I’m afraid of the dark. I wake up in the middle of the night to a creak and I have the relentless terror of an Edgar Allen Poe protagonist: “it’s only the wind in the chimney…” I look in the mirror late at night and am always afraid of what I might see over my shoulder. BUT I live in a house where a horror film about a family of cannibals was filmed and it thrills me more that alarms me (though I still don’t go to the cellar.)
I’ve read scary stories since I was a kid and love horror movies (David won’t watch them so I binge watch them on planes where people clearly think I have problems.)
There are many who suggest that fear as a genre (the ghost story) was really perfected by Victorians who had to grapple with the sudden rapid shift of the way their worlds had changed. Servants especially had to understand the move from village to town, from the understood cottage context to great electric lit homes. Scary stories (often told on Christmas Eve) were a way to interpret the radical change they were experiencing.
At the bedside in every guest room in our house there’s a copy of M.R. James’ stories because nothing quite captures the uncanny so quickly. Whistle and I will come - A story with a figure approaching from a distant landscape has no intricate story telling devices, it relies on the immediately understandable horror of a distant approaching figure and nothing more. True horror arises for immediately understandable context.
Monk on the beach by Caspar David Freidrich takes the glory of humanity, alone in nature, to a place of despair and horror that is similar to the best of M.R. James. A simple trope that once seated in your mind won’t leave. It’s the reason looking in the mirror still holds fear, it’s so easy to believe that there will be someone right behind you.
I was having dinner with an interesting mix of media folks and academics in Miami recently and we discussed the notion of “dark play,” games and gaming that allow children to play all roles, victim and victimizer. These can be as diverse as astronaut and alien or video war games which allow you to play all parts. This dark play doesn’t turn out dark kids - rather kids with surprising empathy.
If there is a role for dark play, then what is the role of dark memes in our lives? While the Victorians may have crystallized it - not just in fiction but in the new medium of photography - the web has made dark memes more prevalent more wide spread. Scares have gotten shorter, easier to convey, and more visceral.
Websites like creepy pasta. http://www.creepypasta.com take short text based horror into the world of horror memes. Whether it’s 1 line terror…
There was a picture in my phone of me sleeping. I live alone.
Or one image terror (which has been around well before Photoshop):
We’re still looking for fear as a way to interpreted and re-interpret our world.
I’m curious to spend more time thinking about why and how fear helps us interpret and understand the worlds we live in.
This gazelle (or is it an Ibis)now sits above our dining room table and represents an obsession I’ve had with taxidermy for years. It likely started with my first visit to Le Musee du Chasse et Nature, my all time favorite museum which focuses almost entirely on taxidermy. It’s an artful and playful place that somehow let’s impressive wild beasts though long dead hold sway over the visitor as though they live. You can’t help but be awed.
Maybe it’s a momento mori effect the idea that we invite death into life that attracts me. Even at dinner after all death awaits. Maybe it’s the vaguely comic ways taxidermy shows up. From surrealist art…
To the ubiquitous fox with a bird in its mouth…
I’ve really struggled with the idea of owning my own taxidermy until we moved to the farm upstate where taxidermy is real. It’s a profession, it matters and is an art. I was speaking to an expert recently who was talking about how in the past great taxidermists carved wooden forms as the support for the animal, now it’s all done with spray foam and styrene which has no art to it at all
Of course at present the only person who’s yet to like my gazelle/ibis is from France.
“Live the work. They have always tried to meet this goal, even when they had no money. Before mounting an early production of “La Bohème,” for example, Luhrmann said, “Let’s go live the life of Puccini!” And they flew to Italy and set up in Torre del Lago, where Puccini wrote many of his operas. They traveled to Milan and went over every inch of La Scala, the opera house. They lived “like total bohos,” Luhrmann said, content in the knowledge that “the work itself was only just as important as the adventure of actually living the work. Living the work has always been the thing that has enriched and sustained.” Similarly, while preparing to make “Gatsby,” Luhrmann was inspired by an image in his head of Fitzgerald and his wife passing under the Statue of Liberty on an ocean liner. (“My splendid mirage,” Fitzgerald wrote of New York.) Luhrmann took C.M. aside and said, “That’s how we start.” They and their children boarded a boat in Southampton, traveled 3,500 miles and passed under Liberty’s torch on the way into New York Harbor. “I got off that ocean liner, I got into a helicopter and I started scouting every square inch of Long Island,” he said, exhilarated by the memory. “We lived it, you know?””—
Woke up before everyone else and walked around the house for a while to think about what was on the day’s roster for shooting. One barn on the property caught my eye. It was vast on the second floor and beautifully dilapidated. I used three models and three assistants. We videotape every shoot, and I need someone to tend to the music and change the song if it’s not the right mood. But a loud cracking noise—the floor, which almost broke—was our call to stop. We went outside and walked over to a patch of purple flowers, and I had everyone lie on the ground. I turned on the smoke machine, but it didn’t look right—so I got up on the ladder and shot from above. After the models got up, they had tiny purple flowers all over their backs. It was a beautiful shot that I couldn’t have planned.
Last year when David was in Australia and I was left on my own, a passing dinner party conversation about farms in upstate New York ignited what has been this years most obsessive mania.
At weekend with friends in the Hampton’s I started perusing upstate listings (traitorous) and found a house that was immediately familiar despite the fact that it was in a place I’d never been before. David returned from Sydney with a week-end plan to drive 3 hours through a wicked snowstorm at night to see a house that had some how gotten under my skin.
We visited the house, along with several others that week-end, with no heat and in bizarre repair it was like walking through a frozen museum dreamscape. We also realized that it had been the farm house in Britt Marling’s Another Earth, which made its eerie familiarity make more sense.
Living in New York has been a revelation in the notion of synchronicity, it is almost impossible to mention someone’s name without rounding a corner and bumping into that same person. Never, however, have I been in a house that seems at the center of so many synchronous encounters. the House on Russell Hill Road is in a sense one degree of separation from everything else, everyone else, we know.
Not all of these convergences can be discussed but two examples:
When we purchased the house there we’re more than 5 out buildings on the land, quite a few of which we sadly had to take down due to disrepair. One of the buildings, a barn alongside the pond, we particularly loved, in a sense it was the centerpiece of the property. One afternoon contemplating it, it became certain to us we had seen it before, yes we’d been on the property a bit but there was a more uncanny feeling to it.
While sitting in TriBeCa drinking our evening Martini it dawned on me that we had in fact seen the barn before. Paging through Ryan McGinley’s You and I which was sitting on our coffee table we came across a photo. The picture was of a boy somewhat fearfully contemplating the snow fall from what our insurance man had just that day explained was the only 3 seated outhouses he’d ever seen. Our barn.
The Family Friend:
Last August we went to dinner in the West Village with David’s brother and some of his friends. It was warm and beautiful, we sat outside, and despite an interruption by a ferocious street fight the evening was lovely. At some point one of the friends, an actor, asked about the house we had bought upstate. We named the county and it turned out he’d been filming nearby the summer before. We mentioned that it used to be used for movies and he immediately and in a state of shock gave us detailed directions to the house.
At that point I think that he was more surprised than we we’re. As it turns out, the film was almost entirely shot on the property and though moody, it captures the beauty of the land. Even the house is well documented despite the fact that its inhabited by a family of cannibals.
I suppose it can’t really go on forever. Not everyone we meet can have “taken refuge at the house after 9/11,” or blurrily remember a party they attended there. It can’t be in the background of every piece of art I love or the surprise setting for all magazine wedding shoots I happen to page by. Not everything can connect to it right, but in the near term we’ll take the synchronicity as it happens to make us feel like we belong to the house. Oh wait, I mean it belongs to us.
"Los Angeles is a city of Nostalgia without any history."
Over the winter break, on a really really cold night in upstate New York David and I curled up and finally watched Zabriskie Point. Sitting by the fire light it was a bit stunning to watch scene after familiar scene of Los Angeles. There was something deeply ironic about the experience.
Returning to New York we we’re able to catch the re-release of Thom Anderson’s “Los Angeles Plays Itself” at a local theater. The movie is a voice over of endless clips of Los Angeles as understood through its portrayal in films.
The movie unlocked so much clarity for the way I think about the city. Everything from the “high tourist/low tourist” mentality of the directors who love Los Angeles vs. the directors who love LA (it doesn’t map the way you think it might); to the uncanny familiarity of even the most generic seeming location.
It’s been almost two and a half years that we’ve been away from Los Angeles and we’re absolutely think of ourselves as a type of New Yorkers, but the film about a city that lives in film awoke a nostalgia well beyond what 5 years living LA merit.
Recently I was in a favorite bookstore and came across a monograph of a street photographer I’d never heard of, Vivian Maier. Her work has been likened to Bresson and covered at least 30 years. However, though she took almost 150,000 photographs, a lifetimes worth of film, she never discussed her photography with friends or family, she never showed publicly or published in her lifetime.
Amidst her work is a distinctive series of self portraits taken while wandering the streets with her camera. Sometimes it’s her in a mirror or street window, often it is just a distinctive piece of her shadow in shot of something else entirely. The photos are sly and a bit poignant maybe more so as they we’re taken as part of a body work that was only for herself.
In the introduction to the published work of her self portraits Elizabeth Avedon writes:
"I was once locked in in a tiny hotel bathroom in Rome on a Friday night. It had no windows and no phone. No one knew i had traveled there and no one was expecting me. Only my image in the mirror kept me company."
When I first read that quote it struck me as banal and minor but oddly I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It triggered a reflection on my own life. I travel quite a bit on my own, in fact maybe more alone than with others, and have done so since I was quite young.
One of my earliest traveling memories was being in Genoa alone after being stuck in a terrible autumn storm. Using money I barely had I booked my self a (what was then lavish) hotel room. After drying off and eating something alone in my hotel room I took a photo of myself in a fairly grand mirror. I don’t have that photo anymore lost in the shuffle, but the act of taking a photo of myself alone, in distant and empty hotel rooms is something that I’ve continued to do.
I realized when I read the Avedon quote and thought about Vivian Maier’s work that taking these photographs (which I still do) is a way to remind myself, prove to myself that I exist in the world at a moment when there is no other external reminder or prompt.
In last week’s Sunday New York Times James Franco wrote a short and strangely compelling article on “the why of the selfie.” By his account his own on-line posting, all of his other forms of self expression (poetry, writings, photography) all pale in comparison to the attention he gets from publishing a single self portrait. He notes that in the world of social media the self portrait or selfie is the primary currency of on-line conversation.
The selfie as he describes it is a way of showing the world that he is like the rest of the world. It also for a moment reminds everyone else of his existence, which is part of the work of being a celebrity, but for the common person it is easy to see how the “Selfie” does some of the same work of Maier’s self portraits. It says to the world for a moment that though I’m not with you I do in this moment exist.
There seems to be a whole other form of selfie which really is the furthest removed from self portraiture. These are not self portraits per se but ways of quickly capturing something that someone might have that you may want. Kind of using the self-portrait via e-bay. These self portraits of singular and often hidden pieces of us move the self-portrait from reminder that I am alive and in the world, to simply commodifying a piece of self that others may want and may not know about.
Though I guess still a reminder that we are alive in this world, even if alone.
The first two years we lived in New York we were in TriBeCa across from a building in mid construction. The low density of the neighborhood, meant we virtually never saw a neighbor from our apartment. Even during Sandy our street had one maybe two windows with candles. We we’re virtually alone in the neighborhood.
The street where we currently live is a panorama of apartment life. Most recently an attractive young couple have moved into the apartment across the street. In fact, I don’t really know that they’re a couple they each have their own rooms, but from across the street they seem like neither knows that the other one loves them. At night when they undress they sit alone on the edge of their beds and its easy to imagine yearning.
For me coming home, sitting on the couch, reading, having cocktails have become more complicated and conflicted activities. I want to be in the moment, but I’m as interested in knowing whether the guy is folding his laundry or packing his bags. Is he staring sadly at the bedroom floor or texting on an unseen phone. Its permanently divided my attention
When we first moved to New York photographer Arne Svenson began to show photos of neighbors in a nearby TriBeCa apartment building and the results we’re sad and isolated. It made the prospect of watching neighbors seem an act of desperation.
It turns out that watching your neighbors in New York is really not all that taboo, from the amount of articles and anecdotes its a fact of New York life not a choice. Someone told me that in New York no one cares whether you see your neighbor naked because people just assume you will (that seems like a fairly uninformed statement but its got a ring of truth.)
While looking for the TriBeCa photographer I found another artist Yasmine Chatila who shoots night shots of her neighbors complete with dates taken and location. These photos capture the same simple moments but adds the magnetic voyeuristic pleasure that is closer to my own experience.
All photos are taken in New York, but of course displayed almost exclusively in Europe.