Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sorting through the Rubble

Shuttle launches and royal weddings notwithstanding (oh, those English hats!), it feels like the world around me is being blown to pieces. "Never been so scared before," says Philip Lockhart, the owner of a pizzeria in Smithville, Miss., a town oi 900 and just one of many recently wiped off the map by tornadoes. City Hall is gone. The police department, obliterated. All across the south, grocery stores, funeral homes, scores of houses, trees, power lines, airports, schools--totally flattened. Entire towns turned to rubble. Death toll: at last count, 341 across seven states just from Wednesday's storms alone.

Last year at this time, we were worried about oil gushing into the Gulf; we fretted over a possible invasion by armies of bedbugs. (They're really hard to get rid of, everyone said.) This year, things are much worse. Trails of destruction left behind by hundreds of supercell tornadoes that touched down in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, and Kentucky last week, with even more watches issued for the entire East Coast as the storm system moved to new ground.

It feels like nature is waging the equivalent of nuclear war on humanity, as it obliterates neighborhoods and entire towns. "Sick is what I feel," said one man in a small town outside of Birmingham, whose neighborhood somehow survived the onslaught of wind, thunder, and lightning as they built a crescendo, and then suddenly stopped. Some of the tornadoes have been as big as a mile wide, with wind speeds of more than 200 mph, and raged along the ground for miles. "Prior to 2008, the possibility of tornadoes in Roanoke was laughable," stated one city emergency management coordinator. That was then, but this is now. "We're moving quickly from a world where we push nature around to a world where nature pushes back--and with far more power," Bill McKibben writes in "Eaarth." "Now we must try to figure out how to survive what's coming at us."

It's not hard to know what's coming at us. Just watch the videos on TV: ripped-off roofs, twisted telephone poles, cars flying through the air, water tanks, washing machines--all the remnants and husks of lives totally destroyed. A man tells Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell about how he and his girlfriend spent the night in their mobile home as it was being destroyed by the tornado. "We don't have anywhere to live. We don't have any jobs. We don't have anything." This could be you or me. These days it's hard to be sure where you leave off and I begin.

Viscerally, it is disturbing to watch a neighborhood, not that far from your own, in the flick of an eyelash turn into rubble--as if nature itself were undergoing some chromosomal change, becoming like Dr. Frankenstein's monster, devouring itself, eating the world with its own teeth. And then vomiting out rubble. The tornado hits for a few seconds, and suddenly you look around. You see that you are still alive, but your life is no longer there. Instead, you are dancing around in your bones in a graveyard, doomed to come back and haunt the scene. You can still hear your own heart, and suddenly remember how happy you were while hunting Easter eggs before it all happened.

You stare into the awful darkness and you flinch, realizing it isn't easy to start life all over again. You can't tell when you might ever want to be a pedestrian again, or keep bees, carve out a headstone, roll a hoop, or just plain shut the blinds against a monstrous June bug thumping insistently at the window, as though it wanted admittance. It may be a very long time before you wonder casually, what shall I do this morning?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Salon Goes Public

A recent biography of Helena Rubinstein by Ruth Brandon reveals that her beauty salons in London, Paris, and New York--subsquently expanded to nearly every other major city in the world--made her one of the richest women in the world. Her beauty products consisted of sixty-two creams, seventy-eight powders, forty-six perfumes, colognes and eaux de toilette, sixty-nine lotions, a hundred and fifteen lipsticks, plus soaps, rouges, and eyeshadows. That's an awful lot of chips off an old block, especially for a lady who was only four feet ten inches tall.

Helena Rubinstein's life was dedicated to beauty, bizazz, and making money. Rubinstein, it seems, bought art by the truckload, and in a single room, she had seven Renoirs hung above the fireplace. Her living room, according to Brandon, sported an acid-green carpet designed by Miro (which makes me positively acid-green with envy), twenty Victorian carved chairs covered in purple and magenta velvets, Chinese pearl-inlaid coffee tables, gold Turkish floor lamps, life-sized Easter Island sculptures, six-foot tall blue opaline vases, African masks, and paintings covering every inch of wall space.

Truly a girl after my own heart. I cite this eccentric description of Rubinstein's digs because, synchronistically, it coincides with a reimagined version of my own living room, currently installed as the center piece of an exhibition entitled, "Conversation: Salon Style," that opened this week in an art gallery on the campus of Virginia Tech.

The situation is replete with irony, since for years, my writing has been dedicated to the proposition that there is a life for art beyond the legitimizing walls of museums and galleries. Instead of the idea of art as monologue and self-expression, I have long championed a more decentralized kind of creativity that is dialogic, interactive, and participatory. I even wrote a book in the form of dialogue called "Conversations before the End of Time," that consisted of a series of conversations in which many voices and opinions were present, not just mine.

So I shouldn't have been that surprised when one day, a woman called me up out of the blue, asking if she could attend one of my conversational "salons.” In fact, I didn’t have a salon, as I explained, adding however that I'd always wanted one. She offered to bring a few other people along, and from that first serendipitous conversation and encounter, our once-a-month Saturday salon was born, about four years ago. On the third Saturday of every month, some ten people gather at my house for food and drink, followed by a more formal hour or two of what we consider to be “enlightened conversation.”

It is this salon that is now both the subject and the object of a mixed-media exhibition curated by Mary Tartaro, director of the Perspective Gallery; the art has been specially created by the salon members themselves. When the idea of creating a show around the theme of the salon was first presented to me, I confess I thought it was one of the worst ideas I ever heard. I couldn't picture how it could possibly work. My bad. Luckily this week I got to eat crow. I always love it when I find out how dead wrong I can be! The show is original, witty, gorgeous--and truly in the spirit of dialogue. If you want a tasty appetizer, treat yourself to this link: a five-minute film by Simone Paterson, created in my living room:

At salon, there is never a subject planned in advance; we view ourselves a bit like jazz musicians improvising music—except that the music, in this case, is conversation. Our free-floating talk over the years has ranged from Benazir Bhutto's assassination to the pros and cons of one-stop Wal-Mart shopping, from life after death to surviving in a political culture of lies, the Sarah Palin effect, synchronicity, optimism, despair, Barack Obama’s presidency, and the sometimes ludicrous prose of Camille Paglia. Shards of recorded conversation and laughter float through the room as you enter the gallery.

Artful conversation is ecologically sound: it doesn’t use up valuable resources or pollute or contribute to the consumer trance. It doesn't cost anything. When unexpected jets of laughter fall like loose change on my living-room floor, it seems to restore the distorted nervous system of the world to normal functioning. We are at a point where the line between our personal lives and the world has become so permeable and nerve-wracking, it helps to have a special time and space in which to clarify thoughts, share anxieties, talk things over.

In his book “Conversation: A History of a Declining Art,” Stephen Miller laments the decline of conversational art in America, defined as “a discussion of great and small topics by people who practice mutual tolerance for opposing viewpoints.” The best conversations, he claims, are playful. Quite often people don’t discuss anything because they’re afraid of offending—or "if they do discuss something, they’re screaming." At salon, we do have rules of the road. People listen respectfully. There is no cross talk, no showboating, no bristling. Just the exhilaration of a wide range of opinions generously offered and gratefully received.

“We are facing our final evolutionary exam,” Buckminster Fuller warned many years ago. Will humanity survive its test? I am the worrywart in the group, who wonders if any new paradigm can save us anymore. The moral of this entire story? Art, like love, is where you find it—insistently offbeat and unpredictable--as when God says "Tell me your plans."

Also synchronistically, in tandem with our invitation months ago to do the show, lethal gunshots rang out at a political rally in Tucson. Unchecked verbal venom had become a bomb with the fuse lit, and the demand for civility in public discourse suddenly became a focus for the whole country. A lack of civility did not cause this tragedy, President Obama assured us, but only a more civil and honest public discourse would permit the nation to face up to its challenges. To sharpen our instincts for empathy, we would need to listen to each other more carefully and exchange ideas without rancor. Salon, we realized, was slightly ahead of the curve: we had already created a template for what the president was proposing.

The exhibition, located on the second floor of Squires Student Center, closes on May 12th.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Virgil Goes to New York

There is nothing in the world Virgil loves as much as hanging out with fake alligators: it makes him feel very superior. So he was excited about the second launch in New York City of "Swamp People"--a TV series which chronicles a group of southern Louisiana residents, some of whom are alligator hunters--on the History channel. The network's marketing people had placed very realistic-looking model alligators crawling out of the city's manholes.

Before I knew what was happening, Virgil had packed his old blue sweater and taken the underground sewer route to Manhattan, where he emerged happy to have some time off from countries that are being ransacked, deserts being drenched with blood, and nuclear plants leaking plutonium into the sea. "That's definitely Virgil," wrote my friend Jane, as soon as she saw his picture above. "Not some acrylic alligator. I'd know him anywhere." I agreed.

"I was surprised," Virgil texted from New York, "that in my careful crouch I couldn't see any turtles sliding off sunny logs, no birch bark canoes coasting along, no mosquitoes or dachshunds. I haven't even seen a snake yet, much less forces loyal to Col. Qaddafi. Actually, the only thing besides tire treads I could see from my strategic position half under the lid were two patent leather shoes waiting on the curb. I believe they were attached to that man I remembered, from a poem by Frederick Seidel:


Midwinter murder is in my heart
As I stand there on the curb in my opera pumps,
Waiting for the car to come and the opera to start.
Amid the Broadway homeless frozen clumps.

Patent leather makes my shoes
Easter eggs by Faberge
The shoes say New York is still run by the Jews,
Who glitter when they walk, and aren't going away.

The morning after the Mozart, when I take my morning stroll, I feel
Removed all over again from the freezing suffering I see.
Someone has designed a beautiful, fully automatic, stainless steel,
Recoilless assault shotgun down in Tennessee.

The dogs tied up outside the Broadway stores
In the cold look with such touching expectancy inside.
A dog needs to adore. A dog adores.
A dog waiting for an owner is hot with identity and pride.

I'd like to meet the genius in Tennessee, or at least speak
To the gun on the phone.
I'd like to be both the dog owner and the dog. I'd leak
Love after I'd shot myself to shit. I'd write myself a bone.

"I absolutely love that poem," says Virgil. "You have to admire someone who wants to talk to a gun on the phone. He's, like, tapping into a huge grassroots movement, don't you think? Shine on, you crazy diamond!"

"The thing to remember about dogs," he adds, "is that dogs can chase cars but they can't drive them. As for those phony publicity alligators, they look like they're thinking, sure, very impressive--but they don't have the affect, the style, you know, the vibe of real intelligence. It's just zombie stuff. They're not really talking creatures, like me. And they don't glitter when they walk. I bet they can't even talk on the phone to a gun. Honestly, in my opinion, those alligators are no better than fridge magnets."

And with that short but pungent burst, Virgil takes a swig of tea from his syringe and wanders away, emitting a hollow, bellowing noise.