young students receiving a lecture tying the collection they are viewing with the human slavery that paid for it. A few black guards/docents appear as background, but we do not hear from them. We hear from quite a few very intelligent, dedicated, and passionate people talking talking talking about the art we are looking at. And we look at a lot of looking. But the lookers, the listeners, the lecturers, are mostly very pale, very northern European. This isn’t by itself surprising or alarming. The art we are looking at is, after all, housed in the National Gallery of an imperial power, and the subjects and aesthetics are rooted there culturally, geographically, historically. This is not a documentary about the Tate Modern, after all. Yet this mash-up of monochrome is never addressed. Perhaps that’s one of Wiseman’s points, hiding as he does his p.o.v. behind other documentarians’ processes (you leave the film realizing that the National Gallery is forever hosting some film shoot, exhibition, or visiting lecturer). There’s something archival about the film, a gesture acknowledging the enormous investment a certain demographic has in a certain kind of painting.

In one of the early scenes of the film, before we really get into the art itself, we are dropped-in on a discreetly heated conversation between two administrators of the National (no one, besides the few actual performers scattered throughout the film, are ever identified). Discussing a proposed projection onto the face of the building that will accompany a coming charity/sporting event, the shorter, female, heavier conversant is clearly coming at this from a public relations angle, while the thinner, taller, male (clearly the superior) is having none of it. Though he never states it (this is the U.K., not the U.S) he is defending the brand.

Much of the art we are looking at is gloriously, almost ecstatically old, antique, animated by narratives that the many explainers in the film do an extraordinary job of enlivening. To watch this film is to realize that the horrid process of imperialism failed not only in creating a better world, but also in sustaining its own relevance to a post modern generation. The majority of the faces listening intently do not reflect the diversity of the London of today. This is not, let’s remember, altogether bad. If the sweet promises of multiculturalism are to be fully realized, why not allow all tribes their trove? But is this then really the “National” Gallery? Is the wisdom of Wiseman that he never explicitly says that he is filming a dying power, yet we feel the lights flickering? A curator fusses over the frame shadow marring the top of a Leonardo, but otherwise all is light and learning.

AT REST (2013 Revision)

I wrote the original in 2002, and it was published in Goldsmith University Centre for Urban and Community Research Newsletter, Street Signs. Spring 2003  Volume 1, Issue 5. This is a revised version.

AT REST (Revised July 2013)

Inscribed on a park bench in London’s Highbury Fields: Kathleen Hoy 1903-1994. Much loved Mother. Well done. So very western and Protestant in its reduction of familial love to the accomplishment of a task, a quantifiable achievement modifying an abstract emotion. This is the industrial revolution at its most basic. Mother, her job now ended, is given this tight little send off, its curt periods cutting off any excess; the emotional equivalent of a gold watch and hand shake. Good job. Good bye. Yet such terseness is affecting; this inscription burned into the wood of a simple park bench, one of many on the perimeter of the park, one bench out of many, one mother out of a nation of, one assumes, much missed mums. It works.

Out for a run, I stop at the bench, the marker of the end of my once-around morning sprint, resting a leg on a low rung to stretch tight hamstrings. And think of my own mother. One of the triumphs of this kind of sentimental gesture is that it causes the viewer to reflect on his own life, his own mum, whether specifically accurate or not. Like any good sentiment, it sweeps away the cluttering “no” of doubt and allows for the more generous “yes”; yes, my mother has indeed done a good job with us, her children. Had she not, would this particular son be here, in London, on an extended holiday, easing a middle-aging body into another day of discovery, distraction, and occasional triumph? It was my parents, after all, who equipped me with the skills, the building blocks of personality and position, which led me here to this lovely place. And could it be their wonder at the world, a paying attention to attention, that would cause me to notice this small thing, this modest mention in a city of monuments? Well done.

But this well-being is mitigated by another marker, on an adjoining bench: “Damian Farr 11.6.68 –4.5.94 WITH LOVE.” A man ten years my junior, yet dead. Died of what, this Damian? Why would a young man in his mid twenties die in the early nineties? Could he have died of the thing that I escaped, the virus I began running from, metaphorically, in the early eighties; that virus delivered, as so much is, through the act of love itself? There is no such reference on the marker, but it is a marker of my own identity, my own life, that I make assumptions, wild guesses that are not so wild, that I glean information from its very lack. Stick to the facts. Damian died the same year as Kathleen, yet died a young man, while she achieved the full span of old age. Did he too have children to leave a marker for him? Doubtful. So this memorial is left by whom, with what relation to the deceased? Would the same society which instinctively approves of Kathleen’s long life and motherhood cast the same beneficent eye on Damian? Who am I to assume they would not? Why am I gathering evidence? This is not a crime, but an accumulation of notices, announcements of demise, of disappearance, brief fanfares to which I feel compelled to add notes. I am attempting to leave something of my own in this place I am temporarily residing in, applying the standards of my home, as a child in the motherland of empire, past tense. I have come to one of my ancestral lands to stand musing in front of memorial plaques about imaginary lives. And I have an agenda.

As do others; culture, even in memoriam, does not rest. Many months later, having once again the privilege to return to London, to Highbury Fields, to my morning run around the perimeter, I find Kathleen Hoy’s memorial itself marked. An additional inscription, graffitied onto the parallel lines of her park bench, barks: “DEAN, CHARLENE, NEVILLE+COLLIN WOZ ERE 2000 AN ONWORDS!!!” My initial grief at such a defacement molds injury into irony; these are the living, the young (I assume) asserting the sloppy ecstasy of their lives, spewing onto whatever surface the proof they are indeed alive, the brood of a no-longer imperial power who (I assume once again) know none of Kathleen’s struggles, the context of her times, the meaning implicit in “well done.” Or perhaps not. Perhaps they are her grandchildren, or their peers, unable to fathom this disappearance, this clipped emotion, and so must mark its occurrence; as a dog, when lifting its leg after sniffing out the past presence of another, both salutes and erases.

And what of Damian? He is, as of yet, undisturbed. Would Dean, Charlene, Neville+Collin have left something more specific to his memory? Did they purposely avoid him, choosing Kathleen instead? For Damian, would they have reconsidered the brag of their “2000 An Onwords!!!” leaving out, at the very least, a few exclamations? Yet perhaps their mark is not so different from my own written attempt; we mark-up each other’s lives, and deaths, reconstituting them into our own. And we live, as they declared, on words. I run on.

But something runs after me. My initial jog around Highbury Fields, with the discovery of Kathleen’s plaque, occurred in 2000. My memory of this event, published in the in-house publication of Goldsmiths University two years later, gets around, finding its way to the mother of Damian Farr. In 2005, I receive an enquiry from her, written from West Sussex:

“Dear Jeff McMahon – I am Damian’s mother. I read the whole essay and of course am now intrigued to know who Kathleen is who has the bench near Damian’s and also how you came to be there? I lived at Highbury Corner for 30 years and Damian met his death there, outside the pub on the corner. It was the worst night of my life but I retain a very strong sense of Damian’s presence and a kind of joy and gratitude for the person he was and for having had him for 25 years. My brother produced a book of Damian’s photographs with a short life history and excerpts from his letters. It was for private publication but I do have a copy that you would be most welcome to have and I think Damian would be well chuffed to know that someone of your professional standing and media involvement had expressed an interest. Perhaps you could let me know the address to send it to. Thank you for what you wrote. Greetings Kate Glazier (nee Burgess, formerly Farr)”

From this book of his photos and commentary, I learn about Damian’s life as a much traveled photographer, and the facts of his death. Celebrating the Arsenal’s European Cup victory in Copenhagen, he “fell under the wheels of a passing lorry suffering massive injuries below the waist,” and never regained consciousness. The lorry driver was exonerated, with the coroner’s verdict being “death by misadventure.”

Five years after the note from Damian’s mother, my own mother is dead. Unlike Kathleen Hoy, she did not make it into her nineties, but at age eighty-five had indeed lived a full life, diminished by a stroke that six months later struck again, sudden as a wayward lorry, jolting her permanently into an unconsciousness from which she, like Damian, never returned. But we, her family, were prepared for this, as I assume Kathleen’s children were, and as Damian’s mother could not be.

We live on, consciousness handed-off like the baton in a relay race, or flung sharply with no warning. Well done? With love? Onwords.

© 2002-2013 Jeff McMahon


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Summer 2014

When one lives in a city surrounded by water, this essential element often flows unnoticed until announcing itself by either performing tricks or misbehaving. Humans treat such sustaining elements with neglect, until a tragedy makes us notice. Architects and designers are then hired to make us look again and acknowledge something other than our own assumptions and memories. What is it about directed water that attracts and excites us, sharpens our attention yet relaxes our inhibition? In 2008, Olafur Eliasson’s The New York City Waterfalls elevated the East River in four sites, sucking its water upward so that it could fall into the actual river from above. A bewitchingly simple manipulation, it drew attention primarily to itself, the incongruity and logic of water on water, elevated and amplified by scaffolding.

The 9/11 Memorial, at the site of the former World Trade Center, has a very different intent, almost closing in on itself while also expanding the viewer’s sensibility. Each of the twinned memorials is essentially a four-sided waterfall descending in two levels, separated by an acre-large reflecting pool. The top falls are carefully channeled rivulets, individual strands falling into and uniting in the huge pool. The much smaller lower falls, constructed of granite tiles suggestive of a mausoleum, direct the water into sheets as it disappears into the lower chamber hidden from our elevated view. We cannot follow.

Visitors to the memorial snap photos, but such attempts seem doomed, the structure too deep and receding to be in the picture plane. High above on solid, dry ground, we cannot take in the entire thing. Perhaps that’s the point; it’s about planes, double meaning intended. We are not on the same plane as those who died, as they are far below now and you will not be allowed by their memorial’s depth to impose your living self. You will have to settle for the names of those who actually died here, their tilted plane of inscriptions blocking you from the depths. The memorial sinks into the earth, swallowing up the waters of sorrow, calling to mind not only tears but the oceans of water futilely sprayed by fire crews thirteen years prior.

These two footprints of towers no longer towering are pressed into the earth, where water now rushes into them, as water will do if allowed. We are reminded of the “slurry wall,” something few of us know of before the disaster, which holds the river back and on that day kept it from immediately engulfing the wound (and all of lower Manhattan). This footprint, this controlled flood, carries not only remembrance but prescience. As Hurricane Sandy made clear, future disaster lurks from water elevated through climate change.

The audacity of this memorial, after years of fury over memory rights and property rights, is to simply allow these huge holes to remain forever, pushing new buildings to the sidelines. The foundations, the wreckage, demands to be recognized. And we can only peer in, we cannot enter. What might feel inappropriately grandiose and exclusionary is instead an assertion of aesthetic and historic justice. We stare into the pit, forced to gaze over the names, touching them if only to get a better view, while around the memorialized scar work continues, on Santiago Calatrava’s grand (perhaps too grand?) transit center, another plaza, and of course other buildings. This memorial is part of New York City, after all. Will it ever be finished? Is it better to keep building, for to truly finish might signal a time to stop remembering?

The individual connection to the memorial has not been erased, only made into a more generative process. There are 2,983 people listed on the two sites of the South Tower and North Tower. I had my own disconcerting moment, discovering “Robert D. McMahon” as I leaned into the structure. The simple fact of his name’s affiliation with mine pushed me to find out more about him on one of the many archive kiosks ringing the site. A fireman born in 1965, he lived in Woodside, Queens, and died fighting the disaster that led to this memorial. Other names have roses stuck into them, indicating that today would have been their birthday. There are small signs asking that we report anyone scratching or marking the memorial. This is not about leaving a mark, but paying attention, and respect, to the site itself, and those whose deaths have already been engraved upon it.

One can’t visit a memorial like this and not think of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, which changed forever the way loss represents itself, if we allow that absence to speak. There is the list of names, the massiveness, the brutal yet generative interaction with the earth itself, yet here we are also taken into the earth through the endlessly falling water, signaling not an end but a continuation of the victims themselves and the situations that led to their deaths. Prescience again; will the wars begun by this disaster ever stop?

Like many New Yorkers, I came to this memorial suspicious. Is it possible that after all these years of haggling, anything would be even close to adequate? This memorial washes, floods my cynicism away, but it doesn’t cleanse. Refusing jingoism, it is not a fist thrusting aggressively towards the sky. Yet neither does it simply “invite contemplation,” an anodyne suggestion too often affixed to modern monuments. The New York City 9/11 Memorial is, literally, a deep response, shutting us up but not shutting us down. We can attempt to gaze down into it, but it withholds, just enough.

Darkness Divisible: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and too many others

December 2014 Phoenix, Arizona

I awake these mornings to thoughts of what I have been taught to describe as blackness, darkness, a void where fear and desire intersect on a spectrum that is not universal. This is not really my state, my place, my usual way of being. My usual worries are mundane and not life threatening. They are, in fact, about things that will extend my life, will further me in some way, and my fretting has about it the self-imposed envelope of neurosis. No one in my circle of friends and loved ones is in the direct path of harm, as far as I know. I may wake excited or fretful, but seldom fearful. I can go out in the street with a hoodie over my head and not assume that I will be seen as hiding, as threatening; I risk only being judged as trying a bit too hard to be youthful.

I did not know Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or any of the unarmed black men, most of them young, lives peremptorily ended by an agitated, armed police officer. I know of them, but I do not know them. Or so I have been taught, indirectly, to think. They are the other, from the other side of town, the other side of the tracks, the other side of a spectrum, a theory, an economic, political, and even sexual history that is intractable and impossible to undo. Is it? What is it that we are forcing ourselves to accept every time another such elimination of a life comes across our multiple screens? What kind of ghoulish performance am I giving in my struggle over how best to grieve; march, protest, rebel, throw something at someone(s)? I’m not talking about privilege here; this is America in 2014 and a dwindling few of us feel privileged. We are united instead in a fear of falling, of failing, of being forgotten by a system we accepted but never effectively analyzed. The difference is how far we fall, and whether we were ever in a place high enough from which to truly, disastrously fall. The difference is in the damage, and whether there is something, someone, to catch us. There is also our (I mean white folks’) enormous affinity for the pain and suffering of others. It’s not that we are evil or anesthetized, but that a longing for authenticity is embodied in our acquisitive culture. The agony of others reminds us that we are alive, and can somehow help heal. And then go back to our lives, undamaged, more fully alive, virtuous.

I am filling out a form, so standard and expected that to reflect on it seems a bit precious, asking for my ethnic identity. There are quite a few choices offered. I am asking an arts organization for money to support my current project. I have been educated to know I can ask for specific kinds of assistance and I might actually receive it. This project questions, artfully I think (I hope), much of that very system of privilege and position I am currently fretting over. Or so I am privileged to think. I had earlier questioned someone at this same foundation as to why their denoting of gender on this form offered only the two choices of male or female; what happened to our quite recent, almost fashionable, acknowledgment of trans-ness, of being not one or the other but both or neither? The response was gratifyingly abashed and engaged, and I had a brief moment of feeling heroic. After all, I am quite comfortably male (oh really?) and this isn’t about me… How enlightened of me to notice this oversight! My collaborator on this project, ostensibly as pale as I am, has not completed the ethnic identity question on this form. I assume it’s an oversight and am about to alert him, when I realize this might be intentional. He has a partner who acknowledges his mixed racial identity, and he lives in a city, Oakland, where shifting racial lines are frequently evoked. I, on the other hand, live mostly in Phoenix, a city where whiteness appears unshakeable (for the moment); to be black in Phoenix is to be very much a minority. The ongoing history and agony of this state is written in shades of brown, with racism more likely to manifest itself in death marches across the desert and profiling levels of latinidad. Checking the box on this form has a different history here.

And now a young black man has been gunned down by a cop in Phoenix. This is not unusual, but since we prefer our media to make sense of a senseless world by establishing, and thus reinforcing, patterns, for the near term such deaths are going to get their due. An ongoing outrage is being paid attention to, we are finally hearing the volley of bullets that has been sounding for a long time now. The neighborhood that was not next door, and thus could be ignored, has gone virtual.

And how does one respond to a hale of bullets? How do you fight back when targets are automatically placed on your body? We need to acknowledge fear and paranoia, inherited and unconscious assumptions about threat and the appropriate response to it. We have allowed the white/black binary to become so automatic that far too many of us don’t even recognize it inside ourselves. And if you are carrying a gun in supposed service to the entire citizenry, the only outcome can be catastrophe.

Sometimes marching is the easy part. It’s an action, but one that tends to cause predictable, and not necessarily progressive, reactions. The much more difficult task for all of us is to figure out what our role is, and has been, in the continuation of a catastrophe. A society accepting the systematic death of a specific population is a society feeding on itself. To pay attention to one specific element of our society that is suffering unduly is not to extend privilege or “special rights,” but to acknowledge a pattern we have been far too passive in accepting. Young black men are seen as threatening by a majority of white people. How could they not be? The joint venture of reinforcing blackness as sexually potent (and thus both thrilling and threatening), fundamentally disruptive and violent, has been a cultural meme since the time of “discovery,” colonization, and chattel slavery. How can we possibly expect “our” contemporary police force to respond differently? Sure, they need to be trained better, but haven’t we known that for at least the past thirty years? Are the trainers themselves not admitting having the same fears as their students? As with prison guards and the military, we can simply write off abuses of power as isolated “bad apples,” or we can examine the orchard. We have produced this catastrophe, and we can stop it.

Strategic thinking is difficult, and risks being lost under a fog of fear and tear gas. There is also a time limit to gathering evidence, especially given that a pile of corpses begins to stink. This thinking should hurt, should be at least a little bit threatening, disrupting, displacing. But it should not disable or destroy the imperative for a response, which must be ongoing, intense, and self-critical. We are in a catastrophe, and cannot breathe without acknowledging its chokehold.